Thursday, February 9, 2012

A Brief Defense of 2nd Edition AD&D

Second edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons is perhaps the most disliked version of D&D (though 4E certainly has its critics). This wasn't always the case. Hatred for 2nd edition wasn't universal in its heyday, in fact between 1989 and 1997/98 most gamers I encountered actively played 2E. I was no no exception. But these days the edition has a reputation for railroading and story focus, and many people hold it up as an example of bad design (or at least bad GM advice). And this criticism is valid. But 2nd edition did some things very well. So lets not throw the baby out with the bathwater and dismiss everything that arose during the 2E era.

Since attacks against it are directed at its spirit, I will be defending the less tangible aspects of 2E instead of defending its mechanics. The reason for this is it had much in common with 1st edition, many of the changes it introduced were already existing houserules or options, and I recently defended many of its key rules in my blog on unified mechanics.

Clearly, second edition came from a time when story was prime. There was a sense in much of the game material in the late 80s and in the 90s that the GM was the author, the players his protagonists. This predates 2E with the Dragonlance modules and setting. However Dragonlance transitioned into 2E smoothly and many of its underlying assumptions carried into other second edition material. You also see this with Vampire, D&D's biggest competition at the time. I would argue that you can chart TSR's emulation of White Wolf as the 90s progress. The emphasis on story in 2nd edition grows as Vampire's popularity increases.

But RPGs are not books or movies. To achieve the kind of story TSR suggested, the DM needed to railroad, fudge and fiddle with player freedom. I just ran a bunch of 2E Ravenloft modules and there are plenty of instances where the writers suggest railroading or fudging for story purposes. They even suggest making key NPCs immune to death in combat. In some cases the modules are even structured into three acts with scenes. I readily admit this advice was bad. Not only does it work against the rules the designers themselves created but it gave people some whacky ideas about GMing. With that said I would argue that 1) GM advice is easy enough to overlook and 2) In the case of 2E it is worth overlooking because there is so much cool material. And oddly enough much of this material stems from their misguided focus on story.

The one thing everyone generally agrees 2E got right is setting material. In the 90s we were literally buried by the volume of modules and supplements devoted to their numerous campaign settings. You had Ravenloft, Darksun, Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Spelljammer, Planescape, Birthright, Kara-Tur, Greyhawk, Maztica, al-Qadim, and a few I may be forgetting (can't recall if Savage Coast was 2E or basic). Granted, some of these began as 1E settings but the important thing is you couldn't count the available worlds on one hand. Plus there were numerous variations like Masque of the Red Death.

Personally I gravitated toward Ravenloft and owned every book released for the Realm of Terror. I would site the Van Richten's Guides (to vampires, lycanthropes, ghosts, the created, the ancient dead, liches, vistani) as examples of another (related) thing 2E did well: flavor material. These were, in my opinion, some of the best gaming books ever written. The Van Richten Guides inspired me as a GM, they showed me how monsters could be used creatively, how investigations and monster hunts might work, and they helped give me a micro-level appreciation of the Ravenloft setting. My games thrived in part because I read the entire line of Van Richten releases. As with setting, I believe one of the key reasons these books were made is because of the focus on story.

Roleplaying and immersion is another area whre 2E (like 1e before it) excelled. They introduced non-weapon proficiencies, but these were unobtrusive enough that you still focused on what your character said and did rather than roll for social interactions. So when I went back to playing Ravenloft 2E, after years of Ravenloft 3E, I immediatey noticed the level of in-depth role play increase (something I had remembered but chalked up to nostalgia). Because there was so much focus on worlds and interesting characters, I think the emphasis on role play was natural.

Though 2E is attacked for some of its bad GM advice, it actually had one of the best DM supplement lines, the blue books. Things like Campaign Cartographer, Creative Campaigning, The Castle Guide and The Villains Handbook were great resources for GMs. These were packed with great information on everything form mapping to player types. I still use many of the prop and mapping techniques discussed in Campaign Cartographer.

It also had a whole line of green books for various historical settings. If you wanted to play a Roman game, there was a green book for that. Renaissance Campaign? Viking Campaign? Knights of Charlemagne? There were books for these and much more.

I could go on about the brown books and their kits, or 2Es naturalistic and historically grounded spirit, but that would lead to more talk of mechanics than is my goal, so I will close with praise for their modules. It is true, 2nd edition modules suffered a lot from the story focused railroading. But they alsonhad a lot going for them if you look past this (and in practice I find it easy to do). Since I am most familiar with Ravenloft, look at Feast of Goblyns and Castles Forlorn. These were solid because they provided lots of interesting setting material and mixed it fairly seemlessly with adventure and characters.

