TSR [Let's Read] Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rules, by Tom Moldvay


I crit!
Note the drop to stairs is depicting a ramp down to those stairs. A trick to play on parties without a dwarf, maybe. At least to my understanding.

I do remember someone saying it’s a pit trap with a room at the bottom, but I’d think there would be some indication at the top of the “pit”.

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I originally thought to include this along with the last section, but it is so information rich I thought I'd break it out into its own post. The Sample Dungeon Expedition!

So first an overview. This is the fourth example of play in the D&D/AD&D line to date, following OD&D Vol. III - The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures, the Holmes Basic Rules, and the 1e DMG. At one page and 1/4 of a column, it is the second longest, following the one in the DMG. Unlike the other three, the Moldvay example is the only one that names the characters. In all the others, the characters are only referred to by their class, e.g. "The magic-user will cast a spell," or "The dwarf checks for traps." Here, we know the characters of the party: 2nd level fighter Morgan Ironwolf, 2nd level elf Silverleaf, 1st level dwarf Fredrik, 2nd level cleric Sister Rebecca, and 2nd level thief Black Dougal.

Another difference is that the other examples of play, particularly the OD&D one, appear to be largely a dialogue between the DM and Caller. Holmes has one other player commenting about possible traps, but the game is presented as essentially played between the Caller and the DM, with the Caller ordering the other players to do things, and the DM even speaking for the dwarf when he finds something. The DMG example is a little better about involving the other characters when they are doing something on their own (the magic-user is attacked by a spider, the gnome investigates a secret door), but the Caller is still pretty bossy, and there is no indication that he is conferring with the group before telling the DM what they will do.

Not in the Moldvay example! In the paragraph preceding the example Moldvay explains, "As caller, Morgan relays the party's actions to the DM after the characters decide what they want to do." The first time they come to a choice of paths, Morgan says, "Anyone want to go down the east stairs? . . . . OK, we're going down the west stairs." Another time, her words are preceded by a parenthetical "After discussion with the others." With this context established, for the remainder of the example Morgan talks in declaratives about what the characters are doing, but she never directly orders them to do anything. And every character in the party is involved. Rebecca, mapping, asks the DM for a clarification. All the characters ask the DM questions, clarify what they are doing, or even just talk amongst themselves. It does a fine job demonstrating the Caller's role as the representative of the party without making it seem if the game is just the DM and the Caller.

To quickly sum up the action: having killed the hobgoblins in Room 4 of the Haunted Keep, the party go down the stairs of the trap door. They have a choice of stairs to the east or stairs to the west, but a "rank, musty odor" coming from the stairs to the east induce them to go west. The come to a door and Silverleaf, Dougal, and Morgan all listen at it. Hearing nothing, they pass it by and go down a side passage. They come to two doors, east and west, and Silverleaf, Dougal, and Fredrik listen to the west one. They hear muttering voices, and decide to force the door. Inside are six goblins. They kill the goblins (not described; it simply says, "Combat is now resolved, morale checks taken, etc.") and then search the room. They find a box, and notice that one of the blocks in a wall is discolored. They find that the block is the trigger for a secret door, but Dougal misses his check for traps roll when examining the box, and is hit with poison when he opens it. He misses his Save vs. Poison and dies. The party empty his backpack to put the treasure from the box in there. A wandering monster check comes up positive for bandits, but Morgan acting as a lookout hears their approach before they arrive. The party grabs Dougal's body and goes through the secret door, shutting it behind them. The come out of the secret passage into an empty room. While they are searching it, a wandering monster check indicates that two hobgoblins enter the room from another secret door. This leads to the encounter described in the EXAMPLE OF COMBAT.

What I like:
The example makes very clear how a DM should present a dungeon, how to describe the dimensions of the passages and the rooms, and using cardinal directions for clarity. Examples: "After 30' there is a side passage to the south, 10' wide. The main corridor continues west." "The room is six-sided, 30' on a side and 20' high. The door you came in is the only one you see. There is nothing unusual about the floor or ceiling. Besides the bodies of the goblins, there is a wooden box along the northeast wall and a pile of old rags in the north corner."

