What AD&D gets right


Ok, I lied. Deadorcs and SarahDarkmagic made me say that.

please stop hitting me

In truth, AD&D got pretty much everything right, especially if you take into account the oceans of fond nostalgia and pedestal on which the gaming community has placed Advanced Dungeons & Dragons over the years. This is the edition of the game which older gamers wish they were still playing, and new gamers aspire to play. It is, if you like, the pinnacle of dungeonsanddragonsness. If that was a word. Which it isn’t.

As with any edition of D&D, AD&D was not perfect. Far from it. But y’know what – that doesn’t matter. It might sound strange, but it is possible to get pretty much everything right and not be perfect.

Do we really want our role-playing games to be perfect anyway? I don’t. I want my rpgs to have rough edges and rules that don’t quite fit together. I want a system which hangs together rather than slides together with machine-cut computer-enhanced accuracy. Role-playing games should be Airfix Kits where a whole fun part of the game involves cutting out the pieces, filing down errant bits that don’t quite fit, getting your fingers stuck with glue and putting it all together into something which is uniquely yours.

To continue the Airfix analogy a little longer, it’s the difference between buying a ready-made die-cut model of a Spitfire, and making a model of a Spitfire from a kit. The former might look perfect in every way while the latter might have one wonky wing, a slapdash paintjob and be missing half the transfers, but that is the one you’d be proud to hang from your bedroom ceiling.

AD&D is the edition of the game which each subsequent edition has tried to emulate. It’s no accident that every major campaign setting still in use (and many others which aren’t but should be. Birthright, I’m looking at you.) comes from the AD&D era. AD&D came from a time when Imagination trumped Design, and so many great ideas were born. This was the era of Planescape, Dark Sun, Al-Qadim and Ravenloft. It was also an era which (despite the vagrancies of the rules system and limitations of the computers at the time) spawned AD&D computer games that are acclaimed classics and still played to this day. It’s a sour irony that the more D&D moved towards mimicking computer games, the less less good the D&D computer games became.

That, I believe, is because Dungeons & Dragons should be Dungeons & Dragons first, foremost, and last. Much as I love and admire Fourth Edition D&D (and it is still very much D&D in my book) there’s something about AD&D which 4e (and Third Edition, for that matter) lacks. That quirkiness about the game is so darned endearing. It’s D&D with the bits of plastic sprue still in place waiting for you to file down.

But waitaminute, Grey. AD&D isn’t just one edition We have the ever glorious (and soon to be re-printed) 1st Edition, the “oh look we hired a typesetter now” 2nd Edition and the “no it’s not 3rd Edition” Revised 2nd Edition, along with countless minor edits and updates with each new printing. This is AD&D evolving, but I would argue it still stayed close to its roots and the core of the game remained the same. “I play AD&D” is a proud boast to make, and it’s a badge of honour regardless of exactly which edition or sub-edition you play. It’s all AD&D, and that’s what matters.

So yes, the rules were funky. Yes, it makes no sense that Halflings can only have a maximum WIS or 17 and chaotic Demons are classified by Type. It doesn’t matter that AC goes down as your level of protection goes up or that Kits became a gawd-awful powergamery mess and Non-Weapon Proficiencies were called Non-Weapon Proficiences rather than just “Skills”. Any one of a thousand bits of quirk can be looked at with scratched head as you wonder what’s so great about this edition of the game.

Then you play it, and realize.

It doesn’t have to be perfect to be right.


16 Comments on “What AD&D gets right”

  1. So more quirks=better game? By that definition, World of Synnibarr is the pinnacle of RPG evolution. Of course if WoS were a model Spitfire it would use parts from the Battlestar Galactica, an Eldar Fire Prism, a TIE interceptor and the NSEA Protector. :)
    While I agree that a game doesn’t have to perfect, I do need it to be a little rational. When AD&D 1.25 came out, I switched because there were so many quirks that just made no sense to me. (yes it was AD&D 1.25. Somebody just decided to round it up to 2 for marketing purposes.)
    As to the advantages it had, it separated race and class and greatly expanded the world of roleplaying.
    As for settings, I loved some of those settings. (Though my favorite setting is still Eberron) I think this should be a constant thing. I’d like to see a new setting every couple of years. I’d rather see more setting books than more splatbooks.

  2. Sung to the air of a well known tune:
    “Ad&d was my first love
    And It will be my last…”

    And it’s not even true… I mean I love ad&d, but I moved on. I play now 4E, and love it too. But I still have a fond nostalgia for ad&d (espesially the 2nd edition with Skills and Powers).
    If you come to think of it, quite a few ideas for 4E comes from it. Of course it doesn’t look that way until you sit down and analyse it closely enough.
    But the real strength of that era, for me at least, is the humongous number of fluff books, of setting books. Heck even the monstruous compendium was a joy to read for a dm in the look out for ideas and to play monsters with a bit more depth than just stats. That’s my main disapointment with 4E, that has been a bit diminshed with Threat from the vale, I miss the ecology, the mindsets of the monsters.

