Our D&D Greatest Hits: Chatty’s Advanced Dungeons and Dragons

The recent annoucement that D&D was going to get a new iteration has garnered a lot of reactions on the web. I decided to refrain from early judgement but, much like when 4e was announced, I take an optimistic approach to it. I happen to respect and even quite like the work of the three main designers working on it so that helps my somewhat positive outlook.

I was very intrigued with Mike Mearls vision of creating a “D&D’s Greatest Hits.” It evokes a plethora of images about modular designs and piecemeal “build your own game” elements that inspires the writer and budding game designer in me. This gave me an idea for a series of post here at Critical Hits. Some of the bloggers here have been playing various editions of D&D for the last 4 decades, I thought it would be interesting if we shared our five DMing Greatest Hits for some or all of the versions of D&D we played as dungeon masters.

Let me start with my first foray in RPGs:

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (1e)

  • Age Range when played : 10-16
  • Nostalgia Factor: Very High
  • Rules Mastery: Moderate

As I mentioned in my RPG DNA post a while back, I discovered  tabletop RPGs when I was 10. A schoolmate invited me over to show me a made-up  game based on what he had played with his cousin (the original Red Box) over a weekend. We played for hours with hardly any rules more complex than “Roll a d6 to fight, you die on a 1, you kill the monster on a 6, we roleplay the inbetweens“.

When I showed that game to a 13 y.o. friend of mine, he came back a few days later with a borrowed Player’s Handbook he got from a buddy in high school. We played with that for months.

I bought the Dungeon Masters Guide one year later. And more or less taught myself English while reading Gygaxian prose. The rest is history…

So onwards with the Top 5 elements I loved most about running AD&D, admitting I am heavily biased by the nostalgia factor.

1. Inspiration

The AD&D core books ooze with inspiration for games, NPCs, dungeons, traps, tricks and plots.  Charts, titles (brazen trollops anyone?), random tables, weapon names, monster lore and the much misunderstood concepts of Gygaxian Ecologies.  From random dungeon generators to  monster lairs found in the wilderness, I yearn for as many inspirational aids I can get to design exciting settings, campaign arcs, plotlines, and encounters for my players.

2. Exploration

What I remember most of AD&D is that sense of discovery about almost anything as I deciphered Gary’s teachings. I wanted every stone turned, I wanted to draw dungeons that took multiple pads of graph paper (and I did), I wanted to use and create monters that made no frakking sense (Crap elementals FTW), and I laughed when  friends threatened each other by comparing their character sheets.

Joel: Oh yeah? Well just wait till my illusionist levels up and I’ll Phantasmal Killer you with images of your parents DOING IT!

All editions of D&D have this, hence my nostalgia warning. Practically speaking, as a DM I expect to be provided concise tools (tables, charts, generators, short blurb) at my gaming table (in paper or e-format) and more elaborate online resources to help me cater to my players’ sense of exploration.

3. Attitude

You’ve got to hand it to Gary Gygax, he had a very strong opinion of how his game should be played. Now, while I HATE to be told how a game MUST be played, I loved how Gary’s attitude and certitudes transpired in the pages of his books and lent them a sense of credibility that made you feel like you were invited to join a club (or attending a heartfelt lecture).

While I’d like to do away with the most glaring patronizing passages (as I ignore them now), I like engaging, authoritative or conversational tones in my rulesbook. AD&D certainly had the tone right to engage my tweenaged mind.

4. Resilience

I’ve rarely met people that played AD&D 1e with all the rules and subsystems and ENJOYED it for a prolonged periods of time. Yet AD&D’s chaotic goo of crunch could take some severe misinterpretation, heavy handed house-ruling and glaring omissions while remaining very playable. I like that in a game. Keep giving me a system that has a  simple core and allow me to eject almost anything from it without threatening its fundamental integrity as an engine and I’ll be happy.

5. Modules

The early AD&D modules were simple, had low page content and were direct.  Short intro (ex: do this quest or the baron burns you alive), dungeon rooms with minimal description… and an emergent sense of plot that arose organically through play. (I’m referring to  modules like Village of Homlet, Against the Giants, the slave lords and others of that ilk). I want more of that.

