Buckle up kiddies, we’re going deep into the weeds here. There’s a summary waaaay at the bottom.
The dice are indeed calling again. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd ed is the first game I played and ran back in college. The grand old game captured my imagination back in the day. It’s maintained it over the years and is still the edition I look most fondly on.
I have the black boarder books that came out near the end of the line. The art was not as good as earlier releases (the thief… oh gods the thief…), but it still stirs the imagination when I flip back through and reread the book. It brings me to a special state of mind.
My interest in D&D started with advertising in comics and the animated series. Cheese and all, I love it and still rewatch episodes. They’re great background when grading papers.
In junior high school, one of the kids I looked up to turned me onto the Dragonlance novels. I was hooked. It’s still my favorite setting. I loved that my wife and I got to play through the War of the Lance campaign (though it was D&D 3.5).
Next I found the Ravenloft novels. I loved the Gothic horror and the classic monsters. Strahd was a compelling nemesis.
Around that time, I finally got to start playing (though only a handful of sessions). I quickly too the DM chair afterwards. I had no idea what I was doing nor did I understand all of the rules, but that seems like a rite of passage for a lot of players and Dungeon Masters.
Those were exciting days. I learned to improvise and think on my feet. I learned how to create stories and engage players. I learned how to come up with interesting set pieces and make up NPCs.
A year or two later, when 3rd ed D&D came out, we jumped to that setting, and the learning continued. I quickly learned the limitations of creating characters with multiple classes and not trying to optimize the build. I also learned that I didn’t like feats and having to master the system in order to keep up.
You see, I’m more interested in the story than I am with mechanics. I prefer to come up with characters that interest me and characters I can explore their motivations and desires. I’m less interested in building characters for power.
I’m definitely not trying to say you can’t do BOTH. Not by a long shot. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve done it. It just doesn’t interest me. I either had to play along with learning the right chains of feats or I’d risk falling behind. I was more interested in developing my character through play than through mechanics.
The thing I loved about AD&D is that it felt like I had more freedom while playing. Feats didn’t exist then, so I didn’t have to worry about what special ability I needed to do something. If I wanted to charge an opponent and attack, I just did it.
Some differences between editions
In 3rd edition, there were feats that allowed you to do these things. It wasn’t obvious if you needed a particular feat or if that just made you better at doing it. It felt more limiting. You didn’t have to worry about spending skill points every level.
The fact that there were skills was nice though. There were fewer saves, and they were for very specific things. If you needed to avoid a hit, you rolled a reflex safe. If you took a hit, you might have to roll fortitude. If you need to shake something off, you would roll a willpower save. Older editions of D&D had a multitude of saves. Not that those didn’t make sense, there were just a lot to keep track of.
We’ve started playing 5th edition D&D. I like it well enough. They did a good job of streamlining a lot of the game. There are times it feels almost like AD&D.
I’ve started teaching a couple of new players 5e as their first edition. There is a lot for them to keep track of. It’s not as easy as I’d hoped. There’s also a lot of talks about builds and worrying about what archetype to take. For some reason, the word “build” makes my skin crawl a little when I think about D&D, because that’s the part I least like. I want a character to form organically, through play, not planning out levels in advance.
AD&D didn’t have any of that. If you were a non-human character, you couldn’t change your class (or classes!) that you started with. Humans could change, but only if their stats were high enough.
I find it somewhat difficult to teach some of my new players 5e. There is a lot to take in. Some things are easier though. Almost everything (except damage) is dealt with by rolling a 20 sided die (d20 in the parlance) and hoping to roll high. Otherwise, there are a lot of new ideas that you have to instill into players. There are a lot of features to each class, and it can be confusing to remember them all. I think we’ve used second wind once, maybe twice, because we usually don’t remember fighters have it, for example.
Classes in AD&D didn’t have all of the neat powers you find in 5e. You don’t have all the feats you had in 3e. You had a relatively sparse box with a new toys.
But that’s fine. I do some of my best work within the confines of boxes like these. Once I know the limitations, I can figure out what I can do within the box.
However, new players coming from video games are used to more special abilities. Some of the powers available to classes are downright cool. They add mechanical complexity though, and that can make things more difficult for players new to the system.
For me, the mechanics can get in the way of the story. The less rules there are, the easier it is for me to get immersed into the setting. Complex fight scenes make me think more about rules than about strategy and picturing what my character is actually doing. Worrying too much about rules may make me miss an opportunity to do something cool over the easy use of a power or spell.
With more mechanical bits, I feel like the game is showing how to play. With fewer examples, fewer class powers, it felt more like imagination was king. There were no feats telling me that with this power I could do… X. I felt more creative for having to come up with whatever X was on my own. I didn’t need the game to tell me I could do X. Of course you could try X. You may never try X again, but if you did, there was a house rule or DM ruling created because of X.
