27 February, 2021

A Historical Look at the OSR — Part III

Comparing the ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS 2nd Edition game to the first edition (now over 15 years old!) is like comparing a Porsche 959 to a Model T Ford.  Both are great cars for their times, but which would you want to drive in the 1990s?
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Preview, Dragon #142 (February 1989)

In parts one and two I covered the evolution of the adventure module and the changes brought about by the introduction of skill systems and universal task resolution to D&D.  By this point I hope it's clear that, regardless of (and indeed, in spite of) the rules framework the game was operating under, by 1989 the supported playstyle at TSR had moved in a very different direction from where it began in the early 1970s.  We can't actually know to what degree this reflected the desires of the player base for something different after years of the original style and to what degree it was pushed by the designers and editors themselves, who oversaw TSR's module and rulebook output and selected what appeared in its house organ, Dragon magazine.  All available information indicates that TSR's game-related sales began steadily dropping after 1984, but how much of that was widespread dissatisfaction with D&D abandoning its roots and how much of it was the natural collapse of what was to some degree a fad we can't know.[1]

This week I want to tackle 2nd edition itself: what the new edition was meant to be and what specific changes were made in that ruleset that moved it from 1st edition's old-school foundations.

Dragon #142    

The New AD&D 2nd Edition is a giant stride forward from the first game.  Experienced players will find all the rules they've grown accustomed to.  New players will discover a more complete and easier to understand set of rules.
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Preview, Dragon #142




There are many changes between 1st and 2nd edition, many more than is usually noted.  At the same time, many of them are subtle ones.  Ultimately, this is an article focusing on the shift away from the old-school playstyle, and as such I'm going to detail only those rules changes that affect that.  So while, for example, the alteration of the bard, or the removal of artifacts from core, or the elimination of the monk and assassin are all notable changes, the game isn't any more or less old school because of them.  If you want just a changelog, I've assembled one over the years compiled from various sources and my own observations: you can get it at this link.

Flavour and Guidance

The Dungeon Master's Guide, of course, contains extensive articles on how to conduct a game (2nd Edition is a major improvement over the first edition in this regard)
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Preview

Over and above rules changes, there is a strong flavour argument to the 1st vs. 2nd edition wars.  A common charge is that the 1st edition ruleset is more evocative than the 2nd edition.  In the new DMG, David Cook, Steve Winter, and Jon Pickens (the main developers of 2nd edition) wrote in a far less evocative fashion than Gygax.  I suspect, however, that they would have worn this as a badge of pride, in that crafting accessible rules requires accessible writing, and ease of access was clearly one of 2nd's goals.  For every player I have seen complain that the prose of 2nd is bland (comparatively or otherwise), I've seen another grateful that they can parse a rule quickly in mid-game instead of wading through statements like "perforce, as the killing of humans and other intelligent life forms for the purpose of profit is basically held to be the antithesis of weal."

But while one's preference for the functional vs. the evocative in rules text is subjective, there is a certain amount of crossover into content.  On page 7 of the 2nd edition DMG was a section titled "The Fine Art of Being a DM".  

Being a good Dungeon Master involves a lot more than knowing the rules.  It calls for quick wit, theatrical flair, and a good sense of dramatic timing, among other things.  Most of us can claim these attributes to some degree, but there's always room for improvement.

Fortunately, skills like these can be learned and improved with practice.  There are hundreds of tricks, shortcuts, and simple principles that can make you a better, more dramatic, and more creative game master.

But you won't find them in the DUNGEON MASTER Guide.  This is a reference book for running the AD&D game.  We tried to minimize material that doesn't pertain to the immediate conduct of the game.

