5 Things I Loved and 5 Things I Hated About 2nd Edition AD&D

add2phbGreywulf and Mike Mearls both have given their opinions on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition on the occasion of it’s 20 year anniversary. While AD&D (1e) was the first version of D&D I played as a very wee one, 2e was the first where I was part of a regular gaming group, the first campaign I played in, and the first campaign I ran. Despite all the gaming I’ve done since, 2e is probably still the RPG I’ve played the most, going almost every week (and sometimes more) from the end of my middle school days all the way into high school, before it would be supplanted by experimenting with other games (especially GURPS) and the eventual release of 3rd edition.

Well, on this prestigious occasion of the edition’s creation, I thought I’d engage in a bit of edition war with myself and list from memory 5 things that I loved and 5 things I hated about 2nd Edition.


1. “Complete _____ Handbook”

Complete Psionics Handbook was the first D&D book I ever owned (and I still have it). Complete Humanoids Handbook gave us tons of new races to play with when we were finally bored with the ones in the PHB. Every one of the class books gave tons of new options. And so on.

2. Tome of Magic

While Nahall’s Reckless Dweomer should be reason enough, this is also the book that introduced Elementalists and a whole buttload of evocative spells. Even the first level ones like Fists of Stone made spellcasters feel different.

3. Planescape

A consistently favorite setting, Planescape shook everything up about what a D&D setting could be. At the time I likened it to Vampire with its choice of factions that granted special abilities, but the more I read it, the more I was reminded of Mage: The Ascension in the way the universe worked. AND it just plain (excuse the pun) made a great place to adventure.

4. No map, no minis, no problem

Before the days of 5′ steps/shifts and opportunity attacks, the need for knowing where exactly everyone was in relation to each other was greatly reduced. In the 2nd edition era, we never used battlemaps or minis. No having to draw out maps in advance, no complaints that the miniature didn’t depict the monster, and no extra table space needed.

5. Ignorable Rules

While 3e seemed to reinforce playing by the rules as written when possible, we were all about ignoring the rules in 2e. In fact, I’d be surprised if we ever were really playing by all the rules… though enough so that I could get by when playing in a convention game. Combat moved more smoothly and far more of the player’s actions were adjucated by DM’s call, which made for a fast-moving time.


1. Ignorable Rules

By the token, the rules were often so vague that rules arguments, lawyering, and “gotchas!” took over the game more often, leading plenty to hurt feelings. I think to this day DarthCthulhu regrets giving out so much gold in an adventure he guest-DMed without realizing my rogue gained XP for every GP he acquired. Those XP awards were full of surprises like that:  every new spell caster invariably would try to cast all his unused spells before resting so as to gain the XP benefit. Those, plus all kinds of gray areas, lead to the situation I describe above of never being sure if I’ve gotten the rules right.

2. Proficiencies

Weapon proficiencies meant that there were various kinds of weapons that showed up on random treasure charts that no one could use. Non-weapon proficiences, being based on ability scores that rarely increased, stayed the same score throughout the course of your career. And especially after some later books, there were some non-weapon proficiencies that were better than others. So much for character concept.

3. Demi-Human Level Limits

Unless you’re human, good luck participating in a long term campaign. As far as I can recall, this had almost nothing to do with balance, but some flavor reason for trying to force races into certain careers.

4. Kits

While above I professed my love of the Complete series of books, at the same time, they introduced an element that every character had to take: a kit. They added extra powers and abilities, and generally didn’t come with enough drawbacks to justify a trade-off. You took a kit, or you were nothing. On top of that, there seemed to be no regard to balance. Plenty of kits were just overpowered.

5. THAC0

Much maligned, and for me, reasonably so. Even among our extended group, there was no one who had the chart memorized for every class. That meant referencing it whenever there was an attack… and slowing the whole thing down. As soon as we saw a better option, we never looked back. (And don’t get me started on MTHAC0…)

About Dave

Dave "The Game" Chalker is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Critical Hits. Since 2005, he has been bringing readers game news and advice, as well as editing nearly everything published here. He is the designer of the Origins Award-winning Get Bit!, a freelance designer and developer, son of a science fiction author, and a Master of Arts. He lives in MD with e, their three dogs, and two cats.


  1. Isn’t the point of THAC0 that you need to write down just one number for every PC – then you can work out what AC you hit by the difference between your roll and your THAC0?

