Friday, April 22, 2022


Yesterday was my daughter's 8th birthday. It was a lot of fun, lots of crazy kids running around, enjoying themselves. A house full of 2nd grade girls, doing crafting projects, making tortillas, playing hide-n-seek, breaking pinatas (well, one pinata), etc. Fun, fun, fun.

And, of course, a time for reflection and nostalgia when (later, after the guests had left) my daughter and mother and I went through photos from 2014 when she had just been born and was still a little red-faced babe with a spiky mohawk. *sigh* Change. So inevitable. So times.

My D&D journey has taken me back to the beginning of my personal history, now that I'm (pretty exclusively) playing first edition AD&D. To an outside observer I can understand how my adherence to that old edition of the game can seem like a curmudgeonly way of clenching my fists and trying to hold tight to some piece of history, resisting the inevitable march of change...of progress. I can see how the AD&D aficionado must often seem like dowager Lady Grantham pining for the pomp and tradition of the previous century (sorry...the fam has been rewatching the Downton Abbey series for, like, the third time through). 

Image of the inner
soul of a typical
first edition gamer.
But that's...not quite right. Nor is it simple nostalgia, nor is it the flighty/flakiness of the gamer of a person unwilling to commit to a single version and must constantly play and try other games. These things...obstinance, nostalgia, flakiness...are certainly present in me (all to a great degree, actually), but that's not what's going on here. And I want to talk about just what IS going least from my perspective.

As I mentioned at the end of my last post, German AD&D enthusiast Settembrini recently interviewed Trent Foster Smith (in English) for his Zock-Bock-Radio podcast. Trent's been doing the AD&D thing for a long, long time, and I think some of his insights on that edition are pretty spectacular (and, no, I'm not just talking about the bad AC numbers in the MM). However, he and Settembrini both seem to have some blind spots about B/X, its appeal, and why it seems to have taken such a strong hold on the "old school" D&D community, especially through the OSE (Old School Essentials) clone. Let me start with that, as B/X is a large and significant part of my journey.

The main difference between my beginning in the hobby and other folks starting around the same time is that I came to the game through Tom Moldvay's Basic set (the "B" of B/X) NOT the Frank Mentzer authored, two volume hand holder that started the BECMI odyssey of completeness. I would agree with Trent's assessment of the basic game feeling too staid and closed (as a system) compared to AD&D...if the discussion were limited to a comparison between Gygax's opus and Mentzer's series. But Mentzer's series...despite the B and E containing near identical content to the Moldvay/Cook/Marsh B and X are quite different in terms of scope and tone. That "fuzziness around the edges" that Trent finds so inviting of addition and extrapolation is likewise found in the B/X books...books of a series that were never completed (they author's talk about a forthcoming "Companion" book that was never published until the series was re-booted by Mentzer with a shift in focus, direction, and...for my demographic). 

This is why...when I returned to "serious" D&D play, I came back to B/X rather than AD&D. Both B/X and AD&D have the ingredients that inspire. Both have the fuzziness to invite additional (design) exploration. Both of them are fairly simple to run (one more so than the other). And of the two, B/X is far more accessible to the Average Joe or Jane. That's why, when teaching the game to others, I always start with the B/X system (or Labyrinth Lord, back before B/X became readily available) is a far easier method of ingraining the basic premise and understanding of the game before moving into any sort of "advanced" play.

But as a game, B/X is limited. Sure, all D&D is limited...because there are only so many words you can put down in a text/manual and the human imagination quickly and easily surpasses the scope of that which is contained in the books. But B/X's limitations...which I found so charming and that opened so many possibilities ten years ago (back when I was writing my B/X Companion, The Complete B/X Adventurer, and blogging other material for the B/X system)...its limitations stop short of what AD&D offers, namely expanded campaign play. And while the open-ended nature of B/X certainly leaves space to develop that extended campaign play, AD&D's robust system already offers a paradigm for such, including extensive play-testing to resolve (or at least make note of) flaws of design that require addressing.