From certain perspectives the decision made sense, in that it kept page count down and led to the book having a tight rules-based reference focus, which the Dragon preview revealed was a core design goal.  It was also likely felt that the existence of Basic D&D freed the Advanced line from having to worry about foundational play guidance (as the DMG section on page 7 references).  However, this was the period in which Basic was rapidly on the way to extinction, as more and more players decided to start immediately with Advanced and TSR shifted to match, and so while an approach that made sense in 1986-88 when the new edition was being prepared, this plan was rapidly obsoleted by market trends and matching TSR priorities.
As such, and despite the statement given in the Dragon preview that 2nd edition would be "a major improvement" over 1st edition in terms of help on how to conduct a game, this choice meant that an element the book itself admitted was essential was cut because it didn't fit the design framework, and the new DMG was in fact a major step back in this regard.  A lot of what people perceive as "flavour" in the 1st edition DMG comes from this material: on the surface somewhat fluffy, but key in conveying the sort of game Gygax intended and providing advice and inspiration to support it.  The original D&D game knew what it was and what it wanted to facilitate, even if it didn't always communicate that well.  While some of its decisions can be said to be just plain strange with almost 50 years of hindsight and design evolution,[2] there are more that are frequently labelled "stupid" or "pointless" by modern readers only because they lack the appropriate context for rules that make perfect sense in the context of old-school play.  The loss of this material in 2nd edition, either in the name of leaving out DMing principles or removing "pages of type [dedicated] to topics that no one understands or uses" (2nd Edition Preview p. 5) resulted in the emphasis on heroic play already seen in late-1st edition modules being picked up in the new ruleset as well.  The new edition had no section laying out a clear statement of purpose, but the Player's Handbook did state at one point that "the AD&D game is a game of heroic fantasy."[3]

Much of what's relevant to running an old-school game is found in the 1st edition DMG's "Campaign" chapter.  Portions of that chapter could still be found scattered throughout the 2nd edition DMG, but much of it was cut, and the 2nd ed DMG has no dedicated campaign-running chapter of its own.  Some of the key 1st edition "flavour" material that was removed was:

1st edition DMG's sample dungeon
1) A Sample Dungeon (pp. 94-95): The 1st edition DMG has a brief (three-room) sample dungeon.  It's so short as to be of limited usefulness, but it does have a full-page 39-room map to go with it, encouraging the DM to create their own room entries.  The 2nd edition DMG has no sample areas.

2) The First Dungeon Adventure (pp. 96-100): Immediately after the above is a lengthy example of play, and notably it's centred around dungeon exploration.  It explains such vital concepts as adventure setup, NPC roles, and how to describe things as a DM.  It breaks out key concepts into subsections (Movement and Searching; Detection of Unusual Circumstances, Traps, and Hearing Noise; Doors).  It adds a "live" example of play, written in narrative voice, in which a DM and a party engage in a game, with march order discussion, searches, and a combat all occurring.  There is a much smaller (not quite a page) and simpler equivalent in the 2nd edition PHB, but, appearing as it does in that book rather than the DMG, and at the very start (and so by necessity quite simple), it's nowhere near as useful for a DM aiming to figure out how to run things.

In neither DMG is there an encouragement to tightly restrict the movements of the players to best suit the story the DM is trying to tell.  However, the 1st edition version, through its example of play, describes how the ideal DM is prepared for the example scenario it helpfully lays out:

Before you are three maps: a large-scale map which shows the village and the surrounding territory, including the fen and monastery, the secret entrance/exit from the place, and lairs of any monsters who happen to dwell in the area; at hand also is a small-scale (1 square to 10’ might be in order) map of the ruined monastery which shows building interiors, insets for upper levels, and a numbered key for descriptions and encounters; lastly, you have the small scale map of the storage chambers and crypts beneath the upper works of the place ... likewise keyed by numbers for descriptions and encounters.  So no matter what action the party decides upon, you have the wherewithal to handle the situation.

A proper DM is thus shown to be one who has prepared enough material ahead of time to allow the players to wander to some degree.  Both editions emphatically insist that a DM must be prepared to wing it, but only the 1st edition version provides the foundations of dungeon crawling the game was originally built to enable, and emphasizes player freedom in this particular fashion.

Today this shunting of advice off from, say, an OSR rules reference makes more sense, in that there's a mountain of third-party advice—primers, blogs, forum posts—available online (although I think a clone should at least include advice about how to accommodate it and its changes specifically with the wider world of old-school play, but that's a topic for another time).  But in 1989 (unless you were one of a handful of people able to access Usenet), your advice was limited to whatever your local fanzines and the Dragon magazine Forum column—if you could get these—were discussing this month, and so this choice was crippling if you were in search of specific playstyle guidance.  You had the rules, but large parts of how to apply them were missing.

