I think it started in 1986 when I read part of The Dungeon Master by William Dear in high school. His account of rolling up a D&D character and playing his first session during his 1979 investigation into the disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III from Michigan State University showed me a simpler, more open way to play the game than I had been for the past four years.
At the time, we were deep into a Dragonlance campaign and were incorporating Unearthed Arcana and Oriental Adventures into our game. We were playing a lot, but I was feeling burned out. Like too little peanut butter over too much chocolate.
I had started on AD&D and pretty much looked down my nose at Basic or the original edition. One time about a year or so earlier, we had been stuck for a weekend without our huge pile of AD&D hardcovers at a cousin’s house and he had suggested we play using his D&D game. My excitement faded quickly once I realized that his was merely a Basic boxed set (which I now know to have been a 1981 Moldvay edition) and, after paging through it for a while, I declared it to be pretty much unplayable.
In the fall of 1986, though, I thought back to that game and decided that maybe those “unplayable” rules would be worth looking at again. Maybe they would allow us a chance to unhitch from the glorious trainwreck of AD&D while still being able to play the game we loved. So I decided to spend a few of my hard-earned bucks on, gasp, a Basic boxed set.
Not being at all familiar with the history of game, I thought that maybe I would find some of those white boxes I had seen a year earlier (marked down as CLEARANCE, no less) and would play the original game, thinking it was just an older printing of Basic. Not finding it, I bought the Basic on the shelf at a KayBee Toys in the mall even though the red box was different than what I remembered.
Of course, it was the 1983 Mentzer version of Basic, which I believe is the best-selling edition of D&D ever. Getting home, I opened things up and prepared to get back to basics. I was excited to be starting fresh and prepared to accept a few things that I knew were going to bother me, such as race-is-class and limited options for weapons and spells. I kept telling myself that that sort of simplification was the entire reason for doing what I was doing, and that I was going to play 100% By The Book, at least to start with. After all, it had been byzantine official rules and piles of alterations by later books topped with a slew of house rules that had been burning me out to begin with.
So I dove in. Clear rules, easy play, and loads of fun like the old days were on the horizon.
Alas, it was not to be.
Two things doomed my effort. First, I must admit that the tone and style of the Mentzer books was completely off-putting. I realize that they were intended for those who had never played before and had no idea what an RPG was. But, despite my determination to take it all in stride, it felt like the book was written for a little kid. I picked up the Expert set and found it to be much the same. Back to basics? Yes. But not back to kindergarten.
Second, my brother was having None Of It. He utterly rejected class-is-race. Completely and totally. He also refused the idea that thieves had four-sided hit dice, a refusal which I shared 100% but was working to overcome. There were a number of players that I gamed with, but my brother was always involved in any game. If he didn’t Go Basic, it wouldn’t work. Not in the long run. Even if I played basic with other friends, I was not about to give up the campaigns my brother was in. And if I had to play AD&D for that, what was the point of doing something else to begin with?
So the Basic books went into a box. I still have them. They’ve never been played.
And we went back to AD&D. We finished Dragonlance. We tried to incorporate UA and the Survival Guides. We played a lot more and, despite it all, we had some great adventures. Somewhere, in the middle of an expedition into the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, we quit for the evening and never picked it up again. I haven’t played D&D with my brother since that night, which was probably in 1989.
I did buy 2nd Edition and even played it a bit. I appreciated the fact that it cleaned up and organized things and did away with some of the wonkiness of 1e. I have no beef with 2e like a lot of old-school-types do, at least not with the early years of it. But it just didn’t do it for me. It would take almost two decades before I tried the Basic route again, this time via Labyrinth Lord.
I often wonder if I would have stuck it out had the Basic on the shelf in that toy store been the 1981 B/X set. I know that the writing style would not have bothered me nearly so much. Or if it had been a little later and it had been a Rules Cyclopedia instead. Who knows?
As an addendum, I went through a similar process with Traveller a year or so later. I was pretty much fed up with the Imperium and advanced character creation rules and went back to Books 1, 2, and 3 only with a random subsector for a setting. Unfortunately, I never did have a lot of luck getting players for Traveller and it just sort of petered out. I haven’t played much since, though I’d sure like to.
That’s part of why I’ve been so excited about this “old school renaissance” or whatever it is. It’s making the types of games I think I wanted all along available again and modern tech is allowing me to make the changes I want to and still have nice-looking rules booklets. Wish I had had that in the mid-80s.