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.

Picking a D&D

Re-approaching tabletop RPGs after some time away, I feel like I have missed a lot. The “new wave” of RPGs as exemplified by the current dominance of talk FATE and systems like The One Ring. Games with strong simulation aspects have always been my forté, anyway, as evidenced by extended periods involved in things like Rolemaster and Ars Magica. In a sense, my games have very often stuck fairly close to the D&D paradigm as it relates to campaign approach — but not in story or adventure design, where I have typically tended toward a much greater reliance on roleplaying and politics than is probably typical in D&D games.

These days, for a number of reasons that I may eventually get into (I’ve a long post brewing that will touch on some of these subjects in greater detail,) I have decided to focus, more or less, on D&D. The broader roleplaying hobby is an outgrowth of D&D anyway, and even games which vary wildly from it are almost always designed as responses to D&D, whether the authors intended them that way or not. Exceptions exist but they’re rarer than those who are deeply immersed in hobby crosstalk think.

So, D&D then. But which D&D? There are now a huge number of flavors available, segregated into three primary sub-communities with some overlap between them. There’s the Old School Renaissance bunch, which gravitates toward pre-AD&D2 systems or clones thereof, the 3.x community that includes fans of Pathfinder and the 4th edition people with their newfangled system that seems, on its face, to depart very radically from previous iterations of the game.

Many versions, all of which have things I like and things I dislike, is a terrible place to be. It’s the same thing I suffered with Traveller until Mongoose came in and made the choice easy. WotC may do the same with D&D Next, but that’s ages away and uncertain as well — I’m getting mixed signals out of the talk from the demos held at DDXP a week or two ago.

Of what I have available at the moment, the three selections I’m inclined towards are Castles & Crusades, Pathfinder and D&D 4th edition. Which is rather a wide variety, really. Since what I am currently envisioning is a lengthy one-shot rather than a full-blown campaign, I’m inclined to select 4th edition and see how it actually shakes out with me running the table. It may be that I will find it very confining, and it may not. I did manage to play in a D&D Encounters session some time back and liked it, but that’s been my only actual tabletop D&D4 experience.

Of the other two choices, the leanness of C&C appeals to me, but it may be a bit too lean. Pathfinder, on the other hand, may be too bulky, but it does offer top-notch support in the form of rules expansions, a dynamite selection of adventures and a ready-to-go campaign world. But I think I’d rather devise my own setting and adventures, at that, and I’ll be chronicling that here as I go.