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D&D Alumni
Bart Carroll

4th Edition's Starter Set releases this month (and if you haven't yet had a chance to learn what this Starter Set contains, we'd refer you to our most recent In the Works)—a quick and complete package designed to get a new group up and playing their first game of 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons… and perhaps their very first game of D&D of any edition.

So what better time to look back—with great fondness—at starter sets of past editions? Countless gamers (myself included) learned the basics of the game through such sets, two in particular standing out perhaps strongest in the memories of many alumni: 1977's blue cover, and 1983's red box.

What did these two sets have in common? Both provided an introductory assemblage of the rules, allowing players to experience the first few levels of the game. Both provided newcomer DMs with a sample dungeon to fill out, and both suggested an evil wizard as the final adversary to an intro adventure.

Here's where they differed:


"This book is based upon the original work published in 1974 and three supplementary booklets published in the two year period after the initial release of Dungeons & Dragons. It is aimed solely at introducing the reader to the concepts of fantasy role playing and the basic play of this game."

The 1977 Basic Set came at a challenging time for new players. The original rules had already been created, but the three core rulebooks (Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Monster Manual, naturally!) were still in development. So, what version of the rules was this Basic Set meant to introduce? Original Dungeons & Dragons, the forthcoming Advanced Dungeons & Dragons… or, arguably, an alloy of them both?

According to Steve Winter, most people (as far as TSR could determine), weren't even aware that D&D and AD&D were distinct games. Being reasonable folk, they assumed it was one game with basic and advanced versions, rather than one game concept with basic and advanced versions. They generally got confused and frustrated when jumping back and forth between the books, because nothing made sense. Even the math was different!

Whatever the confusion about which rules were being introduced, the set nevertheless managed to capture the philosophy behind the game itself:

"Dungeons & Dragons is a fantastic, exciting and imaginative game of role playing for adults 12 years and up. Each player creates a character or characters who may be dwarves, elves, halflings or human fighting men, magic-users, pious clerics or wily thieves. The characters are then plunged into an adventure in a series of dungeons, tunnels, secret rooms and caverns run by another player: the referee, often called the Dungeon Master. The dungeons are filled with fearsome monsters, fabulous treasure and frightful perils."

"As the players engage in game after game their characters grow in power and ability: the magic users learn more magic spells, the thieves increase in cunning and ability, the fighting men, halflings, elves and dwarves, fight with more deadly accuracy and are harder to kill. Soon the adventurers are daring to go deeper and deeper into the dungeons on each game, battling more terrible monsters, and, of course, recovering bigger and more fabulous treasure!"

Gary Gygax's forward from the original edition was also included, available here.

Occupying a place before the Advanced D&D rulebooks released, it's interesting to note which elements of the game featured in the 1977 Basic Set—some to remain and evolve throughout later editions, others which fell by the wayside. Following are just a few of the odds and ends that can be gleaned:

Page 6: Adjusting Ability Scores

It is possible to raise a character's scores in a prime requisite by lowering the scores of some of the other abilities. This recognizes that one can practice and learn feats of fighting, intelligence, etc., but must take a penalty in another area by so doing.

  • Magic-users and clerics can reduce their strength scores by 3 points and add 1 to their prime requisite for every 3.
  • Fighting men, clerics, halflings and dwarves can reduce their intelligence score by 2 points and add 1 to their prime requisite for every 2.
  • Fighting men, halflings and dwarves can reduce their wisdom by 3 points, and magic-users can reduce it by 2 to gain 1 point for their prime requisites.
  • Thieves can raise their dexterity score by lowering intelligence 2 points and wisdom 1 point for each additional point of dexterity.
  • Constitution and charisma can not be altered, and dexterity can not be reduced.
  • In no case can any ability be lowered below 9.

Page 12: Use of the Word Level

(We mention this in honor of Order of the Stick.)

