Choose Your Language

Thursday, 14 April 2011

The Changing Face of AD&D (Part 1)

I have been playing AD&D (Advanced Dungeons and Dragons) for most of my life now and there have certainly been some changes over the years. My first encounter was with the first edition AD&D in April 1981, and even back then there were three core rule books to get the game underway: The Player's Handbook (PHB); The DM's Guide (DMG) and The Monster Manual (MM). Thirty years on, I'm still playing and at this time the game has entered its fourth set of rules, as well as becoming available on the computer in the form of Neverwinter Nights (NWN/NWN2) and D&D Online (DDO) .

Throughout this time, the rules have undergone many changes and incarnations around a central theme of character development and adventures. However, I do question whether the rules have always undergone a change for the better? Furthermore, I wonder if the rules still need revising? Before attempting to answer these questions, here is some AD&D background from my own perspective. This week I will cover first edition, and hopefully, in the coming weeks, I will be able to cover the later revisions. In the final blog on this topic, I will try to answer my own questions, guided by any comments of your own. I would be very interested to know how your own background in AD&D compares to mine?

First Edition

My copies of the first edition core rulebooks are dated from the late 70's and I can still remember the first dungeon I ever ran from using these core books as my guide. The rules back then seemed "simple" - at least by comparison to what was to come. As the eighties went on, I bought a complementary magazine called "White Dwarf" (my earliest backdated copy is number 22, dated December 1979), which was filled with various gaming material, including such things as new monsters and character classes for AD&D. It was due to the popularity of some of these new creatures that the "Fiend Folio" was released. When I first bought this book, I thought it was great to have a whole menagerie of new creatures to throw at my players, but looking back now, I see only one or two creatures I would consider using today. Although this book appeared to be an honest attempt to bring more material to the players, I now consider it just a book of historical curiosity that represents the players imaginations at the time. There are one or two ideas, like the Kuo-Toans, which have survived the test of time, but I still cringe when I read about creatures like the Nilbog. (See Goblin subrace.)

Along with the "Fiend Folio", I bought a copy of "Deities and Demigods". Many players could claim they had defeated all that the DM (Dungeon Master) had throw at them in the way of normal creatures and now greatness and the gods themselves had become the targets of the PCs ambitions. This book gave the DM the guidelines on just how tough these gods should be, including giving actual statistics for them, along with more detailed backgrounds of the more common "god systems" that a DM might consider using for their own campaigns. My own copy of this book is one of the first editions that includes the later removed Cthulhu and Melnibonéan mythoi. Personally, while I found the information contained in this book interesting, I felt it also veered too far into the real world for its ideas. I ended up redefining every system and eventually even defining my own cosmology to avoid using any of the real-life comparisons. I did, however, use the nonhuman deities, which, in my opinion, is the most valuable section of the book.

A couple of years later, the Monster Manual 2 (MM2) was released. Backed by Gary Gygax, this tome of creatures definitely felt more "official" than the "Fiend Folio", and its content expanding on the original contents of the first "Monster Manual" did not disappoint. There was still the odd creature that did not sit comfortably with me, but, overall, the new manual of monsters was a welcome addition to the resources already available.

