Re-Evaluating AD&D’s Second Edition

Wizards of the Coast’s upcoming release schedule has, slated for May 21 2013, premium reprint versions of the AD&D 2nd edition Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monstrous Manual… much as last year they released fancy editions of the earlier 1st edition books. Relative newcomers and those nostalgic for the old days ought to be pleased.

2ephbNow, I don’t know that I am personally in the market for these. I didn’t pick up the 1E reprints, for example, although I was tempted. And I have quite serviceable copies of the AD&D2E core books on my shelf. Two sets, actually. And a shrinkwrapped copy of the first Monstrous Compendium. But that itself is noteworthy because I always thought it was AD&D2E that chased me away from D&D for nigh on two decades. The old line was that 2E didn’t solve any of AD&D’s problems but sucked out lots of flavor — assassins, demons and devils, all that stuff. Even the innocuous monk was cut. In the years that I disliked D&D I hated 2E, and I was vocal about it in the local gaming community and on the internet.

But, you know, stuff looks different in the cold light of passed years and you start seeing features instead of problems. I’ve been looking over my 2E books lately, and I feel very differently about it after moving in a direction more favorable to 2E for several years. Sure, the AD&D2E DMG was less useful as a general reference than its 1E counterpart — but we have the internet now. It contained some suboptimal GMing advice — but so did its predecessor. And granted that during the 2E era the game crufted up a great deal with a bazillion settings and broken rules addenda like Skills & Powers, but the core — the game in the Player’s Handbook — is really quite nicely designed and retains virtually all of the character of the editions of D&D that preceded it.

2edmgSecond edition gave us a Bard that was playable, partially alleviating that hard feelings causued by cutting two classes. A lot of things I found objectionable at the time, like non-weapon proficiencies, are clearly marked as optional, although it was hard to see that at the time. It cleaned up a lot of little broken things and streamlined some other stuff. Most importantly, it’s the same game, only tighter.

I still don’t like THAC0, that crime against Man and God. But in going over a lot of the old systems and thinking about designing what would be a customized retro-clone, starting with AD&D2E as a baseline really isn’t all that bad an idea. Drop proficiencies entirely, work back in tidied-up versions of the lost classes along with maybe the Barbarian, provide attack matrices alongside THAC0 for those who want them, and maybe flip a switch or turn a knob here or there and you’d have a rock-solid and pleasingly old-school game engine to work with.

I was where I was for those years, and all that time away is probably part of the reason I’ve changed my mind. I don’t actually regret choosing to play Rolemaster during most of the 2E era, but I do regret not keeping some of the considerable amount of 2E (and other D&D, to be sure) product that passed through my hands over the years. The current D&D climate filled with retro-clones offers has helped to show just how close AD&D1E and 2E really are: closer than AD&D1E is to B/X or BECMI, for example. Now that the first generation of retro-clones is part and all of the other old versions of D&D systems are thoroughly emulated, maybe we ought to start taking a closer look at 2E.

Drafting a Dungeon Map

I went to college, the first time, to be an architect. Architecture turned out to be a more artistic and less mathematical field than I’d anticipated, and it didn’t work out since I have very, very little artistic talent. But thanks to four years of high school drafting in preparation for architecture, I can knock out a fairly decent dungeon map.

I’ve dug out some of my old maps and may be posting them later on, but for now I’m starting a new map that I’ll be doing a step-by-step walkthrough on. Maps should have names, at least, to hang a concept on: this one is Thorngate Manor. I have some more specific ideas in mind for it, but that’s all we need to get started.

I’m going to go old school here and not use any electronic aids — I’ll draw by hand, like they used to in the days when DMs drank the tears of players before breakfast. Nor will I use any fancy gadgets like a drafting table or a t-square. I have a pencil, one ballpoint and one gel pen, a Sharpie and a piece of what looks like 4 square to the inch graph paper I had laying around in a random notebook. I collect graph paper notebooks with an almost fetishistic passion; sometimes I’m afraid to write in them for fear of “ruining” them with a project that turns out badly or unfinished, but this one’s already been partly used, so it’ll be okay.

