please stop hitting me
In truth, AD&D got pretty much everything right, especially if you take into account the oceans of fond nostalgia and pedestal on which the gaming community has placed Advanced Dungeons & Dragons over the years. This is the edition of the game which older gamers wish they were still playing, and new gamers aspire to play. It is, if you like, the pinnacle of dungeonsanddragonsness. If that was a word. Which it isn’t.
As with any edition of D&D, AD&D was not perfect. Far from it. But y’know what – that doesn’t matter. It might sound strange, but it is possible to get pretty much everything right and not be perfect.
Do we really want our role-playing games to be perfect anyway? I don’t. I want my rpgs to have rough edges and rules that don’t quite fit together. I want a system which hangs together rather than slides together with machine-cut computer-enhanced accuracy. Role-playing games should be Airfix Kits where a whole fun part of the game involves cutting out the pieces, filing down errant bits that don’t quite fit, getting your fingers stuck with glue and putting it all together into something which is uniquely yours.
To continue the Airfix analogy a little longer, it’s the difference between buying a ready-made die-cut model of a Spitfire, and making a model of a Spitfire from a kit. The former might look perfect in every way while the latter might have one wonky wing, a slapdash paintjob and be missing half the transfers, but that is the one you’d be proud to hang from your bedroom ceiling.
AD&D is the edition of the game which each subsequent edition has tried to emulate. It’s no accident that every major campaign setting still in use (and many others which aren’t but should be. Birthright, I’m looking at you.) comes from the AD&D era. AD&D came from a time when Imagination trumped Design, and so many great ideas were born. This was the era of Planescape, Dark Sun, Al-Qadim and Ravenloft. It was also an era which (despite the vagrancies of the rules system and limitations of the computers at the time) spawned AD&D computer games that are acclaimed classics and still played to this day. It’s a sour irony that the more D&D moved towards mimicking computer games, the less less good the D&D computer games became.
That, I believe, is because Dungeons & Dragons should be Dungeons & Dragons first, foremost, and last. Much as I love and admire Fourth Edition D&D (and it is still very much D&D in my book) there’s something about AD&D which 4e (and Third Edition, for that matter) lacks. That quirkiness about the game is so darned endearing. It’s D&D with the bits of plastic sprue still in place waiting for you to file down.
But waitaminute, Grey. AD&D isn’t just one edition We have the ever glorious (and soon to be re-printed) 1st Edition, the “oh look we hired a typesetter now” 2nd Edition and the “no it’s not 3rd Edition” Revised 2nd Edition, along with countless minor edits and updates with each new printing. This is AD&D evolving, but I would argue it still stayed close to its roots and the core of the game remained the same. “I play AD&D” is a proud boast to make, and it’s a badge of honour regardless of exactly which edition or sub-edition you play. It’s all AD&D, and that’s what matters.
So yes, the rules were funky. Yes, it makes no sense that Halflings can only have a maximum WIS or 17 and chaotic Demons are classified by Type. It doesn’t matter that AC goes down as your level of protection goes up or that Kits became a gawd-awful powergamery mess and Non-Weapon Proficiencies were called Non-Weapon Proficiences rather than just “Skills”. Any one of a thousand bits of quirk can be looked at with scratched head as you wonder what’s so great about this edition of the game.
Then you play it, and realize.
It doesn’t have to be perfect to be right.