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Random Thoughts of a Game Developer

#dndnext : Cautious Optimism, Part 2 – First Edition

Today, I’m going to piss off an entire portion of the D&D playing Community (such as it is): first edition AD&D was a great game for its time. It was ground breaking and amazing, and it had a lot to offer D&D Next. That having been said, there is very little it did that Second Edition AD&D didn’t to in a better, clearer, and more streamlined fashion.

This post is divided into two parts. In the first part, I’m going to go over some of the great things about AD&D. In the second part, I’m going to go off on a rant about the ways it is horrible, and needs to be left in the past. Just like the first post in this series, I’ll sum up the things I think D&D Next can take from First Edition, and some of the things I think it absolutely needs to leave behind. Even though it’ll be bullet pointed like it was in the last post, I’m terribly afraid it will still be a bit of a rant. First Edition tends to produce a 0.1 Rageahol blood level for me.

AD&D First Edition Was Awesome

Okay, last time on Student 20 Productions  I talked at length about the old Boxed Sets – the Red, Blue, Teal (Cyan?), Black, and Gold boxes that made up Dungeons & Dragons. Something I left out, however, was the original plan. Originally, TSR intended to use the Red Box as an intro-to-D&D. The plan was to take folks through 3rd level, and then have them switch up to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. This was a good idea as far as it went, but they came out with the other boxes to pursue the market of people who liked the simpler Dungeons & Dragons, and weren’t interested in the “upgrade” to AD&D.

Fair enough, but folks like that were missing out in a lot of ways. AD&D First Edition offered a lot more in the way of character options, and had a vast array of additional stuff for creating adventures, reams of advice for the Dungeon Master, and Monster Manuals – entire books devoted to bringing a little spice (sometimes very weird spice) to combat and other “monster” encounters.

I know I already lined to it, but seriously - look at that thing!

It also expanded the magic system, and introduced new classes (Paladin, Ranger, Druid – before it showed up in the Companion Set). As the supplements started coming out, even more classes joined the troupe, including the Illusionist, Barbarian, and a cast of Japanese-flavored classes like Samurai, Ninja, and Sugenja – my favorite of which was the Kensai (Sword Saint). All of this added variety was a good thing, in no small part because, if you didn’t want it, you could always stick with D&D, and not join the AD&D party.

AD&D also added in the concept of “proficiencies” – things characters knew how to do. Basically, the Proficiency System was a rudimentary Skill System. It was simplistic, but it did something really cool: it made it so that characters needed to specialize. That is, no one was going to wind up being an expert in everything. It separated basic class mechanics from “skills” completely, so that a Fighter and a Thief (they weren’t re-branded as Rogues until 2e) could be on an equal footing when it came to things that had nothing to do with what their class was built for. In 3e, a Rogue always had more “skill points”, and could therefore be better at, say, Craft skills than a Fighter, whose paltry Skill Points needed to be saved for Fightery-stuff like Athletics and… well, other things would be nice, but Athletics is probably where they ran out of Skill Points. I never liked the skill-point deprived classes as much as the ones that had even slightly more generous skill point assignments because they were so very limited in their outside-of-class-ability talents. I could go on, but this is supposed to be about AD&D, not 3/3.5e D&D.

One great thing about 1e AD&D was the lack of Class Bloat: every time a class was added to the game, it was added because its specific flavor was needed. The Japanese-themed classes, for instance, appeared in the Oriental Adventures book. Now, I suppose one could easily argue that a Samurai is just a Japanese Fighter, with a specialization in the Katana and Wakizashi, but that’s just not the case. Moreover, classes like Cleric, Thief, and Assassin just don’t capture the same feel as Sugenja, Yakuza, and Ninja.

Cover of

Cover via Amazon - this book was cool. A little racially insensitive at times, and completely culturally ignorant as well, since it says "oriental adventures" but it really means "Japanese Adventures" - but still very, very cool.

AD&D did have some weird class stuff, to be sure; the original Bard from 1e AD&D is probably the first instance of a “Prestige Class“, for instance, but describing the entry requirements as “onerous” falls somewhat short of the mark. That having been said, it was overall a great system for Classes – because there weren’t all that many, each one felt special and magical and wonderful. If you wanted to cast spells and use a sword, you played a Dual or Multi-Classed Fighter/Wizard – Duskblade wasn’t an option, and I absolutely love that.

