I’ve often mused that I wish I had been introduced to D&D with the 1981 Moldvay Basic set. There are a lot of reasons to like the B/X version of the game, but one of them I’ve not considered before is the fact that it’s a complete game.

Instead, I was introduced to the game with an AD&D Player’s Handbook. Now, that seems reasonable. Until I add that there was no Dungeon Master’s Guide or Monster Manual to go with it. Not for me, who had only a small amount of Traveller under my belt. Not for my brother, who had less. Not even for the DM, a neighbor who had played the game a bit in college.

So, our neighbor shows up during Christmas break and shows us his Player’s Handbook, his box of miniatures, and six weird dice. And that was enough.

In short order, I had rolled up a cleric I named Volgrod and my brother had a fighter he named Interog. Volgrod and Interog, with perhaps an NPC or two, were off to a creepy place called the Tower of the Undead. The tale of that adventure will have to be told another time, but suffice it to say that, by the end of that session several hours later, we were hooked.

The next time he showed up, we played again. But this time he didn’t DM. I did.

He handed me the Player’s Handbook, he and my brother rolled up characters, and we were off. I had no idea what was going on. I made it up as we went. As in, when they asked what they could see in the meadow, I had to wrack my brain to come up with something. The only things I really remember about that second game, the first time I DMed, are: the meadow contained a statue or fountain that slid aside to reveal a secret passage, a kindly gnome who was struck down Ben Kenobi-like but returned more powerful than you can possibly imagine, and that the NPCs were a 1st-level bard and a 2nd-level illusionist. I hadn’t quite grasped the idea that 1st-level bards were not 1st-level characters. I also hadn’t quite grasped anything else about the game, other than it was fun and filled with adventure.

We had no combat tables. We had no idea about how to play out combat, so we rolled initiative and rolled to-hits (with numbers I made up on a case-by-case basis). I think I borrowed some ideas from the combat matrix in Panzerblitz (for which we had no actual instructions–again, that’s another tale). I knew that you needed an 8+ to hit in Traveller, so I think I made it 12+ in D&D. Also, it never occurred to me that monsters had armor class.

We had no monster stats. Heck, we barely had any monster names except those listed as languages for the demi-humans. I pulled creatures from every myth and movie I could think of. Lots of giant versions of regular animals.

I had no concept of what the dungeons in Dungeons & Dragons were supposed to be like, so they were all filled with torture devices and prison cells. It never dawned on me that you could make a map of the place beforehand. Or during play, for that matter. We just put our miniatures on the table and marched them around in corridors and chambers defined by pencils and pens.

In short, we had NO IDEA what we were doing. No clue whatsoever.

And we loved every minute of it.

We played the heck out of D&D that Christmas break, with me dungeon mastering virtually all of it. We had so much fun that our neighbor left us his Player’s Handbook, figures, and dice when he returned to college. So my brother and I kept at it almost non-stop.

Some incredible adventures were had during that stretch, including the beginning of what would become my Red Gold campaign. The character my brother rolled up for my first session as DM, a thief named Agvo, met an NPC fighter I called Kilgore for lack of a better name, and launched a career that would span continents. I think back on those heady days and wish I had a video of it. It was crap, I’m sure. But it was the most wondrous crap imaginable.

We played that way, with only a Player’s Handbook and our imaginations, for several months until I scraped my pennies together and managed to purchase a DMG. We didn’t acquire a Monster Manual for another six months or so.

And though our game reached new heights with the new books (and graph paper!) and we had incredible fun, I don’t know that it ever again quite matched the days when all we had was a list of races and classes, a list of weapons and armor, and a list of magic spells. We were left to fill in the rest of the blanks. And though we dreamed of the day when other books could be consulted for the answers, I think our imaginations did just fine.

Because, seriously, lame stuff you mashed together from The Illiad and the late night monster movie on your own beats any module any day.

Roll initiative. Twelve or more to hit.

7 Comments to “A Player’s Handbook, Three Chords, and the Truth”

  1. Timeshadows says:

    AbsoTotalEffin’-YEAH! 😀
    –Perfect!

  2. Nice personal history, LK!

    I myself did actually start with the Moldvay basic set. And though I’m fairly certain I did, in fact, benefit from having a “complete game” at the outset, I soon grew restless with the structure and fled into playing more the way you describe. Making stuff up and all that. It really is the best way to play, for me, anyway.

    Also, you can’t go wrong with three chords and the truth 🙂

    • Kilgore says:

      Making stuff up and all that. It really is the best way to play, for me, anyway.

      A perfect game would be all the rules and stats PLUS “making stuff up and all that.”

      The problem I’ve had, and I think a lot of people have, is that lots of rules and stats stifle the “making stuff up” part. And even if the DM can wing it, someone else who isn’t interested in winging it will protest.

  3. Tenkar says:

    I started out with just the DMG, or rather my best friend did. He DMed my first game, my solo fighter Cyrus. He had to call a classmate to see if I had earned enough expo to level. I was so hooked 😉

    • Kilgore says:

      Hmm. With DMG you have combat rules and to-hit tables, magic items, general rules, and even monster stats (in Appendix).

      But no basic character info, weapons info, or spells?

      That seems even harder than PH only.

  4. Jensan says:

    Great and inspiring story!
    I’m hoping to start my old-school monster bashing this year, with the Swords & Wizardry core rules (although I acquired a handful of AD&D books some month ago).