    Why would you need to look up a new THAC0 except when levelling? As a DM coming from 1st edition it was way easier with THAC0 than the old table with the 6 repeated 20s and other irregularities… 🙂

  2. Why the THAC0 hate? I miss THAC0:

    * It was a single number to remember/write on your character sheet
    * It progressed in a clear linear fashion based on your class, and was not hard to figure out.

    Much easier than keeping track with the huge number of different modifiers used now. Is anybody rolling against the correct target these days? I’m curious to know how frequently a modifier is forgotten.

    Steve´s last post: My first spam!

  3. THAC0 had no advantage for being a single number, as 3e’s attack bonus is also a single number. Well, two numbers, melee and ranged. Where with 2e you would look it up on a table in advance, with 3e you write down your total modifier in advance. Yeah, you usually have one or two situational modifiers, and about as many magical ones as in 2e, but most are static so you don’t need to figure them out in battle.

    But the biggest problem with THAC0 wasn’t the tables.

    It was that it was unintuitive.

    Human nature is to think that higher numbers are better and Zero is none, so 2e AC was contrary to that. Zero AC doesn’t mean I’m naked?

    In addition, the mind works much faster with addition than subtraction, so once you got the system explained to the new players, it was slower anyways.

    But it was still more efficient than the 1e system of tables, no question.

    Graham´s last post: UPS? More like You Pee… Freely… or something…

  4. OriginalSultan says:

    I’m surprised that you didn’t include lack of class balance in your list of things you hated about 2e. That seems to be one of the things I distinctly remember not liking.

    Along a similar line, I remember that the ‘fun’ of playing certain classes varied depending on what level you were. For instance, a mage at level 1 was not very fun at all, while a mage at level 14 was very fun. At the same time, a fighter at level 2 was fun to play, but a fighter at level 18, not as much.

  5. I love Al-Qadim -almost- as much as I love Planescape, but there’s nothing I love more than Planescape…

    When 2nd Edition came out, it was the only RPG I was playing, so a lot of the system flaws didn’t come into focus until I started up with other games.

    My biggest problem with 2nd Edition was the sheer -volume- of books they put out for it. I was always able to keep up with the 1st Edition output; suddenly I had decisions to make about which lines I could afford to follow, and what I’d have time to present to my group. As a result, I missed out on a lot of what 2nd Edition had to offer.

  6. Graham explains it a lot better than I do in the article- the table lookup was because it was easier to look up THAC0 vs. AC then to do the math. I’m even having a hard time doing it now while thinking about it, but doing a bunch of addition I can do quickly and easily.

    Sultan: That’s because it wasn’t an issue confined solely to 2e, especially not being fixed in the next edition 🙂

  7. @The Game: One thing that factored heavily into our 2E rules ignorance I think was the subordinate role we all initially had within the gaming group. With a bunch of guys 5 years older than us playing and RUNNING the games, even if we did understand the rules or were right about them, we were jumping in to a group that had played for years a particular way and simply accepted the eccentricities of Abe’s style of play.

    TheMainEvent´s last post: 5 Things I Loved and 5 Things I Hated About 2nd Edition AD&D

  8. I don’t really understand the objection that THAC0 requires subtraction. It’s the same roll a d20 and add vs. target number that d20 uses, it’s just that the add is the AC you’re trying to hit. d20 has fixed bonuses (not counting situation mods) and variable target numbers, THAC0 has variable bonus and a fixed target number. The whole reason for decreasing AC is to make that work.

    The only reason to do it via subtraction is if the DM is trying to conceal the AC of the target. But AC is supposed to map directly to the kind of armor you’re wearing/hide the creature has, with maybe small modifiers for being faster or slower than expected. You’re supposed to be able to look at somebody and say, he’s wearing Plate, so AC 2 without the GM telling you anything.

    If anything, it speeds things up, since you don’t have to feed the AC you hit or the number you rolled to the GM-Oracle and wait for the response. Roll the die, add and compare, and announce whether you hit or miss.

  9. Josh: But it is subtraction, right? I can break it down how it was done, and maybe there’s an easier way we just never knew about:

    Let’s say my THAC0 is 10. I’m attacking something with an AC of 2.
    I take 10, the reverse of 2 for subtracting 2 (probably the most unintuitive part of the whole thing, to me), so I need to roll an 8 or higher to hit. I then roll, keeping that 8 number in mind, then compare it to see if I rolled that or higher.

    (And as I clumsily expressed above, I got to the point where I just looked at a table that showed THAC0 vs. AC and got the number from that without doing the math.)

