Dungeon Masters Rulebook (Red Box version)

Basic Dungeon Masters Rulebook

Basic Dungeon Masters Rulebook

I picked up the Dungeon Masters Rulebook from the old BECMI D&D edition (aka “the Red Box”) a few days ago. Most of the OSR products I’ve read didn’t have enough guidance for this rusty old DM.  What better source for guidance on running an old-school game than the actual old-school guidance?! The rest of this post consists of my thoughts as I took notes during my second reading. It isn’t really a review in the critical sense but in the “let’s go back over what’s here” sense.

The Most Important Rule: BE FAIR. That fits, since we control everything about the world and universe in which the characters exist. The world itself may not be fair, but our rulings should be consistent and even-handed.

Hewlett-Packard 48GX
“An electronic pocket calculator is helpful.”

Quite a few pages consist of “your first game”. Actually, this game is first for the DM, which comes after the solo game in the players guide that teaches the initial rules. The players go after some magic user named “Bargle“. Most of this doesn’t apply to my games or needs. The map of the dungeon’s second level looked interesting, though, and would make a great candidate for conversion.

The rulebook includes advice on issues like arguments and complaints. That reminds the reader that RPGs are social in ways most other games are not. Given the age and inclinations of the target audience for D&D (especially at the time), I suspect Gygax and even Mentzer felt themselves in something of a fatherly position.  Related to that, the rulebook gives advice on providing clues appropriate for the player skill and experience level, including the admonition that “extreme danger with no warning is not very fair.” ROCKS FALL EVERYONE DIES! Also, the Deities section obliquely refers to some sensitive issues and takes a diplomatic approach: “The DM should be careful not to needlessly offend players and current beliefs should be avoided.”

For the first time, I finally understand how early editions treated demi-humans. Dwarves consisted of both a race and a class, so that all dwarf characters basically act like Gimli: short, squat fighters all up in your face who know everything there is to know about stones and gems and dungeons. Most modern players probably would not like this. Generally speaking, I don’t either, but there’s a certain mindset where I can see that working.

Experienced dungeon masters may select results instead of rolling dice.

See, the old school includes fudging rolls! I remember reading a quote from Gygax to the effect that the real secret to being a good DM is that the dice are just for show. That perhaps goes a little to the extreme (which could be a product of my faulty memory) but the sentiment is useful.

Reaction rolls seem like a core mechanic in this old edition. I’ve seen these in Microlite20. If the new Fifth Edition DMG doesn’t contain something like this, then I will likely incorporate some version of it in my games. Often I just roleplay the NPCs and “select results” as discussed above, but a little unpredictability in some situations can go a long way.

Lost spell books? Now that’s evil. I wouldn’t do that to a player unless they actively did something that clearly would result in losing the spell book. “I throw my spell book at the fire elemental.” “Um… okay.”

Mapping SymbolsMapping has changed considerably in the last thirty years. I don’t think most groups really treat it as a player skill anymore. Certainly those of us who primarily play online on Roll20 or similar can’t do this effectively without significant restructuring. Perhaps allowing one of the players to draw on the map…? I do like the old-school concept of player skill mattering at least as much as character skill, and this fits into that philosophy much as the clues discussion does.

During the play of the game, a player will eventually try something not explained in these rules… Be sure to write down any rules you create, and apply them fairly to everyone.

If by “eventually” we mean “within the first five minutes”, then sure! Otherwise you could send a self-addressed stamped envelope to TSR with a rules question. Things about the 20th century I don’t miss include SASEs and snail mail.

Timekeeping still presents a challenge for me outside of combat rounds. I’d hoped for some guidance here but it honestly doesn’t help much:

You may simply make notes on the time used during an adventure, or you can create a system (check marks, boxes to cross off, etc.) for keeping track.

Transferring characters remains a touchy subject. I just had a player ask me about it this past weekend, in fact. For some sorts of campaigns, it would feel odd just for narrative reasons. It could also create the perception of fairness issues with other players. But in other cases it might work fine, and so Mentzer gives some guidance on balance considerations.

Then the book goes into some lengthy monster references, including stat blocks and reactions and everything else. The treasure tables, though, really come in handy for me. I frequently find an old-school adventure I want to use that refers to “treasure type H” or something. Now I can cross-reference that.

Dungeon stockingFinally we have some guidance on dungeons, especially adventure motivation. The table on stocking dungeons reminds me of the so-called Barrowmaze method. But now I know the real source, because the method here is to roll 1d6 twice. The first roll tells you what’s in the room (e.g. a trap or a monster) and the second roll tells you whether the room has treasure.

I still look forward to getting my 5th Edition DMG in two days.The material in this rulebook will help fill in any gaps, plus provide additional stuff for my Microlite games.

7 thoughts on “Dungeon Masters Rulebook (Red Box version)

  1. Great post. I love the old rules and how the focus is on FUN. We did 5e characters and I just about wanted to kill myself it took so long to start the game.


  2. Only the basic line of games treated race as a class, but I see that as one of the game’s biggest strong points. It isn’t about “all dwarfs are Gimli” but more about how a dwarf isn’t just a dwarven racial template added to the regular human fighter class. So a halfling thief isn’t just a thief with a few halfling racial abilities tacked on, as it is with every other version of D&D, but an entirely separate entity with it’s own abilities and class progression.

    By combining the racial abilities and class abilities together, it makes it easier to add unusual character types. You can create a lizardman class without having to create a balanced Lizardman race. This frees the DM to add all sorts of PC types. In the BECMI supplements you see a wide variety of dwarf/elf/halfling classes plus classes for things like werewolves, pixies, giants, and ogres. All things that would be considered “unbalanced” in regular race+class D&D.


    1. Thanks for the feedback. I didn’t play D&D at that time so the concept is a little new to me in some ways. The idea is starting to grow on me and I’m considering using it more in my next OSR game.


  3. “See, the old school includes fudging rolls! I remember reading a quote from Gygax to the effect that the real secret to being a good DM is that the dice are just for show. That perhaps goes a little to the extreme (which could be a product of my faulty memory) but the sentiment is useful.” <—– Argh! No no no no no! Look, man, I know you're new and all… but, the passage you quote does not in itself encourage "fudging rolls." Mentzer may have encouraged that elsewhere; I don't care. But when he says, "experienced dungeon masters may select results instead of rolling dice" he means don't bother rolling the dice if you already know what the outcome has to be in order to make the game be what it needs to be in order to function and/or ensure that a good time is had by all. Yes, you can play in such a way that the rules and dice are both little more than props. However, if you are willing to apply the rules more or less as written and accept the dice however they come up, I think you will find the players acknowledging that there are in fact stakes involved in their choices and consequences that flow reasonably from their actions. They will then alter their tactics accordingly. Adventurers will die, become blind, or lose their spellbooks– sometimes in droves early on– but the players will get the hang of it eventually. They don't need you to baby them along and you will have more fun if you have no idea how everything is culminating into an epic conclusion. When they face a dangerous choice, tell them straight up that you have no idea if it will "ruin" the game or not. Whether they win with their last hit point or whether one player character makes it back to town, the result will be something that they end up talking about!

    As always: your mileage may vary and to each his own… but if you do not heed what I'm saying, YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG!!!!!!! 😉


  4. This was the version of D&D I first learned to play. I’ve only just recently gotten a copy, and I’m looking forward to reading it again. Its always of particular interest to me to see folks going through the editions, so thanks for this.


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