Monday, October 4, 2010

Child’s Play

My perceptions could be off but it seems to me that BECMI (aka, Mentzer) D&D isn’t all that well liked in the old school community. Sure, there are people (like me!) who began playing D&D using Mentzer’s rules but even those folks tend to prefer playing other versions of the game.

One of the arguments I hear frequently is that BECMI D&D is synonymous with “kiddie D&D.” I think the fact of the matter is that all editions after Holmes was enlisted are geared toward reaching children as well as adults. Tim Kask, the first full-time employee of TSR, has related that Holmes was brought in to sterilize D&D and make it less scary for children. Still, I’m not sure why Mentzer’s rules tend to act as the lightning rod for the “kiddie” criticism.

Of course, that’s not a new criticism. I spent the first six months or so of my gaming life working my way through Mentzer’s rules only to find out that the older kids (aka, high shcoolers) preferred AD&D. Basic D&D, we were told, was for kids.

So what is it about BECMI/Mentzer that people dislike? Why is that the edition people tend to associate with kids?


  1. I think a lot of it comes from the fact that the Basic Set contains so much information for complete newbies that isn't really useful after you've got the basics down.

    I know that once I had the Expert Set, I rarely even looked at the Basic Players' book. The Basic DM's book was still needed for treasure tables, monster listings, and the rare magic item lookup (mostly I had what few magic items there were memorized). But aside from double checking the occasional spell description, we didn't use the Basic Players' book that much.

    I've gotta say, though, without that first introduction with Aleena and Bargle, the choose-your-own-adventure dungeon crawl after that, and the ruins of Castle Mistamere, I knew exactly what I was supposed to do with the game. I didn't have anyone to teach me, and after reading those, I was able to teach my friends how to play.

    Sure, we got a lot wrong at the beginning, but we sure had a ton of fun. So no Mentzer hate from me, at least!

  2. edit--that should be 'WITH that first introduction'

  3. Speaking only for myself, I dislike Mentzer's version of D&D for two primary reasons:

    1. The "voice" used in the books is, in my opinion, bland and un-challenging. Its word choice and sentence constructions come across as geared for a much younger, less sophisticated audience than even Moldvay/Cook/Marsh.

    2. The slickness of the presentation, particularly its use of a single artist for all the books, adds to my sense that it's a bland, corporate product rather than a product of passion. It's "McD&D" designed to appeal to the largest swath of customers rather than having any vision of its own.

    And, of course, I loathe the way the boxed sets are structured with immortality as the pinnacle of an adventurer's career. That just feels wrong and shows how far removed it is from the kind of books that drew me to fantasy in the first place.

  4. Your perception is not entirely accurate. BECMI is by far the most popular form of Classic D&D after B/X according to this recent poll. There are a lot of fans of the Rules Cyclopedia out there in particular. It's interesting, however, that the blog community tends to focus on B/X, while most of the BECMI/RC chatter tends to be on forums like Dragonsfoot.

  5. Lord Gwydion,

    Interesting point about the sheer volume of information for folks new to roleplaying games. I’ve pondered that in Mentzer’s basic set as well. It seems to represent a marked shift in target audience. Previous additions seem to almost presuppose that you’re learning how to play from other players. Mentzer seems to presuppose that your first exposure to the game is the red box.

    Still, I can’t help but wonder if that is part of the reason for the success of BECMI. I haven’t seen any specific figured but I’ve heard Mentzer (in interviews) hint at the fact that BECMI outsold all other boxed sets TSR ever published (not that popularity is necessarily any indication of quality).

  6. James,

    Interesting points, thank you for taking the time to post.

    For the first time since returning to the hobby I’ve begin reading other editions of D&D. When I started, I played BECMI, then went directly into AD&D. As a result, I never really carefully read through B/X, Holmes, or the LBBs. I’m beginning to do that now and I have to say, I agree with you regarding the tone of the books. The difference between the tones of B/X and BECMI is almost palpable.

    For me, the art of BECMI is D&D. I know lots of people dislike Elmore, Easley, et al, but they hold a special place for me simply because of personal preferences and, of course, nostalgia since their art dominated TSR products by the time I started playing in the mid 80s.

    I confess I always ignored the Immortals set in BECMI. The quest for immortality just didn’t hold the draw for us that building, defending, and expanding our strongholds did.

  7. Cyclopeatron,

    Glad to hear it! For all its shortcomings (and even Mentzer admits they are many) I do like BECMI (or, at least BECM). I do like the rules, however, and am reading through the Dark Dungeons retro-clone to see which version I’m going to settle upon.

  8. I hear a lot of Mentzer bashing on old-school blogs. Like you, some of my earliest and best gaming experiences were BECMI. One of my favorite items in my collection is my signed basic set. I well remember Frank running the auction at Origins before Ebay hit big.

    I also agree with Cylcopeatron in that the red box is a general fan favorite. The new Starter Set and the Larry Elmore signing booth at Gencon this year attest to that.