A Modern Day 1st Edition AD&D Review

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 1st Edition Players Handbook CoverOver the course of this year we have been playing through the classic AD&D campaign Temple of Elemental Evil, in all its original 1st Edition glory. We have just finished the first section of the campaign (T1). I’ll be writing about how the actual module plays out in the coming weeks. In this post, however, I was interested in having a look at how the 1st Edition AD&D rules hold up in 2013, 35 years since the first AD&D book was published.

The Physical Books

Let us start with the actual physical volumes – they are, after all decades old. I’ve got a set of original books that my dad carefully imported from the US to Australia in the early 80s. They’ve lasted pretty well all things considered. They have still had their spines  had  taped up at least twice, and they’re a bit worn, but overall they’re well cared for and in decent condition. RupertG has bought about 20 copies of the various books on eBay over the course of our campaign, and the same can be said of these. The vast majority of them have held up extremely well.

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 1st Edition Monster Manual Cover The paper is heavy and matte, which is less favoured these days but has held up nicely and has coped well with the numerous notes and modifications in pencil, pen, highlighter, and even liquid paper that has been added to many of the volumes. Some of the pages are a little ripped, but the combination of age and many hands make that not unexpected. Pet peeve though: some of the pages are ripped in a way very consistent with people not turning pages from the corners. Grrrr.

A note needs to be made here about the books that you will find on eBay or other second hand retailers. It was very common for house rules to be written directly into the books themselves. As AD&D 1st Edition was, in many ways, the first game of its type, there were a lot of aspects of the game that needed modding. Little regard was given to keeping the books in pristine condition, and you will find notes and jottings throughout the majority of the books available.

The art… is hilariously bad.

Bigbys Backscratcher

That’s one of the better / funnier ones.

Layout and Structure

Right away, the 1st Ed books do something correct that the 3.0 books got wrong: coloured bands on tables to aid readability. Basic touches like that mean that whilst the book is only black and white, and fairly simple in terms of page structure (no fancy text or decorations, just basic headings etc), it is quite easy to read. Nevertheless, I am thankful for my dad having carefully highlighted all headings and important bits, making them stand out a bit more.

That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy to find anything, though. The structure of the PHB is relatively sane: abilities, races, classes, equipment, spells… but there are random bits like rules for hirelings and languages nestled in between those bits. There’s a secondary table of contents just for tables, which speaks wonders about both the layout and the rules.

The DMG is particularly bad. It’s poorly organised, it’s hard to find important stuff, and worst of all: there are rules which should be in the PHB. What are some things every character needs? To Hit scores and Saving Throws? Well, you’ll find them on DMG pages 74 and 79, in between the overly complicated rules for grappling and the rules for insanity, with the totally-useful rules tables for psionic combat shoved right in the middle.

And yet the award for worst structure goes to the arbitrary inclusion of useless appendices. Want to know about psionics or the planes of existence? It’s right there in the PHB! Too bad if you wanted your Saving Throws, though.

Overall, though, it’s not bad. The books are usable. I’ve seen far worse in RPG books written 30 years later. (*coughTheOneRingcough*)

Rules

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 1st Edition Dungeon Masters Guide CoverSo here we come to the important bit. As a game, how does it play? At a basic level, the rules aren’t actually that bad. The basics (the stats, AC, saves, and so on) are still used over 30 years later. There was a lot that was done right. There are definitely some good things, and definitely some bad.

Good Stuff: The basics

The Str / Dex / Con / Int / Wis / Cha ability setup is great. The core classes are great (although why the Assassin and Monk are there, I don’t know). A lot of the spells are great.

Basically, the concept is great, in the same way that the concept of Harry Potter is great but the implementation can be considered less so (specifically: currency based around prime numbers is, well, misguided).

Also: Fighters, at least at low levels, are actually good, especially with the Unearthed Arcana Weapon Specialization rules. Our resident Fighter is enjoying this very much.

Good Stuff: The core is simple, quick, and fun

Combat is mostly fast and brutal. It can slow down if no-one can hit anyone, but this is rarer than in some other games we have played. High damage and low hitpoints bring even large battles to a close pretty quickly. Players get their turns quickly enough to maintain an interest, and a decent number of dice get rolled.

Add magic to the mix, and it gets downright cruel. In one session, a plate-armoured (enemy) Fighter strode forwards to engage the party. One character cast Hold Person and another Heat Metal meaning that he boiled alive in his armour without being able to move. *shudder* Definitely memorable!

