I got a chance to play in a Basic D&D game the other night for the first time.
Long story short, I died.
But in the two hours that lead up to my untimely (though not undeserved) demise, I got to taste what so many grognards, bloggers, game-aficionados, and regular folks who played the game back in the 80's are on about when they go at lengths to say that "D&D is at its best in its original form: Basic D&D from the 1980's".
Having played a bit of D&D the way players 'back in the day' did, I've got to say that the experience was both refreshingly unique and frustratingly base. I'll explain why as I go on, but having gotten comfortable with 4e to the point of being more critical of its standard trappings and mechanical pitfalls, I have to say that every 4e player should play Basic D&D at least once in your life (especially if you're a dungeon master). You might not fully enjoy the experience, but you will leave the table feeling challenged and privy to a new perspective on gaming.
The Set Up
I was playing a ConstantCon game over Google+ hangouts. If you're interested in joining a game quickly, this is the most expedient way to do it. Check out the blog.
Technically, the character I made was for Labyrinth Lord, which is a faithful OSR basic-D&D clone system. I've read through the original Metzner Red Box before, and Labyrinth Lord does a great job in recreating it. You can pick up the rules as a free PDF here (albiet without artwork). If you've got the money to spare, I'd say pick up a PDF with the art.
I made my character online using a random generator you can find here. It made me a lvl 1 cleric, who I named Al Hardcastle. His stats set him up to be a charismatic fellow, who was perhaps a few cans short of a six-pack. I played him as such.
Zak Smith told me that it was best to play an instigator in a ConstantCon game. If you don't want the game to slow down or get bogged down in worrying about traps or the exact details of the dungeon, play the character who actively goes out of his/her way to push things forward.
I took this advice to heart. Perhaps a bit too much.
I was joining a group that had adventured together before, clearing out a good portion of a dungeon. They had the option of also exploring a ruin hidden beneath a temple devoted to twin-snake gods. I liked this option, so I pushed for us to explore there.
The party consisted of Al Hardcastle, a cautious magic-user, a sociopathic fighter dressed as a clown (very Sid Haig), a torch-bearing hireling (who the party refused to name, saying that 'If we get to know his name, he'll certainly die'), and a newly higher explosive expert hireling named Jasper.
Jasper and I got along well, given that we usually took the lead. Also, from his voice, I imagined he was like this. Vinny from Disney's Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Very fun.
So this twin-snake temple was one that was apparently greatly feared by the local barbarian tribe, but we went in anyway. Upon making the long climb down a ladder, we found ourselves in a small room with a sacrificial alter (filled with long stagnant blood). Our fighter found a secret room, which led to a different area devoted to sphinxes.
All of the doors in the dungeons were ones that slide upwards (like a cat-flap), but were made of stone and terribly heavy. It made propping them open a necessity. Bit of a hassle, but made for some nice world-building.
We came across a sphinx statue that was missing it's head, but had two rubies suspended in midair where the eyes of the statue would be. While everyone else was more concerned with what might happen if we took the rubies, I snatched them up. This brazen attitude of mine might not have been greatly appreciated by the party, but it did speed the game along.
Shortly after, we found two floating sphinx heads with empty eye sockets. Easy enough puzzle, we figured. I carried the sphinx head and popped the two rubies into its eyes. This might not have been the best idea.
The rubies began to glow, then shot out a beam of light, which coalesced into a monstrous form, making a huge, pale, grub-worm monster, which promptly tried to squish me. We vanquished it quickly enough though. One magic missile, a mace-smash to the body, and then a combo of oil and fire.
We then fought a clockwork centipede monster. I smashed it with my mace, but contact with it caused my mace to corrode and rust away to dust (crap!). Luckily, I brought a light-hammer as well. Our fighter and magic user beat it down with magic missile and oil/fire again.
Oil and fire seems to work against pretty much everything. It's no wonder its the preferred combat maneuver of so many D&D players.
Later on we came across a small cavern with a burrow that seemed to be made by a rust-monster (the bane of old-D&D adventurers). It led down to a strange stainless steel service tunnel, covered in these little fibers. I volunteered to explore it first, hanging by a length of rope.
Even after one of the players made a point of observing the fibers, saying they looked "an awful lot like electrical wires", I went out of my way to say "Hey, I'm gonna try and yank one out". I did just that, receiving an electrical shock in the process (for 2 points of damage).
