Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Gaming myth? Was the Mentzer boxed set really easier to learn?

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.


Jeff Rients said...

Hmmm. Interesting question. All I know is that the guys in my game group found Mentzer to be a lot clearer. But they already had the jist of the game at that point.

Chgowiz said...

Maybe not "simpler" but perhaps presented in such a way that it gets to the point of the item, but also lowers the bar in having a complete experience.

I started with Holmes and yes, trying to decipher how it all flowed in a game was very difficult. I would play solo games as if I was the DM and the players to try and grasp it.

Moldvay had the entire package of rules, B2 and that was all I needed. I already 'knew' a little bit more about D&D from reading the AD&D books (PHB/DMG mainly) but Moldvay put it all together for me.

FWIW, this was the first time (today) that I've seen anyone say that Mentzer was 'easier' than others. I think a helluva lot of people came into D&D through Mentzer and 2e and they probably have a positive experience through it.

And another data point... one can successfully teach and run this game without the players having to have the rulebook in their hand. My solo game w/my wife is proof of that. Over a year of playing and she still hasn't read the rules. It's really all about presentation and experience, IMO, to teach this game.

Al said...

I definitely agree with Moldvay being the clearer ruleset. I think Mentzer's Expert book was a more solid effort than the basic too.

Qatux said...

I self-taught myself from Mentzer when I was a kid. I didn't even know about other editions. I actually liked reading all those wordy pages, but maybe I'm not the average gamer. I tended to collect and enjoy reading rules to RPGs I would never end up playing.

I can't remember if we were playing everything correctly. Looking back I'm not sure if we were rolling initiative every round like you're supposed to. But I do remember Mentzer's slow introduction and adventure examples built up my excitement to play the game.

So I can't say for sure Moldvay wouldn't have been better, but for what it's worth, Mentzer worked for me at the time.

JimLotFP said...

Mentzer was my introduction to the rules right around my 9th birthday. I'm sure my first campaign was crap but I'd say whatever I was doing after going through Mentzer, it would have been recognizable as D&D.

I saw Labyrinth Lord before I ever saw the Moldvay rules, so no clue if that would have been as good, better, or worse to start with.

boogs said...

The first time we actually played and my friend acting as the GM wasn't making things up and waving the newly minted 2E books around in the air shouting "MAGIC!" It was the the Mentzer box. We honestly attempted to learn the rules, but about all we could grasp was that the higher the numbers the better except AC. We where all around 7 or 8 at the time. It wasn't until I later played Dragonstrike as terrible as it was in retrospect that most of the things I had read in the Mentzer set finally clicked in my head. I own both Mentzer and Holmes books, but nowadays I go right to the Rules Cyclopedia for what I need.

Matthew said...

I acquired the Introduction to AD&D box (the smaller one, although I believe the larger box version was identical) when I was 8, and it was really easy to learn the game by myself. It was even clear enough that I could DM having never played before. The rules were a bit watered down; no proficiencies, single saving throw, fewer classes, etc. (although that's no different from S&W!), but I expanded them (with new spells, magic items, monsters, adventures, etc.) and squeezed a good few years out of them until I finally got access to the 2E hardcovers.

The only problem is that it now would seem a bit silly to use; an introduction to a bygone game (as opposed to simply playing that bygone game itself), since it is replaced (not expanded) by the full 2E rules. It certainly did its job though!

As for Mentzer, I cannot comment. I'm too young!


scottsz said...

Definitely worthy of a challenge to all Grognards:

Can an 'introductory set' be written that easy enough for kids, interesting enough for adults, that can fit under a certain length in pages, includes some art, and can carry starting players from first to third level? It must include an introductory module. The winner is the set of rules (including the module) that makes it easiest to learn the game...

What should the prize for this contest be?

Chgowiz said...

@scottsz - your soul.

I think the answer is "no".

James Maliszewski said...

I think the answer is "no".

I think you're correct.

Robert Fisher said...

I take Frank at face value that his basic set proved itself against Tom's. People who got confused by Tom's set understood Frank's.

What I suspect, however, is that those people who were confused my Tom's set were never going to become regular players anyway. While it's admirable to make a version that anyone can grasp, it isn't worthwhile if it needlessly obfuscates things for the people who are going to enjoy it.

I do think Tom's book could have been improved, but my improved version would still look more like Tom's than Frank's.

Will Mistretta said...

"People who got confused by Tom's set understood Frank's."

"All men are created equal. They just don't stay that way for long." :)

Frankly, you're probably right, but playing the odds as I've noted them, I'd take a Tom inductee over a Frank inductee at my game table assuming I knew nothing else about both. Every time.

Will Mistretta said...

And, yes, I'm going full-on "quality vs. quantity" with that last post. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

"Can an 'introductory set' be written that easy enough for kids, interesting enough for adults, that can fit under a certain length in pages, includes some art, and can carry starting players from first to third level?"

The answer is no?? A man can be put on the moon but the above is beyond us?? How about:

Frank's "Introduction to Roleplaying" as a small booklet inside the box (paper covered, 6x9), check!

