Thursday, 6 August 2009

AD&D 2e: Virtues of the Ginger Stepchild

Although I came into D&D just before it was released (heck! the first few Dragon magazines I ever bought had full page ads for the shiny newness pictured to the right) I've never been a great fan of AD&D2E as a rule set.

Even when our avowedly neophile neophyte gaming group made the move from the classic orange spine 1E books to the newer (and thus - to our teenage minds - self-evidently better) black spine 2e books we were really always playing the same old cargo cult mash-up of BD&D/1E during the 2E era that we had been before. We couldn't have given you page references for anything other than the most obvious stuff, and we certainly couldn't have discoursed learnedly on the differences between editions 1 and 2.

Sure, a lot of the organisational issues and odder rules holdovers of the AD&D 1E rulebooks were 'rationalised' by the 2E books, and the Monstrous Manual - when finally released - was probably the definitive D&D monster book of all time. But we still always had the sense that 2E was just a revision and reprint, rather than an entirely new game system. Even as teens we could tell that 2E was really no more than "AD&D, revised and reprinted". It certainly wasn't the mental revolution that later edition shifts were.

In my opinion the greatest virtue of AD&D 2E wasn't the clarification of the core rules, and it certainly wasn't the interminable stream of largely interchangeable "Complete" splatbooks that regularly dropped steaming from the cloaca of the TSR release engine. The true jewel in the crown of 2E was its settings.

Yes, yes. Purge the heretic! Burn the unclean! Bury him in his own sandbox that his evil might not warp the minds of others. :p

All edition snobbery aside, the numerous campaign settings released during the 2E era (1989-1999) were some of the most imaginative, thought-provoking settings ever released for D&D. For the purposes of this argument please disregard the splatbook bloat that ultimately afflicted the various settings and helped to destroy TSR as a force in the gaming industry, and just look at the initial boxed sets for Spelljammer, Planescape, Dark Sun, Birthright, Al-Qadim, etc. in isolation. Each of these boxes offered you the chance to extend your D&D game in ways that the core rulebooks only ever hinted it:

  • Did you love Expedition to the Barrier Peaks? Here's a whole setting full of space-borne wackiness we like to call Spelljammer. Go nuts!
  • Did you always look forward to the playing house / fantasy battles elements of the D&D endgame? Here stands Birthright, ready to serve.
  • Hankering for a bit of Arabian Nights / Sinbad magic in yer D&D? Al-Qadim is here to service all your orientalist cliche needs effendi.
  • Want more sword-and-planet pulp adventure and Dune elements in your game? Dark Sun! I choose you!
I will concede that mixed in with the life-enhancing, game-changing, mind-stretching stuff there was also some real 'thrown together to meet a deadline' drivel. Jakandor, Maztica, and the wholesale sack-and-pillage of the D&D Known World setting spring to mind as being among the more egregious crimes-against-gaming of the late TSR era; and the less said about the eminently forgettable Council of Wyrms the better IMO. But I can honestly say I believe that if Dark Sun, Al-Qadim, Spelljammer, or even woefully metaplot-afflicted and mechanically kludged Birthright had sported a Judges Guild imprint on the box instead of a TSR brand then they'd be appreciated for their true potential by grogbloggers today.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I feel a plundering spree coming on. Time to get the old boxed sets out of storage.


  1. Interesting points. I was enamoured of many of the TSR setting boxed sets, but they often seemed as though the boxes were too big for the products. Still, there was some good material in there.

  2. I'll second that. I loved Ravenloft (though these days I would run it with another system) and Dark Sun. I also never really thought about how pulpy Dark Sun was until I read this post. Hmm.

  3. I've finally gone and gotten my homebrewed campaign world back to the point where I can run it under Moldvay/Mentzer, and you go and make me want to break out my Spelljammer boxed set...

    The big advantage to having big boxed sets, like Dark Sun and PlaneScape, was that you could fit the core rulebooks and a sourcebook or two in there with the campaign setting.

  4. @Matt: I know what you mean mate. Those big boxes were quite an investment on a pocket money budget, and not all of them stuffed the box with useful material. Spelljammer, Dark Sun & Birthright I remember being quite good in that respect, Al-Qadim...less so.

    @Ryan: *facepalm* Ravenloft! How could I forget Hammer Horror-meets-D&D. The "Van Richten's Guides To..." were worth their weight in gold.

    @myrystyr: The beauty of Spelljammer is that it can be ported to BD&D with minimal modifications. And when are stellar corsairs, star dragons and laser-firing space whales ever the wrong answer? ;)

  5. Those big boxes were quite an investment on a pocket money budget, and not all of them stuffed the box with useful material.

    Indeed, I think the Forgotten Realms campaign setting was the worst offender. I got a copy of the D20 Wilderlands of High Fantasy last Christmas and it just puts them all to shame.

    How could I forget Hammer Horror-meets-D&D?

    My acquisition of Ravenloft fortuitously coincided perfectly with a load of Hammer Horror reruns on ITV on a Wednesday(?) night. Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter is still near the top of my most awesome films of all time. :D


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