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Why AD&D >
However, 40K is not my favorite game.
Nor is Rock Band my favorite. My neighbor introduced me to it early in 2008 and my family and I (and many of our friends) are hooked on it. Rock Band is a tremendous amount of fun, and it’s a great way to spend time with my kids. But it is not my favorite. In fact, I haven’t played my favorite game in over 10 years.
My favorite game is Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Not the revamped D&D that Wizards of the Coast resurrected and morphed into Versions 3.0, 3.5, and (currently) 4.0. No, I mean the original 1st Edition AD&D from TSR, which I played steadily from 1982 to 1998. That is my favorite. For those of you who weren’t around or weren’t gaming back then…well, you might want to scope out what you missed. For those of you who played AD&D or were familiar with it, read on….
Why do I like that old, extinct dinosaur AD&D better than modern-day 40K? I don’t base my preference on mere nostalgia for my younger days: while I may be a middle-aged curmudgeon, I will readily admit that AD&D was far from perfect, and that not all of my many gaming experiences back then were pleasant. I also acknowledge that comparing AD&D back then and 40K now smacks of apples-and-oranges: one’s a multi-player cooperative role-playing game from the 1980’s; the other’s a two-player competitive wargame from the present. But just indulge me for a few minutes while I explain myself, willya? Thanks.
vs. Company Control
40K likes to give lip service to the idea that “the game belongs to the players,” but really, it “belongs” to Games Workshop, who dictates how 40K is played. If AD&D was made up of “guidelines” and “suggestions,” 40K is very much cut-and-dried “rules” (how well those rules are written and play-tested is another matter). Games Workshop introduces new armies, new weapons, new rules, and players passively receive them rather than creating their own. It’s not nearly as easy for 40K players to introduce something new into the game as it was for AD&D players.
Yes, it is a bit unfair to bash GW and 40K for this: while it was fine and dandy that each little AD&D group had its own unique set of game mechanics, this would not work nearly as well for 40K. AD&D was very much played in isolation: DMs and players usually gamed with the same folks for long periods of time, so there was no need for the game to be standardized among gaming groups. While you certainly can play 40K against the same people time and again, the game is more amenable to playing with different opponents: in this case standardization is better as it limits friction between players.
I certainly would not like to approach 40K in the same way as I approached AD&D, conferring before every game with my opponent on whether we agree, for example, that Space Marines carry boltguns, or if Orks really are WS4. Standardization of rules, armies, wargear, etc. is a necessary evil in 40K if you want to play someone besides your best friend.
Let me go off on a related tangent here for just a moment. Some 40K players (notably the “fluff-Nazis”) are so steeped in this mentality of “GW-controlling-the-game” that they react with hostility to other 40K players who try to introduce new elements into the game. If you don’t believe me, visit any large Internet 40K forum, start a topic about “female Space Marines,” and sit back and watch the fireworks. On many, many occasions, I have read comments from posters that say, in essence, “Games Workshop makes 40K and they say what does and doesn’t belong in the game. If GW had wanted [female Space Marines, or Space Marines allying with Tyranids, or whatever “non-fluffy” thing some player came up with] they would have put them in there.”
Even though we’re only talking about a silly game of futuristic toy soldiers, this reflexive, often eager, acceptance of authority disturbs me. I never—never—heard discussions like this among AD&D players and DMs: one might have thought that, say, a DM letting his gamers create lycanthrope player-characters was dumb, but one never—never—said, “You can’t do that because TSR doesn’t say you can.”
Perhaps though, this mentality is not so much the fault of 40K as it is of the times. Perhaps I need to visit some D&D Internet boards and see if people are telling each other that they “can’t” do this or that with the game “because Wizards of the Coast doesn’t say you can.” My point in bringing this up is that I preferred the freedom that was possible back then with AD&D.
In contrast, to play 40K, you need the current rulebook ($50), a codex for your army ($20 to $25, depending on how old the codex is), and the figures themselves. At bare bones, you’ll need one HQ figure and two Troop units: a Space Marine Captain and a box of 10 Space Marines (which you can configure into two 5-man squads, thus fulfilling your Troops requirement) runs you $50 ($15 for the Captain, $35 for the Marines). Oh, and don’t forget some templates ($8): you do want to use the nifty flamer and missile launcher that comes with your dudes, right? Six-sided dice (the only kind 40K uses) you can pick up at a dollar store or Wal-mart, so the cost is negligible, but you’re looking at about $130 (rounded down) just to get started. I repeat: just to get started. If you’ve been playing longer than two weeks, ask yourself when was the last time you played with just one HQ and two minimum-sized Troops. Yeah, I can’t recall, either.
$30 for AD&D—and you could play for the rest of your life using just that $30 investment—vis-à-vis $130 just to get your feet wet in 40K. I rest my case.
Games Workshop also produces supplemental material, notably figures and reference books for armies (the various codices) and different gaming environments (Cities of Death, Apocalypse). You can get along quite well without any of these, either, but they, too, add depth and options to the game.