The world building cosmology on display in the AD&D books is the thing that's missing from B/X and its clones (including LL, OSE, etc.). AD&D shows the evolution of the mindset that is required to continue compelling D&D play. You see it in the extensive world-building of all three core books:
  • The MM: the hierarchies of demons, devils, the congress between lower plane denizens (night hags and their trading in souls), elementals, the various sub-races of elves and halflings, etc. and the various tribes of orcs (with their siege equipment and above-ground villages) and men (dervishes and pilgrims and whatnot).
  • The PHB: you see it in the bardic colleges, the druid and monk hierarchies, the "guilds" of thieves and assassins, the economy hinted at via the equipment lists, the sketches of the inner and outer planes and their cosmology, and various hints here and there (which races can be psionic, which races may NOT be resurrected, etc.)...all things which say SOMEthing about the world.
  • The DMG: an opening into the inner workings of the Gygax mentality regarding campaign construction and world building and yet again MORE examples of world building through the extrapolation of PHB material and the inclusion of more legendary items (artifacts and relics and whatnot) from the author's own campaign and imagination.
Without this evolution...without this attention to world building...the game becomes tired. It becomes just a matter of how one can run tricks and tart the thing up, creating new classes, creating new monsters, adding new (minor) rule tweaks and systems...none of which amount to deepening or enriching the play experience. Instead, it only amounts to sitting down at the table and saying, "well, what's our adventure tonight?"

Advanced play engrosses the participants in a way that basic play does not.

You can see this in the difference between the introductory modules T1 (for AD&D) and B2 (for Basic). T1: The Village of Hommlet spends an enormous amount of space (some would say an inordinate or excessive amount) on the village proper...its history (old and recent), its inhabitants, its various factions.  Who cares? The B/X player cries. Where can I buy a two-handed sword? When do we get to the dungeon? This is, of course, the basic approach to the does not invite players to live in the fantasy world or engage with it in more than a cursory manner.

The advanced version of the game does. And while DMs can take what B2: The Keep on the Borderlands offers and extrapolate from it, breathing life into the module, detailing the Keep's denizens, imagining the factions that might exist between Cave denizens, and the secret histories that connect various wilderness encounters with each other and the wilder world...well, most don't. It's more work than what's's more effort than the need for what the adventure was designed (i.e. an introduction to the game, its systems, its premise, etc.). It is a great introduction to the basic game...for both the players AND the DM. But trying to back-engineer it for advanced play...well, that's an interesting thought experiment, but you might as well be developing your own world.

[see, that's the part that (I think) the Greyhawk aficionados miss. DMs who dive deep into the Greyhawk lore for inspiration are, in a way, still playing just a LARGE version of Basic, juggling all the moving parts of someone else's campaign some sort of mega-normous wilderness/dungeon combo. Not all of them, of course, but...well, that's a post for another time]

I got back into old edition D&D after realizing that there was nothing really preventing me from going back and playing old edition D&D except (perhaps) the need to find willing players. Previously, I had some sort of "block" about this idea of playing "old" games. I chose B/X because it was a well-written, well-designed version of the D&D game that, while streamlined and sensible, left enough out to still fire the imagination and not shut down possibilities with what happens after level 14 (as did Mentzer's BECMI series and the later Rules Cyclopedia compilation by Aaron Alston). 

B/X alone no longer satisfies this point, only Advanced play will do. And I have settled on the 1E rules as my vehicle/delivery system of choice for that type of play experience, as later editions seem to have missed the point, instead worrying about appealing to the changing gamer demographic, most likely due to, you know, the need to make money as a business:
  • 2E tried to tell heroic stories (and sell novels/book series)
  • 3E created complex systems that incorporated universal principals and unique character builds.
  • 4E was designed to emulate MMORPG play/terminology (especially World of Warcraft)
  • 5E ORIGINALLY attempted to appeal to as many prior gamer generations as possible, seeking to reclaim market share/brand identity by reaching out to individuals who felt alienated by earlier editions and create the One Great Compromise edition. However, due to the overwhelming popularity of the video series Critical Role (and its imitators) 5E continues to morph in a direction that is more about...well, something else. Storytelling, grandstanding, performance art...I don't know. I don't really want to dig into it. It appeals to some folks...that's fine; do you. That's not what/why I play D&D.
To draw this post to a close, I'm not playing first edition AD&D because it's the game I played as a kid (I did play it as a kid, which has given me insight into just how the game is played and its potential greatness). I am not playing AD&D because it is some mark of prestige or curmudgeonly badge of honor. I'm not playing it because its systems are perfect or elegant or the height of RPG design theory. And I'm not playing it because it's the edition with which I have the most familiarity (that would probably be B/X).

No, I'm playing AD&D because I've changed my mindset about what I want from this game and what I want from this hobby, and the 1E books deliver this in a method and manner better than any of the other editions. Its root and core is sound; its author, for all his faults and flaws, was able to convey the experience of advanced gaming in a way that I have yet to see equalled (which, considering the quality, may be a sad statement about the RPG industry).