What about you? Did you play 1e? What was the elements you liked the most about it.  Please keep it positive, we all know the warts of our games, let’s focus on the awesome. 🙂

Up next, Dave and friends tackle that multi-headed beast that was Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition.


  1. Your image of choice is even more interesting, given the announcement of the re-release of 1st Edition D&D. It seems like Wizards is really looking to garner some goodwill with all of their fans, past and present.

  2. Sure, we played 1e. We also made up our own game before we could find a copy of the white box, after playing a few hours of it with our friends, and then deciphered the actual rules from a mix of that and Holmes Basic.

    I don’t think we have to live with a D&D that is written in one voice though. I’m sure whatever D&D Next is will, just like all the editions since 1e, have its own voice that can evoke new things and remind us of old things.

    Every edition teaches me something new about the land of wonder and imagination.

  3. That announcement about the reprints is here: http://wizards.com/dnd/Product.aspx?x=dnd/products/dndacc/02390000

  4. I played AD&D, sort of mixing and matching it with basic D&D. I started with basic D&D in 1982 (I was 8) and played the hodgepodge (eventually it was all AD&D w/UA) until 2nd edition came out. We didn’t understand a lot of the rules, but I think that worked in our favor. We played a lot of the modules that were published, with no real sense of continuity, just a desire to see these weird places and become wealthy heroes.

    I cannot count how many PCs died against the drow w/deathlances in Queen of the Demonweb Pits, and we never completely the entirety of Against the Giants. We sure had a lot of fun, though. I had the great fortune of playing AD&D with Frank Mentzer in 2008 and I realized then that with the right take on the rules and the right DM, AD&D can still be a whole heck of a lot of fun.

  5. barsoomcore says:

    #4 is the magic key for me. What I want, and what I thought 3E got righter than just about any other game (except I think my beloved and maligned True20) was its “muckability”. You could muck around with the rules, throw stuff out randomly and pretty much do whatever you wanted with it, and it would just work.

    The first thing I do whenever I get a new game is start dreaming up ways to muck with it. I’m a mucker.

  6. @Tracy: I didn’t know about that. That’s quite interesting. I hope to get my hands on such copies! I’d love to help the memorial get built.

    @Alhazred: Somewhere in the middle of 3e’s lifetime, I kinda lost the “you can hack the game however you like” permission inherent to all games. This needs to remain a core tenant for gamers.

    @Dave: Thanks for the link.

    @Hans: Ah man, Most of my experience as a player stem from the modules. Cult of the Reptile God, Against the Giants and, especially, the first 2 Dragonlance modules.

    @Barsoomcore: Stop Mucking around you! 🙂 Yes, I love games that can get broken to pieces and be playable with just a few components. That’s why I’m very curious to see how modular the next iteration will be.

  7. I played 1st edition from 1979 until 1990, so from ages 10 to 21. I played it again, online, around 2004-2005 (so I was ~35 or 36), when two online friends were running play-by-post games on rpol.net. One was running a standard game of Against the Giants, and one was running Descent into the Depths, but in reverse (Ascent from the Depths).

    When I played in the late 70’s and early 80’s, our games were pretty stock. Very few modifications or house rules. When I played in the mid-80’s on, there was a lot more customization, as the DM I was playing with liked to make the game “his”.

    I think that’s probably what I liked about 1e the most. It was such a raw template to work from that it was very easy to make the game “yours” by adding things or changing things. My friend’s game, in the 80’s and 90’s, was a very customized version, and he had added a lot of really interesting rules and flavor to the game.

  8. I played 1e until 4e came out.

    Without the transitional versions to buffer, 4e was quite a shock. After the initial pain wore off I came to the realization that the mechanic was not as important as the play. Sitting down and telling an compelling story that the players are engaged in. I’ll likely but the new version when it comes out, and maybe the re-issues, but in the end I’ll play in whatever system happens to fall of the shelf.

  9. I never got a chance to play AD&D all that much (well I played in my older brothers’ games but was relegated to a Nodwick-esque punching bag). I played Basic, and used the random dungeon generator from the DMG – man I loved that thing! So many hours spent at my Mom’s kitchen table rolling dice and drawing out rooms on graph paper. I still used that random generator during 2e when I was in high school to make some pretty cool dungeons.

