My son would prbably say I’m ancient, my daughter certainly thinks my language outdated (or cringes when it isn’t), and there are certainly days when I feel ancient. But with age comes wisdom, or at least experience which can sometimes substitute.
As I said in my first post of RPGaDay 2019, I started in the 80s with the boxed sets of Dungeons and Dragons Basic set – I’m never quite sure if that’s 1st edition or 2nd edition. It grew under Frank Mentzer’s guidance in parallel to AD&D which was Gary Gygax’s baby and probably the more direct descendant of his initial creation. To start with it was pitched as an introductory set, with the idea that people would migrate over time to “true” D&D (i.e. AD&D), but Frank did such an excellent job of adding depth and value with the Expert and particularly Companion sets, and Gary took so long to deliver on his AD&D promise, that Basic D&D, or BECMI as it now tends to be known after the 5 boxed sets which comprised it (Basic = level 1-3, Expert = level 4-14, Companion = level 15-25, Master = level 26-36, Immortal = gods and effectively a very different game) definitely had plenty of adherents, including myself. I did look at AD&D, but never saw the attraction, although that’s what my friends played. The one thing I brought across from AD&D was the two-fold alignment with the Good/Evil axis as well as Lawful/Chaotic (in BECMI RAW, the assumption is that Lawful implies good as well, and Chaotic implies Evil as well).
(For a more detailed discussion of the two-stranded history, see DM Davids’ blog post thread)
I then had a 25-year hiatus with university, dancing and family until my children were old enough to bring me back into it; this was not long after 5e had been officially published. So I missed out on 3e, 3.5e, Pathfinder and 4e and now return with 5e which had an explicit design goal of “getting back to the roots of the D&D experience.”
After about the second session with my family, I have played using 5th edition, and have invested in most of the books (many of them twice, once physical and once on D&D Beyond). And after 3 years with 5e, I definitely have feelings about the comparison.
Let’s look at some of the differences.
BECMI lacks the good/evil axis. Definitely prefer the dual-axis here – my wife is definitely Chaotic Good; there is no way she could be described as Lawful or Evil.
BECMI has 7 classes (at least initially; others like the Druid make an appearance later). These are: Fighter, Cleric, Magic-User, Thief, Dwarf, Elf and Halfling. Note that race is a class – a Dwarf is effectively a fighter with additional toughness and construction knowledge, an elf is a fighter/magic-user and a halfling is like a modern rogue who specialises in stealth and backstabbing, also with additional poison and magic-resistance. Only magic-users and elves have arcane magic, and only clerics (and druids) have religious magic. Additional fighter options such as multiple attacks, parry, smash, disarm in the Companion set and weapon mastery in the Master set bring in additional options for fighters (and hence elves, dwarves and halflings) to balance the additional power which clerics and magic-users get through access to more powerful spells.
5e has 9 races as a starting point, with more races in both Volo and Ravnica. There are 12 classes, each of which have variants at the 3rd level, with more variants in various additional rulebooks, particularly Xanathar. Even after 2 years of active play in 3 different campaigns I still regularly get befuddled by different class options and variants, and we spend too much time having to look up details. Yes it’s great to have options, but when everyone is a Tielfling Sorcerer-cum-Battlemaster Fighter or an Aarakocra Rogue who can fly, the story is lost in the special abilities.
I find myself yearning for the simplicity of BECMI here, although when I think about it I don’t really want race to determine class. Maybe human, dwarf, elf, halfling, half-elf. I might stretch to a gnome. I have allowed a half-orc, because the character had already been created in the campaign I was picking up, but it doesn’t really fit with my image of the world. I have also allowed a drow, but that wasn’t an experience I want to repeat – either we had to completely ignore the light sensitivity or it really constricted the options for the game. I’m really not keen on Dragonborn or Tielfing, and I definitely don’t want any of the races from Volo or Ravnica as PCs (although I do think they’re fair game for NPCs).
Experience and Levels
BECMI awards experience for defeating monsters and for collecting treasure (where 1gp value = 1XP). 80% of experience is expected to come from treasure, which works okay at lower levels, but starts to get a bit silly at higher levels when you need to be carrying home tons of gold in order to achieve your experience point quotas. I don’t really remember the concept at that point of gaining experience for achieving milestones or overcoming problems without battle.
Each class has its own Experience Point table related to their relative power, with Thieves initially going up fastest (1200XP for 2nd level, 2400 for 3rd, 280,000 for 10th level) and Elves slowest (4000XP for second level, 8000 for 3rd, 600,000 for 10th). The others come in betwee: Clerics need 1500XP, Fighters and Halflings need 2000XP, Dwarves need 2200XP and Magic-Users need 2500XP for second level. Your most important ability for the class (or abilities for Elf and Halfling), affects how much experience you get, with a low score leading to a 20% or 10% XP penalty and a high score leading to a 5% or 10% XP bonus.
