Friday, April 12, 2013

AD&D Second Edition, Nostalgia and Missed Opportunities

A lot of detractors look at the Old School Renaissance and old school gaming in general as some kind of weird nostalgia trip. It was never that way for me, because I was born about ten years too late for early '80s D&D to have any nostalgia value for me. The first RPG book I ever purchased was the AD&D Second Edition Players Handbook, although I was utterly confused by it until I played through the introductory solo adventure and then a single session game of the 1991 Dungeons & Dragons basic set (the "black box" set with Zanzer's Dungeon and lots of cardboard standups). After that, I ran and played in AD&D second edition in a continuous string of campaigns through middle school and high school, including Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, Dragonlance and Al-Qadim games. The last 2e campaign I played in was a Dark Sun game that converted to 3e and then fell apart right after that was released. I never converted to 3e.

Now AD&D second edition is getting the premium re-release treatment. Unfortunately it's going to be using the awful "2.5e" versions. Released in 1995, these do not contain any rule changes, they are just new printings of the books that had poor full-color art throughout – the original printings had full-page paintings but most art was either black & white or blue.

Later in high school, when I got into Greyhawk, I switched to the first edition DMG. That really was what got me into old school gaming, as well as (via the famous Appendix N) reading more sword & sorcery and less crappy Dragonlance tie-in novels. It seems cliché to say that Leiber, Moorcock, Anderson, Howard, Vance and Lovecraft are favorites of mine, but quality shines through.

The fact that 2e was basically written to get Gary Gygax's name off the cover and stop paying him royalties has always irked me. I like certain things about 2e, for instance I thought THAC0 was fine, and showed which of my friends were good at doing subtraction in their head. Its initiative system was actually one of my favorites, and when I ran I used 2e style initiative with weapon speeds, spell casting times and all. There's no segment crap in 2e, just 1d10 + modifiers, and it worked really well in practice. The proficiency system is terribly lame but I've always used d20 roll-under attribute checks; it just works smoothly.

Second edition was a world of missed opportunities and bad priorities. The Dungeon Masters Guide was damn-nigh useless, because all the good advice had been cut and moved into the DMGR books. Nobody told us at the time, so we just had a book full of neat magic items that told us to be extremely stingy with them, and a game with a ton of combat rules that told us not to use them either. 2e never was comfortable with dungeons and made dragons so big that they were not realistic enemies - so you were left with a game called "Advanced &."

The game lines of the time had some really good worldbuilding. Most of it went to waste, though. Dark Sun was a neat idea for a world that was immediately turned upside-down by metaplot. Greyhawk got trashed and then got a pretty neat revamp only to be cancelled because senior management hated Gary Gygax. Forgotten Realms, which in the 1e releases was not an awful setting, was ruined by a stream of absolutely sub-par releases. Planescape was marred by the awful "cant" writing and the bowdlerized names of the demons and devils. Birthright was an excellent setting that got tied to a bad set of domain management rules and sunk by the worst business model ever, trying to sell modules for individual PC realms. Ravenloft was a cliché storm, and Al-Qadim had some solid releases, but was a limited line.

The problem was, second edition AD&D was never ambitious. It had no direction, and got very badly bloated by supplemental material. The "2.5e" Player's Option books were uneven and wildly mixed in quality; Skills & Powers was guaranteed to break campaigns while Combat & Tactics introduces 3e-style fiddly combat; the spell point system in Spells & Magic didn't work but some of the classes and new spells were okay. Modules got very railroad-heavy, and dungeon design degenerated into the straight lines that were later seen in 3e. The game wanted to be a generic high fantasy RPG but was still loaded down with baggage from the dungeon crawling first edition.

So I'm going to pass on the second edition reprints, the first real "nostalgia" books for me. The basic rules aren't awful and would do in a pinch, but I have them; and for me the nostalgia is mostly about trying to hack a game that didn't work like the books told you to run it.


  1. "That really was what got me into old school gaming, as well as (via the famous Appendix N) reading more sword & sorcery and less crappy Dragonlance tie-in novels."

    Amen! I've never read any of the Dragonlance stuff, never figured I missed out on anything.

    Even when I started running 2e, I never stopped using the 1e DMG... as you said, too much was deleted to make 2e.

  2. Whoah ... 50 dollars for a 2nd edition PHB? I still have that brick (in the 2.5 version, no less), but I remember the absolute chaos of trying to make 2nd edition characters after years of, well, other variants!

    And true, the dragons became sadly unusable.

  3. "The fact that 2e was basically written to get Gary Gygax's name off the cover and stop paying him royalties has always irked me."

    Why? when that was the whole reason AD&D existed in the first place.

    1. I'm guessing you mean that AD&D was written to get Arneson's name off the cover? That bothers me as well. Although Gygax was clear that the other motive for writing AD&D 1e was that they needed hardcovers to get into mass market book stores.

  4. I am going to pick them up. I never owned the 2.5 books having given up on D&D at about that time. But 2e was the edition I played in college and I still have my original books, so these would be nice.

  5. He he, Advanced &. I think the shift in source material to sub-par door-stop high fantasy/romance and power ballads was what did it. There was no correlation between the gritty ruleset and the assumed setting. To an extent, the power bloating splatbooks went a way towards correcting this disconnect (now you can be a bladesinger!)but the mechanics were never quite Elmore enough.

  6. 2e seems to me to be the edition that attempted to 'rationalize' 1e and reconcile the rules with the way many people had wound up playing the game. 2e seemed to spend a lot of time just trying to systematize everything that had been kind of haphazardly stitched together in 1e games. But with no really unusual vision like Gygax behind it, it kind of plays like a more vanilla fantasy RPG with a lot of the oblong bits shaved off. So it had more consistency, but way less flavor, and also seems spiritually different in a way I can't quite pin down.

  7. I'm curious as to what you feel didn't work about sell points. I never used them, but was looking at the rules the other day.

    1. It was so restrictive that people who liked the idea didn't embrace it, and it was spell points so people who preferred Vancian magic rejected it. If you look at it doing anything but memorizing your spells per the PHB is basically rendered useless.

  8. Our group ended up playing a mix of AD&D 1e and 2e after switching from the BASIC RULES set. We used the 2e rules system but played 1e modules. Our campaign setting was a mix of Greyhawk, Dragonlance and Mystara (BASIC RULES). We also ran AD&D Forgotten Realms campaigns for fun.

    We never really had any problems with the rules system. We played within the boundaries of that concept and everyone was fine with THACO.

    Many of our adventures were home made or modified from Dungeon Magazine, with 3 rotating DMs.

    Fairly recently I put up our 2nd Edition house rules, with a large number of updates, for the 2e hold out community. I got linked at Dragonsfoot.

    Here is the address if you are interested:

    There's also some original adventures linked to the blog, of similar calibre to what we used to make up and run ourselves - although there is nothing like the murder mystery werewolf adventure our party went through, the ethical challenges we had facing an evil wizard's cat-princess 'monster' that, by chance, turned out not to be evil, or the kind of orc lair set-up that allowed dialog and trickery such that we could bluff our way through a large part of their underground complex.


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