  10. Torqradio says:

    For me it was like this:

    Age Range when played : 12-18
    Nostalgia Factor: Very High
    Rules Mastery: Moderate

    Living in South Africa, in the early eighties meant isolation (with no web and economic sanctions). I got word of this game called Dungeons and Dragons through movies and in particular reading the novel written from the screenplay of the movie E.T. (Anyone remember the D&D references in that? I’m not sure they were very clear in the opening scene of the film itself).

    Then a kid from the States made the mistake of coming to high school and made the further dreadful mistake of mentioning to me that he had played D&D back home. For the whole of 1983 I hounded him, armed with a note book, and tried to wring every piece of information about the game out of him. In retrospect, he was very obliging, and showed no more than the slightest signs of irritation. The game sounded so fascinating, that it captivated me, before I read any of the books. By the second half of ’83 I had drawn about 50 dungeon maps on graph paper and had created my own version of D&D, which was essentially the Lord of the Rings, represented in the form of a table (actually about 60 tables). Merely trying to explain my tables to anyone was a labour that required extreme effort on the part of the unlucky listener. Needless to say, I never got to play my game, and by the end of the year I had become frustrated and slighly despondent.

    This ended abruptly when I came across the AD&D PHB on the bottom shelf of the hobbies section in a local book store. It seems the gods had smiled on me, and I instantly began behaving irrationally and begging a family member to buy it for me, offering all manner of bizarre repayment terms, while beseaching her to buy it before anyone else entered the shop. Even the cashier tried to discourage me, by saying she had no idea of what the book was, and didn’t I want to buy somthing else. I knew what was, and I wasn’t going to let it go.

    When I went back to boarding school at the beginning of 1984, the world was different. I had spent the Christmas break reading the book form cover to cover. What I loved most about it was how arcane it seemed. As I read I felt I was being let in to some hugely important secret. Now converting people was easy. I merely had to show them the book and they would become absorbed. A group of about six of us had already begun planning our first game when we came across the DMG in a local toy store. We all clubbed in and bought it and our first dungeon crawl started a few days later.

    Sam, a friend of mine agreed to be DM. He had a map on graph paper and great imagination. He also understood how to create tension, and how to deliver a story. I played a Half-Elven assassin. Several amazing things happened in the game, including a 3/3 split between the party members which he ran in two separate groups. He then contrived to have the two groups meet up at precisly the place in the underground caverns where the adventure became an underground river trip, and where there was only one boat. Suddenly we were facing a PvP fight in our very first game. It was simply amazing to me that these things could happen in this wonderful game. My side lost and I, the only survivor, was taken captive. What speaks most for that game, and for Sam’s natural talent at DMing, was that the two players whose characters had been killed came to every subsequent game session, just to watch. Unfortunately the rowing boat was later attacked, and capsized, and being tied up hand and foot, I went into the water and drowned. There were no dice rolled. Sam just said “Well, your feet and hands are soundly tied, naturally you are going to go rown”. He then described the feeling of sinking steadily deeper into this dark subterranean river, as the light above got fainter and fainter. I accepted this, because it just made sense.

    I too then became a spectator and watched the rest of the game. As you can probably tell it was one of the most memorable I have ever played in. Possibly the most memorable.

    I played AD&D until 1989 and throughout that period was DM and played games run by several different DMs. What struck me the most was that the game experience in those days varied from average, to mind-blowing based entirely on the skill and personality of the DM. While the later systems ushered in more logic and certainty to the rules system, I feel they also started to muzzle some of the DM’s on the upper end of that spectrum. I have enjoyed all the versions since, but have never seen DM’s, like Sam, who, given creative freedom and a sense that they were truly not wedded to the rules system, could really create magic.

    Sorry for the long-windedness.

  11. Sure I’ve played AD&D and, like you, I’ve learned english with it 😉 (I know, it’s not perfect)

    For me the AD&D rules (especially the DMG) are a wonderful toolbox: everyone picks up what he likes and plays the game he wants with the complexity he wants: grabbing rules or not, etc.

