Why you should be playing Classic Dungeons & Dragons

Rules_Cyclopedia_coverI really like the latest edition of AD&D. Ok, 5th edition just calls itself D&D these days, but really, it’s the latest version of the AD&D product line. D&D goes all the way back to 1977 and the original Red Box. Not the Wizards of the Coast attempt at the Red Box. This was a whole different stream of D&D, finally compiled in it’s last main rule release with the Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia in 1991.

Now, it’s easy to think a game that’s almost 40 years old must have been improved on over the years, but it would be a grave error. While I really do like 5th edition, I think the old classic Rules Cyclopedia version of D&D is a better game. In fact, some of what makes 5th edition a good system is stuff they lifted from the old D&D.

To support my proposal, here’s some of the reasons why I chose classic D&D as my game of choice for my latest campaign setting.

Ease of Entry

There is a misconception that Advanced Dungeons & Dragons is the advanced version of Dungeons & Dragons. I’m not aiming at giving a history lesson here, it’s all online, but it’s just not true. However, D&D does have an easy-going loose system that is very easy for a new player to pick up. There are less numbers to worry about, less jargon and less confusing options. Basically, you can take a new player though level 1 character development in five minutes and have them ready to play. Once playing, the rules are amazingly easy to pick up.

As I hope to explain in this article, D&D still has all the depth of AD&D, it’s just that that depth is introduced more gradually. This allows a new player time to learn each new option as they advance their character. In short, AD&D gives an information dump at level 1, while D&D is designed to level up the complexity as the character levels up.

Weapon Mastery

Hands down this is one of the best ways of representing weapon skills in a D&D style of game. Weapon Mastery doesn’t just give a modest bonus to hit and damage; Weapon Mastery gives every weapon a unique identity, making your choice of weapon in an encounter actually matter. Sure, at basic levels a sword and a battle axe both do 1d8 damage. However, for a grand master, the battle axe is the perfect weapon for hacking up monsters and has the ability to stun creatures on a hit, while the sword is brilliant for fighting against other weapon users as it allows you to deflect blows and disarm easier. You can even throw your sword in the same way Etienne does in Ladyhawke.

No matter the weapon you choose, your weapon will become something special. In AD&D, a thief will usually use a sword for that little extra damage. In D&D, weapon mastery grants a dagger an increased chance of causing double damage and the ability to throw it further. In essence, it frees you to create the character in the image you want, without leaving you feel like you’re letting your party down by not min/maxing for that 1-4 points more damage per attack.

AD&D has tried to give weapons more interest through the use of Feats and special moves, but they are all fairly generic. Some weapons like staff, spear and warhammer have remained comparatively useless weapons in AD&D no matter what the edition. However, under weapon mastery even the humble club offers unique gaming opportunities making it something worthy of building a character around.

Fighters are awesome!

AD&D has only recently given fighters any love. They were always just the boring characters you gave to new players because they were easy to play. Even when 3rd edition came out and gave them Feats, they still never really found a way to shine over a decently leveled mage. In D&D, not only can fighters harness the weapon mastery system better than any other class, they also have some amazing options that can turn them into powerhouses.

Fighters have more class options than other classes when they reach 9th level. They can be a politically motivated land owner, or they can choose one of three detailed traveling fighter types, including the Paladin, Avenger or Knight.

Then there’s their combat ability. I’ll just run with an example here by way of demonstration. Let’s make our fighter level 12, that’s basically mid-level for D&D. He has grand mastery in the sword and we’ll give him 16 strength. Let’s also give him a generic Sword +3. If he’s fighting against opponents using weapons (which is what a sword has an advantage against), our sample fighter has a total of +13 to hit and he’ll inflict 2d6+13 damage. If he wants to drop his bonus to hit by 5, down to only +8, then he can perform a special fighter Smash attack which adds his entire strength attribute to the damage, that’s +16 more damage for a total of 2d6+29. If his modified hit roll meant he could hit his opponent on a 2 or better he gets to attack a second time. He’ll also get more attacks as he reaches higher levels. If this wasn’t enough, he also gets -4AC against the first 3 attacks in the round, he can then make a save vs Death to deflect up to three attacks resulting in no damage. In addition, if he tries to disarm you your save against his attempt is heavily penalised. Believe me, a sword fight between two grand master swordsmen is not a simple exchange of hit points, it’s a vicious exchange of blow and counter blow in which the first hit landed could be the end of it.

Let’s not forget that some weapons can cause even more damage thanks to weapon mastery. No wonder even dragons fear heroes!

Freedom to use House Rules

Every version of AD&D has undergone more and more extensive play testing. In order to make every character a special little snowflake much of the system is built on a careful balance. Change just one little thing, and you risk throwing the game out of balance.

D&D keeps things pretty simple working on the assumption that every group is different, and that it’s the role of the GM to craft the game with the players, to produce the experience they want. As a GM you can feel confident in tinkering the rules here and there, adding and subtracting until the mix is right for your players as well as yourself.