The word level is used in the game to mean successively deeper strata of the dungeon labyrinths. Also, characters advance in experience by level and at each new level they increase their hit dice (the amount of damage they can take) and increase in special abilities such as theft or magic. Level is used in reference to monsters to indicate how tough and ferocious they are. Thus a monster's level usually indicates its hit dice and special abilities, and is a measure of how hard it is to kill. A fifth level monster, such as a 5-headed hydra, is worth many more experience points than a first level orc.

Most dungeons are constructed of deeper and deeper levels below the surface. Usually the dungeon level indicates how difficult it is. Thus, the third level of a dungeon would contain monsters primarily drawn from the third level, although not exclusively. Such an area of the dungeon would be particularly dangerous for first level characters and probably should not be attempted until they have more experience.

We are talking, therefore of dungeon level, monster level, character level and spell level. Example: "While on the 4th dungeon level, my 6th level magic user encountered a 5th level monster and attacked it with a 3rd level spell!" The multiple usage of the term "level" will become quite familiar and not at all confusing once players have participated in a few sessions of the game.

Page 21: The Parry

A player may elect to have a character parry an attacker's blow. He must announce he is doing so before the opponent strikes. The parry subtracts 2 from the attacker's die roll. The person parrying does not get his next hit, using that part of the round for the parry. If the attacker still makes his roll and gets exactly the number needed, the parrying weapon was broken but no damage inflicted. It takes one melee round to draw a new weapon, but one hanging free, or in the other hand, can be employed immediately.

Page 39: Dungeon Mastering as a Fine Art

The 1977 set featured the following background for the sample adventure:

Background: 100 years ago the sorcerer Zenopus built a tower on the low hills overlooking Portown. The tower was close to the sea cliff west of the town and, appropriately, next door to the graveyard. Rumor has it that the magician made extensive cellars and tunnels underneath the tower. The town is located on the ruins of a much older city of doubtful history, land Zenopus was said to excavate in his cellars in search of ancient treasures.

Fifty years ago, on a cold wintry night, the wizard's tower was suddenly engulfed in green flame. Several of his human servants escaped the holocaust, saying their master had been destroyed by some powerful force he had unleashed in the depths of the tower. Needless to say the tower stood vacant for a while after this, but then the neighbors and the night watchmen complained that ghostly blue lights appeared in the windows at night, that ghastly screams could be heard emanating from the tower at all hours, and goblin figures could be seen dancing on the tower roof in the moonlight. Finally the authorities had a catapult rolled through the streets of the town and the tower was battered to rubble. This stopped the tauntings but the townsfolk continue to shun the ruins. The entrance to the old dungeons can be easily located as a flight of broad stone steps leading down into darkness, but the few adventurous souls who hove descended into crypts below the ruin have either reported only empty stone corridors or have failed to return at all. Other magic-users have moved into the town but the site of the old tower remains abandoned.

Whispered tales are told of fabulous treasure and unspeakable monsters in the underground passages below the hilltop, and the story tellers are always careful to point out that the reputed dungeons lie in close proximity to the foundations of the older, pre-human city, to the graveyard, and to the sea.

Portown is a small but busy city linking the caravan routes from the south to the merchant ships that dare the pirate-infested waters of the Northern Sea. Humans and non-humans from all over the globe meet here. At the Green Dragon Inn, the players of the game gather their characters for an assault on the fabulous passages beneath the ruined Wizard's tower.

For your enjoyment, we've included 1977's sample dungeon:


"This is a game that is fun. It helps you imagine."

There could be no more succinct a definition of D&D. Of course, this preface to 1983's red-boxed Basic Rules was more eloquently expanded upon by Frank Mentzer:

"The Dungeons & Dragons game is a way for us to imagine together -- like watching the same movie, or reading the same book. But you can write the stories, without putting a word on paper -- just by playing the D&D game."

"You, along with your friends, will create a great fantasy story, you will put it away after each game, and go back to school or work, but -- like a book – the adventure will wait. It's better than a book, though; it will keep going as long as you like."

