Monday, December 6, 2010

In Defense of 2e (Kind Of)

I don't think it's any matter of controversy to assert that AD&D 2nd edition (or, in the vulgar tongue, "2e") is the red-headed stepchild of the D&D community. Too much of a symbol of post-Gygax "T$R" to some, a symbol of 90s splatbook bloat, the edition that nearly killed D&D, too mechanically similar to 1e to merit its own retro-clone, too clunky to draw in the new generations, and so on. To a large extent, I agree with all these assessments. For some time, I have debated running a 2e campaign as a sort of exercise in getting back in touch with my gaming roots - having started in 1990, I just missed the 1e era - but I have my doubts. By the time 3e rolled around, I welcomed it with open arms; I loathed the Frankensteinian system that AD&D had grown to become, like most gamers of the day. I have the feeling that if I somehow managed to get past the planning stages, a 2e game would soon collapse under the weight of "Oh right, I forgot how lame that was"-moments.

And yet...

There are undeniably some things that 2e got right. That phrase will almost universally elicit a response along the lines of, "Yes, the settings were awesome!" And that's quite true. But I think 2e deserves a fresh reappraisal across the board. The much-maligned kits, for example, held a nugget of a good idea. It just simply wasn't executed very well. If I ever get around to running my hypothetical 2e campaign, I'll certainly include a very pared-down list of kits.

What sparked this blog post, though, is another aspect of 2e that I'd rather forgotten about and one that I don't often see discussed: the format of the Monstrous Compendium entries. Specifically, it was seeing this entry over on one of the few 2e-centered blogs out there, THAC0 Forever. For those who don't know, the entry is written in the format of 2e-era monster entries, sub-divided into four sections: an intro, a Combat section, a section discussing the creature's Habitat/Society, and an Ecology section.

I've seen this format criticized (shocking!) by some, who have called it a further sign of the bloat that afflicted D&D products of this era. But I have to say, seeing a monster written up in that format made me smile. Having a monster entry be more than hard numbers and a couple paragraphs on appearance and combat tactics had an immeasurable effect on how I approached my D&D gameplay from the get-go. It implicitly communicated a strong message of Gygaxian naturalism. Personally, I never had to read articles on dungeon ecology or building a believable fantasy world. I got the message loud and clear just by paging through the Monstrous Compendium. From Day One, my AD&D games were focused on role-playing as much as dungeon delving.

In fact, it wasn't until the advent of the OSR and its focus on getting back to the roots of D&D that I ventured into running more dungeon/exploration-centered campaigns. Seeing the old 2e monster format was just another reminder for me of my own D&D roots, which may have been quite different from the roots espoused by certain parties in the OSR but, for me at least, were far more arresting and "of the essence" of what D&D means to me.
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