Return to Remembering 2nd Edition AD&D

Apparently I missed a few things in my nostalgia-trip down 2nd Edition AD&D memory lane. Having found these bullet-points, and being too lazy to formulate the better post I was thinking about, so without further ado… a second second-glance at 2e AD&D.

Bards. I’d meant to touch on these, but forgot to. Back in 1e, Bards were these strange amalgams which were nigh-impossible to play, since you had to have leveled in a half-dozen different classes before even starting Bard. (For some reason, I think Druid was one of them, but that makes next to no sense.)

In 2e, Bards were again amalgamations of other classes, but they made a bit more sense. They could pick pockets when wearing light armor, like thieves, and had a Thief d6 hit die. They could use all weapons, like fighters. They could cast spells when unarmored, and were effectively equal to a Mage three levels below their Bard level. And they got the all-important Bardic Knowledge, which (in a way) replaced Identify, and the bardic songs, which weren’t occasionally useful.

In essence, the 2e Bard is less a jack of all trades, master of none, and more a weakened Mage with some Fighter and Thief abilities… about on-par with a Thief/Mage, only able to use all weapons. And literally, weakened Mage: same class list, and started casting at 3rd level. They weren’t exactly frontline fighters, but could hold their own like a thief, and could wear armor unless they wanted to… use most of their special abilities (thieving and spellcasting). In comparison, the 3.5 Bard is much more jack-of-all-trades, but is even more of a fifth wheel. In AD&D you could theoretically replace your Mage with either a Bard or a Thief/Mage, or a combination of the two, since it effectively did the Mage’s job anyways. Being able to use a longbow or crossbow was an added bonus, as was the d6 hit die. The 3.5 Bard makes more sense flavor-wise, and its spell list feels more bardic (?). But in some ways I still prefer the 2e version.

Speaking of weapon use… in 2e, most of the classes were boned on what weapons you could use. Wizards could only use darts and slings as ranged weapons, a good reason to choose a demihuman Thief/Mage to open up the shortbow. Clerics could use bludgeoning weapons, and slings and darts; Druids used the Cleric list with a few additions (the scimitar). Fighters, by contrast, could use everything. Another way d20 has spoiled us: weapon proficiencies. Instead of buying weapon proficiencies individually (e.g., by individual weapon types), most classes start off with a bundle of them (simple weapons, for example). On top of that, crossbows are simple weapons; now your Clerics and Wizards can use crossbows, which are way cooler than stupid slings.

I kind of skipped over weapon proficiencies last time. In 2e, they ran in 5 ranks. One rank allowed you to use the weapon without penalty. Five ranks gave a +3 bonus to THAC0 and +5 to damage. Only fighters could really excel with proficiencies, though, and all the other classes were limited to two ranks. They also went by individual weapon; it was common to have a dot in short swords and get a penalty using daggers because you were untrained.

Saving throws. Ok, probably the real first thing everyone remembers: you had a half-dozen saving throws for all the various ways your body could be assaulted. Poison, magic, breath attacks, paralyzation/petrification, and so on. Simplifying these down from five to three (Fortitude, Reflex, Will) wasn’t a bad idea, since it made things a little more freeform, while still keeping things simple and logical. Rolling your Charm save against being mind-controlled by an Illithid was stretching the definition of Charm a little, as was rolling your Dragons’ Breath against a Winter Wolf’s cone of cold. They still worked well, but the nomenclature was clunky, and a bit counter-intuitive… the same thing can be said of THAC0.

Spellcasting. 3.5’s ability to spontaneously cast spells introduced in 3.5 breaks a lot of the balance (or imbalance) 2e had. I’m mostly thinking about spot-casting healing spells here, since it frees up the Cleric to be the party buffster and condition-remover. Not having to prepare heal spells means the Cleric’s spell-list is wide open, and there’s a lot more for a Cleric to do in-game than be just a heal-bot.

It also applies to Bards and Sorcerers, though. The Wizard will always be the most versatile spellcaster in game; being able to change out spells daily is a useful power, even though 99.9% of the time you won’t realize you need Protection Against Mephits until after the fact. Getting around the Vancian spell system is an interesting metagame mechanic, though I’ve noticed players are more likely to go with “a short number of spells, cast a lot of times” compared to “a whole helluva lot of spells, slowly prepared and cast fewer times per day.”

