What are the differences between Holmes, Moldvay, and Mentzer D&D? Also, which one came first?
D&D started as a series of little booklets, now called "original D&D" (OD&D). These booklets were basically barely-edited versions of the house rules of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson.
In 1977, TSR hired J. Eric Holmes to develop a Basic D&D game. This was a dark blue, boxed set containing D&D in a single book, plus a module (B1 In Search of the Unknown), and some dice (or cardboard chits, when they ran out!).
Moldvay and Mentzer are game designers who took the old Basic D&D game (edited by Eric Holmes) and revised them. Both produced "red box" versions of the game. You'll find far more differences between Holmes and the later red boxes than you'll find between Moldvay and Mentzer.
Tom Moldvay revised the "Basic" D&D game in 1981. It came in a red box and featured the B2 Keep on the Borderlands module. It came with dice (and a marking crayon!). These rules handled levels 1-3. David "Zeb" Cook wrote the follow-on "Expert" rule book (another boxed set) that expanded the game to levels 4-14.
Frank Mentzer revised the game again in 1983 with another "red box" set featuring the art of Larry Elmore. This time, the Dungeon Master book was separated from the Player book. Mentzer would continue the Basic (1-3) and Expert (4-14) classifications but would go on to produce additional expansions: Companion (15-25), Master (26-36), and Immortal (characters too sexy for their levels, but you essentially get 36 more). These separate books would later be combined into the D&D Rules Cyclopedia.
Differences between Holmes and Moldvay
Moldvay made many changes to the Holmes version to streamline play and make it easier for players to understand the game. Both games cover levels 1-3, though.
Holmes' game includes B1 In Search of the Unknown. Moldvay's game includes B2 Keep on the Borderlands.
The Holmes version is intended as an introduction for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and refers the reader to there for further help. Moldvay Basic D&D is intended as its own game, with little connection to AD&D.
Holmes' book is a reference manual. Moldvay's book is an instruction manual.
Holmes presents the game as rules to be followed. Moldvay presents the game as guidelines to be considered.
Holmes has initiative in order of dexterity (high to low). Moldvay has players roll group initiative.
Combat in Holmes is based on OD&D, which was based on Chainmail (more wargamey). The weapons all do 1d6 damage. Moldvay gives weapons individual damage ratings.
The spell Magic Missile requires a to-hit roll in Holmes, but not in Moldvay.
Holmes offers dozens of spells (level 1-3). Moldvay cuts this spell list a lot (from 18 to 3 3rd level spells, for instance).
In Holmes, not all ability scores have modifiers. Moldvay makes every ability count and provides bonus charts for each one, and most fall into the same seven bands (-3 to +3).
There are differences in advancement for classes. Elves in Holmes need far more XP to advance than in Moldvay.
Holmes has no surprise rules. Moldvay does, but they're essentially brought back in from OD&D.
Moldvay adds monster morale.
Moldvay adds automatic hits on a 20 and automatic misses on a 1.
Holmes carries forward the OD&D class name "Fighting Man." Moldvay shortened that to "Fighter" (probably copying Gygax in AD&D).
Differences between Moldvay and Mentzer
In general, the Mentzer version was a repackaging and expansion of the Moldvay version. The differences are minor in the Basic ruleset.
Moldvay aims his writing at a younger audience. Mentzer writes for an adult audience.
The Moldvay version has weaker layout and art than the later Mentzer version.
Moldvay's game is pretty simple and straightforward. Mentzer adds complexity, like skills and weapon mastery.
Moldvay's red box came with B2 Keep on the Borderlands, but you could buy the books separately (unboxed). Mentzer's Basic box didn't come with a module (the Expert set came with X1 The Isle of Dread, though!).
Moldvay stops at level 3 (and Cook's Expert set continues that to 14). Mentzer's "BECMI" continues on and on.
Moldvay states that clerics get their spells from gods. Mentzer gets all "wishy-washy"* about this aspect of the game and only says clerics get spells from "their beliefs."
Moldvay's magic-users get one spell at 1st level and have to find more in play. Mentzer's get one spell plus Read Magic at 1st level, and then one new one at every level.
The monster list changes between these versions. A number of people "monsters" are combined into the Human entry: acolyte, medium, trader, veteran. Insect swarm and noble are moved to the Expert rules. Some monsters are renamed: cave locust became locust, giant; driver ant became ant, giant; and killer bee became bee, giant.
Mentzer slows down the advancement of saving throws, thieves' abilities, and spell acquisition for clerics and magic-users.
Castle-building rules are more detailed in Moldvay, but Mentzer details a base town and talks about running town adventures.