    It’s much easier for me to roll and have the number I rolled there in front of me, add a bonus (or even a series of bonuses), and compare it to a target. It may not be how everyone works, but there it is.

  10. No… I mean, you could do it that way if you want to make it more complicated but…you don’t really need to know what’s required on the die before you roll.

    Roll the die. Say you get an 8. Add 2 for the AC… 8 + 2 = 10. If Your THAC0 is 10 or less, you hit.

    If the AC was 3, 8 + 3 = 11, still a hit.

    If the AC was 1, 8 + 1 = 9… oops, miss.

    If roll was a 7, +2 AC = 9, THAC0 10 is a miss.

    If the roll was a 12, well that beats 10 right there, don’t even need to add.

    A lot of the time you can just eyeball it.

    Joshua´s last post: Sure, Why Not?

  11. Heh, I have learned something this day that there is an easier way to do THAC0! Thanks- I’m pretty sure we never did it that way, but that makes a lot of sense.

    However, it still strikes me as unintuitive (and this could be the years of using target numbers talking since I last used THAC0). When rolling, I want the numbers that are related to my character to be used, and when comparing against something, I want it to be whatever I’m going up against. The system you describe, I’m rolling and adding/subtracting a number based on my opponent, and trying to hit a target that’s based on my own skill.

  12. @graham
    How is THAC0 unintuitive? Just because a lower number is better?

    People deal with this sort of thing every day — I have no problem understanding that I would rather pay $1 for a can of coke than $2 for a can of coke. Sometimes larger numbers are better, sometimes smaller ones are. It should take two seconds to explain that a lower THAC0 or armour class is better.

    The assumption that humans always see bigger numbers as better is, I think, faulty. After all, don’t we all want to be number one?

    Steve´s last post: The morning coffee links for private and pirate purposes

  13. I didn’t find the math aspect of THAC0 to be difficult, but 3E/4E has all modifiers in one clean system. Having magic weapons and proficiencies modify your numbers outside the THAC0 system always struck me as cumbersome. They were part of THAC0, yet not.

    TheMainEvent´s last post: 5 Things I Loved and 5 Things I Hated About 2nd Edition AD&D

  14. @Dave – I think it’s really just familiarity. I see Roll + Number GM announces based on difficulty >= Fixed Number Based on skill as entirely equivalent to Roll + Fixed Number Based On Skill >= Number GM announces based on difficulty. Savage Worlds uses the former as well (Target Number is fixed at 4, all the mods are to the die roll) and I find it perfectly intuitive, despite having used roll + mods vs variable target in my own home-brew for ten years or more.

    Moreover, where I see 3+ as going badly wrong is that there are frequent mods applied to both sides of the equation, so the formula is often Roll + Fixed Number Based on Skill +/- Variable Situational Mods (e.g. -N to roll for trading off attack for damage) > Number GM announces Based on Difficulty +/- A Different Set of Situational Mods (e.g +1 to AC vs certain opponents). They really should have stuck to explaining everything in the same fashion, so that Dodge, say, was -1 to a specific opponent’s attack roll instead of +1 AC vs. that opponent.

    @TheMainEvent – I don’t see it. Roll 8 + 2 for AC + 1 for Magic Sword >= THAC0 10… unless AD&D 2e had a bunch of stuff that worked a different way?

    Joshua´s last post: Sure, Why Not?

  15. @Joshua: THAC0 is a set number being modified rather than one clean system of bonuses. As for modifiers on both end of the spectrum (AC & to hit), I agree with you.

    TheMainEvent´s last post: 5 Things I Loved and 5 Things I Hated About 2nd Edition AD&D

  16. An Addendum to this post.

    Stuff I Have Mixed Feelings About:

    -Chronomancers. I love this book, absolutely ridiculous in play.
    -The art. Boy was that all over the place. WotC’s experience with choosing a more consistent art style shows through in 3e on, whereas 2e was solidly a mixed bag for good and ill.

    Instead of harping on THAC0, anyone have their own what you hated/loved/mixed?

  17. What I liked about 2E: it was the first system that motivated me to start toying with rpg design…because I ignored many of the rules anyway due to flavor and/or balance.

    Kits was the number one thing I hated about 2E. The plethora of supplements was second, though I didn’t cement my “core-only” philosophy until 3E. The race-based class and level restrictions where silly, and proficiencies didn’t go far enough.

    THAC0 never bothered me, though I identify more easily with the “higher is better” AC mechanic.

