What I Hate About B/X D&D

Fossils in the Asphalt, Vol. 1Fossils in the Asphalt, Vol. 2Supernova
In truth, I don't actually hate any of it, but I just wrote a blog post called What I Love about B/X D&D so I am almost contractually obliged to write about the other side of the issue. So here it is, what I did not like then and still don't like now about B/X D&D. It's not everything. I'm not mentioning the common griefs of Hit Points and Vancian Magic. Instead, I'm trying to stick to those things which are unique to B/X D&D.
The All-In-One Rulebook
A big part of the drive to play RPGs is exploring a world and discovering new things, so TSR should have put two separate books in each box, one for the Players to use creating characters and the other for the DM to run adventures with. Don't get me wrong, as a player it was fun to read through the monsters and treasure descriptions to get a taste of what lay ahead, but it also ruined the surprise of what we were destined to encounter.
It's tempting to say that they should have created two boxed sets, one for players and the other for DM's both containing all the information spread across the B and the X, but that would have left a lot of unknowing new players stuck with an unplayable game because they didn't think to buy the other box. Perhaps they should have just put everything in one big box the way they did with Holmes, but this is T$R we're talking about.

The Haunted Keep
Because of this failure to make a clean split between Player and DM material, things like "The Haunted Keep" proved to be the biggest waste of paper ever printed. None of us played it because everybody had read it and unlike the Tower of Zenopus it contained nothing of interest. The Haunted Keep is seriously dull. The only good thing about it is that it provided an excuse to print this picture here, which is flat-out awesome.
Keep on the Borderlands also suffered from the same problem. As a mini-mega-dungeon B2 was a lot of fun to play but we ruined our own surprises. None of us were stoned by the Medusa. We fought the Minotaur but were not surprised by it. Sure it told us not to, but we were kids. You might as well be putting a candy bar in the box labelled "Do Not Eat!"
The Dice
One of the most amazing things when you first start to play D&D is the idea of playing a game that is so strange and exotic it depends on specially made dice the world has never seen before (at least back in the 80's). One of the most disappointing things, is coming to the realization that they are nothing more than plastic random number generators, and that the whole game can pretty much be played with a d20 and a d6. We want them to be meaningful but the different dice don't actually mean anything. My oldest remaining die is the d12, and I'm sure I am not alone in this because the d12 is almost never used by the game. It might be used for Number Appearing and Treasure Table rolls but everything else? Nope.
(One of these days I'll have to color its numbers in.)
Random Number Ranges
I think this kind of thing is why there was so much nerd hate back in the day. Instead of writing down 4d6, which is easy to figure out, the game would give you 4-24 and simply expect you to know how to turn it into a dice roll. This wasn't too hard to do, but because you had to sit down and figure out something noodly for no point other than to do so, it added to the resistance people faced when playing the game.
Treasure Types
You have to make thirty die rolls to figure out how much treasure is in a dragon's lair. Actually, that seems somewhat fitting but wow I did hate having to consult the treasure type table. While the book does explain how to roll percentages, if you know that each point on a d20 equals 5%, why not just have people roll a d20 and compare a lesser number? It's faster, simpler and easier.
Once again there is that matter of resistance. While some people may find it cool to play something too complex for mere mortals, if you want a game that will sell well with a wide swath of people a designer should do what they can to reduce the resistance to playing it as much as possible.
Price & Weight
If you are living in a world where a coin weighs 1/10th of a pound and it costs 2 gold pieces to buy a burlap sack, then you are living in a world where gold is literally cheaper than dirt.
By all means this should not matter, but break too much from what we know to be true and the game will start to suffer a case of the sillies. Having the coin weighing a 1/10th of a pound and everything being measured in coins is supposed to make encumbrance easier but it doesn't. It just makes the number values seem larger. Know what is easier than dealing with coins? Dealing with pounds and the occasional decimal point.
No matter what you say, no matter what rules you invoke, given time all retainers eventually become meat shields for a Mary Sue. A decent amount of wordage is given towards not using retainers and DM's not allowing beginning characters to have retainers. But if it is that much of a problem? Why put it in the rules? Because as soon as Mary Sue figures this out nothing will stop her from having her meat shields. Granted retainers cost money, which circles back to the problem of money not costing all that much.
Alignments & Languages
Believe it or not, but I think AD&D does a better job handling alignments than B/X. There are more alignments in AD&D but they are easier to understand. B/X does get points for trying to push the original concept of alignment being an allegiance to a divine force, but it drops the ball by trying to make it something which exerts control over a player's action (barring doing something stupid - quote the rules). And then there is the problem of alignment languages which are like a language and yet not like other languages? Groan.
A lot of confusion could have been adverted by simply rebranding Alignment Allegiance and listing Law and Chaos as two secret languages a character can elect to learn instead of rolling a 1d20 to figure out that for some reason you now speak Harpy. By the rules, Neutral is an alignment language. I wonder if anyone ever tried to talk in Neutralese to a creature? Possibly a Harpy?
