Thu
May 23 2013 4:00pm

AD&D First Edition: the Old Firm

AD&D First Edition The Old FirmI was as surprised as anyone when Wizards of the Coast decided to release reprints of their old editions. It is a smart move, and one I’m glad to see them make, but personally the really interesting thing was the deluxe reprints of their Advanced Dungeons and Dragons First Edition books. Nice paper, thick covers, ribbon bookmarks, the works. I’ve heard people complain that the shading is too dark, but to me it looks crisp, and captures some of the fainter lines that might otherwise be overlooked. The fact that they donate a portion of the profits to the Gary Gygax Memorial Fund is more than icing on the cake; it is credit where credit is due (though it would be nice to have a Dave Arneson memorial, too; maybe if they reprint the non-advanced D&D?). I decided the best thing to do with these books is to look at them both in historical context…and in comparison to what follows. So I re-read them with a critical eye and was happy to find that they have a lot of great things to recommend them, and plenty of opportunities to talk about the evolution of game design.

I’m kind of amazed that my complaints about this Player’s Handbook are exactly the same as the complaints I’d make about almost any edition’s handbook...except, interestingly, 4e. Spells, for instance. Just from a pure layout perspective, a raw data point of view...spells take up half the dang book. Let’s literally count it out; 127 pages, 57 of them are spells. In 3.5e spells are 122 out of 317 pages, so we’re still in the same ballpark. The fact that a significant chunk of those spells don’t overlap—that is, they are priest or wizard exclusive—just exacerbates the problem. I like the Vancian magic system—in its place, I’m not saying it is the only system I like—but I’ve always found it wonky that so much of the book is given over to spellcasters, exclusively.

Personally, I’d advocate for one generic listI loathe class specific lists, like “paladin” or “bard” spells—but I would also like to see some way of making them relevant to other classes. Maybe through items? This, I think, is the train of logic that led to the paradigm of 4e, starting with the Tome of Battle: Book of Nine Swords. There should be fun toys for fighters and thieves, too! I don’t think 4e’s solution was the right one (personally), but I understand the impulse. The other option of making every weapon have its own power, or a list of “Maneuvers,” that are sort of martial spells, I get that too. I suppose this is where Feats came from, and let me tell you, I really like idea of Feats. I am sad they became “+2 to intimidate, +2 to saves versus petrification, if you have your back to a wall, if you are a grey elf fighter who specializes in spears.”

Which is one place where AD&D First Edition soars. It doesn’t over-specify, and it doesn’t over-restrict. Take wish for example. Third Edition has a laundry list of qualifications (duplicate an 8th level wizard spell, or a 6th level spell that isn’t a wizard spell, or a 7th level wizard spell from a prohibited school, or...) before finally putting at the end, as if in small print, that they could wish for whatever they want, and the DM could adjudicate it. It takes up about half the page. AD&D is about a paragraph; it gives examples, consequences and then invokes the Dungeon Master. This is a huge difference in tone; Third Edition is narrow, balanced and explicated; First Edition spells and powers may vary widely in usefulness and power, but they are broad in scope. That is the whole point of having a Dungeon Master, after all: you have an impartial referee! Use that.

AD&D First Edition: The Old FirmThe Monster Manual of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons First Edition is a revelation. I like critter collections; I’ve talked before about Pathfinder’s Bestiaries, and why, but it boils down to the fact that...well, they’re cool! Even if you don’t play the game, you can still flip through it and think chimeras and hook horrors and mindflayers are awesome. Which follows through; even if you aren’t going to use any given monster, you can still find them interesting, and who knows, maybe flipping through you’ll find something that inspires you. I’ve built entire adventures, campaign tent poles, around a monster that tickled my fancy. I have one big pet peeve about monster stat blocks, though; I hate it when they are, essentially, a pile of hit points and a damage die. That...isn’t helpful to me. Boring. There are a few offenders here, but by and large I was very impressed with how closely the 1e Monster Manual adhered to my monster design philosophy: make every monster a mini-game.

When I read a creature entry, I scan down to the “special” section where unique powers and abilities are located. This book is ripe with them. Did you know about Demons’ Amulets and Devil’s Talismans? Just little story devices that allow you to use fiends as more than just “a thing to fight.” Heck, this book has rules for how to subdue a dragon, rather than slay it! Little ad hoc mechanical cul de sacs; they don’t need to be used for everything, in every situation, but they add options. If the adage “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” hold true—which, in true D&D hack-n-slash fashion would be, kill everything and loot the corpses—it is nice to see entries saying “how about a screwdriver, how about a fork, how about a whistle?”