In editions with feats and powers, I feel like the game tells you that you can do X. Of course you can do X. Now that you’ve got the ability to do X, you’re going to try and do it all the time, instead of looking for Y or Z. You’ll wait until you get Y and Z as class features.
Older editions seem less forgiving (although a lot of that was dependent on the person running the game). Low attributes didn’t mean the character was unplayable, it meant you had to be smart. Now there are so many bonuses associated with attributes that playing a character with a low attribute is mroe of a challenge. It’s all about the bonuses. In older editions, you didn’t even start getting penalties because of low attributes until 7 (out of 18). Now, a 9 or lower is bad.
5th edition attempts to maintain player balance at each level. Hit points are raised (which is cool by me!). Every class gets something relevant at every level, if memory serves. 4th edition D&D even more so!
3rd edition was closer to AD&D in that regard, however. You had the problem of fighters being higher powered at lower levels, and wizards became more powerful at higher levels. This was described as liner fighters and quadratic wizards. Fighters pretty much progressed at a steady pace, and needed to protect others until the point where wizards got powerful enough to do more damage. Then the wizards got to do cool stuff and warriors mopped up. This is very much how earlier D&D games did it. And I’m okay with that. It made fighters easier to play for new players and wizards were the challenging class.
AD&D had some other ways to balance classes that later editions got rid of. First off, not every class leveled up at the same rate. Thieves were relatively low powered compared to other classes. They could back stab (later sneak attack), but they were lucky if they got that once a fight. They had a lot of other out of combat abilities though, and they were really handy to have in a fight. They were just low hit point (d6 per level) and didn’t get great weapons or armor. They leveled quickly though, so it soon became less of an issue. Do thief-type things, get better at it quickly, survive longer.
Fighters leveled up more slowly, but got great access to weapons and armor, and could hit more frequently faster than other classes. They could also hit more lower-leveled enemies as they got better, so they could clean up a battlefield quickly. They had great hit points (the mighty d10) and possibly a constitution bonus, so they could give and take hits. They had to play smart though, because they could still die after some good hits.
Wizards leveled even more slowly. But, once they got high enough in level (and were smart enough), they got access to truly powerful spells. They just had to be protected until they got there. They only had d4 hit points, so they were very fragile. Power came later.
Another way AD&D maintained balance is by limiting what type of class you could be and how far you could advance, depending on your character’s race. Dwarves, for example, could never be wizards an could only advance so far in fighter, cleric, and thief classes. This was done because several races had special abilities to help them early on, be it night vision, the ability to move silently and sneak up on foes, or the ability to find secret doors, etc. Humans got none of that, so they could go farther in any class. The other races had the ability to take more than one class at a time (mage/thief or fighter/cleric, for example) which was called multi-classing. Humans could only take one class at a time, but they could dual-class. They could start as a figher, for example, and at a later date decide that thief was more appropriate. They’d lose their fighter abilities in exchange for new thief-related abilities. It was a little more complex than that, but it’s the basics.
In exchange for more power, characters leveled more slowly. Balance. Now, that balance doesn’t mean that everyone is the same power all the time, and I’m okay with that. It just means that when working together in a team, everyone would eventually have the chance to shine.
This really got away from me in a hurry, and if you’re still reading, congratulations on making it this far. I did say at the top that I’d be getting deep into the weeds.
Newer editions did a better job of unifying die rolls. You rolled a d20 and wanted to get high results from 3rd edition on. Unlike AD&D, which had different rolls for different things. Attribute checks meant rolling low on a d20. Thief skills were percentages. Finding secret doors were d6 checks. Initiative was… I want to say low on a d10.
It was a bit of a mess, to say the least.
But it was our mess. And the chances of success weren’t that bad, when you looked at the actual probability. Thieves were pretty bad at thieving for quite a while though.
TLDR; I like AD&D because it had less mechanical rules for everything (though there are A LOT of rules!). I liked that the books didn’t have a power for everything and that it made me feel like I had to be more creative. I’m okay with the race and class restrictions. It takes me back to my early days gaming. I miss that feel.
Edition wars… Edition wars never change
I’m not interested in starting another edition war. You’ll see them all over if you start reading up on D&D. I play and like several editions. I’m even looking to try 4th edition D&D at some point. I like what I’ve read.
This is all about my preferences. I will happily discuss D&D all day long. I didn’t say argue. You love 3e? Ditto. I have some issues with later levels, but I’ve played it the most and would play it again. 5e? It’s fun and has a lot of positives. 4e? Cool! What do you enjoy? BECMI or AD&D or Basic or Rulecyclopedia? Kick ass!
Gaming is gaming. If you’re rolling dice and have fun, that’s what’s important. Not how someone else plays. You want to compare notes? Let’s talk!