Feast of Goblyns was the first module I encountered (though I am sure it isn't the first module that did this) where the NPCs were treated as free agents who moved around and reacted organically to the PCs. I believe they called it a living adventure, and I still use that term to this day. This opened all kinds of doors for me as a GM, ultimately leading me to excel at character driven and investigative adventures.

Both Feast of Goblyns and Castles Forlorn had exciting locations you could strip out and use as needed. Famously Feast of Goblyns gave us The Kartakan Inn. A whole section of the module is devoted to it. But it also gives full descriptions of two towns (Skald and Harmonia), a castle, a lair, a homestead and other places.

Castle Forlorn Provides a much needed overview of the domain of Forlorn and a massive description and map of its castle. It was a non-linear adventure, more like a setting book with a bunch of hooks. So it had lots of backstory, characters, creatures, etc but not much in the way of linear adventure.

So yes, too much emphasis on story, fudging and railroading were bad, but I think our memories get clouded by these recollections and we forget much of the good that came out of 2E. In my opinion, it was the greatest edition in terms of flavor and setting. And even though they were bogged down by the spirit of 90s, the modules themselves were often very good if you could look past some quirks.


  1. To summarize my thoughs on this: I think skills generally do not mesh well with a class system. It's either redundant (you either do skill-based or class/archetype-based, not both), or it's needlessly nitpicking on stuff that really ought to be about the characters background and thoughtful adjudication on the GM's part ("My fighter was raised by gnomes and learned to mess around with gears and stuff. Can I try picking that lock?" DM: "Hm. Sure. 1 in 6. Roll 1d6.").

    So the optional skills system of AD&D goes right out the window with me. It complicates things without any general, clear gain for my game table beyond the complication and hair-splitting itself.

    It streamlines things in ways that destroy the original flavor of the game. Not only does it take out things that were felt as "terribad to Pat Pulling", like the Assassin or the Half-Orc, but it changes the Bard from this weird combination of classes and abilities that are hard to attain and hard to keep (I played a bard in 1e) with a very distinctive flavor into this kind of gimped jack-of-all trades minstrel character that doesn't really mesh well with the original archetypes of the game.

    I could go on, but basically the bottom-line for me is this: the 2e design shows a complete misunderstanding of the strengths of the original D&D design. What it takes away just makes it generically unappealing by design (as exemplified by the TSR writing memos at the time, which explain the logic behind it all), and what it adds does not actually add anything to the play experience itself or worse, actually participates to it in counter-productive ways.

    AD&D 2e is a Fail throughout. Now it still can play well, it still can lead to great games, but it's more despite of itself, rather than because of it.

    I do agree about the flavor of some of the settings, though I now feel with 20/20 hindsight that these could have generally been much better designed as "D&D", "Dungeons" and "Dragons" settings, rather than generic fantasy realms with the AD&D system just plugged to them artificially.

    I also agree that most of the modules if not all of them were absolute, complete, total shit. No redeeming aspect to the railroads, "story" ladden adventures in my mind whatsoever, apart from situational nuggets which a well composed illo can produce just as well.

    But let's concentrate on the core rules books. That's what my criticism is really targeted at. I think AD&D 2 fails in every respect when compared to First Ed. The ONE thing it does better than First Ed is Organization. Layout. The way the PHB reads is much better. The DMG, if the contents hadn't been abysmally dull compared to the 1e DMG, could have just been a reorganization of the original EGG text with multiple indexes to make its use as an actual game book much easier on the DM.

    So there you have it. The presentation was cool. The contents were terribad, though they retained just enough of a workable system from First Ed as to make it functional in the hands of a skilled DM.

    I would play AD&D 2e (with the right DM obviously). I would not run it.

  2. Thanks for sharing Benoist. Obviously my opinion about 2E differs from yours quite a bit, but I do agree about things like removal of the half orc and assassin (in my own 2E games in the 90s, we kept them in along with others like the monk). I also agree that the railroading was a very bad thing.

    On classes I tend to agree as well. Skills and classes dont mesh very well, which is why NWPs (when compared to say 3e skills) weren't such a bad thing in my opinion. They were light enough to be ignored and they didn't have NWPs for social skills and things like perception. But in a 2E game, 8 could live or without them.

    Of course I am biased. I came to the hobby around 1986 and didn't GM till 89. So the system I learned to run was 2E.

  3. Luckily, the Scarlet Brotherhood supplement in late 2nd edition brought with it the return of the assassin, monk, and half-orc, not to mention the rebirth of Greyhawk...

  4. I don't believe I am familiar with that one, do you know what year it was released, sound like something worth tracking down.

