Unlike most of my fellow Red Box players here in Vancouver, I never played D&D when I was a kid. I bought the AD&D 2e books, and barely played it a handful of times before getting rid of them a few years later. Instead, I found other games, like Cyberpunk 2020, Call of Cthulhu, and Vampire: The Masquerade, and lost all interest in games with experience levels and dungeoncrawls.
While I always liked the promise of epic fantasy that AD&D 2e promised, but never delivered on, I never found 3rd edition at all attractive. Amusingly enough, the first time I enjoyed playing D&D, it was 4E, which had both epic fantasy and satisfying tactical play. When we started playing Basic D&D last year, however, I realized I already knew how to play. It wasn’t something new like I thought it would be.
I’d certainly picked up a lot of the culture from other gamers, and during that first game when Paul riffed on ten foot poles and flaming oil, I got all the references. But that’s not the same as understanding how play works. No, it wasn’t gamer chit-chat or blog posts that taught me to play D&D, it was Call of Cthulhu.
I think Call of Cthulhu is the most successful repurposing of the dungeoncrawl style. Leaving aside sandbox play for the moment, the dungeon adventure transfers almost exactly to the mystery and investigation style of CoC. Instead of adventurers, you have investigators; instead of corridors and rooms, you have leads, clues, and persons of interest; instead of finding treasure, you stop the Great Old Ones from destroying the human race. And there lies the real difference in play: in D&D you try to avoid dying so you can level up—in CoC, just surviving is considered a triumph, and a few extra points on your Handgun skill is a bonus. Oh, and the skills, of course.
See, Basic D&D has this one major advantage over s many other games: it’s honest. In Call of Cthulhu, you spend all this time determining your character’s skills, and this tricks you into thinking the game is somehow about your character. It’s not. The game is about the dungeon. It’s about some dudes going into that dungeon and exploring it, and how they interact with it, but those dudes could be anyone. As individuals, they don’t matter—the game doesn’t give a fuck who your character is. All that matters is how well you can deal with the dungeon and the threats, the puzzles, and, yes, the opportunities within it. Basic D&D doesn’t encourage you to spend time investing in the Accounting and Locksmith skills, only to put you through an adventure with no money and no locked doors in it.
Both games are about people in unfamiliar situations, and so neither game cares about what your character does at home. If your character doesn’t want to go into the dungeon, or investigate the mystery, you make a new one who does. But D&D is the one that only gives you what your character can do in the dungeon, and little else.
This makes it a remarkably easy game to play. With such a rigid premise and the small selection of rules that everyone at the table has to agree to, we easily move to the point where we start thinking about what extra stuff we want to throw on top of that (if any). Every time I DM, I tweak the rules, or add new ones, to see what works for the people playing, whether that’s adding attacks of opportunity, how we roll for initiative, what to roll when you throw flaming oil at the ground or dissect a carrion crawler, having your Wisdom modifier affect your chances of finding traps or secret doors, including magical items of my own invention, or using mutation charts from other games. But this is all part of play itself, not part of the process of learning how to play.
And that’s why I play. Not for the nostalgia of coming back to a game I used to play, even though I kinda did, and not because this is the game I’ve always played, because it ain’t. No, I’m playing Red Box because it knows exactly what kind of game it is, and it doesn’t try to be anything else. Instead of making you screw around with stuff that doesn’t matter, it starts right at the dungeon, and that’s where I want to go when I play D&D.