Change is uncomfortable...and inevitable. More changes, I'm sure, will come. And I'm sure this blog will continue to document my own. Cheers.
; )


  1. I think your conflation of what you term "Advanced Play" with the AD&D ruleset is what irks me the most when you've said here and in the past that AD&D is the superior game. So called Advanced Play isn't dependant on any rules system or the musings of some DM(even if it is Gygax, or Alexis in the modern the modern reader) but on you as the DM. I think if Advanced Play isn't instituted into the foundation of the campaign from the beginning, it's not something players just make a leap to all of a sudden. Transitioning from the basic game to an advanced game is just nonsensical to me. Playing a basic game as you describe it isn't really playing d&d in my opinion

    1. @ Lance:

      I really appreciate your comment. I’m sure you’re not the only one who finds my diatribe irksome. And perhaps you’re right.

      But in my mind, I definitely feel I’ve had a shift. I’m not looking at the game the same way.

  2. I've got to agree with Lance. And in that vein may I add, When are you going to ditch this bloody notion of having to identify with a blasted flag?

    ADVANCED D&D starts with setting forward to build the system "properly" in the mind of the designer, which means putting behind arguments that "AD&D" is or isn't "well-written" or "well-designed." Write it better. Design it better. Walk away from picking apart for the thousandth time one edition from another. The ADVANCED edition is the one you build.

    And so ... make the decision you're going to stop playing "AD&D" and start playing "D&D." There's a reason we call it "5th" or "5e." Because it's not the D&D. Well, by today's standard, neither is B/X or AD&D or anything else.

    The only proficient D&D game is the one that doesn't have a trademark.

  3. I think you need to define advanced play better I'm not grasping it. It feels like you are just talking about structured world building but it's been a long week at work.

    1. Nah. Judging by these comments, 7B, I probably need to work on my thesis here.

    2. Um, no. I get your thesis. I agree with your thesis. I've looked at all the editions, plus dozens and dozens of other fantasy game designs, and fundamentally AD&D provides the best "grid" for what the game needs. It doesn't specialise in role-playing or storytelling or "roll"-playing or any variant on the theme. It's inclusive of ALL styles, it caters to ALL styles, it encourages ALL styles.

      You're bumping up against 4 decades of people repeating a meme that AD&D has "problems." They insist on treating all the systems as inviolable products, with the premise that you have to pick one, or try each, while making observations that A is better than B which is nearly as good as C, which also has problems that D doesn't have ... as though the issue is that we HAVE to pick one AS IS and run it AS IS.

      Which is ridiculous. They all blend just fine. We can rip this 440 out of this Chrysler and rebuild the Ford frame so that it fits, IF we know what we're doing. But for reasons that baffle me, people don't think this way about D&D. They want every system to be treated as inviolable, like a religion, like something that falls apart if you dare pull a flange out.

      My complaint is that you don't go far enough, JB. Eff AD&D. Gut the thing, strip it for it's parts, jam in GURPS and Pathfinder and what the hell else spins your crank and make this puppy blow the doors off everything. AD&D isn't ENOUGH. No pre-packaged product can be. The possibilities are too big, too challenging, too impractical for a board room sensibility, to make something GOOD when the standard is the lowest common denominator, the dumbest player on the market.

      So, please, for the love of all that's sacred, stop defending AD&D. They don't get it. They'll never get it. They're programmed. So move on. Start talking about how you're able to BETTER AD&D, how you're not limited by AD&D or any system, or any other game on the market. Talk about how you've got the experience and the will to produce value and the richness you speak of.

    3. @ Alexis:


      You’re saying that no D&D edition is sacrosanct, that no rule book is inviolate…and I agree with that.

      You in fact go FARTHER than that with your point…that no edition of rules for this game are ENOUGH (on their own)…and I agree with that, too.

      My post was intended more to “clear the air” then “plant a flag.” I’m trying to explain why, despite an ascendancy of “simpler” systems, despite my own work over YEARS working with (and writing/designing for) simpler systems, I now have decided that this hoary and archaic 1E system makes a better “grid” for my play.

      Some people want explanations. Not you, perhaps…you’ve been chastising me for dragging my feet with regard to the “real work” for years.

      Our hobby is an ocean…and At This Moment, there are multiple currents driving ships hither and yon. Some of these…maybe MOST of these…are hopelessly losing and confusing sailors. I’m trying to help other people navigate these seas even as I chart my own course.

      This post isn’t really aimed at you, Alexis. I grok what you’re saying, though. If my words were confusing the message…well, hopefully I’ll rectify that in a future post.

      I still believe we are (mostly) on the same page.
      : )

  4. Yes. We are. I'm further down on the page is all.

  5. My last campaign was 1974 OD&D; before that was LotFP, and before that was 5E. Of all of those, I like 5E the least but you can have fun with it. I also like a whole lot about B/X, OSE & OSE Advanced Fantasy, S&W, AD&D and BECMI/RC.I wouldn't run any D&D without the AD&D DMG; I lean on that and the PHB actually quite a lot regardless of what I'm running.

