The first time I ever played a roleplaying game was in June 1994, when I was given the AD&D First Quest boxed set for my birthday. I remember it fondly and still have it on my shelf in surprisingly good condition (I even still have all the minis, and the CD still plays). But while First Quest was the first time I actually played the game, it wasn’t my first experience of D&D.
The reason I got given that present, and the tender age of 8 years old, was because I used to go with my dad to his friend Henry’s house, where I’d sit and watch them play a game I didn’t understand that involved a lot of shouting, some really intricate, beautifully painted models of ruins and caves and graveyards and stuff that looked metal as fuck, and some books with bright red covers.
I actually only vaguely remember the books that my dad and his friends used – my memories are filled with an enormous, intricate dungeon spread across a tabletop, which I assume was some kind of ongoing megadungeon they were playing through. I don’t know what edition they were playing. This would have been some time between ‘90 and ‘94, so there’s probably equal chances that it was AD&D, BECMI, or 2nd Edition. And I have the rulebooks for all of those editions, inherited from my dad, so that doesn’t help at all.
What I do know is that I’ve played AD&D and I’ve played 2e, but I’ve never fucked with BECMI. And as last week was horrible, I want to do something that I’m at least tangentially familiar with. So today we’re rolling up a character in the dragon game.
The first thing that surprises me is that BECMI contains a solo adventure to teach you how to play the game. How has nobody ever told me about this?
Well, the answer to that question is that it isn’t really a solo adventure at all. It’s an overly long, not very well written story with some mechanics thrown in that slowly introduces the basic concepts of the game and asks you to roll a d20 a few times while you go through it. I can imagine it was quite helpful if you had no conception of how an RPG worked. Nearly 40 years later it’s nowhere near as relevant or useful, but that isn’t the game’s fault. (The two alternate endings to this “adventure” absolutely remind me of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. Maybe one week I’ll roll up an Advanced Fighting Fantasy character, though that would be a very short post.)
The second solo adventure really does feel like a Fighting Fantasy gamebook. I don’t bother to read it or play through it because frankly I just want to get to making a character, but I’m back to being surprised that nobody ever told me this is how BECMI taught the game. I’m also surprised I’ve never heard of M1: Blizzard Pass or M2: Maze of the Riddling Minotaur before.
Time to jump forward past the rest of the book to get to character creation. Will I regret skipping the next 20 pages or so? Very possible. Is that going to stop me? Not at all.
BECMI tells me that my first character will take about an hour to make. Since I’m writing this post at the same time I assume that’s going to be closer to 90 minutes. I’ll be interested to see how accurate that guess is (and whether the fact that I’m familiar with later editions of D&D helps at all).
The first step is one I’m definitely familiar with: roll 3d6 in order for ability scores. I get the following scores:
STR 11 INT 13 WIS 11
DEX 15 CON 9 CHA 13
I rolled surprisingly well. I can’t complain about those scores at all.
Step two is to pick a class. My first ever D&D character was Slinker, the thief from First Quest, so I’m going to make a thief. I’d decided this before I rolled, and it’s very convenient that my highest score is in dexterity since that’s the prime requisite for Thieves. (I promise I actually rolled 3d6 in order and came out with these results).
Also, using the words “prime requisite” again for the first time in 20 years makes me very nostalgically happy.
Step three is to exchange ability score points if you want to, raising one ability score by 1 point at the cost of lowering another by 2. This feels like an early form of point buy, and it’s something I don’t ever remember being allowed to do in AD&D. Maybe it was removed from later editions, or maybe I just didn’t know that was a thing I could do. Who knows? (That’s a rhetorical question, by the way.) I decide I’m going to drop my Wisdom by 2 points (to 9) and my Intelligence by 2 (to 11) so that I can raise my Dexterity 2 points to 17. I would have liked to have dropped my Charisma to get the Dex up to 18 (because if 27 years of playing dragon games has taught me anything it’s that 18 is a good score to have) but that’s not allowed for some reason. Now my abilities look like this:
STR 11 INT 11 WIS 9
DEX 17 CON 9 CHA 13
Step 4 is to roll for Hit Points. Thieves have a d4 hit die, which is ludicrous and tells me that the play style for thieves has really changed a lot in the past 30 years or so! With a Con of 9 I don’t have any modifier to my roll, and I end up with 3hp to start.
Step 5 is to roll for money. My character starts out with no possessions except for normal clothes and a little money, and now I see where Mӧrk Borg gets it from. (I’m realising as I write these posts that I’m really showing off how little I know about the history of this hobby, and honestly I’m fine with that.) I start with 100gp, which seems okay? I guess I’ll find out in the next step, when I have to try and equip myself with this money.
