Monday, April 9, 2012

What was so wrong with AD&D Second Edition?

My first D&D love was Second Edition. Sure, I dabbled with the Black Box in the beginning, but quickly moved on to that much maligned mistress for about an 8-year engagement. But why is it that Second Edition gets flack, not only for its extravagant excess of options but also for being the Dark Ages of TSR? I'm clearly not alone in the nostalgia. And when I say I played AD&D Second Edition, I mean not only did I play, but I won trivia contests on AOL. Well, my brother typed my answers because I was slow at typing, but we were still able to score some sweet sweet second edition swag via teamwork.

First off, the basic rules of second edition are largely the same as the first edition of AD&D. They cleaned out a few bad eggs to make it look a little more shiny and wholesome (Bye bye assassins and half orcs) but included a few/added a few core elements (Hello bard, specialist wizard, and priest of specific mythoi).

Now, right off the bat, I think fans of first edition can admit that the bard needed fixing (Gary Gygax himself was saying this) and second edition can hardly be blamed for bowing somewhat to the Great Satanic Scare of the 80s. You can directly bring your assassins and monks and half orcs into a Second Edition game, use the later-developed second edition machinery to play them, or apply a little common sense in recreating them without any real problems.

I can understand how the wealth of character and world options can be overwhelming. Just as third and fourth edition require massive compendia of feats and spells and powers, second edition has an astounding array of character kits, optional rules, non-weapon proficiencies, and the like. Many of these options overlap and/or are repeated, so there are many distinct ways of creating a shaman  (Complete Book of Humanoids, Complete Barbarian's Handbook, Spells and Magic, Shaman...) or a martial artist (Complete Fighter's Handbook, Combat and Tactics, Complete Ninja's Handbook...) for example. Even the simple Specialist Wizards and Priests of a Specific Mythoi could be overwhelming to some extent, but after playing one game with a Fighter, Thief, Cleric, and Magic-User its nice to have a few options to fill those roles.

Then again, I was raised in this edition, so I'm clearly sympathetic for some way to personalize clerics or have mechanically themed spellcasters. And some of the early edition distinctions are apparently beyond my ability to comprehend, it seems.

Mythmere (of Swords and Wizardry fame) looks at second edition in terms of houserulability. I like the analysis, though its still a bit sad that second edition gets the shaft for being so innovative. People who liked the options seem to have liked the third edition options even more, while people who didn't just pick and choose some of those options for their earlier edition games.

What I wonder, though, is if the new iteration of D&D isn't just going to be a new second edition. Over its lifespan, second edition had a tight core which was very similar to first edition, then expanded in terms of world and character options. A lot of options were confusing or just didn't work (Ghul Lord, I'm looking your direction) but the same broken array of options could be said to be found in Third Edition with all its prestige classes and multiclassing brokenness (not to mention single-class caster brokenness).

For my part, if I ever were to run an old-school game or, God forbid, make a retro-clone, I'm sure I'd be influenced by second edition. I'm not sure which options I'd take. Probably at least some more sub-classes like the Crusader and Shaman from Spells and Magic. And some setting-specific kits, like those developed for Al-Qadim or Jakandor. One needs a critical eye, but there are good options there.

Now, all the Old School Renaissance games and retro-clones like Labrynth Lord or OSRIC aren't just 100% faithful recreations of earlier editions. Each author smothes out some of the lumps and wrinkles in their recreations. But if the grognards aren't willing to embrace some of the better parts of second edition in their retroclones, what makes Wizards of the Coast think that grognards will gladly move to another solid core game with a number of options that addresses some of the problems with earlier editions?

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