Wednesday, May 15, 2019

AD&D 2nd Edition - Player's Handbook

Just handling this book was a serious nostalgia trip for me. AD&D 2nd Edition was my very first roleplaying game. For a long while, it was the only one I even knew existed (I guess I probably inferred the existence of an AD&D first edition, but honestly it's not a thought that came up all too often). My original Player's Handbook saw a lot of rough use. I still have it, but it is sunbleached and disintegrating, held together with at least three different types of tape. I wound up buying a replacement copy several months ago, and the brightness of the cover and the cleanness of the pages was a sensual shock. At least for a moment, I remembered what it felt like when I was young, and the rpg hobby was new.

However, my parting from AD&D 2nd edition was not an amicable one. Once I became exposed to other games, a great many frustrations and complaints immediately crystalized, as if from nowhere. I realized that I didn't like the way the rules seemed ad-hoc and arbitrary, the way its fantastic elements were siloed off into the spellcasting classes, the stultifying narrowness of its implicit setting assumptions, and THAC0 was bad, too. I didn't just become an overnight convert to other rpg systems, I became a passionate apostate. AD&D 2nd edition, once my favorite activity in the whole world, became the antithesis of everything I enjoyed about the hobby.

Generally, I've found that when I go back to media that pissed me off as a child, I'll have mellowed considerably towards it as an adult, seeing virtues I was too proud to acknowledge, in that absolutist way that children have. Why, I can even almost kinda see the point in college football. I'd have never admitted that at 14.

So were there any similar revelations after going back through my old Player's Handbook?

Sort of?

All my old complaints are still as valid as always. AD&D 2nd edition reads like a stitched-together Frankenstein's monster of house rules and tournament nitpicking, but that's not quite as bad a thing as I made it out to be. For one thing, there's not as much of it as I remember.

I don't know. Two-hundred and thirty-six A4 pages felt like a lot back then. The Player's Handbook wasn't just a book, it was a tome. There were so many rules, and they were different enough from each other that there were no shortcuts to memorizing. It was such a burden.

And don't get me wrong, AD&D 2nd edition has rules where it doesn't need rules. The swimming section takes up a whole page, with its various corner cases and situational modifiers. It doesn't need to be that long. Vision and Light did not need to be its own, separate chapter. There is cruft.

But, when you consider that spells, once again, take up half the book (sigh), it turns out that the AD&D rules come in at 124 pages. That's really not all that much, all things considered. I'm blessed with the knowledge that a well-written game could have covered the same ground in 60 pages and still captured the same feel, but I'm also cursed with the knowledge that younger me was overreacting something fierce. I mean, GURPS exists.

What then, is my verdict on the AD&D 2nd Edition Player's handbook, given the perspective of history? Well, AD&D is still not a very good game, and you should probably look up an OSR alternative if you want to play its style of game, but 2nd edition is a noticeable and welcome step up from 1st. I miss half-orcs. I miss assassins. But those losses aside, second edition is clearer, friendlier to both newbies and experts, easier to reference, and both more complete and (slightly) more consistent. It is the game AD&D 1st edition was trying to be.

UKSS Contribution: Dungeons and Dragons does this weird thing where some of its magical spells will have reverse versions, condensed in the same text. The Light spell has a companion, Darkness. Cure Serious Wounds reverses to Inflict Serious Wounds. And so on. If you learn the spell, you automatically learn its reverse, but they count as separate spells for purposes of memorization and whatnot.

I'm not taking the reversal mechanic as a whole, but I bring it up because sometimes reversing a spell results in something that would be a pretty weird spell on its own, and it's one of those weird spells that I'm interested in.

So, you know how it's a pretty boilerplate fantasy thing for a magician to turn their enemies to stone? The White Witch did it in Narnia. It's a spell in Final Fantasy. And so on. It should come as no surprise then, that you can do it in AD&D as well.

What is surprising is how you do it. See, "Flesh to Stone" is not a spell in AD&D. It is rather the reversal to a spell. The standard (and I want you to imagine this "standard" with about a dozen square quotes around it, because italics for emphasis is really not conveying how much work the word "standard" is doing here) spell is actually "Stone to Flesh."

Petrifying your enemies like Medusa is a side effect of the AD&D wizard's regular curriculum. When they are receiving tuition in the dark arts, what they initially study is how to turn rocks into meat.

And I know what you're thinking, "oh, you mean the harmful version of the spell is a perversion of the restorative spell that cures petrification? You know, it's kind of dismissive to call that 'turning rocks into meat.'" But while you would be right to think that healing basilisk victims is a major application of Stone to Flesh, you'd be missing what I'm trying to tell you. You can use this spell on ordinary rocks!

(Imagine me running around for several minutes with my arms flailing in the air like a muppet in panic mode)

How? Why? The spell description suggests it might useful for tunneling. Excuse me while I vomit forever.

So I figure that this must be connected to some big metaphysical thing. Like how in Norse mythology the world was built out of the remains of the frost giant Ymir. In UKSS world, all stone is part of the body of some ancient god. Some order of wizards, studying magic like particle physicists study atoms, found out that you could use a certain spell to flip the switch back and forth. Later, this knowledge was weaponized into a petrification spell, but that's just incidental. Every magician and  natural philosopher knows that rocks contain the magical signature of unspecified primordial meat.


  1. So let me get this straight: Rock to Meat could, in a culinary supplement that has yet to be written in a future not yet imagined, be specialised into spells such as:
    Sandstone to Hamburger
    Granite to Beef
    Basalt to Goat

    1. It's pretty horrifying to think about, yes. Though I was sort of imagining the "flesh" in "stone to flesh" to be some chthonic god-meat, the consumption of which would drive men mad.

  2. Artefacts that do Stone to Flesh might explain how Dwarves managed to prosper in a rather food short environment.

    The Ancient Hearth Forges at the centre of Dwarven citymines ensure that the Beef Jerky Mines never run out...