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Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The BX setting (part 1)

[Edit: this started to ramble a bit, so I decided to cut myself off and save the rest for a later post.]

While there is certainly no shortage of settings for fantasy RPGs, it seems that some are better suited to certain games than others. I’m not interested in dissecting every published setting out there. Rather, I’ve found myself mulling over those aspects of some fantasy worlds (whether it’s a game setting or a piece of fiction) that seems -merely in my own personal opinion and experience- to embody some facet or facets which fit a Basic/Expert D&D game.

 To begin with, I find BX and OD&D lend themselves a little more towards "swords & sorcery" and little less to "high fantasy." I'm not sure I have hard and fast definitions for either of those terms, but let's see if we can't parse that a little bit.

 Wikipedia defines the swords & sorcery genre as:

"... a subgenre of fantasy generally characterized by sword-wielding heroes engaged in exciting and violent conflicts. An element of romance is often present, as is an element of magic and the supernatural. Unlike works of high fantasy, the tales, though dramatic, focus mainly on personal battles rather than world-endangering matters. Sword and sorcery commonly overlaps with heroic fantasy."

And high fantasy as:

"High fantasy is defined as fantasy set in an alternative, fictional ("secondary") world, rather than 'the real', or 'primary' world. The secondary world is usually internally consistent, but its rules differ from those of the primary world."

The theme of good vs. evil features heavily in such stories as well. Whereas S&S tends to have more personal battles. But I don't think of Moldvay/Cook or Labyrinth Lord quite as "Swords & Sorcery" games. They are after all, still Dungeons & Dragons; and while the roots of D&D may be more John Carter than Aragorn, it's not quite pure Conan to me either. The truth of it (if there is one) seems to lie somewhere in between. Which brings me to alignment.

3 v. 9

Classic D&D uses the three-point alignment spectrum as opposed to the nine of AD&D. There is no 'Good' or 'Evil'. Just law, chaos and neutrality. I have heard the opinion that this is a simplification for a "basic" game, but I don't find that to be the case. Rather the opposite really. I've rambled about this in the past, so I won't rehash it here. But I do feel that keeping the three point system and what it entails firmly in mind influences the nature of the setting. One need look no further than the introductory text of the seminal B2: Keep on the Borderlands for an indication of how Gary envisioned Chaos in the world:

"The Realm of mankind is narrow and constricted. Always the forces of Chaos press upon its borders, seeking to enslave its populace, rape its riches, and steal its treasures. If it were not for a stout few, many in the Realm would indeed fall prey to the evil which surrounds them."

One could read this as a classic "good vs. evil" set up, and -to be fair- that's perfectly valid. But reading the wording closely, I notice two things: Firstly, it's the "Realm of mankind." A human nation. This realm is "Narrow and constricted," seeming to imply that civilization has a limited reach. Much of the world is wild and quite possibly chaotic.

Second, while the text does talk about "evil" preying upon the populace, the fact that this evil seems to be interested in personal gain (slaves, riches, etc.) and not necessarily covering the world in darkness makes this less about EVIL and more about Us vs. Them. Sure, the "them" in this case are primarily humanoid monsters, as opposed to just some other country of people, but this IS a fantasy game after all.

It makes sense to me that the majority of people you'd meet would fall under Neutrality in this model. Most people have a natural desire to just get along and live their life. They recognize the utility of law & order, but they also don't want to jettison their desire for a level of personal freedom. Benign self-interest is the rule of the day. I'm reminded of a quote from The Hobbit about the dwarves when Bilbo goes through the hidden door.

“Dwarves are not heroes, but a calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don't expect too much.”

That last part pretty much sums up my idea of neutrality. So in a world where that's where most people fit, it's pretty reasonable to expect their motivations to be more personal and self-interested. As opposed to altruistic world-saving. It also follows that players are more likely to accept the hooks that benefit their characters directly, as well as trusting NPCs who seem motivated by self-interest as well. Adventurers tend to be a greedy bunch, as a rule. Especially in a game where advancement is largely achieved through the finding and gaining of wealth. At least, I've also found that a better fit in my BX games.


  1. Thank you for this. You are a clear thinker with good writing skills. This puts into words some definitions that I’ve been kicking around too.

    On the topic of older version D in general, Jeff Rients put it this way: “lawful is the good guys. Neutral are out for the money. Chaotics might be up to no good.”

  2. Excellent read. It is important to keep perspective, which is difficult if not constantly within the games.

  3. I like your take on this. Very nice read indeed!

  4. This is an interesting blog. I'd like to give my thoughts. I seem to think that the world is dynamic with respect to alignments in B/X as opposed to absolutes in AD&D (3 vs. 9). In B/X, most people you meet are going to be considered neutral until proven otherwise. Once the players and NPCs meet and forge alliances, Neutral may mean their basic alignment in B/X, but they have now covenant established between one another, considering relationships between PCs especially.

    In AD&D, the alignments are absolutes and have defining meaning: Lawful Good will always seek to offset or battle with any Evil (as one example). Indeed, there are alignment tongues, gestures, etc. that are secretive in nature which bind those of similar alignments together and against those diametrically opposed. This can make for even more interesting interplay on a level not possible in B/X.

    The major difference between the two schemes for alignment, in my opinion, is play style: B/X alignment is fast and loose, to facilitate the action or move the adventure along. AD&D on the other hand can use the alignments as the basis for entire adventures (i.e. T1-T3, A1-A4, etc.) with reliable actions based on alignments all around.

    That, to me, is the biggest separation. As far as the other point being the difference between Swords and Sorcery or High Fantasy, I think that depends on the goals of the adventure in general. In my opinion, neither system is more favorable over the other and is apt to have parts of both in either B/X or AD&D. An example would be where a S&S style adventure moves to a different plane of existence, such as an adventure that begins on the prime material plane and then proceeds to continue in the elemental plane of fire - Efreeti, anyone?

    It's not clear to me why anyone would put restrictions on their adventures simply to follow a formula, but it does tidy things up from an understanding perspective, I suppose. Many of the great AD&D modules incorporate elements of both S&S and HE and B/X has a perfect example in Castle Amber. Just my two cents :)

    1. I certainly wouldn’t restrict anything. I’m just pondering various elements that make a setting “feel” BX to me.

      Castle Amber is a great example, BTW!

  5. Interesting post. I think along the same lines, where Law and Chaos are outliers in a setting where most are assumed Neutral.

    I think that's one of the few places where B/X missed a golden opportunity, when it made random alignment tables either equally weighted (NPC adventurers are 1-2 Lawful, 3-4 Neutral, 5-6 Chaotic), or weighted to good guys (Normal Humans are 'usually lawful', and BECMI later codified it to 1-3 Lawful, 4-5 Neutral, 6 Chaotic).

    I use a table that's weighted to Neutrality (1 Lawful, 2-5 Neutral, 6 Chaotic), and I think if B/X had used a table like that it would have given players a very different impression of the entire D&D setting.

  6. Interesting line of thought. Unlike OD&D, though, B/X does have an explicit setting in the core rules. Does that colour your view of the "implicit" setting? Or do you ignore that part and just go by the rules? Looking forward to the continuation.

  7. It's Middle Earth after massive price inflation due to Smaug's hoard being recovered and partly distributed.