This is the 1981 edition of the D&D Basic Rulebook, which was sold as part of the boxed D&D Basic Set and also on its own. It was the first true standalone edition of what became "Basic D&D" as previous editions had instead been based on OD&D play.
The Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rules (1981), by Tom Moldvay, was the second edition of Basic D&D, with the previous edition created by J. Eric Holmes (1977). It was released in January 1981, leading off the year.
Holmes D&D. When Eric Holmes put together the original Basic D&D, his purpose was simply to clean up and organize the original Dungeons & Dragons (1974) along with some content from Supplement I: Greyhawk (1975).
He wanted to create a game that was easier to learn (as the original D&D was considered notoriously bad in that regard) and that could be better understand by the high school and junior high demographics, toward which the game was then trending. However, the expectation was that players would go on to the original D&D games from there. Basic D&D was never expected to be its own game system - at first.
Holmes' Basic Set was widely successful - sufficiently so that TSR was wary of sending its players on to the more challenging original D&D game or the more complex AD&D game (1977-79) game. Thus, as early as fall 1979, work began on an Expert Set that would allow the hundreds of thousands of players who had learned the game from Basic D&D to continue on, past the three levels available in that game.
A new version of the Basic Set was required for release with the Expert Set.
Moldvay D&D. Whereas Holmes' Basic D&D was mostly a matter of organization and explanation, Moldvay's Basic D&D also engaged in simplification. Thus, for example, there were no longer separate character classes and races. The twelve race-and-class combinations of Holmes' Basic D&D (including things such as the elven fighter/magic-user multiclass) became just seven classes in the new Basic D&D: clerics, dwarves, elves, fighters (which had still been "fighting men" under Holmes), halflings, magic-users, and thieves.
Moldvay's second edition also cleaned up character alignment, constrained spell choice, and even improved the layout of the book. All around, every effort was made to upgrade the game for starting players. As for the results, even former editor Holmes said, "I think the new Basic Set rules are an improvement over the first edition. Not a big quantum jump ahead, but better in a number of minor ways."
Moldvay's Basic D&D was enough of a change from the previous edition of the game that it was actually a "new edition" as it's understood in the modern roleplaying market, which was a pretty rare occurrence in the 70s or early 80s.
The Basic Set was (as planned) released simultaneously with the new Expert Set by David "Zeb" Cook, which expanded Basic D&D to levels 4-14. Gary Gygax mentioned a "Masters Set" around the same time, which was to cover levels 15-36, but that wouldn't appear during Basic D&D's second edition.
Color-Coding the Boxes. Some people like to classify the D&D boxes by color: This edition is thus the "magenta box," to differentiate it from the "red box" edition that would follow in 1983.
The Inevitable Adventure. Moldvay's Basic D&D was sold both as a standalone book and in a box with six dice and an adventure. The adventure was Gary Gygax's "B2: Keep on the Borderlands." Because of its inclusion in the Basic D&D set, "Keep" became the most-published RPG adventure ever, with a much-later estimate suggesting that there were 1.5 million copies of it made.
Mentzer D&D. Moldvay's D&D wasn't the final iteration of Basic D&D. It was replaced just two and a half years later by Frank Mentzer's third edition of Basic D&D. The goal was once more to make the game even easier to learn from the rulebooks. That version of D&D, often called BECMI, was the one that actually included Companion and Master sets, which supported levels 15-36 between them.
About the Creators. After his work on Basic D&D, Moldvay immediately moved on to producing adventures for the game system. One of his first tasks was to revise "B3: Palace of the Silver Princess," by Jean Wells, which had been recalled and pulped after its first printing.
About the Product Historian
This history of this product was researched and written by Shannon Appelcline, the author of Designers & Dragons - a history of the roleplaying industry told one company at a time. Please feel free to mail corrections, comments, and additions to firstname.lastname@example.org.