Tuesday, May 28, 2019

ADVANCED Dungeons & Dragons

I started a post a couple days ago titled "Growing Up" that quickly devolved into a maudlin ramble about my children and Little League baseball which...well, it was a train wreck. Let's see if I can be a little more pointed:

I've been thinking a lot about AD&D lately...the system I played through most of my youth and which I eventually gave up completely in favor of B/X. The reasons for kicking it were many, and I won't bother to enumerate them here...this whole blog can be considered a record of the "why's" when you look at the essays I've written extolling the virtues of the B/X system and compare how those virtues contrast with more fiddly AD&D.

[oh, yeah...should probably point out I'm speaking of the original AD&D here, i.e. first edition, not 2E or anything that came afterward]

But the ideas found in AD&D keep breaking into my consciousness. They nag at me. I've come to the conclusion, for example, that of all the various systems, I prefer B/X's scaling of spell acquisition for magic-users to be THE BEST of the bunch (and I've compared every edition extensively) with a single caveat: I'd give a bonus spell or two for high Intelligence scores.

[sorry...this is something I've been meaning to post about, and explain my reasons for, but I just haven't had the time to get to it]

And yet, B/X as written doesn't deal with higher forms of magic, some of which I dig on immensely (spells like cacodemon and gate, for example). And it misses out on some of the more flavorful spells found in AD&D, like burning hands, rope trick, and Leomund's secret chest. Yes, you can import this kind of content into your B/X game, but it destroys some of the symmetry found in the B/X system as written.

Thing is, I LIKE...I really like...asymmetry in Dungeons & Dragons. I've written about this before, too: I enjoy the ways in which D&D fails to balance against itself. I like that thieves use a completely different system mechanic from clerics, who have a completely different system mechanic from wizards, who are completely unbalanced and different from fighters...and how player characters abilities and stat blocks are different from the NPCs and monsters that make up the game. I like this, it makes the game interesting, it makes the systems challenging and working with those systems a puzzle for both the DM and the players. If I wanted to play a perfectly balanced game of design currency, I'd be using something like GURPS or HERO system. All the later edition's attempts to balance character types against each other (giving wizards "at will" spells, giving fighters spell-like "feats," etc.) have just gone towards eliminating that asymmetry...and creating a less interesting game.

B/X as written leaves a LOT of wide open potential for one's game, but it also destroys some of the D&D game's original asymmetry. The pegging of 9th level as "name level" for all classes, the increase in demihuman level limits (to 12, 10, and 8), the reduction of magic-user spells...these things go a long way towards balancing the classes...at least in a game that only goes to level 14 (all "Companion" books aside). And that's FINE for a little fantasy adventure game. Heck it's beautiful and elegant and downright manageable, which is something I'd have a hard time saying about most any other edition of D&D.

But real life isn't that nice and neat. Real life is full of messy inconsistencies. Real life is hardly manageable...I have a hard time managing it, and I'm a fairly smart guy blessed with so many real life advantages that I should have zero cause for complaint or grumpiness. Damn it, I drive a car that has satellite radio and voice activated systems, and I STILL find reasons to bitch-and-moan! How frigging ridiculous is that?!

It's hard to manage real life (even though it should be easy for some of us); it's challenging because it's messy and complicated and full of messy, complicated humans. And while we play D&D, in part, to escape that messy, complex reality, if we leave it simple and elegant and streamlined we are perhaps cheating ourselves of an even deeper form of fantasy play. We are still playing on "easy mode" when we could be playing something that challenges us more strongly, giving us a stronger experience, a more intense fantasy escape.

I say "we," but I mean "me."

Things that I once felt (perhaps) "needlessly" complicate the D&D game...things like time and aging, encumbrance, disease & illness, training requirements, weather (and its effects), or a "living" economy...these things have the potential to make for a richer gaming experience. They also make the game more difficult to play, and much harder to manage. They are not Dungeons & Dragons in its Little League form...they are ADVANCED Dungeons & Dragons.

It's been a long, long time since I played "advanced" D&D.

I don't even think that 3rd edition, for all its extra rule minutia, really counts as an "advanced" version of the game. Most of its extra rules...most of its rules period...pertain directly and solely to combat. 3E simplified most of the game itself down to D20 rolls against target numbers using modifiers...often clunky and unwieldy to use in practice (especially at high level play), but simple enough to grasp. 4E and 5E have dumbed-down the game even further. I've written at length at how 5E DMG is mostly padding, providing pages and pages of tables to generate random "ideas" for a (presumed novice) DM, but very little info on how to manage a messy, asymmetrical challenge of a game. Wizards of the Coast was right to file the "Advanced" term from the title of the game...I see very little in the post-TSR era that I would consider to be an "advanced" concept.

