So yesterday I gathered a few friends and we played a bit of B2 Keep on the Borderlands using the Basic D&D (Moldvay) set from 1981. I still have my original books, the ones I cut my teeth on when I was ten years old. I dug up a fantastic replica of the old character sheets and printed out a dozen for the 3-4 players I expected. I re-read the Keep and skimmed the Basic rules again. It was surprising how much I still remembered after 25-30 years.
I had three players. Jamie doesn't really like D&D and had never played the Basic version. Mark hadn't role-played much in years and years. Brandon had started with D&D 3rd Edition.
We made up characters by the book. 3d6, six times, in order for the attributes. No rerolls, no swapping. Pick a class based on the stats you rolled. Brandon had a good Strength and Intelligence, so he chose an Elf. Jamie wanted to play a Thief and got the good Dexterity score to back it. Mark's best stat was Intelligence, so he chose a Magic-User. When they rolled hit points, Mark managed to roll a 1. Ouch! Well, we were playing by the book so we went with it. The Elf's spell book got Read Magic, Charm Person, and Protection from Evil (memorized). The Magic-User's spell book got Read Magic, Sleep, and Magic Missile (memorized). I let them choose their spells, realize.
I had subtly changed a few things about the Keep. I placed it in a mountain range between two warring nations. The mountains were a sort of buffer zone that had become populated by monsters and other terrible things. There were also ruins of an ancient civilization here and treasure hunters often would come out here seeking fame and fortune. The party had joined a merchant caravan headed up to the Keep. Brandon decided his elf was a sort of religious mystic (I supplied the religion, the Torchbearers) who wanted to return home with a religious artifact that would redeem him in the eyes of his Order.
As they approached the Keep itself, they saw smoke rising up from the ruins of buildings around it. This was a personal addition. In the original module, the Keep is a stand-alone village. I re-envisioned it as a true Keep with a farming village around it. Humanoid raiders had recently burned the village to the ground, and the inhabitants had fled back to Karameikos (I borrowed the nation's name from the old Mystara setting for BD&D), though some had managed to find shelter inside the Keep.
It soon became apparent that the Thief was a troublemaker. She insulted the guard at the gatehouse and the party ended up sleeping outside in the cold the first night. They behaved better the next morning and gained entry to the Keep, which I reminded them was the private residence of someone powerful, not a town. In the gatehouse, a portly guildmaster shook them down for "taxes" on anything that he thought was valuable--in this case the spellbooks of the Elf and Magic-User. The mage insisted that the books were of no real value, perhaps worth only a silver or two, but when the guildmaster offered him "a silver or two" for them the mage quickly shut up and paid the 2 gold piece tax.
We had some great role-playing scenes in the Keep. The Thief got into a poker game with some guards at the Tavern and tried to cheat. I had her make some Pick Pocket rolls, which she failed. Eventually she got caught and lost 40 silver pieces and earned the distrust of the guards. The players decided that the 1-hit-point Magic-User was the Thief's "bitch" (in a sort of prison sense), and he was all "yes, dear," "of course, dear." The inn's proprietor recommended that they talk to the Lantern (ranking priest) at the Chapel of the Torchbearer. While the Thief eyed the offerings box, the Elf discussed business with Lantern Sentos, the priest. It became quite apparent that the Thief was a greedy mercenary who cared only about coin, but the Elf agreed to help out the Torchbearer cause without compensation. For this, the priest secretly gave him a potion of healing (cures 1d8 hit points).
What the players did not know is that the Torchbearer priests -- and many important people in the Keep -- were under the influence of the evil cult in the Caves of Chaos. In area K of the Caves, there is an ancient altar that can infect people's minds and make them serve the elder evil gods. (This is already in the module!) I decided that because the Keep is so close to this altar, it made sense that tough adventurers over the centuries would stumble upon the altar, become turned to the evil cause, and settle in the Keep to protect the Caves of Chaos. This was my own evil twist. In the original module, there were two priests: the one at the Chapel was truly good (well, Lawful) and the roving priest in the apartments was secretly Evil. I swapped them. The roving priest was now secretly investigating the Chapel. The Chapel priest got the "vow of silence" acolytes and was encouraging adventurers to go off to their deaths in the Caves of Chaos. A potion of healing was rarely enough to keep them alive, he knew. The Castellan, too, was converted to the cause of Chaos, of course.
