I BEAT MOLDVEY BASIC D&D: And Leveling to “Conjurer” Was No Cheap Trick

Recently, I planted my magic-user’s  XP total firmly north of 5,000 brining my PC to 3rd level- a conjurer*. I have won Moldvey Basic D&D. Suck it Basic! Get gud. 

I am being facetious of course. There is really no “winning” of D&D unlike playing Metroid or Souls games. Which is part of its allure. But I did want to reflect on what it means to reach the technical end of Moldvey’s Basic Dungeons & Dragons (1981). 

Most talk of low-level characters is mainly in terms of an ignominious death: giant rats, insect swarm, pit trap, gnoll axe, or crushed by a giant’s rock (or roc). DCC has made a whole genre out of this fate. But that was not my experience getting Mayfly up to 3rd level. Here is a brief outline of Mayfly’s action from level 1 to 3:

  • Used Fireball scrolls at level 1 on two occasions to burn a dining hall and dance hall full of skeletal dead- roughly ~18 skulls (underworld). Then Ventriloquism scroll at 2nd level to distract the third group of skeletal dead, by mimicking the war cries of  their former foes, from cornering and murdering the party (underworld)

  • Traded (possible) souls for magical mentorship (overworld)

  • Ingested a fairy skeleton at the behest of one fairy, then hours later vomited forth a new fairy losing a level in the process, but gaining a favor-owed from the first fairy (and the second) (overworld)

  • Used a fairy favor to gain the “smallest, but most valuable thing” possessed by a bandit lord– his only remaining eye (overworld)

  • Saw an angel at a once-lost-but-now-found shrine (overworld)

  • Blinded the ogre-sized Butcher of Nightwick Abbey with a Light spell to the eyes (it rolled a “1” to save), who then was hacked apart by hireling woodsmen (underworld)

  • Cut a deal with werewolves to capture that eye-less bandit-lord, but also now marked by those same creatures for death (overworld)

  • Come into possession of a golden skull that can psychically communicate and calls itself “The Master”(underworld)

  • Alignment changes from “neutral” to “evil” by the setting’s standards but entirely due to in-game actions (underworld)

All this was done while having 11 hp. A heap of credit for this fantastic experience goes toward Miranda Elkin’s creativity in constructing her Nightwick Abbey campaign. I think this speaks to the robustness that low-level play can have when in a “shananigans-rich” environment. As a hobby, we should strive to build better low-level campaigns. So what does that look like? Here I am speaking more about the larger meta-structure, not what makes dungeons good.

First, I think we should change the view of Levels 1 through 3. They should not be viewed as a waiting or containment period to higher tiers. This is very firmly how 5e seems to view them. Further reinforced by placing most powers in 5e behind a 3rd-level wall. Conversely, in old-school D&D systems, most “powers” are all present at 1st-level. The tools are there from the beginning, but the players need a rich environment to use them in. Which is where old-school D&D adventures can falter. Many adventures still try to make rats-in-a-cellar or orks-in-a-hole the starting milieu. Let’s instead bring the fantastical to them. Decks of Many Things! Magic swords that demand! And wicked dragons that speak from the shadows! I think we worry to much that somehow the party will become unkillable if they get a sword +2 but often they still only have ~5 hp! Sure they can mow down 3 goblins in short order, but the last two throwing spears is what kills ‘em. And with my own experience above, far from killing giant rats, my character has cast powerful magic, traded souls, birthed spirits, blinded an ogre, and changed alignments. That is an awesome story. Sure, I’ve not killed a god, but all those exploits would make a pretty good episode of The Witcher

Second, 4th-level, not 3rd, is a more natural break point for Basic D&D. At first, 3rd-level seems like a fairly understandable break point. BX D&D, as the editions before, it talk of a domain-building ability for most classes around 9th-level. So, natural dividsons: 1-3 low, 4-6 mid, and 7-9 high or “domain”. But this might not be exact “grain” of D&D.

I am a firm believer that D&D is not a wargame. If it were, it would play something more like Warhammer 40k. I subscribe to the idea that David Arneson’s Blackmoor game and David Wesley’s preceding Brownstein game formed the initial important genesis seed. However, it is pretty clear Chainmail informs the maths of D&D and some of its language.

