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

This is part 2 of a 2 part series. Part 1 is about 2e rules. Part 2 is about 2e 'culture'. 

Here's my dirty little secret that I never told anyone before:

I actually really liked the Complete Book of Elves.

I am just going to leave that bombshell hanging in the air and return to it later in this post, in the hope that the shock value of that statement will minimise the impact of what I am going to say next.

The aesthetic of 2nd edition expanded and improved the D&D genre of fantasy.

I am going to interject here and say that this post covers two 'cultural' parts - Genre/aesthetics and Style of play. Right now we're obviously talking the first part, but I will get to the second further down. Alright, back to the topic at hand:

Let's ignore the masochistic"I prefer the cheapass sketches to top of the line artists" argument that you see 1st editioners espouse every now and then as insular nostalgic nonsense and go to a second point: 
Most 1e grognard complaints in this department seem to be that 2e is basically Paladins & Princesses - After all, they removed half-orcs and assassins and renamed devils and demons.

Those are, honestly, improvements. Assassins and half-orcs was the 80s version of edgelording. People who genuinely think they were missed in 2e are the same kind of people whose favourite marvel characters are Gambit and Carnage (would be wolverine except for how mainstream popular he is). As gaming fantasy goes, it's about as naff as anything can be. Also, no one cares if your devils and demons now have a new name even though everyone knows they are devils and demons. Grow up.

Now, let me start by saying I have a lot of appreciation for the Sword & Sorcery genre. And I think it is an excellent baseline for D&D fantasy. But there is a critical element of fantasy very under-represented in the 1e aesthetic. Arthuriana.

As a child, I loved Ivanhoe, Prince Valiant and Arthurian tales. I enjoyed Ladyhawk and Willow. And Three Hearts & Three Lions is absolutely a D&D tale in my view.

Now, that is not to say that I am secretly yearning for AD&D to be Pendragon-in-drag(on), although it bears mention that Malory's La Morte D'Arthur and Prince Valiant are, in fact, metal as fuck (Valiant in particular - sacks cities, sells people into slavery and casually kills people he doesn't need to - also, his arthurian world is the definition of crapsack).

But I want them to be a part of the D&D fantasy genre without dissonance. What place does a paladin actually have in the murderhobo looting gaming aesthetic of 1e AD&D? None. The paladin is honestly a really weird fit for the 1e alleged style of play.

But it has a place in second edition. The same way Tolkien's brand of fantasy does. The 2e aesthetic is probably the most medieval one of all editions and somehow that's a bigger tent. But let's also put this in perspective. Yes 2e gave us Larry Elmore and his epic landscapes, but the most used artist in the 2e era is probably Jeff Easley. 

The guy whose art framed the covers of all three 2e core books, all three revised 1e core books, the rules cyclopedia, the black box D&D set, the revised 2e core books, the revised black box, the Player's Option covers and more. 

I mean, it's crazy how many core books he did the covers for. Basically all of post B/X ones that wasn't BECMI. No one defined the post 1e TSR aesthetic more than him. And he was metal as fuck. Look at this shit:

He smashes the door with a full body flex? WTF.
Also, I want to play that thief behind him.
Fly, you fools
A rare 2e heroic ambush

But there's a few Easley pieces I feel really encapsulates the defining tone of 2nd edition, what I call "Knights in Grimey Armor".

The PHB cover is basically how I envisioned 9th+ level fighters to look after they've attracted followers and established a stronghold. Riding out to dish out the pain.

These guys aren't your crapsack dungeon delvers trying to turn a quick gold coin by sneaking past some kobolds in the borderlands. There is definitely something a bit more upright about them. But they also aren't exactly knights in shining armor (though the PHB fighter's armor does have a shine to it). They look battle-hardened and of uncertain morality.

These are guys who could perhaps be knighted for their service to the realm - then go down to the local taverns to impress the harlots there with their latest orcskull cleaving exploits and all the gold they looted from them. Easley's fighters are the ones I want to play. They have range, of a sort, in the kind of fantasy they express.