    Kameron´s last post: Growing an outline into a story

  18. I honestly haven’t played any D&D at all since my junior year of high school. My daughter invited me to join her game group. They’re using 2e rules. I’ve managed to secure some 2e books. I’m having a blast playing, but don’t seem to recall the rules being so “crunchy”. I guess Savage Worlds has spoiled me.

    Vulcan Stev´s last post: Gaming in your favorite cinema universe

  19. I personally really enjoyed the non-battle mat and more imaginative aspect of our games in 2e, I really like playing with the minis and mats that we have been since 3e came out, but I definitely have some major nostalgia for the way we used to do it.

    My issue with THAC0 was that I always felt it was unnecessarily complicated, unnecessary being the key word there. I found it unintuitive because everything was based off of Armor Class 0, when there was nothing magical about 0, that’s just what everything was compared to. Essentially it’s having a statistic on your character sheet about how you work against ONE specific type of armor, instead of having a representation of your general aptitude. It may be able to be used in the same was as the newer rules, but for me that’s just a good reason to use the newer system instead.

    For me we played 2e at just the right age where I considered what the DM said as fact, and really felt like there was a rigid set of rules in which we had to play. I remember day dreaming about a super-powerful character who had magical plate armor that allowed him to cast spells while wearing it, and thinking this was something nearly unattainable EVER. It’s the same sense of mystery that I had for the first few weeks that I played World of Warcraft, but was quickly replaced by repetition and a strong sense of the mundane.

  20. longcoat000 says:

    I’ve got a love / hate relationship with the change in weight from CN to pounds between 1E & 2E. CN could be a pain to calculate, but it was a pretty simple way to combine weight and volume. You didn’t really need to know the exact measurements of a container, just how much CN it could carry, and there were some actual tactical considerations when you took the volume of an object into account when determining whether or not your could carry it (see Gary’s “100 pounds of feathers” argument).

    But like I said, it could be a pain to calculate and normally just defaulted to base weight anyway. So it was an innovative system that was too much trouble to implement correctly.

    Druids – I didn’t like the fact that they were treated as just another subset of priests, like specialist wizards (although I did like the specialist wizards).

    Half-orcs & Assassins – Removed for a more politically correct gaming universe. Oh well, it was the early 90’s…

    Devils, Daemons, & Demons – Same thing. Glad they got over it in 3E.

    Monks – Their removal firmly cemented the Eurocentrism of core 2E. And the kit in the Complete Priest book was a joke.

    Kits – Horrible, nasty things. Re-skinned and presented as “prestige” classes in 3E. We hates them, yessss…

    Monsterous Compendiums – Every single kid who went to school knew that the lifetime of a 3-ring binder was inversely porportional to the size of the rings. So why did they take a reference book that would be HEAVILY used, triple it’s volume, and cut it’s life expectancy in half?

    THAC0 – I’m glad the easy, four-line chart from 2E replaced the huge page of numbers from 1E. THAC0 also had the added benefit of inflation containment, which isn’t something you’d think about until after 3E had been around for a bit.

    By itself, THAC0 (which is the WRONG acronym for what it was actually used for) was just a way to generate a target for success. It represented the level of skill your character had acquired. As your character became more experienced, that number went down, making it easier for you kill & loot. Even if a 10th-level fighter was left without a weapon, they could still feel like they could take on a somewhat powerful enemy and get some good hits in, because no matter what, they just needed a “10” to hit.

    It’s more mental than anything else. Honestly, which character would you rather use: The guy who only needs to roll a 10 on a d20 to smack the other guy with an AC of 0, or the guy who needs to get a 20 once you’ve accounted for all of the combat modifiers? They’re the same exact thing, but one “feels” faster than the other, because there’s less thinking involved.

    Thief abilities – I loved the fact that you could specialize in what you wanted your thief to be able to do in 2E.

    Twin weapons – 2E had a horrible rule that, no matter how many attacks you got with your “primary” hand, you only got 1 extra with your off hand.

    That’s all I’ve got for now. Maybe I’ll think of some more later.

  21. OriginalSultan says:

    @ Joshua
    Magic Armor was unintuitive in 2e. Chainmail + 2 decreased the AC (from 5 to 3), even though the bonus was expressed as a positive number.

    While magic weapons were more intuitive in that they added to your rolls to hit, because both used positive numbers to express bonuses but had opposite effects in the calculation of rolls to hit, considerable confusion was created.

    This discrepancy is not present in 3e or 4e.

