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.

Adventurer Conqueror King: The Capsule Review

From the very beginning there was an idea that D&D would have an endgame, a point at which after a long career of adventure and dungeon-delving the player characters would clear out some patch of wilderness, build a stronghold or a tower or whatnot, and settle down to ruling a domain either mundane or magical. This idea would persist through AD&D 1st edition, whose Dungeon Master’s Guide contained a lot of detail about clearing wildernesses and what it cost to build strongholds. The D&D Companion Set, released in 1984, provided some fairly solid rules for this kind of thing, while in AD&D support was pretty sketchy, and it atrophied pretty quickly, to reappear in a redirected way in 1995′s Birthright for AD&D2e. In recent years, and in an environment where many have rediscovered the older iterations of D&D, the idea has resurfaced. And in the recently released Adventurer Conqueror King system from Autarch, it’s back with a vengeance.

ACK is being called a “second generation retro-clone,” meaning that it has been constructed, with the tools made available through the OGL, to resemble in play an older edition of D&D — in this case, largely the Frank Mentzer-Revised Basic/Expert/Companion sequence with some additional inspiration from AD&D1e. The guts of the system should be accordingly familiar to anyone steeped in pre-3.x D&D. However, ACK does not stop at emulating one of the crusty old variations of D&D but is in many respects a significant evolution of them in its own right.

ACK starts with the four basic classes of Fighter, Mage, Cleric and Thief, but expands on them with two classes for each of Elves and Dwarves and four additional human classes based mostly on classes from AD&D — the Explorer, for example is reminiscent of a spell-less Ranger, the Assassin and Bard are essentially BECMI iterations of the 1e and 2e versions, respectively. The Bladedancer is a new class, an all-female caste of temple warriors with both fighting ability and proficiency with clerical magic. Using the existing examples it’d be easy to design new classes or adapt something like the Druid to fit into this loose structure.

The ACK Mage and Cleric cast spells in a similar way to 3.x Sorcerers, limited by slots castable per day rather than by what’s been memorized or prepared, but with a limited selection of available spells as suits the much more compact BECMI-derived spell lists. Spells above level 6 (for Mages, and 5 for Clerics) are powerful but demanding and costly rituals instead of the kinds of things that can be cast in the context of a fight. Creation rules for magical items, constructs and undead are well developed.

One novel rule is that of spell signatures, which lets casters customize the cosmetic appearance of their spells, but which can also allow others knowledgeable in arcane matters to identify them by their aftereffects. It’s an elegant implementation of an idea some older groups had long used that removes such objections as “why can’t I play a fire mage?” and allows a caster to give more character to his or her repertoire of spells.

ACK also brings back AD&D’s proficiencies, but here they provide largely static bonuses to specific activities. In a way they resemble the feats of 3.x, and some of them have concrete combat effects, but they are scaled correctly to a system that tops out at level 14 and which is much less gonzo and anime-esque than later official D&D versions. The feel of the whole package is very old school but not strictly old school D&D per se — there are sprinklings of Tékumel and RuneQuest in its implied setting, and room for the kind of technomagic that we saw in something like Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, if the DM chooses to insert such things.

Combat works pretty much as you’d expect out of red box D&D, with a few notable enhancements. For one, it uses ascending Armor Class, no doubt causing the most regressive grognards to shudder in horror — but this is a good thing in my book. For another, there are critical tables very reminiscent of those in Rolemaster, and similarly entertaining — but you’ll only roll on them when characters hit zero or fewer hit points or when they’re resurrected, which is a nice balance of having the interesting charts but not making you reference or roll on them too often. There are also some straightforward rules for special combat maneuvers and environments, but generally the modifiers are kept to a minimum.

The included bestiary is pretty lean, limiting itself to a bare-bones selection of mostly stock critters. ACK has gotten some mild criticism for this, but I have to think it was done for carefully thought-out reasons. By giving us a picture of how the basic monsters are handled, DMs should be encouraged to create their own foes, which is easy to do since the system is so loose anyway. And of course, most creatures from BECMI or AD&D1e products should be trivially easy to import, and there’s quite a wide selection of those. For those wanting weirder but still pre-generated monsters there are a number of retro-clone resources available which should be similarly easy to implement.

Henchmen are embraced in ACK, and there are extensive but loose rules for hired NPCs of all kinds, fit neatly into the game’s reimagined D&D economy. Henchmen are also valuable to domain rulers, and can be used as replacement PCs should one’s main character meet an untimely demise.

The largest enhancement that Adventurer Conqueror King brings to the D&D canon is in the way it establishes a mode of play at high (9+) levels. At this point, common adventurers become Conquerors and may aspire to become Kings. Fighters can build castles, Mages can erect towers, Thieves hideouts, and so on as was described in the AD&D1e and rules, but here we’re given an array of subsequent things for them to do. It’s elegantly developed, structured without being confining and evocative of player and GM creativity. It plays like high-level D&D instead of Civilization in a D&D world, as was the case with other approaches to similar subject matter like Eden Studio’s Fields of Blood. It is unfortunately not quite complete, and the book’s lack of mass combat rules — the kind of thing that GMs running domain-level games would really want — is its greatest flaw. These are slated for release in the line’s second volume, Domains of War, which is supposed to be out fairly soon.

