trolling for 2e

Illustration from The Boy and the Trolls, by Jon Bauer

Over the weekend we did some impromptu delving with Heron Prior’s Trolls Will Be Trolls, one of the winners of the 2010 One Page Dungeon Contest.  Because the New York Red Box crew doesn’t normally mess around with it, I broke out Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition and we ran a bit of that.

one-paragraph review of a one-page dungeon

“Trolls Will Be Trolls,”which also appears in Fight On #10, features the lair of Stencheye, a Troll matriarch and witch-doctor, and her seemingly infinite brood of Trolls, Half-Trolls, and Devil Trolls.  There are scant plot hooks, but the map is nicely non-linear.  NPC’s include Stencheye herself (I gave her max hit points and the spells of a 6th level Cleric), a Hill Giant with the head of a pig, a spriggan named Droopteats, and my favorites the Scragglebeard Brothers, “a pair of insane, lecherous Dwarven warriors” who number among the Troll Queen’s lovers.  My one regret about the adventure as presented is that it’s extremely monster-heavy, particularly with Trolls who aren’t the critters you’d immediately associate with a “let’s defuse this confrontation with some RP” strategy.  Otherwise, you can see why it won “Best Lair” in the 2010 contest: it’s a great little dungeon with some pretty ferocious enemies.

what happened in play?

The two players, a 7th level Mage and an 8th level Fighter, recruited nine first-level Fighter hirelings, and decided to raid the lair searching for the fabled Horn of Gwall, a mystic relic of the primordial God-Mammoth.  They did pretty good, overall: the Mage had scored a mirror of life-trapping during random item rolls, and played it pretty hard, and a squad of melee dopes, even first-level melee dopes, kept things moving right along as the main Fighter carved up the harder opponents.  Eventually they ended up getting so interested in setting up an ambush that they got trapped in an ambush themselves, and ended up fighting on three fronts before the Mage used suggestion to get on the Trolls’ good side.  We left them there, about halfway through the dungeon after 3 hours of play…  I think with a full party they probably could have pulled it off, with a few losses.

Incidentally, I ran this using the 2e PHB and DMG, but using B/X for monsters, and never noticed any problems: the Troll write-up, at least, has barely changed.

2e: this step-child loves redheads

I don't care what people say, 2e 2 tha max

Man, I don’t know what the fuss over 2e is all about.  Or rather, I know what it’s all about and I think it’s bollocks.  Limiting yourself to just the Core Books from 1989 or so, it’s a pretty awesome version of Dungeons & Dragons.

Here’s where I agree with the h8t0rz:

The 2e DMG isn’t a compendium of the craziest random crap you can imagine, and Zeb’s writing doesn’t exude personality the way Gygax’s did. (Then again, the personality exuded by Gygax’s writing in 1979 is extraordinarily off-putting.)

And a lot of the 2e art stinks.  2e exchanges the incredibly awesome pseudo-amateur art of 1e for a blander and more professionalized style, and the art in both of the Monstrous Compendiums is downright bad: at first I was like, “Why are all these of monsters in silhouette?” and then I’m like, “Bring the silhouette back, that’s a terrible picture.”  And speaking of monsters, the loss of demons & devils to the SNL Church Lady is an unfortunate marketing misstep, but which may have been the result of TSR’s delusions of mass-marketing this thing to kids again, the way the D&D fad caught on in the late 70’s/early 80’s.

More critically, the game is far too coy about what it’s about: killing things and taking their stuff.  It’s almost the exact same game as 1e and B/X but it’s far less open about what it’s trying to do, pretending to be all things to all readers.  Again, maybe that’s the marketing folks talking: this game is for doing anything!  After marinating in the Old Ways for many years, it’s clear what this thing is good for, but that was a lot less apparent to me when I was 13.


These books were edited.  By a sane person.  Who knew how to edit things.  I cannot stress this enough.  I read a sentence in the 2e DMG and I don’t think, “Please Uncle Gary, if you let the girl go I promise I won’t freak out over your compound-complex-super-subjunctive-passive-voice-pluperfect word stylings.”  Instead I think, “Oh, right: that’s the rule, right where I thought it would be.  Okay, back to the game.”