And that is what the "Knights in Grimey Armor" aesthetic is about to me - Range. A world that has room for explorer's leaving their quaint hobbit holes, dungeon delving Gray Mousers, Lothlorien elves, fighters whose personality and appearance is simply "hard" and the occasional knight who does in fact polish his armour every night.

2nd edition didn't swap Sword & Sorcery for Paladins & Princesses. It simply expanded the D&D fantasy genre to hold those (already existent in 1e) elements with less dissonance. Does 2e have elements of ren-fair? Yes, thankfully. Is it pre-dominantly ren-faire? No. Thankfully.

And yes, somewhere inside that broad tent is room for a supplement written from the perspective of an elven racist about how superior they are to all other species in every way. Frankly, if you're gonna play an elf, you should read that book as background material for how to really look down your nose at the pathetic mortals whose company you keep, the elven way (let's not talk about bladesingers). I make no apologies (unlike the author of Complete Book of Elves. wtf).

A gaggle of grognards bursts into the blogosphere,
spoiling for a fight.

Alright, enough talk about aesthetics and genre. All things told, it is the least important part of this series, even though it is a topic dear to me. It's just fluff, y'all. The easiest thing to ignore or pick up. Truth be told, none of that should really matter for what game system we choose to run with in 2023.

Let's get down to the part grognards love to hate on - The part where 2nd edition ruined old school roleplaying and started down the path of railroad adventures.

I'll say it plainly - It probably contributed to all that, although there is an argument that all this was well underway years before and purist old school TSR was effectively dead by 1984. 

But 2e continued the trend. There were new styles of play and types of adventures to be had and explored in fantasy gaming and 2e was going to do that, with all the shitty outcomes that followed. 
And old school gaming wouldn't be properly conceptualised until years later to remind people about what was being lost in that transition.

I don't think it actually killed old school gaming as much as it opened the doors for different types of gaming, a gradual dilution and erosion. 

Alongside all the new stuff, it was still a game that played with perfect backwards compatibility to the old modules and produced modules like Ruins of Undermountain, Return to the Tomb of Horrors, Temple Tower and Tomb, The Dancing Hut of Baba Yaga, the Illithiad trilogy.

Ok, it also gave us pure and unequaled shit stains like those Vecna adventures (Zeb - wtf happened? you once wrote Isle of Dread ffs) and recommendations on when to fudge rolls for random encounters.

2nd edition was a game, again, with range in its style of play. A range that held plenty of room in the tent for old school gaming. If anything, we see far more elements of old school gaming in the non-old-school 2e stuff than we do in 3e. I mean, even the dragonlance modules were basically hex and dungeoncrawls, with a railroad wrapped around them.

What 2nd edition most certainly was not was an era of iconic modules. Off the top of my head - Erm... Night Below and....?!?  And there is a fair argument that a lot of play style is learned from modules.

But here we are, 23 years since WotC declared curtain call on D&D as we knew it and released 3rd edition, starting a tradition of new editions being essentially different games rather than refinements of previous editions.

So what if Douglas Niles thought storygaming was interesting in 1995 and Hickman felt you probably should railroad your players to advance your plot here and there. The Old School has run its victorious course all across the subcultures of D&D. We all know the basics by now.

The bottomline is that in 2e, you still have a ruleset that is in many ways the most refined and and well-tooled expression of TSR D&D in its totality. It plays well. Really well. And has a very underrated aesthetic. Why should Hickman's adventures stop us from playing the better ruleset today?

And with that said, we turn our eyes attempting to answer that question with the most incendiary part of this whole topic - Generational analysis.

I do believe that one reason that 1e old schoolers proudly proclaim the virtues of the old style of play whilst no one sticks up for 2nd edition as being good for anything is simply to do with the generational gap. Those who grew up on 0D&D and 1e were late boomers/early Gen Xers. 

Those who grew up on 2nd edition were Gen Xers and early millenials. And what do Gen Xers have to say about anything generational really? Not much. Boomers on the other hand...