Halflings have a maximum level of 8 (120,000XP), Elves 10 and Dwarves 12 (660,000XP), although attack ranks after that allow them to gain some of the additional fighter abilities. Humans can all go up to level 36 (2,900,000XP for Cleric, 3,480,000XP for Fighter, 4,350,000XP for Magic-user, 3,400,000XP for Thief).
5e has simplified matters, with XP coming from overcoming monsters or traps only, and the suggestion/recommendation in the rules of awarding XP for overcoming obstacles. All classes use the same XP table (which is lower – 300XP for level 2, 900 for level 3, 64,000 for level 10, and topping out at 355,000 for level 20).
I definitely prefer the 5e approach here, where XP is awarded based on achievement rather than treasure, and I have recently moved to using The Angry GM’s suggestion of not calculating the actual XP of the monsters and just using the DMG’s Easy/Medium/Hard encounter XP budget for the party level to determine the award for successfully overcoming an obstacle they need to overcome to progress the adventure; random encounters are just nuisance value, eat up resources, but don’t gain XP.
BECMI and 5e use the same six abilities, althought they list them in a different order. BECMI had Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, Charisma (the first four are the Prime Requisites for the four human classes), while 5e lists Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma (physical first). The modifiers are different, though, with BECMI following a bell curve while 5e uses a linear calculation:
It doesn’t really make a huge amount of difference, except it means exceptional characters are more unusual in BECMI.
Attacks and Saving
BECMI armour classes start at 9 and decrease as they improve. A first level character with no modifiers hits AC9 with a 10 and AC-1 with a 20. No concept of critical rolls. An unmodified 20 also hits AC-2 to AC-5, after which you need modifiers. The same happens at a roll of 30 – it hits AC-15 to AC-19, then for AC-20 you need a modified roll of 31. At the other end, a natural 1 always misses, but after five ACs which all need 2, you start getting into additional damage on the hit – for a fighter with strength 18 this starts happening at level 19 for AC9.
Each class has its own saving throw table with Poison/Death Ray, Magic Wands, Paralysis/Turn to Stone, Dragon Breath, Rod/Staff/Spell, starting with 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 for a Fighter or 11, 12, 14, 16, 15 for a Cleric, for example. Ability scores do not affect these saves or relate to them.
5e standardises everything on the d20 and difficulty classes. Roll a d20, add appropriate modifiers, and if the result is equal to or greater than the target, you succeed. Armour class is a difficulty class for to-hit. Saving throws are a difficulty class on one of the abilities; each class has two abilities they are proficient in and hence which are boosted. It also has critical hits (double roll for damage on a natural 20) and critical misses (something goes wrong on a natural 1), plus the concept of advantage or disadvantage.
The 5e d20 system is much easier to understand and check, although it doesn’t allow for “you just can’t naturally hit this at your level and need some boost”. If the BECMI AC system were turned around so that a 20 could hit AC20-24 and you need a boost to hit AC25, maybe that would be an appropriate compromise. Or maybe the 5e ACs build that in anyway.
The BECMI gazetteers introduced the concept of skills tied to abilities, particular abilities which would allow you greater success at something. They had a wide variety of skills – sailing boats, sailing ships, navigation, horse riding, camel riding, jeweller, carpenter, forest navigation, … The list went on and on, so that if you needed a particular skill, you probably didn’t have it (except that the skills in a particular gazetteer were relevant to that country, which increased the chance the options you were offered were relevant to your adventures). This actually also foreshadowed the d20 system in its mechanics.
This was a novel introduction at the time, which I gather this was carried through to 3.5e, 4e, Pathfinder and now Pathfinder 2, and it got to the point of “I have this skill – how can I argue it’s relevant here”.
With 5e, they took the opportunity to review the whole concept, and boiled it down to a set of 18 skills, each based on an ability, which a particular character may or may not be proficient at. If they’re proficient, they get a bonus, and maybe a particular check requires proficiency to have a chance of succeeding. This relects that everyone has some degree of natural ability (in general), which can be enhanced by training, but feels less appropriate to more specialised skills like carpentry, gem valuation, sailing. Maybe a mixture of both?
So what to conclude? I’ll probably continue to use 5e mostly, but I do find there are too many options and complications, so I do yearn at times for the simpler structure of BECMI. Call me an ancient fuddy-duddy, but to me the additions in 5e don’t really add to the story, they feel like knobs for the optimisers and those with short attention span who have to try something new continuously. You may have gathered I’m more interested in developing a world and characters and a campaign…