I feel that I want to get back to playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Not AD&D "by the book;" I've done that before...did it for years, using speed factors and casting times and helmet rules and all the various minutia. Much of that part of the AD&D books does little in aid of making for a better game. But other parts...the parts that expand on the concepts found in B/X, the parts that elaborate the  scope and depth of the fantasy campaign...those are parts that I want to incorporate into my game. I think I've grown beyond the game I was first introduced to as a kid.

I want to get messy again.


  1. It's an interesting dichotomy, isn't it? We love an elegant, simple system (or group of systems). But then we also seek a more complex, more nuanced, deeper experience. I've had this happen over and over again, where I've gone gung ho (for Star Fleet Battles supplements, or Cardboard Heroes terrain, or GURPS materials) ... and then never really used them. It's more painful and obvious when it's product that sits on your shelf leering at you, but ... what good is a library that doesn't get used?

    I think your approach to finding a middle way (as it were) to "advancing" from B/X is an intriguing one. Paired with your previous post about deeply interrogating the setting in such a way that the rules make sense (or vice versa) ... it's going to be an interesting expedition. I look forward to your discoveries.

    (Me, I'm still flailing to make a spells plug-in work on my game.)

  2. There are a few reason why there was an "Advanced" D&D to begin with and only a few were game design ones.
    On the surface AD&D was designed for tournament/sanctioned play; rules to cover situations where "Basic" D&D would happily "wing it".
    There is also the claim, and there is some evidence for this, that Gary wanted a seperate game to keep the lucrative royalties from going into Dave Arneson's hands.

    In truth a lot of us played a mix of D&D and AD&D and that was fine. I played AD&D all through the 80s and into the 90s where the only difference was I now added AD&D 2nd ed.

    So add what you like from AD&D to your B/X games. Add those spells. Add extra armor types and monsters. Borrow AD&D2's initiative system (which might still be my favorite). There is no D&D Orthodoxy telling you what are supposed to do. The only guideline is "does it work for me and my group?"
    I add material from Call of Cthulhu and Unisystem all the time to my D&D games. I am even running a game now that is a mix of D&D 5 and D&D 4. It's been a great challenge.

    You can have challenging nuanced experiences with simple (and never read "simple" as "easy" or "stupid") mechanics. We have been conditioned to believe that a more complicated system means a better experience as long as "we get the rules right".

    I also challenge the notion that 5e is "dumbed-down". It is not. It is a different experience for a different sort of audience. I have been playing 5e since it came out and the rules are every bit as evocative, playable, and more to the point, fun as anything from the AD&D days.
    Sure lots of people read the books, but the only proof is in the playing.

    Same goes for your Basic games with AD&D concepts. You can sit and plan, but really just sit down and play with the concepts you want to add. That's how you know.

    1. I recognize that the term "dumbed down" is derogatory at best, inflammatory at worst, but I just couldn't think of a better term to express my thought. "Simplified to the point of being undemanding," is the definition of the phrase given by the ol' Google machine, and that's about what I meant: 3E simplified gameplay but was demanding, 5E is simplified and undemanding.

      Whether or not 5E is aimed at a different audience (or intended to provide a different experience) does nothing to change my perception of it being simple and undemanding.

      Anyway, this post isn't really meant to disparage 5E (or any other edition)...it's about me taking the plunge at making my game something a bit more complex AND demanding.

      [as for the reasons behind AD&D's development, I intend to discuss that in my next post]

  3. You might consider checking out some of Anthony Huso's blog posts on his group's return to AD&D and their embracing of asymmetric sub-systems and esoteric complexities; his main blog is @ https://www.thebluebard.com/blog-1 and in particular check out:

    - https://www.thebluebard.com/post/i-will-not-relent
    - https://www.thebluebard.com/post/learning-to-dm-by-playing-a-character-right
    - https://www.thebluebard.com/post/the-way-we-really-play-really

    Perhaps they'll offer some useful color/insight into your growing desire for more advanced play?


    1. I never really quite got why anyone would pick AD&D (and _really_ play it, not just B/X in disguise) over B/X until I read Anthony's posts. Outstanding explanations!

    2. @ Grodog:

      Never heard of Anthony or his work till you mentioned him: spent half the day reading the entirety of his blog. Very cool stuff...thank you!

    3. @ JB: you're quite welcome! Anthony's adventures are excellent examples of AD&D/OSRIC content "done right"---they hit the nail on the head in tone, style, creativity, and presentation, and demonstrate mastery of the rules at a level that's uncommon, at best.