With the 2nd ed DMG lacking these key avenues of advice, new readers picked up tone and guidance from fellow players ("We always urge newcomers to learn from experienced players": 2nd Edition Preview p. 6) and, of course, TSR's wider world of support materials.  In terms of adventures, as we've seen, this support was almost entirely directed at heroic plot-based play.  In terms of more direct advice, according to Shannon Appelcline the DMG was originally intended to contain 100 pages of advice (which might explain the apparent contradiction between the Dragon preview's claim that it would be providing "extensive" support and the DMG introduction statement saying it wasn't needed).  Ultimately, however, it was decided to cut this due to space concerns.  Buying 1990's DMGR1 (Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide, where this cut material wound up) and 1993's DMGR5 (Creative Campaigning) plugged much of this gap, but that was two more sourcebooks that people were much less likely to buy and several years of wait, and the specific dungeoneering advice and examples were entirely of the naturalistic Dungeoneer's Survival Guide school rather than rooted in fantasy and useful examples of play.  These books also added some decidedly non-old-school advice besides:[4]

keep in mind that the PCs are supposed to be heroes.  They are unusual persons whose skills and abilities stand head and shoulders above the normal man (figuratively speaking in the case of dwarves and halflings).
       They should be able to perform heroic actions without worrying about the fussy details of their activities.  They should be concerned with finding lost artifacts, slaying horrible fiends and saving the world; not cleaning their swords after each battle, counting the arrows in their quivers or telling the DM exactly how they prepare for sleep each night. (DMGR1 pp. 36-37)
If the DM can bring himself to think of his campaign as a story with an unwritten ending, he has made the first logical step in successful campaign design.  Players, regardless of type, want to do more than just slay endless streams of monsters or loot bottomless treasure hoards.  They want to be heroes who perform legendary deeds like the characters in fantasy fiction or film. (DMGR1 pp. 85-86)
Eventually, the encounters should serve to point the adventurers towards what the DM has determined to be the climactic encounter of the adventure. (DMGR1 p. 90)


While the 2nd edition rulebooks cut key bits of old-school-related guidance, there are also noticeable drifts away from the older style of play of a mechanical nature.  Some of these are small.  The default roll to find secret doors was left out (1 on 1D6), which along with the absence of the ten-foot pole from the equipment list may suggest how much dungeoneering was done during playtesting.[5]  Encumbrance was made an optional rule (it already was in B/X, though that was an introductory-level game, and in any case it wasn't optional in the equally introductory BECMI), but even then, there's no weight value for a week of rations, an essential for wilderness adventuring.

Others were more important.  The movement rate inside dungeons became ten time greater (from 120 feet per turn to 120 feet per minute), which made the exploration and clearing of dungeons a much quicker thing, while at the same time the recommended wandering monster rate dropped from 1 in 6 every 3 turns to 1 in 10 every 6 turns: about a two-thirds decrease (and when coupled with the fact that a group now raced through a dungeon ten times as fast, resulted in an even greater effective decrease).[6]  Non-weapon proficiencies were included in core (albeit still optional), as I covered in part two.  And for all that 2nd edition has a reputation of streamlining material, the Reaction Table (as I explored previously) was only made clumsier in 2nd, expanded to a 2D10 4-column monstrosity.  The table also rewards an aggressive style of play, by assuming that hostility is the "good" result.  That is, hostility is the highest result, so that any positive table modifiers (except from Charisma, which was reversed) the party manages to accrue leads the players towards it.  This is true even if the players want to be friendly: a friendly approach only reduces the range of possible hostile results.[7]

The most significant change by far, however, was the shunting of gold for XP to optional status.  What causes a PC to level up is the fundamental driver of gameplay across the board, and thus shapes the entire game.  A great deal of 2nd edition was optional, so this change is in part deceptive (as I covered in Part II, one of the major design directions of 2nd edition was to make as much optional as possible, to enable a DM to built their own game out of a toolkit).  However, the game does list a number of default, official methods of earning XP.  Defeating enemies is the one most clearly articulated,[8] but this is supplemented by a bewildering array of additional approved methods: a variable story-based award arbitrated by the DM, an award for surviving, and awards for making the game fun, creating magic items, and for player (not PC) improvement.  An optional individual XP award system was added as well, which if used could give awards for behaving in a class-appropriate way, good roleplaying and so on.  Amongst all this was the gold-for-XP option, for the group as a whole and/or for rogues at a double rate (2 XP per 1 GP), as the DM felt appropriate.  In terms of actual support for the game, things proceeded along the primary lines suggested in the DMG, and while plenty of 2nd edition products awarded handsome treasure hauls, I'm aware of only two products—1995's underworld crawl Night Below and 1999's deliberate throwback module Return to the Keep on the Borderlands—that suggested XP be earned from gold, in keeping with that rule's optional nature.


A recent poll on 2nd edition XP awards taken on the Dragonsfoot forums.  Though from a limited sample base and taken twenty years after the end of 2nd edition, it's interesting to see what DMs use.  Combat and then the story award, the two methods most strongly emphasized in the DMG text, have the most votes.  Click to enlarge.