I’ve rarely been impressed by a Dungeon Masters Guide. What is it, exactly? A collection of essays, of esoteric rules, random tables and then magic items? Just not my thing. In the First Edition DMG, I was happy to see it start off with a discussion of statistics! Not “Strength” or “Intelligence” but in the distribution curve of 3d6 compared to the flat randomness of a d20. Sadly, it was only a page, but more of this, please! Math matters to the game; it is hard to know how a given tweak will twist actual play, and a little guidance would be much appreciated, since this is the thing I imagine many people have the hardest time with. I can flip through the Monster Manual and decide “oh, an otyugh in the sewers, that would be a fun random urban encounter” so save the random table; what I need is someone who will explain the ramifications of a +2 to an attribute versus a +2 to hit versus a +2 to damage versus an upgrade from a d4 to a d6.

The rest of the Dungeon Masters Guide is as you’d expect: charts on how many rangers make up a band of rangers, or how fast a boat goes, or how hard types of stone are. Not organized as well as later editions; that is something where the game unequivocally improved. Really though, I imagine people use the DMG the same way I do; they flip to the back where the magic items are. Lo! Here they are, and just like with monsters and with spells, we’re in for a treat. In the search for efficiency and balance, later editions reduced magic items to...well, video game upgrades. Get equipped with...+3 flaming broadsword! Heck, later editions expect that you’ll have “appropriate” magic weapons and magic armor as you increase. That doesn’t sound magical at all. At least in Skyrim you get to make the stuff yourself! None of that here. Items are magical, not to mention frequently unsafe. Curses ahoy, Gygax you jerk!

The items, frankly, are neat as all get out. There is a good reason that all of the items here have been re-imagined in every subsequent edition—they are fantastic. Some of them are stupidly designed—really cloak of elvenkind, you need to differentiate between a 99% chance to hide in “outdoors, light growth” and a 95% chance in “outdoors, rocky terrain”?—but most of the items are gloriously, wondrously open-ended. As with spells, one of the reasons you have a Dungeon Master is so that he can reward Player ingenuity while at the same time reigning in abuses of mechanics. The section on artifacts is...a mixed bag. First off, the Hand of Vecna! We all agree that the Hand and Eye of Vecna are the best artifacts, right? At least, major artifacts; the best minor artifact is the sphere of annihilation. Okay, the Mighty Servent of Leuk-O is pretty great; who doesn’t like mecha? Like the apparatus of kwalish’s bigger sibling. While the backstories are wonderful, and I appreciate the impulse to leave artifacts open for DMs to tweak...a blank list of powers is just not helpful. Which is what you get, literal blank lines printed in the book. Come on, at least give a default suggestion!


Mordicai Knode was going to say he is Switzerland in the Edition Wars, but extending that metaphor leads to a Godwin in either direction, so never mind. You can find him on Tumblr and Twitter.

28 comments
Mordicai Knode
1. mordicai
I should also mention, that while it was technically Second Edition, I did just beat the Temple of Elemental Evil in my AD&D game! Zuggtomoy was killed by a roll of a 100 on a rod of wonder! It was...intense.
Jack Flynn
2. JackofMidworld
I was flipping through a buddy's AD&D Monster Manual a couple of weekends ago; I had completely forgotten about subduing dragons until then, funny that you mentioned it here, too.

The artwork is hit or miss, but, hell, that's still true nowadays. But the hits? Yeah, I still fall back on Demogorgon's 1st ed MM picture when I think of him (her? no, wait, that was D&D, not AD&D) and you nailed it - sometimes just flipping through the MM gives you a great adventure, or at least a great encounter. Sure, describing a mimic and what it does is great, but to see somebody getting punched in the face by a wooden chest? That's inspiration!
Mordicai Knode
3. mordicai
2. JackofMidworld

Yep, & next time you are at your buddy's looking through her MM, check out the beginning of the demon & devil entries. The bits on amulets & talismens...plenty of stuff to steal for a game in ANY edition.
Colin R
4. Colin R
I think the progression from 1e to 4e took place not so much out of a desire to give cool stuff to Fighters and Thieves (though I think 4e did take a good path), but because of continued escalation of Mage-power throughout the editions. 1e and Basic D&D had the sense to balance out the extremely cool things that magic could do with pretty hefty penalties; you were weak as a kitten and you couldn't cast very many spells. Even a Wizard who managed to survive 5 or 6 levels had only a handful of spells they could cast per day; they had to dole them out sparingly.