    I hope the New D&D iteration will be like the DMG (without the gygaxian organisation inside the book 😉 ): the toolbox inside which everyone will pick what he wants

  12. @Scott: What’s really interesting is that one of the reasons Gary MADE AD&D was to limit the proliferations of houseruled versions of D&D going on all over the place. But the game was still such a mess by today’s standard that people continued doing their thing. I miss this total disregard for orthodoxy sometimes. That’s why I don’t read forums anymore. Thanks for your story.

    @Roymc: Wow, 1e to 4e? That’s quite a leap. I’m happy that you liked it. Let’s share this optimistic feeling about what’s next then!

    @Victor: I played solo games using that generator for MONTHS! Whole campaigns even! I should bust it out and draw one for old time sake. Thanks for the memory.

    @Torqradio: Don’t apologize, this was a GREAT story. I too grew obsessed with the game early on and saved a ton of money to be able to buy the DMG when I was 12. I have DMed ever since. Thanks for sharing your story!

    @Bruno: Merci pour ton commentaire Bruno. It’s strange isn’t it that the pressure caused by wanting to understand a game pushed us to learn another language. And yes, the 1e DMG book organization is legendary (it actually is organized to fit with the PHB).

    Thanks for your stories everyone. Don’t hesitate to share more. I read them all!

  13. CrowOfPyke says:

    @Torqradio: You said this, “Unfortunately the rowing boat was later attacked, and capsized, and being tied up hand and foot, I went into the water and drowned. There were no dice rolled. Sam just said “Well, your feet and hands are soundly tied, naturally you are going to go rown”. He then described the feeling of sinking steadily deeper into this dark subterranean river, as the light above got fainter and fainter. I accepted this, because it just made sense.”

    THAT right there, that is the essence of both 1e and even 2e – control of the story, the flow, the campaign is in the DM’s hands. There were no rolls for drowning, and if it made sense and fit the STORY players generally went along with it. NOT in 3rd or 4th edition though! Everything will come down to a roll, and sometimes players can be a put out by not getting an “escape roll”.

    Now… this is not to say that 3e and 4e don’t have value in “you’re doomed” scenarios. 1e and 2e certainly emphasized the the grim, perilous, and dark nature of the “adventuring world”, especially with lethal modules like Village Of Hommlet, Temple Of Elemental Evil, Lair of Spider Queen, Slave Pens, etc…. Those versions of the game were deadly and if you like that style of play where your character’s death is just one turn away, then great. However, 3e and 4e placed far more emphasis on truly heroic character building and “superhero building”. Players came to expect that their characters would always have a chance at finding an out, escaping, etc. In other words: There is no such thing as the Kobayashi Maru.

    Shawn Merwin still has the best line about DND Next that summarizes how I feel about all of this: “I would love to see the streamlined balance of 4e, the players’ ability to create a truly unique character of 3e, but the power for the DM to bring about an inspiring and fun story that was enjoyed most in those earliest versions of the game.”

    I had loads of fun with 1e and 2e, as noted here by Chatty. I hated 3e for all the reasons pointed out by others already: too many rules and too much control of those rules in the players hand that led a very difficult game for any DM to moderate and keep moving… which often leads to arguments that kill a game. But 3e did have one good thing going for it that is worth keeping as Shawn Merwin noted: unique character creation. And yes, 4e is the edition which makes it super easy for anyone to DM with all its streamlined balance and stat boxes. 4e is the plug-and-play edition of RPG’s – quickly make a character, pull stat blocks, slap map tiles onto the table, and play. 4e did put more story and game moderation control back in the hands of the DM, but not like 1e and 2e did.

    I am excited to see how 5e turns out and excited for the open playtesting. If 5e manages to pull it all off as Shawn Merwin noted, I will be extremely happy and pleasantly surprised.

  14. Regardless of age, I still find this to be my favorite part of the AD&D DMG: The random harlot table. http://www.toplessrobot.com/2008/06/the_12_harlots_of_the_dungeons_dragons_random_harl.php


  1. […] the Angry DM recently commented in an excellent blog over at the Critical Hits site, tables like these ooze with inspiration. They are grist for the proverbial mill, helping to […]