RPG Philosophy / Why play 1st-edition AD&D?

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Why play 1st-edition AD&D?

Why an unpolished, 40-year-old ruleset is worth a shot in modern times.

5th-edition Dungeons & Dragons is more popular than ever, it has a professional polish that early editions sorely lack, and it’s well supported online with tonnes of content, both official and unofficial. So why would anyone want to roll back the years and play early edition Dungeons & Dragons instead?

Experience role-playing history

Iconic old-school D&D cover art by Larry Elmore

When you play one of the early editions of Dungeons & Dragons, you’re taking part in the history of role-playing. The history of Dungeons & Dragons. You might even be playing the very same adventures that the guys who invented role-playing created and played with their friends and family.

This might seem like a pretty crappy reason to you … and hey, maybe it actually is a crappy reason to you. But it’s not to me. I get a buzz knowing that when I’m rolling those dice, I’m playing The King of table-top role-playing games. The undisputed O.G. No other role-playing game will ever claim the throne(s) upon which rightfully sit the original D&D or the expanded Advanced D&D rule-sets.

Don’t you want to be part of that? Maybe I’m just a huge nerd. In fact I’m pretty sure I’m a huge nerd. But I just find that so damn cool and appealing.

Old-School Lives Forever!

Choosing old-school D&D means opting-out of the bullshit corporate strategy of constantly churning out new editions and new material in order to intentionally obsolete the last edition and drive in a new wave of sales.

You know what I’m talking about. 8th Edition <whatever> the “Special Collector’s Edition” of which sold for the price of a small Volvo yesterday is now worth a packet of peanuts because literally nobody cares about it since 9th-edition was released. (I’m talking about Games Workshop here, in case that wasn’t already obvious).

Well that’s never going to happen to old-school D&D anyway, even if they tried. Old-school Dungeons & Dragons is irreplaceable. In fact, unlike virtually every other out-dated-version of every other game out there, the original D&D and 1st-edition AD&D stuff is all actually appreciating in value.

Yes, that’s right. Whatever you pay for original D&D items now, you’ll be able to sell them for more in the future. There’s not many role-playing books that you can say that about! That’s because only in an alternate universe will there ever be another pioneer role-playing game like old-school Dungeons & Dragons. The winner of that race has already been chiseled into the granite record of gaming history. At least in our universe.

Heart & Soul

Early editions of D&D evolved largely from the home games and rules that Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson and others in their gaming group created in their own hobby time. These old-school pioneers were creating a game first-and-foremost for themselves to play.

They were not trying to appease the masses. They were not trying to be particularly politically-correct … although they didn’t do badly, to be fair to them, especially by 70s standards. Sure, there’s a fair smattering of demonic-boobs throughout the original books (so metal!) … and also, I guess they did set off the “Satanic Panic” where soccer-mums everywhere freaked out about their kids playing a game with a giant red devil (allegedly) on the cover clutching a scantily-clad maiden in distress (allegedly) …

… look … the point is that when the O.Gs created the first versions of D&D, they were not creating something simply to market and sell it (at least, not in the beginning). They weren’t changing shit around to make it as appealing as possible to the latest advertising demographic data. No, those bad boys of original role-playing were creating something for themselves, something that was fun for them to play. And that is super important – in fact that’s how all the best games are made.

In contract – and although I am absolutely sure there are many passionate people who work in modern companies who do love the product and the job — it’s a fact that big game design companies such as Wizards of the Coast and Games Workshop are businesses foremost. They want to market and sell their product to as many people as possible, and that’s how they are designing them. They’re not designing them to be badass nerdy fun … well, to be fair, they actually are doing that … but they’re also designing them so so that little Timmy’s mum won’t find them objectionable (and nor will anyone else in the whole world, if they can help it).

In other words, they’re compromised. Compromises must be made, not only with advertisers, managers and sales-people, but also with the target audience; because their primary job is to produce something to sell. They’re certainly not going to have giant red demons on the cover flinging around semi-naked blonde women anyway (… but maybe that’s for the best).

Yes okay … it is true, 1st-edition AD&D would have benefited from the touch of a modern, professional development team. But it’s also true that a modern, professional development team is never going to inject the same character, heart and soul into the finished product as did those pioneering old-school players.

Old-School is affordable (or it’s collectible)

One or the other. But let me explain the affordable bit first:

Many original players of old-school D&D want to stick to that version simply because they’re unwilling to invest both time and money in a new game system when they find the first version even more fun than the modern ones. But there’s no need for new players to shell-out a lot of money (or even any at all) to play 1st-edition.

Thanks to the Open Gaming Licence, role-players discovering old-school D&D for the first time can obtain everything they need to play free of cost and totally legally, by using one of the many retro-clones that are widely available (for example, OSRIC). Players who would prefer to use the original material can obtain cheap PDF copies (and less-cheap hardcover reprints) from DriveThruRPG.com.

Your other option is to buy original game-books (collecting them is a hobby in itself) on sites like eBay and Amazon. Although you can still find perfectly good and usable original books in the same price-range (if not cheaper) than their 5e equivalents, the truly collectible pieces are becoming quite expensive. This maybe appealing to collectors in itself (and anyone who is partial to that side of the hobby can rest assured, no other D&D edition will ever be as collectible as Original & Advanced Dungeons & Dragons!).

Old-School players are NOT spoiled

You can say you beat The Tomb of Horrors, but the truth is, nobody really gives a shit unless you’re talking about 1st-edition AD&D Tomb of Horrors by the book and that’s a fact. That is a legitimate achievement as a role-player. You did that campaign in 5th-edition? Literally nobody cares.

Ask any old-school role-player what are the biggest differences between old school and new school D&D, and invariably one of the responses you will get is that the old school versions are, in comparison, “brutal”. What that means is that either by clumsy decision making or unlucky dice rolls, player characters can, and will die.

In fact, when a party of 1st-edition adventurers start a new module (a new “adventure” in old-school terms), it’s a safe bet they’re not all coming home. This is true to the extent that it’s fairly common practice for players to roll up more than one character, just so they’ve got a back-up the DM can work into the story should ill-fate befall their original (and it will, if they just play long-enough).

A lot of new-school role-playing has evolved to be more of “telling the story of a party of heros” (their fate, much like the fate of the protagonist in an action movie, is all but assured). Let me be clear in case I’m setting noses out-of-joint – and I’m sure I am – that there’s nothing at all wrong with that. Old-school is just a different type of fun, that’s all. The fun of new-school is “living the life of a hero”, the fun of old-school is, “seeing if you can survive long enough to become a hero”.

Once again, I’m not shitting on anyone who prefers a less risky and more “story-like” role-playing experience, and in fact may DM’s will happily fluff the more brutal aspects of AD&D just to provide that. However it is also a fact that the increased danger inherent in early-edition D&D also has it’s own benefits. Collecting a small fortune in treasure along the way (and not to mention leveling that character up to become a mighty hero, if you make it that far) amid a tangible atmosphere of “not making it” results in a proportionally larger sense of satisfaction, reward and achievement when the player is eventually successful. There’s no participation award in OG D&D.

Also under the “not spoiled” category goes the fact that old-school D&D is a not a free-for-all buffet for the players as far as their characters go. Original version of D&D were specifcally designed to be humanocentric, as opposed to the smorgasbord of exotic race and class combinations possible in today’s games.

And this is a good thing. But it’s also a subject it’s own right, and if you want to read more about that, I’ve written whole articles on that topic right here and here.

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