The "story award" was nebulous: all the DMG really suggested was that it be for completing the adventure, and that it shouldn't outweigh what was earned by defeating foes that adventure, emphasizing the primacy of combat.  This story award was implemented in a spotty fashion in official modules (as were all the non-combat methods, official or not).  It's difficult to examine the 2nd edition module lineup as a whole: well over 100 modules were released in its 10-year lifetime, so I hope you'll forgive my random cherry-picking (and feel free to point out anything interesting you notice in one).  In some cases the story award was used: for example, in 1993's GA3 (Tales of Enchantment) we have elaborate guidance at the module's conclusion:

Any solution that leaves Gwellen and Barens together deserves some award.
Any solution that returns Barens to Jareb deserves some award, as that was the PCs' mission.
Any solution that allows the pixies' harassment campaign to continue should receive only half XP awards.
Any solution that doesn't return Barens to Jareb should receive only half XP awards.
Any solution that starts a war between the pixies and the "large folk" deserves no award or a negative award based on the other circumstances.
Any solution that pleases everyone deserves at least 10,000 XP, and even more if the players are particularly creative or role-played particularly well.
Any solution that allows Gwellen and Barens to marry and live together happily as man and wife deserves a bonus award of at least 10,000 XP.
WGR6 (The City of Skulls) had a similar set of rewards, but overall this level of specificity was the exception, rather than the rule.  The predecessor module in the GA series (GA2 Swamplight), released the same year as GA3, had no such awards stated, merely a quick note on the first page that "the PCs should get additional experience points if they find the real menace in the adventure and defeat it.  The amount of experience awarded is left up to the DM."  1999's Against the Giants: The Liberation of Geoff gave a simple 25,000 XP award for completing the story goal.

Many modules did not bother awarding the story award at all.  This includes most of the modules released in 1989 to support the new edition.  1989's FRE 1, 2, and 3 (the godawful Godswar trilogy for Forgotten Realms) had none.  The infamous initial Greyhawk trilogy of 1989 (WG9, WG10, and WG11) were refashioned older RPGA modules, but they had no awards added as part of their polishing up for wider release as part of the new edition.  1990's WGA1 (Falcon's Revenge) and WG12 (Valley of the Mage) and 1991's WGS2 (Howl from the North), all-new Greyhawk works, also had none; neither did 1990's LNA1 (Thieves of Lankhmar) or 1992's LNQ1 (Slayers of Lankhmar).  Again returning to the GA series (and also 1993), GA1 The Murky Deep gave no special awards or even the suggestion of them.  Leaping forward, 1998's The Shattered Circle and The Lost Shrine of Bundushatus worked the same way.  While the RPGA generally emphasized role-playing, its 1997 module The Star of Kolhapur and its 1999 module The Wand of Archeal (to pick a random pair) also had none.

More often seen was the individual XP award, despite it being optional in the DMG.  For example, while FRE3 had no story award, it does suggests an unspecified XP award for any character who can "orate exceptionally well" in front of the master of the gods (the players can have no effect on what happens at that point, regardless of what they say, but that's neither here nor there).  1995's The Return of Randal Morn grants a mighty 100 XP bonus if the party attacks a catapult as their first target in the climatic scene (but has no story award, despite being the culmination of a linked module trilogy).  In 1998's rework of Destiny of Kings, the character that defeats the enemy in a joust to conclude the adventure receives 1,500 XP.

For all that old-school D&D is often depicted as a hack-and-slash game, gold for XP produces a clear gameplay incentive based on wealth, not slaughter.  Combat did give XP in 1st edition and Basic, and was often the gateway to the treasure you needed, but the main avenue of advancement was loot, which—when coupled with the dangers inherent to low-level combat especially—often inclined players to avoid battle, not seek it.  With 2nd edition, power instead was best earned at the point of a sword.  There were other means of gaining XP, as we have seen, both standard and optional, but combat was suggested as the best source and the one actually implemented in 2nd edition products; the clear itemized XP awards for combat laid out in the Monstrous Compendium entries were simple to use, vs. the "figure it out yourself" approach of the other awards.  Wealth as a major aspect of D&D gameplay in any fashion increasingly became vestigial.[9]


I hope these first three articles have managed to explain how D&D changed by the time 2nd edition launched and, from there, why some people don't consider 2nd edition to be properly old school.

