What the 2e PR can tell us about 5e

When I got that giant box of D&D stuff in the mail, one of the first things I did (after reading the original owner’s game notebook and the In Search of The Unknown module) was settle down with a random Dragon issue I’d never read before: Issue #121, from 1987.

There’s a hilarious article by David “Zeb” Cook, trying to allay people’s fears about the coming Second Edition. It’s hilarious because, as an avid consumer of Fifth Edition previews, I find it so familiar.

Really, I do want to avoid having to do a Third Edition -— at least having to repeat what I’’m going through on Second Edition! The only way to do this is to build a set of core rules that can accommodate the inevitable changes and additions that will come. Just as the First Edition was not perfect, I know that new and better ideas will surface after Second Edition is done.

Our current plan is that we haven’’t got a plan. We are still looking at a lot of different ideas. Currently, all of them revolve around building a core set of rules that can be used by all players. One thought is that there would be two hardbound rule books — the Players Handbook and the Dungeon Masters Handbook (note the title change). These would present the core rules for the game, what everyone needs to know.

This sounds a lot like the marketing for D&D Next: the base 5e game will be very modular. We’ll have core rules, and a bunch of room to add optional rules. That way, we can avoid having to do a sixth edition.

(Also, what happened to the proposed name change to Dungeon Master’s Handbook? Was there public outcry against it?)

The article goes on to describe the “core” and “optional” rules in ways almost identical to the descriptions of the current new edition, except with the addition of a middle “tournament” rules tier:

TSR’’s attitude about “official” rules has changed. You know and I know that people create variants and house rules for use with the AD&D game. Trying to demand that they play only the “official” rules is pointless. That’s why we’’re planning on marking rules in the core set as “Standard,” “Tournament,” and “Optional.” Standard rules are the absolute minimum you need to play something that is passably identifiable as the AD&D game – the races, character classes, attack rolls, etc. Tournament rules add the rules that will be normally used in any TSR-sponsored tournament. After all, in a tournament, you should be reasonably certain that you will be playing the same game as your neighbor, a useful thing to ensure fairness at a convention! Best of all, for all you tinkerers out there, the Optional rules allow you to make the game yours, filling your game with as much richness and detail as you want – weapon-based armor-class modifiers, create-your-own character classes, spell-casting times, proficiencies, casting components, and more. Optional rules are just that; if you don’t like ’em, you don’t use ’em.

Compare that to this Rule of Three article from 2012:

We want to put as many tools as possible in the hands of DMs and their players so they can tailor the game to their preferences. Part of this process involves providing a number of what you’ve heard us refer to as “rules modules”—that is, packages of optional or alternative rules that we have designed, developed, and playtested that help create a certain game play experience, either for a single player or the entire game table.

The second half of that process is one that should also make it easier for homemade rules modules: creating a streamlined base to the game that rules modules can be added to easily. With a clean, lean, and dependable core to the game, we hope to be able to communicate to players and Dungeon Masters what the basics of the game are, and then provide advice for designing your own material to work with that.

It actually seems like the spirit of the fifth-edition revision has more in common with the second edition than I realized.

I don’t know if we can make any predictions about 5e based on the optional and tournament rules of 2e, but, for fun, I flipped open my new Second Edition PHB and found the items in the Table of Contents listed as Optional and Tournament:

Proficiencies (Optional)
Encumbrance (optional rule)
Basic Encumbrance (Tournament rule)
Specific Encumbrance (Optional Rule)
Encumbrance and Mounts (Tournament Rule)
Spell Components (Optional Rule)
Weapon Type vs Attack Modifiers (Optional Rule)
Group Initiative (Optional Rule)
Individual Initiative (Optional Rule)
Weapon Speed and Initiative (Optional Rule)
Parrying (Optional Rule)
Jogging and Running (Optional Rule)

What do you think? Will 5e’s “clean, lean and dependable core” be leaner and meaner than 2e’s “absolute minimum you need to play something that is passably identifiable as the AD&D game” (which core, presumably, included every rule except the ones mentioned above)?

There were a couple of other quotes in the article that I found interesting, not in relation to D&D Next, but to 2e’s eventual replacement, Third Edition:

Now, 100% compatibility is just not possible. There are things that must be fixed. There are inevitable improvements and new ideas. These things are going to prevent Second Edition from being 100% compatible. Just what percent compatibility we wind up with, I can’’t say. Indeed, the need to keep things compatible results in us not making some changes that would only confuse the issue. Take the armor class numbering system. To many players, it does not make sense that the worst armor classes have higher numbers, and it would seem simple to change it. However, reversing the order of the armor class numbers would invalidate every AD&D game campaign and product in existence. For compatibility’’s sake, it is better to make no change, since this change is not worth the trouble it will cause.

Ascending AC was something that was done in the bolder rules changes of 3e. It’s interesting that they were already thinking about it in 1987.


Ultimately, there will be people out there who will be playing Version 1.0, Version 1.5, Version 2.0, and probably even Version 2.3 of the AD&D game. Perhaps we should figure out some type of numbering system like that used on computer programs!

It would take this prediction 16 years to come true, with the publication of D&D 3.5.

