Friday, July 25, 2008

4 things I don't like...

...about Moldvay Basic D&D

Considering I've been doing some harping on 4th edition, I think in the interest of fairness I should take some time out to talk about the stuff I don't like in my favorite version of D&D. From time to time I've been known to claim that Moldvay Basic D&D combined with Cook/Marsh Expert D&D is the most perfect form of the game ever published. I will admit bias on this one, since this was the edition I started gaming with, but I still think you won't find a better version of D&D. However, there are maybe four rules in the game that bug me to a greater or lesser degree.

Oil & Holy Water

Variable weapon damage (you know, where swords do d8 and daggers do d4) is an optional rule under this version. My group always used it, but the default is that all weapons do d6, just like OD&D before the Greyhawk supplement. But then burning oil and holy water do d8 damage. Without the optional rule in play, that means a molotov is better than a two-handed sword. Admittedly, you don't have to carry a bunch of disposable flasks of sword around, but it still rubs me the wrong way. Oil is already extremely useful, it doesn't need to be the most damaging weapon available.

Two-handed Weapons

Two-handed weapons always lose initiative under Moldvay Basic. That strikes me as an unnecessary penalty when you must already forgo a shield. My thought nowadays is that the thing to do would be for two-handers to attack last on any round where initiative is a tie. That retains a bit of the intended effect without unduly harshing the polearm fans.

Points Swapping

The second column of page B6 gives some fairly unwieldy rules for ability points swapping at character generation. When we were kids we often played D&D Basic as a pick-up game and this is where group chargen got bogged down. In my experience that section slows down chargen just as much buying equipment (if not more) as each player tries to minmax their six 3d6 rolls into the best possible PC. Nowadays I'm a big proponent of stick with what you rolled, but I could also see another solution would be a handout that better explained how to turn your dice rolls into the character you want.


This one is the doozie for me. A third level Magic-User can 2 first and 1 second level spell a day. With me so far? Guess how many spells that Conjurer has in his or her spellbook? The correct answer is 3, one second level and two first level spells. No more spells are allowed. Spells may not be transcribed from scrolls to expand your spellbook and as far as I can tell a captured spellbook is worthless to an MU. This simplification makes writing up NPC magic-users and elves very simple. You list the spells they know and that list constitutes both what they have memorized and what is in their spellbook. But I can't stand it. I'm just too married to the Vancian ideal of a spellcaster, where two big deals for an M-U are Picking The Right Tool for the Job and Finding More Damn Spells.

So now I'm off to read up on how Labyrinth Lord handles each of these issues. Anybody else have any nitpicks with Moldvay/Cook? Or howzabout something that bugs the crap out of you in what is otherwise your favorite edition?


  1. I vacillate a lot about the Big Issue many have with Moldvay and BECMI: race as class. It keep things very straightforward yet sometimes I wish one could mix it up a bit more.

    One solution I've read is to allow the demihumans to take the other classes if they forgo their racial abilities. And likewise a human could choose to train as a "halfling" if s/he wanted to. The notion is that demi-humans are trained to cast spells in armor, or blend into the landscape, or analyze stonework, etc. Not perfect but I'd consider this if I were running a game.

  2. Anonymous12:45 PM

    Hmmm. Don't know if writing your spells down and working as your book and what you have memorized would work as you suggest.

    What if I want to memorize the same 1st level spell twice? Or even forgo my 2nd level spell for the day and memorize my favorite 1st level spell 3 times?

    I'm with you all the way on point swapping ability scores. Slows down PC generation for not much gain in fun, and is the begging of the road to munckinland. While a feature of Moldvay, this started all the way back in OD&D though.

    I go with group initiative for Basic, so the 2 handed weapons thing doesn't come into play at all.

  3. I used Mentzer, which fixes the spell-book problem at least to the extent of making it explicit that you can copy scrolls you find into your spell book (as long as you're of sufficient level to cast the spell if you knew it) and that you will eventually be able to have many more spells in your book than you can memorize per day.

    I also use a house rule that demi-humans can take human classes instead (and vice versa) but lose (gain) all the racial abilities except infra-vision, which is innate to the race you're born into.

    The losing initiative thing doesn't bug me--and I enforce it on bastard swords used two-handed (which Mentzer agrees was the original intent of the rule).

  4. hmmm...

    alignment languages
    demihuman level limits
    no halfling thieves
    low cost of armor

  5. I really like the human "monsters" that are included in the Moldvay basic book -- Acolytes, Mediums, Nobles, Traders, and Veterans. They give you a sense for how the PCs compare to other 'people' they might meet on the road.