In checking the description of the Thief I learn that I should carry missile weapons, plus a sword or dagger for situations where I can’t avoid close combat. I’m only allowed leather armour, and I can’t use a shield or two-handed weapons. I’ll also need Thieves’ Tools if I’m going to open any locks – and since that’s literally my job, I guess I’d better buy them!
With all this in mind, I turn to the weapons and equipment list on page 29. Leather armour, a short bow and quiver with 20 arrows, a normal sword, backpack, set of Thieves’ Tools, hand mirror, 10’ pole, and 50’ length of rope costs 97gp. That means I can’t afford rations, which I assume I’ll also need. I put the normal sword back and instead buy a short sword, freeing up another 3gp. 1 week’s worth of rations and a waterskin takes me up to 100gp even. Now I see why I’m a thief – gear is expensive, and I’m flat broke after outfitting myself. I also realise I don’t have a lantern – hopefully, whichever theoretical adventuring party I join will have ample light sources with them.
In step 7 we work out the rest of the mechanical stuff – AC, Hit Roll chart, and Saving Throws. With leather armour and a Dex of 17, I have an AC of 5. I suddenly remember that THAC0 and “lower is better” AC is a thing that I might have to contend with, but I also remember that I never hated it as much as everyone I speak to about early D&D seems to. I imagine it’s different in BECMI to 2e, and I suppose I’m about to find out.
It turns out that every starting character uses the same Hit Roll Table. So that’s handy – I don’t need to work anything out, and won’t need to until I get to at least 4th level. I grab my Saving Throws from my class description, figure out my modifiers (called Adjustments in BECMI), and now my character looks like this:
- STR 11 (+0) INT 11 (+0) WIS 9 (+0)
- DEX 17 (+2) CON 9 (+0) CHA 13 (+1)
- Max Retainers: 4 (Morale 7)
- Reaction Adjustment: None
- Languages: 2
|Hit Roll Table|
- Saving Throws
- Death Ray or Poison: 13
- Magic Wands: 14
- Paralysis or Turn to Stone: 13
- Dragon Breath: 16
- Rods, Staves or Spells: 15
Can I just take a second to say that I love that in a set of five saving throws, there’s one that’s explicitly for dragon breath? Dragons have never really shown up in the D&D games I’ve played in, but this tells me that the early dragon game expected you to be fighting them quite regularly. Which makes sense, since they’re in the title of the game and all.
I know two languages, Common and my Alignment tongue, but I haven’t actually chosen my alignment yet. I assume we’ll get to that. I know – just through cultural osmosis rather than reading the game – that alignment was a lot more important and impactful in early D&D. I’m not 100% sure on the how or why, other than knowing that alignment languages exist and that only creatures of the right alignment can speak them. (Very historically accurate, right?)
I don’t have to wait long to figure this out, because step 9 is to choose a name and an alignment. I’m just going to call my character Slinker because that was the name of the 2nd Edition thief I played and I don’t fancy making up a name at 2:40am (don’t ask me why I was writing this post at nearly 3 in the morning).
As far as alignment goes, I follow the suggestion of turning to page 55 (not 59, as the book states) and reading about it. I hadn’t realised that BECMI just uses Lawful/Chaotic/Neutral, with no Good and Evilm and honestly I prefer that to the later iterations of alignment. I decide on Neutrality for Slinker – they’re self-involved and out for their own personal gain, but they’re not so untrustworthy that they can’t work with a group. They wouldn’t last long as an adventurer if that were the case.
And that’s it! Even with typing up this blog post at the same time as creating the character, it only took around 45 minutes. I know absolutely nothing about who this person is (other than that they’re Neutral, with the brief character traits I came up with to justify that decision) and that’s fine, because it will come out in play. I know my role, I know why I’m adventuring (because I’m flat broke), and I’m ready to play.
Having made this character I can definitely see where the OSR games like Mӧrk Borg come from (and really that’s not a grand revelation, is it? I already knew that they’ve got their roots here even if I hadn’t experienced it for myself). I’m interested to see how B/X differs (especially as OSE and Labyrinth Lord are retroclones of B/X – I’m curious to know why they chose that over BECMI). I’m also interested to dig into some of the more modern OSR games like the Black Hack, Whitehack, and maybe Macchiato Monsters just to see how games approach the source material from a different angle.
Next week, though, I’m going to go in a completely different direction. BECMI was fun and familiar and scratched a nostalgia itch for me, so next time I’m going to delve into territory I know nothing about. It’s time for Rolemaster.