I start by sketching the map in pencil, starting with the basic floorplan as shown below. I draw this kind of thing fairly light as I’ll erase it later after it’s inked, so it may be hard to see. I stipulate that Thorngate Manor has three floors: a ground floor, an upper floor and an attic/roof level. I’d thought a doing a cellar underneath the place, but I’d need either a second page for that or to drop the attic level. As you can see, the sketch takes up pretty close to the whole page. An underground dungeon map can end up looking kind of artificial if it fits the page more or less exactly, but for a three-level, rectangular outdoor structure it’s not a problem, and this kind of this is pleasingly old-school anyway.

I next begin to sketch the internal layout of each level. Obviously, I’m going to sketch the entire layout in pencil before beginning to ink, although any dressing like beds, tables and such I will just draw directly in ink. I need to make sure to line up the interfaces between levels correctly; there’s some math involved to do this strictly accurately, but I won’t bother, and will merely line them up by eye and according to the grid. I will use hallways to make the layout makes sense to the modern eye, even though architecturally hallways are a relatively modern invention – take a look at ancient and medieval floorplans sometime and you’ll notice the lack of them.

The attic is a little tricky, since I’m going to assume that the roof is pitched rather than flat, which means that parts of the attic will boast less-than-ideal headroom. Which I want, because it’ll make for an interesting encounter or two in cramped confines. But it means I have to figure out where the confined areas are. But — and this is the trick — the slope of the roof can be anything I want. I’ll “just so happen” that I will set it up so that everything works out based on my grid.

I will (more or less arbitrarily) draw the ridgelines of the roof. There will be three of these, one for each wing (drawn vertically) and another for the center section which is horizontal. The center section’s roof will intersect those of the wings at some angle which will in turn project down onto my flat paper at some different angle, but I can again draw this arbitrarily because I leave the roof pitch undefined. (The whole thing would be moot if I’d just declared “there’s a roof” and screw the attic.)

From the ends of the ridgelines in each wing, I draw straight lines to each corner of that section of the manor. For the center section, I stipulate that the roof peak is higher than on the wings, and cut the central ridgeline two squares short of the wing ridgelines. I then draw straight lines to the corners of the center section from its ends. Since the slope of the roof is arbitrary, I decide that two squares, around the edges of the attic, are the cramped confines, so I draw a hashed line to reflect that. And I place a couple of walls; this is all nominally storage space (no doubt now inhabited by some kind of natsy) so I don’t want a bunch of rooms in it, but neither do I want the whole attic to be one huge open space.

I also jotted a few notes on the map and added some details to the grounds: some trees and shrubbery, the groundskeeper’s shack, a stable and a small smithy and a small orchard. At this point I could easily number some encounter areas and populate the place, considering it done enough for government work. But hopefully I’ll get around to Part 2 later this week, where I will ink the thing and make it look slightly more professional.

An Epic Year For Dungeons & Dragons

2012 is shaping up to be a fairly big year for Dungeons & Dragons, so far — both online and on the tabletop.

First off, we have the news that a fifth edition of the game is in development. This surprised no one — the writing was on the wall when Monte Cook was brought back aboard as a “special consultant” — but it’s gotten a lot of very high-profile attention from places like the New York Times and Forbes.

It’s also no secret that the current fourth edition of D&D isn’t doing as well as it might. It is, in fact, being beaten out by Pathfinder in many markets. In my own opinion, as stated many moons ago, it’s a good and cleverly designed game that happens to not resemble D&D very much except as an emulator of one particular style of D&D play. Part of the reason it didn’t catch on is that the designers failed to fully appreciate that they weren’t designing in a vacuum, but in an environment with a very strong sense of history and heritage. Too, there was no widespread clamor for a new edition at that time — many people had issues with various aspects of 3.5, but relatively few people felt it was a fundamentally broken and crappy system. This is in contrast to the late 2e era, when it seemed almost everybody felt that way, even those who were playing it. In changing the game so completely, WotC badly misread the community and fractured the community far worse than it already was.