Just after, I failed my saving throw, let go of the rope and fell about 40 feet to the bottom. The fall snapped my neck and killed Al Hardcastle dead.
The next five minutes of the game was about the party looting my corpse and diving up my gold and possessions.
So this was my first time actually getting to play a Basic D&D Game. Granted, it was short, and traditionally when your character dies, you are more than welcome to roll up a new character and continue, but I didn't have time.
Overall, I'd say it's fun, but a very different kind of fun than, say, a typical game of D&D with Fourth Edition.
For all my readers who're more accustomed to fantasy video games, I think the following is a somewhat apt comparison of the differences between Basic D&D and 4e D&D:
Let me elaborate a little.
4e D&D is a very plot/story-focused game. The characters you make are already heroes in their own right, and the game encourages a lot of backstory development and character interaction. Adventures are usually pre-developed and have a foreseeable beginning, middle, and end. While the game itself might lean heavily on a lot of medieval fantasy storytelling tropes, it's also one where they can be used very, very effectively.
As a player, you generally know what you're getting into with a 4e D&D adventure or a quest in Dragon Age. it might be a bit predictable, but it's none-the-less very fun and exciting. You happily accept playing through a few stereotypes, because the story or character interaction (either in conversation or combat) are fulfilling and fun.
You accept that the game has boundaries, rules, and some limitations on what you can/can't do, but the mechanics are rewarding and enjoyable enough that its limitations aren't as big of an issue. You play not because you want total freedom, but because you're looking for an immersive world and a (hopefully) worthwhile story and quest.
Basic D&D, on the other hand, is far more about creating your own fun.
Basic D&D, on the other hand, is far more about creating your own fun.
Like Minecraft, the game offers you a whole world to mess about it. You have the freedom to do almost anything you want, and explore almost anywhere. The game makes no real demands of you as a player. You're free to do anything you want (more or less). Want to excavate the depths of the earth and plunder its bounty? Feel free! Want to fight monsters every night, while spending your days farming and herding animals? Have at it! The only caveat is that the game itself won't impose a purpose on you at any time. You need to make your own fun and story in this game.
Also, death comes easily to the careless or unprepared. Plus, death is just another means to problem solving and exploring.
Like Minecraft, Basic D&D is a dangerous place. Monsters can often kill you with a single hit, and traps are abundant and very, very deadly. While death is quite commonplace, it's certainly not the end of the game. Basic D&D, like Minecraft, is all about picking yourself up, and trying again. You'll scrimp, save, scratch, and claw your way to victory, but the game feels all the more rewarding for having made you work so hard for your spoils.
The Bottom Line
Did I enjoy playing Basic D&D? Yes.
Do I think it's better than Fourth Edition? No.
Type IV D&D is still my favourite incarnation of the game. I'm the kind of dungeon master and player that likes story, character development, and playing with characters in general. While this kind of play certainly isn't absent from Basic D&D, I didn't find that it was encouraged.
I found that Basic D&D kind of incentivizes playing characters who are greedy, detail-oriented, assholes. This is mostly because the game is quick to punish anyone who doesn't display these character traits. If you play a dungeon-crawl heavy game of Basic D&D, it is mechanically more beneficial to make your hirelings test the traps first, and treat every room as if even the very floor might kill you. While this makes for a very creative and fun puzzle-oriented problem solving kind of game, I didn't enjoy it as much as I might being able to play a dwarf who's got family issues, but hides them through the use of bravado and alcohol. RP details like that are welcome in Basic D&D, but not as important as, say, "Does your character have pitons and over 100 feet of coiled rope?".
I think I'll need to play with a few more groups of players/dungeon masters before I completely make my mind up about Basic D&D (I hear Jeff Rients is quite the DM), but so far I'm not head-over-heels in love with it.
That said, I still recommend giving it a try if you haven't played it before.
Basic D&D will teach you patience and resource management better than any version of D&D, if you're a player.
Basic D&D will teach you innovative problem-solving, creative dungeon/world design, and flexibility better than any version of D&D, if you're a dungeon master.
Check out ConstantCon. Pick up Labyrinth Lord (or LotFP) if you haven't already. Play some fun and creative games.
And don't get bummed out if you die unfairly or horribly. Just make a new character and avenge your previous one.