[Apologies in advance; this started out as a short put-down-some-thoughts post, and kinda got away from me. Upwards of fifteen hundred words away from me. So, now that it’s done, it’s a bit on the long side.]
I think I’ve already made my thoughts on 2nd Edition known in my earlier posts, but I end up coming back to it because of its weird resurgence. Not just the Old School Revival (OSR), but 2nd Edition in specific. Many games in my local D&D Meetup area are AD&D—like, half as many as there are either 4e or Pathfinder games. I like 2nd Edition: if I had to go the OSR route and play an A/D&D derivative, I’d probably go with 2e, since I know it and have the books. But it is not the system I’d want to pick it up and run/play tomorrow. (Then again, the games I’d run/play tomorrow are either niche SF systems—CthulhuTech, Starblazer, Eclipse Phase—or are Exalted. Not really comparable to hardcore fantasy D&D.)
In terms of RPG mechanics/design, AD&D is antiquated. Things modern RPGs take for granted—a skill system, character personalization through special abilities, unified streamlined rules following one core mechanic—just don’t exist in 2e. There’s a plethora of sub-systems where modern games have one or two simple mechanics. It’s very much the simple, tactical RPG; maybe not as tactical as 3.5 or 4th, but it’s not cinematic in the least. The only thing to differentiate two fighters were their choice of armor and the weapons they used… and their back-story, and the actual roleplaying parts to their character.
Oh, and it’s the closest thing we’ll ever see to a pure simulationalist game, where characters start as normal people in a medieval-fantasy world. Look at the various character generation rolling mechanics, and the fact that the attributes between 6 and 16 were largely blank slates. Nowadays, you just can’t sell an epic high-fantasy game where most of your stats didn’t provide modifiers, even though it fit the rags-to-riches D&D mentality.
While it works, and works very well most of the time, it’s from a late-80s mindset on roleplaying games, and unless you loved it in the ‘80s or ‘90s, you’re probably not going to be interested now—it’s not a game to sell new players on, and it’s hard to create new AD&D fanatics. Since 2nd Edition AD&D released, we’ve seen a massive gaming market explosion that’s brought us Shadowrun, Rifts, White Wolf, roll-and-keep, Deadlands, open-game licenses, Savage Worlds, and the indie gaming movement. Yet there’s still a sizeable chunk of players who go back to AD&D, ten years after the edition was killed and surpassed by a constant stream of development and innovation.
The one thing I’ve always hated about the OSR and AD&D-style arguments have been the same editions wars crap that has existed for years. The newest system is too video-gamey; the previous system is terrible and I can’t believe people put up with it for a decade or two. I’ll try not to be as pedantic here, but the thing that has always sunk any argument for OSR has been using the words “video-gamey” and referring to “gaining new power-ups.” (The “why did you put up with that crap system?” arguments bug the hell out of me for similar reasons.)
The most eloquent and interesting of the arguments is that post-2e D&D takes the agency away from the DM. I think there’s something to this idea, but it’s not quite there; honestly it’s closer to a paradigm shift where player agency is emphasized almost as much as DM agency.
Think about it. In 2e, players were largely locked into their character roles, especially in the way multi- and dual-classing worked. Instead of focusing on character optimization and builds like 3.x and 4e do, the game would focus on whatever the GM cooked up: generally, the GM’s story, or world, or what have you. The players didn’t have many options at their disposal: no feats, no special abilities other than class abilities. The closest thing 2e has to optimization is the “custom-buy your class’s special abilities” in the Skills & Powers book, one of the most hated books in the line.
And that story emphasis is what a lot of the 2e games I’ve seen are harping on. This is my setting, this is my world, I’ve put 20+ years into it, I’ve custom-tailored all the rules to fit the story and visa-versa. That kind of thing. And many DMs put a huge emphasis on story and plot for 2nd Edition.