While the last three books added content to the core rules and went some way to help expand some of the existing understanding of the game, I believe it is the next book released in 1985 called "Unearthed Arcana" by Gary Gygax, that was to end up being the first book that really lead the way to complicating the game more than it needed to be. It was also the first book to give weight to new classes, such as the Barbarian and Cavalier classes and was probably the thin end of the wedge that opened up a whole raft of new content and rules in the years that followed. However, I do not blame the game or the author for what followed, as I believe it was only addressing questions that were being raised by players at the time. As the game had matured, players had started to question the rules more and more - not necessarily a bad thing, but I believe in a way that opened up the way to a whole change in attitude towards the game. If the rules on grappling had been hard enough to remember and include from the original core books, then the "Unearthed Arcana" (UA), along with the two that quickly followed it, the "Dungeoneer's Survival Guide" (DSG) and the "Wilderness Survival Guide" (WSG), added complication and rule nuances to the nth degree that would probably horrify a modern cRPG player today. It is from this time that we encounter such rules as "weapon specialization" (Unearthed Arcana), a number of crafting proficiencies (DSG) and effects of temperature on a character (WSG), to name but a few. I must stress that I believe there were some good things to come from these works, although much more, in my opinion, were rule additions and complications that were simply not necessary. An example: While there may be a reason to need to know the chance of finding natural shelter in a given terrain (WSG), is there any real need to have a table guide for it? I believe many of these rules/guidelines only came about due to players arguing such points with a DM. Such rules gave all players a guideline to follow so that no-one could argue a DM was being unfair in a given situation because the rules were there to protect everyone. Basic role-playing and DM'ing would take a back seat to a rule that now tried to cover every situation.

I bought one more book for the first edition, entitled the "Manual of the Planes" (MoP). Upon reflection, while this book added its own level of complexity to the rules, I also believe this book to be one of the most useful to come from this time. For while many campaigns could probably survive quite comfortably without the other supplementary books, this book was a great resource for the DM with respect to understanding the AD&D cosmology as a whole. In previous texts, terms such as "ethereal" and "negative energy" were not very well explained. One would have a vague idea of their meaning, but the MoP help to place them firmly within the cosmology of the game, and arm the DM with information to help expand their understanding of such and thereby build worlds that made more sense.

The Pros and Cons (First Edition)

I cannot comment on the improvements or decline of the first edition AD&D to the original basic D&D, as I never had the chance to play the latter. However, with thirty years experience of the various AD&D editions, I believe I am in a position to comment on what I believe to be the pros and cons of the first edition with respect to later editions and explain why I believe such. NB: In the following list I generally ignore first edition supplementary books.


While I have a great fondness for the original edition, I believe it has fewer pros than cons compared to later editions. That said, I believe the pros it does have are significant and they have a great influence on how other rules have developed in the later editions over time. Two key pros of the first edition are, in my opinion:

1) Archetypal Races: There were only 7 races for a player to choose from, with a few variant (sub-race) forms. Variant forms have subtle alterations to the character only. (*)

2) Archetypal Classes: There were only 11 classes (including the Bard class). (*)

(*) As later editions of the rules became available, so did the idea of expanding on the existing races and classes that the player could choose to play. Allowing new races meant determining new abilities to match the race, which had originally been reserved for the "monsters" in the game. Later rules (3E) even allow a player to play what was once considered a purely monster race. In a similar fashion, classes in later editions of the rules were designed to have abilities that would be a mixture of the archetypal classes, or be an extension of a class (prestige) that would simply allow a player to have additional abilities beyond the core classes. As the new races and classes began to increase, so the line between monsters and PCs, and the different classes, would start to blur. While some effort was made to balance these new additions to the rules, knowing "you had to be a magic user to be able to cast a fireball" or "be a thief to pick a lock" would no longer be the case, as the new rules would allow overlap that damaged the archetypal system.

Furthermore, the first edition rules already allowed multi-classing, which meant a player could try to become proficient in a number of classes, but it would come at a cost. They could not, for instance, continue in their chosen class and gain the benefits of another archetypal class just because they liked that particular trait and the rules allowed them to gain it. They would have to give up on one class to be able to start learning the skills and abilities of another.

However, I do not believe every class from the first edition to be a good idea to include in the game. (I would not include the assassin and illusionist sub-classes; the former because it does not play well in a party, and the latter because it is not different enough from the magic-user class.) However, those that were formed at this time were, on the whole, reasonably distinct from one another and potentially allowed all types of role-play styles to be included. For example, just because a class might be listed as a "fighter", it is not unreasonable to suggest that one player might play their fighter like a barbarian, while another play it like a swashbuckler. They would both play the "fighter" class, and it would be left to their own style of play and interpretation as to how they were to be perceived in the game. It is the designing of new rules and additional traits for each distinction in the style of play that I believe adds a level of complexity that begins to stifle the game and adds unnecessary complications to the rules.