Languages are important. They basically define the societies that speak them. They tell us what the dominant cultures of a world are. This is a game where you can stop and talk to the creatures you encounter - really a revolutionary idea - more should have been done with languages.
Movement Rates
A black bear has a movement rate of 120' (40'). Visualize that for a moment. What does it tell you about the bear's ability to move. Not getting anything? Yeah, that's a problem.
Morale & Reaction Rolls
This one is not going to make any friends. A lot of people love Morale and Reaction Rolls, possibly because they are so unique to B/X D&D or because it almost allows the game to be run without a DM. My thought is that products are often designed to protect themselves from the people who use them. Ovens can only heat so high because undoubtedly someone somewhere will burn their house down if it could go higher. Morale and Reaction Rolls IMHO exist to protect the game from novice DMs. So they are not bad things. They ensure better play. Who wants to play in a game where every monster is an automaton with just one desire and that is to attack and kill every character in sight?
The problem I have with these rolls is that any time you put a mechanism like this into a game, one designed to let the dice make a decision a person would normally make, it puts up a barrier to immersion. It would've been much better to simply explain to DMs that they should have the creatures do what they imagine the creatures doing in the given situation. Of course, they probably thought of this and decided to go with the authority of the dice instead because people often don't play by the rules unless the rules give them something physical (such as a dice roll) to remember them by.
Punch-Dummy Monsters
Before D&D came along there were Animal Cards. They were printed on 3x4 inch cards and had a picture of an animal on the front and a written description on the back. You kept them in a green plastic box and gave your sister the jade elephant pendant because she's a girl.
I loved animal cards. They weren't part of a game. You didn't hunt and kill them. You just learned about them and that was it, so beyond the meaningless dice my second big disappointment with D&D lay in the realization that the monsters were only there to give you something to kill. The game rewarded you with XP for killing creatures which turned most of our adventures into fantasy hunting trips. Ethical problems aside, the big problem with this is that it gets boring after awhile. Once you strip away all of the combat concerns you start to realize that there is just not much else to the creatures themselves.
TSR should have put more time and text into describing D&D's monsters in an animal card style way. It doesn't have to be much. It doesn't have to be like the Ecology articles that ran in Dragon magazine (which shows that there was an interest in such things), but they should have taken a hint from the Wildlife Treasury and done more to make their monsters seem like real things rather than walking targets. They did come out with a small run of monster cards but it was just a re-purposing of what they had already written in the monster manuals. During the 80's TSR did too much to make money and not enough to make great games, a move that would come back to bite them in the end.
AD&D Was Easier to Ignore
AD&D had one big benefit which almost never gets talked about and that is that the AD&D books were so big and ponderous and strangely organized (and printed in a teeny tiny font) that you didn't mind ignoring most of it. You brought into the game what you felt was important and ignored all the rest.
With B/X things are still somewhat discombobulated (why are the prices and weights of equipment on two separate pages, like ten or twelve pages away from each other?) but it is small enough that you can feel guilty for not playing by all the rules. I think that this is why many of us would rather play AD&D, just as long as it doesn't mean actually having to play AD&D.
Still, what awesome artwork!
Baby D&D
I always thought this was a term that one of my friends cooked up. I haven't yet found it in print, but it is wide-spread and it probably comes from the idea that B/X was meant to bring people into the hobby and not be a pillar of the hobby. As far as TSR was concerned that was AD&D and would forever be AD&D, at least until B/X and BECMI started to out-sell it.
Still, if you look at the marketing it does pan out. B/X was pushed in comic books, Boys Life, and on TV. If you sold enough Grit subscriptions you could "win" a boxed set as one of its prizes. And yet, if you look at the 1981 run of Dragon Magazine you would almost guess that Top Secret was the hotter title. There are one or two of the comic-book style ads and in the August issue (which I'm guessing is the month of B/X's release) there are two articles by Moldvay and Holmes about what it means to edit the boxed sets. Holme's article is the longer and more interesting of the two. Moldvay's article is strangely brief and at times almost consolatory. It admits that it is aimed at a younger audience and almost feels sorry for doing so. Ed Greenwood comes across sounding rather snooty as he lambastes the Fiend Folio for being something that seems more at home with D&D rather than the beautiful thing that is AD&D.
So among the already established gamers B/X D&D was something they would rather not think about. Dragon Magazine made a bigger hullabaloo over the release of Star Frontiers. What they all failed to realize is that games generally only get better as the number of rules which run them get smaller, and while B/X D&D may have started as a stripped down version of AD&D designed to capture the youth market, for all its failings Molday & Cook pulled the flying magic carpet out from under them by creating a better game.
Rate It!
More from Roll of the Dice...
You May Also Like....
Fossils in the Asphalt, Vol. 1DragonheadFossils in the Asphalt, Vol. 2Supernova
Game Design Garfield Minus Garfield HFQ James V West JD McDonnell Joe R Lansdale