Sunday, December 30, 2018

Introducing B/X

I was planning a different post for this morning, but then I read about DMWieg's Bitter DMing Failure and I felt there's a more immediate, pressing need: namely, providing some information on how to introduce new players to B/X Dungeons & Dragons. This, of course, is the kind of post I should have done years ago but, well, excuses.

Anyway, it's high time I provided my own ideas on the subject, given the general focus of my blog and my experience in this area. Here goes:

[by the way, this is going to be specifically about introducing players to the B/X edition of D&D, even if your "old school" game of choices is OD&D, AD&D, BECMI, etc. This is as much practical as a matter of my personal taste: I find the B/X system to be the most concise and accessible version of D&D ever published. For the beginner, especially beginning DMs, I find it to be the best introduction to the Dungeons & Dragons game...and it is quite easy to "build out" from a B/X foundation. Furthermore, the PDFs for B/X are available on-line for a reasonable price, so new players who want to learn the game have a ready means of acquiring the source material]

New players to B/X are going to come in three basic types: the rank novice (who has zero RPG experience or very close to zero), the experienced player (who has played other games but doesn't have experience with any edition of D&D prior to WotC's 3rd Edition), and the "enthusiast," who is somewhat self-educated on B/X D&D but who has never actually played the game (the enthusiast's prior RPG experience can vary wildly).

Enthusiasts aren't much of a problem: they are already gung-ho to play B/X D&D. They may have already acquired the books, may have read a bunch of blogs, perhaps talked with other "old school" players, and are chomping at the bit to get into a game. These folks are ready for campaign play, and should be respectfully walked through the finer points of the system during an actual game session. Treat them with patience, and they'll probably reward you with good play.

The other types of players require different approaches, based on your goals and expected outcomes.

For the complete novice, you've got a couple possible goals: provide a firm foundation for a lifelong of learning and playing RPGs OR get through the game session as painlessly, and with as much fun, as possible. This latter goal usually comes into play when the novice is a reluctant player, having been dragged to the game by a friend or significant other; while it’s possible to convert such a person through the Good News of gaming, I think it’s best to temper expectations for visiting “tourists.”

For the non-reluctant gaming novice, it’s best to start with a very simple overview, complete with (B/X) character creation and patient explanation of the stats on the character sheet. After that, I recommend a simple “starter dungeon;” something akin to The Haunted Keep (from Moldvay basic), the starter adventure in Mentzer's basic set, or B2: The Keep on the Borderlands; the old adventure module M1: Blizzard Pass also makes a great "starter adventure" for novices, especially if you only have two or three players.

[B2 is a great first adventure for giving novices a feel for "campaign play" as the Keep provides a locale to explore and role-play in addition to a home base from which to launch attacks on nearby monsters; however, when pressed for time it's MORE important to give players a feel for the actual "dungeon experience," and small site adventures like Blizzard Pass provide this without being overwhelming]

Once you've given novices a "taste" of game play, you can start an actual campaign, either using the same characters or allowing them to create new ones. With novices, I find it best to NOT give them high level pre-gens even (or especially) when introducing them into an existing campaign. In fact, I recommend against introducing novice players into existing campaigns if at all least not until they've had a chance to run a time or two themselves without the pressure that comes from having experienced eyes (the other players) watching them. Yes, even when your veterans happen to be especially patient, kind, and compassionate...let new players feel that they have the freedom to make mistakes, ask "dumb" questions, and generally get their feet wet. You want them to have at least some of the terminology down (like hit points, armor class, and saving throws) before joining up with your old campaigners.

Introducing experienced gamers to B/X...especially players who've cut their teeth on 3rd, 4th, and 5th edition D& another thing altogether. Assuming they're not in the "enthusiast" category (and thus want to return to an earlier edition), chances are you are introducing them to B/X because YOU love the way it plays (or dislike later editions) and you want to share your passion. How can you get them to start drinking the Old School Kool-Aid?