For those coming to D&D long after the fact, there's little on the surface to differentiate 1st from 2nd, and this is the source of a lot of the confusion over 2nd edition's status.  Broadly, those who were around for 1st edition's original lifecycle are the ones most likely to consider 2nd edition not old school,[10] while those who started with 3rd edition or later are separated from the controversies and arguments of the time and also have such a radically different starting point that they're more willing to accept 1st and 2nd as two sides of the same coin.  This is why you find the old school defined as both "pre-1984 D&D" (a date chosen due to the year Dragonlance came out and the lack of anything exceptional released otherwise; a definition focused on playstyle) and "pre-3rd edition D&D" (1974-2000; a definition focused on mechanical compatibility).

If your sole criteria is the core ruleset (i.e. leaving out the later support materials, which of course no one need buy or use), then it's easy to consider 2nd edition just as old school as 1st, as the differences are seemingly minor if your starting comparison point is a later edition or something non-D&D entirely.

But if considering playstyle (which is fundamentally shaped by a few rather specific and important ruleset changes), it's clear that 2nd edition offers almost nothing along old-school lines, and in fact a decent amount that runs counter to it, especially if you take into account the edition as a whole (its supporting materials).  If you're attempting to develop an old-school style of play on your own, you might be able to do so reading 1st edition and earlier (might: the vagueness on this core subject even in the original rulesets means you can easily wind up developing alternate styles as well, as so many did back in the day).  However, you'll almost certainly never develop such a style if starting with 2nd edition, because that edition had almost no interest in teaching or supporting an old-school style of play.

That having been said, can you run an old-school game using 2nd edition?  Absolutely.  Fold gold for XP back in, reduce combat XP to compensate, fix a few minor rules holes, and draw on the vast OSR/old-school knowledge base for how to run that style of campaign that the 2nd ed DMG fails to give you, and it can be accomplished with absolutely no difficulty.  The vast majority of 2nd edition's rules changes are matters of taste or mechanical tinkering, not of style, and there's clear improvements (in some places, anyways) in terms of accessibility and overall layout.  That it doesn't support an old-school game as well as 1st edition doesn't mean it can't be made to support it at all, and if you prefer its layout or enjoy the rules tweaks it made, it makes perfect sense to make some simple changes and run your old-school game with it as you normally would.  And as the old-school isn't the be-all and end-all of D&D, you can still get an enjoyable heroic or other style game out of 2nd edition: as I've mentioned previously, this isn't a series intended to delineate right vs. wrong (though I do feel rather strongly that 2nd edition does feel comparatively directionless, not attempting to do something other than "be a fantasy game" with an implied shift to the heroic but next to no rules changes to actually facilitate this).[11]

Even for an old-school player, there's lots of decent material that came out during 2nd edition that is of use.  The long-running Monstrous Compendium series offers mountains of additional monsters.  The Diablo II: The Awakening supplement and the mammoth Encyclopedia Magica series gives you thousands of magic items to play with, and the four-volume Wizard's Spell Compendium and three-volume Priest's Spell Compendium are similarly authoritative.  For more niche play, the Castle Guide is excellent for those interested in the domain game, while Of Ships and the Sea expands the game into the nautical realm.  I've always found the three-book Forgotten Realms series on deities—Faiths & Avatars, Powers & Pantheons, and Demihuman Deities—to be far more useful to steal from (even in non-FF campaigns) than the comparatively tepid Deities & Demigods/Legends & Lore, bound as the latter were to real-life pantheons.  And there are even some fun adventures in the period: Night Below is remembered by many as largely offering an excellent underdark crawl.

Overall, I think 2nd edition could be said to be at once both the last of the old-school editions and the first of the modern ones.  Committing to neither wholeheartedly, it's prone to being lumped in with—and at the same time disappointing—fans of both playstyles.

What we have in this new edition is a better version than the first one.  It is a new version that can provide even more fun and excitement.  It is also a smoother flowing game that can work to stimulate the player's own imagination in even more new and exciting ways.
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Preview

I see no need to delve into 3rd edition and later in any deep fashion: I think by this point it's clear that by 1989 the game had firmly moved away from its original base in numerous ways large and small: staff, support materials, rules framework, and general design intent.  Insofar as 3rd edition matters specifically, we'll cover it in the next post, when I examine the birth of the OSR itself.