Because the example shows how all the characters can be involved in the exploration part, as mentioned above, the example is also very good for players to understand what they can and should be doing during the game: mapping, searching for treasure, looking for traps, posting look-outs. There's also a nice subtle moment showing how to DM on the fly.
Morgan: "Silverleaf, Fred, and Black Dougal will listen at the west door."
DM (rolling): "Black Dougal hears muttering voices."
Dougal: "Do I understand them? I speak Common, Orc, Goblin, and Elvish."
DM (after deciding on a chance for Dougal to recognize goblin language through the heavy door, and then rolling): "No, the voices weren't loud enough."

We can surmise that the DM hadn't considered if the characters would ask if they understand the language of the muttering. It would have been perfectly okay for the DM to just say, "No, they're not loud enough." But he instead decides on a chance to understand the language, and rolls. This is one of the tenets of Moldvay's rules. If you're not sure, decide on a probability, and roll a die, typically a d6.

What I don't like:
Given how useful this example would be to players, I feel it's misplaced. Rather than be in PART 8: DUNGEON MASTER INFORMATION, it should close out PART 4: THE ADVENTURE, which deals with all the rules for exploring.

Of course Black Dougal dies (and Fredrik joins him in the example of combat), which is not bad in itself. It's good to telegraph that character death is a possibility in this game. But if I had one particular criticism for Moldvay's rules, it's that it provides no player or DM advice about what to do in that eventuality. There's not even a throwaway comment about Dougal or Fredrik's players starting to roll up new characters. They appear to be just shut out of the game.

Finally, play in the sample expedition is just a little too hack-n-slash. The party bypasses a door from which they hear nothing, but force open a door they hear voices from. And then, rather than roll reactions, as per the encounter rules, the party immediately attacks. Given everything we seen from the game to-date: combat is swingy and lethal, most of the rules deal with exploration, and that empty rooms can often have rich hauls, I can see it as setting up imperfect assumptions of how the game should be played.

What I'm on the fence about:
There's one moment in the example that I go back and forth on. After Black Dougal dies, Fredrik dumps out his backpack to put the loot from the box in. A wandering monster check indicates bandits approaching...
Morgan: "We'll beat a hasty retreat through the secret door. Fred will go first, then me, Silverleaf is next, and Sister Rebecca will bring up the rear. She'll spike the door shut behind us."
Fredrik: "Before we do, I grab Dougal's body. We can't leave him behind."
DM: "OK. As you reach the end of the secret passage, you hear a cry of discovery and babble of voices from the room behind you. Black Dougal's tools and rations have been discovered.
Morgan: "What?! Didn't anyone bring his things along?"
All: "No!"
Morgan: "Nuts! We're going to be more careful from here on, gang."

Viewed uncharitably, this seems like just another example of pixel-bitching/mother-may-I kind of play. No one specifically says they're grabbing his things, so the DM assumes they're just left behind. On the other hand, I can see it as a relatively fair way to introduce a complication based on the characters' actions. The reason the tools and rations are found are because Fredrik specifically dumped them out to make room for loot. Ultimately, the DM doesn't really punish the PCs for this, so that's good, but it is another thing that could poorly interpreted by novice DMs.

Next time: we wrap up this Let's Read with Dungeon Mastering as a Fine Art!


Note the drop to stairs is depicting a ramp down to those stairs. A trick to play on parties without a dwarf, maybe. At least to my understanding.
Oooh, that makes sense. A south-facing incline, as it were, perhaps with many rooms along the way, as well. In a similar illustration in the OD&D Vol. III, lines straight down represent chutes, but in the Holmes Basic Rules, the various levels are all connected via stairs or ramps, so I could see that interpretation. Thanks for finally elucidating this mystery for me. It only took 35 years!


