Random Encounters: The Red Box


There are other basic Dungeons & Dragons boxed sets out there, Moldvay and Holmes each have their devotees and rightfully so.

The Dungeons & Dragons Red Box Basic Set was also known as the Mentzer edition after its designer and author Frank Mentzer. It was more or less a rehash of the Moldvay set but in the perfect format to teach the game singularly and in groups.

There was something about the set known lovingly by Gamers of a Certain Age as the “Red Box” that made it The Best Game Ever.

The art on the cover, titled Basic D&D Ancient Red by the legendary Larry Elmore,  is so iconic to the game it has been reused on subsequent basic editions in a futile attempt to recapture that “lightning in a bottle.” The art has been used on t-shirts and even had a 3-D diorama built for it at Gen Con. This is because the art is That Good and the good vibes of the game associated with it.

My Basic D&D Ancient Red print, signed by Larry Elmore

The introduction to the game was a surprisingly immersive “Choose Your Own Adventure” adventure and the gorgeous interior art also by Elmore with his depiction of the doomed Uncle Ben/Thomas & Martha Wayne/planet Krypton trope of D&D the Cleric Aleena. For that matter the rust monster, the goblins, the skeletons and the abandoned castle Mistamere home of the evil black wizard Bargle; all of that captured my imagination (like countless others) and I was hooked like black tar heroin.

Why is that?

Elf was a class, Dwarf was a class, Halfling was a class; and they didn’t do THAT much but you wanted to play with those types of characters.

Magic Users do little more at those first few levels than cast one spell and bleed. Clerics couldn’t do anything remotely about it until at least second level. Fighters and Thieves were where it was at during those early lower levels.

The books themselves weren’t laid out all that well, having to flip back and forth for information and some of that wasn’t all in the same place. It was supposed to be laid out that pertinent information was in the center but that didn’t work out so well either.

It was wildly imbalanced and pitifully easy to die and we wouldn’t have it any other way. There were additional boxed sets that allowed the players to advance their characters beyond the first three levels offered in Red Box. I only marginally went on to those as I made the move to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

In my thirtysomething plus plus plus years of gaming I have used the Red Box set multiple times to teach the basics of RPGs again and again. I have continually wanted to tempt Nostalgia Burn and go back to the Red Box and run a campaign of only Basic to Expert to Companion to Master to Immortals. Of course I no longer have a copy of the Immortals boxed set and the prices on eBay were not something that I could justify the expense for.

What makes the rules work definitely aren’t what is there in them but what isn’t.

It required more player investment in the character, by that I don’t mean, “What is my motivation?” or even the idea of “immersion.” It means taking the idea of a character and verbally giving the cues to the Dungeon Master about searching a room by imagining the room as if you were there and where would you look and that would be backed up by die rolls. Unlike gameplay now, a player searches a room and rolls their Search skill or Perception or whatever instead of using that gray matter in their head. That sounds more immersive than checking a box on a character sheet.

I think that I am going to run a Basic D&D game and by basic I mean those lovably flawed Red Box rules. Of course that first game will be The Keep on the Borderlands.


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