[1] Accurate sales figures for TSR are notoriously difficult to come by, and it should be cautioned that there are numerous contradictory figures out there, likely a product of the various lawsuits TSR was involved in that relied on how much money the company was making, as well as the degree to which TSR worked at times to conceal these figures and whether one is looking at core book sales or sales overall.  Additionally, it is easy to lose sight of game-related sales amongst the larger sales volume of TSR as a whole, which came to include things like novels.  Benjamin Riggs posted some relevant information on Facebook back in 2019, and this Jon Peterson article and his book Game Wizards takes a close look at the matter as well.

[2] The raging arguments over ascending vs descending armour class aside, the observation that, were negative armour class not in use at the game's start, no one would have ever seen the need to invent it, has always struck me as a powerful one.  Steve Winter explained that "We heard so many times, ‘Why did you keep armour classes going down instead of going up?’  People somehow thought that that idea had never occurred to us.  We had tons of ideas that we would have loved to do, but we still had a fairly narrow mandate that whatever was in print should still be largely compatible with second edition.”

[3] Page 47 (1989 version).  "Hero" appears seven times in the 1st edition PHB (mostly with regard to heroism effects from potions), 38 times in the 2nd edition PHB.  At the same time, the 1st edition DMG's beginning does speak of populating "imaginary worlds with larger-than-life heroes and villains", so certainly there are hints of such behaviour even there in the 70s.

[4] Besides the DMGR1 quotes that follow, see also Jonathan Tweet's "Freestyle Campaigning" chapter in DMGR5.  Also, I'm not clear on why DMGR1 a) is called the Catacomb Guide rather than the Dungeon Guide, and b) has no catacombs, strangely enough.

[5] Or it was just lost in editing.  It's always dangerous to speculate on these things without adequate information.

[6] The DMG did offer a DM the opportunity to declare an area "particularly dangerous", raising the encounter rate to 1 in 10 per turn, which is notably higher than 1 in 6 per 3 turns.  However, as the movement rate remains 10 times as fast, even with this change the overall result taken as a dungeon whole results in markedly fewer encounters, since you're clearing a dungeon far faster.

[7] The effect of Charisma is only explained in the PHB, in natural language on the page before the Charisma chart,
while the section in the DMG doesn't mention Charisma modifiers at all, strangely.  As such, how Charisma modifiers were supposed to interact with the chart was easily missed (as I did for quite a while).  Neither Sage Advice, the errata, or the 1995 re-release ever bothered to address the issue, perhaps an indicator as to how few people were bothering with encounter reaction by this point: between the cumbersome implementation and the general incentive to kill things, why would you?  However, the Complete Wizard's Handbook (of all books) did contain a clarifier.  Regardless, the table is still structurally inclined to aggression as a whole, by having any other positive effect push the result towards a Hostile result.

[8] Though the section at times reads as though two different sections were glued together somewhat haphazardly.  Page 45 lists character survival as a primary criteria for XP gain, stating that "Although having a character live from game session to game session is a reward in itself, a player should also receive experience points when his character survives."  However, page 47 then deals with survival awards again, stating "Finally, you can award points on the basis of survival.  The amount awarded is entirely up to you.  However, such awards should be kept small and reserved for truly momentous occasions.  Survival is its own reward."

[9] The complete removal of training costs and the domain game in 3rd edition core was a major shift in this direction, though the commodification of magic items in that edition somewhat compensated.

Late 2022 postscript: Melan has a succinct summation of how many old-school fans perceived 2nd edition over at Beyond Fomalhaut:

Old-school gaming came not to praise 2e but to bury it; it quite clearly got established by guys who hated 2e’s guts as much or even more than they did 3e’s. More than this antipathy, old-school gaming is a deliberate rejection of the 2e legacy, a style and school of thought which set itself up as its polar opposite in aesthetics, focus, design principles, and GMing style.  Its advocates saw 2e as a corrupted, bland, corporate husk of the original D&D spirit, and thought it was like a swig of clear spring water when they could finally get back to what they saw as the buried genius of those creative origins.  This is why it is named old-school after all: from the vantage point of 2022, all TSR D&D might seem old, but for those in the early and mid-2000s, the 2e era was still kind of a fresh wound, and in no way was it considered worth preserving.

[11] Interestingly, "soul" was literally forbidden from 2nd edition TSR products, but I'm sure that's a coincidence.


  1. On the surface, it would seem to make sense to divide D&D into two clearly delineated periods, the old-school TSR era (1974–1999) and the new-school WotC/d20 era (2000–present).

    But that misses some nuance.

