I have an old friend whom I met for the first time when we were about 15 years old at a meet-up for playing D&D, 3rd edition at the time. Now almost 20 years later and many a different veins of interest and inspirations with which we grew up into adulthood, we are at odds about the Dungeons & Dragons game! D&D has pretty much always been a soft spot for me, for reasons that weren't entirely clear for a long time, and perhaps because it was the first table-top roleplaying game I had learned the existence of, and also despite simultaneously being very disappointed with the overall art direction and tone regarding the cheesy wishy-washy vibe of the game, and over-used elements of high fantasy in popular culture. I was never too familiar with the 1st edition of AD&D, and only superficially with the 2nd one, having only heard of THAC0 and many of its campaign settings and adventure modules, but never actually played them. Now all of a sudden we had a discussion about what we think of D&D, or simply, why I like D&D, and why he doesn't like it. That led me to realize that D&D means different things to different groups of people, especially so with the different versions of the game, and different generations of people. What I like about D&D as opposed to other table-top RPG games that I know, as I came to realize in later years, was rather the game mechanics than the story, lore or the character backgrounds, which at this point I have much less interest in compared to the mechanics of the game. The rules of the game are not merely a utility to tell a story, or a nuisance in the way of storytelling. They are "the game". Almost every edition of D&D is a different game, using the same brand name and setting for an almost entirely different game. So I decided to pick up the 1st edition of AD&D rule books this time, and learn it properly.


Monster Manual, 1st edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons

As it turns out, there is a huge subculture movement reviving the old school D&D, and particularly around the 1st edition of advanced dungeons & dragons (and OD&D), which is pretty much authored by Gary Gygax and his peculiar taste and focus on the rules until his departure from TSR with a series of interesting corporate drama. As I learned, his vision of 2nd edition of AD&D was also quite different than what eventually came to be, which is rather simplified, and commercialized, incentivizing buying plethora of supplements, and removing of terms like devils and demons due to satanism and teenage suicide frenzy around D&D in 1980s.

Sticking to AD&D 1st edition books, and as I read through the rules, the first two things I noticed are the irregular formulation of rules that rely heavily on lengthy tables of figures, and the strikingly odd ideas like alignments constituting a language exclusive to its members which cannot be understood by the member of another alignment, or gaining experience points by gold pieces, and dwarves being able to notice slants in the dungeon corridors, and such mechanics and reasonings which seemingly neither makes sense for verisimilitude, nor even useful in practice.

The first point about the irregular, table-based rules make sense from a game balance standpoint, and shows, or gives the impression that rule values are specifically chosen to produce a game that is interesting and balanced in terms of difficulty adjustment. One very small example is the Attack Matrices in the 1st edition which has a non-linear "To Hit" difficulty for each type of class, in contrast with the linear and formulaic THAC0 base hit value of the 2nd edition shows this. The latter is easier to remember, and eliminates the need for using tables. Tables were heavily used in wargaming Gary Gygax was particularly fond of, and they provide employing non-linear curves on your game dynamics. After all, life is mostly non-linear, and curves are difficult to calculate mentally. This brings to the game a reminiscence of its roots in wargaming, and a sense of "by the books" attitude constantly relying on the rules of the game, albeit slowing it down to a less stream-lined pace. This helps with the actions being taken more seriously with deadly results, and yields a more tactical game than a hand-wavy one.


Attack Matrices were used to calculate "To Hit" difficulty for different classes against opponents with a given AC

Tables of figures aside, the idiosyncratic rules are not as evident to understand at first glance. How could you explain something like a belief or a worldview can constitute a language that can be only understood by its adherents? Well, it sounds a bit like a cant, or an ideological jargon. But how come you forget it immediately if you switch your alignment? There is some justification for realism attempted for it in DMG (Dungeon Master Guide), but overall this is a means of providing game mechanics and fun factor, rather than an aspect of realism. This makes alignment an aspect of the game mechanics with practical consequences. Your alignment may be the decisive factor in being able to understand the language exclusive to a particular alignment to get out of a difficult situation during the game, which brings more importance to your alignment, and the languages your character speaks.