GW, however, revises the core rules for 40K more often than TSR did for AD&D: Rogue Trader came out in 1987, with subsequent editions coming out in 1993, 1998, 2004, and 2008. Along with those rule revisions come new versions of the various codices for each army: if you’ve been playing as long as I have, you’ve basically bought the game five times over. Games Workshop also redesigns figures: in the 20+ years I’ve been playing, I’ve seen three different releases for Land Speeders, two different releases for Land Raiders and Rhinos, at least two versions of each Eldar Aspect Warrior, and so many Space Marine variants I’ve lost count.
By comparison, AD&D came out in 1977 and the 2nd Edition didn’t come out until 1989. If, like me, you didn’t care for 2nd Edition AD&D, you could just ignore it and keep on keepin’ on with the 1st Edition rules, which was possible because, as I mentioned, AD&D was so insular. Because 40K is more social, it behooves you, if you want to keep playing, to buy the current rules. There are gaming groups out there that are still playing Rogue Trader or 2nd Edition, but they’re few in number and hard to find, and truthfully, you probably wouldn’t want to play with those groups, anyway…
I prefer how TSR operated: 1st Edition AD&D was flawed, but there wasn’t so much of this endless re-selling of the same product over and over again (now, however, Wizards of the Coast owns the D&D franchise and has taken its sales strategy from GW). But maybe I’m just being a fussy old curmudgeon again, splitting hairs. Let’s look instead at where I think AD&D really outshined 40K: its magazine.
Dragon Magazine, in the 1980’s, during the run of 1st Edition AD&D, was simply superb, much better than White Dwarf now, and even better than the “golden years” of White Dwarf when Jervis and Andy (remember them?) knocked heads in monthly batreps. Year after year, Dragon offered new character classes, new spells, new magic items, new monsters, full-length adventures, fiction, answers to player questions, comics, and much more. Most of Dragon’s articles were written by regular gamers, the editing was superb, and advertisements from gaming companies kept the cost down (about $6 an issue in today's money--not cheap, but worth it, as you will see).
Some of my favorite Dragon items were:
Hmmm... maybe Wormy (the dragon with the blue cap) has the right idea on how to make this hobby profitable
…and so on. If you can find a copy of the Dragon Magazine Archive, several CD-ROMs with issues 1-250, get it and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Was Dragon perfect? Of course not, but in its heyday, its hits far outweighed its misses. You didn’t have to buy Dragon, but it was so good that you were seriously missing out on excellent stuff.
Contrast that with the glorified—and very expensive—catalog that Games Workshop calls White Dwarf. I don’t need to recount all of WD’s failings: you can pick up the latest issue and see them yourself, or just check here. Buy White Dwarf, and all you’re doing is throwing away your money.
Modules Were Better
AD&D adventures could be...well, just about anything, from your typical "hack-and-slash," to strict role-playing (I had many sessions where there was no combat), to investigate puzzle-solving, to travelling, to purchasing necessary equipment or selling unwanted magic items...the possibilities were just about endless. No two gaming sessions had to be the same.
DMs were encouraged to make up their own adventures (I created almost all of mine), but if a DM didn't want to or didn't have time, they could purchase a pre-generated adventure, or "module" from TSR. Most of the modules were just okay, but some were instant classics. Modules like:
To get through these adventures, you needed brains, brawn, and a little bit of luck
I also had a fondness for "The Ghost Tower of Inverness" (more about that later), and the "Lost Cavens of Tsojcanth" (with all its funky new monsters and magic items), and "The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh" (a good low-level adventure). I always wanted to run a party through S1, “Tomb of Horrors,” but my group had already heard about what a "killer" dungeon it was, and they wanted no part of it! Can't think why...
When they march to war, they are accompanied by the same Meks, who ensure the Burna Boyz do not get carried away and set light to the other Orks merely so they will “do the burny dance.”Other than that, though, it’s wall-to-wall doom-and-gloom: the Imperium is crumbling, the power of Chaos is growing, and none of it matters anyway because the Tyranids are going to eat everyone.
While AD&D had plenty of “dark” and “Gothic” things (death knights, liches) that scared the pants off of gamers, it was willing to back off and even laugh at itself every now and then. You had to like the illustration in the Players Handbook of the troll following an adventurer, patiently winding up the string that the fellow was trailing behind him as he went, unsuspecting, through a dungeon. The Dungeon Master’s Guide had several very funny cartoons, too: three adventurers puzzle over a hand-shaped magic item, unsure if it helps in casting the various Bigby’s…Hand spells or is merely a +2 backscratcher. The Wand of Wonder could produce anything from fireballs to clouds of harmless butterflies. E. Gary Gygax wrote two modules based around Alice in Wonderland. And every year, Dragon magazine put out an April Fool’s issue filled with silliness.
