So here’s review #1. I picked, for my initial foray, the first RPG product I ever acquired. This is the grandaddy…the wellspring for me. The version I received was not obviously too early of an edition as you can tell. It was by far one of the best, though, rich with Larry Elmore’s art and written by likely the greatest writer TSR ever had, Frank Mentzer.

Frank took what was an average set of rules with little flash and turned it into a mainstream product just at the time TSR was pushing to expand heavily into the mainstream market. He also expanded out the set of rules to include other sets beyond Basic & Expert, but that’s a topic for a later post.

Elmore’s art was an inspired choice by TSR. The guy was definitely in his prime and his prime lasted a couple of decades. Those images are forever synonomous with D&D in my opinion. Larry set the tone for the “look” that many of us old-timers associate with that venerable line.

In short, Basic Dungeons & Dragons for Levels 1-3 was a hook. It was a primer, an introduction to tens of thousands of young gamers, myself included. Most of us would have had little to no idea where to start looking for RPG’s if this set hadn’t been created. It was marketed in toy stores all over the country (locally a chain called Children’s Palace carried it and is where I got my first modules). Frank’s packaging of the first set as solely for the introductory gamer with minor low-level adventures built right into the book answered all our initial questions, but left us greedy to learn more. Once you got to 3rd Level, where did you go from there?

The answer TSR hoped for was that you’d run out and buy the next set, Expert, but again that’s a topic for next time. Back to the set, it was a complete game. You had super cheap plastic lightweight dice, which seemingly all developed rounded corners at the edges in no time flat. A crayon was included so you could actually read the numbers on the dice. The famous “there is no board” warning was prominently displayed as soon as you got into the set.

One of the most interesting elements of the set and something that differentiated it from earlier editions was the separation of the rules into a 64-page Player’s Manual and a 48-page Dungeon Master’s manual. How odd, and how unlike the previous rulebooks which had everything lumped together. It almost harkened back to the earliest D&D sets with their multiple books, but this was different.

It set the psychological stage for the DMZ between DM’s and players that exists to this day. There is some information players are not meant to know! One wonders at the anger and mistrust this has formented over the years when we could’ve had harmony and peace… OR likely not. 🙂

The importance of this was that players could now greedily commandeer their particular book to make characters while the new DM read through his guide to figure out exactly how he was going to run this fricking thing.

From a player’s point of view, the Basic D&D set as produced by Frank Mentzer really was the gateway drug. Two adventures inside to whet your appetite, great artwork and easy layout made this an almost effortless entry into gaming, even if you didn’t have a group at first. If you knew nothing about gaming, you’d learn all the basics you needed to know from this set. You learned all the primary D&D (and for that matter most fantasy games) races and the iconic classes that many of us to this day use to define what our characters are in any fantasy rpg.

From a DM’s point of view, this is equally useful in getting started. It was no more difficult to learn the art of how to run a game, ham-handed though our first attempts may have been, than it was to learn how to be a player. The initial lessons learned here applied with any game you’d purchase next. Absolutely this edition starting at 12th was how you’d relate to almost any game that came after.

It’s one, intentional, shortcoming was that it was limited in scope. Once you finished third the set was useless. It was meant to be. This was a fire and forget game system. It left you wanting, no, needing to know how your character could progress from there. Now, there were those among us who, when unable to find an Expert set resorted to making our own “Expert” rules, at least as we thought they should be, but it was really a bandaid on a gaping wound.

This set was only intended to get your beak wet, in raw crack cocaine it would seem, but nonetheless. It was and remains the best, if only because it was the first. Never mind the rule system TSR used had its flaws. The technical end of things isn’t important to this discussion. What is important is that this product was the key that unlocked many of our imaginations.

I may have set it aside for more complex, fun and involved games back in the day, but I currently have three sets of this for my personal collection. Call it a fondness for the memory of that original cherry high.