Standing up for D&D's Gen X: 2e (Part 1)

This is part 1 of 2 about 2nd edition. Part 1 will focus on the rules aspects. Part 2 on the nebulous 'culture' aspect of 2e.

Out there in real life, I just about made the cut for an elder millennial. But in terms of DnD generations, I am very much Gen X - The Forgotten Generation. 

Sandwiched in between the cantankerous curmudgeons of the B/X and AD&D 1e old schoolers who from their loftily perched blogs, abrasively champion their refined and sophisticated simple gaming ways and dour-weird piss-bag adventure aesthetics (all hail Erol Otus!)
and the guileless charoppers of 3e that revelled in posting "build guides" on message boards for prestige classes and tricked out feat chains, considered Wayne Reynolds real cool and thought planning out their Conjurer 3/Incantatrix 10/Fatespinner 4 15 levels in advance to be a fine act of character development

Is the un-championed generation X of 2nd edition romantic railroaders and the sad fools who learned their naive D&D at the teat of Frank Mentzer coupled with Larry Elmore's ren-faire art. 

Beloved by all except Erol Otus diehards.
One of my favourites from 2e, but there's a few I like more

If there is something everyone can agree on, albeit for vastly different reasons, it is to casually shit on 2nd edition from a great height. Like the eldest and youngest siblings who are much too different to like each other, but still find kinship in ganging up on the middle child.

And what's not to hate? It's got kits, XP-for-roleplaying, THAC0, Non-Weapon Proficiencies, Skills & Powers, Dragonlance, Tanar'ri&Baatezu and no harlot table in the DMG. Just about the only thing worth speaking up for is the range of settings produced during this era.

Let me start on a tangent to my main point, by saying that 2e is a straight up superior ruleset to 1e (and 3e, for all the old school reasons I won't go into here). For starters, it was written by Dave Cook. A name even most grognards award grudging respect for his B/X work, though for some reason, all the grognards who lament his unpretentious and succinct prose in the 2e core books as prosaic, have no problem with the very same prose when he wrote the Expert set for the Classic D&D line.

My favourite from the PHB!
It always takes me right into the tavern there with them

The two main rulebooks are much better organised and clearer in their writing, free of Gygax' affected, imprecise and self-indulgent prose (it works great for teenagers I'm sure, and people who were teenagers when they read it, but let's be clear - He was a dreadful try-hard writer who sorely needed a harsher editor) and cleaned up of follies like segments, surprise, psionics, alignment languages, bards-as-prestige-class, monks and a host of other accumulated Frankensteinian gobbledygook.

"But kits! The splat! Proficiencies!"

First of all, there is such a thing as good clean splat. The four volumes of the Wizard's Spell Compendium and four volumes of the Encyclopedia Magica is a smordgasbord extragagavanza unlikely to be repeated in our lifetimes. And 2e gave us that. So there.

Secondly, let's talk about the depravities of Unearthed Arcana before we go into the the "Complete..." series, shall we? The book that gave us: Weapon and non-weapon proficiencies. Comeliness. Cavaliers, Barbarians, thief-acrobats. Gray Dwarves. Deep gnomes. Gray Elves. Wood elves. Wild elves. Valley elves. Dark elves.

Don't try to deny using it, grognards. Unearthed Arcana was one of the best selling supplements of the 1e era. Everyone's dirty little secret.

Hell. The Assassin, the D&D equivalent of the "X-men comics in the 90s" aesthetic, was in the 1e Player's handbook! Complete with an awfully Gygaxian "minimum fees for assassination" table. gargh.

I think the Myrmidon kit granting an extra weapon proficiency slot stands pretty tame in comparison to the excesses of 1e.

The point here being that what grognards eviscerate 2e for, they wilfully ignore for 1e, as if all these things were never even part of the game.

Here is the thing about 2nd edition that most people seem to overlook. 2e had all those parts, but unlike 1e, 2e was modular by design.

This piece utterly fascinated me as a teenager.
Still does today.

Of course all RPGs are, to some extent, modular by nature. Hence house-rules. And TSR D&D has, by and large, always been modular by intent (though Gygax did shamefully try to claim houseruling was not allowed in AD&D at one point). 

But 2nd edition is the only TSR D&D game that is actually modular by design. A lot of the rules in the two core books are actually marked as optional, and clearly so, sectioned off in blue boxes and clear language to make the case. Moreover, every time an optional rule, such as encumbrance, is mentioned elsewhere in the books, it is clearly emphasised as an optional rule. 

