For some unknown reason, I’ve noted that a lot of the games cropping up in my area are 2nd Edition AD&D. There’s been a lot of 1st Edition nostalgia over the years; go look at Dragonsfoot, after all. But 2nd Edition? The edition with THAC0?
Apparently. There’s a half-dozen games of 2e within driving distance.
Personally, I don’t get the nostalgia. I started playing in 2e, and while there is some nostalgia there, at this point the game just feels limiting. Most of the options we take for granted today just weren’t there, and while the game is developed and complete, it was more hearkening back to the days of 1st Edition than developing along metagame lines like 3rd Edition did. This is from a time back before you had things like templates, feats, and monsters with levels; you couldn’t do stuff like that, and ended up ad-hoc modifying the monsters in the books. This was back when combat was the drudgery of roll to hit, roll damage, having none of the tactical options available in the d20 system. Nothing was uniform, not even dice rolling systems: some wanted you to roll high, others low. I guess I’m spoiled by 3.5 and Pathfinder (and Exalted, and Legend of the Five Rings, and Shadowrun, and Star Wars d6, and every other game made after 1989).
In any case, seeing the prevalence of 2e games made me go back through my 2e library to look over the rules. It’s an interesting trip down memory lane, to see what games looked like a mere twelve years ago. Mostly, it’s fascinating to see how the game developed; with 2e, you see a lot of attempts to codify and fix all the rules from 1st Edition without really breaking new ground in terms of mechanics, and when there was new ground broken, it was with things like THAC0.
- One quote in particular, which I saw on a forum a while ago, expresses my general opinion of old-school AD&D: “A Gygaxian dungeon is like the world’s most fucked up game show. Behind door number one: INSTANT DEATH! Behind door number 2: A magic crown! Behind door number 3: ten pounds of sugar being guarded by six giant KILLER BEES!” That more accurately describes 1st Edition, but still.
- The first 2e books I owned were the mid-90s new-art reprints, in a classier black cover to go along with the Spells & Powers option books. These were always referred to as the “2.5 revisions,” and were generally bitched about a lot, even though the Spells & Powers stuff was purely optional. In fact, the black 1997 PHB is textually identical to the 1993 PHB; it even has the same damn errata and misspellings. (Seriously. TSR couldn’t change errors that were known about since 1989?) Having lived through a rules-changing .5 edition, everyone’s gripe about 2.5 just comes across as whiner and inane.
- The “2.5e” books had a few flaws, though. First, they had new art, which was somehow more awful than the ridiculously ’80s art of earlier printings; I’m not sure how they did it, but they managed to commission some stunningly mediocre gaming art. Second, the bindings blew. My 1993 PHB, which I picked up secondhand, looks as though it was used as a weapon on multiple occasions, and still holds together fine. My 1997 PHB, which I bought brand new, feels as though its pages will fall out at any moment.
- Probably the first thing everyone remembers, all the classes gained levels at varying degrees of XP. Thieves were the lowest, followed by clerics, while wizards were the slowest of them all. It made a certain kind of sense to have all the players advancing at different rates, but overall complicated things like gauging a party’s encounter level, which is probably why it was uniformed for d20.
- Level progression went all the way to 20th level, compared to 1st Edition, which generally stopped around level 10-12. Interesting to note, 10th/12th is about the end of the “sweet spot” for D&D gaming, being the point where the game starts losing its edge and breaking down. Nice to see that Gygax & Co. figured that out years ago.
- Speaking of classes… today, you gain new and interesting class abilities as you level. In 2e, you got all of them (sometimes both of them) at first level, and gained the ability to use them more, as well as their relative power, when you leveled. The Paladin is the best example of this; paladins got a lengthy list of minor abilities which increased in use-per-day/week at different levels, and had a staple of power abilities like the detect evil and getting a mount, making them a power class. Compared to the 3rd Edition paladin, who craps out after 6th level, the 2e paladin was the party badass.