Whilst there are issues with the rules, the fact stands that that the rules in 1st Ed AD&D are indeed sufficient to have fun which is the point, after all.

Good Stuff: Spell components, level titles, and other cute stuff

There are a lot of things in 1st Ed AD&D that are just cute and make us all squee. It’s a strange mix of nostalgia, amusement, and incredulity.

Even though material components are still in 3.5, they are not to the breadth or silliness of the original AD&D ones. The classic example is Fireball, which needs bat guano and sulphur: two of the ingredients for gunpowder. A funnier example is the Unearthed Arcana cantrip “Bee”, which, uh, summons a bee to sting someone: somatic component: wave a finger around like a bee’s flight path; vocal component: ‘bzzzzzz’. Yes, seriously. Coupled with insisting that your Magic User or Cleric play out somatic and vocal components and you are in for a good time.

Level titles are also cute. Each level for each class has special title. For example, a Magic-User might be a “Prestidigitator”, “Evoker”, or “Mage” depending on his level. A Monk can be “Grand Master of Flowers”.

There’s a lot of stuff like this, and it makes the rulebooks feel relaxed and adorable.

Bad Stuff: They didn’t know any better

Early RPGs had a lot in common with their wargaming predecessors and often ended up with very complex ways of doing simple things. For example: there are no standardisations on what ability scores mean, or how they affect your character. Each case is dealt with separately.

And then there are the tables… So many tables! There are tables for everything! And some tables are for things which shouldn’t even be rules, like the harlot encounter table (roll for type of harlot! DMG p192). Some are just so painful and so useless as to be a waste of paper, such as the giant table of hit adjustments for weapon vs armour type. There is no universe in which that is ‘fun’.

Other issues apparently arose because Gygax & co didn’t seem to realise how  their players played. It is almost as if they assumed everyone was like them and played in massive conventions of 10-20 people. Research by WotC led to the more realistic 3.5 and 4E assumption that there are 4-6 players in a group.

Basically there are a lot of things that just feel plain dated, and there are often clearer ways of doing things, especially with having played more polished modern RPGs.

Bad Stuff: Serious maths fail

The maths in AD&D is terrible. So bad, in fact, that my dad completely wrote the XP tables and heavily modified the spell ones, and many other changes besides. Balance is almost non-existent. Negative ACs are difficult to justify. Level 1 Magic-Users with ONE spell per day are next to useless. If the maths was better, you could cut own most of the tables because there would be a sensible progression to things.

Nevertheless, despite being annoying, the maths issues are not the end of the world. You can work around a lot of the problems: the attack modifiers can either be redone as 2nd-Ed-style THAC0 (as we did, based on my dad’s house rules), or you can go further and adopt 3.0+ positive numbers (new AC = 20 – old AC; attack modifier = 20 – old THAC0). Magic-Users can be given bonus spells for high Intelligence like Clerics with high Wisdom. A lot of the other problems can just be ignored when they crop up.

Bad Stuff: Missing stuff we take for granted

Skills. It is amazing how badly you miss them. In the end non-weapon proficiencies just don’t cut it. The rules for Thief abilities centre around percentages and are quite messy to deal with. And, as Thief abilities are non-standard, apparently only Thieves can climb, and no-one can work out how to (or if they can) jump. People bitch about skills but when they’re not there you really do miss them.

Bad Stuff: The ‘I can’t work out how this works’ situations

The majority of the spell rules are a bit thin on the actual mechanics of how to apply their effect. The rules for multi-classing are almost non-existent. The initiative rules are a bit hard to follow. The grapple rules are just like all other grapple rules in every RPG book ever (ie: unreadable and unusable).

For some rules, you can stumble through them, or ignore them as unimportant. For others, my dad’s notes helped to work stuff out. For some, we had to give up and pull out the better-specified 2nd Edition books (as the rules are mostly compatible).

It can be said that it’s the DM’s job to fill in the blanks and make rulings. While that is true, most rulebooks make the intention clear. With many of the more esoteric 1st Ed rules this is almost impossible to work out so it adds a lot of work for the DM.

I would not advise handing the books to a player and having them read them. It’s just too confusing. The DM and maybe one other player should get familiar with the rules and then give everyone else a sane version.

Different Stuff: Assumptions

Whilst 1st Ed AD&D might initially seemed like a much less polished version of D&D 3.5, the basic assumptions about how you play are quite different. I’ll cover this more in the Temple of Elemental Evil review, but suffice to say: the game assumes you have hirelings, henchmen, strongholds, NPC allies, and so on. It assumes you take a very long time to do anything: weeks or months for a single dungeon. It assumes large party sizes. It assumes that your characters can die at basically any time.