    On a practical level I think that you have to establish a "baseline" of what you're running. You have to be able to tell people basically what the game is: "We're playing 1E AD&D" or "We're playing B/X", etc. But a seasoned DM is likely to have a notebook for the campaign outlining a bunch of additional material. What special considerations are there for spell acquisition? What is the economy of the base town? Are you using secondary skills? What is the metaphysical nature of Yog-Sothoth? You have to know these things but the players don't.

    The players don't need to be briefed on anything that doesn't directly impact their decision making. Like as not they don't care about most of it anyway. In the entire "Out of the Abyss" campaign, no one asked me even once about demonic politics. That wasn't the point. Partisans don't sit around arguing "Who do we hate worse: Himmler or Heydrich?" They just care whose going to be tooling down the road in an open-topped transport tomorrow morning. And they certainly won't know all of the background details that you've conjured up for the sake of internal consistency.If they're playing D&D and don't realize that you as DM have made some stuff up and changed the rules somewhat, they need to have the nature of the game re-explained to them.

    OD&D 1974 is the perfect edition of D&D because it's grossly incomplete. I don't fault B/X or BECMI/RC for looking more and more complete... you're supposed to know that there's no such thing as "complete D&D". The 1E DMG stands out as a rambling book full of things that you might also want to think about when inventing the bespoke role-playing game that you're about to call "D&D" to your friends. Regardless of what Gary might have said at the time. You have to make the game your own and that's basically true of every edition.

    Basically, you can't play OD&D once you've ever read another edition, just like you can't play those editions (or shouldn't) if you've ever read the others. The game can't be good without the DM, and it's his role to pack in all the wacky ideas, subsystems and tricks that he can think of to make it compelling.

    It's a real shame that D&D so quickly lost the verbiage of "fantastic medieval wargames" like it says on the original box. That's really on point, if you think of say the RAND Corporation view of wargames as: 1) players who make decisions in order to influence an environment; 2) an environment; 3) rules about what decisions can be made; and 4) systems of adjudication for the results of decisions. FRPG is not "storytelling", it's a game, and that means decision-making. A storyteller knows how the story ends, but a game master presents challenges to the players and it's up to them to resolve them in light of their objectives.

    With regard to successful deployment of challenges and successful adjudication of decision outcomes, why discard any arrows from your quiver? Do they all need to match, so you cannot loose the blue ones at the enemy? I fully understand your decision to use AD&D 1E as your baseline. But there's no reason for that decision to be exclusive of all the other cool things other systems, or to feel like a subsystem in AD&D needs to be used because it's part of the whole.

    1. @ Korgoth:

      Sure. Let’s just say:

      A) you need a system to start with,
      B) the better the system, the less tinkering you need to do, so that
      C) you can worry about the most important things including:

      (Not necessarily in this order)

      1) running the game
      2) running the world
      3) running the players

      For me, the best system is AD&D. It requires the least fiddling. THAT being said…I think there’s more reason to use it than just it’s baseline systems (which I think you allude to when you write “I wouldn’t run any D&D without the AD&D DMG”).

      Folks who can get to the heart of THAT may understand my mindset.

  6. Parroting back a key point you’re making, "advanced play" describes the play-style of a player that, though his character, attempts to live in and engage a fantasy world. Whereas a player engaged in a more "basic" play-style is merely concerned with the mechanics of play, principally, in this game, acquiring XP.
    Your previous post points out a great example of a version of the game rules that explicitly discourages advanced play. On those pages of the 5e DMG which describe the (nonsensical, as you pointed out) economics of running a business and other "downtime activities," the designers say on page 131, when describing how a DM should go about running players’ downtime activities, exactly their intent, "An activity should never negate the need or desire for characters to go on adventures."
    I don’t think it’s a far stretch to rephrase that more crassly as, “don’t let your players engage in your world in more than a vague and shallow way outside your carefully crafted encounters.”
    Can anyone tell me that’s not what this says?

    1. Any rule that states explicity how persons should play a game, when that play in no way contravenes the rules or the quality of potential enjoyment for the greatest number possible, it's an example of a product-maker attempting to control the behaviour of the product-user.

      That never goes to good places.