On the other hand, part of ACK’s approach is to allow domain conquest and rulership to develop organically through play, rather than simply handing the character a domain when the campaign begins as was done in Birthright. The game’s economic model, which has been rebuilt a priori, supports this completely. It’s not a real-world economic simulator, but it takes the pieces of the D&D economy and fits them together in a way that both makes internal sense and shouldn’t fall apart as play progresses. In this sense, not having mass combat rules immediately might not be a deal-breaking flaw, since games starting at first level won’t need them right away, but they had better be out before too long.

Campaigns in ACK are strongly oriented toward the sandbox hexcrawl — the GM sets up a largely unexplored wilderness, scatters adventure sites, dungeons and interesting encounters all over, and turns the PCs loose on it. This is a style of play that’s been around since the very early days but seldom have there been such good guidelines in print for actually running this kind of game. You get strong advice on setting up the map, managing encounters and stocking dungeons, but the game never strikes a tone of “this is the official way it must be done,” always subtly encouraging GMs to tweak and modify as they see fit, both in the rules text and in the very cleverly crafted examples. In this way, by the time characters start hitting the “name” level, they’re already familiar with the lay of the land and have probably traversed much of it, and have developed friends and enemies within it. This should allow plot threads to develop in the late game in a very organic way.

Graphically, the book is not a masterpiece, although it’s attractive by indie standards. The cover art is very striking but the interior pieces range from decent to mediocre, and the layout is workmanlike. I’d wager a simple and clean layout was something the creators were going for, though. The table of contents and multiple indices are well-done, but the PDF suffers from a lack of bookmarks for easy flipping to well-used sections of the book, though there are hyperlinks within the text itself.

Adventurer Conqueror King definitely captures old school ideals in their broadest sense. Although it doesn’t strictly emulate any particular elder D&D, it sticks quite closely to everything up to and including AD&D1e and conversion of those materials to its format should be very easy. For those that want a lot of tightly-defined rules infrastructure, look elsewhere; ACK leaves a great deal to player and GM imagination and interpretation. Those wanting a solid core rulebook presenting a system akin to elder forms of D&D with a little bit of 1e/2e flair, plus a broad but solid and playable framework for running high-level games involving domain rulership should give it a very serious look.

Personally, picking a particular iteration of D&D to run is something I’d been pondering lately, and I mentioned the other day that Wizards of the Coast, with its upcoming D&D Next, might make the choice easy for me by, in their words, “unifying the editions” in the same way Mongoose had with their version of Traveller. To my mild surprise, I find that Autarch has already done that — Adventurer Conqueror King is the edition of D&D that I want to run. I’m not sure I can praise it more highly than that.

Disclaimer: This review, though lengthy, is a capsule review of ACK. I have not playtested it, but I’ve given the rules a thorough going-over and have a reasonably good idea of how they will shake out at the table, especially since I’ve played a number of domain-level games in the past. The version reviewed was the PDF version.

Adventurer Conqueror King is available through GameSalute in Hardcover ($40) or PDF ($9.99). It is also available via DriveThruRPG in PDF format for the same price. Physical copies should be available in retail shops through the Bits and Mortar program.

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.

Sometimes A Step Forward is a Step Back

I have been playing MMOs since 2007. That’s not a long time compared to many MMO bloggers who came into the hobby with EverQuest or Ultima Online, but it’s five years, which is a while. Coming in I bought into the Big Dream of an immersive virtual world, but that’s gone nowhere, and major publishers have opted instead to chase the Big Money by making a relentless series of nigh-indistinguishable themeparks.

At this point, while I have certainly had some good times with MMOs and have no intention of abandoning them entirely, I feel like I’m wasting my time in making them the sole focus of the gaming I do. It would be an oversimplification to say that Skyrim is the culprit here, although it did highlight for me just how much MMOs lack and how much video games in general lack in comparison to tabletop RPGs.

In that hobby I go back thirty years, and am inching into old-timer territory. I can go on for hours about memorable events in tabletop games that happened ten or fifteen years ago. My experiences in MMOs simply can’t match that. I am, to be blunt about it, largely bored with MMOs at this point, barring something new and radical coming along (and there are some upcoming titles that may fit that bill.) Too, there’s the issue of MMOs eating up huge quantities to time, often just to get to the parts of the various games that are alleged to be fun. I spend more than my share of time parked in front of a computer, and would like to spend more of what I do have with Mrs. Ardwulf and doing social things with actual people and not avatars.

I have played very little on the tabletop in the past year or so, just due to an incredibly tight schedule that allows me very little opportunity to do much else. MMOs have been okay for that, since I can log in at odd hours and get a few things done. But I’m becoming a cantankerous hermit in so doing, and I’m tired of it. So I have decided that it is time to refocus. Games are always going to be a part of my life, it’s time to make tabletop games a part of it again, and if that means I spend less time n MMOs (which is already happening anyway,) so be it.

