D&D Editions: Dungeons & Dragons Red Box

If you look at the current version of Dungeons and Dragons, you’ll notice that it’s labeled Fifth Edition. While it’s clear that the preceding edition was Fourth Edition and that the version before that was the Third Edition, figuring out the Second Edition is a bit tougher. OD&D is certainly D&D first edition, but there were two competing iterations of the game between OD&D and Third Edition. While AD&D 2nd Edition usually gets to credit as the bridge, one must not forget that there was another, very popular version of D&D out at the same time. This version, the Basic Set, did something new for D&D – it brought the game into the mainstream.

A Brief History of The Basic Set

In many ways, the history of the Basic Set is a history of changing priorities within the Dungeons and Dragons community. On one side, you had the original creator of the game, Gary Gygax. Gygax wanted to keep evolving the rules of the game, eventually creating a version of the game that had set rules for any situation that could possibly arise in the game. On the other, you had elements of the community that were less drawn to the complexity of the game than the adventures that one could have within the universe. As Gygax moved on to AD&D, it became clear that a new product would be needed for the other side of the argument.

The Basic Set was commissioned by TSR as the introductory version of D&D. It would explain how to play the game, introduce concepts of role-playing and fantasy combat, and give players what they needed in order to start playing their own games. This version of the game would work as a bridge between the original version of the game and the upcoming AD&D, allowing players who weren’t quite as familiar with the world of tabletop games to get their feet wet without having to worry about the complexities of the old rule system.

A Game for Beginners

One of the major goals of this game was to create a more accessible version of Dungeons and Dragons. For those who didn’t play through the original game, it should be noted that OD&D was not a game that you could just sit down and play. It assumed that you came from the war-gaming community and it also assumed that you enjoyed dense, almost overly-complex rule sets that were necessary to create a more realistic experience. While this type of granularity certainly helped to define what would become standard for the role-playing game community, it definitely wasn’t something that new players could be expected to pick up quickly.

The Basic Set solved the problems of the original game in a few ways. First and foremost, it boiled everything down to a single rule-book. This book had everything that you needed to play a game, including the information for making characters and monsters. The game also came packed with the dice you might need, something that made starting a game from scratch much easier. It was all packed together in a single, attractive box that could be found in more mainline stores. This put Dungeons and Dragons within the grasp of virtually anyone who could read.

The Other D&D

From a modern perspective, the Basic Set is a bit of an oddity. It is a full-fledged version of Dungeons and Dragons that managed to stay on the shelves for nearly thirty years, but it’s rarely spoken about in the same tones as AD&D. In fact, if one was to look at the game just by its version numbers you’d notice that the Basic Set gets left out entirely. From the modern perspective, then, this game is the also-ran that never really managed to capture the spirit of the original game.

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At the time, though, you could make an argument that this was the real heir of OD&D. It was certainly the more widely available game and initially it felt like it was the version for which TSR cared more. You could walk into almost any toy store in the United States and get this game – and you could get everything you needed to play at the same time. While the second edition of AD&D made it clear that the main branch of the game was following along the AD&D path, there were at least a few years during which you’d be hard-pressed to argue that D&D was really the game that came boxed in the Basic Set.

The Toy Store Years

One of the other major things to keep in mind about the Basic Set is that this was one of the first editions of Dungeons and Dragons to really be meant for wide-spread, mainstream public consumption. As such, the entire product was boxed together in a way that would allow D&D to go someplace that would otherwise have been impossible – the toy store. While the game certainly wasn’t only meant for children at this point, the new presentation made it much easier for those who weren’t familiar with tabletop gaming to give the hobby a try.

This did, however, end up being a double-edged sword for TSR. While Dungeons and Dragons would be more popular than ever thanks to the new edition, it also brought with it a great deal more attention. The moral panic of the 1980s surrounding Dungeons and Dragons probably would not have happened if the game had been relegated to the shelves of hobby shops, but the fact that it was now making its way into suburban America gave parents a new boogeyman to fear. This edition of the game, along with AD&D, would cause TSR to fight off accusations of Satanism and other occult influences until the company sold the property off to Wizards of the Coast.

The Game

As originally conceived, the Basic Set was supposed to be an introduction to Dungeons and Dragons. It included the basic materials one would need to play a game through the third level, including the outline for a basic dungeon. This game would simplify all the concepts for Dungeons and Dragons that were presented in OD&D, with a bit more flexibility that allowed for the personalization of individual games. Once you were done with the Basic Set, it was initially assumed that you would move on to the company’s other major game, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.

In time, the Basic Set became its own, separate game. It incorporated the rules for higher levels and was both visually and tonally distinct from AD&D. This would be the version of the game that was relatively rules-light, with a theoretically simpler presentation that would be able to bring in younger players. While the themes might have been toned down just a bit, it presented the type of game that allowed players a bit more experience to experiment. While there weren’t rules for everything in this version of the game, there was always an assumption that anything the players could think of could still be allowed by the Dungeon Master.