It's one of the defining features of the core books (and a philosophy doubled down on through the various supplements) and something that it does not get nearly enough credit for.

"I don't need a book to tell me what to houserule thankyouverymuch" the grognard indignantly growls. 

Sure, no one needs it. I am sure you're an excellent independently thinking DM.
But having it is actually very helpful, because it tells you which parts are integrated into the core of the system (meaning - if you tamper with this, it could have ripple effects elsewhere) and which parts you can rip out without any concern for ripple effects. And 2e posts blue stickers all over the core books on the parts that can easily be dispensed with and explicitly makes sure that where an optional system interacts with another mechanic, said mechanic works fine with and without that optional system. As an example, this is how emphatic the PHB is about proficiencies:

"All proficiencies are additions to the game. Weapon proficiencies are tournament level rules, optional in regular play. and non-weapon proficiencies are completely optional. Proficiencies are not necessary for a balanced game."

If you go through the 2e Player's Handbook, identify all the parts that are explicitly marked as "optional" and take them out, you end up with a system like this:

  • 3d6 six times in order for attributes. No Shenanigans.
  • Only Fighter, Thief, Wizard and Cleric as allowed classes.
  • Easy-to-learn-and-run side-based initiative and combat
  • No Weapon or Non-Weapon Proficiencies.
  • No Encumbrance
  • No spell components
  • no casting times
  • no weapons vs armor modifiers
  • death at 0 hp
  • No weapon speed 
  • No critical hits
  • no individual xp awards
  • no training
What you are left with is a lovely restrained game engine whose parts fit together really well. A base game frankly much superior to the patchwork nature of 1e and a solid peer to classic D&D in the solidly trimmed game engine department.
Yes to all the things about this art piece. Fuck yeah, Easley.

What it has as an edge over classic D&D and 1e is its inherent modularity to add to this base. It's easy to add more complexity where you want because the system is designed for it.
Want more classes? They are right there and ready. No fiddling with conversion if you're a B/Xer. And frankly, the classes are just better designed than its 1e counterparts, Illusionist notwithstanding. Want even more? 

Kits is actually a very good way of adding granularity without adding much mechanical crunch (especially if you aren't using proficiencies) - I would even go as far as saying that they do the job just fine of adding variety on top of just the four base classes (is a fighter with the wilderness warrior kit thematically really different from a ranger?).

I have my issues with 2e. It annoys me that they changed the Morale score, which makes running classic modules an extra hassle with conversion. I don't like proficiencies, which is fine as it is optional, but I do like Weapon specialisation as the Fighter's niche and there are no guidelines for how to use those rules without proficiencies (there really should have been. Not that hard to separate out).

But I love the tight base game that is still so very compatible with everything that came before it. And all the options I have to lay on to it from there. And that "tight base game + options" is actually the default lens of the game. How it wants you to see it.

I don't know that it is a better game than B/X, although certainly less ambiguous in its rules. But it is a strong contender to it for the best version of D&D ever made.

I am going to end this post with that mic drop and see you in a few days with Part 2 where we talk culture.


  1. In the interest of fairness, I forgot the mention the weakest part of 2e: The experience system. Although gold for XP does exists as an optional rule (with a caution that this rule may lead to handing out too much treasure) and I am not a priori opposed to expanding the horizon beyond gold=xp, the 2e take on the alternative is piss weak.

    XP for combat, using class skills, staying alive and completing the adventure. Only class skills and killing stuff with actual metrics. That whole chapter should have gone straight to the bin.

    1. The "completing the adventure", aka story goals, is recommended to be no more than the total of XP from defeating monsters. It the adventure has a strong story element (i.e. isn't simply a smash/kill/grab), then that's 50% of the XP.

  2. Just as people forget about the bad monsters in the MM in their haste to gang up on the FF, so the bad classes in the 1e PHB show the limits of the kitbashed design taken to its height in UA. Bards, rangers, assassins, and monks are all in their own way unworkable, and the druid-cleric comparison is not very favorable to the new class either.

  3. Very well said - I began playing D&D with 2nd Edition, and have always loved it. I never played 1e, but have been confused by the various 2e complaints that apply at least as much to 1e - but I have no nostalgia for 1e, and I definitely have nostalgia for 2e. 2e offered a lot of resources, options, and settings (even before WOTC took it over), and it was all optional. DMs and players always have to negotiate character options and builds, right? How could one complain about splat in any edition, when it is never a core requirement?