On a different, but related subject, in 40K “good guys” are few and hard to find. The Imperium is a brutal regime where billions of lives are sacrificed every year to wars or purges, and most of those who continue to live are slaves to an indifferent, soul-crushing bureaucracy of gargantuan proportions. The Imperium and its servants—Space Marines, Imperial Guard, and the Inquisition—are “good” only in the sense that they defend the human race against enemies—Chaos Marines, Tyranids, Orks, Dark Eldar, Necrons—that are even worse. Even the supposedly “noble” races, the Tau and the Eldar, are morally flawed. The Eldar callously manipulate other races to preserve their own, and the Tau’s “join-us-or-die” attitude certainly isn’t cheery. This paucity of “good guys” has run through 40K since its beginning, but it’s just as relevant—perhaps even more relevant—in the morally ambiguous times we find ourselves in.
Though AD&D gave lip service to the conflict between Law and Chaos, really, it was all about Good versus Evil, and players were overtly encouraged to take the higher road. Sure, you could play an assassin, but woe to you if your character got within sword’s reach of a paladin or a ranger (both of which were powerful, Good-aligned player classes). Evil was mainly the province of the DM, who had legions of devils and demons (back before 2nd Edition AD&D went politically correct and re-named them to avoid charges of promoting Satanism), orcs, goblins, giants, and “color” dragons (Red, White, Blue, Green, and Black) to throw at PCs. The theme of “Good vs. Evil” may seem corny, especially to younger gamers who’ve cut their teeth on “dark” and “edgy” games like 40K, but I find it refreshing, especially given the times we live in.
40K has not been nearly so balanced. Was it just me, or were Eldar nigh-unbeatable back in the Bad Old Days of 2nd Edition? How about 3rd Edition Iron Warriors, with their nine Obliterators and four Heavy Support choices—remember them? Over the years—not so much during 3rd Edition, but more prevalent in 4th and picking up steam in 5th—40K has suffered from “codex creep,” where the latest army to get a new book is more powerful than those who just got one, and those who haven’t had a new book in ages (Dark Eldar, Daemonhunters, even Necrons at this point) are falling way behind in the arms race. I know many, many folks who have temporarily retired armies until a new codex for them comes out, because they simply aren’t competitive anymore.
The Gaming Experience
AD&D was, at its heart, storytelling: it was one tale after another. The DM created the setting and directed the antagonists and put the plot in motion; the players, through their characters, took on the roles of protagonists and brought the story to life. And because AD&D was cooperative, not competitive, it produced, when done right, a synergy that elevated it beyond a mere “game” and into something more memorable. Characters became almost real; campaigns became epic struggles; battles were fought and hardships were endured for more than just gold pieces and experience points.
This is not to say that every AD&D session I’ve ever had was rapturous gaming bliss. A lot depended on how good the DM was and, to an even greater extent, how good the players were. And by “good,” I don’t mean how well they knew the game, or how clever they were, but how committed everyone was to working together to create an enjoyable experience. One selfish or stupid person could quickly ruin a gaming session, and there were too many hours I spent enduring preening narcissists who demanded constant attention and handholding; troublemakers promoting their own, disruptive agendas; boors with the social skills of feces-flinging apes. I have a lot of great memories from playing AD&D, but there are quite a few bad memories, too.
Nevertheless, playing AD&D was, for me, more intense, more meaningful, than playing 40K ever has been. Good times I’ve had with 40K—winning two tournaments, meeting new people and making new friends at events like Counter Offensive, helping out gamers with this site—have been fun and rewarding, but not as fun and rewarding as the times I have had on Sunday afternoons with my old AD&D group. I remember very vividly rolling up my first character—a paladin—and sitting down to my first games in my friend Morgan’s basement, dealing with the GAMF (God Almighty Mother F—well, you know) monsters that our DM threw at us. I remember joining another gaming group and the DM not showing up, so I stepped in and DMed Module C1, "The Ghost Tower of Inverness," without having read it first. Shortly thereafter, I took over as the group’s DM, and soon I learned what to do (design campaign worlds, establish ongoing narratives) and what not to do (Monty Haul giveaways). And I went on from there, for many, many years.
That Was Then,
This Is Now
A few years later, intrigued by what Wizards of the Coast had done after purchasing the license, I picked up some books and ran a few 3rd Edition games, but I found the system overly complicated, and its tone more like a video game than a role-playing game. The 4th Edition seems to be WoTC trying to ape World of Warcraft. Which is fine for a lot of folks, I suppose, but not for a crusty, old 1st Edition AD&D dinosaur like me.
My life is busier now than it ever has been. I work full-time; I have two children; I run two websites (this one and a personal one); I’m active in my parish’s Knights of Columbus; and every weekend, my house is invaded by crazed in-laws, neighbors, and friends who want to jam out on Rock Band 2. 40K fits my hectic life better than AD&D: I only get to play perhaps a half-dozen times a year, but in between games, I can paint, build scenery, and run this site.
But even so,
I still have the itch to play AD&D. I tell myself that I don’t have
time. I tell myself that I don’t have players. I tell myself that I’m living
in the past, that I should just let it all go, that I should be content
to just play 40K. But from time to time, I thumb through my old books and
I ponder what could be, and I remember that while I like 40K, my first
love has been and always will be AD&D.
Posted December 2008
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