May 14, 2021

4 Things 1st Edition D&D Gets Right

About nine years ago, Wizards of the Coast re-released hardbound versions of 1979’s Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 1st edition. Not long after, I snagged the full set for myself. It was fun leafing through these pieces of RPG history, but after reading over the archaic rules it became clear that most of my friends wouldn’t be interested in playing this version. This edition used the confusing THAC0 matrix for attacking, strange restrictions for race and class choices, and an odd combat system partitioned into something called segments. Indeed, whenever I pitched a one shot, there were no takers. These crudely illustrated relics were doomed to sit as mere curiosities on my games shelf.

Fast forward to a couple weeks ago. My wedding was fast approaching and with COVID restrictions still in full swing in my area, there was no chance of a conventional bachelor party. However, as a replacement, I was able to convince a group of my friends to let me DM an old school session using the 1979 ruleset.

Overall, we had a great time. This edition’s reputation definitely preceded it. We all went into the game expecting the system to be clunky, unforgiving, and confusing. Thing is, it absolutely was all of that. But as much as these vintage rules chaffed our modern design proclivities, there were some really fun elements that I’d love to see imported into present day D&D.

No search checks

The more I play it, the more I hate how perception and searching work in modern D&D. There’s absolutely no reason not to search every room or corridor you enter. Even if your wisdom bonus is negative, you still have a shot of lucking into finding something if it’s there. There’s rarely ever a consequence to failing, so why not spam perception checks? It ends up being an extremely low stakes luck of the draw situation without any substantive interaction with the environment.

I’ve heard the same thing said about other games as well. I’ve seen several Call of Cthulhu posts on Reddit mentioning how often the players use the “Spot Hidden” skill hoping to find some secret or clue in their current area. I don’t have the data to prove it, but my strong suspicion that in any game where an analogous skill is present, it’s the most used one.

AD&D 1e doesn’t have a search skill, per se. The thief class has a fixed percent chance to discover traps when they look and elves have a passive chance to detect secret doors, but your average human fighter can’t stroll into a room, declare he’s searching, and likely have a greater than 25% chance to discover anything that might be hidden. If you want to find something, you have to specify what you’re doing. For example, if you suspect there’s a trapped door, you could mention you’re looking under the rug, pulling all the books off a shelf, or tugging at every wall sconce in search of a lever. It allows the character to interact with the environment and adds weight to exploring forlorn tombs and haunted castles.

Unknown challenge rating

At this point, I’ve run or played through around five of Wizards of the Coast’s official campaign books. The most fun I can remember having was an unscripted moment early in Tomb of Annihilation when the players were making their way through the jungles of Chult. Out of nowhere, a zombie tyrannosaurus burst out from the treeline. The party quickly realized they stood no chance against the undead dinosaur, so they fled. A harrowing chase ensued, and the players quickly realized their best hope for survival was to find someplace to hide. One by one they darted into hollow logs, scampered up trees, and dove into a river. The sense of danger and excitement was through the roof. Moments like this are pretty rare in modern design. Encounters in published adventures are almost all designed to be winnable by the players.

In old school Dungeons and Dragons, monsters don’t have challenge ratings. The only rough metric for determining how powerful an enemy is are their hit dice, and even then it’s not an exact science. If you’re homebrewing, even the DM can’t be 100% sure how any given monster or group of monsters will match up against the players. This dynamic makes every combat encounter potentially deadly. The players have to have a plan or risk being wiped out. The possibility that the party may have to run from or otherwise avoid monsters opens up the ways players approach encounters. Instead of launching into obligatory combat, in which most players are reasonably sure they’ll be able to beat the monsters, more creative solutions can be considered.

Morale

This concept survives into 5e but only as a potential variant rule. In AD&D 1e, enemy monsters must succeed on morale checks or begin to flee the players when combat goes south. A common complaint about modern D&D is that combat takes too long. One major reason for this is Dungeon Masters insist on having every orc warband or bandit raiding party fight to the death. I’m also guilty of too often imbuing underlings or foot soldiers with fanatical dedication to whatever cause or leader they’re fighting for. It’s just not realistic that a random grunt would willing to give everything to protect a treasure hoard they’ve got very little stake in.

Bad characters are fun

For our session, we used what’s called ‘organic, mundane character creation.’ This means that to determine your character’s stats, you roll 3d6 for each ability in order. Compounding the low relative scores this method produces, old school D&D has minimum ability requirements for your race and class choices. Of course, this leads to some very strange characters. For example, you could end up as a fighter with just six dexterity or a magic user who can only manage to cast fourth level spells or lower. In a party of six players, we only had one character meet the requirements to be a paladin. Most of the time, you’ll end up with a painfully mediocre human playing a base class. To be fair, this method stopped being the standard before 1979’s version of D&D, but we wanted to really explore how brutal the earliest versions of the game were.

I know none of this sounds like a selling point, but it creates some pretty interesting experiences. What happens if you end up as a character with high constitution and dexterity but below average strength? Now you’re playing the defense specialist half-orc cleric. Maybe they were shunned by their family for their physical shortcomings and embraced the life of an itinerant priest. It gives you the chance to craft interesting backstories to fit the bizarre ability arrays you get. And if you end up with a completely unremarkable thief, it allows you to approach every encounter with a death wish trying to solve each problem with increasingly daring gambits.

I personally like the idea of taking a character that wasn’t born with particularly remarkable measurables and taking on a dangerous world head on. Let’s face it, if most of us were transported into D&D our stats wouldn’t be that impressive. In 5e, you’re almost always going to have the ability scores of a hero. AD&D let’s you be a true underdog.

The weird, bad characters make it even more special when you’re gifted incredible stats. To be a bard you had to meet the lofty requirements of strength 15+, wisdom 15+, dexterity 15+, charisma 15+, intelligence 12+, and constitution 10+. I’ve gone ahead and done the math for you and using the organic, mundane method, this means for every 58,000 characters you make, you’re only likely to see one bard. If you’re lucky enough to qualify to be one of the far more attainable assassin, druid, or paladin classes, you’re going to treasure that character.

AD&D 1e isn’t a system I’d recommend to most people. For every one of the bright spots we stumbled upon, there were two other sources of confusion or frustration. I couldn’t imagine myself running or playing in a campaign in the future. However, it’s fun to imagine sitting in a basement in the late 70s constantly tearing up character sheets as wizards with 1 HP or thieves with subpar stats fell to meat grinder dungeons. And for all its faults, there are absolutely some things I think this early iteration does better than the modern product. While things like having only a single spell per day as a 1st level magic user should definitely stay in the past, I can definitely see myself incorporating some of these aspects as house rules in modern games.

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