I started playing the game in 1987. My first experiences were with Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, or 1E as many call it. I was immediately hooked. The only D&D book I owned at that time was the Advanced D&D Players Handbook. I didn’t have the money to buy anything else. I tried to expand my collection by asking my grandma for a Dungeon Master’s Guide as a birthday present. She realized what I was playing, the Satanic Panic kicked in, and I was denied.
As I entered high school, the 2nd edition was released. Since I only owned one 1E book, I figured I might as well pick up the 2E stuff. My excruciatingly slow accumulation of game books began. Once I was 16, I acquired a driver’s license and was able drive 15 minutes to the closest place part time work that was readily available. I slopped pizzas at Pizza Hut for while and waited tables at a family restaurant during my senior year of high school. With my earnings I was finally able to purchase more Dungeons and Dragons books. That was something of an event itself. It required traveling 30 miles to the closest B. Dalton bookstore in the only mall for 2 counties. The closest game shop was a two hour drive from my house. It might as well have been on another continent.
2E was my first deep dive into the hobby.
I have a small bit of nostalgia for that time. Very small mind you but nostalgia nonetheless.
When 2E first came out, I was a freshman in high school. I had a Dragon Magazine subscription. For the first two years it existed, I could only afford one book every six months, maybe.
I remember that by the time I was a sophomore, I had a Monstrous Compendium. I would mimic the illustrations for drawings in art class. It was also when I started to learn how to be a DM. Around the time I started having a little money in my pocket, TSR was releasing a series of books about how to be a DM. These were some of the most important books I owned. They were what started me down this road.
2E was a big part of what was a transition period for me and who I was. At the time 2E came out, I was naive and ignorant about the world. I was a good kid in a rural town surrounded by relatives and people who genuinely cared for me. After I graduated high school, went out into the world and had some life experiences with people who were not so nice as the people where I grew up.
By the time TSR collapsed under the weight of bad leadership and the 2E era ended; I had become a jaded and disillusioned young man who took one look at what 3E was and said, “pass.” I was also of the mindset that I was a man who needed to put away childish things. I got out of the hobby for about 12 years and didn’t get back in until I discovered OSRIC.
The 90’s was the era of the “splat book.”
It was in that time when game companies realized they could sell a hell a of a lot more books if they sold them to players as well as Dungeon Masters. There were was a line of “Complete” books with expanded “kits” for different character classes, non-weapon proficiencies and variations. There were some interesting ideas here but it added a lot of bloat to the game. A lot of those books were full of padded writing. Mangement wanted a certain page count, assigned it to a designer and by the gods they were going to get that page count. Never mind that half of it might as well have been ipsum lorem.
The construction of the books was terrible in some cases. The Monsterous Compendium was a collection of loose leaf sheets in a binder. You could add new hole punched sheets which were to be released on a regular schedule or monsters unique to a particular setting. It wasn’t a terrible idea but never seemed to work well in practice. The quality of the binders was poor and the paper was thin. They tore out at the hole punches if you weren’t careful.
Then there was the situation with management and how they over printed everything they made because they were abusing the deal they had with Random House.
2E was a vast improvement in information organization.
The 1E books were scattershot in their organization. Gary’s DMG has so much fantastic knowledge and deep experience of the game woven into it but it is a true pain in the rear to navigate.
The 2E team made huge improvements in this area. You can easily find what you are looking for in those core books. The tables are where you’d expect them to be.
In short, they learned some lessons from 1E and applied them. This is what I would expect a team of professionals to do but that’s not always what we get.
2E made some logical improvements to the game.
I don’t want to spend a lot of time on mechanisms. There were some changes that I felt made the game better in some ways. There were some things I didn’t like such as some of the individual Experience Point awards but that is easy enough to ignore.
The separation of spells into different schools and spheres made sense to me. Playing a wizard that specialized in certain spell types makes a lot of sense and gives players a way to differentiate their wizard from another wizard.
The thief skill system was a great improvement over the fixed progressions of 1E.
The 2E era had some truly great products.
Even though there were some stinkers in the 2E line, there were some things about that period that are unique. The current IP holders of Dungeons and Dragons would do well to consider how they might learn from them. Not that they will but that’s a different blog post.
New and Original Campaign Settings
TSR created some of it’s best campaign settings for 2nd edition. Ravenloft, SpellJammer, Planescape and my favorite Dark Sun were all released during this time. There was some bad here too, Birth Right. <cough cough>
Dark Sun was and remains one of the best settings ever created for D&D. I’ve listened to some interviews with the principle designers and I’m struck by how forward thinking TSR was on that product line. For one, it was created from the start as a transmedia product. Transmedia is now turning into what every major entertainment conglomerate is working on but back then it was a relatively undeveloped concept that was successfully executed in Dark Sun.
It was a setting with deeply considered themes and motifs. The art by Brom was masterful and unique. You could show me a Brom image for the setting that I’ve never seen and I would know exactly who did it and what it was for. They played around with physical components of the adventure format in interesting ways as well. The adventures came as steno-like flip books with heavy pages and lots of illustrations for players.
You could see that the setting was drawing from a number of different influences including historical cultures and places but they were changed and altered in ways that made it unique to itself. Instead of thinking “Fantasy Sumeria” you thought, “Fantasy world with a bit of Sumeria, and the Aztecs, and Mad Max and…”
Cannibal halflings. What’s better than that?
TSR Made an Earnest Effort to Train Dungeon Masters
Here is some old school heresy.
The DMGR line of books for 2E was a better resource for DM’s than Gary’s Dungeon Masters Guide.
One of the books that taught me how to be a better DM was DMGR1 Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide written mostly by Jennell Jaquays. Jennell wrote some of the best adventures ever published for the game and here is a book full of her ideas about how the be a good DM. This book doesn’t get nearly enough love.
It goes through all the topics a new DM needs to know to have a successful campaign.
- How to start a group and find players.
- How to create a campaign setting from scratch.
- How to create a dungeon.
- Pacing, improvisation, dealing with troublesome players and other skills the DM needs.
The book is mostly basic knowledge that an experience DM will have learned. I’ve been picking it up and re-reading it here and there lately. I have learned, or perhaps remembered a few things even today. As a foundational text for a new DM, it’s gold. Though dated in some ways, a 5E DM could learn a lot from it.
There were several other books in the DMGR series that helped me to learn DMing. TSR knew that one of the biggest limiting factors in the game was a shortage of skilled Dungeon Masters.
If you have skilled DM’s you will have more people who want to play. More people who want to play = more books sold. It also, at the same time as you are selling more books, you are improving the quality of play in the hobby. This is huge. In my opinion, one of the biggest priorities of any tabletop game publisher should be to support and improve the skills of the game masters running their game. Without good game masters there are no good games.
Where’s the love?
For whatever reason, 2E just doesn’t get much love despite having produced some of the best products ever written for D&D.
I don’t entirely understand why that is. I’m going to start sprinkling in some reviews (retrospectives?) of some of the greatest hits from 2E here on the Grumpy Wizard blog.