If you try to play 1st Ed with the same assumptions as in other games, including later D&D editions, you will have a bad time. This is a game where the dungeon ceilings will try to eat you. That should tell you enough.

Ceiling Monster

Conclusion

It is hard to deny that 1st Ed is dated and it feels it. Having said that though, it still both reads and plays okay. The biggest problems is just trying to work out what the rules mean or intend, and once that is established you will be mostly fine (until the next curveball comes swinging by…).

It’s not a system designed to be easy, simple, or necessarily even fun. The DM has to do a lot of work simply to try and understand the rules, make decisions, and then run the game. It’s probably the hardest system I’ve ever tried to DM, just because of how complex and poorly specified it is.

Part of the problem is that the books are clearly written by someone (Gygax) who already knows how it all works, and isn’t particularly good at conveying that information to the reader. That’s one of the reasons why information is scattered and poorly specified. This puts even more pressure on the DM, because to understand any of it you often have to read all of it… and multiple times.

So: should you try it, assuming you can even get hold of a copy? I would say… only for the experience of the nostalgia. Don’t go at 1st Ed AD&D assuming it’s going to be a fantastical gaming experience: the fact is, is we’ve learnt a lot about how to write a good RPG in the last 30 years. But I’m glad I’ve finally got a chance to fully and seriously run the original 1st Ed D&D: the circle is now complete.

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About Duncan

Ellisthion first realised his love for RPGs with his first game of 1st Edition AD&D at age 10. Whilst he's branched out into other RPGs, he still has a soft spot for any and all variants of D&D. He also plays Warhammer Fantasy (poorly) and 40k (quite well), and way too many computer games. He prefers games with complex rules to learn and master, and favours high fantasy settings. He is currently undertaking the grueling task of running the 1st Ed AD&D Temple of Elemental Evil, in between extolling the virtues of D&D Next and boring everyone with mathematical analyses of his W40k Tau.
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  • Bob Brinkman

    You forget the other fun fact…the AD&D errata ONLY appeared in an early issue of Dragon Magazine and was never incorporated into later printings (including the latest round from WOTC).

    My party took 31 sessions to get through the Temple of Elemental Evil and are now into the Slavers… ;)

    • http://diceofdoom.com RupertG

      We took 9-10 to get through T1. But we are slow and like to argue in character about things…

  • Eddie

    Your dad sounds like one cool cat.

    • http://diceofdoom.com RupertG

      I will never forget Duncan’s dad chastising him on his wedding day for not postponing his honeymoon to attend Games Night…

  • A Military Veteran

    I think it was mostly true, but a bit unnecessarily harsh. I taught my friends to play this at age 13, in 1979. True there were no skills, the spells were open to interpretation. but I suggest it’s not so much looking back ,and picking it apart, but look at what they got right in that this one book DEFINED much of the market share of what D&D, and roleplaying was, and was to become. Nowadays, we have SRD, and .pdfs searchable, and all sorts of helpful tech. What they did in this one volume to me, was nothing short of astounding. .Not so much a 3.5 rules book as it is a how to set up and play this all new game…with advice to the fledgling gamemaster throughout. But, your statements are mostly true, albeit biased with the benefit of 35 years of design later. “This puts even more pressure on the DM, because to understand any of it you often have to read all of it… and multiple times.” Exactly. And we all did so, and benefited for it, I say.

    • http://diceofdoom.com RupertG

      I don’t think anyone is questioning the importance of AD&D as where it all started. The point of this review, as I see it, was to look back on the game 35 years later. Does it still have a place in a market filled with modern games?

      I personally think it does, but if you are going to introduce new players to this game, there are things worth knowing, and those are listed above.

      Having been part of the ToEE campaign mentioned above, I have loved playing through the old rules. There is something about them that I think is kind of missing from more modern games that I miss these days…

    • Ellisthion

      It was indeed the point to review from today’s perspective, including the benefit of hindsight and 35 years of improvements to RPGs, so, yeah… it ends up being a little harsh, which is expected. It would be a sad state of affairs if we had learnt nothing about how to improve these things in the intervening years.

  • Douglas Dea

    Yes, I remember AD&D 1st well, in fact I still have a copy of the books in my closet (including an original Deity’s and Demigods with C’thulhu in it.) I played it a ton back in the early 80′s. You’re spot on with most of your observations.

