So my Wednesday night group is just starting our new VOIP game, which will see Arthur unleashing us on a lovingly-crafted Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition game. This is actually my first time playing anything earlier than 3rd, outside of Baldur's Gate and the like. I do have a broad idea of how things work - I think I first encountered the rules in a copy of Dungeon bought to placate me on a family visit to relatives in New Jersey, of all things - but I don't have the kind of familiarity I'd like. On the plus side, it's a very knowledgeable group of people who are very good at explaining things.
Our first session was just getting things ready. We're using a new bit of software for VOIP, so had to play with settings and features a bit, and there's a new player that I hadn't met previously. Mostly though, it was chargen.
I read through the Player's Handbook last week to brush up on things, though quite soon it turned into skipping. A lot of the information there is pretty specific, and I don't really need to memorise lists of spells and equipment, or alternative ways of doing non-combat stuff. That's all nice to know, but it wasn't really worth poring over before the game's even started. Anyway, here's my first impressions of the game.
Obligatory THAC0 bit
THAC0, on reflection, doesn't seem as bad as it's often suggested to be. It's not very intuitive, and certainly compared to the simplicity of a Base Attack Bonus (which works in exactly the same way as every other modifier to your die roll) it's arcane. Having both THAC0 and Armour Class start high and improve as they decrease, in contrast to every other part of the game and most aspects of real life, displays a piece of logic that I find completely baffling. I can't imagine any reason why anyone would ever, ever choose to use THAC0 when other options were available.
That being said, I think some of the problem stems from a needlessly confusing explanation. Here's the game's description of THAC0 in use:
The first step in making an attack roll is to find the number needed to hit the target. Subtract the Armor Class of the target from the attacker's THAC0. (Remember that if the Armor Class is a negative number, you add it to the attacker's THAC0.) The character has to roll the resulting number, or higher, on 1d20 to hit the target.
Rath has reached 7th level as a fighter. His THAC0 is 14 (found on Table 53), meaning he needs to roll a 14 or better to hit a character or creature of Armor Class 0. In combat, Rath, attacking an orc wearing chainmail armor (AC 6), needs to roll an 8 (14-6=8) to hit the orc. An 8 or higher on 1d20 will hit the orc. If Rath hits, he rolls the appropriate dice (see Table 44) to determine how much damage he inflicts.
Now what if we imagine the same rules, explained by someone sober?
Roll a d20 and add the target's Armour Class. If you equal or exceed your THAC0, you hit.
Rath has reached 7th level as a fighter. His THAC0 is 14 (found on Table 53). In combat, Rath, attacking an orc wearing chainmail armour (AC 6), needs to roll an 8 (8+6=14) to hit the orc. If Rath hits, he rolls the appropriate dice (see Table 44) to determine how much damage he inflicts.
But it's still not fantastic. So what's THAC0 doing wrong? Well, a mixture of practical and descriptive issues, I think (and bear in mind this is mostly theoretical, partly based on Actual Play podcasts, and with a smattering of Baldur's Gate, rather than direct experience of the tabletop game).
- You need to know the enemy's AC, which the DM must tell you each time, giving away useful information (and reducing any possibility of constructive fudging).
- It requires subtraction, which people tend to find slower than addition - especially when negative armour class comes into play.
- Amour class starts high, then decreases as it improves. Chainmail has AC6, but magic chainmail +1 has AC5, not AC7. Not only is this unintuitive, it's effectively contradicting itself. I can see where they were coming from (pluses are good, minuses are bad) but anytime you can avoid having to memorise arbitrary system-specific exceptions to normal use, you should.
- Under the suggested description, you reverse any bonuses, deducting positive numbers from your THAC0, and adding the value of negative ones.
- Similarly, a dagger +1 gives a bonus that must be subtracted from THAC0, not added to it.
- You're expected to calculate THAC0 for each specific weapon you have, each of which must then be modified to fit the target.
- THAC0 itself is, a lot of the time, a sort of secondary statistical entity, at least one step removed from anything concrete: it's the number you must roll to hit an Armour Class of 0, which you are virtually never doing. This makes it fiddlier to think about, in much the same way that standard deviations or a chi-squared x2 value are slipperier to think about than arithmetic. A Base Attack Bonus is a number you add to your die roll; a Bend Bars percentage is the percentage chance you have to bend some bars. These are much more intuitive.
As far as I can see, the switch from THAC0 to Base Attack Bonus must be one of the most sensible decisions in gaming history, at least in terms of making the game accessible.
The layout also suffers from some organisational issues. Most notably, it's quite hard to actually get all the character information beforehand. Saving throws are under the section on combat, not in character generation - in fact there's no real character generation section. Now, in fairness, they may have deliberately decided it wasn't necessary. For example, you may not strictly need to know your character's saving throws until you encounter the appropriate hazard. However, I did find it very disconcerting sitting with a character sheet, flicking back and forth as I tried to work out where the missing information was. I'm used to systems with a fairly all-encompassing chargen, where you can start at the beginning, fill in your sheet as you go, and then be ready to play. In contrast, AD&D seems almost to leave things so that you only work them out as necessary, which in some ways makes it quite like a Bethesda RPG. I'm not prepared to say that it's objectively a bad thing to do; I'm not remotely qualified. What I can say is that it leaves the game relatively difficult to absorb before you start play; and that that seems likely to cause delays when those rules do eventually come into effect.
