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The Good and the Bad of AD&D

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By Nelson Schneider - 02/07/16 at 03:37 PM CT

In honor of Wizards of the Coast finally doing the right thing and opening up the new 5th Edition of the world’s oldest tabletop RPG, Dungeons & Dragons, via the Open Gaming License, I’ve decided to dedicate February to taking a look back at the more long-lived editions of the game and seeing what they did right… as well as where they went wrong.

I never had the opportunity to play Original Dungeons & Dragons (or OD&D, as it is commonly called nowadays), as it was before my time. Instead, my first experience with the world’s oldest RPG came via Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D), which, itself, went through some minor revisions, that divided it into a 1st Edition and a 2nd Edition. There is actually very little difference between 1st and 2nd Edition AD&D, as the majority of differences took the form of additions, clarifications, and options rather than revisions, rebalances, and tweaks. Thus AD&D is typically perceived as a monolithic edition with an immense amount of content.

5. 20+ Year Duration for the Same System
AD&D first released in 1977 – two years before I was born – and wasn’t replaced by an incompatible system until the turn of the millennium in 2000. That’s a 23-year lifespan for a more-or-less unchanged ruleset! This incredible longevity allowed the writers and developers, as well as the players, to focus on meaningful content rather than trying to re-learn the rules every few years. As a result, the game experienced overwhelming amounts of additive creativity.

4. Tons of Cheap, One-Off Adventure Modules Available
Because the rules remained fairly static for so long, TSR, the Gary Gygax-created company that would have been considered a start-up, had it appeared 20 years later, focused on selling content rather than rules. Over AD&D’s lifespan, TSR (and later Wizards of the Coast) published dozens of pre-packaged adventures, typically called “modules” by players. These modules came as both stand-alone single adventures, as well as larger, more involved adventure campaigns. Either way, it was incredibly easy for players and Dungeon Masters to simply go to their local comic book store and pick up an adventure to run during a weekend gaming session. The ready accessibility of pre-packaged examples was incredibly important in laying the foundation of the novel and alien concept of tabletop RPGs, as only Gygax and his circle of friends really knew how this new type of game was supposed to work.

3. Four-Volume Encyclopedia Magica
We’ve already established that AD&D lasted a really long time and had a lot of adventures published for it. Over that span of years, a lot of really interesting tidbits of gaming esoterica were set adrift in a number of modules, optional rulebooks, and the pages of Dungeon and Dragon magazines. Toward the end of the company’s life, TSR made the fantastic move of compiling and publishing a four-volume index of every magical item even mentioned in AD&D. The “Encyclopedia Magica” was a set of weighty vinyl-bound tomes that proved an essential resource in the pre-Internet era. I still have my copy and still find myself consulting it when running a campaign… even more so now that I’ve switched to 5th Edition!

2. Players Option: Combat & Tactics Critical Hit Tables
RPG combat can be fairly cut and dry. This is, of course, why Action junkies hate cRPGs and insist on adding the RPG label to Action games to make themselves feel better. Tabletop RPG players who want more visceral combat can either choose to become LARPers or can take the more sensible approach of adopting the incredible critical hit tables from the AD&D Player’s Option Combat & Tactics volume. All four of the Option tomes provided great alternate rules for AD&D (many of which were codified as non-optional in later editions!), but the critical hit table still stands out as absolutely amazing… even though many of the most memorable critical hits from my high-school-era AD&D games came about through misreading the table. This critical hit table added a lot of visceral drama to the rote process of exchanging hits, as it dealt with hit severity and hit locations on a number of body types with a number of damage types taken into consideration (though it is sadly lacking tables for magical damage… because in AD&D magic never required a To Hit roll). I can’t let the overwhelming power of a deadly critical hit pass away into the mists of time, so I still use this table in my 5th Edition games… and my players love it, even when they are getting their heads bitten off by trolls.

1. Tons of Campaign Settings with Boxed Sets
Another result of the rules staying static for over two decades is the ability for TSR to focus not only on modules for players and Dungeon Masters to run through, but in the creation of fantastical worlds in which to place these typically-generic modules. The AD&D era saw unprecedented creativity, with new settings popping up on a regular basis. While the game began with Gygax’s fairly normal (by modern standards of Fantasy) Greyhawk setting, it soon added the even-more normal Forgotten Realms (which served as Bethesda’s inspiration for the whole of the ‘Elder Scrolls’ series of Sandbox games). Understanding the desire by some tabletop RPG players to participate in a setting with more narrative drama, TSR added DragonLance to their stable of settings, with an unprecedented cast of well-developed characters and a huge number of paperback novels to fuel the narrative backstory. Lesser-known settings were added to expand the Forgotten Realms, like The Night Below (the Underdark), Birthright, Kara-Tur, Al-Qadim, and Maztica; while completely bizarre cosmologies were created, in the form of Spelljammer and PlaneScape, in order to tie-together all of these different settings.