12 Responses to “What the 2e PR can tell us about 5e”

  1. greywulf says:

    What goes around comes around, indeed!

  2. camazotz says:

    Fascinating…I actually missed most of the hype for 2nd edition back when it was in development as I was busy playing Runequest and Dragonquest, and didn’t come back to the AD&D fold until my college buddies talked me into buying the new 2nd edition books, so I never read the promotional hype. I personally still feel 2nd edition is my favorite, the one that got me back into AD&D (1st edition is fine, but my memories are tainted by my middle school years playing it) so I’m not sure if this is something I’d take as evidence that DDN may be moving in a direction I might find more comfortable, or simply (and likely) the case that the more things change, the more marketing speak stays the same…

  3. Bob says:

    I’ll be surprised if they go back to something being “compatible” with previous versions. Since WoTC took over each version has been a completely new game, not even remotely compatible with the previous major version.

    I’m glad they created the OGL for the retros like OSRIC but WoTC I think has been floundering the D&D game. Splitting the player base more and more every version they release.

  4. Philo Pharynx says:

    Does the document explain why they rounded 1.5 up to 2 when numbering the edition? 😉

  5. RyanB says:

    Man, that’s a revealing comparison. I haven’t played 4e, only previous versions, so I’m interested to see what comprises a set of core rules that ‘can accommodate the inevitable changes and additions that will come’ (I know that’s David Cook’s quote… but it does seem to hold to the current airy contemplations of what 5e will do). BTW, David ‘Zeb’ Cook lives in Baltimore and will be talking in a panel discussion about world building this month with myself and a couple of artists, I’ll have to get his take on things – I’m curious to see what his demeanor towards RPGs is in general these days.

  6. Alphastream says:

    Honestly, I don’t agree with this comparison. Though the statements seem similar, they were very different. Check out Gary Gygax’ statement in Dragon #103. In his editorial he is clear: it is all about pulling together and editing material. The games, editions, audience, and entire situation was very different back then. D&D started with the original boxed set (OD&D), had a few thin supplements, and then just 3 years later (!!!) split into two different games (Basic and AD&D). It was common for a person to play one but not the other, and had there been an Internet, the edition war would have raged during this time as it does today. There were enough differences, similarities, and confusing aspects to really cause a lot of problems. In addition, the designers/authors and even company leadership changed in many ways over those initial 12 years between AD&D’s release and the start of 2E. Comparing adventures and supplements over those years shows just an incredible variation in material and direction. Also, the quality control was pretty poor by today’s standards.

    The result was a very confusing marketplace with everyone using different material to make an “edition” as they saw it. But there is more. Back in that time, new books often added rules. It started way back in OD&D. The first two additions to the OD&D boxed set were Greyhawk and Blackmoor. They sound like setting books, but they weren’t. They were a grab-bag of new content and new rules (often fixes). Things like adding the thief class and modifying how Charm Person never ended and modifying basic combat rules. That continued in Basic and AD&D, and even in Dragon, such that you just could never know what was an optional rule, a house rule, a standard/core rule, or an amalgam!

    And that’s really what Cook is speaking to in his letter to fans. It was a monumental challenge to rein in all that material and try to make an actual “core” that captured what was really now meant to be the standard minimal set of rules to play the game. Cook isn’t saying they would build a modular system speaking to OD&D, Basic, and AD&D. It is far simpler: “what should be the baseline?”

    Also, in those days of no Internet, the only real community was convention play. And the only real way for the company to really see the game in play was through convention events. Look at almost any famous adventure and it started as an RPGA “tournament scenario”. Look at any boxed set and the back page of many adventures and supplements and you will find directions for joining the RPGA. It was _the_ community back then, and major designers like Frank Mentzer were heavily involved in the RPGA. The importance of it meant that it needed special consideration. You can imagine how a challenge to “beat Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan in 4 hours” would be a lot harder if a player sat down wanting to use 5 rules the DM thought of as optional and not supported. That’s where that need to define a Tournament exemption form the core came from. (Side note: over time those in organized play and WotC continue to find better ways to deal with these challenges. Living Forgotten Realms, the flagship organized play program for 4E, allows practically all content the moment it releases.)

    I do see a few parallels between what 2E designers dealt with and today’s D&D Next challenge, but they are overall very different. Today’s D&D does not suffer from the question of optional. In fact, it is all very neatly handled (you can buy one book, the Rules Compendium). The issue is really that of an audience split as to the style of play. Not rules, but style. How much tactical combat? How much exploration and role-play? Powers vs spells? Simple and fast vs complex and build-heavy? And, the game is split by the OGL (Open Gaming License) enabling a competitor to draw away half the audience to stay on a previous edition instead of embracing innovation. Those are entirely different challenges.

    D&D Next speaks to a core and modules as a way to unite audiences. The core isn’t about rules clarity and bringing disparate sourcebooks together, but about having a central set of rules that supports all the different styles of play and can hang additional modules to please all/most of the gaming groups.