D&D has a certain lightness about it. It’s made to have some fun, as is clearly evident by book releases like The Book of Wonderous Inventions or even the module Earthshaker. These works take the high fantasy world to a strange new place, where Black Puddings are put into dishwashers, or Fire Elementals are bound into steam boilers. It can be played extremely straight if you want, and is perfectly suitable for some hard core horror gaming. You just have to look at creatures like the Druj or the Odic for some scary inspiration.

Many games try for a High Magic genre, but D&D completely embraces magic as a fully integral part of the world. It doesn’t take itself seriously unless you want to play it that way. The default setting is ‘fun’, while most other systems have a default setting of ‘real’. In this regard I believe classic D&D is all about the classic RPG experience, where people are playing to unwind and just have a good laugh with friends.

It’s your world

Having a system that doesn’t keep forcing you to look up things in the rulebook allows for a more immersive play experience. It is very much story focused, and every piece of source material supports the concept of being creative and making your own world. Most purchased adventures introduce entirely new monsters created just for that adventure, which you can then use elsewhere of course. The Gazetteers introduce aspiring GMs to the idea of creating their own player races and character classes.

Forgotten Realms has been out for so long now, and has had so much source material produced, that I now find the world constrained, not expanded. Some people get caught up on maintaining the lore and cannon of the world. If your campaign wanders too far from cannon, you might suddenly find that certain concepts you were using are no longer supported in a later release. For example, some gods ceased to exist after the Time of Troubles, so when the new source books came out you had to pay special attention to be sure the party cleric or paladin was able to be adapted. Sure, you’d do this in game and it makes a story, but it wasn’t your story. That said, I can see how 5th edition is starting to loosen the ties that bind a bit, so we’ll see how that goes.


What better way to retire a character than to have them basically win the game. In D&D players are invited to strive to reach immortality and become a god. Let’s face it, the amount of heroic stuff you would have done to reach level 36 should have gained you some notice among the gods, right? The quest for immortality allows for truly epic story telling on a grand scale, as the only way to reach immortality is to do the impossible.

But let’s say you make it, you become one of the gods. What then? Well, D&D has rules for that. Now, as an Immortal, you start over as a lesser deity striving for power. The influence you have on the mundane world is as a god, and the challenges you will face go well beyond what mere mortals can comprehend.

What makes this concept really exciting is that if your group has played for long enough, your characters can truly become a part of the world. Imagine … you take your humble fighter all the way to max level, you achieve the impossible, performing deeds that change the world forever. Then, you make a new character, a first level cleric whose deity is the very same character you already spent 5 years playing. Now that’s hard core.

What doesn’t it do better?

D&D does not have multi-classing. Also, any race other than human is represented as a class of its own. So there are no dwarven wizards and not every halfling is a rogue. I actually like this, because it does give every race a clear identity, while modern AD&D tends to have Race as an almost meaningless adjunct to your class. Nor do I find the lack of multi-classing much of a burden. If you want to play a Fighter/Mage, play an Elf. In fact, the General Skills section allows for a lot of easy customisation of classes, so if you want to play something like a wilderness mage or a cleric of some death god, you can.

While many people think D&D offers nothing but Fighter, Magic User, Cleric or Thief, they would be wrong. Looking at the main options, while there are 8 basic classes, additional options open up at level 9; where you can add three fighter variants and a cleric variant for a total of 12 fairly distinct classes. That’s unless you want to buy the Gazetteers which add even more options.

It’s also interesting to note that while AD&D did once boast a larger array of secondary skills, the latest version has cut all that back to reflect more of what normal D&D does. As with normal D&D, 5th edition will give the average character around a half dozen secondary skills, like History or Sleight of Hand; these skills you have some competence in, but your choices are a little restricted by class and background. In D&D, there are over 40 skills to choose from, and while you might only start with 4 or so, you will get more as you level. Like the new 5th edition, these skills are simply areas of competence, and are not burdened by complex point allocation or indepth record keeping like they were in 3rd edition.

Healing is one area where the new 5th edition has ironed out the old problem of character down time. I don’t like clerics being forced to act as nothing but healing batteries, which is why in my games I have introduced house rules to address that issue.

In Closing

The good old Rules Cyclopedia is not a simplified cut down version of Advanced D&D, it never was. It’s actually a very well designed system offering a simple entry level experience that grows with the player to have all the complexity of AD&D, and in some areas it even beats AD&D.

D&D is for GMs who want to tell a story without being overly burdened by rules. It’s a system designed to allow players to use their imagination in a creative way, rather than feeling bound by min/maxing and number crunching to get the most out of a character.

Classic D&D is the perfect game for GMs and players who want to play in a world they can truly think of as theirs. There won’t be any supplements released to confuse the issue, with one book you have all you will ever need. All the rest is entirely up to you. So before it’s too late, get yourself a Rules Cyclopedia before even the second hand ones disappear. Better yet, get one of the original 1977 Red Boxes, and learn about the evil Bargle, and the lovely cleric Aleena. Discover why monsters like the Rust Monster and the Carrion Crawler are more than just stats to some of us old gamers.

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