    You can actually see some pretty clear overlap if you take each edition in pairs: 4th and 5th edition share the "combat as sport" ethic. 3rd and 4th edition were peak "char-op mini-game." 2nd and 3rd editions were the era of expanding the game with player options (skills & powers, skills & feats, kits & prestige classes) and splat books. 1st edition post-Dragonlance and 2nd edition share an increasing concern for heroic plots and player characters defined by their proficiencies (I'd contend that AD&D was pushed in that direction by competing crunchy 80s RPGs). And that leaves early, pre-1984 1e and the original/basic lineage as the old-school era.

    1. I wasn't really looking to make new era pronouncements so much as to examine eras that the player base already defines, and even then only with regard to old school vs. new. I agree with you that there's more to D&D than this dichotomy, and even then editions are not divided so neatly if you're looking for nuance: parts one and two both take pains to show how things break down in a more subtle fashion (the shift in module style of 1983+, the "1.5e" era, etc).

      Oh, and nice note about the Silver Anniversary modules: I updated the text accordingly. Thanks!

  2. Oh, and side note, Return to the Keep on the Borderlands suggested XP for treasure!

  3. If I understand the underlying premise of this series in general and this post in particular, you are defining "Old School" as gold-for-XP, player not character skill, and adventures primarily in a mega-dungeon.

    If that is the case, then the Old School died in 1980, at least in Greater Central Indiana and probably in most parts of the Midwest if not the country as a whole. Between the fall of 1979 and the fall of 1980, everyone I knew had stopped giving XP for gold and left the megadungeon for good. When I say "I knew" I mean almost every D&D/AD&D campaign in Greater Indianapolis, Purdue University, Indiana University, as well as parts of Cleveland, Columbus, & Dayton Ohio. I met a lot of players & GMs during those two years and was surprised that every single one of them who had not left D&D for another game system had dumped the megadungeon and gold-for-XP rule. Obviously this is anecdotal experience but I bring it up to point out the myth of "Old School."

    For those of us who were there, the way it was played back in the '70s was every GM adapted the D&D rulesets to his or her (yes there were female DMs) taste, freely stole rules from other game systems and campaigns as well as made up our own rules. We had the equivalent of "splat books" back then in the form of Dragon Magazine, Judges Guild, Arduin, etc. Nobody cared if something was official D&D or not. And all of us disrespected Gygax by sarcastically referring to him as "the great god Gygax." We played "Bob's Game" or "Ted's Game" instead of "D&D" in the specific sense. In the general sense, everyone played "D&D" even if the actual ruleset was Tunnels & Trolls, Chivalry & Sorcery, Traveller, or Champions.

    The reason AD&D 2nd Edition is the way it is, is because TSR successfully tapped into the market or zeitgeist, or whatever you want to call it. The overwhelming vast majority of folks who started in the 70s did so because of Lord of the Rings. After a year of two of dungeoneering, it got really boring and stupid. We wanted to be heroes like the Fellowship of the Ring. The Giant Series and Drow series gave us a taste of it. While I personally never liked Dragonlance, it sold really, really well because the market was starving for the heroic fiction of Tolkein that D&D had promised but never really delivered until we got out of the dungeon.

    Honestly, I'm sick and tired of hearing the detractors of UA, Dragonlance, 2nd edition, etc. because they completely forget that the market demanded those products and those products sold. Gygax didn't want to do UA; he responded to the market. Just like he didn't use many of the rules in the Blackmoor and Eldritch Wizardry supplements and not all of the rules in AD&D. TSR has always responded to market demand just like all successful businesses do.

    Oh and I totally agree with your assessment of the 2nd Edition DMG. My fellow GMs and myself kept using the 1st edition DMG and forgot about the 2nd edition one.

    What then is truly "Old School"? I think everyone can agree that it's not 3rd edition or later. And everyone can agree that it includes the original 1974 rules. But the era between 1974 and 1999 is a wide continuum not only of D&D but also other games that influenced everyone's campaign either directly or indirectly as well as the direction of D&D. My personal definition of Old School gaming, regardless of game or edition is Rule Zero. The rules belongs to the Game Master and not to the players or the game publisher. If you don't like a rule, change it. If a player doesn't like the game, find a new one.

    1. Blogger ate my first reply, so let's try this again.

      The impetus of the series is simply that I've been seeing vaguer and vaguer statements of what "OSR" is and that most of the posts I see on the topic deal with it from game theory or one-true-way perspectives rather than a straightforward "here's how it got started" history. However, I thought it would be silly to just start in 2007 or so because there's not much point in describing a revival movement without laying out what they were trying to revive. And since I've seen things as out there as WEG Ghostbusters described as OSR and now it's often just used as a marketing label on DriveThruRPG for any old indie game, I think it's important to make clear that, at least originally, it was unquestionably a D&D-based movement.

