One piece of accepted "truth" in the world of old-school gaming is that the D&D boxed set edited and revised by Frank Mentzer was "easier" for kids to learn. In discussions on the internet about this set this idea seems to be repeated over and over as if it is a mantra. But I wonder, is it actually true? If you cracked open the first set by Mentzer would it be easier to learn than the set by Moldvay? I have my doubts.
The first set I encountered was the Mentzer set. In all fairness I have to state that at the time I was about 9 years old or so. We played this set every day the summer we discovered it, and a lot thereafter, but the way we played hardly even resembled the "true" way it is supposed to be played. So were we able to learn the game despite how well written the introduction was? No, not at all.
A few years back I read the first Mentzer set and the Moldvay set as a comparison, and even now I had a heck of a time getting through the Mentzer set. There's no doubt it was intended for young people, but even as an adult I don't know if it would be easy to decipher the game (doable, but not intuitive). The realization I've come to is that even though the Mentzer set was designed to hold your hand and lead you through the process of learning what the game was about, it was just too damn wordy. Even now reading through it I find myself thinking "ok get to the point already!" So I wonder if the game really succeeded at its goal of being more instructive or if people just keep saying it was because everyone believes it was. When I think about it, I have never heard anyone say they actually played any version of the game the "real way" it should be played when they discovered the game as a kid.
What I do know is that what Moldvay's set had going for it was that it was much more concise. It goes in, tells you what's what and gets out. It takes pages upon pages of explanation in the Mentzer set for what should be a simple concept. It's too much reading for one thing to cover a few basic points, and if the audience is younger kids for the Mentzer set I think its failure is in requiring not just reading comprehension but the ability to follow an "argument" so to speak over the course of many pages. In other words, I wonder if an instructional bent to the rules would benefit more from being brief and to the point. In all honesty I think that when revisiting the set by Moldvay they hit the nail on the head right away. It was designed for young people and adults, and is easy to jump in to. With the Mentzer set I think they were probably identifying a problem that was real but they chose the wrong approach to correct it. The problem was of how to make the game more understandable to kids. As it turns out, making a lengthy instructional book was not a solution that worked.
To approach the topic from a slightly different angle, we can think of it this way. How many 8 year olds can pick up a game of Monopoly, read the rules, and start playing it exactly as intended? I have a feeling that not too many can. It's not because kids aren't smart enough to learn the rules, but it is the way they are delivered that matters. We usually learn these games from other people, which is a very different delivery method than reading the rules on paper. Now consider that D&D, even before AD&D, is far more complex not just in rules but in overall concept compared to Monopoly, and I think what becomes clear is that probably no matter how you try to word it a written introduction to the full game is only going to lead to failure if the goal is for your young audience to read the rules and play the game as intended without the guidance of people who are already familiar with it.
So what's the solution? I'm not sure. I think people forget that the complexity of the rules as represented even in original D&D to Moldvay's set were never really written for kids anyway. Keep in mind that the rules in Moldvay and OD&D are nearly identical (and by extension, Mentzer's set). Today people tend to think of "basic" D&D as the kids version, but that's only because of the marketing attempts of the 80s. In retrospect I'm not so sure how "good" for kids it really was since I've never met anyone who was introduced to any version as a kid who was able to figure the rules out on their own. We might want to take a step back and ask whether any version to date is actually a very good version for young kids at all. Sure, if it is being taught and run by older kids or adults there is no question that young kids can figure out how to play. But if the goal is for the game to be picked up and played by younger kids without the outside influence of older people, should the game be made simpler in the first place? I wonder.