The scope of D&D changed over time though. It started as a group of people trying (and often failing) to loot treasure from a dungeon--fighting was merely an obstacle, and resting was rarely an option. I think it was natural though that the game expanded out of dungeon-looting into more expansive swashbuckling territory. And once fighting become more common--and more central to the story--people wondered, why do wizards have to sit around cowering the whole fight? They should have more opportunities to cast spells! Ask and ye shall receive...

As wizards became less fragile and had more opportunities to use magic though, it starts raising the question why anyone would chose a class that doesn't cast magic. By 3rd edition being a Fighter was clearly a suckers' game. So 4e went back to the drawing board and started from the assumption that most people were playing D&D as swashbuckling adventure, and so it should be designed to accomodate that, rather than try to build it as a dungeon-crawler and then twist it into shape into a swashbuckling game.
Mordicai Knode
5. mordicai
4. Colin R

I dunno, like I said, it was AD&D 2e, not 1e, but after 5 or 6 levels they were looking pretty beefcake. They were divine though, not arcane. Anyhow, I guess for me my point also it: in terms of how you divvy up the book, it matters as well. Customers are buying & playing the thing, you know?
Colin R
6. Colin R
2nd edition was already on the path to spellcaster supremacy; that's when they started introducing bonus spells from high attributes. Having super-high Strength meant you hit harder and more often, which is great--but having high Intelligence meant you got to cast more spells. Hitting really hard is cool, but it sort of pales in comparison to casting Limited Wish a couple more times per day.

I think most changes in edition have been made honestly in an attempt to reflect what they think the people buying the books want, so I don't attribute any nefarious motive to them doing this.
Paul Weimer
7. PrinceJvstin
I completely agree on the Wish spell. I prefer the 1e version to the 3e version, every time.

I think the artifact section was for DM's to come up with their own version of artifacts--and to keep players on their toes.
Mordicai Knode
8. mordicai
6. Colin R

Sure, I don't think being critical means you dislike something; we've GOT to think critically about what we like! I for one see a lot of promise in the "roll under attribute" mechanic but you are right; once you start over-weighting a mechanic things get wonky.

7. PrinceJvstin

Sure, & I get that-- it is cool, & GOOD to tell DMs that they should personalize items!-- but I would ALSO like to see a default item, so I have some ideas. Especially since the existing items are...pretty friggin' cool.
JOSEPH HOOPMAN
9. hoopmanjh
The other great part of the 1st edition DMG was the appendix of Recommended Reading; that's something I think is sorely missing in later editions (and I'm afraid that if they put something in it'd point to nothing but Drizzt and Dragonlance books).
TW Grace
10. TWGrace
what I need is someone who will explain the ramifications of a +2 to an attribute versus a +2 to hit versus a +2 to damage versus an upgrade from a d4 to a d6.


I seem to remember reading an article (either in an old Dragon, or on the web somewhere...) where somebody did some of that math, and came up with "go for damage bonus vs hit bonus", but I could be misremembering.
j p
11. sps49
I never had a problem with overpowering casters- just make rest harder to come by, make material components harder to find and more expensive, and sprinkle spell resistance in the appropriate amount. As DM, if necessary, reinforcements can always show up, requiring more spell expenditure.

Frozone's comment to Mr. Incredible in the burning building comes to mind- "What, did you run out of muscle?"

TW Grace @10-

I prefer hit bonuses; one must hit in order to inflict damage. YMMV.
Mordicai Knode
12. mordicai
9. hoopmanjh

If you liked that, boy oh boy will you be in for a treat soon.

10. TWGrace

I've played with people who charted out the probability for Power Attack bonuses to hit & to damage in Excel to maximize the oomph of their attacks as they figured out an enemy AC. That sort of thing is proof that from a game design angle, figuring out the math is important; old World of Darkness, I'm looking at you!

11. sps49

See, that is my point-- that is WHY you have a DM in the first place. That being said, having seen what clerics & druids (especially the latter) can pull out in 2e, I would say there ARE some systemic problems in balance. Really though, it is a fact of publishing, though, & the mechanics. When so much of a book is exclusively spells it makes thing either a) your game should be more about wizards or b) your magic system is unwieldy.
Colin R
13. Colin R
Sure, a DM is the referee, and their job is to keep things flowing. But speaking as a regular DM, I apppreciate a system that doesn't require so much maintenance. And I think that balancing act became harder to balance as the editions progressed. Like, exploring Planescape is light years removed from the kind of gritty, wargame-influenced, highly competitive, and high-casualty dungeon-crawl that Gary Gygax and his friends were running. But Planescape was still trying to use the same system.