  5. I would also like to point out that all this "bad storytelling advice" sounds like it was only really in the modules; is that true? I absolutely love 2e, but when I look around my gaming shelf I notice that I have not a single 2e module. In fact, I am only familiar with a single one, the Return to the Tomb of Horrors, which I really desire and, from what I've heard of it, doesn't have much of a railroading plot.

    Anyway, if all this bad GM advice is only found in modules, I really question if it should be a valid complaint of the entire edition. I personally find the GM advice in the DMG to be quite adequate, if not wonderful.

  6. Bedrock, found Scarlet Brotherhood over at

  7. Thanks Nick. Most of the story stuff was in modules, articles and settings. Over the course of the 90s the general attitude became "fudge in favor of story". But it wasn't limited to TSR.

  8. Yes, well, that's the 90's for you. To be honest, I still adhere to the idea of "fudge in the favor of story" but only to a certain extent.

    One good example of this that I've heard recently is where a player hit -10 at the hand of a god's aspect, but instead of killing off the character outright the DM decided to let him live but with a curse, which just led to more adventures.

  9. I will start this by saying that 3e was the shining example of making the skills far too much the focus of the game, even above and beyond role-playing. Considering that 1e was going in the direction that 2e ended up in with the advent of the Unearthed Arcana, Wilderness and Dungeoneer Survival guides and to some extent Oriental Adventures, I have always found a lot of the bashing laughable at the very least because whether they want to admit it or not, a lot of the so-called purists were using these supplements.

    I have said it on several message boards and I will say it here. 2e would not be looked at with such a jaundiced eye by the grognards if Gary Gygax were involved. 2e was a result of the new regime at TSR trying to turn the page and move the game on from what Gary and Dave had wrought back in the 70s and early to mid 80s.

    As much as I love 2e (and I was a dyed-in-the-wool 1e player until I actually played it), it is not without its faults. Towards the end of its run the game did get bloated (and a lot of detractors are quick to point this out), but what they always seem to forget is that the ones in charge of 2e went out of their way to make the majority of rules optional. 1e did not have that. Until later in his life, Gary was always more stringent in running the game as written. 1e tried to codify almost everything that could happen to the PCs, and what made that tougher than it needed to be was that the Dungeon Master's Guide was not very well laid out. Add to that the undertone whilst you're reading it that these rules should be followed at all times, and 1e was indeed rather tough to DM, which led to a lot of players houseruling rules, and so forth. Another minor but niggling issue was that the modules were not quite as good as the classic ones, and there weren't enough of the generic "plop-down-anywhere-in-your-campaign" ones either. This wasn't as much of a problem because (and this is the dirty little secret 2e detractors hate) the rules were interchangeable. With a little bit of work, you could adapt any Basic or 1e module to 2e rules.

    2e came along and distilled a lot of things down to where it wasn't quite as much of a strain on the DM, and the focus was placed more on play. The splatbooks (as they are both affectionately and derisively called) were a decent way to bring in some optional rules and ideas for players and DMs willing to use such, and once TSR turned the majority of their focus on the Forgotten Realms, the game took off. I remember through the 90s where I would run into players who were still playing 1e and they would puff their chests out and rail to anyone within earshot about how Gary got did dirty and that 2e wasn't "real" D&D. I still hear that old diatribe every so often on message boards.

    As to the fudging thing in the 90s, in my own experience that was because players would whine about their carefully constructed (take that term in any way you wish because it has several meanings) characters, and I would cave in to shut them up. Nowadays, I tell my players before play starts; Macho gets you killed, Stupid gets you killed. As to railroading, I look at it this way. You are using an adventure module published by someone else. There is a modicum of railroading that goes on, but as one of my co-hosts said when we discussed this very topic: When you go over your buddy's house to play D&D with your other buddies, you are entering into something of an agreement that the DM lays out an adventure and once its agreed in game and out that this is the adventure being played, that's where you are. Changing your mind and wanting to do something else mid-adventure without good reason is frustrating to say the least. But at the same time, not (at the very least) appearing to give the players some freedom of choice makes for a frustrating game as well.

    I could go on, but enough of my rambling.

    Brian Caraway, THACO's Hammer podcast

  10. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Brian.

  11. I think Bedrock Games sums up what I love about 2nd edition. As to fudging I and the people fudged everything, we didn't let rules get too much in the way. And the survival rate of our characters we rarely got into epic play and the problems surrounding high level campaigns. In our world if you made it to 5th level you were legendary. Since coming back to gaming I've gravitated away from D&D except for my friend's OSR Mythos Arcanum, but if I ever DM'ed I'd probably go 5th ed with a health dose of inspiration from 2nd edition. Kits ruled!

  12. I recently fell in love with Dark Sun setting and the modules look really cool but simultaneously then meta plot the hell out of it. I'm really tempted to run Dune Tradrr game.