This “edition war” among the D&D-playing community was always evident, but it became especially fierce when WotC put out a radical new edition that effectively disinherited old players and the 30+ years of materials they had accumulated; one of the greatest crimes of fourth edition is its total lack of backward compatibility. So deep was the chasm that opened up between the proponents of the various editions that there’s now a dedicated Old School Renaissance, dedicated to promoting play and producing product up to the scale of full “retro-clones” in the style of the pre-D&D3 era on back. While guilty of certain excesses along the lines of “This Is The One True Way,” this community has proven to be creatively fecund, releasing outstanding games like Adventures Dark and Deep and Swords & Wizardry and Castles & Crusades, which helped kick off the whole movement but which has been largely disowned by it for sticking too close to 3e.

The clamor for materials in the older style has apparently been noticed — finally — at Wizards of the Coast. PDF versions of older material have long been unavailable, but now they’ve committed to bringing back the original three AD&D 1st edition books in April, albeit in a limited edition. Part of the proceeds from the sale of these books will go to the Gygax Memorial Fund, which is trying to raise enough to erect a statue of Gary in his (and TSR’s) hometown of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Personally, although I have multiple copies of the original books, I lust after these, and I figure it’s for a good cause. I have absolutely no doubt that these will sell out very quickly, and hopefully WotC will take notice and start to make more of the older stuff — tens of millions of words and thousands of products — available in print or electronic format. This would erode prices in the collector’s market, but that’s not WotC’s problem.

Too, Cryptic’s Neverwinter, a second D&D-based Online Multiplayer RPG, is almost certainly going to release in 2012. While MMO-playing folks aren’t taking it very seriously at this point, and neither are tabletop fans since by its own admission it’s not going to lean much on any version of the tabletop game, it has the potential, if popular, to help to raise the profile of D&D again in the video gaming world. It used to be a popular and powerful brand, and then it just seemed to wither away, for which we can probably blame Atari.

More promising still, though, is Turbine’s Dungeons & Dragons Online, which is a high-quality, well-produced game invigorated in 2009 by its industry-shaking shift to free-to-play. DDO is based closely on the 3.5 rules and 2012 promises to be a titanic year for it. There’s a major content update coming in February that will include a free adventure pack, a cosmetic pet system and other stuff, and slated for the summer is the game’s first full-scale expansion, Menace of the Underdark.

Yes, you’re reading that right. While DDO is set in Eberron, the expansion will take players to Cormyr in the Forgotten Realms, and thence to the titular Underdark. Too, Druids are finally going to make their long-awaited appearance in DDO, and the level cap is increasing to 25 — which will be epic levels.

Even if, as I expect, D&D5 doesn’t release this year, it’s looking like D&D will be a very active property in 2012 — and it’s only January. And there’s also Pathfinder Online in the works, which I’ve discussed previously, which will effectively be another D&D MMO as well.

The Heritage Factor

There’s one MMO that has name recognition beyond that of others, and which reaches outside the typical MMO audience. And that game is not World of Warcraft.

In 2010 WoW is getting long in the tooth at 6 years old. EverQuest is venerable at 11 years. And Ultima Online has been running for an astonishing 13 years, the oldest extant true MMO I’m aware of – unless Meridian 59 is still running (and I think it is.)

Dungeons & Dragons has been around for thirty-six years. Granted, D&D Online isn’t all that old, but that is to some extent irrelevant, since D&D Online aims to – and in many ways succeeds at – recreating the tabletop experience in an online, massively multiplayer way.

This is a lot more important as a selling point to people like myself, with a long history of tabletop play. And it might even serve to dissuade some people from becoming regular players. But there’s no question that the D&D brand has penetrated the popular consciousness more than any other. Even more than WoW.

