The Box is Back
In a tribute to the abiding popularity of the original Basic D&D sets, Wizards of the Coast gave their new 4E Essentials starter set a cover design nearly identical to the 1983 Mentzer Red Box. Happily, the resemblance isn't just skin deep. The Essentials design team managed to replicate and maybe even outdo the accessibility, clarity of rules and presentation that helped make the original Red Box a gateway drug for so many gamers. And it's ideally designed for the arcade experience delivered by the associated D&D Encounters organized play program, hosted in game stores and billed as a "weekly game session you can join anytime."
What's missing from the latest Red Box is the unexpected. 4E was created by professional game designers who need to write mass-market adventures that can be reliably planned to end with a pre-scripted climax. For them, unpredictability and "swinginess" are bugs, while guidelines that help judge how many monsters the party will overcome and how much treasure they will gain each level are features.
Dungeons & Dragons was written by Gygax and Arneson back when they were hobbyist game designers, and they assumed that's what you wanted to be too. The Velvet Underground's first album and the original 1974 D&D inspired you to go out and do it yourself because they were gloriously and unapologetically full of noise, dissonance, and paradox. "We urge you to refrain from writing [letters to ask] for rule interpretations," the original D&D's Afterward says. "The best way is to decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way! Why have us do any more of your imagining for you?"
The 1981 and 1983 editions of the Red Box still shipped with this do-it-yourself spirit, but it's easy to add it to the 2010 version. Pick up an old copy of the Moldvay or Mentzer Basic D&D Red Box cheap on eBay, or download Labyrinth Lord, a "retro-clone" created using the Open Game License to bring the system back into print. Keep this in the same box as your Essentials set. Whenever a situation is covered by both, go with the 4E rules; a good reason to have Wizards of the Coast do your imagining for you is that they're top-notch designers. But whenever you find stuff in Labyrinth Lord that's not in the new box - reaction rolls, morale checks, wandering encounters, and treasure charts - steal it for your game. Soon you'll be making up your own ways to use randomness to make the experience more surprising and improvisational. More like an arcade game.
If you're in New York, Vancouver, or College Station, you'll find a ready-made community of gamers invigorated by the greatest arcade game that you can imagine.
If not, why not start your own Red Box group?
Tavis Allison is the dungeon master for one of the New York Red Box's ongoing campaigns, and also does freelance 4th Edition design for Wizards of the Coast.