Tom's rule-set in the box, check.

Copy of B2 for an introductory campaiign setting and adventure, check!

Afterword advice for additional rules beyond third level: GO BUY THE super-sweet, NOT-FOR-PROFIT, AD&D-Lite (ver 0.75) Basic Fantasy Roleplaying in spiral-bound, perfect bound or hard bound format. OH HELLS YEAH!

Last step optional/modifiable :P

Chgowiz said...

@TBF - that is what I believe. I believe that under the requirements given, it would be difficult to reach both levels of audience sufficiently at the same time, especially at a price point for a boxed set.

Everyone has their opinion of course, and if you'd like to make the attempt, I would support you, of course. I just think that if you're going to do it, why not do two different products that speak to each level specifically, and have them both meet in the same place.

Mr. Chappell said...

Really like this post. At first I was like, heck yeah! Dan's right.

But then I had to look at my own experience which was the opposite.

I am 42 now, but I was in middle school at the time and for me Mentzer got me hooked over Moldvay in a big way. I remember having both books. First, Mentzer had a narrative delivery system. I must have read that story twenty times. I was really into fantasy literature and it felt more at home for me, like a natural extension of what I was reading already

Mentzer also had, subjectively to the mind of a 6th grader, far superior art and layout. I still love that disproportional red dragon on the cover and comic bookish pictures inside, even though today I prefer the more of what we'd call "old school" style art.

Also, Moldvay seemed more intimidating because it just appeared way more crunchy -- like just a bunch of lists of numbers and modifiers. My reaction at the time was like, ugh! There's no way I could keep track of all of that. I wasn't a math person.

But Metzger had that pretty Cleric and the nice narrative story and illustrations not unlike Marvel comics...

Now my preference is to get in and get out so that I can play, which is one reason I adore Labyrinth Lord.

In a nutshell:

Moldvay - lots of intimidating lists of numbers, cramped layout, more abstract art.

Mentzer - a seductive narrative that felt safe and familiar, with layout and art that felt friendly and approachable

I wonder, which version sold more?

James Maliszewski said...

I wonder, which version sold more?

According to many sources, Mentzer's Basic Set was the best-selling D&D product of any kind ever. I can believe it, although I have never seen any independent evidence that this is true, so take it as you will.

Anonymous said...

"Can an 'introductory set' be written that easy enough for kids, interesting enough for adults, that can fit under a certain length in pages, includes some art, and can carry starting players from first to third level? It must include an introductory module. The winner is the set of rules (including the module) that makes it easiest to learn the game..."

James Raggi is taking an honest-to-goodness crack at it with his forthcoming LotFP: Weird Fantasy RPG.

Kevin said...

I remember when I first saw the Mentzer set, afterschool; one of my friends had it. This was probably in the third or maybe fourth grade, so I was 9. I'd been obsessively reading and re-reading Moldvay for months and months at that point. I didn't know what this weird shiny red two-book box was all about, but I was pretty sure it wasn't D&D.

Probably it's just because of my obsessive focus on the Moldvay books (I had the Expert set by that time) but I found Mentzer's stuff to be completely baffling. Which didn't stop me from insisting my mom buy it for me: 'It's the one with TWO books,' I insisted.

She had no idea what I was talking about, and so did what a good gaming mom should do: asked the guy at the store. So I got the AD&D PHB and DMG.

I will submit, though, that it was not until a few years later that I finally realized what the following text from Moldvay meant: "Crossbow (fires quarrels)". That shit was baffling to me at age 9.

Also, asking your mother what 'mace' means, and having her start to describe pepper spray...

Matthew James Stanham said...

We came into D&D via Hero QuestAdvanced Hero QuestWar Hammer FantasyBasic Dungeons & DragonsAdvanced Dungeons & Dragons between the ages of 11 and 13, and we straight up had no problems with the rules. Sure, we did not get every nuance, but that was mainly because we did not care to read up on it. The most difficult time we had was extrapolating the rules of War Hammer from Advanced Hero Quest, Rogue Trader, and a bunch of White Dwarf magazines, because none of us owned the actual rulebook, but that was an issue easily solved.

Mentzer compared to Moldvay there is not a lot to choose between. Mentzer compared to OD&D or first edition AD&D, that is a whole different story, and likely where is gets its chief reputation from as a good introduction.

The First Quest and Dragon Quest mid 90s introductions to AD&D and D&D respectively followed a more Hero Quest style, and though I only got hold of them in later years, they are definitely great introductions to A/D&D.

Norman Harman said...

I don't understand what's so difficult about learning any of these sets? (So, I can't differentiate levels of "ease" between them)

The hard (maybe) part is the conceptual leap from "game" with winner/loser, only players, finite duration, etc. To RPG with well you guys know. Once that is done the rest is "cake". In part cause one learns DIY, make it up, and whatever works for you.

BTW I believe young kids are much, much more capable of making that conceptual leap than adults. It's evident in their imaginative/fantasy play. Kids naturally make it up.

OTOH I was teaching myself AH and SPI wargames as a kid so maybe an atypical datapoint.