- 1973: woodgrain box D&D. (Actual publishing date in early 1974)
- 1974-76: supplements come out for D&D
- 1977: Holmes collates the "basic" set, incorporating some of Supplements 1 & 2 into the rules. White editions of original rules sold as "Classic D&D", AD&D announced.
- 1977: AD&D starts to be released, with the MM being published first.
- 1981: Moldvay simplifies the rules, and adds a few innovations, seems to ignore Supplements 1 & 2 except for variable weapon damage as an option.
- 1982 or so: Cook expands upon Moldvay with the Expert Set; D&D forks into two paths, Classic D&D discontinued.
- 1983: Mentzer revises Basic and Expert Sets, firmly entrenching Moldvay's changes, and creating a different look for B/X than the AD&D look.
- By 1990, the game has been expanded to Basic (red), Expert (Blue), Companion (Teal), Master (Black) and Immortal (Gold) boxes. Companion adds AD&D inspired subclasses, Master adds weapon mastery. Immortal allows PC's to essentially ascend to Godhood.
- 1991 Black Box Basic - Denning rewrites Mentzer rules for levels 1-5, and puts them in a big box with maps, paper minis, and dice; Allston cleans up and collates Basic, Expert, Companion, and Master rules into the Cyclopedia, making some errata fixes and rewording a lot.
- 1992 Wrath of the Immortals - Allston completely rewrites the Immortals Rules...
All of them except Holmes use the simple stat mods; classic has the AD&D style mods in Supplement 1. All of them have variable weapon damage, some as an option; Classic, Moldvay, and Mentzer all have 1d6 damage for any weapon as standard. Alston and Denning use Variable Weapon Damage as a standard.
original or Classic D&D: levels 1-10+, Fighter, Mage, Cleric. All weapons do 1d6 hit points (at least one printing is missing that line). All hit dice in d6's with mods; completely re-roll HP each level. Races are not classes.
Note: sometimes called "Little Brown Book" or "Little White Book" D&D.
CD&D with Supplement 1: add thief class and paladin sub-class of fighter, HD type by class and 1 HD per level, asymmetric stat bonuses tables (later used in AD&D), damage by weapon type instead of all doing 1d6, modifiers to to-hit rolls on weapon vs specific armor types...
CD&D Supplement 2: adds monks and assassins. Adds more stuff, too.
CD&D Supplement 3: adds druids and demons(monsters)
Holmes Basic: I don't have a copy; no details I can check. It used some of the supplement 1 stat effect tables.
Moldvay Basic: Introduces Race-based classes; Basic set levels 1-3, Fighter, Magic User, Cleric, Theif, Elf, Dwarf Halfling. Covers only dungeons.
Cook Expert: adds levels 4-12, wilderness travel rules, more monsters.
Mentzer Basic: same classes and focus as Moldvay; different writing style, a few errata-ish changes.
Mentzer Expert: same focus as Cook; Levels 4-14, only Mentzer set done as a single volume.
Mentzer Companion: Levels 15-25, Clan Relics for demihumans, adds Druids, Paladins, Avengers. Landholding rules and the War Machine. Adds a variety of NPC specialist henchmen. Unarmed Combat rules.
Mentzer Master: Levels 25-36, Weapon Mastery Rules, Dimensional Travel, Planes. Introduces quest for immortality.
Mentzer Immortals: Levels Immortal-1 to Immortal-36, more on dimensions, lots of stuff.
Denning Basic: BIG black box (18x12x4 inches or so) Levels 1-5, 1st version without "All weapons do 1d6, but you have the option for polyhedrals," using only the damage by weapon type. Dungeon focused. Otherwise, very comparable to Moldvay or Mentzer editions.
Allston Cyclopedia: covers all the same as Mentzer through Master. Like Denning, no "1d6" option. Adds the General Skills from the Gazeteer and Hollow World series of modules.
Allston Wrath of the Immortals: complete rewrite of the Immortals rules; works differently in many ways, includes a campaign adventure for both Immortals and non-immortals (two sides of the same story!). Covers more details on the multiverse and planes, covers levels I1 to I36, and on how to become Immortal.
Advanced D&D just for clarity: Advanced D&D starts off with almost all of Supplements 1, 2, and 3 incorporated into the Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide. It uses the asymmetric stat modifier tables, variable damage by weapon, no racial classes, has Fighter, Cleric, Thief, Mage, Ranger, Paladin, Monk, Assassin and Druid, and a funky Bard class as well. It included the Supplement 3 psionics rules in an appendix, and was revised by Gygax from a base of Classic and Holmes.
Come on people...the dice!
Adam mentions that the Holmes version came with chits instead of dice after a while. When it came with chits, it also came with a coupon for a set of polyhedra. These were terrible, soft, twisted and awesome!
