Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Valuable Lessons from Mentzer

So there we were with several sets of conflicting rules: Holmes Basic, Moldvay/Cook basic/expert, AD&D, and my newly acquired Mentzer basic “red box” set. Pat was rather taken with my new set. We both were, really. Pat hadn’t inherited any dice and my newly acquired multi-colored polyhedrals seemed to beckon to us. Elmore’s artwork on the cover just sucked us in and had us both imagining what it would be like to assault ancient catacombs, rifle through long forgotten tombs, and, of course, to be locked in mortal combat with a red dragon like the one on the cover of my new boxed set. In comparing my basic set with his we saw just how different they were and Pat went out and bought a copy of the Mentzer basic set.

That day, he asked me to stay over for a sleepover so we could play our new game late into the night without worrying about having to stop prematurely. We figured we’d take turns running each other through “adventures.” So we sat down and each made seven characters: a fighter, a cleric, a thief, a magic user, an elf, a dwarf, and a halfling. We didn’t know which one we’d want to play so we just made one of each.

We decided that for our first adventure, Pat would run me through the solo adventure included in the front of Mentzer’s basic player’s guide; you know, the one where you meet Aleena the cleric and team up with her in pursuit of the evil magic user, Bargle? Well, he told me I was only allowed to use my fighter on that adventure so we dove right in with little to no introduction. The session went surprisingly well (although it was over in about 25 minutes) although we ended up making up rules as we went along just for fun.

In thinking back to my first session of D&D I can’t help but think how much that evening unconsciously set me on a specific journey...

Art: For better or for worse, for me, Larry Elmore’s art WAS Dungeons & Dragons. As soon as I saw that lone fighter locked in combat with the red dragon on the cover of the basic set, his illustrations, unbeknownst to me, were forever emblazoned in my mind as being iconic of the game. Opening up the books and reading through them only served to cement Elmore’s status in my mind. My heroic fighter was modeled on the one drawn by Elmore in the book. My first traveling companion, the beautiful cleric Aleena, was likewise drawn by Elmore. He even drew my first arch-enemy, Bargle, who killed Aleena. After that first evening, Elmore became for me what Otus, Trampier, Sutherland, Dee, and others were for the first generation of D&D players. Elmore’s art would later pull me in a completely different direction, however (more on that later).

Dungeons: Dungeon delving was our preferred modus operandi after our first game. Yes, we’d eventually own the rules that taught about wilderness and aquatic travel, and we’d engage in it frequently, but for us, nothing held as much excitement as exploring places nobody else had ever been, choosing marching order, lighting a torch, and heading underground to face unknown dangers.

Death: An important part of D&D is danger and the threat of character death. While my character survived his first “dungeon,” Aleena did not. For me, this reinforced just how dangerous adventuring could be. Yes, entering the dark and fighting monsters was fun but it was dangerous and there was a good chance we wouldn’t make it back alive. We played it as the dice fell in those days, and many times, that meant character death. Mentzer’s introductory adventure prepared me for that while instilling a desire to explore the unknown, loot exotic treasures, and most of all, to kill Bargle for what he’d done to Aleena.

The Party: Despite the fact that the first adventure was, properly speaking, a “solo” adventure, I still met Aleena who explained to me the role of fighters, clerics, thieves, etc. That reinforced the idea that adventuring was intended to be a group activity. I know TSR published some solo adventures but they just never felt right to me. Even in that first solo adventure I played, I adventured not alone, but with Aleena, my tour guide into the world of D&D.

Rules: We were only a couple of pages into the first D&D book we’d ever read when we started playing. It was evident to us, right off the bat, that the rules were there as guidelines to facilitate fun. They weren’t there to make us slaves or waste time, they were there to encourage fun.

Those early days were some of the best D&D games I’ve ever played. I say “best” not because they were masterfully constructed, not because we came up with creative maps or unique adventure hooks, but because nothing, and I mean nothing, has ever been as much fun. Later, I’ll discuss how those early days soon changed from the free form/wild & wooly style of gaming into what many refer to as the “Silver Age” of D&D, and ultimately, full circle back to the roots of the game.

Fun. I think of all the things drawing me back to D&D’s roots via the Old School Renaissance, fun is preeminent.


  1. Well put. Nice reminiscing, and a good story!

  2. Zachary,

    Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment. I think nostalgia is underrated when discussing the OSR. I think we’re afraid that if we talk about the nostalgia factor that people in the new school will just write us off as old fogeys wanting to recapture our youth. But we have to remember that when we reminisce, we’re reminiscing about having fun. That’s why we look back at those early days so fondly; not because it was a long time ago (many things happened to me a long time ago I’d never want to relive/recapture) but because it was so much fun!

  3. Great post. I think you hit everything on the head regarding why, for me, the Mentzer set is the prototypical D&D ruleset.

    I wrote a bit more extensively about my feelings on the subject in a post a couple months back.

  4. Sirlarkins,

    I still have a soft spot in my heart for the sets Mentzer penned. I think I always will.