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Friday, February 18, 2011

2nd edition AD&D retrospective

2nd edition AD&D is the red-headed stepchild of the OSR. The last edition of D&D that was easily compatible with it's predecessors, it still doesn't receive the love that 1st edition AD&D does. I know I don't love it like I love 1st edition. I also know that I don't really have a really good reason for not loving it as much, sure it screwed up a couple of things, but it fixed probably more than it broke by an order of magnitude, so it's really just a feeling. To be clear here I am talking about the core books, not the myriad of add-ons that buried TSR under their weight.

My experience with 2nd edition started when it was initially released. I was 20 or 21 years old when they arrived on the scene, so they fall entirely within my adult gaming experience. While I don't remember where I bought those books, I know I bought them as they were released. My first impression, as I recall, was a good one. The Player's Handbook, while I disliked the cover art, was a pretty meaty tome; which I considered a good thing. Pretty much everything a player needed to know was in that book. The DM's Guide had a slightly better cover, but still not good, and was thin. I pretty much did not like the 2nd edition DMG; after the 1st edition DMG set the standard, the 2nd edition one was weak and insubstantial, both in content and page count. The Monstrous Compendium was a lame idea, but I still bought the 1st three and then selected others as they arrived. Ultimately I stopped using them and just used the Monstrous Manual after it's release.

I played 2nd edition for the entirety of it's run as the "official" D&D* and continued playing 2nd edition through the first years of the 3e era**. I still never felt as comfortable with it as I had first edition. I can always find what I am looking for in seconds in the first edition books. The second edition books I still have to look things up in the index. At first I thought it was just a familiarity issue, but I played 2nd edition for as long as I did first, maybe longer, so I don't know.

Second edition was not without it's good points. I liked the way they handled Thief abilities for instance and the books were laid out much more professionally. The interior art mostly sucked and the blue ink would come off on your hands if you were reading on a hot day but the binding was good, compared to the later first edition books I had anyway. The books were sturdy and looked like professional publishers had produced them, I didn't care for the aesthetic of the new edition, but I could ignore it and move on.

My initial discomfort, which never completely left, came when I noticed rules that had slight changes for no apparent reason. Spells mostly got affected there; so to familiarize myself with the changes to the magic system, I made the sacrifice and played a single classed generalist Mage. Old 1st edition weapon specialization rules got changed for no apparent reason too. I could never be sure I'd noticed all the little tweaks they made and occasionally that burned me in play. The big changes were easy to see and mostly made sense, as well as making things run more smoothly and quickly. Good examples of this are the changes to initiative and introduction of THAC0. The little rule changes were mostly hidden and irritating.

The thing that I initially really disliked about second edition though was the new and improved Ranger class. The class had clearly been redesigned to resemble Drizzt, a character I had initially liked then grew to loathe. That stuck in my craw, redesigning an entire core class so that fan boys can more easily emulate their favorite character from D&D fiction? Bah! I could understand standardizing the hit die type to a d10 to put him in line with other fighter types, but why the other stuff?

I also really disliked the cowardice shown by the suits at TSR when they decided to bow to the, by then non-existent, public pressure and disingenuously rename demons and devils. I think the controversy around the demons and devils existing in D&D is half of what made the game such a huge fad in the early 80's and I personally believe it was the only reason most of my generation's metal heads learned to read or do math.

I thought the Bard class was weak and useless and I was essentially proven right when I saw one being played in the fairly long running Oswego Mk. II campaign DMed by Marty. Sorry Nikki, your Bard character was lame. Weak fighter combined with weak Thief combined with weak Mage does not make an awesome character class, the Jack of all trades really is the master of none.

In the end I also came to realize that there was a general across the board power increase, which in retrospect I can see all the way from 0e to 4e and I guess makes sense in the context of when things were published. The 1st edition AD&D Monster Manual was published before the rest of 1st edition, designed so players of Original D&D could use it for their games, most of the monsters that had previously been published got tweaked a bit, usually making them a little tougher. When the PH came out for 1st edition it codified a stronger group of classes than in OD&D. Variable hit dice and variable damage dice meant that the monsters in the MM weren't really as tough as they been designed to be, AD&D's 1st edition was still evolving as it was published. With the 2nd edition they had time to do everything at roughly the same time and got a more consistent product to market (initially, forget the splat-books). The problem is that every edition keeps giving us more and more powerful characters. With the addition of feats and skills pretty much any 3rd edition character will destroy any earlier edition character of the same level without working up a sweat. I do not know from personal experience, but I have been told by people who have played 4e, this is true of 4e characters with regard to 3x characters too.

I can't really hate 2nd edition too much for it's plethora of splat-books because every edition of D&D has had it's dogs. TSR was doing what they thought was best for them at the time. I don't condone their corporate attitude, but TSR with Gary still brought us Unearthed Arcana and that book was a mixed bag at best. The earliest Complete Handbooks weren't bad at all, particularly compared to the late 1st edition stuff. The problems for splat-books come when they start contradicting core rules, arrive without any proper play testing and amp up power levels to ridiculous levels in an attempt to force players to buy the newest best book to keep up with everyone else. That last tactic may work well for collectible card games, but D&D characters develop over long periods of months or years so adding a newer more powerful kit (or prestige class) just pisses off players. You know, the core audience you are marketing to.

I guess in closing I just would like to say that I liked second edition AD&D. It didn't really have the soul of 1st edition, but the corporate stamp of mediocrity didn't completely eliminate the awesome of the core AD&D experience left over from first edition, and the professionalism of it's corporate creators fixed a number of broken or nonsensical rules. I don't really know what it would have been like if it had been my first experience with D&D, we're only virgins once.

*Except for one Luddite DM's campaign for about a year where we played 1st edition because he didn't want to pay the "upgrade" price when he already had all the 1st edition books he needed. That was Steve S. original old schooler. Thanks for showing the way man!

**Itself an annoying story, my 2nd edition group refused the upgrade and only bowed to peer pressure and bought in right before 3.5 came out. I refused 3.5 at first, but the peer pressure got me to buy the 3.5 PH ultimately, and I ran a 3.5 campaign using my 3.0 books and the errata/conversion documents I found on the web at the time. Eventually I had had enough and quit D&D for Hackmaster and played it as a "straight" game. Much more rewarding then any version of 3.x from my point of view.