Spell Components. I know they’re still around, but I’ve never actually seen anybody use them, unless resource allocation is a large part of the game. (That would be once, and the round-table game where we were all shipwrecked and without gear.) In general, I think Eschew Materials should be mandatory for spellcasters, especially since it’s the first thing we push spellcasters into taking as a feat. If it doesn’t have a cost, why worry about it? Even with the feat, things that cost gold are still necessary; finding the 100gp pearls to cast Identify is a pain in the ass (I say from experience from that round-table game). At one point, I started going down the list and assigning sp and cp values to everything; eventually I gave up micromanaging the players’ chump change, and just made them take Eschew Materials or spend a random 10gp whenever they were in town next. It’s honestly not worth worrying about, the same way that most groups don’t keep exact track of ammunition (unless it’s post-apocalyptic or something).

Baatezu and Tanar’ri. Back in the ‘80s and the heyday of Bothered About D&D (BADD), TSR grew tired of taking flak about demon summoning, and changed the names to all its Judeo-Christian monsters: demons, devils, and angels became Tanar’ri, Baatezu, and Celestials. TSR instead took flak from gamers, who saw it as caving to the extremists and being strong-armed into doing so. Personally I like the name-changes in that it gives D&D its own terminology rather than using more real-world stuff, but yeah, the motivations to change most of its outsiders could have been better.

People keep telling me 2e combat was smoother and faster than 3.5/Pathfinder combat. My first experience with 2nd Ed AD&D was as a fighter; I remember long, tedious combats wherein I did nothing but roll to hit, and then occasionally roll damage, for hour upon hour. I’m honestly surprised I continued playing RPGs after that fun-filled experience. (Note, though: I spent most of the rest of my time in 2e playing Druids or Mages, which offered more options in combat, such as “which spell will I entrap the enemy with so my companions can pick them off with ranged weapons?” Good times.) Fast, yes, smooth, also yes.

Note that it was fast because we had nothing to do (speaking in terms of tactical options) other than roll to hit, and smooth because we either hit and did damage or missed and went to the next attacker. Yes, it worked, and for that era it worked fairly well; it’s not like there was a good comparison until after the edition change. However. Generally I’d wager that combat takes up 50% or more of a given campaign, with the other 50% or so being roleplaying, character development, puzzle-solving, mysteries!, and whatever the hell else the players go off doing. And if half the game is combat, and all of the combat is tedious… you get the picture. By contrast, in one of my first 3.5 games, someone used Improved Feint to Bluff an opponent in order to stab them in the neck, while I flanked another thug with my animal companion, who was attempting (and failing) to make trip attacks.

However again… When I ran some Dungeon Crawl Classic out of their “Adventure Begins” compilation as a Pathfinder one-nighter, I had a strong sense of nostalgia: pointless, boring combat, after combat, with vaguely different scenery. (It was “Isle of Fury” if you must know.) Here we are, in an age filled with combat maneuvers, bonuses from flanking enemies, where summoning monsters is quick and painless… in short, in the midst of the best tactical roleplaying game designed, we’d managed to replicate the tedium of 2nd Edition combat. By contrast, the same players are very fluid and action-packed in just about every other D&D/Pathfinder game we’ve run, so my guess is that the “Isle of Fury” (it wasn’t) bored my players as much as it did me. After a half-dozen pointless and dull tactical encounters, I realized just why a “first edition feel” isn’t necessarily a good thing. (If the DM is falling asleep…)

(This was the module wherein the players are hired to acquire… rubbings of ancient stones on a faraway island. The writing the players are rubbing… allow the PCs to multi-class freely into specific classes, much like any first-level adventurer can. Goodman Games apparently doesn’t know how to make good low-level adventures. The other option I’d debated about, which I also didn’t read until after the session, was the missing beekeeper scenario set in the hilariously! named town of BEEton. Ugh.)

In some ways, it makes sense that Exalted and FATE are some of my favorite systems; possibly reactionary to the boring combat I started out with. If your Exalted combat is tedious, either your players don’t know what game they are playing, or you’re not working hard enough as a GM. Read the rules again, get the players to stunt dammit, and amp up the cinematic flair.


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