- Hit Dice. Warriors and priests capped at 9 Hit Dice, while wizards and rogues capped at 10. After that, characters only gained a small number of hit points per level. I’ve honestly forgotten the logic behind this, but it’s interesting to see the game’s restrictions like this.
- Non-weapon proficiencies. It may surprise a lot of people, but my biggest gripe about 2e wasn’t THAC0, it was NWP’s. In 1st Edition, there really wasn’t any codified set of rules to handle things your character might know; it all boiled down to making an Intelligence check before going into the next room to kill the hobgoblin and take his 10 pounds of raw sugar. Basically: if you could do it, you did it, otherwise you couldn’t do it. So, TSR introduced the system of non-weapon proficiencies to cover all the necessities of dungeon-diving, from Agriculture to Sailing. Needless to say, they ranged from worthless to painfully utilitarian. And the system still wasn’t very good; it involved making a d20 roll, and adding your level of NWP to your attribute somehow, and having to roll under this value. I never bothered to learn all of it because my DMs didn’t either; it turned into the binary “have it/yes, don’t have it/no.” It worked slightly better with weapon proficiencies, but then again, the weapon list was void of such great picks as Cobbling and Seamstress/Tailor.
- THAC0. People always bitch about THAC0 without really knowing what the hell they’re bitching about. After the spreadsheet nightmares that were 1st Edition’s combat matrix page, someone decided to come up with a simpler system based around a single d20 modifier, while keeping the old-school 10 to -10 AC system. The result is THAC0, the lowest number you need to hit an opponent with AC 0. Say, THAC0 8 means you need an 8 or higher to hit AC 0. But, says the mob, most monsters don’t have AC 0! Beyond that, just do the opposite of what it’s AC is to your THAC0: subtract positive numbers, and add negative ones. With a THAC0 8, you need a 5 to hit AC 3, and an 11 to hit an AC -3. Fairly simple, and contrary to popular believe, it doesn’t involve terribly much math. It’s just a highly abstract system that makes no sense other than being a game mechanic meant to hold on to older game mechanics.
- Level caps on demihumans. TSR, back in 1st edition, decided that it was unfair for an Dwarf to get minor stat modifiers and the various 1d6 chances to notice differences in stonework when humans got nothing, and so level caps were placed on everything but humans and half-elf bards. Trust me, it sucks to be a demihuman stuck at level 15 when the humans are going all the way to 20, and all you have to show for it is a slight advantage at the lowest levels. Needless to say, I never encountered a DM who enforced this rule, but it was canon. (The later “optional” variant was to allow a demihuman up to its stat level, so a Dwarf fighter with STR 18 could go all the way to 18, which was a better idea than the weird level caps.)
- 2e followed the mentality that adventurers were just ordinary people, and the stat system reflected this. Most of the stats between 6 and 16 don’t give you jack shit for modifiers, meaning you had a high likelihood of getting a truly mediocre character when you rolled up stats. In fact, a lot of the example characters they use are downright terrible; if your stats are all 13, it means you can cast level 3 spells, don’t get a bonus to hit or dodge or damage, or generally die a lot. Why you would want to showcase a character whose highest stat was a single 13 as a glorious example of character construction confounds me. Looking back, I have the hardest time justifying this out of all the various inane rules 2e had.
- The “ordinary people” mentality is further backed up by the dice rolling methods. Method I was 3d6 organic, or, applied as you rolled, starting with STR and going down the attribute list. Method II allowed you to roll 3d6 twice per stat and pick the best. Method III was 3d6 six times and assigned. It wasn’t until Method IV where we see the 4d6, drop one, assigned that we all know and use today. (It’s also kind of funny to see the Dark Sun character creation say that all “first level” characters roll 5d4 for stats, and start as if they were third level.)