I remember, deep in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, a little snippet advising you to provide story rewards to players, for completing a story arc or major plot point. Back when orcs went for 15XP a pop, and you needed half a trillion to get everyone to the next level, having your mid-level party gain 20,000XP for saving the town made everyone take note. It wasn’t just memorable, it meant a lot when you get a huge chunk of XP from doing something interesting—we’ve completed a major goal, here’s the reward—so I always looked forward to completing major quests than having mindless dungeon crawl combats to kill 1,333 and 1/3 orcs. Not just in the “we can level quicker” way, either; getting those story rewards gave a feeling of accomplishment, like we’d had a major impact on the world. When you get twenty large XP from something, and deserved every point, it made you want to do something even more epic to one-up that.
The way level-up mechanics work in 3.5, there’s not much room for story rewards: each level requires roughly ten encounters worth of XP to get to the next level, and each time you award another story reward, you lose another big fight. You can do it—quite a number of adventures and modules do it—but it limits what else the characters can do before they’re now Xth level, and then all the monsters and encounters from last level are underpowered. Pathfinder took things back to old-school levels, where hundreds of thousands of XP for a new level isn’t out of the ordinary. But it still requires only 9-11 encounters to level, slightly less if you’re Fast Tracking it and slightly more if you’re on Slow.
Going back to the DM’s agency. The standard argument is that the DM was free to come up with new mechanics, classes, and whatnot for AD&D, and offer them to their players, to balance them in their own eyes for their own story/setting. The game didn’t offer everything, so it was up to the DM to provide. Now, players open their books, and start planning their ninja/pirate/half-zombie/robot, regardless of the sense it made within the setting or story. Less of the old-school “I just do what feels right for the character” and more “I do what would make the character’s mechanics/build awesome.” Tell a player that their class choice doesn’t fit, and suddenly the DM is the bad guy.
Again, there’s something to this. A lot, actually. 3.5 is most interested in character builds: making this character new and interesting, power-building some great combination, that kind of thing. 4th goes even farther with its built-in paragon paths and tiers, making variant classes and personalization even more of the core metagame. On the flipside, Pathfinder had a main goal to curb class bloat; most of its pres-classes are designed to hybridize existing classes (Rage Prophet), or take an existing class down a new direction (Assassin, Master Chymist). But there’s still enough focus on feats and variant options to put the ball squarely in the players’ court: these are games for players to optimize their characters. They’re much more than that, and the GM has the power to focus the game however they choose, but core metagame components includes personalized character builds. And that will always be there, no matter what you do to the system or how you focus a campaign.
But the argument still strikes me as a cop-out, blaming the system for its flexibility as spoiling players, instead of being polite and open but firm in regulating character builds to fit a given game. Every GM should be able to explain to their players why taking a pirate doesn’t make sense for a landlocked game, even though its mechanics would make your build rock, or that divine magic doesn’t work as written and that you should stick with this cleric, without having the player throw a tantrum or think the GM is out to get them. Similarly, in my experience, while players go for optimized builds they also choose classes arguably related to their characters; no random weird multiclassing just for Mechanic X. I can see where the argument comes from, and like all arguments, there’s a case to be had, but it’s largely based on the above points: the perceived loss of agency and loss of story emphasis are largely a part of the new metagame, namely the larger emphasis on players customizing characters.
What strikes me most about the argument is the focus on the DM: this is my story/this is my setting, the agency balance needs to rest squarely in the court of the DM, and OSR/AD&D is the best vehicle to portray the DM’s story and world. Honestly, if your focus is on world-building and narrative, any number of the new indie games would be better fits: over-emphasize the hippie-indie “narrative storytelling” and “storygames” parts and just slap your created worldset on, and you’re good to go. Narrative storymaking and the storygames movement is my least favorite aspect of indie games, but if your focus is on the story and character and roleplaying, it’s a shoe-in. Then again, as it boosts player agency, it runs counter to the “old school DMs had more agency and that was better” part of the argument.
Of course, that would require learning a new game system, and buying new books (usually just one or two though), so I think the meat of the argument always comes back to I’m most familiar and satisfied with System X, and have spent the most time with that system, so that’s why I’ll be using it. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that.