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30 Year Anniversary of Red Box D&D

by Håvard from Threshold Magazine issue 1

It is hard to believe, but 30 years ago the legendary Red Box Basic Set was published. This boxed set, with the iconic Larry Elmore Dragon being challenged by the faceless warrior, was first published in May of 1983. This was also the edition that marked the international launch of D&D, turning the game into a worldwide hobby with the box being translated to 44 different languages. With tens of millions of copies sold, the Red Box basic set marked what was undoubtedly the best-selling product throughout the history of TSR.1 It is hardly surprising that the design of this basic set was reused with the D&D Essentials line back in 2010.

Written by Frank Mentzer (credited as editor, as policy was back then), this was the edition that included the legendary intro adventure featuring the tragic death of Aleena the Cleric at the hands of the evil Wizard Bargle, an adventure that inspired thousands of gamers and also spawned nostalgic phenomena such as the Kill Bargle t-shirts decades later. The Red Box was the first in a line of five boxes which would take characters from 1st level to 36th - and beyond that into further adventures as Immortals. Known later by devout fans as the BECMI edition (Basic - Expert - Companion - Master - Immortals), this edition took the classic line of D&D (as opposed to the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons line) to its full potential. The first two boxed sets, Basic and Expert, built heavily on the works of Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, John Eric Holmes, Tom Moldvay and David Cook. From the Companion Rules and onwards, the series began to explore unknown territory allowing not only the traditional exploration of dungeons and wilderness, but also having your characters become rulers of kingdoms, control armies, explore the Outer Planes and eventually become god-like beings of legend.

Frank Mentzer recalls the following from the design process of BECMI D&D:

I had to stop reading Dragon magazine during the time that I was writing BECMI. Any & All ideas coming from other sources were forbidden; I had strict instructions to base D&D only on the previously published version (starting with OD&D) and, by immersing myself in that, to do the best I could in building upon that foundation and making an entire structure as close as possible to what Gygax & Arneson might have done had they continued to develop and expand it. [] While BECMI is a reasonably coherent body of work (all the moreso since it was all from a single author, in stark contrast to TSR's usual design-by-committee approach of the '80s), my own tastes are reflected.

Sometimes mistakenly believed to be a "kids version" of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game, the BECMI series in fact created an elegant balance between a ruleset that was easy to get into with the Red Box, but with an increasing complexity to rival that of AD&D as you progressed through the series. The series also offered a return to the Known World, previously introduced in the Moldvay/Cook B/X ruleset of 1981, which would eventually develop into the World of Mystara. In spite of the popularity of the AD&D Game at the time, the BECMI line produced a loyal base of followers who keep playing this edition of the game even to this day.

With the vast number of gamers introduced to the hobby of Roleplaying Games through the Red Box, 1983 was clearly a significant year in the history of gaming. Wizards of the Coast have decided to once again make the Red Box PDF available through their D&D Classics Website. We can only hope that a print version will follow! With so many older editions coming back in print, new generations deserve to have a try at this truly historic game.


1 Frank Mentzer