A Nostalgic Wandering Through AD&D

Several blog posts and any number of Google+ entries led me to crack open copies of the Big Three of AD&D - the Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide and Monster Manual for the first time in literally decades. Doing so was a visceral, almost elemental experience. The font, the layout, the tables that I still remembered after all these years - all combined to feel remarkably familiar and welcoming. A feeling I didn't get upon revisiting any of the various Basic D&D editions or their clones, not even Pathfinder or Fourth Edition felt like this. I took this in when I was barely in double-digits myself, and it seems pretty well ingrained in my DNA at this point.

I'm well known for bitching about class and level systems, and yet these rules - some of the most Byzantine and arbitrary, didn't feel wrong or limiting to me. I'm sure, were I to play the game again I would feel similarly, but there's a certain something going on here that still feels okay, even though they're more limiting than anything you'll find in any subsequent edition. Again, it's effectively what I was "born into" so it feels okay.

Oh, we started with Basic - I think everyone did back in '78 or '79, but as soon as we encountered, and could afford it, we moved to Advanced. Like so many have said better before me, it was hard to resist a game that was put forth as being "advanced" when you're just a kid. It implied a system that was just, by default, better than Basic, an certainly something we wanted to be a part of. And we quickly were, and were for a good solid six or seven years before other games started to intrude.

So, these books are just a revisitation of where we invested so much of our time in my youth, but also a revelation of just how many of the rules that were right there in front of us that we flat out ignored. Rules that now, in my quest for a system that more accurately models reality, I can see as the groundwork upon which other systems built.

  • We never kept track of how many attacks you defended against with your shield, regardless of the size. And I'm pretty sure we didn't remove the shield bonus to AC when attacked from surprise or from behind or the right flank. 
  • We effectively ignored the language rules, working under the unvoiced assumption of Common truly being common to every creature, albeit often in a comically broken fashion.
  • Did you know there were rules for increasing or reducing one's AC based on the wearing of a helm, depending upon the intelligence of the attacker? I sure didn't even remember such a rule, let alone ignoring it.
  • I can't count the number of times I've railed against the whole "Fighter's are proficient with everything! Who is really proficient with everything?" and yet, right there in the PHB are rules for weapon proficiencies that I have no recollection of ever putting into practice.
  • Every weapon is assigned a minimum space required to use it. We did some pretty incredible work in small caves with large weapons, if memory serves. And weapon speeds? I remember them, but I surely don't remember understanding how they were used. And the weapon modifiers by AC were just confusing as hell once upon a time. Now they just seem like the sort of detail I would have loved had I been able to take all these rules in at once.
  • As famous as they are, I don't think we ever stopped someone from using a spell because of components, be they verbal, somatic or material. Especially material.
  • Did anyone really play with a Caller or Leader role? Really? Really?? Because I know for a fact we never did. It would have been a different sort of game if we had.

And then there are the times when I'd run into a rule, notably optional rules, that I had no idea was in there, and that is often touted as a novel, new or innovative take on things. The notion of keeping the actual number of hit points a character has secret from the player is right there, baked into the description of what hit points are in the PHB. You'll still run into that as being a wild and crazy idea that someone's come up with, nearly forty years later.

And that whole section on HP - I honestly have no recollection of ever reading it. It lays it right out in black and white - HP are far, far more than indicators of physical health. I had to come by that understanding myself, organically, having grown dissatisfied with the mechanic.

Psionics were something that interested us, but not enough to figure out how to make them work well within our campaign. But looking at the sheer number of iconically D&D monsters (Mind Flayers, Intellect Devourers, and a whole spate of Devils and Demons) have the abilities themselves, I wonder if we weren't doing ourselves a disservice by not including them.

I said in a comment on G+ the other day that if someone were to start up a Hangout game of AD&D, I would sign up to play out of sheer nostalgia. Now, I'm not entirely sure I won't go back in and re-read the rules myself from cover to cover and run a game myself. It's baffling after years of GURPS, Hero and BRP related games just how much at home I still feel in these crazy, alternatively hyper-detailed and abstract as hell rules, with the giant collection of ridiculously specific random tables cheek by jowl with suggestions that the DM should do something without any parameters provided whatsoever.

I guess this game gets into your soul after playing it as religiously as we did, once upon a time.


  1. The Caller seems to have been an artefact of the early, huge, games, where there might be ten or more players round the table, and one of the DM's preferred tools was to take advantage of an arguing party by having monsters sneak up on them. There's lots more about how the early game was played in episode 3 of our podcast.

    1. I suspect you're right, and could see it in a large enough group. I've only played in that situation once, when I was in junior high, and the DM didn't use that rule even then, though I suspect it would have been beneficial had he done so.

    2. I should have used this rule when I ran 1E. We averaged 9 people and would swing up to 13 at times. My guys were great about combat, they had it down to a science. Non combat however..... Decisions took forever.


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