- Priests had a spell failure chance based on their Wisdom. I kinda like this idea; it’s a dopey balance method, saying that they didn’t have a good enough connection with their god to receive divine aid. This is part of the reason people complained about clerics being so powerful in the early days of 3e: they don’t have to buy spells, suffer no failure percent in armor, and immediately learn all of their spells when they gain a level.
- System shock and restoration percent chances. Again, back to the “gritty realism” of a fantasy game. These are the percentile chances to die if you suffer extreme shock like losing a limb, and the chance of dying again immediately after being resurrected, respectively. I have mixed feelings on these; they’re good for flavor, and balancing the power of resurrection magic, but they’ve got a strong “dick move” vibe to them.
- Without feats, combat maneuvers, and the like, fighters generally have one thing to do in combat: roll to hit, and then roll damage when they hit. 2e combat was always boring as dry toast, and is part of the reason why I don’t think I’d be able to regress back into a 2e game: I’ve been spoiled by the heavy tactical bent of d20.
- Spells had no centralized system. Ranges, times, durations, effects, damage/level, and the like were all pretty random, essentially pulled out of a hat. With the d20 system, all of this is metagamed back into tightly wound little boxes with no room for variety, but at least spellcasters can remember what exactly their spells do, and how much the range and damage increases by per level. AD&D was a good example of variety over a codified system, and the chaos shows: it keeps everything unique, but harder to keep track of.
- Kits. Oh, God. Kits. The idea behind kits was to have sub-classes which had their own signature theme and style, but all of them sucked. For example, fighters had the samurai as well as the peasant hero. What made them suck was that they only had one worthless ability, like the barbarian’s ability to… make people like you more, unless you made people like you less. Yeah, because that’s exactly what comes to mind when I think of barbarians. They came with a list of “suggested” proficiencies, which was just another reason to hate them.
- The Player’s Option books. The idea behind them is to point-buy your characters’ abilities, both for race and class, to create new and unique combinations. At the time, I always thought they were amazing for letting players come up with non-standard class options: fighters and rogues could learn spells, mages could wear armor, clerics could get a fighter THAC0 progression, all for taking a flaw or two, or not bothering to buy other class benefits, like a familiar or the ability to pick pockets. I might be alone on that, since nobody ever used the systems in their games, and everyone I know who played 2e refer to the books as Skills and Powergamers. In a way, it was a much better way of creating sub-classes than kits, a freedom of movement that was easily abused.
- Weapon speeds. The idea behind this optional rule was that someone with a dagger could stab a guy quicker than his compatriot wielding a glaive could ever hope to. Needless to say, DMs had a love/hate relationship with it, but it was a fascinating sub-system.
- Speaking of optional rules, of which the books had a ton… in a (much-simplified) throwback to the combat matrixes, weapon types versus armor modifiers. There was a small chart detailing how your THAC0 would be modified when attacking the different kinds of armor, which generally meant that you should use bludgeoning or piercing weapons against everybody who wasn’t in Splint.
- Initiative was by group, and based off contesting d10’s. The DM would roll for monsters, one player for the PCs, and whoever rolled lowest went first. I guess that explains why DMs would always run initiative by going in a straight line down the table, rather than basing it off (then nonexistent) initiative scores.
- Rolls were fairly random and weren’t codified; half the time you were supposed to roll low (like initiative and non-weapon proficiencies), while the other half of the time you needed to roll high (THAC0).
- Multi-classing and dual-classing. While the ideas behind them were fascinating, they were obsolescent compared to the d20 multi-class rules. Multi-classing was only for demihumans, and allowed them to gain level in two or three classes at once, though they gained abilities really slowly and only gained 1/3 of whatever their hit die roll was. In other words, they got plenty of abilities, and were a little underpowered in terms of hp. Dual-classing allowed a human to gain another class, but at a price: you would stop adavancing with that class, and would be stuck in your secondary class from then on. So, a third level cleric could dual class to become a fourth-level fighter (the terminology for this was, notably, bad). The cleric/fighter would keep their third-level cleric stuff, but would never gain any more cleric stuff, and would instead gain fighter abilities. Kind of a harsh trade-off, but an interesting idea, and keeping in line with the “fantasy game realism” that you could only focus on one class’s studies at one time.