It led to a lot of weirdness. Like why do I care about the difference between a glaive and a glaive-guisarme, or why do I need a ten-foot pole when I'm debating ethics with an Ultroloth on the edge of the Tarterian Depths of Carceri? The early D&D rules are great for strategic dungeon-crawling, but a little unwieldy when applied to other tasks. At some point the DM shouldn't have to work so hard to make the system fit the game they're trying to play.

Of course the problem for people making and selling D&D is that, more than most other games, people very strong and varied attachments to what they think is important in the game. e.g. Some people think Alignment is super-important, some people think it's worse than useless.
JOSEPH HOOPMAN
14. hoopmanjh
12. Mordicai -- Now I'm intrigued!
Mordicai Knode
15. mordicai
13. Colin R

See, I guess the counter-argument is that when you are trying to talk to that Ultraloth, you have to scale the Ziggurat of the
Oinoloth of whatever, & that is your chance to dungeon crawl...IN THE LOWER PLANES. Where the constant acid rain will dissolve your 10' pole unless you have an adamantine one...

Though I am mostly just considering your point. See, personally, I guess I'm thrown for a loop when you mentioned Planescape, because I think the genius of that setting is taking a lot of the weirdness of DnD & making it...well, built into the universe. Sort of the same thing for Eberron-- they use the tropes of the game to build their world, either through having alignment based planes or golem-powered airships.

Your point about setting & rules is well taken. See also, for instance, Call of Cthulhu & SAN, right? The classic case. Or Vampire: the Masquerade & Humanity, or...what have you.

14. hoopmanjh

All I'll say for now is that Tim Callahan is involved too...
Jared Shurin
16. Jared_Shurin
Does the 1e DMG reprint keep the infamous "trollop table"? The one that, as a supplement to the urban random encounters table, includes a list of descriptions for prostitutes, and a % chance against finding each?

That may be D&D's classiest hour.
Colin R
17. NealU
I'm glancing over at my shelf and looking at my original of these manuals, with their almost 40 years of batter. My DMG is barely holding together. I've not played D&D since college in the 80s, but just cracking open one of these hallowed tomes brings back a flood of memories. It's why I still retain these original 3 masterpieces (IMO).

These three books have had a profound influence on gaming, and I can still see their influence today when I fire up a new mmorpg.


They certainly didn't cost $45 a pop back in the 70s though! Wow.
Mordicai Knode
18. mordicai
16. Jared_Shurin

I had not checked, so I had to wait till I got home to look...but yes, under city encounters is the entry "Harlot" with a d100 table from "brazen strumpet" to "saucy tart," all the way up to "haughty courtesan" & "sly pimp."

17. NealU

Hopefully the $45 will grant a spine that holds up over the years?
Colin R
19. Eugene R.
Oh, sure, the Hand and Eye of Vecna are pretty good. But ... what about the Head of Vecna?

TWGrace (@10), sps49 (@11): I used to create "heroic" weapons that were specifically damage-bonused or monster-slaying, but their hit bonus would be 0 or negative ("For Use by Heroes Only").
JOSEPH HOOPMAN
20. hoopmanjh
Well, yes, $45 isn't cheap. But then again the originals were in the $15-20 range, and back in 1980 that also wasn't really cheap.
Colin R
21. Mary Catelli
The problem with the wish spell is that some DMs took it as a chance to figure out some way to twist even the most reasonable wish.
Mordicai Knode
22. mordicai
19. Eugene R.

Yeah, the Head of Vecna is right up there with Gazebos in the lore.

20. hoopmanjh

Yeah, as you point out, $45 sounds like a lot, but it isn't far off. Yikes! I just plugged $20 into an inflation calculator to check the drift from 1977 to 2012...& it said it should have cost...$74.71.

21. Mary Catelli

Oh but that is half the fun! Well, okay not the "most reasonable" part, some wishes you gotta let come off, but the whole "devil is in the details" part is classic. We had a first time player in our recent AD&D game & she was granted a wish. Her next words. Then the efreet that granted it was killed, so she spoke carelessly, telling an NPC to "come here." The wish of course was still extant, & the (evil) NPC was teleported directly to her, now bound to her. She was a little annoyed that she "wasted" her wish but we were like "no no no! Getting screwed over on a wish is like, traditional! You had an iconic moment today!"
Colin R
23. JimB
Will they also rerelease Deities & Demigods? I doubt it but that was always an interesting read as well. I actually have both earlier versions, one with and one without Cthulhu and Elric.