    The books were a mess, I too remember thinking at least 1/4 of the DMG should be in the PHB. Psionics were indecipherable (did anyone play with them?) which was a shame since many of the most interesting monsters were supposed to have them. Falling rules were dumb (you try falling 70 feet onto spikes and living, or even having a sword fight afterward) and Magic Users and Thieves were too weak and clumsy in the early levels. The Monster books were fine although I wish they had more variable levels like the current books do (5th level orcs! 8th level ogres!). Even as a young teenager I realized there were things gravely wrong or missing.

    What I wish the DMG had was more advice on how to make a realistic world. What elements should a dungeon or fort have? How big is a castle? How many people would work or live there? How many guards would there be? What kind of creatures would conceivably live near each other? What makes a Count different from an Earl or a Duke? How does a Major differ from a Lieutenant or a Colonel? How far does a mounted character travel in a day or an hour? How fast is a canoe or a merchant vessel? These are the kinds of things a good DM should know but a kid would be clueless about.

    The Armor Class system didn’t make much sense. A guy in plate mail should lose any Dex bonus he would normally get for example. And yes, I never used the “Weapon vs. Armor” table although I understood the reasoning behind it (a mace is significantly different from a spear or a pole-arm.)

    I wouldn’t want to go back though. I bitterly recall the oh-so-many arguments my buddies and I had over the rules (and you’re right, I never gamed with 10 people. 1-3 was the norm in my neighborhood.) It was a grand revelation when new game systems were published and I tried them, systems that fixed up much of what AD&D got wrong. Hero System and C’thulhu are my favorites with GURPS being a good standby. (GURPS is what you get if Hero and AD&D had a child.) If I wanted the old thrills I might convert the old AD&D modules into a newer system.

    A few notes:
    Sorry, RupertG, AD&D isn’t where it all started. Does no one remember D&D Basic and Expert rules? Or even the older Greyhawk and Blackmore books? That’s where my friends and I first conquered the concepts of RPGs. Backed up with endless readings of Dragon Magazine. (Basic D&D first came in a blue cover book but was soon supplanted by the boxed red cover which came with the Keep on the Boarderlands module.)

    Spell components: never used them. Magic Users were weak enough without worrying about obtaining and carrying dozens of odd bits and junk.

    I know it’s too late now but I hope your Temple of EE campaign started with The Village of Homlett module. I remember that being perhaps the best low-level adventure TSR published. (Although Palace of the Silver Princess was excellent too.) With perhaps a side trip through the Lost Temple of Tamoachan (sp?) or through the I1 module: the Lost City. And then there’s that White Plume Mountain that needs a cleaning.

    Could write more but this is good for now.

    -DD

    • gyg

      Your review was spot on, though I still view the game with the rose tinted spectacles of nostalgia. The books have held up physically extremely well, and are widely available quite cheaply, though if you want”true first” prints these can cost a small fortune (see http://www.acaeum.com for more of that though). I am currently a non playing gamer, but I do feel that if I ever did get the dice out again first ed would be for me – I have the original books and the Wizards reprints in my cupboard just in case!!

  • Jer

    I greatly enjoyed your review, but some things I dispute. Balance is nearly nonexistent? The thief is good as a multiclass option for demihumans and little else… but other than that, the game’s balanced quite well.

    The most egregious example is the idea that its bad that level 1 mages only start with 1 spell. Check out Sleep. It automatically, immediately, knocks out 2-8 HD worth of enemies. So a mage who just gets one spell off, is going to pull, on average, FIVE TIMES his weight. So a mage is probably going to wipe out 5 orcs all by his lonesome — the fighter, on the other hand, at level 1, is going to be lucky if he can take out 1. That’s amazing. No save.

    Then when you get to level 3, you got Web. Again, no save.

    A nice cluster of low level mages will save the party again and again.

    • Ellisthion

      Well yeah, they can knock out a group. Once. Then they’ve got to hide their d4 HD arse for the rest of the day. A Fighter with decent armour and Weapon Specialization doesn’t have that problem. A Thief sneak around shadows and Backstab things as many times in a day as necessary.

      The Magic-User in the game I’m running got *bored* because she spent 9/10 of the time fling daggers half-heartedly into fights, and only 1/10 of the time *actually using magic*. The Fighter and multi-class Spellcasters were simply more effective and had more fun.

      A “cluster of low level mages” might save the party, but most parties don’t have a “cluster”, they have one or two.