AD&D continued the setting-agnostic feel of the D&D boxed sets as well. Very little (read: pretty much nothing) about specific setting was included in the books; instead, very general guidelines concerning what a high-fantasy setting would be like were included. These general setting thingies were so broadly written that they encouraged groups to put together their own settings, or to expand heavily on the details given in the published adventures. If you wanted more detail for a setting, however, AD&D 1e provided campaign settings that are now iconic: Blackmore, Forgotten Realms, and Greyhawk, along with Hollow Word, were all incredible settings with much depth. The setting books tended to shy away from mechanics and stick to flavor and setting information. I still prefer the 1e versions of Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk to any of their successors. (All respect to Dave Arneson, but I never much cared for Blackmore. I couldn’t tell you why on a bet, and I’d love to see it get a modern makeover, but it just never gelled into something coherent for me).

Bringing Back Advanced Dungeons and Dragons

Which brings me to a point I mentioned in my last post: we need AD&D back. The way Wizards is talking, we’re going to be treated to a highly modular system, with a core set of simple rules, along with additional “modules” that can expand the rules to make things as complicated as you like. Why not brand these “modules” as “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons”?

They could keep the two separate easily enough. The books that are based entirely in the Core Rules (setting books or boxed sets, like Forgotten Realms and Dark Sun) could retain the D&D brand, adding in only those rules needed for the setting and nothing more (adding in things like Harpers for Forgotten Realms, or like Defiler Magic for Dark Sun, or like Spelljamming for… well, Spelljammer). Even books with new Modules could be kept on the D&D labels, as long as they were a.) only dependent on the core rules, and b.) Did not alter the mechanics of the core game. Examples would be books that added new PC Classes and Races, new Spells, and so on.

Meanwhile, the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons label could be used for books that added much larger things to the rules, or that were dependent on other Advanced Dungeons & Dragons books. For instance, a Module that allowed for the creation of a character with specifically 4e sensibilities (at-will, encounter, and daily powers), or ones that added additional skills/proficiency to the core set, or that expanded social encounters to include a combat-like mechanic. Books that provided new magic systems, or added things like Incarnum, would also have the AD&D Label, since things like this could massively alter the game.

(A Direct Note to Wizards of the Coast: Please bring back Incarnum! That was, like, the coolest idea ever – although the obsession with the color blue and excessive use of the word “cerulean” could probably stay in the past. Also, if you’re going to have Incarnum Infused Races, it might be nice to have some that aren’t just humans with a funny paint job and a talent for this fairly weird kind of magic).

Alright – that’s the good stuff out of the way. I’ve skipped some things in the interest of actually finishing this post before D&D Next goes into public playtest; AD&D offered a lot that I’m not covering. These are the highlights, though, of the things I really loved about it.

TL;DR: What D&D Next can learn from 1e

I’m putting this here instead of at the end so it’s on the first page of the post. The second page of this post is a bit more… inflammatory.

Stuff to Keep:

  • The two-pronged D&D and AD&D Brands
  • Setting Agnostic Core Books – this can, and should, be done even for things like “Eastern Adventures” and “Arabian Adventures” kinds of books
  • No Core Class Bloat – A Wizard and a Sorcerer are both the same class, folks – they just use a different method to cast their spells.
  • Proficiency, or Skills that aren’t based on Classes or used to create Class Abilities. If a Rogue is better at being sneaky or pciking locks than anyone else, that should be part of their Class Abilities, not part of a skill system. Both my Mage and my Bard should be able to keep up on their Knowledge: Foopimancy Skills if they want.
  • A clear division between D&D Core and AD&D, with continuing support for both. A tall order, I know.
  • Very Strange Monsters should make a comeback – to wit:

Stuff To Avoid Like The Frakkin’ Plague:

  • Non-Human Class Level Limits, mostly because they make absolutely no sense, but also because they just plain suck.
  • A division between Multi-Classing and Dual-Classing – one or the other, please, but preferably multi-classing. If both are available, they should be available to all characters regardless of race, and while in the process of Dual-Classing, you should still be able to use the abilities of your old class without screwing yourself. Oh, and you shouldn’t be forced to abandon all advancement in your old class.
  • Mages whose bones break in a light breeze or when they are spat upon. Commoners have the same problem.
  • Racial limitations on class selection. I don’t actually go into this anywhere in this dissertation, but it’s still a crappy rule.
  • Very badly written and organized books
  • Table Bloat – oh, ye GODS, the Table Bloat in 1e…
  • Arcane or outright strange “Prestige Class” rules. Frankly, I think you can just let Prestige Classes stay in add-on Modules (the new AD&D books), and leave them out of the core rules completely. Yes, this belongs here – I mentioned the 1e Bard earlier, remember?

If you’re a big fan of 1e, I’m going to suggest you don’t continue reading. I’m going to rant a little, and I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. I’m not trying to criticize anyone who likes 1e, although I think you’re foolish if you think it’s flawless (no game is). So, if you really love 1e, please feel free to skip directly to leaving comments about what you really love about 1e, and why you think its awesome, and what D&D Next needs to take from it.

Don’t get all pissy in the Comments section, though. That’s not going to do anyone any good. Neither is my rant, I suppose, but you know what? This is MY craft on the Astral Sea, and I’ll dive into any Chrystal Sphere I like, thank you very much. Oh yeah – harsh language ahead. You’ve been warned. Mom, you should probably stop reading now. I’m likely to get downright offensive.

I fucking hate most of the AD&D books themselves – especially the Dungeons Master’s Guide. The 1e AD&D books are abominations in the eyes of God, and I’m not talking about the ass-headed bullshit claims that D&D will turn children to Satan. They are disorganized, filled with tangent, and packed with useless information. Owing, I suppose, to its wargaming roots, the books are so densely packed with tables – some of which are completely nonsensical – as to prevent any kind of coherent structure. My favorite table (that was apparently so loved it got re-printed in 2e in an almost identical form) is the Brawl table, wherein you discover that, in 1e (and 2e), if you get in a fist fight and you’re not a Monk, you determine how your character hits his/her opponent randomly. I know it’s an optional rule, but for fuck’s sake, man – I roll a d20 and consult a table to figure out if my character delivered a rabbit punch to the enemy’s kidneys or if I did a full-on Captain Kirk style two-handed hammer blow? Really? Really? REALLY? 

Oh, and don’t get me started on the quality of the writing. Gary Gygax was a genius, and he helped invent the greatest hobby in the world, but he was fucking clueless when it comes to narrative structure, what paragraphs are for, and any semblance of technical writing. every single AD&D 1e book I’ve ever read borders on complete incoherence more than once in their lengthy text passages.

The DMG especially is filled with badly written, difficult to follow advice, some of which is completely fucking wrongheaded. There’s a whole page basically devoted to why the d4 is TEH BESTEST D!CE EVVAR!!!!!!!  No kidding – half the page is about how the 1d4 can be used to generate results from 1-4 (roll it), can stand in for a d2 (roll it; results of 1 or 2 count as 1, while results of 3 or 4 count as two), can be used to generate numbers from 1 to 40 (roll the d4 and a d10, with the d4 representing the tens place and the d10 representing the ones place), and a variety of other uses – almost all of which are uses that are identical or very similar to the uses for every other fucking die in the D&D set. It’s a diatribe on the virtues of multiple dice types, except it’s only about the d4 and how awesome it is. Half a page is devoted to this crap. Half a page in 9 point font. Apparently, Gary never stepped on one with bare feet.

Curiously, they also do 6d8 damage directly to your foot when you step on them. They're worse than caltrops.

There’s another passage where Gygax advocates killing characters if the players are being dicks or not following the DM’s carefully crafted plot. Basically, if you read the DMG, Gygax advocates behaviors that we nowadays tend to associate with the shittiest GMs we’ve ever played with. That’s got some of the worst advice I’ve ever read concerning Game Mastering in general, and it reinforced one of my major issues with AD&D (and the old D&D Boxed Sets, as far as that goes – although it’s much less explicit there).