Another issue is, the book points you towards specific chapters for things, but only displays chapter numbers on the first page of each chapter. Instead, it offers cutesy symbols on the remaining page: crossed swords are combat, a hand is wizarding, a hand with an ankh is priesting, a random assortment of objects that looks like something off a white elephant stall is class descriptions, a troll snarling in your face is encounters... There are two major problems with this approach. The first is that some of them really aren't very intuitive, but the names of the chapters are given alongside them if you open the pages properly. More pressingly, this in no way helps with the lack of numbers, since finding Combat or NPCs is no flipping use to you in finding Chapter 5: Proficiencies unless you also know what number every other chapter is. Yes, there is an index, and a contents section, but it's much nicer to just be able to flip through the book. This is particularly true when some chapters are only two pages long, and can be pretty tough to find. So, could do better.
I also found the presentation of options in some places cluttered and confusion - for example, there are different ways of calculating effects of encumbrance, and I spent quite a while trying to work out how they fitted together, before eventually spotting that they are alternatives rather than complimentary systems. The table for basic encumbrance doesn't mention movement at all, but is followed on the next page by a table listing detailed movement penalties for encumbrance. As I was trying to fill in a character sheet, I just worked through them. It's only on the third page - after descriptions of animal carrying capacities, stowage for containers, mount encumbrance and magic armour - they they get around to explaining how the basic encumbrance rules work with movement, at which point I very slowly realised something was up. But look, if you have a table called "Modified Movement Rates" that lists how encumbrance affects your movement, I don't think it's that unreasonable to assume that the latter is what you use. Stick an "optional" in the title or something, don't explain that bit in a sidebar that isn't even adjacent to it.
In terms of the burning question "is this laid out less usefully than Call of Cthulhu (6th edition)?", I'm yet to reach a final verdict. I suspect it's going to be a close call.
The saving throws are really very arbitrary, and read almost exactly like "stuff what's come up in games I ran so far", rather than any kind of systematic attempt to create a system for avoiding effects. There's the random list of quite specific magical effects, with their own little subsystem, but then any other possible effect is just an ability roll. I have to wonder why it didn't occur to them to try and mesh the two.
There's a weak argument you could make based on the text in the book, which for the Everything Else saves says: "When a character attempts to avoid danger through the use of one of his abilities...", implying that the set saves cover passive resistance and everything else is an ability roll. But that's a bit misleading, since it should be possible to actively avoid quite a few breath weapons and some kinds of spell - anything from fireballs to hypnotic gazes to visible tendrils of transmuting energy. While I can see how you might evolve a system of level-based saves for miscellaneous effects, why split them down in this way? Why are Poison, Death and Paralyzation one save, and Petrification another? Why are Wands and Rods different from spells cast any other way, and why are both different from Poison anyway? Why are Warriors more vulnerable to Poison than Rogues are, and why are Wizards better at surviving Breath Weapons than anyone else?
Yeah, I'm not convinced.
Fast, Short and Lively
On the upside, I was pretty impressed with the speed of basic character creation. Filling in the sheet took quite a while as I rummaged through the book in search of saving throws, equipment weights or whatever. However, actually rolling up Oswyn was really simple. Six lots of die rolls, followed by a fairly simple choice of class: generally you won't be qualified for about half the classes as they have ability prerequisites, and if you have one or two high scores you really want to pick the matching class.
As it happened I had generally decent scores, but high Strength and Con, so a fighter was the obvious way to go. Also, to be fair, I wanted something straightforward for my first game in the system. Having picked a fighter, all there was to do was pick a couple of weapon specialisations and go shopping. No skill points to carefully apportion, with an eye on feat choices a few levels later. No feats to choose. Admittedly I actually rather like feats, but that's not the point: they do add another, really quite large, layer of complexity. Also, in fairness, we aren't using weapon proficiencies (only specialisations) nor non-weapon proficiencies, which does save some time. And we're aiming for a human-based campaign. We did roll up backgrounds to help with character inspiration, though. But yes, I was impressed than in about an hour and a half, we managed to test the VOIP software, introduce ourselves as necessary, establish some background, create characters, shop, start working out party backstory and do a fair bit of nattering.
So far, my time breakdown looks pretty much like this (in order of time spent, not in chronological order, in case you're really confused by my apparently bizarre approach to chargen):
- Fill in character sheet: ~30 mins
- of which ransacking rulebook: ~ 24 mins
- of which entering information: ~5 mins
- of which arithmetic: ~ 1 min
- Choose name: ~10 mins
- Invent character: ~5 mins
- Pick class and character abilities: ~2 mins
- Roll attributes: ~1 min
- Pick class: ~30 secs
- Pick race: ~1 sec
whereas a typical Pathfinder breakdown might look more like:
- Pick class and character abilities: ~30 mins
- of which reading feat descriptions, synergies and prerequisites: ~25 mins
- Choose name: ~10 mins
- Pick class: ~2 mins
- Fill in character sheet: ~5 min
- of which entering information: ~3 mins
- of which ransacking rulebook: ~ 1 min
- of which arithmetic: ~ 1 min
- Invent character: ~5 mins
- Pick race: ~1 min
- Roll attributes: ~1 min
So on the whole, I've got some reservations about the actual product. That doesn't really affect my anticipation for the game: as I said, I've got an experienced DM, everyone else has solid prior experience with the game, and I don't really expect to run into any problems. So I'm pretty excited.
And obviously, this is an early RPG, and it's not entirely fair to compare it to more recent developments and try to draw some kind of direct equivalence between them. Later editions of D&D, and pretty much everything else, have... well, at least had the opportunity to learn from AD&D 2nd edition, both in terms of actual rules, system coherence, and also fluffier issues of layout and organisation.
So yes, a not particularly deep non-review of a twenty-year-old RPG system. Woot. I can't imagine why this blog hasn't acquired a fanatical cult following yet.