Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Thoughts on Running an AD&D Campaign

So I am six sessions into an AD&D campaign with no modules, no resources beyond the core rules and the monster books. Normally this is a crisis point in a campaign. If I am running something that isn’t D&D, I am generally burned out from the effort required to keep things going. AD&D is not like that! It has many qualities that bring energy into the system. An AD&D campaign that gets over the initial hump has a momentum of its own. It is far less effort to keep it going than it is to go do practically anything else. The act of allowing the AD&D rules to set the baseline structure combined with a willingness to allow play to go where it must opens up a deep well of inspiration.

For those not following the campaign play by play, here are a list of differences between AD&D and B/X:

  • Magic is way more interesting. Tons of off the wall spells get used. Having to find magic the AD&D way creates one of the best incentives to adventure ever made. Success here– finding even two or three new first level spells– can fundamentally change the nature of the game and the balance of power between the first level classes. Exciting!
  • With three big books of monsters instead of a “pure” edited down list of archetypes, the players run into something they’ve never seen before almost every session. Everyone knows the original monster manual monsters by heart and they can recognize the B/X monsters especially with minimal description. AD&D monsters are all over the place, and because they were created before anything was really systematized, they have big broad-brush features that eat standard dungeon operating procedures for breakfast. Weird is good!
  • The “down and critically injured at exactly zero hit points” rule takes out some of B/X’s arbitrary death, gives one more thing for players to consider doing when in the heat of battle, and presents a real problem when the players have to figure out a way to evacuate someone from the dungeon when monsters threaten to overwhelm the slow moving party. Also, having a particular character being out of play for a week of game time allows a player to continue attempting to level their main PC while giving them the chance to sample something completely different.
  • The crazy rich range of player characters can completely change the tenor of the party in an instant. A group with an assassin will play completely differently from one with a paladin. The presence of a ranger or a half elven fighter/magic-user/thief can have wild effects on the behavior of the party as a whole. The nature of the game seems to change faster than the players can master it, keeping things surprising, weird, and fresh where B/X might turn into a grind.
  • Specifically, unbalanced classes that warp and stress common assumptions about the rules do something unique to the game. ACKS, for instance, has many variant classes. The assassin and the priestess classes there were sampled, found to be uncompelling, and then passed over. AD&D eschews balance, even coherence in favor of over the top archetypes. This is not a problem to be solved but rather a phenomenon to be leveraged– it makes everything more dynamic, less static. If attribute methods can limit the frequency of the weird stuff sufficiently (and one-in-nine chance of a paladin seems just about right) then this is a potent spice for exciting gameplay.
  • The easy access to healing at first level is balanced by the mind-blowing amount of gold required to pay training costs. Making it to second level– anyone making it to second level– is something that can take two or even three times as long. Anyone that makes it there will be out of play for a couple weeks of game time for training, again opening things up to allow for the player to try out a completely new character type.
  • The “one real world day corresponds to one game day” rule is the one thing that ties all of this together. I am strongly tempted to run more than one session a week when a time-dependent opportunity emerges in play. Players haven’t suggested this, but I suspect that two competing groups with some overlap between players would be insane. (One would probably cohere around the paladin, the good group… the other would be the circus freaks.) What I have seen at the table is that there is an extra incentive to do “just one more delve” when the players come back with no treasure. They see an opportunity, they fear it won’t be there next week, they know a little more than they did before, they think they can just go get it, they’ve underestimated how much real time it will take to do this because time just flies while you’re playing this game– and so they go back into the dungeon when other groups are tempted to call it a night. Gaming gold, y’all!

In summary, AD&D is objectively better than every other incarnation of the D&D game system.

No one understood what in the heck OD&D was, what it ought to be, what it could be. (Ken St. Andre and Steve Jackson had entirely reasonable responses to early D&D– ie, actually go design a game that people can understand.) Meanwhile, Gary Gygax had certainly discovered something that could keep people coming back to his house nightly for years on end.

Holmes and Moldvay only saw parts of this. What they saw and what they expressed about the game was certainly good. But Gygax knew something that they didn’t. And proven gaming wisdom that can allow you to recreate the wonder and excitement of his home campaign is baked into the AD&D rules.

All you have to do is let it work for you!

Just quit trying to fix it. The stuff you think is obviously broken all solves gaming problems you don’t even know you have.

2 responses to “Thoughts on Running an AD&D Campaign

  1. Glen Sprigg May 6, 2020 at 5:29 pm

    AD&D is objectively the greatest game ever created. Whether you just go with the first three books, or add the later orange-spined books, it’s an amazing game without peer. Mentzer is great for teaching the basics (I’m using it to introduce my son to the hobby), but AD&D is on a whole other level of awesome.

  2. Pingback: Sensor Sweep: Pulp on Pulp, Sabatini, Jirel, Weird Westerns – Herman Watts

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