This, however, is not the element of the actual game which makes it stand out – it simply gives it more name recognition than other games. Which is nice, but it won’t keep anybody for very long. What really makes DDO special is the history and depth that those thirty-six years give it.

Most MMOs have simplistic mechanics even though they may have complex equations in the code. The math is complicated, but the way that all the numbers interact at the fundamental level is pretty simple. This phenomenon became far more prevalent with the rise of WoW and the tendency among other providers to ape its success by rolling for the Lowest Common Denominator.

DDO has, bluntly, the deepest mechanics of any fantasy MMO; the only thing that may surpass it is EVE Online, although the venerable Asheron’s Call is pretty credible in this regard as well. “Character customization” in most titles is limited to fiddling with your character’s looks or to the choice between a small number of talent trees with very low flexibility. And your choice of class determines the shape of your abilities forever, although EQ2 gets some props here for having more breadth in its AA system than most, and the ability to swap alignments and thereby switch to an alternate version of your class.

In DDO, as in the D&D 3.5 rules in which the game is rooted, you may start out as a fighter, then move into Rogue for thieving abilities, then into Cleric for healing. Even within each class the possibilities are very wide, and a particular focus doesn’t automatically exclude you from doing other things. Want to wield a two-handed sword as a WoW Mage? Tough. In DDO you take a feat to do it, or use the spell that grants you the proficiency – you don’t even need to take a level in another class. But if you do, you can choose to switch back and forth as you wish.

So too the matter of ‘lore’, which even in the deepest and most storied fantasy MMO I can think of (EverQuest,) is pretty superficial. Eberron is the youngest of the many settings devised and published for D&D, and yet the amount of detail in its background absolutely dwarfs anything else in MMOs.

Both are the result of the game’s tabletop heritage. MMO designers program content – they only develop lore and mechanics for what they need, and sometimes for what they think would be neat to include. The designer of the tabletop setting (Keith Baker in this case,) doesn’t have that luxury, knowing that individual DMs will take what they’ve written and run with it, so the material needs to be much more exhaustive. There’s a CD of in-world music from Eberron, for example, and a cookbook full of recipes from the Dragonlance setting. Cultures, social mores, customs and important personalities all get fleshed out because somebody might use them at some point.

Not all of this makes it into DDO, of course – the online arean of play that an MMO can provide has its limitations. But the MMO’s content designers have years of lore and a wealth of sourcebooks and novels to draw upon, even before they start – and then there’s the general heritage of D&D to take inspiration from, thirty-six years of non world-specific content, creatures, magic and adventure.

But I have to admit that, to me, a lot of this is incidental. The game’s fun and looks good, and has an engaging setting despite the limitations of the MMO format and the technology behind it. But the thing I really get a thrill out of is when I see, in game, some timeworn tidbit of D&D lore brought to life. In no other MMO have I been so delighted as when I see a low-level spell like Hypnotic Pattern cast for the first time, bedazzling a crowd of mobs, or when I catch of glimpse of a Mind Flayer in a 2nd-level adventure, knowing that the thing would eat my brains for lunch, literally – but being set against its evil schemes anyway. Or when facing down a stronghold of Hill Giants as a doughty dwarf, or when putting on a shiny new suit of Plate Mail +4 for the first time. Or even when just seeing screenshots of Pit Fiends and Bearded Devils. The first time I see a Githyanki in-game I’m gonna hit the ceiling.

All this gives me a sense of groundedness that I’m missing in something like WoW, which as fine a game as it is, has a bland genericness about everything in it, from the places to the monsters to the abilities of the races and classes. DDO, like D&D, is not and has never been generic (although it has often been called so.) The tabletop game carved out for itself a niche within the fantasy genre in which it alone sits comfortably, and DDO fits right alongside it.

Weaned on this stuff as I was as a lad, seeing them in DDO impress the wonder of the D&D subgenre upon me. No other MMO compares in this respect, and only LotRO can come close, even in principle.