In AD&D, unless you’re houseruling a bunch, it’s the DM’s game. It’s not a shared storytelling game. It’s the DM’s way or the highway, and it makes me want to punch baby kittens. The balance of power is… well, primitive. It’s not how we generally look at things when it comes to modern gaming. This is Computer Game Style GMing, and it misses the whole point of sitting around a table with your friends trying to craft a story together.

But all of that is beside the point.

Sticking with the mechanics, there’s some seriously goofy shit in these books. For instance, while it doesn’t have the “Races Are Also Classes” thingy from the Boxed Sets, it retained the level limitations for non-human characters. Now, I seriously need someone to explain something to me. According to the 1e AD&D rules, a Human lives 75 to 100 years or so, and an Elf lives about a millennium. Still, with all that extra time on their hands, no Elf has ever gotten beyond level 11 as a Mage. Ever. Dwarves live about 500 years, as I recall, but there’s never been a Dwarven Fighter above level 9.

As a balance tool, non-Human levels caps is a pretty nonsensical one.  Demi-humans get front-loaded, minor stat bonuses, while Humans later get to aspire to infinite power. Was this really the best idea they could think of?

Then there’s Multi-Classing and Dual-Classing. One of the advantages of playing a demi-Human was that they could, by following strict guidelines, multi-class. An Elf could be Fighter/Mage/Thief, for instance. In order to do this, you had to divide your XP earned among the three classes evenly, and when you leveled in one class, you got Hit Points equal to the normal amount for that class divided by the number of classes you had. It suddenly makes a bit of sense why no Elf ever got past level 11 as a Mage, although how an adventuring Elf with so few Hit Points ever survived past level 3 (when his non-Multi-Classed friends are at level 6 or so, and have twice as many hit points) is still a mystery.

Of course, how any AD&D Mage adventurer ever survives past level 1 without divine intervention is a bigger mystery – falling off your horse had a really good chance of killing you, after all. Gods help you if you step on a rake in your front yard.

If Sideshow Bob was a level 1 or 2 AD&D Mage, this might have killed him. Of course, he's carrying a short sword, and everyone knows that no Mage has ever learned to use a sword. Oh, except Gandalf. And a dozen other examples.

Dual-Classing was the Human alternative to Multi-Classing, and it makes even less sense. In order to dual-class, you had to have a hellofa Stat score in the Prime Requisite of both the class you were in and the class you were going into. When you switched, you had to stop using the old class’s abilities entirely until you had caught your new class up in levels. Apparently, in the World of D&D, if you are a doctor, and you decide you want to be a lawyer too, you have to stop practicing medicine until you’re as good a lawyer as you were a doctor.

I could go on. For days. I’m ending this portion now for he same reason I ended the last one – except this time, it’s so that I can finish this post before the coming of the next fucking decade.

A final word

I know some 1e fan reading this will want to swoop in and argue these points – but before you do, remember these three things:

  1. I fucking warned you that I was ranting – don’t take it personally. I love my 1e Brothers and Sisters in Gaming.
  2. Have you really read those old books recently? I’m not talking about the more modern remakes of the game, like HackmasterCastles and Crusades, and Old School Hack – I’m talking about the 1e AD&D books as they are written, before your group houserules the ever-loving crap out of them, like just about everyone did.
  3. Like literally everything opinion-related in my blog – or anyone’s blog, for that matter – YMMV

And I’m spent.

Next time, I’m going to talk (rant?) about licensing and stuff, and why D&D Next should be just as open as – if not more open than – 3e. This will delve into why I keep saying that any game I actually publish will be under a Creative Commons license or WotC’s very own OGL. I might rant about something else, though. I’m unpredictable like that, bitches.
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4 thoughts on “#dndnext : Cautious Optimism, Part 2 – First Edition

  1. Pingback: #dndnext Cautious Optimism: Part 3, the dawn of Open Gaming « student 20 Productions

  2. Pingback: #dndnext Cautious Optimism part 4: Edition the Third and the d20 System « student 20 Productions

  3. Pingback: #dndnext Cautious Optimism Part 5 (I think): Incarnum and 4e « student 20 Productions

  4. Pingback: #dndnext Cautious Optimism 6: In Summary « student 20 Productions

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