I remember our first series of adventures from the basic books (light blue cover with the dragon) where we thought each level after 3 was the same number of xp because it stopped there. Boy were we suprized with we realized it wasn't a linear progression and just threw out the previous results as our first expriment.

I liked the 1st ed stuff and a lot of the second but it started losing me with the many 'Handbooks' and I never did start 3rd+ editions.

cheers
Colin R
24. Parzival
I played AD&D 1st edition back when it was the only edition. You either played the infamous blue box D&D set (with its chits and 1d6 damage for all weapons— dagger or axe or sword made no difference—) or you played AD&D. As the official DM of our group, it was my duty to purchase the books. Fortunately, I had a job (paperboy) and could swing the cost (gradually). I started with the DMG (supplementing with the boxed set rules for a game or two), then the Player's Handbook, then the Monster Manual, and a set of really really really bad dice, and off we went.

Back in the day, I got so sick of low level magicusers either dying or doing nothing for much of the adventure that I created a table which allowed magicusers a chance to roll to remember any spell they had cast. The magicuser's intelligence and level offered bonuses to the roll; the casting time and level of the spell produced penalties. It worked fairly well, especially for low level utility spells (magic missile, etc.), without seeming to unbalance anything. Each attempt to remember a spell got progressively harder, so it usually worked out that a single low level spell might get used at most three times before being forgotten, while higher level spells often weren't remembered at all. It did help speed up the progress of the adventure, and gave our wizards something to do in successive combats besides throw darts and hide behind the party meatshields.

And that's my stroll down nostalgia lane for the day... thanks for the memories, mordicai!
Richard Green
25. richgreen01
I have these books too and am glad I got them as my original 1e books are in a terrible state. Back in 1980 in the UK Games Workshop produced paperbacks of the Player's Handbook and Monster Manual, both of which fell to bits after a year or so of use at the table. It's great to have editions of these that will last ;)

You make a very good point about the magic items in AD&D – they just don't make 'em like that anymore! 4e's items, in particular, were very dull indeed until Mordenkainen's Magnificent Emporium where there was an attempt to introduce much more backstory but many do still feel like videogame power-ups.

Was I the only person to like The Book of Nine Swords? I thought it was really cool.
Mordicai Knode
26. mordicai
25. richgreen01

I like Book of Nine Swords! But it is a major departure & I don't really think it is balanced-- in terms of power & in terms of "table time." The same way that druids can eat up a lot of DM attention-- "I cast a spell, polymorph, have my animal side kick do X & then I have like three other summoned creatures to do this turn..."-- I found that characters from there needed a lot of adjudication. Anyhow, there are good ideas there; I didn't mean to compare it to 4e as a BAD thing.
Colin R
27. Focus Ascending
@mordicai I wish to explain the intent of spellcasting in the early dungeons and dragons. Gary Gygax on mutliple occasions explained that in most settings magic was 1) Better than the mundane version 2) Rare as hell 3) Dark Forboding and Mysterious. While it is granted that game balance was kind of an issue in D&D 3-3.5, in the early versions Magic-Users were intended to become the most powerful class in the game because of the above reasons. Meaning that to preserve some balance they were oberfragile. Keep in mind that a hig dex magic user who has the spell sheild can get an AC of 0-2 for 5 rnds a lvl. So a low level smart magic user can and will be an asset to even a low level party for instance. Consider the power of sleep etc. At higher levels (keep in mind that the tone of AD&D was cenetered on levels 3-5 ). And if nothing else Gary's character was a magic user himself (Mordenkainen). IMO 4e while fixing the mechanics issues with previous editions broke the spirit of D&D. Wish spells where nonexistant and magic was not nessarily superior. It was entirely possible for a non-mage at the same level to defeat a similarly level mage character, whitch in mechanics is sensible in lore completely bonkers. Sensibly players do not like to think of themselves as playing gimped characters. In lore it makes zero sense why upon learning the secrets of the multiverse (effectively understanding the powers of the gods) one can be killed by a simple sword etc. Again I understand why things were done as they were, howevr looking at the games roots it makes sense why it came out the way it did. Sorry for the wall of textual ranting but I feel that in most discussions the lore side of the house does not get very much love.
Mordicai Knode
28. mordicai
27. Focus Ascending

Hey, you don't gotta tell me about Mordenkainen; his name is inspired by my name! Though I'd maybe cite Zagyg as more purely Mister Gygax's avatar, but that is just personal preference.

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