(Please understand: massive Wookiee life-debt to Gygax which I can never repay, yadda yadda, just saying WTF with the style in the 1e DMG.)

Also: the class mechanics are more-or-less streamlined.  I know some people get bugged that the Ranger gets d10’s for hit points instead of d8’s, and that Druids don’t get a 3rd level spell at 3rd level.  But I dig rationality.  The Bard class is interesting, no longer the mangled Frankenstein’s Monster of 1e nor yet the hopelessly music-is-maaaaaaagical of 3e.  And oh man, build-your-own-Thief is a godsend.

The other thing I like about 2e is that it’s pretty easy to customize for a particular setting.  “Okay, in this world, you’ve got the Base Four classes plus Paladins, Illusionists, and Necromancers.  You’ve got some Norse-worshipping Viking priests up north, who have a slightly different spell list, and the Illusionists and Necromancers hate each other and have been waging fraternity-house style pranks on each other for centuries.  And these dudes over here, they’re like fishermen, so if your character comes from that village you know fisherman-related skills.”

(I’m not a big proficiencies guy, and if ran a 2e game I’d just handle this with a handwave, but I do like the effort to reflect culture in the game, however crudely.  Fighters from over here ought to play a little different from Fighters over there.)

Perhaps not surprisingly, this emphasis on easy customization gave rise to a lot of really evocative settings: Time of the Dragon, Spelljammer, Dark Sun, Planescape, Al Qadim, and some great Historical Setting books.   In time, market pressures caused each of these to bloat terribly (well, not Time of the Dragon) but the initial setting books were great stuff.

I’m not vouching for all of the optional rules: morale looks hella-complicated, the build-your-own-class tables are messed up, and individual initiative is a headache.  (I am intrigued by the “Different XP rewards for each class” rules, though.)  But the core 2e rules are very close to my idealized Dungeons & Dragons: the clarity of B/X with the “big boy” monsters & classes.  Throw in some inspiring settings, and I’m in hog heaven.

25 Responses to “trolling for 2e”

  1. 1 anonymous
    February 9, 2012 at 2:49 am

    The 2e PHB was one of the first D&D books I ever got my eight-year-old mitts on, and I really loved the way it conveyed the notion that any kind of story was possible – even though our campaign dealt chiefly with the acquisition and deployment of dragonlances!

  2. 2 francisca
    February 9, 2012 at 2:50 am

    “(Then again, the personality exuded by Gygax’s writing in 1979 seems like that of a shroom-gobbling, child-diddling Rain Man.)”

    Wow. That’s really tacky and uncalled for.

  3. February 9, 2012 at 2:56 am

    Crass. Whether you were intentionally “trolling” or not, just Crass.

  4. February 9, 2012 at 3:35 am

    Edited for less inflammatory facetiousness at Gary Gygax’s 1979 prose style.

  5. February 9, 2012 at 3:41 am

    Maybe you’ll want to remove the following as well:

    “Please Uncle Gary, if you let the girl go I promise I won’t freak out over your compound-complex-super-subjunctive-passive-voice-pluperfect word stylings.”

    Comparing GG’s personality to that of a rapist and child-molester just isn’t funny.

  6. 6 Invincible Overlord
    February 9, 2012 at 3:44 am

    I played the mage in the above scenario, and agree that the 2e frame was surprisingly workable. I really noticed this in initiative. It may have been easier to work with because there were only three of us at the table, but I really liked the crunch of some actions being faster than others. That might seem like too much detail, but in practice the vagueness and over-emphasis on dexterity in most initiative procedures winds up wasting more time and feeling less immersive, as well as placing too heavy a load of fiat on the brain behind the screen (for my taste of course).

    I was actually brought kicking and screaming back into the hobby, having left D&D before 2e premiered, by the Baldur’s Gate series, which modeled 2e. So I can’t help but dig it. Except for the hideous graphics, and that’s a big except.

    For a similarly clarified and rationalized version of the advanced game (but it in NO WAY a retroclone of 2e) see Greyhawk Grognard’s Adventure’s Dark and Deep: http://greyhawkgrognard.blogspot.com/

  7. February 9, 2012 at 4:01 am

    @ Invincible Overlord
    In 1999, Baldur’s Gate looked pretty dang good. The first entry in the series struck me as far too heavy on wandering-monster type encounters, but I liked the second one quite a bit. It’s a pity they didn’t make it more open-ended like, say, Fallout 2 also under development at the same time.

