Over 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.
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.
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*)
So 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.
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.