I think I should make my position clear from the outset. I grew up playing RuneQuest and its ilk (Call of Cthulhu, Stormbringer, etc) and so I have always kind of looked down on AD&D 2nd Ed. Even though the game was the big beast in the 80’s RPG scene, I felt it was simplistic and naïve when compared to the nuanced joy that was RuneQuest.
I first played AD&D when I was about 14 or 15, with a Role Playing club that I had joined because my mates were too busy taking their studies seriously to find time to play RuneQuest. By this time I had been role playing for about four years and RuneQuest had easily become my favoured game. Playing AD&D that first time was a shock, the systems didn’t seem to make much sense, THAC0 just seemed truly obtuse compared to the intuitive percentile system of RuneQuest. But this was nothing compared to the idea of Alignment, which to my Gloranthan brain was truly a bizarre and ridiculous concept: honestly, how can you boil a charter down to two words? Then, to add insult to injury, it had its odd class system that meant that only ‘mages’ could cast magic (everyone in RQ can cast spells) and only fighters could wear decent armour.
Still, I made friends with some of the people and after a few months of nagging, persuaded them to play something else; MERP (Middle Earth) if I recall correctly. But this first experience of AD&D left me feeling superior. This feeling of superiority, I am sorry to say, stayed with me for far too long.
Now, 28 years later, I am back trying to understand AD&D. This time, I am playing it on the PC in the form of Baldur’s Gate II (a 14 year old CRPG, which I ignored when it first came out) and I am beginning to appreciate AD&D much more.
I think I am beginning to see why it was, and is, so popular. The game is designed at its core to get people to role play. This can be seen in a number of different ways:
All the different classes, races and alignments help players create a character that is at once distinct and also an archetype. To a Noob, role playing can seem very weird and intimidating. AD&D helps because it provides a strong structure to character creation which makes it easy to create an archetype: the grumpy Dwarven warrior with a heart of gold, the feckless mage who pulls it out of the bag when the chips are down. Once players are comfortable with the game, they can then begin subverting these archetypes and create characters with more depth. But everyone can create and play a character that is fun and different.
Difference matters in AD&D; the game is designed with a mixed adventuring party in mind. If everyone is playing the same class then they will struggle because they will be missing key skills and spells. An adventuring party made up purely of fighters would be fine in a fight, but would not be able to heal effectively (Cleric), scout, find traps, pick locks, etc (Thief) or protect against and respond to magic (Mage). But all the character classes have a different approach to the game, this starts to create a dynamic tension between the players. This tension is stronger when you consider the different playable races available to players and the racial tensions this can provoke: Dwarves don’t like Elves, etc. But alignment is where things begin to really kick off; even from the little I’ve played I would still argue that you are very unlikely to get a group who all pick the same alignment. Differing alignments lead to a level of party tension that can cause serious issues.
Tension in the group is a good thing, it makes players talk to each other, argue and scheme. Too much tension is of course bad since it leads to the group imploding. This again is where AD&D succeeds because while alignment, class and race are trying to tear the group apart, these same forces help keep the group together, because to succeed the group needs a rounded collection of classes and skills.
This group dynamic is strengthened further by magic and fighting systems that are simple to learn but complicated to master. It is easy to teach a Noob the basics of combat, but what I have begun to realise is that there is subtlety and nuance to the combat system that is hidden behind apparently simple concepts like THAC0. I think I had also failed to grasp how much magic affects the run of combat; magic is powerful in AD&D and that cuts both ways, especially when you encounter a high level NPC mage who is looking to cut you down to size.
I doubt that AD&D will ever supplant RuneQuest in my role playing affections, but as I start trying to learn Baldur’s Gate II I am developing a new-found appreciation of the game. If I get the chance I would definitely want to join a AD&D game, particularly the more balanced later editions.