- Psionics. Unlike 1st Edition, psionics were slightly easier to get a hold of, but were still pretty powerful: how’d you like to roll up a pair of wild talents and get Improved Invisibility and Delayed Blast Fireball? Probably the best thing about 2e psionics were the simplification of “psionic strength points” into PSPs, a precursor to power points (PPs), and the inclusion of a psionic class. The main thing keeping psionics down was the fact that it was still seen as just another form of magic, and most of the “powers” were just spells, though Dark Sun helped drive psionics into gamers’ minds.
Probably the best aspect of 2e was its host of worlds:
- It’s still a testament to popularity and scale that the Forgotten Realms (1987) are still kicking around today, three and a half editions after its development. Showing up around the end of 1st Edition, the FRealms was a solid posterboy for both 2e and 3e, as it really reflected the feel of both editions, much as Eberron reflected 3.5. It’s a world of Tolkienian scale, of geo-political and social development in a pseudo-medieval world dropped onto a map and then developed. Mild criticism aside, the FRealms are a fascinating world full of adventure and intrigue, with limitless locations to set a game. It even had its own sub-lines, such as Maztica, detailing an Aztec-style continent far to the West, Kara-Tur, an Asia-esque oriental adventures continent to the East, and the Arcane Age, set far back in the world’s history in empires which have long since fallen.
- The world of DragonLance (1984) was also developed in 1st Edition AD&D, and following its popularity boom and the sprawling list of novels and computer games, returned in 2e. It had a high percent of adventures to sourcebooks, and saw most of its output split between AD&D and the SAGA system after the mid-1990s.
- Greyhawk (1980) was the last of the AD&D lines. Gygax’s first campaign world, Greyhawk was another pseudo-medieval realm, mostly developed when Gygax was designing and playtesting his D&D game rules. It soldiered on through 2nd Edition until the mid-90s, when it was one of the lines cut by TSR’s massive debt. Following the Wizards of the Coast buyout, Peter Adkison, a Greyhawk fan, pushed to revive the setting in the last days of 2e, and to make it the core world of 3e. Sadly, besides the last few books at the endrun of 2e, not much has been done with the setting since around 1994.
- Starting off the 2e train was Spelljammer (1989), an out-of-the-box idea which is still both venerated and hated today. The game is based around a series of fantasy astrophysics that allows for floating spaceships to go around in the “-space” around a world (such as the Krynnspace around the DragonLance world of Krynn). It was a bizarre space opera kind of world, where the players fought off drow raiders, and mind flayers in their nautilus ships. Heavy steampunk tones mixed with the Age of Sail and traditional swashbuckling adventure, though it usually had a overtly cartoonish edge simply because of how it was portrayed. When you run into the ship-o’-the-line crewed by the hippopotamus people in the depths of Realmspace, it’s hard to take the game seriously.
- The first major setting was Ravenloft (1990), based on the module of the same name. Subtitled the Domain of Dread, Ravenloft was the realm of gothic horror, to which many a player character was transported by its legendary mists. Ravenloft is a realm of creeping dread, where great power is freely available at great price, where the traditional laws of AD&D are bent against the PCs’ favor, and where everyone (and everything) is not what it seems and keeping tabs on the PCs for their own malicious agendas. The game had its own sub-line, Masque of the Red Death, for gothic Victorian horror, using the AD&D rules to put gamers in a supernatural version of the real-world.
- Dark Sun (1991) was a gritty post-apocalypse fantasy world, probably my favorite of all the 2e settings. On a desert planet ravaged by the overuse of magic, under a dying sun… this was the arena of destruction and dismay. All of the races are modified, such as the halflings being cannibalistic; metals are incredibly rare, with most items made from wood, bone, or obsidian; and psionics is more prevalent than magic, which itself is divided into defiler magic which sucks energy by destroying the land, and preserver magic, which is less effective but didn’t hurt the land. An amazing and bloody setting; think D&D meets Mad Max meets Jack Vance’s Dying Sun on Dune‘s Arrakis, sans spice. Great art by Brom and Baxa.