Caves of Chaos
The three adventurers set off down the old trail into the mountains, eventually coming across this box canyon (pictured at right)--thanks for the idea, mearls! The Thief was yelling, testing out the echo in the canyon and obviously alerting the monsters to their presence. When they came to the first cave (area A), the six kobolds were ready for them and ambushed them with surprise. "Bree-yark!" When the Elf slew the first kobold, I rolled a morale check, which the kobolds failed, and they went skittering back into the cave. The party would have fallen into the pit trap inside the cave but the Elf said he was praying at that moment, so I gave him a sense of impending danger. He warned the Thief, who quickly spotted the trap and then saw the kobolds peeking around the corners of the T-intersection.
Instead of fighting, the group tried parlay. Awesome! The Thief offered the little dog creatures some dried meat from her rations and they accepted it warily, but this built enough trust. When the Elf spoke at them in Hobgoblin (he didn't speak Kobold), the creatures recognized the "Master" language and quickly kow-towed to the obviously dangerous warriors. They led them to their chieftain, protected by three large kobolds (well, large for kobolds). They made demands to the chieftain, who laughed at them. The bargaining became more serious as the players realized how dire the situation was becoming. I think the Thief finally pissed off the chieftain enough that he just snapped his fingers and his guards started attacking.
Total Party Kill
Combat in basic D&D goes very quickly compared to current versions. First, initiative is party vs. monsters, not every player. The player with the best initiative modifier rolls d6. DM rolls d6. Compare. You can tie. Second, there are very few tactical options built into the rules: attack with a melee weapon, attack with a ranged weapon, cast a spell (if you have any), or run away. Of course, the game expects players to make up tactical options that aren't in the rules and expects the DM to accommodate them; there's just no rules support for this.
The melee lasted 4-5 rounds. Within a couple rounds, the 1-hit-point Magic-User was down. The Elf went down to 0 hit points quickly--which I interpreted as a non-combatant but conscious--but he quaffed the potion of healing and was back to the fight quickly. A couple rounds later, the kobold guards killed the Thief and knocked the Elf back to 0 hit points and captured him. Total party kill. We left the fate of the characters uncertain--maybe eaten, maybe slain, maybe ransomed, maybe imprisoned.
They rolled up new characters in about ten minutes. This time I let them swap two ability scores and take maximum hit points (8 on a d8, etc.). Mark made a fighter this time. Brandon made a Magic-User (Read Magic, Magic Missile, Floating Disc). Jamie made a Cleric and I let her start with a potion of healing for 80 gold pieces. She had rolled very well for money (3d6x10 and she started with 160 GP).
Clerics get no spells at 1st level in this game! They're basically half way between Magic-Users and Fighters, in that they can wear any kind of armor, use any blunt weapon, get 1d6 hit points, and get a spell at 2nd level (if they live that long). A Magic-User is far squishier: no armor, use only a dagger, get 1d4 hit points, but get one spell at 1st level. Fighters can use any armor and weapons, get 1d8 hit points, but no spells.
This Time, Henchmen
We fast-forwarded through the Keep with this group, but paused at the Chapel again. This time, Jamie's character (the Cleric) cooperated with the Lantern and earned an additional potion of healing. This time, the players worked hard to collect a bunch of henchmen to assist them. The Lawful priest in the apartments offered one of his acolytes, who also had taken a vow of silence. They got the Guild to send one man-at-arms to help retrieve the guildmaster, who (months after the prior PC adventurers had been killed) was now being ransomed by the evil humanoids in the Caves of Chaos. Finally, at the Tavern, they dragged the Corporal of the Watch out of his cups to help the Cleric retrieve her brother, who Jamie decided was Brandon's Elf from the previous group. The Corporal had lost some family in the raids and this jolted him out of his despondency. The Corporal was a 2nd level Fighter and a great addition to the party. I made each player handle the rolls for an NPC.
They found the box canyon containing the Caves of Chaos and, for reasons I do not fathom, decided to explore the caves "higher up." Their choice put them in area C of the adventure: a group of orcs that were a little tougher than the kobolds the previous party had encountered. Luckily they didn't go to the other side of the canyon, where even tougher hobgoblins lurked.
