Christmas 1981 will forever go down in my memory as the one where everything changed. I was in Junior High and had been playing D&D for a about two years, off and on. I had read the Monster Manual and I had a copy, badly xeroxed, of the Holmes Basic set. Christmas though was the turning point. I got two box sets that year; the Ballantine Books boxed set of Lord of the Rings and the "magenta" Basic Set.
Inside was finally my own book, not a copy of someone else's book. I had my own dice (finally!) and a complete adventure.
I devoured that book. Cover to cover. Every page was read and read over and over.
A lot of people talk about "the Red Box". My Red Box was magenta and had Erol Otis on the cover. For me this was the start of what became "my" D&D. Not someone else's game, but my own.
In 1981 I felt fairly proficient D&D. But with Holmes D&D I always felt like there was something I was missing. I only learned later of the "Little Brown Books" and how "Basic" actually came about.
The Moldvay Basic set had almost everything I ever needed for a game. Plenty of classes and races. More monsters than I expected (it had dragons!!) and what then felt like tons of spells. I made dozens of characters, some that saw actual game play, but I didn't care, for me it was the joy of endless possibilities.
And that was just in the first couple of dozen pages.
Everything I know about exploring a dungeon, checking for traps, carrying holy water and 10' pole began here. I learned that ghouls can cause paralysis (unless you were an elf!) and that zombies always attacked last in the round. I learned Thouls were a magical cross-breed between a hobgoblin troll and ghoul. No I still have no idea how they are made. I got to meet Morgan Ironwolf herself.
There was a sample adventure in the book, but I never really looked over. I don't think anyone did. It was called the Haunted Keep by the way.
This magenta colored box with strange art on the cover also had other prizes. There inside was my first set of real D&D dice. No more raiding board games for six-siders, though I learned that they were properly called "d6s". I had a set of blue dice with a white crayon to color them in. They are not great dice, even then I knew. But they were mine and that is all that mattered.
I want to pause here a second and come back to that art. Lets look at the cover again. A woman casting a spell, a man with a spear. Fighting some sort of water dragon (that didn't even appear in the rules!). But look how awesome it is. Do you need to know anything else? No. They are fighting a dragon! That box is the reason so many gamers fell in love with the art of Erol Otis. Inside are some equally important names; Jeff Dee, James Roslof, David LaForce and Bill Willingham. They gave this D&D a look that was different than AD&D. I love that art in AD&D, but in this book that art was just so...timeless. It was D&D.
In that box was also the Keep on Borderlands. I don't think I need to go into detail there. We have all been to the keep. We have all taken that ride out along the road that would take us to that Caves of Chaos. Nevermind that all these creatures, who should by all rights be attacking each other, never really did anything to me. They were there and they were "Chaotic" and we were "Lawful". That was all we needed to know back then.
The Moldvay Basic set was more than just an introductory set to D&D. It was an introduction to a hobby, a lifestyle. The rules were simply written and organized. They were not simple rules, and re-reading it today I marvel that we all conquered this stuff at age 10-11. It may have only covered the first 3 levels of character growth, but they were a quality 3.
I picked up the Expert Set for my birthday in 1982. Bought it myself, and for the longest time that was all I needed. Eventually I did move on to AD&D. I also discovered those Little Brown Books and even picked up my own real copy of Holmes Basic. I love those game and I love playing them still, but they never quite had the same magic as that first time of opening up that box and seeing what treasures were inside.
I did not have to imagine how my characters felt when they had discovered some long lost treasure. I knew.
Today I still go back to Tom Moldvay's classic Basic book. It is my yardstick on how I measure any OSR game. Almost everything I need it right there. Just waiting for me.
Time to roll up some characters and play.
64 pages plus cover. Marbleized dice and crayon not included.