  4. I know the Gen X angle is not really the center of your post, but I just have to say, as a squarely Gen X person, that D&D was just the baby game we started with in my Gen X world, well before the term Gen X had been invented. For us, AD&D 2e was for the people who didn't have the intelligence to play any other RPGs and who were shackled by brand loyalty to TSR as it painted itself into a bland corner. D&D was for people who thought hit dice made sense. We really were snobs about it, when it crossed our mind even to think about AD&D 2e, a game for power gamers. This is reverse to the kind of snobbery that one encounters today from slightly younger gamers who want to extol AD&D 1e to lofty heights, even though they missed it at the time, blaming 2e for everything bad without ever reading it. I suppose AD&D 2e will never get full respect, either from us players who turned up their noses and left D&D behind in the '80s, or from the wannabe-grognards who missed 1e at the time and still throw OSR tantrums, with their litany of accusations over what went wrong after Gary left. Looking forward to your next post on the merits of an influential version of the same old game, which is really not that different from the other versions. You make good points. AD&D 2e is mostly a big box of optional rules. It's not surprising that 2e gets hate from gamers who like everything defined in stone in a classic standard version.

    1. oh there will be generational analysis in part 2. x-D

      I hear you on the intellectual elitism. I was often off pondering the superior merits of skill based systems that had actual wounds, defensive abilities and armor reducing injury.

      It took me many years to reconcile that none of those systems ever actually ran as well as D&D at the actual table come game night.

  5. This was an interesting read. I wonder if the modularity has contributed to 2e's relative lack of visibility in the OSR scene - there's no quintessential 2e to clone and some people's favorite parts are anathema to others. (I know I'm partial to kits but dislike weapon proficiencies.)

    2e definitely had the best art though.

  6. 3 Points: (1) "Larry Elmore's ren-faire art" is a perfect encapsulation of Larry Elmore's work. (2) Nearly everyone I know bought Unearthed Arcana but I don't know of anyone that used anything from that book. Yes it is AD&D but sort of a lost child (like Fiend Folio) for some reason (3) The reason there is little love for 2E is because mechanically it was nearly the same as 1E just reformatted so there is little point to emulating it.

    What would be worth emulating is the Monster Catalogue idea which would work far better in the pdf world than it did with hardcopy books that couldn't just leave the backs of each page blank.

  7. B/X was my starter, AD&D my first feeling of adultry, but 2nd Ed. was, is an allways will be my real love. Yes, some rules were mediocre at best. Some kits where overpowered (never will forget the first bladesinger charakter in my campaign), but those kits provided more help to roleplay characters than 5e backgrounds, alignment system and extensive fluff books combined. And all this in a time where AD&D was still a synonym for pure dungeon crawling, at least in central europe.

    So many fond memories. Thanks for your post!

  8. Ah, 2e, the most underrated D&D edition!

    I'm not saying it is the best, but certainly gets lots of undeserved hate!

  9. Enjoyed this. I didn’t think I had played 2e, but after reading the post, I’m pretty sure my friend’s game I played in for years was 2e with all the options switched on; it was awful.

    Really though, I’m commenting to commend you on the inclusion of Elmore’s Dragon Hunt, and link this excellent analysis of it from BardicBroadcasts:

  10. I've blogged about my love/hate relationship to 2E before. Like you, there are some things I think 2E did better than other editions, some things that suck. Generally I like 2E, and there are bits of it in my Franken-edition. Back in the 90s, my friends and I just casually mixed both 1E and 2E stuff in our games, and it was never a problem.

  11. Alright, alright... Just let me quick get a link to the PHB and DMG pdfs. (Already got one for the MM. The best of all the monster books!)

    But what makes it mechanically superior to 1st and 3rd edition? I need to know!

    1. Compared to 1e:
      Combat runs much better. Surprise rule are intelligible, rounds don't fiddle segments which was a massive overcomplication, to hit tables are replaced with THAC0 and overall just streamlined things a lot.
      Classes are cleaned up a fair bit and structured better.
      Overall, it's just structured better, runs smoother, with some warts removed. It's not a massive difference. Just an incremental improvement.

      Compared to 3e: Oof, this is basically a different game. There's a lot of reasons, but basically similar ones to why anyone would play TSR D&D over WotC D&D. I've posted some critiques on this blog over the years. I could try and dig out some reference material.


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