The Revisions

By this point, fans of Dungeons and Dragons are used to a fairly straightforward production cycle. The initial edition of the game is released, followed by supplements and errata in magazines. Eventually, a version of Unearthed Arcana will come out, possibly followed by a “.5” edition of the same game. Once that’s done, though, a new version of D&D will probably be in the works. The whole cycle takes a decade or less, with players having to adapt to the presentation of the books or move onto something else. That is not, however, how the Basic Set worked.

There were five different revisions of the Basic Set released between 1977 and 1995. The first revision in 1981 was the revision that moved the game further away from AD&D and added the revisions that would allow players to play up to level 14. The 1983 release didn’t do much with the rules, but included rules to allow the players to keep leveling their characters up to Immortal status. The 1991 revision would add a set of rules flashcards to help out younger players, while the 1994 would bring miniatures and standees into play. While the rules didn’t change much after 1981, the constant shifts in the product line allowed the Basic Set to see more evolution during its run than almost any other version of D&D.

The Cutting Room

In many ways, you can count the entire Basic Set as a part of D&D history that was left behind. Because it shared so many elements with OD&D and AD&D, though, it might be better to think of its major contributions being contributions that were eventually folded into the next edition of the game. There were, however, a few things that would absolutely be left behind. The constant iteration, for example, is something that wouldn’t last – new versions would get at best one “.5” edition before being revised into an entirely new rulebook. Likewise, the idea of publishing everything in a single box would be abandoned outside of fairly specific anniversary and promotional additions of the game.

Unfortunately, this was also the last version of the game to really shoot for mainstream appeal. You just don’t see Dungeons and Dragons in toy stores anymore, cutting off the major avenue of sales that made the Basic Set really stand out. All of the other little additions to make the game more mainstream (and child) friendly, like the rules cards, have likewise been left behind. This was Dungeons and Dragons’ real attempt at reaching out to a crowd outside of its comfort zone, one that Wizards of the Coast doesn’t seem to want to replicate.


The reactions to the Basic Set seem to have mostly been positive. This was doubly true for critics, who praised the game’s ability to simplify the material and present it in a way that made much more sense than the original version of the game. While the game was certainly much simpler than the original presentation, most critics noted that it captured the spirit of Dungeons and Dragons fairly well. It was also noted that this game did quite a bit for bringing mainstream attention to Dungeons and Dragons, especially since the game could now be purchased at a toy store instead of one of the fairly rare hobby shops of the day.

Gamers were, naturally, a bit more split on the Basic Set. By the the time the Basic Set finished its production run, there were four versions of Dungeons and Dragons on the market. Fans of either edition of AD&D or OD&D would point out that the game was fairly simplified when compared to what they played and those who craved complex systems tended to be dismissive of the game. Even with that said, the fact that the Basic Set was profitable shows that the game had its own fans.

D&D Basic Set Legacy

While the Basic Set might not be quite as well known among modern gamers as its contemporary, this game actually had a huge impact on Dungeons and Dragons as a whole. It was the first game to prove that there was a very real market for role-playing games out there that didn’t spawn from the war-gaming crowd. It was also the first real version of the game marketed towards the mainstream – and perhaps the only version of the game to find real success outside of the world of game shops. It’s hard to say that there could be a modern D&D without this box.

This version of the game also proved that it was possible to do D&D without Gygax and Arneson. While the rules of the Basic Set were certainly derived from the original game, the rules of the game did eventually start to diverge as the new versions of the game were made. While the contributions of the game’s creators absolutely should not be understated, this was the first version of the game to show that the game could continue on without them. The modern versions of Dungeons and Dragons are as much the descendants of this game as any other, and they certainly share a great deal in common with the Basic Set as those who had been fans of the original games wrote the new versions.

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The Basic Set is an important part of Dungeons & Dragons history. It might not be as fondly recalled as AD&D, but it brought many new players into the game. For a brief time, the Basic Set made buying a Dungeons and Dragons game as easy as going to a toy store and picking up a single box. While Dungeons and Dragons might not follow that path today, it’s good to remember that tabletop games weren’t always meant to be a niche hobby.

Paul Bellow

LitRPG Author Paul Bellow

Paul Bellow is a LitRPG author, gamer, RPG game developer, and publisher of several online communities. In other words, an old school webmaster. He also developed and runs LitRPG Adventures, a set of advanced RPG generators powered by GPT-3 AI. Here at LitRPG Reads, he publishes articles about LitRPG books, tabletop RPG books, and all sorts of DND content that's free to use in your personal tabletop campaign - i.e. non-commercial use. Enjoy your stay and reach out on Twitter or Discord if you want to make contact.

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