Monday, June 10, 2013

Brown Basic

 So about a week ago I got over to Gryfalia's Aerie, the local game store with the overwrought name.  Most of the shop is dedicated to collectible style games and boardgames.  I saw two boardgames that have interested me, Battlestations and Super Dungeon Explore, but it's a rare day when I'm willing to plonk down sixty-five or one hundred bucks for a game.  They've got a nice little used section in the back room where I found just the rulebook for the 1991 D&D big Black Box set, the earliest version to try to turn D&D into a more boardgamey experience.  I played a bit of this version back in the early nineties, but I wasn't the DM and never saw the rules.

Because it was a component to a larger game, the guy behind the counter was baffled how to accurately price this booklet.  He spent nearly five minutes fiddling around on his computer, then let me have the book for free.  I'm still baffled about this decision.  I wanted to say "Hey, man, don't be so dependent on your magic glowy box!  Just spitball a number and we can discuss it!" but self-interest overrode my fear of robot overlords, so I left with a free game book.

So what we have here is a 64 page soft cover credited to Timothy B. Brown with art by Terry Dykstra (cover by Jeff Easley).  I honestly don't know who Timothy B. Brown is.  I've seen Dykstra's work in other TSR stuff of the same period.  Did he do some of the illos for 2nd edition AD&D?  More on the art in a bit.

Overall, the rules cleave pretty closely to the designs laid down by  Moldvay/Cook/Marsh in 1981.  Alignment is threefold, elf is a class, no cleric spells until second level, etc.  Here are the differences I've been able to suss out after several page-throughs:

  • The Charisma reaction adjustment goes from -3 to +3 like all the rest of the stat modifiers, despite reaction rolls still using 2d6.
  • All the class charts go to fifth level, with third level MU spells and second level cleric spells in the magic section.
  • The Magic-User specifically notes that you get one new spell per level, but your spell book can hold more than that if you find other spells to transcribe.
  • As was becoming more and more common in the period, PC depictions are gendered by class.  The cleric and elf characters are females, the other classes are depicted by males.  No Morgan Ironwolf here.
  • Weapons are rated Small, Medium and Large.  Halflings can only use Small weapons (no using a regular sword in two hands) and Dwarves can only wield Small and Medium weapons, so they can't use battle axes.
  • The warhammer and quarterstaff do d6 damage, instead of the d4 listed on the Moldvay charts.
  • "Wooden doors can be burned or destroyed in 1d4 turns."
  • A small section explains how to use THAC0.
  • "Exhausted" foes are +2 to be hit, while you are -2 to hit if exhausted.  I'm still looking for a rule on how you become exhausted.
  • Bed rest restores d4 points of damage.
  • The spell lists aren't numbered for random selection.
  • The monster section follows BX D&D (rhagodessa and thouls rather than beholders and succubi), but is abbreviated compared to the complete BX list.  Still, there's plenty of Expert level monsters that would be a serious challenge to a party of fifth level adventurers.  The monster power level compares favorably to the Holmes Basic monsters.
  • The NPC Party entry in the monster section contains a special reaction chart: 2-5 Depart in Anger, 6-8 Negotiate, 9-12 Offer to buy or sell information.
  • Spectre is spelled "specter".  I hate that.
  • While we're on the subject of spectres, there's no vampire listing so spectres are the king undead in this edition.
  • The magic items list is longer than Basic, shorter than Expert.  No dwarven thrower hammer, for instance.
  • Instead of the Ring of Weakness, there's a bland "Cursed Ring" that's -1 on all saves.
  • No intelligent sword rules.
  • The Making a Dungeon section includes eight sample traps and eight sample "special items" (statue, moving wall, etc.).  These should be numbered for random roll, but aren't.
  • Wandering Monster charts for levels 1, 2, 3, 4-5, and 6-7.  The level 4-5 chart includes Basilisk, Cockatrice and Medusa, while the 6-7 chart drops Medusa but adds Gorgon.  15% of all random encounters after level 3 turn your ass to stone.

All in all, I'd call it a perfectly functional version of the game.  Most of the changes are for the better.  Note that some of the post-Basic stuff is squeezed into this 64 page booklet by virtue of the fact that it is a rule reference primarily and not a teaching tool.  A set of cards that also come in the big black box explain how to get started with the game.  Without those, this would be a harder set to use to learn how to play D&D.  But as a rulebook for an experienced DM who prefers lower level games, Brown's version of Basic would be about perfect.

Let's look at some of the interior illos.  Instead of that fantastic mix of illos from Otus, Roslof, Willingham, Dee and LaForce, all the interior art is by Terry Dykstra.  Dykstra seems technically proficient, but more prosaic than his predecessors, perhaps akin to Jim Holloway but without the sense of humor.

Here we have the fighter and the elf from the chargen section fighting some humanoid dude.  I think it's supposed to be a hobgoblin, because this pic is in the monster section on the page opposite from its entry.  But this illo is right next to the lizard man write-up, so a newbie could be confused.  This is something the design team behind the '81 rules did right; you could usually tell from the context what illo went with what monster.

This is the MU and cleric from the chargen section.  I love illos of adventurers puzzling over maps.  It's one of the few in-game activities that the people playing the game do at the same time as their PCs.

"You stumble into a spacious chamber with at least ten exits."  The DM is a jerk.  Note the three torches.  Good dungeoneering illos should not assume ambient lighting.

I hate to end an otherwise positive review with a downbeat note, but I pretty much loathe the cover art. There's a dragon but not much in the way of a dungeon (compare to the cool background used on the Otus cover art).  The dragon looks way too humanoid (hand-like claws, arms attach at the shoulder like a person rather than a quadruped, snout too short or the perspective is screwed up on the face).  But the worst offense is the single protagonist fighting the dragon.  D&D is a group endeavor.  Putting one guy facing a dragon on the cover is selling the wrong experience.

Cover aside, Brown Basic totally works as a serious choice for a rules reference for DMs who prefer low level games or who want to reserve 6th level and above for something different than the standard (A)D&D approaches.