Review of AD&D Second Edition Player's Handbook

Review Summary
Playtest Review
Written Review

January 11, 2010


by: Robin Ashe


Style: 2 (Needs Work)
Substance: 3 (Average)

The AD&D 2nd Edition Player's Handbook, while a classic, doesn't stand by itself and is only worth owning for the wealth of supplementary material available for the system, some of which is free.

Robin Ashe has written 39 reviews (including 2 AD&D reviews), with average style of 3.77 and average substance of 3.64. The reviewer's previous review was of Deck of Psionic Powers.

This review has been read 11794 times.

 
Product Summary
Name: AD&D Second Edition Player's Handbook
Publisher: TSR
Line: AD&D
Author: David
Category: RPG

Cost: $5
Pages: 320
Year: 1995

SKU: 2159
ISBN: 0-7869-0329-5


Review of AD&D Second Edition Player's Handbook


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AD&D 2nd Edition was the first commercial RPG I played. I started playing before the revised core books were released, so 1994, although the first ones I bought were revised. It is by far my most played game, and the Player's Handbook got so much use that I have it held together with tape and bought a second copy of it. So I very much like the game, and I have plenty of experience with it. Don't, however, let the second part fool you; I'm far from knowing the rules inside out. At one point I had thought I had the rules memorised, but in fact I had only memorised the majority of the tables. This is because the presentation and organisation of the book is really poor (but it does have an index!) As such, doing a chapter by chapter review wouldn't be really helpful - there's no way for me to cover everything (as I'm still not sure I have it all figured out anyway).

The first issue in terms of presentation of the rules is that not all the rules are even in the Player's Handbook, some are in the Dungeon Master's Guide although unlike what I hear about 1st Edition, the game actually is playable with just the PHB. A rather glaring example of this is the rules on level caps for non-human races. There isn't any mention that any of the demihuman races can't reach level 20 in any of the classes available to them. This would be rather shocking to someone who didn't have access to the DMG (which players aren't supposed to) who makes a Halfling Fighter and finds themselves no longer advancing once they hit 8th level. Fortunately, you can houserule this out, but if you went with the assumption that anything in a table was an official rule that I went with (and most people I played with seemed to align to this idea as well) you're pretty much screwed.

Another thing is that while most of the important tables are included right at the back of the book, making it really easy to look almost everything up, the saving throw table isn't among them, which was a huge page flipping pain in the ass at character creation and leveling up.

So, for those of you unfamiliar with AD&D, I'll give a brief overview of what AD&D is like.

You have races and classes. The races are humans, and all the demi-human races (as opposed to humanoid, which denoted a different set of races in AD&D); dwarves, elves, half-elves, halflings and gnomes. The classes are fighter, paladin, ranger, mage, specialist wizard, cleric, druid, thief and bard. Each class scales up across 20 levels, with level 1 being the weakest and 20 being the highest (optional supplements allowed for higher than 20th level, and looking at some of the classes you can see that the 20th level cap for 2nd edition was quite arbitrary). Increasing in level was done by acquiring experience points (mostly from defeating monsters, although experience was only clearly laid out in the DMG, so it's not like you'd really understand this from reading the PHB). Each level brought an increase in hit points, which was how much damage a character could take before dying, and most levels brought about new powers or abilities, and an increase in combat competence.

For someone with no preconceptions about what they want to play, this ends up looking like a bunch of options and seems like freedom. For someone with an idea of what they want to play, it's very restrictive. I remember when I just wanted to play an elf wizard everything was fine (although I had no idea how useless my character would be at first level) but when I read the stories about the monkey spirit (some traditional chinese fables), and wanted to play a quarter-staff wielding monkey there wasn't really anything in place for me. (Supplemental rules and some DM lenience would have allowed me to make that character, but learning that would only come later, and it certainly wasn't clear from reading the PHB). Similarly, playing a character like Cerebus the Aardvark wouldn't have worked either (particularly sticking to concept, since he never wore armour). It would have again required supplemental rules. This obviously looks like a knock against the system, and it is, there's a flip side. The races are fairly detailed and have some interest to them - enough that they've acquired fans and haters among the playerbase. The classes were also interesting, and if you ignore balance issues they have a lot of flavour and distinctiveness that gets lost in more generic systems (such as, for example, GURPS). The flavour was somewhat less than what I was exposed to in Palladium Fantasy RPG 2nd Edition, which I thought went further in just presenting a character concept and attaching stats to it rather than AD&D which restricted the character concept to a degree to the existing mechanics. The flavour gets further extended with optional supplements. You'll have noticed I referred quite a bit to optional supplements.

I'll say it right now, if you plan on only playing with the Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide and Monster Manual, forget about AD&D 2nd Edition. It's limited, poorly organised, poorly presented, unnecessarily complicated in some areas (with not enough pay-off) and too simple in other areas. What the PHB does do (as well as the other core books) is lay a foundation (of sorts) for some very interesting, and to a degree inspiring, collection of supplementary material that allows for creating characters and campaign settings that wouldn't likely be thought of with another gaming system.