The group inadvertently set off the trip wire alarms outside the orc cave, and they'd lost their element of surprise--a melee soon ensued. The party was far stronger now, though. Max hit points plus three NPC retainers. Still, the man-at-arms fell to 0 hit points quickly and they decided to carry the nearly-unconscious man around instead of use a potion of healing. They soon stumbled into the "common hall" where four orc swordsmen and two orc crossbowmen attacked (and eight orc women and children huddled for safety). More violence though the PCs did try to parlay. The orcs wanted none of it. Death before dishonor!
This is when we discovered that Brandon's Magic-User had memorized Floating Disc, a utility spell that created a hovering disc for carrying stuff. Floating Disc?! Why had no one memorized Sleep, arguably the best 1st level spell? It has no saving throw and it knocks 2d8 Hit Dice of creatures into a deep sleep, and then you can slay them.
Me: "Floating Disc?!"
Brandon: "I thought it'd be useful!"
Me: "For what? To carry your friends' bodies home?"
The party was taking serious losses. The Magic-User took a hit and went down, but the Cleric healed him with a potion. They decided to flee back to the Keep to get their strength back. We stopped there, as Jamie had a poker game she was supposed to go to.
Thoughts on Old School D&D
So, this was very, very fun. More fun than playing 4E. When I consider why it was more fun, I have to try to separate the feelings of nostalgia from actual fun. On the nostalgia side, consider that running Basic D&D takes me back to the "golden age" when this was all new. I was ten or twelve years old, running games for my brother Jason and my friend Mark (a different Mark).
But I think, even without the nostalgia, there is something to this old school stuff. The game is so much simpler. Even though the players and I were just rolling "to hit" over and over, the fiction didn't suffer for it. There's plenty of room for players being clever. This group of players tried to be clever a lot, but often scuttled their own cleverness, like the Thief being a smart-ass to the kobold chieftain while the charismatic Magic-User was making deals with him.
As much as D&D 4th Edition (4E) is all about being a hard-ass tactical game, it's way more forgiving than Red Box. If this group of characters (henchmen and all) would have continued as they had been going, I imagine another TPK was coming. C'mon, memorizing Floating Disc? No. You memorize artillery spells like Sleep, Charm Person, or even Magic Missile ("even," because it's clearly inferior to the other two at 1st level). If you need a Floating Disc, you rest and memorize it tomorrow, then high-tail it to safety with the loot on the disc.
I'm not entirely sure how, decades ago, parties of 1st level characters ever survived the Caves of Chaos. I am pretty sure I must have fudged a lot. Back then, we didn't have constant TPKs and I'm sure the players were just as guileless. In the stories about adventurers at Gygax's tables, you hear of constant character deaths. There's a Darwinistic evolutionary force here. If your character survives 1st level, it's pretty likely that you're doing something right; you'll probably survive 2nd level, and then 3rd, and so on. 1st level is the training ground for players, as well as characters. Learn which spells to memorize. Learn to hire henchmen. Learn not to get surrounded by monsters. Learn to search for traps and alarms. Learn not to smart off to the kobold chieftain unless you can back your words with damage output.
It was crazy, when the players survived the first orc encounter, to see that they'd earned exactly 100 XP for it. A two-ninths share of that for each PC (retainers get half the experience PCs do) is only 11 XP for each player character! Most characters need 2000 XP to reach 2nd level. Hell, an Elf needs 4000! What are the chances of a 1st level character surviving 200 encounters, each with ten orc warriors? Pretty slim, I think. Oh, and while I'm discussing XP: why do some characters with high ability scores get an XP bonus (5-10% usually)? I mean, you rolled well on some dice and got a 16 in your prime requisite. That's a reward in itself, isn't it? The other players are already jealous of your +2 bonus to hit or whatever; why add insult to injury and let you level up faster, too?
I can definitely see what drew me to D&D back in 1980. As complicated as it seemed then, the ideas were pretty simple. The simplicity of the characters left many "blanks" for a player to fill in around the character. As later editions of D&D became more and more "completionist"--starting with the weighty tomes of 1st Edition Advanced D&D and culminating in today's power-focused 4E rulebooks--the books started to fill in the rulebooks for you. Mind you, there's still plenty of room for players to fill in the "color" around their characters, but something in the design of the Red Box game encouraged it, even necessitated it. It reminds me of the Betty Crocker egg story. Requiring housewives (in the 50's) to add their own egg to the cake mix removed the guilt of "cheating" in the kitchen. I think newer editions of D&D include the egg in the mix, where the earliest editions were closer to making the cake "from scratch."