  3. I love that AD&D made it simple to mod the rules, make new classes, add spells. There were even basic rules in the DMG for how to calculate XP charts when you created your own class. The designers wanted us to mess with the rules. They wanted us to decide on our own that a heavy crossbow should do 1d10 damage!

    I love the cleanliness of 4e and how easy it is as a DM to just whip up an encounter, but I do miss making my own classes and races for my home brew campaign world. I am trying to make a few classes right now and its a pretty painful process.

  4. I don’t wanna harsh on it to much, but I feel I must dissent a bit. Usually I tend to agree with you so I guess it’s time for me to not. ;) I don’t really recall ADnD fondly, aside from the general fondness for gaming in my youth. And I /do/ want the perfect game :P. I get tired of trying to file it down and glue it and then explain all the filings and gluing to my players.
    Honestly, for my money, I hope it’s more 3e than Adnd, and there are at least a few things from 4e that I’d like to see them keep. It’s one of the reasons I’m both interested and meh about the 5e stuff I read. They seem to be doing a lot of “old school” reach out, and that’s like the least interesting thing they can do for me. :P But I want to actually see it before I make a judgement.

  5. I’ve read your other posts about what each edition gets right, and I’m surprised this post doesn’t actually talk about anything that makes AD&D what it is.

    In looking over AD&D, especially the original hardcover, 1E material. There’s entire chunks of rules that I would never use and really have no bearing on games I would run. That said, someone else might use them. What 2E did was chuck most of the stuff the majority of players didn’t use and add a few things to round out the system a bit.

    However, I’d love to see an honest write-up about it. Not the rose-colored trip down amnesia lane. I like the other articles to date and would like to see something akin to those here.

    Me personally, I like 3P the most, however, like every system, there’s parts that are unwieldy and drag down game play. I think what most people like AD&D for is the fact that since they chucked so many rules, it played very much as they wanted. So, maybe, the final analysis is: No edition of D&D was good, it was how each group played the game. If the group had fun, that was the best edition. Most likely, it had little to do with the rules.


  6. What, no love for Eberron? That was created during 3rd edition.

    Also, there’s being imperfect and there’s being just plain bad. You can’t convince me that THAC0 is charmingly flawed.

    I appreciate the desire to have RPGs be more driven by narrative potential than perfect balance, but this article stretches a bit in places.

  7. AD&D should be the baseline of how D&D Next should be judged, man. 4e was judged that way. And yes, people — even people who play 4e — swear it plays like Star Wars: The Old Republic and World of Warcraft.

    And I’m of that opinion. I played WoW, and when we went into dungeons, we played according to our dungeon role: tank, DPS, Striker, Healer. Whether you like or not, the classes are arbitrarily placed into these roles. Oh they tried to fix it. But it was a very frustrating thing about 4e.

    D&D Next should hearken back to AD&D. 4e is done, and over with. I want a system from Wizards of the Coast that will inspire imagination, not put road blocks in our way.

    1. THAT is exactly what I don’t like about 4E!! A role playing game should not cater to a computer game, no matter how good and/ or accepted it is.

      The other big thing for me is that a role playing game, to my mind, should not have all the classes do the same damage. Some classes are more combat-oriented b design, while others are subtle and will not have that much to do in a real combat situation, and that is okay. Our (the GMs) imagination and ingenuity was the key to allowing all players to shine, while it was the players’ job to role play the characters even in situations whe they might feel useless and then smirk and wink at the barbarian when a little finnagling was needed!

      I will not play a game that makes every attempt at taking these sources of inspiration it of a game.

      Thanks, Grey, for your continuing lay inspiring articles!


      1. PS: by the same token, I don’t think computer games have to follow that same road either, although I am enjoying the hell out of SW:TOR’

        Oh, and when typing on the go on your iDevice, always, always spellcheck (…continuingly…)


  8. I wouldn’t think for a minute to put a damper on your love for AD&D (as I love me some 2E as much as I can get), I have Basic D&D share that pedestal you put it on. Talk about quirky – wonky demihuman level caps, race as class, etc. But I wouldn’t swap it out for the world. No matter what version – OD&D, Holmes, Moldvay/Cook/Marsh or Mentzer BECMI/RC it’s all worthy of being imperfectly perfect and a great compliment to AD&D.

    -DM Glen

  9. So what it gets right is that it didn’t get a lot of things right? :-/

    As someone who is not at all familiar with D&D, I’d really like a part 2 blog post that explains in more detail the mechanics that went well and what about the settings made them so great. Just like what you did for the Third and Fourth Edition reviews.

    1. What AD&D got right were not the game mechanics. They’re clunky and feel thrown together with little or no concern for consistency – because that’s exactly how they were thrown together. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes AD&D work (from a mechanical perspective) because, imho, no one system in the game works as well as it could. Yes, combat works (provided you ignore things like weapon length, the 1st Edition initiative system, etc), psionics work (after much head scratching) and guidelines for monster creation and encounter building are all but non-existent in the rules.

      Yet despite this it’s a brilliant game to play. It’s like Frankenstein’s Monster where the disparate body parts have been sewn together but when it’s given life it is an awesome beast indeed.

      There won’t be a part two, sorry. Play it, and I’m sure you will find out for yourself what AD&D gets right.

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