Note the drop to stairs is depicting a ramp down to those stairs. A trick to play on parties without a dwarf, maybe. At least to my understanding.

I do remember someone saying it’s a pit trap with a room at the bottom, but I’d think there would be some indication at the top of the “pit”.
I don’t see the ramp of which you speak.

I was going to say that here was a perfect opportunity for the thief to show mad climbing skills.


We end our Let's Read with Dungeon Mastering as a Fine Art, Moldvay's final advice to novice DMs. The title is taken from Holmes, but whereas it was merely the title of the sample dungeon section in Holmes Basic, here Moldvay uses it to provide explanation of six axioms of DMing, and ten optional suggestions "which the DM may or may not wish to use."

I want to quote the introduction in full. All emphasis is in the original.
The success of an adventure depends on the DM and his or her creation, the dungeon. The DM should have the dungeon carefully mapped out before play begins. Even so, a DM will quickly find that it is impossible to predict every possibility. After all, there are several players, and only one DM! It is not unusual for players to find a solution, or pose a new problem, that the DM has not even thought of. It is very important for a DM to be flexible.

It is important that the DM be fair, judging everything without favoring one side or the other. The DM is there to see that the adventure is interesting and that everyone enjoys the game. D&D is not a contest between the DM and the players! The DM should do his or her best to act impartially when taking the part of monsters or handling dispute between characters.
The axioms are:
"That's not in the rules!" Moldvay notes that DMs will often be surprised by players doing something unexpected, and that when it happens, to just make sure things are done in order, and make up details as needed to keep the game moving. At the very least, he should provide a percentage chance for success. He provides an example, which I think has been intentionally made extreme, of a player deciding his character will jump into a chasm to escape a combat he doesn't think he can survive. Moldvay's hypothetical DM, after considering the environment, comes up with a 2% chance of survival, and informs the player, asking if he still wants to do it. I think the example has been intentionally made extreme to illustrate Moldvay's advice that "there should always be a chance to do something impossible." But I fear that his example is undercut by the extremity - a 2% chance is indeed a chance, but it's functionally the same as no chance.

"There's always a chance."
Interestingly, this is not the same idea as expressed above, but rather Moldvay's suggestion to use "roll under ability score on a 1d20" as a mechanic for ability checks.

"The DM is the Boss."
Moldvay is not at all about the viking hat. I think this is worth quoting in full:
The DM decides how these rules will be used in the game. A good DM talks about problem areas with the players and considers reasonable requests by them. The players should realize, however, that the final decision is the DM's: not theirs, and not this booklet's! If a disagreement holds up play, the DM may make a temporary decision and talk it over with the players when the adventure is over. If a player disagrees strongly enough, he or she may quit the game. It is up to the DM to create an adventure the players can enjoy.
In retrospect, it seems remarkable to me how these words, along with the intro, the first I read about running a role-playing game, imprinted on me this image of an ideal DM, to the point that even when I'd long forgotten the words, the image remained.

"Everyone is here to have fun." This one is about avoiding rules discussions, maintaining immersion ("The DM should make the adventure seem as 'real' to the players as possible,") and keeping the game moving "with humor as well as excitement."

"Everything is balanced."
Balance here does not mean "encounter balance," but rather risk vs reward. Great rewards should come with commensurate challenge. Interestingly, Moldvay draws a parallel between games focused on fast advancement, with great treasures and tougher monsters, and games focused on character development, where advancement is slower.

"Your character doesn't know that." A warning against allowing players to act on information their characters don't have. He suggests making this clear to the players before the adventure begins, indicating that this advice is specifically made for novice DMs running games for novice players.

The "optional suggestions" are:
MAPPING: using squares instead of feet for easier mapping, and the DM drawing an outline or even drawing in complex rooms for the mapper to save time.

MONSTER DESCRIPTIONS: providing only descriptions of monsters to characters, rather than names.

