From Chainmail to D&D Next
Basic / Expert D&D Moldvay
As a kid I was introduced to D&D with the Holmes Edition, and still have my beaten up book. I choose the Moldvay Basic D&D to play because there are digital copies available. Moldvay’s rules are simple, easy to understand and follow. Out of all the early edition, I think these are the most approachable rules. The Mentzer BCEMI and Rules Encyclopedia made the higher level more clear, but the game changed from adventuring and dungeon crawling to running and ruining kingdoms.
Character creation is quick, with few choices. Some players liked how character are emergent from the rolls. Instead of starting with a character concept the dice lead you to create a character you would not have. Characters are not very customizable by the rules, but each player does add a bit of personality and backstory, marking them individuals.
First level characters are fragile, expect several to die before one will live to 2nd or 3rd level. Often beginning character will have an Armor class of 7 and very few Hit Points. This is not all bad it encourages the players to be more creative and teaches them that the sword is not the only solution for dealing with conflicts. The game says to role-play encounters leaving resolution to GM fiat, but he should find a resolution that logically follows from the fiction.
We experienced one character death per session. Which is good if you think of it as a tactical war game. Reading the examples a character died in each of the examples. This high death rate discourages players from connecting to character motivations, thus limiting role-playing and risk taking too much.
When I played as kid we had a house rule where first level character are extraordinary and start will max hit points. This helped fixed the high mortality rate of low level characters; but It also let us use combat to settle most conflicts.
This emergent style of play seems to continue through out the rules. Combat is abstract and leads to rolling the dice and then interpreting and describing the results. Having reaction and moral rolls also enforce this style of play, forcing the GM to respond to the dice and players actions. Rolling initiative every round can make or break a fight, and adds needed uncertainty.
Moldvay clearly defines the steps in a turn or a combat round. This makes it easy for new GMs and players to learn and play. When playing with a map and miniatures and using the strict turn oder it easier to play than many of todays complex boardgames. Moldvay spells out how to create an dungeon or wilderness adventure that works well with his strict turn order, and assumed character motivations. He describe most thing you will encounter in a physical conflict, and give you simple rules to follow. Combat can be a little repetitive, a problem with all D20 variants.
The rules are mostly combat focused but they expressly tell the DM to determine a chance for any other action, always making the impossible possible and keeping balance of risk and reward in mind. This discourages fudging of die rolls to tell a specific story, and encourages the GM to the let the dice tell how the events resolve. Then the GM and the players describe those results.
The Examples of play, encourage the players to play their alignment and have minor conflicts between each other, and compromise to keep party unity. The example also do a great job of explaining the rules. I encourage players and GMs of current editions to read these rules and the examples, for it will make the game more solid.