The 1983 version provided a revision of the 1981 Basic Set (which featured Erol Otus covers), an important set in that the rules were finally organized in a way that both made sense and made them easier to use. The 1983 Basic Rules contained a Players Manual, Dungeon Masters Rulebook, as well as a set of dice which came with a white crayon and the following instructions most alumni surely remember: "Use the crayon to fill in the numbers, and rub off extra wax with a tissue so only the numbers are colored in."

Unlike the 1977 set, which introduced players to the basic concepts of the game with the intention of graduating them into Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the 1983 Basic Rules offered a rules system very nearly self-contained. If players wished, they could forego the Advanced rulebooks and instead continue playing D&D from Basic, to Expert, and all the way to the Immortal Rules.

Like the 1977 set, the 1983 Basic Rules came with a sample dungeon for fledging DMs to run and expand on their own. Instead of the wizard Zenopus, however, this time players were after the wizard Bargle, "a sort of bandit, who has been stealing money, killing people, and terrorizing your town. If you can catch him, you can become a hero!"

Two levels of the ruins Bargle occupied were mapped, with a suggested third level for the DM to complete: "This area is left entirely for you to design. It should include the lair of Bargle (Chaotic magic-user Level 5-7) and his guards (Charmed ogres), plus his wandering decoys (Living Crystal Statues dressed like Bargle), and possibly some Dopplegangers as well."

Once more, we've included PDFs of this sample dungeon:


The 1983 Basic Rules hold fond memories for many players—presumably for Jason Buhlman as well, who created a masterful update to this adventure (including a third level to the ruins, with the mentioned charmed ogres, living crystal statues, and dopplegangers) in Dungeon #150's "Kill Bargle".

In honor of past starter sets, we present a 4th Edition update to that infamous bandit, that fugitive, that wizard of Castle Mistamere: Bargle. May he continue to see more action against the players of your campaigns!

Level 3 Controller
Medium Natural Humanoid
XP 150
HP 46; Bloodied 23
AC 17; Fortitude 13; Reflex 16; Will 16
Speed 6
Dagger (standard; at-will) Weapon
+6 vs. AC; 1d4+3 damage.
Magic Missile (standard; at-will) Arcane, Force, Implement
Range 10; +6 vs. Reflex; 2d4+4 force damage.
Fireball (standard; encounter) Arcane, Fire, Implement
Area burst 3 within 10 squares; +6 vs. Reflex; 2d6+3 fire damage.
Hold Person (standard; encounter) Arcane, Implement
Range 5; +6 vs. Will; the target is immobilized (save ends). First failed save: the target is stunned (save ends).
Charm Person (standard; recharge 5,6) Arcane, Charm, Implement
Range 5; +6 vs. Will; the target is dominated (save ends). This effect also ends if Bargle attacks the target.
Charm Shield (immediate reaction, when Bargle is targeted by a melee or ranged attack; at-will) Arcane, Charm
If a target dominated by Bargle's charm person power is adjacent to Bargle, the target interposes itself and becomes the target of the attack.
Alignment Evil
Languages Common, Draconic, Goblin
Skills Arcana +12, Bluff +10, Diplomacy +7, Intimidate +7
Str 9 (+0)
Dex 10 (+1)
Wis 15 (+3)
Con 14 (+3)
Int 17 (+4)
Cha 12 (+2)
Equipment +1 dagger

And more…

1977’s and 1983’s Basic Set/Rules were but two of the introductions to Dungeons & Dragons. 1991 also saw a basic version of the rules, which might well have outsold all previous intro versions. 3.5 Edition had its Basic Game, and as mentioned 4th Edition just released its own Starter Set.

Whatever version you started with (or if you jumped right into the core rulebooks themselves) we hope this look back at past starter sets rekindled some old memories of first learning the game. Which begs our final question: If you did learn from a starter set, which one did you use?

 What starter set did you first use?  
1977 Basic Set (OE)
1981 Basic Set (1st Edition)
1983 Basic Set (1st Edition)
1991 Basic Set (2nd Edition)
2004 Basic Game (3.5 Edition)
2006 Basic Game (3.5 Edition)
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