All of these campaign settings were sold in the form of Boxed Sets, typically containing two or three paperback sourcebooks and a number of gorgeous fold-out maps, plus some cardstock handouts. These Boxed Sets were essentially boxes of imagination fuel, stoking the creativity of players and Dungeon Masters alike. Unfortunately, Boxed Sets were expensive to make, and with the huge numbers of differing products available, they began to lose money for TSR and eventually lead to the company’s collapse and buy-out by Wizards of the Coast, a company which has never produced a D&D Boxed Set.

5. Arbitrary Restrictions
A lot of the problems with AD&D came from arbitrary rules and restrictions that only served to reinforce the static, generic Fantasy world Gygax envisioned. Want to play an elven paladin? Tough luck, only humans can be paladins! How about a dwarven wizard? NO! Dwarves all hate magic and couldn’t cast spells even if they wanted to! Multi-classing? Ugh! What a nightmare. Then there’s the whole issue of whether or not a high roll on a die was considered good or bad. Typically for attack rolls, a higher number was good, while for saving throws and ability checks, a lower number was good. Just… make up your mind, AD&D!

4. Too Much DM Adjudication Required
While it did eventually become more fleshed out and well-explained near the end, for most of its existence, AD&D was fairly light on concrete rules for things that players would clearly want to do, like crafting their own magical doo-dads. Likewise, the Dungeon Master’s Guide was hideously vague about how to run a properly balanced game. As a result, it was incredibly easy for an AD&D game to run amuck with overpowered or underpowered players either obliterating any challenge the DM could create or dying horribly at 1st level due to a lack of resources. Later editions added game balancing systems and explained in the Dungeon Master’s Guide exactly how and why things were the way they were, which helped immensely in learning how to play and in running a fun, balanced game.

3. Negative Armor Class = Better
Higher numbers are typically better in any game system. Yet in AD&D, a negative Armor Class made it more difficult to hit a target than a positive one. For most of the game’s lifespan, there was not lower boundary on negative ACs, so I ended up imposing a hard limit of -20 on my players, as they always managed to finagle ways (due to the vaguery of the rules on wearing armor, I commonly experienced players wearing chainmail under plate mail) to push their ACs so low that nothing could touch them except on a natural 20 (resulting in an automatic critical). Just recently, I discovered that the lower boundary was set to -10 in the final revision of the Option rules. Ah, hindsight!

2. THAC0
Why were negative Armor Classes better? Because of THIS nonsense. Instead of just providing a die-roll bonus that got bigger as characters leveled up, Gygax’s system involved a calculation called To Hit Armor Class Zero, or THAC0. 1st Edition didn’t provide THAC0s for monsters and enemies, but instead forced the Dungeon Master to consult a universal THAC0 chart in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, while 2nd Edition went ahead and added a THAC0 line to each enemy stat block. Regardless of how easy it was to determine a given creature’s or player character’s THAC0, the math behind the concept is – and always has been – backwards, resulting in a confusing method for performing the most common activity in any given tabletop RPG.

1. Vancian Magic
Named after Jack Vance, the Fantasy pulp novelist whose 1950s-era fiction inspired and influenced the young Gary Gygax, Vancian Magic is a system whereby spellcasting characters and/or monsters have a limited number of ‘slots’ for each magical power-level. These slots need to be filled with spells ahead of time, resulting in restricted and inflexible magical repertoires. No player cleric would be caught dead praying for anything less than the maximum amount of cure wounds spells of every power level, while wizards would typically load-up on the most damaging ranged and/or area-of-effect spells available. Both clerics and wizards might leave one or two slots for a magical buff or utility spell… but only once they were high-level and had a few more low-level slots to spare. The AD&D Player’s Options Spells & Magic volume finally introduced cRPG-style Magic Points (MP) to the world’s oldest RPG, but, again it was mostly too late. Later editions have striven to enhance the flexibility of Vancian Magic, both by adding spellcasting classes that don’t have to prepare their slots ahead of time and by adding unlimited uses to extremely low-level spells.

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