And when you examine Chainmail, you come across an important title: “Hero” conferred at 4 HD and followed by “Superhero” at 8 HD. The hero title is important because the character is represented by its own miniature on the battle field, it can now engage in “fantastical combat” against monsters, it can perform multi-attacks on regular man-type units (less than 4 HD), and improves morale. This also aligns with some vestigal elements of that same designation that crop up in two of the most powerful Basic spells– Sleep and Charm Person. These spells do not effect creatures greater than 4+1 HD and therefore represent a limit to the power of a Basic D&D magic-user’s spell list. 4th-level is when all of the classes have their combat bonus increased too. Additionally, I think its important that point out the shift in creature number from the dungeon levels to the wilderness levels. Bandits roll 1d8 for number appearing in a dungeon but in the wilderness it's 3d10! That is a vastly different scope of what the players have to take on even from low-level monsters (Side note: this is also why I think fighters do need some form of multi-attack be it a cleave mechanisms or extra attacks equal to level against 1 HD opponents).

Returning to BX D&D, I see a break at 4th level as more natural for Basic/Expert D&D’s two-book format too. Basic D&D would cover 1st to 4th Level dungeon crawl/ “Hero” tier. And Expert D&D would cover 5th to 8th hexcrawl/ “Superhero” in tier, plus an additional 9th level representing domain attainment.  In my ideal ruleset, the basic level would stop at 4 HD. This would denote “hero” status and confer a lot of historic benefits from Chainmail: morale bonus, fear resistance and denoted as a stand-alone figure in a skirmish situation. I would further enhance this level by adding a multi-attack for fighters and also allowing a single 3rd-level spell slot for magic-users. This increases a party’s capacity to deal with the wilderness tier’s large enemies numbers and more strongly signals a move into the next tier. (Side note, this does not then eliminate the place of dungeons in a campaign. Just merely signals the player can now range farther and handle a lot tougher threats. And they should be experienced enough to weigh risk better as players.) And if your game has to end at a 6 to 12-month mark, ending at a 4th-level “Hero” feels like a better end. Like Mayfly above, I bet in general, you will have accomplished some amazing feats and you too will have a script for The Witcher.

But simply agreeing to hit 4th-level before venturing out into the wilderness is not enough. I think a couple of important tools need to be pulled into the 4th level to really complete this hero tier and establish the next phase.

Third, I would add is some sorta domain component or “mini” domain situation. It cements a change in the DM’s world driven by player action. It allows movement into a skirmish/wargame component of D&D and this can help provide a break from standard forms of play. I think the results of these battles could also be an awesome emergent change for the DM’s world too. A domain component would also provide resources and reasons for players to think bigger beyond just the party or if there is a +2 sword in their hand (Another quick word, actual Chainmail plays pretty quickly and dare I say is even a lighter ruleset than modern editions of Warhammer 40K.) And given modern constraints on time and entertainment abundance (remember in the 1970s there were only four TV networks), I would not wait until the traditional 9th level for domain building. I think it is just too far away in terms of old-school GP:XP leveling. It will take time most groups don’t have. Better to have players see the effect of their actions on the world more quickly.

And this idea is not without precedent, nor am I alone in this line of thought:

  • The Rules Cyclopedia has an interesting distinction of “traveling- title” versus “landed title”. Maybe we can employ those as a sorta level 5 and level 6. This can signal the quest for a permanent place (traveling) and the establishment of a seat of power (landed). Now with established domains, a skirmish game kicks in. At this point, whoever establishes the domain could potentially be playing a 6th-level landed-title character in various wargames while starting back at level 1 or 2 with the followers and such that the landed character has attracted.

  • The often lauded B10 Night’s Dark Terror is a “Basic/Expert Transition module for Levels 2-4” which I think lends a historical aspect to the split I champion above. Included in this module were several cardboard chits for a skirmish scenario within the great adventure.

  • Nick over at Paper & Pencils also has been putting domain play early into practice with his On A Red World Alone game. Even in his 3-hour game, the first hour is devoted to domain-level procedures which impact the game world and party.

  • And Ben L has some thoughts on “mini-domain” play via institution building over at Mazirian’s Garden. This gives the party someplace to put large amounts of coin and also demonstrates not all domains need to be castles. It can just be the tavern they favor.