So what does this mean for you, Gentle Reader? Well, less than you might think, actually. I will still be posting about MMOs (I am still playing a couple) and assorted video games of interest to me, but the volume of such posts will go down a bit. I will also, however, be posting about tabletop RPGs. This is something I have written about here very occasionally and have tried to do in a more serious way a couple of times, but I’ve never managed to quite find my “blogger’s voice” for tabletop games, which is just weird. I think I now have a good hook to develop that, and that’s what you’re going to be seeing more of around here in months to come.

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 End of the Old School

One of the problems that I’ve had with the “old school” tabletop RPG movement has been its overwhelming affection for and indeed utter reliance on the early D&D rules. The old school – my old school at least – was a lot more varied than that. While I like D&D as a system and do indeed feel some nostalgia for a youth spent planning and playing it, I’m not at all attached to the purist’s vision of the early rules system. Indeed, my old school ideal of D&D remains the first edition of AD&D, and I laugh at those making the stipulation that AD&D1 was too newfangled – such an argument could only be true by applying criteria under which not even white box D&D – as it was actually played after the first year or two and how it actually evolved at the table – would satisfy. Too, such an argument ignores the reality of the gaming community at that time, which departed from the older iteration of D&D in droves in favor of AD&D, and saw its peak years under that rules system, both creatively and in terms of popularity.

Even so, a couple of the key hallmarks of old school play are elements that were at the heart of D&D from the beginning: classes and levels and graded ranks of spells. But are the Palladium Fantasy RPG, published in 1983, or Rolemaster, released from 1980-1983, which include those same features very prominently, less “old school” than AD&D1? For that matter, is Champions from 1981, with its point-buy character creation? Is 1978′s RuneQuest with its skill system? Is Traveller, from 1977?

Ultimately the answer depends on the personal experience of the oldster in question. Me, I played plenty of D&D back in the early 80s, but my formative experiences happened mostly in those other games I mentioned instead (excepting Palladium, which escaped my notice for a good decade.)

So I’m annoyed by the old school “renaissance” as it currently stands, because I am not as fond of D&D, especially early D&D, as is required to embrace the movement, and because a lot of the newfangled features that one is commanded by Holy Writ to reject exist in other titles with, to my mind, just as much old school cred. I love the idea of “old school” gaming but am obliged to reject any environment in which there’s a serious discussion about whether the inclusion of the Thief somehow ruined the game. Defining “old school” such that something released in 1978, thirty-three years ago, is somehow disqualified as not old enough or pure enough is a symptom of a movement that’s disappeared up its own ass.

Now, I suppose that one has to determine (for oneself) some line or date when the end of the era of old school gaming occurred. The old school people often point to 1983′s Ravenloft and the beginning of the Dragonlance brand in 1984 as the time when the gong of doom began to ring. Within the context of D&D being the only RPG that mattered, this did indeed represent an important shift away from skeletal sandbox settings and toward detailed backgrounds and metaplot.

While I absolutely see the appeal of gaming in the sandbox era and tend to dislike canned plotlines handed down by a committee, I also reject any paradigm in which D&D is the only important RPG. I am personally inclined to place the end of the old school era in 1987 with the release of Ars Magica, the first RPG overtly focused on “storytelling” as a major game element, a full four years before Vampire: The Masquerade would popularize it. But here’s a fun fact for you – the first published discussion of RPGs as a storytelling device appeared, near as I can tell, in the Foreword to 1977′s Chivalry & Sorcery – another game with strong old school chops.

Somewhat paradoxically, I also think Ars Magica is kind of old school itself; it’s got the crunch and the sandbox attitude to make it fit – although later editions of the game, especially the White Wolf-produced third edition, would wear away at this to varying degrees, and I think there’s no question that, by being centered on one specific type of character, it pointed RPGs in the more focused direction they’d take in later years.

Even after that, though, a smattering of other games were released that, to my mind, exemplify the old school feel; Lace & Steel springs to mind, as does Dangerous Journeys by Gygax himself for that matter, as well as the excellent Castles & Crusades from the D&D clone camp, a game disowned by the “old school” movement at large because of, as far as I can tell, the perfectly sensible inclusion of ascending Armor Class. Too, there are some old games that probably don’t qualify as old school despite long predating my arbitrary line in the sand. The most obvious of these is 1975′s brilliant Empire of the Petal Throne for its inclusion of a detailed and wonderfully weird setting.

All of this is intended to illustrate where I personally am coming from on this issue rather than handing down a manifesto of what should and should not be considered old school, and to show that RPGs in the early era were more varied than the current “old school” herd would care to admit. Where one draws the line is arbitrary and up to each individual. If you really think that the only game worth playing is the one hand-assembled by Gary Gygax in his living room, then I suspect that you and I are going to have a fundamental disconnect, because I think Golden Age-ism is a load of bollocks. Not to mention that I was actually around in the old days and for the life of me cannot remember even the rumor of anyone playing White Box D&D after about 1979. I believe in progress; fits and starts and dead-end paths it may have but in the big picture I think RPGs are better now than then, even and perhaps especially those games that try to play in the old school sandbox. There’s room for old school, but there needs to be more room in old school, too.

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.