AD&D Second Edition, Player’s Handbook

I recently re-read (again) the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition Player’s Handbook. I did it because I have played the Baldur’s Gate computer game, and also because I have been reading James Maliszewski’s blog Grognardia. The game uses a modified AD&D system, and James talks often about D&D style gaming.

The reading was very nostalgic. The second edition of AD&D is probably the roleplaying game I have played the most, and it was also one of the first English-language games I played. It was also markedly not a very simple game, and I think it’s a good thing we had played Dungeons and Dragons and RuneQuest in Finnish before tackling this monster.

I remember that we waited eagerly for the Player’s Handbook to be published. This was in 1989, I think, and most stores in Finland which carried roleplaying games had only the supplements, and not the basic books. I think that was mainly because the new version was coming out, and the RPG business wasn’t that large even then.

I got some of the supplements, which were obviously for the First Edition AD&D, before the Second Edition was published. The first book I got from the AD&D line was the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide and I remember adding some of the stuff to our D&D games, too. We did play AD&D then on and off for years – the last long campaign I played in ended I think in 1996 when most of the players had their compulsory Army service, and I have played a couple of short games even after that.

Now I of course have a somewhat better grasp of the language, and the translations I scribbled make me laugh even now. It still amazes me how accurately we did play the game, even when we learned the language while playing. We did even use some of the optional rules, but the damage-dependent armor classes were tried once, and I don’t remember anybody ever using the unarmed combat rules.

I have long though that AD&D is basically unplayable. The Grognardia blog (and some other old-school publications, like Lamentations of the Flame Princess) has made me re-think that. I now think that AD&D could well be used to run a fun campaign, if one will just learn to play with it.

I also think that it might be better not to define the game world that much before the game. We usually played in the Forgotten Realms world when I GM’d, mainly because I had the box and a lot of region modules. It was an easy choice, and I did add a lot of my own stuff, and used a lot of modules written for different worlds. It was fun, and the world wasn’t that well defined. Many settlements had just a three-line description and no major NPCs defined, so it was mainly exploring an unknown continent.

While reading the book I also remembered that we never really got into the high-level play. The spell lists contain a lot of spells which I remember reading about but which were never used in the game. This means the iconic spells for me are the ones at or below fourth level or so. It was fun playing with these 4-8 level characters. They had power over regular people but even a single dragon was a tough challenge.

One thing I found amusing were the small problems in the book. There are some typos in the book: my copy didn’t have the broadsword listed, and we got it from the DM’s screen.

In the spells there are some strange things, too. Even when we played we noticed that the range of the priest spell Speak with dead had range of just ‘3’, with no units. This didn’t come up in play, though, because I think we just winged it.

I also now read the priest spell Creeping doom more throughly. The spell summons a mass of from 500 to 1000 bugs, and it calls this a “swarm”. The swarm covers a 20 feet square, that is, a six-metre square. The spell never says anything that the bugs are gigantic, and I would assume they are just regular bugs, though they can be large ones.

The fun thing here is that if the spell summons the maximum of a thousand of bugs, the bugs either have to be very large or the swarm isn’t very imposing. The square root of one thousand is a bit over 31, which means that if the bugs are arranged neatly and regularily ┬áin a square, there are 31 by 31 bugs. This means that in the area affected, the distance between bugs is about 20 centimetres, so perhaps eight inches.

If the bugs are “normal-sized”, the “swarm” isn’t very imposing, in my opinion. If the bugs were the largest insects or spiders in the world, it would be more scary, but even then it wouldn’t be a “mass” like the spell says it would be.

I think this is just because the writers didn’t really go through the numbers. I think it would be better if the spell just summoned a large horde of insects six metres a side – it would be like a huge army ant swarm, and very, very scary.

The other priest spell problem I noticed is that the priestly version of Reincarnation really has no use, at least in a regular adventuring party. The priest version of the spell is the one that might reincarnate the target as a woodland animal, and it’s very obviously meant to be the Druidic version of the Resurrection spell. Resurrection is the spell for clerics, and it ‘just’ restores the target to life.

Also, in the first edition of AD&D, Reincarnation is in the druid spell list, and Resurrection is in the cleric spell list, so this is obviously where the second edition thinking comes from. In many ways the Reincarnation is the inferior of the two as it gives no control over what kind of creature the target reincarnates as, and the target needs to be more recently dead than with Resurrection.

This isn’t a problem. Having two different spells for raising dead is fine, and they are both seventh level spells, so they are both very powerful. The problem comes with the priestly spheres introduced in the second edition: both these spells belong just to the Necromantic sphere, very obviously because they bring dead people to life. The spheres are different for clerics (they get a lot of spells) and for the various specialty priests, of which the druid is the example given in the book.

Only the druids don’t get access to the Necromantic sphere. They are not healers, or at least not on the same level as clerics, so it’s obvious they don’t need the Resurrection spell. They just don’t get the Reincarnation, either, and so are a bit screwed, and the poor Reincarnation never gets used as written.

Of course the easy fix is just to change the sphere of Reincarnation to Animal or whatever druids get and clerics don’t. It just shows that there are a lot of small and easily missed errors in the book, and I can imagine that if we had noticed that we would have had arguments about what to do with the spells.

One other thing I’d fix if I’d play AD&D again is the damage of the crossbows. I remember only one instance of a player character using a crossbow in our games, and that was an assassin (we were using a mix of 1st and 2nd edition AD&D rules at that point) using hand crossbows. They didn’t do much good, I think he got off a couple of shots in his first fight and then the carrion crawlers paralyzed and ate the whole party.

Fun times.

It was a nice nostalgia trip reading the book. I remembered the fun games we had, and learning the game and the language at the same time. My vocabulary was (and is) very much influenced by this game, and I can still spell phylactery thanks to Gary Gygax.

I’ll perhaps run an AD&D game at some point, but not in the near future. There are too many games I feel are more fun for the gaming I want to do nowadays, but there is still a soft spot in my heart for AD&D.