I want to be sure I am understood here - I mean this as a critique of Gen X. I think the Revival movement would have been better off if there had been a somewhat proportionate amount of 2nd edition gamers as willing to play RPG archeologists and philosophers on the game they grew up with, and then write blogs crowing about it and make superior games following  those principles.

But it seems that the Gen X of D&D just split down the middle and diffused into various corners, hitching a ride to the Old School way or moving on to newer editions without much fuzz. There does seem to be a fair amount of 2nd edition gamers still out there. Some of them even of some OSR repute. Noisms of Monsters & Manuals plays 2nd edition it seems. But for the most part, 2nd editioners seem content to play their games quietly into the night and just avoid the topic of 2nd edition, even as they engage in old school/new school dialogues.

It's a pity I think. There is lots to be uncovered and re-visited from the 2e era.


  1. 2nd has a lack of apologists in anglo blogosphere. But the core books are the pinnacle of TSR Era.
    Here in Brazil, 2nd and the Black Box are the first translated editions. So 2nd is my Old School.
    Ps: Prince Valiant is Gold.

  2. "Recommendations on when to fudge rolls for random encounters" - these are also in the 1e DMG, right at the beginning (and there is more fudging advice later on):

  3. Night Below... another kind memory. Even though it had it's holes... big, deep and ugly holes. And The Rod of Seven Parts made a fine box... even though the adventure itself could have used more pages.

  4. In my experience (and I noticed several people mention similar thoughts in your Part 1), a lot of gamers in the 90s weren't as attached to D&D in the 90s. Vampire was the hot shit, RIFTS was kitchen sink cool, and Magic the Gathering really took the wind out of many gamers' D&D sails. I mentioned in my comment to P1 that my group mixed 1E and 2E seemlessly. I did that, but I really always preferred the BECMI rules to either edition of AD&D. But to get a D&D game going back then, most of my friends would only play AD&D. BECMI was "kiddie" D&D to them. Anyway, I think the pull of other non-TSR games in the 90s may be part of the reason the OSR has mostly passed over 2E.

  5. Actually, me and my group switched from D&D 5e to Hackmaster 4e during 2023 which is a totally different game. And they like it. Alot. Even though it is complicated as hell and I'm sure we'll move on in 2024. And AD&D 2nd Ed. is actually on the plate as the only other player who experienced D&D before 3.5 loves this edition nearly as much as I do.

    So it could happen that in 2024 there's another 2nd Ed. group out there, right in central Europe. I'll revamp the skill system (using Gold & Glory, Legacy of Dragons or Myths & Magic . Help them a bit with Thac0 if needed. Everything else should be finde.

  6. Good posts. Very reminiscent of the kind of stuff I was writing 10ish years ago on my own blog, save that I was propping up B/X back then.

    So, let's talk about this "Gen X" idea for a second.

    Ye Old Internets tell me that Gen X is roughly 1965-1980, which feels a bit long for me, but I'm willing to go with "accepted consensus." Arneson was definitely a Boomer, as were most of the kids (the Kuntz brothers, Megarry, the Gygax brood) who helped test and develop the game.

    I was born in 1973 which puts me square in the middle of Gen X. I played and ran D&D with kids 2-3 years older and 2-3 years younger than myself. I knew others of the same age range who I never played with. However, we ALL played least until the late '89 or so when folks moved onto World of Darkness and Palladium games. 1E had gone downhill even before the advent of 2E...the PRODUCT being produced by TSR had gone downhill: mostly hardcover books (the Survival Guides, Manual of the Planes, Dragonlance Adventures, etc.) that produced a lot of flash but not much in the way of playability. We were 'tapped out' even before the "great revival" of 2E. Similar to the way Gen X'ers tapped out of hair metal and gravitated towards low-fi grunge music.

    2E was a commodification of a commodified commodity.