That may seem like it's not worth getting them, and if they're too expensive (beyond the $5 I paid for my replacement book), I'd say it isn't. But at a good price (either $5/book, or $10 for the lot - no more than $15) then there's quite a bit of free material available for download from Wizards of the Coast's website. This includes entire campaign settings with optional material, as well as supplementary material for certain campaign settings that you might have to buy separately. If you look at it that way, you're paying $10-$15 for the core books with a ton of free PDF (and RTF) downloads. I normally wouldn't give credit for a system having a ton of supplementary material for it, if in the case of GURPS you had to pay for it, but like Reign (although for different reasons) there is free, officially produced material for AD&D 2nd Edition, so what you actually get with your buy in is quite a bit more. What's even of note is that before Wizards of the Coast bought TSR, TSR had some complete campaign settings for download on their site, so I had free materials to download as a teenager in the mid-90s. It's just that with the termination of the 2nd Edition line, more products were released for free. Those supplementary products are also what I would recommend even just getting the PHB for. At $5, while you don't have a completely playable game, you do have enough information to understand a good chunk of what's presented in some of the downloads, so you can convert them to a system of your choice.

OK, so back to the content. I get the feeling that some things were left intentionally vague or entirely missing to allow for the release of supplementary material (it's borderline explicitly required). For example, material spell components were mentioned as an option, but given that rules were provided for buying normal goods, the absence of them for buying spell components (and later appearance of them in Player's Option: Spells & Magic) strikes me as deliberate. Also, while quite extensive, the equipment lists had some rather obscure inclusions and obvious ommissions (or things that seemed obvious once looking at the obscure inclusions - like why can you buy a war elephant but not a trained bear?). Obviously, you can make it up, but if you're buying a system for the rules, you kind of want to follow them, and if they're incomplete it's something of a let down - if you're going to have to house-rule something, why follow the rules at all, and why did they include them in the first place.

Some of this lack of completeness might stem from entire chapters being optional rules (but strangely, Chapter 6, which was 100% optional came before Chapter 14, which isn't optional at all, although might as well be given how many people noticed it and included it in the game), but it also looks like some stuff was just hastily chopped off along with other things from previous editions. One of the things I miss from earlier editions (and only found out much later, given I was born in 1984, so 2nd Edition was really the only game I would have had access to by the time I was old enough to play) is names for each level at each class. I get the sense that some other stuff was missing too, as a number of rules that weren't explained (or I just couldn't find where they were explained) made sense after I looked back at AD&D First Edition and D&D Rules Cyclopedia.

Something I have to say that I really like about AD&D as a system is the character generation. All the steps are put right at the beginning too, so making a character is possible even if you haven't read everything, and you can get playing without reading the whole book (which is something of a problem too, since you'll start playing and rather than look up a rule, just make it up) something I find rather rare in current RPGs, which have a tendency of presenting all the rules up front and letting you reverse engineer character creation from them. If you don't use any of the optional rules, you can go from not having any idea of your character at all to a complete character with some uniqueness in 30 minutes. If you strip out some of the extraneous rules and have familiarity with the system, it goes down to around 15 minutes. On the other hand, if you're using all the optional rules (just the ones included in the PHB, ignoring the ones in supplements), filling everything out on the multiple character sheets you'll need can have you taking over an hour making a character. Fortunately there's choice in the matter, so depending on what you prefer you can have either really fast character creation or quite involved character creation. The choice between rolling randomly for scores and less random or point buy methods is also nice. While a lot of people don't like random character generation (and at times I don't either), if you have no idea at all, you can just roll the stats in order, find which race and class combination fits them best, and then think up some explanations for why the stats are the way they are, and you've already got some character background along with having a mechanically complete character. If you already have a character concept in mind, some of the rolling options will allow you to achieve it.

In play things can go quite smooth or quite choppy depending on how you play it. Doing the archetypal dungeon crawl I find to be boring and tedious, and particularly pointless now given that it's hard to do a dungeon crawl better on paper than on a computer, but having an overland or city adventure works much better, particularly if more investigation and social interaction is being done (and incidentally, a lot of the free supplements for download are specifically for this type of adventure - along with, of course, dungeons) with a few major combat encounters rather than a string of minor ones followed by a boss fight. Speaking of different types of adventures, certain characters with the fluff just seem weird with them, so having a complete party with every available class just doesn't seem right. If you want to do a dungeon crawl, the Druid and Bard don't seem particularly suitable, and the Ranger not so much either. If you're doing a wilderness adventure this reverses, and the Dwarf stops being particularly suitable. In a city adventure, the Druid and Ranger again become unsuitable, with the Fighter, while being good at combat, and therefore good for any adventure with it, ends up being a bit boring if the adventure includes more than just combat - as is likely to happen in the city. Some of the optional supplements and campaign settings will lessen this problem, but it's still there.

My style rating of 2 reflects the fact that I'm still finding out about rules, or rule clarifications after more than a decade with the game. It's just so poorly presented that I just didn't find it before (or promptly forgot it after reading it). That isn't to say it's difficult to read, in fact it's more enjoyable than some more recent RPGs which are written in a dry, sleep inducing technical style, but if I can't find all the rules, there's definitely something wrong with how it's presented.

The substance rating of 3 is just a split between what you get in the book, and what you get with all the free supplementary material you can download. On its own, I'd say the book's a 2, once you throw in the supplementary material and start customising it to your tastes (and it survives customisation and house rules very well!) it's much more of a 4 or 5.

I imagine most people who are going to buy it, probably have, but if you haven't, at the very least check out some of the downloads that interest you and see if you want the base rules to understand them more fully, and either play "as intended" or convert to your preferred system.

Since I just got called on not providing a link in my previous review, click here for all the free stuff.

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