Sing to me, O Muse, of BECMI!

With the ongoing kerfuffle, I am reviewing things that I want to run with my friends and family. I'm just a backup, one-off DM for our group, typically, but I want to play less and help others play more. As part of that, and noting that I'm putting together a Savage Worlds short campaign and a Castles & Crusades version of the DL modules, I thought to look at something which I never played but always wanted to play in or run: BECMI D&D. I have OSE, and love what it has of B/X, having never played B/X when it was big, but BECMI seems to be a total gaming system, and the Known World/Mystara enthralled me in my teens with Tower of Doom and its sequel.

Things which appeal to me is that it seems to be a complete game, with a world and lore baked in, and that the story should emerge during play. By the latter, I mean that it seems (from my brief review of web reviews) to start in a dungeon or wilderness, and player action starts to form antagonists as they go. I may be drawing conclusions there, but that concept of play really intrigues me.

So, for those of you who have experience, what separates BECMI from AD&D, both in rules and flavor? What is good about it, what is not good (Thief Skills, I know about), and how should a campaign for this be run? Would it be best starting with the B and E box sets? Or should I just grab a copy of Rules Cyclopedia off of eBay and make something from that?

Also, what do y'all think of the Known World/Mystara as a setting?
 
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I have a soft spot for BECMI and always will. By my book, the basic set is the most concise and appealing presentation of the D&D system, giving you all you need to get started and drawing you into what makes the game so special.

Definitely starting with the B and E parts. As for how it's run, the BECMI progression kinda goes like this: dungeons (B) > hexcrawls (E) > tourneys/armies/kingdoms (C) > rulership & potentially questing for godhood (M) > godhood (I).
 


Yora

Legend
I think the Basic and Expert rules are actually the best RPG ever written. And that's from someone who didn't really know what they are until 6 years ago.
There's plenty of weird quirks that could have been a lot better, but it was still in the first decade of RPGs being a thing and it had to follow the footsteps of OD&D, so that's understandable.

But what the system does really well, which I think I've not really seen anywhere else, is that it's laid out and structured as a game. A game with clear procedures, a goal, and an objective measure of success and progress. Search for a dungeon, explore the dungeon, collect as much treasure as you can without getting yourself killed, return with the treasure to a town. And then count the points you made. That's a simple procedure that players can follow when they know nothing about the world and have no ideas what kinds of plans would be possible or interesting for their characters to pursue. And most importantly, it's something that the players can do on their own, without the GM telling them where they should go and what they are supposed to do when they get there.

Roleplaying is something that just starts to develop naturally during the course of playing the treasure collecting game, and in the process the interactions of the players with the game world introduce them to things that are going on and to other people who play important roles in that world. And that opens the door to PCs pursuing other goals alongside the treasure collecting.

The Basic rules give the players something to do without any need for guidance from the GM whenever they don't know what else their characters should or could do at that specific moment. Just ask around for any leads about unexplored ruins in the area. Adventure will follow from that. And even with me repeating myself because it's that important, without the GM telling the players where the adventure is and what will happen in it.

I think the Dragonlance innovation of having the players experience a prepared story was the biggest mistake in the evolution of RPGs. The Basic, Expert, and Companion rules are a lot smaller in scope of what they offer to the players, but the thing they do offer is a prime setup to have something that develops into something much greater than what most other RPGs can provide.
 


ilgatto

How inconvenient
I think the Basic and Expert rules are actually the best RPG ever written. And that's from someone who didn't really know what they are until 6 years ago.
There's plenty of weird quirks that could have been a lot better, but it was still in the first decade of RPGs being a thing and it had to follow the footsteps of OD&D, so that's understandable.

But what the system does really well, which I think I've not really seen anywhere else, is that it's laid out and structured as a game. A game with clear procedures, a goal, and an objective measure of success and progress. Search for a dungeon, explore the dungeon, collect as much treasure as you can without getting yourself killed, return with the treasure to a town. And then count the points you made. That's a simple procedure that players can follow when they know nothing about the world and have no ideas what kinds of plans would be possible or interesting for their characters to pursue. And most importantly, it's something that the players can do on their own, without the GM telling them where they should go and what they are supposed to do when they get there.