    But that's just the history, at least in MY neck o the woods...that's just saying my piece about Gen X and its fit into the equation. I know (some) people who continued to play AD&D through the 2nd edition. I know (other) people who played "D&D" using OTHER systems (GURPS or Champions/HERO) during the '90s. The history of 2E and latter-day TSR is long...too long for this comment.

  7. Here's the thing about it, though: 2E didn't last. It's main claim to fame...besides being nicely written and some aesthetically pleasing art choices...were the great number of imaginative campaign settings that were created for it. Most of the people I speak with who have a fondness for 2E speak of its many setting boxes: SpellJammer and Dark Sun and Planescape and Birthright, etc. I have owned/read more than a couple of these...they're "ok;" they have some neat ideas. But they are yet another commodification of the game...commodifying the world-building aspect that is the purview (and, frankly, the responsibility) of a mature Dungeon Master.

    *sigh* This is probably sounding harsh. It's not meant to be.

    2E made some poor design choices. I'm not talking about the removal of assassins or the redesign of bards. Mainly, I'm talking about the advancement system (i.e. the method of awarding x.p.) which removed an objective (as opposed to subjective) reward mechanism in favor of combat and/or fractured and nonsensical DM fiat. I will not belabor the point. However, I will point out that several 2E adventure modules (including the lauded "Night Below") suggests the DM return to the original 1E version of awarding x.p. for treasure. The other issues, I suppose, although there are enough of them that, together, they simply add more fuel to the bonfire.

    NOW, having written all that AND being a Gen Xer who enjoyed the hell out of films like Ivanhoe (1952), Ladyhawk, Willow, Krull, DragonSlayer, Legend, Robin Hood (pretty much every version), various Harryhausen and Jim Henson productions, etc., etc....having written all THAT, I will say I do not begrudge you your opinion nor your enjoyment of 2E. I own the 2E books myself (for use as references for game design) and while I would not recommend them over 1E, I see many appealing things about the books. And the chassis of 2E is (more-or-less) 1E...which means it can work, and work well in the long term, with only slight adjustments (like fixing the advancement system). I can see how 2E can be used to run a good campaign of D&D, with very minimal tweaking. Especially if one enjoys the "heroic fantasy" aesthetic that 2E uses as inspiration.

    *I* like Elmore's art...though I perhaps prefer Easley (and probably even Holloway). It doesn't all have to be Tramp and Otis and Darlene.

    Anyway: good stuff here. Appreciate you taking the time to write up your thoughts on 2E.

    [for another good article delineating the differences between 1E and 2E, I'd recommend this one from Melan: ]

    1. Melan's critique basically amounts to a "in those times" critique of the history of the product line and provides no rationale for why one should play 1e ahead of 2e *today*.

      If anything, he accidentally ends up with the implication that it probably runs better than 1e, which I am sure he would not want to imply.

      I do agree that any 2e DM would be very well served by adding the 1e DMG as a third rulebook to consult. The 2e DMG is sadly incomplete in many respects.

      I have some issues with Melan's selective generosity of interpretation, tbh.
      Summing up the differences in Ranger and Bards between the two editions as "losing flavour that is not to the game's benefit" is giving a free pass to class design that is, to be kind, highly idiosyncratic in its construction to say the least. Using the paladin as an example of the gritty "frontier justice" implicit in 1e is... a creative take.

      That said, I think there is a lot more work in cleaning up 1e to work as smoothly as 2e than the other way around. Backporting an XP award system seems like the lightest of touches really (especially given that exists as an optional rule in the core books already).
      Something that is altogether a hassle to backport to 1e is morale as part of the monster entry. don't get why that was left out.

    2. I've said this before but to me, the praise of the 2e settings is damning 2e with faint praise. Yes, some of that was nice and all, but that just says something about what it was like being a D&D consumer at the time. Not how the system holds up today.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Fantasy Map Review IV: Forgotten Realms

Fantasy Map Review II: Greyhawk

Fantasy Map Review III: Dragonlance

Review: Five Torches Deep

Comparison: Five Torches Deep vs Into the Unknown