  13. Personally, I loved, and still love 2nd ed. It was my favorite by far, but there are some caveats. I rarely played, almost always ran since I was the one kid in our rural area with a DMs guide. Also, since game stores were many miles away, we did not have modules, or supplements, so a lot of house rules developed over time and we created our own campaign worlds more often than not. We mostly had fantasy novels for our inspiration (David Eddings, Terry Brooks, Tolkien, etc.). Because of this we adopted a high fantasy style of play.

    However, this was the huge determinant in our play style: Players drove the game, not the DM. I was merely the stage setter and the narrator. I would only intervene in extreme circumstances, but most of the time had an NPC that the players either recruited or acquired somehow to influence things in minor ways, and normally only to progress the story. This type of gaming from the outset created a very ad hoc environment where odd situations cropped up that we just made rules for. We never really had railroading, and mostly played immersive story telling and character developement, and character driven plot lines.

    For us, every edition since has been a dumbing down of sorts. 3rd was fun, but felt constricting and took some complexity out that we had long since become accustomed too. Roleplaying and flushing out characters started to take a backseat to meta gaming, die rolling, and feats. This trend continued with 3.5, which we skipped entirely. We essentially settled on 2nd edition content and mechanics while borrowing most of the d20 system from third to use for combat, ability checks, and saving throws (eliminating all the minor ability modifiers in favor of the simple -5 to +5 system). This is what we played until we all went our seperate ways. 4th edition was out of the question.

    I was actually shocked to discover that 2nd was the most despised system by most peoples standards. We always loved it and look back at it as the best. But, we always played without railroading, with character driven plots, alot of roleplaying, and a lot of fun. Cheers.

  14. Yep, I agree - I haven't played any systems beyond 2nd edition, but I love 2e, and a couple of years ago introduced a bunch of friends to it (and we still play monthly). There was a bit of a learning curve for them at first, but they've very much got the hang of it now.

    As for the railroading - that's definitely bad, and some of the modules (we play Ravenloft and FR) certainly encourage it - Adam's Wrath for example instructs the DM to kill the entire party at the beginning. But my view is that the modules are starting points. Take what you like, discard what you don't, and reintroduce flexibility for the players. Give them an end goal, some clues, and let them worry about how they get there. For example, when we played Adam's Wrath, I let two of the party get killed, then had an NPC drop the bombshell that they were still alive, and had the rest of the characters try and rescue them (along with a few other changes).

    It ended up being one of the most memorable couple of sessions that we played, and I think my version of the module was about 50-60% similar to the published version.

    And there's also the fact that I have a vast number of 2e books, and I can't really justify the expense to buy new versions!

  15. I started on 1e (Castle Ravenloft at my ninth birthday party nearly 33 years ago), but I truly fell in love with 2e. I won't blow sunshine up anybody's backside, 2e had terrible rules and a dreadful railroading problem as outlined above. Didn't care. Still don't care. 2e stressed that ultimately EVERYTHING is optional. So any rule you didn't like? House rule it or just toss it! They don't care, they got paid already! Ed Greenwood wasn't gonna come around and bop me over the head for deciding The Time of Troubles (we always called it The Time of Tribbles! Ha!) ended with Midnight becoming the Goddess of Psionics and Arcane Magic being permanently gone! And no, we didn't actually do that... Although that could've been interesting...

    My point is, 2e provided flexibility that I feel 1e and Basic lacked, while retaining the charm of those earlier games, something I believe later iterations stripped out.

  16. 2nd was a restructuring of 1st, which seemed to have too many holes in it. 2nd ended up becoming overwhelmingly padded with things that just seemed lazily done and mundane. I love and use 2nd to this day, but reworked the combat system and have extensive house rules. 3rd I think/feel could have been designed to fit around Neverwinter Nights PC game, I adore those too and see that any game based on 2nd was going to be way too much like Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale PC games. I felt that they did the job well, 3rd was great stuff, but I didn't leave 2nd because of my prior investment. Would have taken years to update my notes. 4th just seemed like a cynical attempt to sell expensive plastic miniatures and that it was trying to tap Warhammer's market. I never looked at 5th ed. I've heard good things about 5th but once more, why spend cash to fix stuff that isn't broken? Still on 2nd, and will be forever I think.

    1. I think a lot of the problems with 2nd edition were DM induced. Like 1st edition, the DM was expected to take the players through the story. A good DM can steer the players in the right direction without them ever knowing that they were led. Modules were supposed to be suggested content and stories that you could use when you lacked stories of your own. However, they were never intended to be the crutch that they became for some unimaginative DMs. My players would have been very unhappy if I just read the module verbatim and could not adjust to their variations in play style.