Roleplaying is something that just starts to develop naturally during the course of playing the treasure collecting game, and in the process the interactions of the players with the game world introduce them to things that are going on and to other people who play important roles in that world. And that opens the door to PCs pursuing other goals alongside the treasure collecting.

The Basic rules give the players something to do without any need for guidance from the GM whenever they don't know what else their characters should or could do at that specific moment. Just ask around for any leads about unexplored ruins in the area. Adventure will follow from that. And even with me repeating myself because it's that important, without the GM telling the players where the adventure is and what will happen in it.
Although I'm not a huge fan of BECMI for a number of reasons (and not especially opposed to story-telling adventure modules) I think you make some very good points here. In fact, I agree with your observations on how people should learn to play the game so much, that I had to react to your post as I presently do.
 

rogueattorney

Adventurer
With the ongoing kerfuffle, I am reviewing things that I want to run with my friends and family. I'm just a backup, one-off DM for our group, typically, but I want to play less and help others play more. As part of that, and noting that I'm putting together a Savage Worlds short campaign and a Castles & Crusades version of the DL modules, I thought to look at something which I never played but always wanted to play in or run: BECMI D&D. I have OSE, and love what it has of B/X, having never played B/X when it was big, but BECMI seems to be a total gaming system, and the Known World/Mystara enthralled me in my teens with Tower of Doom and its sequel.

Things which appeal to me is that it seems to be a complete game, with a world and lore baked in, and that the story should emerge during play. By the latter, I mean that it seems (from my brief review of web reviews) to start in a dungeon or wilderness, and player action starts to form antagonists as they go. I may be drawing conclusions there, but that concept of play really intrigues me.

So, for those of you who have experience, what separates BECMI from AD&D, both in rules and flavor? What is good about it, what is not good (Thief Skills, I know about), and how should a campaign for this be run? Would it be best starting with the B and E box sets? Or should I just grab a copy of Rules Cyclopedia off of eBay and make something from that?

Also, what do y'all think of the Known World/Mystara as a setting?
You’re kind of asking about three separate but related things here - the BECMI rules, the Rules Cyclopedia and the Known World/Mystara setting. There are a ton of products that fall under these headings that came out over a decade of time.

So, I’ll address them one at a time.

1. BECMI rules, specifically the 5 boxed rules sets that came out from 1983-86. These were all edited by Frank Mentzer and written by a whole host of different contributors. The Basic and Expert sets give you rules that are indistinguishable from either the prior 1981 B/X sets or the recent OSE baseline, are largely compatible with 1970s OD&D products, and are extremely similar to Labyrinth Lord, BFRPG and several other clones. There’s a very little bit of info on the Known World setting, specifically Karameikos. Far more info on the Known World is given in the module X1 Isle of Dreas, which was included in the original 1983 boxed set, but isn’t, i don’t believe, included with the pdf on DTRPG.

I love these rules, but the 1983 set is not my favorite delivery of these rules to an already established player. It’s set up as a tutorial. It’s fantastic for teaching someone brand new to the game, but not as great as a reference for old hats who just want to quickly look up a rule. The earlier 1981 Basic set is better for that.

The Companion and Master sets are a mixed bag of rules add ons. Some of it is fun to tinker with - the dominion play and mass combat systems for example. Some of it is inspiration and encourages you to take your game in strange new directions - the Demi-human relics and quests for immortality. Some of it is a clunky rules mess - in particularly weapons mastery.

There are several options presented as for high level play for which there really isn’t any reason for them to restricted to such high levels of play - the Paladin, druid and avenger proto-prestige classes, for example. And the focus on Uber-high level play in general is something that will simply never come into use for a very lot of groups.

Like the B and E books, there are a lot of hints and blurbs and setting assumptions that give you a look into what the Known World is like, but it’s really skeletal.

Personally, I think these are best used as a grab bag of ideas to be picked through and not implemented whole hog.