      I completely agree that old-school D&D was, historically speaking, a complete flash in the pan, a minority within the first ten years (at most) of the game's almost-fifty-year existence. In the first post in the series I note, "Overall we're talking about how the initial designers of D&D intended it to be played and what the rules and modules published by them were intended to support, rather than making a universal claim as to how DMs outside the initial Lake Geneva TSR circle actually played D&D in this era." But as it's what the OSR focused on (and what I'm focused on), that's what this series focuses on. At the same time, I'm trying to avoid pointless slagging, because the evangelical side of the OSR has always irked me. I'd be willing to argue that post-old-school adventures are bad as a rule, but my main complaint about 2nd edition as a ruleset is that doesn't seem to want to be anything other than "the 2nd edition of the world's most popular roleplaying game", not that it's unsalvageable.

  4. I remember seamlessly transitioning from first to second edition. I liked the fact that rules were cleaned up and easy to understand. I had tried to sell my players on Basic when it first came out for the same reason, but none of the "Old Schoolers" liked the class as race and refused to give up on their half elf cleric/rangers. Second edition accommodated split classes very well. I however never made the transition from gold as experience until third edition. I find it strange that people thing "Murder Hobo" is an old school tradition when it seems to stem from third editions "killing monsters" is the only way to gain experience. All in all the change from first to second was much more seamless than any of the new editions since. The brown cover splat books that came later are another story.

  5. You do a good job here of noting some of the issues I experienced with 2e that made me start to prefer the Rules Cyclopedia in the early 90s but I also find your narrative too full of a OSR groupthink narrative that I find doesn't remotely agree with my own experience as a player and GM in the 80s/90s.

    I find the claims that Gold for XP drove a less combat oriented form of play extremely dubious from my own experience playing in the 80s. That is really more a question of DM approach, I don't recall players under Gold for XP avoiding combat, quite the opposite. I think a less combat oriented play developed more out of one's experience or age, most were happy to butcher orcs when younger or starting out but as play and sessions extended that became boring and lots, perhaps most, either stopped playing, moved on to other games like CoC, or changed their playstyle.

    2e also had loads of dungeon modules, play moved towards morr wilderness, urban or campaign modes because dungeoncrawls, like any one form of play, gets dull after a while. But it would be periodically returned to as well, but just as part of the mix. I don't recall any move away from sandbox play during the 2e era at any of the tables I was at, the opposite in fact.

    No offense but while slightly more nuannced what I see here is yet another repetitive, predictable narrative I've seen the OSR tell itself online that just doesn't jive with the reality of my play experience then, the claims that player driven play, etc. went into such steep decline are overstated to say the least.

  6. Hello Keith,

    As somebody reconnecting with the hobby and preparing to GM an OSR campaign for the first time, I have found your historical posts to be invaluable. They feel like the paper I wish I had had the pleasure to read in graduate school (I meant this as a compliment!). I am looking forward to the next installment of this series, and really to any of your work in this field. I've recommended it to friends. I’ve also been reading the draft of Simulacrum (the versions of the Player’s Manual and the GM’s Manual that you posted here), which I like a lot. I am considering using it (or parts of it) in my campaign. Page 3 of the Player’s Manual mentions some Simulacrum Design Notes, but I can’t find them here. Of course, your past posts are helpful to understanding some of your choices (love them!), but it would be great to see all the notes together and learn how your thinking has evolved. Could you please share the Simulacrum Design Notes document? Thanks!


    1. Thanks for the kind words. I haven't posted the Design Notes at all yet, unlike drafts of the main rules. But I think I've delayed posting things (outside of brief drafts in the comments section) long enough. I'll make a new post shortly that puts all the material as it currently stands out. All the best.

  7. P.S.: I meant to add my comment to Part IV. Lucas

  8. Awesome, thanks!

  9. A delightful series of posts. Regarding XPs in 2nd edition, a couple of Carl Sargent's works are of interest. In Night Below, XP for GP was recommended: the feeling that Book 2 drags a little until you start the assault on the City of the Glass Pool is probably due to stuffing the Underdark with sufficient monsters and treasure to get the PCs to the right level. WGR6 City of Skulls is a rescue mission in an enemy city, so now it is appropriate to have story award bonuses for good folk recovered and intelligence gained.