Gaining experience points by gold pieces is a curious one. This actually stems from a rather more fundamental game mechanic of the original D&D, which mostly promotes the idea of a human fighter who aims to acquire wealth, command a troop of henchmen, and by eventually owning a stronghold progress into being a lord. In a similar vein, there is the complementary mechanic of wealth and resource management outside combat. Players need to keep track of their wealth, hirelings and henchmen under their command, their fees and loyalty, and their inventory's tear and repair. The troop and stronghold aspect reminds me of, and maybe some of you who may be familiar, a 2nd edition campaign setting called Birthright, which was based more on the idea of a grand strategy of feudal wars. At the time I thought this was an original idea, but it turns out it was there in the classic dungeons & dragons from the beginning as a prototype. Even fairly early in the game hiring henchmen is encouraged, and many combat examples in the game mention several tens of combattants in a battle. It is entirely part of the game to engage in a battle consisting of 40 orcs and 30 on the player's troop, most of which consisting of henchmen, which take their share and have loyalty scores to the player. This is the reason for why initiatives are rolled per party instead of individually, since otherwise rolling dice for 70 characters is not practical. In such cases when there are many participants in combat, the figures on the grid represents groups of henchmen and they move together. After all, the AD&D combat is more of an abstraction than a literal reprsentation of the events. Gold is also such an abstraction, and a convenient base currency and a core game mechanic to measure progress.


Gary Gygax, the author of original D&D, and AD&D 1st edition books

The pedantic rules of the 1st edition AD&D may seem like a bore at first, but they bring structure to an otherwise vague and improvisational game. Just studying the rules, working out the ambiguities in the nooks and edges of both DMG and PHB (Player's Hand Book) brings about an unpredictable, fun and living world where events happen according to laws. As the rules absorbed more, a solid, and clear, and highly enjoyable combat and resource management simulation/game system reveals itself. This also inspires to create your own house rules, and it's one of aspects of having fun with the 1st edition AD&D. But in the end, just thinking about and mastering the rules gives a joy and satisfaction in itself. After all, the rules is the game, it's the meat and bone. Theme and setting is only secondary.

Another aspect of AD&D reminds me of the old school dungeon crawling video games, that are directly based on or heavily inspired by the original D&D. Those dungeon crawler games (like Nethack, Ultima series, Eye of the beholder, Bard's tale, etc.) are more like sandbox hack'n slash systems relying on encounters, maze exploration and wealth/item acquisition. This is not highly regarded among a certain strain of modern RPG gamers, and is and aspect of gaming that is deemed repetetive, and non-creative. This is to a more extent true for the computer dungeon crawler and hack'n slash games, that predominantly appeal to the primitive parts of our reward driven brains. But on the medium of pen & paper, the execution of the rules mentally, as well as using the imagination to embellish the simulation brings a whole different kind of fun. Letting the computer do all the calculations (which will never be as flexible and creative as done by a skillful game master, until at least artificial neural networks become powerful enough to take over the world and have symbiosis with us, and also be our dungeon masters) is simply giving up on the nuts and bolts, and in so doing, the main source of fun of the game.


Eye of the Beholder (video game)

I am still in the process of learning the rules of AD&D 1st edition, and I may write up a quick summary of the rules for my own use later. One of the best and concise summary I have found that is describing the combat mechanics is ADDICT.pdf (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Initiative and Combat Table) compiled by DMPrata, and here is a video that demonstrates one combat session fairly by the books. I strongly recommend having a look at that to get a feel of the combat rules in general. But beware, it is only the tip of the iceberg. Just learning the rules of this game, which I think is one of the appeals to me right now, makes you feel like a wizard, and a judicial expert at the same time, and I highly recommend to anyone who seeks a kind of entertainment that help exercise their brain plasticity.


I actually came across a good general summary of rules with some reasonable/like-minded house rules applied. Before I will write up my own, sharing that one here for future reference.