  7. Speaking only for myself, I intentionally rein in the amount of side simulation I do in my campaign world, because I don't have time for that stuff and it doesn't interest me overmuch. AD&D seems to me to be an edition obsessed with simulating every single detail of the game world, when I'm really just interested in running an interesting (mega)dungeon crawl. I've got a demanding job, a marriage, a kid, and various adult nonsense I have to get up to like taxes 'n shit. I ain't got time to simulate an early 15th century economy and I don't think it'd add that much to my game if I did.

    1. @ MattP:

      I’m not in your particular shoes, but what you’re saying sounds remarkably similar to my old mindset…circa 5-10 years ago.

      Things change.

      There’s more to it than what I’m about to write, but just keep in mind the following:

      A) there are different levels of “simulation” that can occur (looking at the vast potential of things that can be simulated…sure…it can be overwhelming. I think even Alexis has restrained his world building in SOME ways). Different folks have different needs/comfort levels in this regard.

      B) I think there comes a point in MOST “simple” games when the basics of the thing wear thin. With regard to D&D, I believe that some of the strange ways the game has “drifted” has been in response to this. However, what these drifting folks have failed to see is the need to DIVE DEEP into just what attracted them to the game in the first place (escape into a rich, fantasy world) rather then modify the game’s parameters of play.

      It’s okay that you are where you are, by the way. Like I said, I was there, too. But if you continue your love affair with D&D you may well find your own mind changing over time.

  8. I agree that engaging with, effecting, and defining the game world through play are what I enjoy best and that represents a more advanced level of play. I also agree that some editions are easier to do that with than others.

    My only point of disagreement is that ADD is a better vehicle than a BX clone. The mechanics and procedures of certain BX clones, like some of those in ADD, are designed to create the living world that defines advanced play imho.

    I'm glad that you've found that ADD hits that spot for you. I prefer the simpler chassis of my BX clone. Adding what I seek is just easier than removing what I don't need. I am interested to find out what you find in your look back.

    1. @ jojo:

      I understand the...what? Resistance? Trepidation? whatever...that folks have when I say go with "edition B" over "edition C."

      Why can't I just use edition C and do the same thing?

      You can. Sure. Yes. You CAN.

      It's just a lot more work.

      I say this as a person who studied and analyzed (and ran and played) B/X for a good, long time. It's a cleaned up, streamlined version of OD&D. It's awesome for teaching the premise of the game to someone or for doing...well, the B/X kinds of things. And it's open-ended enough that you can add to it fairly easily.

      But there are things about OD&D that need tweaking...and AD&D has already done many of those tweaks (while B/X does not).

      I suppose it's a matter of subjective operation. I might write an edited, curated version of AD&D that (maybe) cuts down the page count, while a different person writes multiple supplements to add to their B/X game. Either way might give the same "end result" but which is the more efficient use of time? Go with the play-tested version.

  9. Having played ADD from 83 to about 2000, I understand. It is just that my bx clone of choice - ACKs - has all the complexity and world building tools built in with an economy that makes sense. Like all DMs I season to taste and still pluck stuff from ADD from time to time.

    Thats what I'm looking forward to, the nuggets you find digging through.

  10. Funny thing about nostalgia... it's a disease, or at least it was originally classified as one, a terrible, potentially lethal homesickness especially common among soldiers. There were thousands of cases in the US civil war, and it was last diagnosed in WW1.

    Obviously a longing for the old joys of playing D&D back in one's youth aren't going to lead to some kind of deadly melancholy, but its a potent idea. At nostalgia's core is the longing for an imagined and idealized past, which is by definition impossible to achieve. I also suspect it's impossible to avoid nostalgia when playing old D&D ... it's part of of the appeal.

    Nostalgia can be psychologically good, in that it helps one remember better times and reconnect with personal goals or old friends. The issue is that there's often another side, the nostalgic community and nostalgia as a basis for ideology. Nostalgia, fond, idyllic memories and shared imagining is great for building community. The risk is that one forgets it's a fiction, as you note change is inevitable, never set foot in the same river blah blah... but yeah, the imagined past can never be achieved. Nostalgic communities tend to go two ways at the point that becomes obvious A)most commonly they seek to blame someone or some group for destroying the dreamed past - they imagine that if only these malign influences can be removed the past would return. This goes badly for everyone. B) Alternatively a nostalgic can recognize the imagined past as fiction, and a template or inspiration to build something new seeking incorporate the positives of the past that memory amplified.

    When it comes to AD&D I guess I'm saying I hope you won't hold to tight to the idea of authenticity and a single way of playing it - there's more then one game in those big old books, good luck teasing the one out that you enjoy.

    1. Um. Yeah. It's not just nostalgia, man (that's kind of the point of the post). At the moment, I am only using the books in the most cursory of ways.

      Hmm. That's actually a good topic to post about.
      ; )