Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Thoughts of AD&D

As enamored as I am of the marvelous array of recent Retros, I can't help (more and more lately) but miss the big boy of my misspent youth, AD&D (1E). Despite all it's sometimes inscrutable and conflicting rules, there remains nonetheless an undeniable baroque charm about the whole glorious mess. Certainly, some of that is the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia, which I will freely admit (despite it being not particularly "trendy" to admit), but its just a damn good game, which should be obvious as, anecdotally at least, it would seem to have the largest uninterrupted following. That is to say, more people have been playing AD&D 1E since it first came out and simply never stopped (despite the release of several editions, and versions of editions, since) playing and still play, than any other older edition. OD&D, B/X, and Rules Cyclopedia certainly have their followings, but I can't find much evidence that there are large uninterrupted followings.

And those clunky 1E rules? Who really noticed them, back in say, 1985 or so? You just played around them, or ignored them, or in my case at least, had no idea you weren't really using a lot of those rules to begin with: it seems to me a lot of us were really using B/X combat rules, with a lot of weird stuff from Dragon magazine thrown in for good measure. AD&D, in actual practice, to me and I suspect many others, was three very cool books full of stuff to tack on to the B/X basic core structure we had already pretty much subsumed from those first few introductory games. Sure, we adopted the new ability score bonuses (more about those later), but we had to figure out ways to min-max our ability generation a bit better to accommodate that - and lo and behold the DMG gave us several ways to do so! That's just one example of how AD&D may have introduced some, shall we say, less efficient ways of doing things, but seemed to recognize that and provide some rules-relief (though perhaps buried in the middle of an unrelated paragraph on aerial combat rules somewhere in the DMG!).

Perhaps I'm not being clear here; its not particularly easy to put into words, but I'll try and sum it up if you'll forgive some generalization: AD&D, when broken into little pieces, has some almost unforgivably bizarre idiosyncrasies. But when taken as the sum of its parts, its really an admirable achievement, and highly unlikely ever to be repeated, or reproduced.

Lets take an in-depth look at the system, piece by piece, and the differences between it and the earlier (and later) versions of the game.

More to follow...


  1. Good post; I'm looking forward to the follow-up. I love my S&W, but I'm becoming increasingly tempted to return to the game of my youth and run an AD&D campaign, warts and all.

  2. Yeah good post. I agree, the rules were in many cases weird or unclear but I never felt lost in the rules as I sometimes do now in Pathfinder. When I started playing I was using B/X with the AD&D players handbook and we rarely had any problems. I love B/X.

  3. Hey, we're all hit with nostalgia now and then. It all depends on how you view nostalgia, though, that makes the difference. In many of the blogs I read, the "n" word is viewed in a negative light, and is treated as something that is ultimately a frivolous and non-productive emotion. I personally feel that there can be negative or positive nostalgia. If your nostalgia does not keep you from moving forward, then it is probably a good thing.

    Take me, for instance. I feel that nostalgia for my old gaming days of my youth led me to discover the OSR, which in turn bolstered my long-dreamt-of return to table-top gaming. Thus the oft-dreaded "n" served a purpose: it motivated me to become active and "fight" to return to the hobby (and to create a blog to help focus my efforts).

    However, a “bad” reaction to my nostalgia might have caused me to passively skim through some retroclones, then maybe spend/”waste” some time flipping lazily through some of the old game books I have in my bookshelf, and then shelve everything again in despair.

    This may be an oversimplification, as many factors went into my return to RPGs. You can learn more by reading my “testimonial” at my blog:


    All that said, I personally would NOT want to go back and use the actual AD&D 1st edition books. I actually recently took a look at PDF copies of the old triumvirate (PHB, DMG, and MM), and I have to say I quickly discovered that they did not appeal to my current, much older, self with all my adult duties and limited time. I appreciate the efforts of the creators of the ‘clones, because they have done the work of reorganizing the old rules into a form that I can use with minimal time and effort.

  4. I agree totally with this. I started off with Red Box Basic II and moved on to AD&D, but we were really just playing D&D with extra options.



  5. I've been finding myself drawn back to AD&D as well. Maybe it's it's nostalgia, but who cares!

  6. I feel the pull of AD&D as well, believe me. In fact, it's something I was planning to write about and probably will once my computer is again fully operational. But, ultimately, I decided against embracing AD&D because I knew I'd drop or change or otherwise alter so many rules that I wouldn't really be playing AD&D at all. So I'm sticking with the LBBs + whatever I like from the Supplements. In many ways, it's an "AD&D Lite" but without any of the expectations that, if it's in the PHB, I have to allow it.

  7. Looking forward to this series of posts! I grew up playing AD&D lite (just as you describe it) and it holds strong memories and associations for me as well. Even though I play Labyrinth Lord now, I am always adding things (esp. character classes) to make it feel a bit more AD&D-ish -- thank goodness for the Advanced Edition Companion!

  8. It is really hard not to play 1e for all of the reasons that you mentioned. It has everything already, use what you want from B/X, ignore rules that don't make sense, and run with it. It is a fun game that you can make into anything that you want.

  9. I ran an AD&D game about a year and a half ago, which was put on hold at the end of adventure A1 to give another GM a chance to run something--it will be picked up again when my turn comes back around.