The white d20 would turn pretty spherical and roll forever after a year or so of play. The blue d12 was as soft as the others but it hardly ever got rolled, so they're the ones that we old-timers tend to still have around. ('Course, I still have all of them -- useless as they've become.) The green d8 seems like it was the second most used die -- it suffered the most damage after the 20. The red d6 -- my first one had this huge dent in one edge and it's still in pretty good shape. I think we maybe used dice from Yahtzee or something instead of the D&D die. And the yellow d4! Who could forget you? Ever leave this baby on the floor of the family room in the dark? Back then, no one had thought to flatten the points and they were like little caltrops.
By the time the red boxes came out, there were other, better, dice options in the glass cases of hobby and game stores and and TSR was shipping them with these little pastel dice. They were also soft plastic, but not as vulnerable as the originals, it seems. And they were littler than the originals and than the standard that has evolved. It seems like they were mostly blue, but maybe some beige or rose or something too. The set of dice in the box would be ALL THE SAME color though -- which was weird.
Just adding to the excellent answers, it appears Holmes D&D was really more a continuation of OD&D than any sort of intro to the emerging Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Holmes D&D is really almost a complete game in itself, separate from anything else ever published at TSR. Although continuations of Holmes' Blue book to higher levels can be found, Moldvay's version is really much more seamless in it's graduation to higher level play. To me that is the major difference between the two editions.
Moldvay's version in my experience is really a much better introduction into eventually playing AD&D, if you have the two books (Beginning and Expert) you have what is considered one of the most perfect contained RPGs ever published. The game Labyrinth Lord is based on the Moldvay version of D&D found in these two books.
The Mentzer version is the "Everything and the kitchen sink" approach....five box sets that take you from first level to, well, gods (immortals). I think this version was meant for the more "campaign" minded gamers who were immersed into the whole experience (gaining levels, setting up a kingdom, then becoming gods) than the first two versions, which seem to be more focused on low level and medium level play.
First there was the Basic Set, also known as the Holmes Rules, from its author. It was intended to be an introductory set of rules, based on what we now call Original D&D, leading players either to D&D proper (OD&D) or AD&D.
Following that, the B/X rules were released. This consisted of the Basic Set and the Expert Set, also known as Moldvay/Cook Basic (again after the authors, respectively), and was considered its own version of the D&D rules, as opposed to AD&D (thus “Basic” meant both Basic as opposed to Expert, the rule set for higher-level characters, and Basic as opposed to Advanced, as in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons).
Next came the BECMI rules, aka Mentzer Basic, named after its various rules Sets: Basic, Expert, Companion, Master and Immortals, each Set allowing characters to become yet higher in level.
Lastly there is RC, meaning Rules Compendium, a book by Aaron Allston that included all the sets (except Immortals, which was released as Wrath of the Immortals), and also included The NEW Easy to Master Dungeons and Dragons Game (aka the Black Box), and introductory boxed set.
Of course each version of Basic had various accessories and adventures associated with it as well.
"Classic" isn't a term until 1994:
I would define OD&D as D&D before the Basic & Advanced split where later Basic also is part of Basic & Expert, and Basic-Expert-Companion-Masters-Immortals, then the RC (levels 1-36) and big black box and CD&D (levels 1-5),
"Original" as a term was coined in 1977 to differentiate the original game with three pamphlets from the new Basic version of the game.
The differences in a nutshell, with the above in mind.
Holmes cleaned up the production value of the OD&D. It was a much cleaner version of the original game with some lessons learned incorporated, and Gygax's alignment matrix tossed in as a bonus (or as a curse, pick your poison).
Moldvay began the split of D&D from AD&D, since Holmes was specifically an "intro" to AD&D based on its "gateway" method (levels 1-3 framework) of getting people into a game that was packaged like most board games were back in the 1970's. It even included an encouragement to head into AD&D once level 3 was reached, and the basic mode of D&D was understood.
Moldvay's revamp was a less complex introduction into D&D than the AD&D pathway (rules mastery intensive) approach had become. The Expert set gave the new entrants into the hobby a way to progress into higher levels of play without the AD&D investment in time and learning that more complicated system's quirks.
Mentzer took it a step further. You can see from the success of the repackaging of D&D itself, as differentiated from AD&D, that the product line was revamped from top to bottom and reached to levels AD&D never imagined (the M / I levels in BECMI) so that it fit into its own niche in the D&D product line.
Thanks for letting me split hairs.
Another difference between Moldvay Basic and Mentzer Basic - Moldvay came in a magenta box, not a red one. This is an oft-repeated misconception.
Molvay, like Holmes, also had across-the-board 1d6 damage for weapons - the variable weapon damage was an optional rule, although apparently a popular one.