- Technically part of the Forgotten Realms, Al-Qadim (1992) was a lushly detailed Arabic fantasy setting. Largely comprised of box sets, Al-Qadim saw tons of setting material and fluff bookended with adventures, though it also detailed genie-binding mages and the power of Fate. For such a small world, it was richly detailed. Al-Qadim had a small cult following, but was hardly a popular world.
- Planescape (1994) was just what AD&D needed for the mid-90s alt-rock generation. Set in the city of Sigil out on the infinite planes, the game line was a creative visionary mishmash, expanding the planar phsyics and realities of the game, while giving all sorts of new and interesting adventure options, ranging from Modrons to the Blood War to the various Sigil factions. DiTerlizzi was the primary artist, which should tell you a lot; it had its own vernacular and style all to itself. A lot of big-name game designers, including Bruce Cordell, Monte Cook, Colin McComb, and Wolfgang Baur.
- Birthright (1995) was the last of the great campaign settings, and probably the least well known. It was an attempt to create a roleplaying game that hybridized political statesmanship with the standard D&D game. The players were divine rulers, and the game involved both standard adventuring as well as state-building and the development of characters’ regal line. While a fascinating idea, and Origins Award-winner, it was comparatively obscure and too late into 2e’s lifespan.
Going on about the monsters and monstrous manuals is a post all to itself, but there are a few things worth noting.
- Originally, the game’s monster guide was a series of three-ring binders called the “monstrous compendium,” with the idea that you’d buy subsequent loose-leaf expansions for the worlds. The idea was good, up to a point: the loose-leaf pages were easily torn and misplaced, so these days it’s nearly impossible to find a binder in “complete” condition. Sometime later, they put most of the monsters into a hardback “monstrous manual.”
- 1st Edition had the monsters use a number of d6’s as Hit Dice. 2nd Edition upped this to d8’s, but still had a number of the same flaws. Please note, this was in the pre-CR/EL days, and as screwy as those are, they’re still good for ballparking it. With 2e, you had to gauge encounters based off a combination of Hit Dice, XP gained, and general assumptions of power. So a TPK was just as likely due to poor DM guesswork as it was bad rolls.
- Interesting to note, monsters gave fixed XP. The values were almost shockingly low—a kobold is worth 7, while a beholder is worth 14,000. It’s a nice touch of nostalgia for Pathfinder to bring fixed XP values back.
- While 2e worked on creating a uniform scale of values for monsters, it still fell back on the “open range of variables” at points, dating back to the game’s history as a miniatures game. For example, weapon damage would be represented as 1-4 instead of 1d4, and 4-48 instead of 4d12, though the game was better than 1st Edition about helping you translate this into #d# dice rolls. Most of the numbers were given with a dice value of some sort, while in 1e you’d have to randomly roll a couple of dice, or pick a random number on your own. Though it was still around in 2e: like the Beholder’s hp range of 45-75, instead of giving it hit dice like almost everything else.
- The monsters all have Habitat/Society and Ecology sections, which I still miss in monster descriptions. Up to a point. While it’s fascinating to read about how these fantasy creatures are supposed to exist in the fantasy ecosystem of a fantasy world, the descriptions break down easily. Some of the entries make no sense (like how in 1e, “monsters” like a giant lynx spoke common and had trade valuables), are utterly worthless wastes of space (do we really need a refresher on Cat, Small), or utterly pointless (did you know mongrelmen have a high infant mortality rate? did you need to know this?). When done well, like in Privateer’s Monsternomican v1 3.5, it’s a good read, and enhances the monster. When done poorly, you get some of the 2e entries.