First off, as with the novice player I've found it works best to start them with an introductory adventure. However, unlike the novice, I do NOT recommend going through normal character creation and starting with first level characters. Experienced players don't need to discover how to roll ability scores and select equipment...this kind of thing is already "old hat" to them. And experienced players are far more likely to chaff at the beginning PC's lack of in-game effectiveness (thieves suck, magic-users suck, clerics have no spells, fighters have no feats, etc.).

No, for the experienced gamer being introduced to B/X, it's best to start with a mid- to high- level adventure and a good selection of pre-generated character choices. Character sheets (complete with saving throws and attack probabilities listed) are good, so that they can see the differences between their prior edition and the one you're introducing, and here is a good opportunity to point out ways in which B/X is streamlined compared to the fat stat blocks of later editions. I've had good success providing pre-gens with a certain amount of static equipment (appropriate for the adventure) and then allowing the players to add a few choices of their own (weapon selection and magical gear) from a list of what's available...just enough to allow a little customization prior to "getting on with the adventure."

B/X's strength as a game system is its ability to provide an exciting, immersive fantasy experience unburdened by excessive mechanics, while still having framework robust enough to build on. When selecting an adventure for experienced players, create or use an adventure that showcases this. X1: The Isle of Dread is pretty good, as are older AD&D modules re-framed for B/X play (several classic AD&D adventures were originally written for OD&D play, the basis of B/X, so this isn't terribly difficult). The main thing, however, is to get the players thinking about the adventure at hand, NOT about their character sheet and the lack of "stuff" on it (feats, skills, etc.). You need to engage the players in the scenario that's being presented, provide them with problems and challenges to solve, at which point they can reference their character sheet to see what resources they have available (spells, thief skills, equipment, etc.).

As far as actual mechanics go, most changes between editions are fairly superficial, and simply need to be reframed in a way that makes sense to the players. Characters do not have "spot checks," for example...but they do have saving throws (to see if their character noticed something and managed to avoid the danger). All characters have the ability to listen for noises or search for secret doors and traps (and some classes are better at this than others). Spells and hit points are much more finite than in later editions of D&D...but if players are engaged with the setting, they'll spend more time in exploration of that setting, and less time banging every nail-like problem with a hammer-like ability or skill.

As a DM of a B/X game, it is up to YOU to provide the color that will keep players engaged. B/X combat is about as basic as it comes in RPGs: roll to hit, roll for damage. As the DM, it is up to you to interpret what those results mean, providing the blow-by-blow narration that adds spark to a simple exercise in probability and arithmetic. The rules provide the framework, the dice are there to keep you honest...but without the DM providing the details of what PCs see, hear, and feel, your game will quickly wither and die from tedium.

Once you've run your players through a session or two, and assuming you've got them to "buy in" to the system, ONLY THEN should you go back and have the experienced players create new 1st level characters to begin an actual campaign. Only then will they have an appreciation for the system, and the understanding of how it works, the importance of resource management, and how to best use simple characters to strategic effectiveness. Without this appreciation, they're left wondering what the hell you see in such a dusty old game.
; )

[probably need to write more on this subject later, but I've got a loooong road trip ahead of me tomorrow and I need to grab some shuteye. Later, gators!]


  1. Very nice! I like how you broke down the types of player in your example. Excellent and useful aid in introducing new and old players alike! :-)

  2. Yes, this is a great start for new player introductions. What are your thoughts on potentially lethal funnel-type introductory sessions? Many of us started B/X with quick deaths in the dungeon.

  3. Jumping on Venger's train, what do you think of alleviating old-school deadliness at low levels by giving each player two or more PCs, or a bodyguard, or an animal companion ? It works for DCC, and emphasizes the difference in play style right from the start, just like the shorter character sheets.

    1. Personally, I think DCC's multiple zero-level PC approach is the best concept of the whole game.

  4. Hey, folks: I’m currently in Valle Del Bravo (Mexico) where my internet is a bit spotty. However, I’m going to post a couple follow-ups that should address these questions.

    Happy New Year!