DragonLance: Playing AD&D 1st ed

So my archaeological roleplaying project has reached DragonLance. We have begun playing DL1 Dragons of Despair from 1984, and to do so we dusted off the AD&D-rulebooks and on purpose we have ignored any DragonLance-supplements deciding to play the module as it is written with no support from outside materials.

So far we have had our first session. First and foremost the AD&D 1st ed.-rules are a chaos. We have recently played a lot with the D&D becmi-rules, and they were efficient, though the spell descriptions often vague and problematic to interpret.

However the structuring of the rules in the AD&D PHB is a mess. Many rules or regulations are annoyingly hard to find, and there are many tiny rules, that just seems to be in the way, such as the stat-dependent level-caps or the gender-dependent stat-caps.

Then there all the information, that is hidden in the DMG, such as saving throw-tables, attack-tables and the secondary proficiency table. That is simply just annoying.

Another annoying thing is the variable modifier for weapons attacking different classes of armor. It may pretend to simulate the uselessness of a staff being used against plate mail and shield (-7 to hit), but the additional modifiers were confusing for my players and just added an extra layer complications.

Then there is the initiative-system. Naturally it is only described in the DMG like the rest of the combat rules. They are in the DM’s domain, and I guess it is part of the old school-tradition, that the GM alone knows the rules, but it also hides what a mess these rules are. The initiative-system begins simple enough, roll a d6 to determine, which groups begins a round, but then things get complicated, as this is adjusted by the type of action, that is chosen. So you may win initiative, but if you charge your opponent, the first to attack is the part with the longest weapon. Likewise things changes if your opponent has multiple attacks, and even further if the difference between two weapons’ speed is considerable, then the fast weapon gets an additional attack. And then there the rules for casting spells in combat.

This weirdly complex turn structure, which is confusingly described, works best, when the DM is allowed to make interpretations, “rulings”, rather than following the instructions as rules.

So there were confusing moments, when we tried using the rules, but at least things were fast and furious. The hobgoblins in the first encounter were quickly killed. In my next post I will cover the actual playing of module DL1 Dragons of Despair.


  1. Yeah, all the grognards who have sacrificed their sisters on altars to worship Gygax and the holy tome of the AD&D 1e DMG basically never played by most of the rules. They complain that modern RPGs have too many rules, and that they prefer “rules light” – which is hypocritical given that AD&D had tons of rules, they just chose to ignore them!

    1. I must say there is nothing “light” about AD&D, but a lot of tiny rules, which seems to force you to ignore some of them to make the game work, thus creating the idea of a light game.

  2. Au contraire. As one of these grognards, I enjoyed playing by the rules. Yes, and I did “house rule” if there was a contradiction therein. I didn’t even have to sacrifice any of my sisters to do so.

    Every system has its minutae and “tiny rules” peppered throughout. It is probably the main reason for those nasty edition wars that crop up every so often. Wouldn’t you be annoyed if you soak up all of the rules and then get told, “oh, forget about those, here are a bunch of new ones now… and buy all of these new books too!” 🙂

    I think it’s great of you to attempt gaming this way.

  3. Mostly I believe edition wars crop up, because we invest so much in our gaming, be it time or money or ideas, emotions and identity, and when editions are presented, they often seem to make older editions obsolote, thus threatening people’s investment in these versions.

    None the less first edition is still a mess, when it comes to the structuring of the rules, also compared to quite a few other games. Not until later and especially with third edition it became easy to navigate the system. Whether one then prefer first or third edition is another matter.

    I think I would like first edition better, if for instance the initiative system didn’t need som house ruling from the beginning, and if the books were easier to navigate.

    1. I think the idea that edition wars crop up partly because of the investment people put into a certain game can be valid, but it is not for 99% of the old school grognard headbangers and they just use it as a shield to hide their real reasons for being so venomous behind. The games they played were produced more than 30 years ago, before most current players of the newer editions were born. And their games of 0e and 1e (and 2e for the ones who aren’t quite so old) are not only still available in the form of ebay purchases and pdf downloads, but they are actively committed to ripping off and repackaging those games as retroclones. Why do they do this? For the same reason old people always say “things were better when I was growing up, everything these days suck.” Every generation, once they reach a certain age, thinks like this. One day the 4e players will too, and the 3e/3.5 players already do. So they want to preserve their own golden ages in a kind of eternal adolescence, always going back to the same games or songs or movies they were into so many years ago. And they continue to pour scorn on anything new.

      For example the comment below calls 4e a mess due to the many rules required for running it. That would be a semi-valid criticism (assuming he tells the truth about having played it, and that play wasn’t just a session or two where he walked in with preconceptions of how “bad” it would be and having already decided he wasn’t going to enjoy it) were it not for the fact that he openly admits the only way older editions were playable (and this is a consensus) that many rules needed to be ignored or house-ruled. Why not just do the same for 4e? If I had the time, I could go through it and throw out half the rules, even more. Ultimately what makes for a good game is the DM and the players building a world together. It’s just as possible now as it was 30 years ago. If you want a modern game to be “fast and furious”, you could make it so. The only reason 1e was “fast and furious” was because it was unplayable RAW, meaning so many rules had to be ignored, leaving the bare bones, which sped things up.

      Having said that, I would prefer a simpler system than the later editions of D&D, although not one which requires the throwing out of rules. Spirit of the Century, FATE, the D6 system… these are all great.

      1. Well, there is of course some inherit conservatism in all of us, as we grow older, and that too ofcourse might be the reason as to people preferring the older styles of D&D. I do have some nostalgia for D&D BECMI myself 😉

        I have been tempted to try SotC, but so far my preferred game in that genre is The Shadow of Yesterday, which I played a rather succesful Transhuman Space-campaign with. I have also been looking a Burning Wheel, but so far I find the basic game far too complex for my taste, so I am considering a Mouse Guard-hack to play Fading Suns with.

  4. I guess I’m one of the old Grognards (though I’ve probably only played ANY role-playing game about a half-dozen times in the past 20 years) but I’m well-versed in later editions, and I find 4E (which I’ve actually played) a mess–a complete and total mess. It may be “better-organized” but the sheer quantity of rules and variable effects, powers, and so forth make actually playing a session an exercise in endurance–and not a particularly fun one.

    1E AD&D is mostly what I played back in the day, and well, as others have pointed out–many of those “rules” were ignored by most everybody I know–the weapon speed factor for example, and the turn/initiatve rules were either ignored completely, (former), or house-ruled (latter). This is in keeping with the free-wheeling spirit of early RPGs in which the GM was given much more a role an adjudicator/intepreter than he is given in later editions.

    I guess it all comes down to the style of play one prefers, and as the writer here points out, 1E is certainly more of a “fast & furious” game than later editions.

    For those preferring a fast&furious style with more internal rules consistency in a streamlined format, I’d recommend giving Savage Worlds a try.

    1. These last years I have mostly played 3,0 and 3,5, and recently BECMI and 4th ed., and now we are looking at 1st ed, and later we will try playing 2nd ed., which I haven’t played since 3,0 hit the market.

      So far I have not found 4th ed to be any mess, and things were no more complex than 3rd ed. for instance. However I got tired of encounter-based designs, so we dropped 4ht ed., and have begun exploring older editions beginning with the D&D BECMI.

      Later I intend to play Legends & Labyrinth by Justin Alexander, which attempts to revise D&D 3.0, thus sticking to the exploration paradigme, rather than the encounter paradigme (3,5, Pathfinder, 4th ed).

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