The Immortals boxed set is essentially an entirely new game for world hopping Demi-gods. This box more than any of the others was exclusively Frank Mentzer’s baby, and in a lot of ways it’s far more idiosyncratic than the others. There are a lot of ideas in it about the implied cosmology of the D&D game world, but I’m not sure I’d ever be in a place to run it as is.

2. Rules Cyclopedia - The RC is a 1991 compilation of most - but not all - of the rules from the B, E, C and M boxes. It has nothing from the Immortals rules. It adds some rules from the GAZ series of supplements, mainly a sampling of non-combat skills and different magical research rules than from the E box. It had a few maps and a brief gloss over the Known World setting.

I find the RC a mixed bag. It has a lot of stuff I would never use, it’s something of an editing mess - most infamously the combat section, it does not contextualize the rules from several different sources and authors into anything like a cohesive whole. I wouldn’t recommend anyone try to learn to play the game from this book. But as a one stop shopping single-volume, everything you could possibly want for a campaign in a single book product, it’s about as good as official D&D has ever gotten.

3, Known World/Mystara - one of the weird things about the setting is that there was never a single campaign world-wide source to summarize the setting. There were several distinct phases of product for this campaign world. In the context of BECMI, it was first detailed through the adventure modules that were produced contemporaneously with the rules boxes from 1983 to 1987.

It gave you a jigsaw puzzle of not-particularly well connected empires, lost civilizations, inhuman races, other dimensions, other planets, and other timelines for characters to bumble through in an 80s Saturday morning cartoon sort of way. It’s a gloriously incoherent fantastic mess of a disaster.

Many of the adventures in the B, X, CM, M, and DA series are not particularly good for the adventures themselves, but have some great blurbs of setting content.

In 1987, TSR started working to integrate their Known World into something more cohesive and started the GAZ series of supplements, each focusing on an individual kingdom in the Known World. These were done by several different authors in several different authorial voices, mostly free lance and it’s a veritable who’s who of future prominent 90s rpg designers.

Many of the GAZs are very good. Some, particularly towards the end of the series are awful. Many have something of a flippant tone, which turns some people off. They are also all presented as from the perspective of the inhabitants of the kingdom being covered. So there are often contradictions from GAZ to GAZ. Also, several aspects of the world as presented in the older adventures and rules books were completely changed in the GAZ era books.

Later there were several boxed sets expanding the campaign world. Dawn of Empires dealt with two big empires to the East. Hollow World dealt with a lost world type setting below the Known World’s crust. Champions of Mystara dealt with some of the nations to the West.

The cartography in the GAZ series is universally excellent. If you like hex crawling; the maps alone might be worth it. Also, later on there were the PC series dealing with non-human character classes and HWR series dealing with nations in the Hollow World beneath the Known World. Both of those series are of similar depth and quality to the GAZ series.
 

In my experience, role-playing started right in the intro adventure in the Red Box, the moment I started trying to find a path that would save Aleena. The moment I started imagining myself as that plain old Fighter.

Roleplaying is something that just starts to develop naturally during the course of playing the treasure collecting game, and in the process the interactions of the players with the game world introduce them to things that are going on and to other people who play important roles in that world. And that opens the door to PCs pursuing other goals alongside the treasure collecting.

Dragonlance the setting, I love. Dragonlance the modules, not so much. I've been idly re-reading them and the first one is actually pretty good and has more sandbox to it than I remembered, but as the series continues, where they run into trouble is when they tries to precisely curate the player experience and story. It grips onto the plot so tightly that it prevents the adventure from unfolding naturally, from generating those spontaneous moments of genius.

I think the Dragonlance innovation of having the players experience a prepared story was the biggest mistake in the evolution of RPGs. The Basic, Expert, and Companion rules are a lot smaller in scope of what they offer to the players, but the thing they do offer is a prime setup to have something that develops into something much greater than what most other RPGs can provide.
 

Yora

Legend
In my experience, role-playing started right in the intro adventure in the Red Box, the moment I started trying to find a path that would save Aleena. The moment I started imagining myself as that plain old Fighter.
Yeah, but isn't all of that a straight up case of pre-written, scripted experience?

Not saying it's not introducing roleplaying, but it's not quite an example of what I was talking about.
 


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