1) Illogical & Limiting Numbers: Examining the strength table of the first edition rules will explain both these points. Later editions removed the unusual number formats and delimited the attributes. Another example of illogical numbering is how the armour class worked, with a value of -10 being the best armour one could acquire. I also include differing XP tables for classes in this.

2) Unclear Rules: This obviously covers a number of topics, from spell use to combat, as well as interacting with the environment. However, it is probably unfair for me to pick on this to any degree, because "flexible rules" was also part of its appeal. All the while the players agreed with the DM that a certain situation would be handled a certain way, then all would go well. The problem, however, is that as a player became more attached to their character and invested more time in its creation, then the rules that govern what consequences apply or not to their character's actions become more important to the player and, as such, require clearer defining. The "success" of the first edition's more flexible rule system became its own downfall demanding more rules to help explain itself.

There also remains many aspects of the first edition which are both better in some ways and worse in others compared to later editions. The spell system is an example of this. Spells from the first edition were listed simply and plainly, and some had the ability to scale with every level the PC achieved. Later editions would limit the maximum damages possible, and add more complex metamagic rules to compensate. In my opinion, metamagic should be completely removed from the game and the spells returned to straightforward scaling spells. On the other hand, later editions have gone a long way to help clarify spells with respect to their school and divine/arcane nature. Thankfully, many of the supplementary spells that have appeared from the time of the first edition have disappeared again. However, an argument can also be raised that some spells have been hijacked by classes that would not have had such before. (E.g. Cleric Summon Creatures prayers being an obvious hijack of the magic user's Monster Summoning spell.)

The End of an Era

As the 80's drew to a close, a decade of first edition AD&D was also coming to its end. Second edition AD&D was about to be thrust upon its players, and new acronyms and rules would have to be learned anew, like THACO and priestly spheres (later to become domains). What would go and what would remain from the first edition? Were there any improvements or disasters to be found in the latest revision of the rules? Join me next time as I try to recall the decade of the 90's and my experience with the second edition rules.

If you have any memories of your years with first edition rules, please send me a comment and reminisce with me.


Wyrin said...

Sorry Lance, better late than never!

Interesting read. My own route into D&D was a little circuitous. I started briefly with 1e AD&D, moved to Blue Book Holmes Classic D&D, only played 2e on cRPGs like Baldur's Gate, and have run games in 3e (obviously played cRPGs in 3e too). But the bulk of my playing experience (as in face-to-face tabletop gaming) is probably with classic D&D and the Rules Cyclopedia - so rules just before the stuff you describe

I have an issue withthe old school renaissance that surround some of the early editions - too much looking back through rose-tinted spectacles - and thinking unclear rules are good because it allows DM fiat to reign (ignoring the fact that's always been true). I think a lot of the Pro's I would highlight would also stem from the memories of being in awe as I poured over these books - rather than 'Yes that was a nice ruleset, well explained'.

Agree with your point on assassin - some of the same issue i have with thief as a class name - not a name/role that screams team-player (and that's what this is). The only long term 'theives' I've seen in play in old editions only survived i nthe party because they id very little actual thievery (plenty of looting mind you, but that's an activity we can all enjoy as a team :) )

Interested to see what comes next.

Lance Botelle (Bard of Althéa) said...

Hi Wyrin,

I must agree with you regarding the feeling I had when reading the rules for the first time as being one of the first "good" memories. Yet, as you say, it is also something (with hindsight) where I can appreciate the improvements that have been made since. Like one's first love, while it gave me the first "pangs of love", I have since grown to appreciate a more matured format ... up to a point ... which will be the subject of my next post. ;)

I nearly used the phrase "rose-tinted spectacles" in the post myself, and will probably use it in the next blog.

Also, I agree with your point about the thief name ... I much prefer the term "rogue" ... Unless you are presenting a game aimed particularly at an evil class, then "assassins" and "thieves" do not have a role to play in a party of heroes.