    Funny thing; I didn't find the rules remotely arcane, contradictory, or goofy in any way. Indeed, I found the game to be quite rules-light, fun, and extremely fast to play.

  10. I didn't find AD&D confusing, counter-intuitive or badly written until everyone else in the post 2e era started telling me that it was. But I may be an idiot --- up until I dug my books out of my parent's attic a few years ago and looked at them again, I had no memory of things like "a combat round is one minute long" or how complicated 'by the book' initiative might be. I honestly don't remember struggling with the rules when I was a teenager (I also think a lot of the rules were, as you say, just 'grandfathered in' from the original D&D we played before we got the hardback books --- and we didn't learn D&D from the books anyway; we learned it from each other... so somebody would play one weekend with their cousin and then return to our game and introduce critical hits or fumbles or some other new thing).
    AD&D 'rules lite' is what I would play if anyone in my neck of the woods wanted to play anything older than 3.5e again... that, or just play something like Labyrinth Lord. But everyone wants to play other games that I just don't enjoy as much.

  11. Al, my experience was a lot like yours - we brought the AD&D books to the table, because they seemed totally awesome, but we continued to use most of the B/X rules with which we were most familiar.

    Now I wonder, were we ever playing AD&D, and is my nostalgia for AD&D totally misplaced?

    It became a conondrum a couple of years ago when we tried to play 1E BTB and I found myself doing a lot of head scratching. And the LL: AEC doesn't quite scratch that itch.

  12. I originally ran with the Mentzer Red Box, 1st Edition PHB, and 2nd Edition DMG. Eventually, I was given a 1st Ed MM2.

    Before reverting to 2nd for my campaign, I seriously considered Ad&d, and rejected it because I didn't feel I had time to do all of the awesome rules justice. I wanted to run it "by-the-book" and I can't do that like I can with 2nd. (Not that 2E is simpler, I just have so many years in as a 2E DM most of it comes easy.)

  13. My experience is somewhat similar to Dreyrugr's. Even in my current campaign I have the RC, the PHB, the DMG, the FF and Labyrinth Lord all at the table at the same time.

  14. ...it seems to me a lot of us were really using B/X combat rules, with a lot of weird stuff from Dragon magazine thrown in for good measure. AD&D, in actual practice, to me and I suspect many others, was three very cool books full of stuff to tack on to the B/X basic core structure...

    Yep. Exactly the case IMXP. That's how the groups I was involved with back in the day used to play, and it's how we still play now. Why, just last weekend I was looting OD&D and AD&D for wilderness encounter rules for my B/X (actually LL) game.

    Q: Could I play AD&D1E as written?
    A: Lord, no! I've neither the patience or the brain space for all that unstreamlined detail.

    Q: Is AD&D as written a remarkable work and an important source for any fantasy gamer?
    A: Yes. A thousand times!

    As Chevski and many others have previously observed: it's called Advanced D&D with good reason. The DMG especially is a complex, obscure, often cryptic tome which almost require careful thought, consideration and exegesis.

    Trying to play the game using ALL the rules in the three big books would be like trying to eat the proverbial whale omelette: the only likely outcome is tears, trauma and a horrible, horrible mess.

    The rules-as-written of EGG's magnum opus are hardly the stuff of "shut up and roll!" gaming. And that's totally ok.

  15. I've thought upon this topic a fair bit. My life-imposed roleplaying hiatus of a decade through the 90s was ended by meeting a new 3.5 playing group (I guess many people got back into D&D that way). I did a whole lot of DMing with 3.5, and had fun too, but as a DM it just always felt kind of off-target, and not in the same spirit as the wonderful game I'd spent every single teenage weekend on (I'm exaggerating, but not much :)

    Roleplaying is really VERY important in my life now, and I've searched a lot to try and find that sweet spot again. Nostalgic? Oh yeah, hell yes, and unashamedly. Roleplaying is the bigger part of how I relax, and I try not to take it too seriously after all. Succinctly, I got back into D&D because it was just SUCH a lot fun back then for my friends and I. And it was EGG's hardcover books from whence all such wonder stemmed for our group.

    Upon running AD&D again in recent times, despite having absorbed a conception of its chaotic and disorderly mish-mash of hard-to- find rules, I discovered it was both easy to run and conducive to producing story elements, decision making discourse, exploration and five or more exciting encounters in a three hour session. All that in a game with utter novice players! Two hour tactical grind singular encounters as per 3.5 seem very sad affairs to me now.

    The thing is- so much of what lies in those wonderful tomes is really just guidelines towards extrapolating awesome setting-realisation within a kind of notional D&D in new myriad cool ways. Gary's writing always struck me as warmly paternalistic and inclusive, as though we were all sitting at his table and getting his guidance firsthand. Reading the DMG always made me feel included in something special- I was a DM! My teenage years were not so happy in many other ways, but I found some identity in D&D, and I'm eternally grateful for that. No amount of slick streamlining or rethinking (as per modern rulesets like 3.5 or Pathfinder or 4) can ever compete with that warm, puzzling, fascinating and esoteric inclusiveness that AD&D offered me.

    Still, with retroclones we can all make nifty AD&D supplements and adventures under another guise, and share the fun. For my part, I'll be developing for Labyrinth Lord, but playing with Gary's books proudly on the table. They smell better too!



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