  22. Great article – I’ve done my own Top 5s on my LJ!

    RichGreen´s last post: 2nd Edition AD&D | Critical Hits

  23. What I hated, more than anything else, had to be the die-hard 2E lovers. There was nothing quite like sitting there being told how 3E would ruin the game, how the campaign would always be 2E and then the moaning when we tried 3E that none of it made any sense.

    Personally, and this might just be me, I think the D&D progression to what is called ‘dumbed down’ is great for putting the books to one side and role-playing. I was always a story-teller (I started with WoD) more than a dungeon-keeper.

    One of 2E’s other major flaws had to be the half-hour negotiations with the DM to work out which optional rules were being used.

  24. I loved Spelljammer. Many of the concepts were cool, even if the implementation was a bit wonky. And as a way to link all the different game worlds, it was also pretty neat. (There’s one that was supposed to be a non-accessible crystal sphere, but I can’t remember what it was.)

  25. @JS Dougan –

    Dark Sun, I believe.

    I’m rather excited that both Spelljamming and Planescape are part of core 4e, now.

    Graham´s last post: UPS? More like You Pee… Freely… or something…

  26. Wait… I must have missed something… Spelljammer is core?

    My understanding was that the change in the cosmology made Planescape unrecognisable, but still present in a manner of speaking. Spelljammer, on the other hand, I thought was dead and buried. Perhaps I was wrong… (and if I was, I hope it is on both counts)

    Prince of Cats´s last post: Fun in a Grown-Up’s world…

  27. @Prince of Cats –

    The change in the cosmology means two things to Planescape.

    1) Instead of everything being separate planes, many are now “Astral Dominions”. This effectively means nothing, as each is self-contained just like its own plane, except that it is possible to travel between them by means other than portals occasionally.

    2) The energy/elemental planes are gone, consolidated into the Elemental Chaos. Since the elemental planes on their own were usually instantly deadly, and the Elemental Chaos is not, I can only see this as a plus. All the key locations, like the City of Brass, are still there.

    Heck, Sigil is detailed in the Manual of the Planes. Yeah, some of the planes have changed, but Planescape was never about what the specific planes were. It was about the adventure of traveling to new and exotic locations, as well as around Sigil.

    As for Spelljammer, the Manual of the Planes describes Spelljamming on page 20, and includes stats for Spelljammers on page 159. Whether it connects to different campaign worlds, or just to your own, is pretty much left up to the DM to decide, but the ships are in the game, and listed as one of the main ways to travel the planes. So while Spelljammer (as a setting) isn’t right there, Spelljamming certainly is.

    Graham´s last post: UPS? More like You Pee… Freely… or something…

  28. I started running 2.0 for a group of people that knew the system far better than I (it was their idea…). I don’t think I ever really understood THACO and quite often had to ask my players if I hit them.

    3.0 felt like an improvement when it first came out but I have to admit that the necessity of a map and some kind of minis robbed the game of some amount of drama.

    4.0 on the other hand makes up for the things lost and has really grabbed me with its simplicity and “cool” factor.

    Josh´s last post: Alhambra – Review

  29. @ Josh —

    My recollection of the unreachable sphere predates Dark Sun. As I think harder, I’m kind of thinking it was Krynn/Dragonlance.

    Time, of course, blurs memories, and I could easily be wrong.

  30. Just my 2 cents on THAC0 (before I get back to work):
    I never had a problem with THAC0 and I still don’t really. I just like the 3.x/4 way of adding the numbers better. Back in the day I had most of the THAC0 charts memorized (fighter was the easiest, but they each followed a pattern anyway) and I had spent plenty of spare time writing out the charts by hand on index cards for my customized DM screen (yes, I am a geek like that). Personally I never found that THAC0 slowed down combat because even when my friends were confused, I was on it.
    Again though, I like the way it is now and negative armor classes always bothered me on some deep subconscious level anyway (for no real concrete reason either).
    That’s all.

    Rauthik´s last post: Cleric of Juiblex

  31. profligate says:

    Since THAC0 seems to be the hotbutton topic, here’s what my group did. When you level or get a new weapon, you calculate your THAC0 with that weapon. Look it up on the chart, take modifiers for that weapon/attack into account (positive modifiers lower your THAC0 and vice versa) and note the number on your character sheet. When it’s attack time you roll the d20 and subtract the result from your THAC0 with the weapon/attack in question. That’s the AC you hit. If your modified THAC0 with the weapon/attack in question is 14 and you roll a 16, you hit AC-2. Seems complicated, but it’s really very simple.


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