This domain building could be a good refresh for the group as a whole because what class builds the domain might help sculpt the next cycle in the world. For instance, a landed thief might signal the start of a heist campaign in a big city. A landed cleric could spur a holy campaign against some blighted area. The Rules Cyclopedia as a funny note that landed-magic-users build dungeons to attract monsters, maybe a new campaign is players as chaotic humanoids farming these monsters in the dungeon below.

In summary, the time constraints and entertainment options of modern life leave little room, in my opinion, for the slow burn build of traditional D&D leveling which positioned low-level play often has a risky but fairly mundane grind that should build to grand domain play. Therefore, as a hobby, we should reframe low-level play with the fantastical in terms of adventure design by bringing "high-level" elements into the lower levels. Also, demarcate the end of "basic play" as the acquisition of limited tools to tackle RAW wilderness encounter design (e.g. multi-attack fighters; fireball/lightning casting magic-users). And drop domain-style playing also into lower levels to increase player impact on the world by reintroducing newer players to a core part of the D&D tradition. Time is too short, let's not wait for the players to level high enough for the "real adventure" to begin, stead let's begin it at XP = 0.

*Here is the character currently

MAYFLY, Conjurer (HP 11): STR 07 (-1) INT 15 (+1) WIS 08 (-1) DEX 16 (+2) CON 16 (+2) CHA 08 (-1)

  • Spells: [1] Light, Protection from Evil, Read Magic, Floating Disk, Charm Person; [2] ESP

  • Notable Treasure:

    • Scrolls (x5): Protection from Demons, Light (x2), Read Magic, Charm Person

    • Silver Daggers w/ Deerman Antler Handles (x2)

    • Silver Basilisk Star Necklace

    • Soul Coins (x10)

    • The left horn of The Butcher

    • Magic ring (maybe cursed)

    • Gold skull (psychic)

  • Hirelings Total: 7 (2 Alive + 5 Dead)

  • Total Explored Rooms of Nightwick Abbey (megadungeon): ~45

  • Game Time: ~26 games


  1. This campaign sounds like a lot of fun! I think re-framing low level play as heroic and fantastic on its own is a great way to think about D&D, though as you said 5e doesn't support this with the way classes are built.

    1. Yeah, I think the key is making those low-levels fantastical. Don't wait to level to interesting stuff, just bring it earlier to the players.

      The campaign is fantastic! And there is plenty of room to join in if you are interested: https://startplaying.games/adventure/616020f070a8580009218c46

  2. Are you sure you're playing Moldvay Basic? A B/X conjurer has only three spells (2 first + 1 second).

    1. Yes.

      But like any good BX campaign, the system as been seasoned to taste. In this case, by In Places Deep's hideous herbs & scintillating spices.

      So after my MU survived ~15 sessions, Evan decided to allow MUs to get bonus starting spells for INT and "Read Magic" I started with for free.

      But do you think starting spell number would radically alter any of the proposals I wrote about?

  3. The evidence for Hero/Superhero being the natural breakpoint between low/mid/domain levels is very compelling! I suspect you are correct, and if they'd kept to that division the game may well have worked a little more cleanly.

    1. Yeah, it really does feel like its sorta:
      Level 1-4: Dungeon
      Level 5-8: Wilderness/Hex crawl
      Level 9: Build a castle/keep/tower have some Chainmail battles. Repeat loop.

      Then AD&D and BECMI kinda messed that all up.

    2. It's funny how often AD&D and BECMI turn out to be the root of problems with the game. WotC has gotten too much flak for 3rd edition. (But still fucc wotc tho lmao)

    3. I really do think after ODD, I feel like there is another "shadow version" of D&D that is how the first players of D&D understood the game- not Gygax. I think you can see it in some of Moldvey's designs and in modules like Bone Hill. Maybe when I retire I'll try to read between the lines to extract this game.

      But I agree. I think "Advanced" was not the path it needed to go and was too influenced by the tourney game and the need to section off a piece of the game from Arneson.

  4. This is a great essay and says many things that ought to be incorporated into a new 'version' of any future game design.

    1. Thank you for the read! Yeah, I'm currently trying to put my money where my mouth is on all the above with a dungeon I'd like to release. So let's see if I take my own advice.