Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Mainstreaming with the Basic Sets...

Last week we talked about the so-called old-school period in gaming's history, settling on 1984 as the end of its early days.  And our readers had thoughts.  First, we agree that innovations started almost immediately.  We even posted about it last year.  Moreover, we recognize that changes in the hobby are incremental and overlapping.  The very idea of a role-playing game is old-school, as is the GM.  Nothing just stops.  That said, a few offered a more compressed version of old-school around the three original rulebooks, while others stretched things into the early 90s.  And we totally get this.     

But we focused on the mainstreaming of D&D (the first such game to break) because this introduced the hobby to the popular culture, and because the demands of a mainstream (and non-wargaming) audience drove the hobby from its roots.  AD&D was mainly a reference collection meant for those who already understood the game.  But in order to go mainstream, the hobby required a standalone and self-instructional manifestation...

Luckily, TSR was working on it, and they gave us the basic sets!     

HOLMES BASIC (1977) was the first attempt to instruct newcomers.  Now you could be the first on your block to understand the game and share it with your friends, which is exactly what started to happen!  At the time, it was the only way to learn D&D from scratch, marking the undisputable start of the mainstreaming process.  Why not sooner?  I mean, Tunnels & Trolls (and similar) games were doing a much better job of explaining themselves almost immediately.  But none of these games achieved anything close to mainstream status in the decade, whereas D&D did.  And Holmes basic got the whole thing rolling...  

Moreover, while learning the game from others is certainly an important thing, it's hard to argue that mainstreaming is even possible when you can't buy a product (much less a game) and understand it on your own!  It almost had to be a standalone.

And so the hobby spread, with Holmes acting as a seed, implanting itself in the minds of players who could then spread the gospel.  By 1978, it was a cult hit on college campuses, and by 1980, it began to show up in national retail outlets (I found mine at a local KMart), making it visible to everyone, even those who had no interest in buying it.

But (and here's where the other shoe drops) while the product was starting to penetrate the popular imagination, it wasn't there yet.  And while I love Holmes with a passion, it was nonetheless pretty rough around the edges, both in terms of writing and its approach to its subject matter.  For instance, two-handed weapons still did just 1d6 damage while only striking every other round.  Why even bother?  Oops!  Good thing for house rules.  And the book, in general, drew more heavily from its wargaming origins... 

B/X (THE BASIC/EXPERT SET, 1981) streamlined Holmes, sometimes incredibly well, offering perhaps the best explanation of ability scores and the best attempt to make each one relevant to each and every character.  No dump stats!  Better still, its writing was consistent and complete.  And, as a matter of course, it's production, layout, and overall design was superior, complete with a set of (sadly, crumbly) dice.  The artwork was geared more towards younger readers (a good match for its 6th grade reading level), bearing all the hallmarks of something marketed to non-gamers.  A birthday/Christmas gift of choice!

Better still, the boxed sets were consistently available in most retail outlets.  They weren't just an oddity at KMart.  Not anymore.  They were fully mainstream products in book and toy stores everywhere, from B Dalton Books (I date myself) to Toys R' Us!

But D&D had one more trick up its sleeve, and that was the final boxed set of the 80s!  The most ambitious one of the decade (and one to close out an old-school era)... 

BECMI (THE BASIC/EXPERT/COMPANION/MASTER/IMMORTAL SET, 1983) offered even better, more streamlined writing and more complete rules in the form of three additional booklets.  B/X promised a companion set, but BECMI delivered!  By now, the product was driven by demand for it, and TSR's success meant slicker, better production at the hands of Larry Elmore, a truly professional artist.  At this point, the last of its amateur ethos (which lingered in B/X courtesy of Erol Otus) perished with its wargaming feel.

And to seal the deal, there's the D&D cartoon show (also 1983).  This was 18th level merchandising for sure!  Whatever else the game was, it was also a toy stocked alongside He-man and the Masters of the Universe.  A cartoon meant that nearly everyone at least knew what D&D was.  The kids.  And their parents.  And given a year to stew in the national consciousness, the hobby, through Dungeons & Dragons, had truly arrived!

By now we're at 1984.  D&D was increasingly driven by the demands of a non-wargaming population and its love of roleplaying and storytelling.  And the proof is in the black pudding or, rather, 1985's Unearthed Arcana booklet, a tribute to character-centric, customization-focused, and (increasingly) power-gaming play.  Top it with the Satanic Panic and you know the hobby's underground days were over, even if many games were still just that, because once you've threatened uninformed parents, you've achieved something as enduring as rock and roll itself!  Agree or disagree, the three basic sets played a huge role in all of this... 


  1. This is a wonderful love letter to the period. Thanks!

    Incidentally, who could have imagined that D&D would outlive K Mart!