MONSTER HIT POINTS: This seems more general advice than a suggestion, but DMs should never reveal monster HP, and not knowing the level of NPC until they have adventured together.

SURPRISE: when the players are surprised, describing only the attack rather than the monster.

MAGIC ITEMS: describing magic items only in general terms and letting characters experiment to find out what they do.

DIVIDING MAGICAL TREASURE: generally left to the players, but the DM can offer suggestions, including dividing non-magical treasure equally, magical treasure decided by choice, or by high roll on percentile dice.

PLAYER ADVANCEMENT: Moldvay suggests that players should reach 2nd level in three or four adventures, or cutting back on treasure if they reach 3rd level in this amount of time. I find this quite interesting, given the current editions idea of advancement to 2nd level after 1 or 2 sessions, and about the same amount for level 3. My recollection from back in the was that it took us a while to level up, but this rate does not seem long at all.

GRUDGES: Okay, Moldvay goes a little viking hat here. This is about PvP. Moldvay thinks a small grudge between characters can make the game interesting, but if it starts to get out of hand, the DM should subtly warn the players. But if it gets to the point of ruining the adventure, Moldvay suggests having a powerful creature intervene, and as a last resort, killing off the offending characters. I find it interesting that the suggestion is that the problem be handled in-game.

MINIATURE FIGURES: A recommendation to use minis. At first I thought this was going to be plug for TSR-approved minis, but while it mentions in passing that metal minis are available from TSR, Moldvay actually says you can get inexpensive plastic minis from many companies, and they don't even have to be fantasy miniatures.

PLAYING SURFACE: Moldvay suggests using large sheets of graph paper covered with plexiglass or contact paper to put the figures on. He suggests paper with 1" squares, with 1" = 5'. He also says to use water-based markers or grease pencils to draw on the surface, which can then be wiped away after the battle is over.

AFTERWORD - Moldvay says that the Expert Set is coming with rules for levels 4-14, followed by the Companion Supplement for levels up to 36th level. He ends with a plug for B1: In Search of the Unknown and B2: The Keep on the Borderlands.

And that's it! Wow, that's a load off my mind. When I started this thread 9(!) years ago, I certainly didn't expect it would take this long to finish it! I mean, I've switched jobs twice and had a daughter in that time! I'm like a completely different person!

In that time, of course the D&D world has changed much, too. In 2013 we were in the middle of the D&D Next playtest, and now the One D&D playtest has begun. In 2013, Labyrinth Lord was the B/X clone of choice, but I think Swords & Wizardry was the most popular retroclone, but the "themed" clones of B/X were ascendant. Now OSE is on top of the heap.

The genius of Moldvay Basic lies in distillation. The "design" itself is still essentially OD&D/Holmes Basic Rules. There's not much innovative when looked at from that point of view. But Moldvay had a keen eye for cruft, and he cut away so much that, while interesting, was not needed. The Order of Events in One Game Turn, the Combat Sequence, I'm sure they seem passe when viewed from the perspective of today. But for an 11 year old, learning how to play and run the game just from reading the book, they broke everything into easily manageable chunks. While the effects of the sensational Egbert case cannot be discounted, I do think this is much of the reason B/X sold so well at that time.


The genius of Moldvay Basic lies in distillation. The "design" itself is still essentially OD&D/Holmes Basic Rules. There's not much innovative when looked at from that point of view. But Moldvay had a keen eye for cruft, and he cut away so much that, while interesting, was not needed. The Order of Events in One Game Turn, the Combat Sequence, I'm sure they seem passe when viewed from the perspective of today.
I think you undersell the genius of Moldvay here. It's the first version of D&D to present the entire game, with a system of play. And the only version to come close to doing so again is 4e D&D.

It's still quite common to look at a RPG rulebook and not to have all the rules and principles of play in there! In this respect Moldvay remains state-of-the-art.

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