    The words might sound similar, but the application is entirely different. And, the result will be vastly different. AD&D really only needed a 2E to fix issues suffered under 12 years of added content. 4E is a really good and balanced system, but it needs an adjustment to the gaming audience. 2E came at a time when sales were decent. 4E? We don’t know, but competition has to be a serious issue. In the end, 2E didn’t change much – it was arguably 1.5E. I think we all know D&D Next will be a very different game from 4E, pulling from the game’s entire edition history and new advancements. That’s probably why it is called Next rather than 5E.

    What I do like about these editorials is that they show us that even back then it mattered to do an edition change. The company felt the need to speak to fans because they knew change was contentious. There was that feeling of needing to win fans over, soften the blow of change, and showcase the benefits. That will always remain true.

    (Another great editorial is Dungeon 117 where Cook angered the fans by stating which classes would die in 2E… it was similar to the rage that was produced later in Dungeon for 3E or with the Races & Classes and Worlds & Monsters prequel books for 4E – did you know they momentarily changed Dwarves to not live underground? Yeah, that went well. The greatest parallel may be “watch out for what you say about a new edition, and never tell fans to suck it up”).

  7. LS says:

    I think you made a typo:

    “The article goes on to describe the “core” and “optional” rules in ways almost identical to the descriptions of the current new edition, except with the edition of a middle “tournament” rules tier:”

    Kinda confused me for a minute.

    I always find it interesting to see the ways in which the present mirrors the past. Fans may communicate more frequently now via social media and email, but we express the same concerns that we expressed at conventions and by snail mail.

  8. LS says:

    @Alphastream: That’s a lot of perspective to drink in. Thank you!

    I don’t mean to be inflammatory, but I feel compelled to respond to your implication that Pathfinder players were drawn away by a competitor, and refuse to embrace innovation. This is an unfair characterization.

    Innovation is great. But I, for one, found nothing likable about fourth edition. The development team took the game very, very far in a direction which I was not interested in. Others like that direction, and like 4th edition, and I hope they have a lot of fun with it. But I, and my group, cannot.

    I was not drawn away by a competitor. I was pushed away by Wizards of the Coast. Instead of buying their new products, I spent the first 3 years after 4th edition came out play 3.5, and buying 3.5 products second hand. It wasn’t until 2011 that I finally made the move to Pathfinder. And this is a story which I’ve found pretty consistent among other Pathfinder players: they resolved to stick with 3rd edition before they’d even heard of Pathfinder.

    I have no problem with Wizards choosing to design a game which was less suited to my tastes, but I also feel no compunction to support their new products when I find their old products more enjoyable.

    I hope this doesn’t come off as too edition-war-ish. If so perhaps Paul should just delete it. I simply felt compelled to respond to this perceived slight in an otherwise very informative comment.

  9. paul paul says:

    Ha ha, edition addition. Fixed that.

    @LS: your comment is reasonable. I think that “4e is not suited to my tastes” is a respectful and noncontroversial statement. imagine if rpg.net posters held themselves to that level of civility!

    @ryanbrowning: I’d love to hear about your conversation with David Cook!

    @alphastream: Yeah, D&D next has a lot more editions worth of baggage to deal with, and the situation is not identical. Still! It is fun to compare the past and present.

  10. Alphastream says:

    Hi LS, you are being completely reasonable. Sorry for making my comment sound that way. You are right, players see options and go for them. And in the past, there were always options. I grew tired of 3E and played L5R. There were times when AD&D wore thin for me and I played Shadowrun. And I certainly had friends in nearly any edition that switched games entirely because they felt the company had abandoned them. I recall when TSR announced their Internet policy, where they provided an insane list of everything they considered theirs and started ordering sites not to carry content. It was a bad year.

    What I meant to say in this case was that the OGL really made staying in an edition much easier than ever before, and this is different than what we had with OD&D, 1E, or 2E. I recall groups that didn’t want to go from AD&D to 2E, but that meant never getting any new product. It is fun to unwrap new stuff. It is fun to find new lore, new classes, new adventures. Very few players can really give that up for a long time (though some do). Regardless of whether due to Pathfinder looking awesome or D&D looking bad, a person could now have their older edition supported. The OGL really enabled that. This was new. Pertaining to the post, D&D Next contends with something very different than what TSR dealt with for 2E. Moving to D&D Next when 4E was so different and when staying on 3E is so supported all results in the discussion of “core” and “modules” to support and attract these different play styles and audiences. 2E didn’t have to deal with that (it had to deal with people playing with different sub-rules and interpretations of rules… far simpler than to deal with people playing OSRIC, Pathfinder, etc.).

    There are lots of valid reasons to play Pathfinder or 3E (I played Pathfinder two months ago and I have friends that dig it), just as there are to play 4E. Both are excellent companies with excellent products and fantastic personnel that truly are trying to make the best games possible for us. No slight was meant, and I apologize for coming off that way. I’m all for people playing what they love, no matter the reason.

  11. Alphastream says:

    Thanks, Paul, and sorry for spouting off a wall of text… one of my many weaknesses. I’ve really enjoyed your blog and your takes on previous editions.

  12. […] What the 2e PR can tell us about 5e at Blog of Holding: Uncovering eerie similarities between a Dragon article from 1987 talking about 2e and the current Legends & Lore talk about D&D Next. […]

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