    But what's with the AC on them? Acolytes, Nobles (and their men) and Veterans all have AC 2. That's Platemail and a shield! That bugs me.

  6. Anonymous2:23 PM

    We always used variable damage so I never thought about oil being different and I don't remember the two-handed wpn rule so they didn't affect me.

    We used point swapping - took a minute for a character.

    At the time, the no reall spell book thing didn't bother me as that's all I knew. Same with race as class. But I wouldn't go back to those now. They both feel too limiting.

    I never understood alignment tongues - seemed unnecessary, hard to justify, and too easy to find out aligment.


  7. Re: spell books. The Expert rules have spell research rules. By a strict reading, M-Us and Elves of any level can research new spells and add them to their books as long as they have the time and money. So if you want to get that Read Magic spell (necessary to use scrolls!), you can research it and add while the fighter is healing.

  8. Yeah, I have a gripe about Moldvay/Cook. And this was the very first set of D&D rules I ever owned, so this is hard for me.

    Clerics turning undead.

    In the previous editions, you rolled 2d6 to see how many undead you turned.

    In Moldvay, you rolled 2d6 to see how many Hit Dice (!) of undead you turned.

    Sure, really helps out with those skeletons at a half hit die each. But what about the vampire? At 9 HD, you MIGHT turn ONE of them.

    In other news, if there are two vampires, you're screwed.

  9. I don't like the ability score modifiers in either Holmes or Moldvay Basic, as I feel they make ability scores too important to the long-term viability of the character. I very much prefer the pre-Greyhawk modifiers, which make ability scores into something more like flavor text for role-playing purposes.

    I also dislike the flaming-oil-as-plutonium-napalm, and the two-handed weapon rule.

    I never use alignment languages.

    Other than that, I'm fine with both Moldvay and Holmes.

  10. Anonymous4:28 PM

    Ehh... none of that stuff bothers me. I think the only house rule I have for Moldvay/Cook is that a Battle Axe can be used 1-H for 1d6 or 2-H for 1d8. Well, and I guess I divide the initiative phases a bit differently.

    I know alignment languages bug some people, but you can make them work. You only have 3 alignments to work with. "Chaotic" is like the language of Pan Tang or Melnibone... something used by bad guys and sorcerers. "Lawful" is like Ecclesiastical Latin. "Neutral"... you could either make it like a druidic thing or you could say it's a trade language often spoken by mercenaries. Or you could just blow it off, like most people probably do.

    There's no question that Moldvay/Cook is the best complete version of D&D ever published! But my eyes have been opened to the possibilities of OD&D, which though incomplete is able to take on its own kind of awesome.

  11. Initiative, I think, is the biggest bone I have to pick with BD&D, but Robert Fisher's Dynamic Combat suggestion solves the problem for the most part.

  12. So, does Labyrinth Lord fix any of these issues?

  13. Anonymous11:43 PM

    Our molotovs generally did 2d8, and we liked it fine. They didn't last long, and it's not easy for firsties to get through the Caves of Chaos under the best of conditions...

    - Calithena

  14. The two-handed weapons losing initiative really bugs me. It may be the one thing that bugs me the most about my favorite edition.

    In my version of reality two-handed weapons are not unwieldy†, a long weapon turns a small movement of the hands into a large movement of the weapon (i.e. a larger weapon is faster than a smaller weapon), and reach trumps a whole lot of other considerations.

    With all weapons doing 1d6 damage, why would I sacrifice AC (i.e. a shield) and initiative to use a two-handed weapon?

    I’d think two-handed weapons automatically winning initiative makes more sense. At least on the round you enter mêlée with it.

    Thanks for the compliment on my musing about dynamic combat, Matthew.

    †Who would make an unwieldy weapon? Who would use it? You build something to be wielded, you choose something to wield, it’s going to be wieldy! ^_^

  15. Thanks for the compliment on my musing about dynamic combat, Matthew.

    No problem, that musing opened my eyes at a time when I had been blinded by the D20 approach. The weird thing is that it's how our group always used to instinctively play D&D before being introduced to Player's Option: Combat & Tactics and the all pervasive D20 Dungeons & Dragons. We had been playing 'dynamically' as late as 2003/4, I'm not sure what prompted us to change.

    As it goes, we're currently using it in our online Labyrinth Lord game over on the Goblinoid Games forums. I am not sure I could happily play any other way...

  16. Anonymous1:59 PM

    Actually, the mental picture of a party of adventurers armed with nothing other than hundreds of flasks of flaming oil sounds like a lot of fun:

    DM: You see 8 gnolls.

    Players: We start throwing our molotovs!