    @ James Smith
    I’m not talking about Gary’s real personality. I’m talking about his personality as expressed in his writing style, specifically the writing style of the 1e DMG, which is bullying, pedantic, whiny, self-important, and weird. Gary was giving a rhetorical performance, and my take on it is that, as much as it might read as charmingly eccentric to some people, to me (speaking with hyperbole) it scans as borderline psycho.

  8. February 9, 2012 at 4:14 am

    My point being, that hyperbole or not, “jokes” about child molestation are uncool.

    I suspect a largish segment of your audience is at least somewhat well disposed toward Gary Gygax. Jokes at his expense, comparing his personality, in any sense, to that of a child molester, are ill-advised. And again, uncool.

    It wasn’t funny. It was offensive.

    Again, many people find jokes about child molestation offensive.

    Are we clear?

  9. February 9, 2012 at 4:53 am

    James, I am well disposed to Gary Gygax. If you think my tasteless hyperbole is tasteless, well–I don’t know what to tell you, except that you’re entitled to feel offended.

    It is a comment that no one can possibly take seriously, I removed it after deciding it was more inflammatory than I really wanted to be, and what’s left is a cliche uttered in practically every single Hollywood blockbuster over the last ten years.

    This blog has all of about three readers, and I very much respect their patience and interest. But I would rather limp along with two, or even none, before I felt like I couldn’t be tasteless when I felt like it (in which case there would likely be nothing to read). If you don’t want to read what I write, I’ll be the last person to blame you.

  10. February 9, 2012 at 6:13 am

    “Man, I don’t know what the fuss over 2e is all about. Or rather, I know what it’s all about and I think it’s bollocks. Limiting yourself to just the Core Books from 1989 or so, it’s a pretty awesome version of Dungeons & Dragons.”

    Absolutely agree with this. I play B/X these days but my group had 10 years of SOLID fun with 2E and I would run it or play it anytime.

  11. February 9, 2012 at 6:47 am

    I do own AD&D2e PHB and DMG (with AD&D1e MM) but never dug too deep on them. I like the wrap up you did there for AD&D2e. For some reasons I never liked it but what you wrote made me look it a little differently.

  12. February 9, 2012 at 7:48 am

    I’ve recently landed on the position regarding 2e as well. It’s got its issues, but the core is fairly solid and usable and sticks mostly pretty close to the bones of 1e. It was in the endless line of rules-bloating supplements that it fell apart; by the end it was very badly broken and everyone knew it. Sticking with the core, though, it’s a perfectly fine game.

  13. 13 richard
    February 9, 2012 at 7:49 am

    I’m now tempted to pick up 2e for the first time in my life. Even though I’m currently finding the LBBs a bit rules-heavy. If someone’s done “build you own thief” and actually added something interesting to the game with it, then I’m in.

    And yes, I’m no fun of Gygax’s style. His vocabulary, even his polearm fetish, I find charmingly eccentric. But his bullying whine I can do without.

  14. February 9, 2012 at 11:22 am

    I confess that I never read that tone into the 1e DMG. That may be because I read it at such a young age, but some of Gary’s Dragon articles did read that way.

  15. February 9, 2012 at 11:53 am

    On 2e: James’s re-embrace is surprisingly prescient given Criswell’s recent predictions.

    On Gygax: Folks who have been one of the Mule’s three readers for long know that as a collective entity we’ve contributed substantially to the work of celebrating Gary’s legacy: look back for posts about the Gygax Memorial Fund and the Tower of Gygax, or talk to me at the Next Door Pub, for some examples. I think that one of the more important ways we can contribute to that legacy is to separate the wheat from the chaff. Gail tells me that Gary didn’t want to be remembered just for D&D, and much as I love the grandeur and Vancian baroqueness of his authorial voice, I don’t think he’d want to be remembered just for the writing in the AD&D rules. A negative critique of one aspect of his work can be part of a positive appraisal of the whole man.

    On tasteless rhetoric: I agree with James that one of the things Gary was doing in the AD&D books is a rhetorical performance, and anyone who finds it objectionable that a blog is a place for rhetoric has probably stopped reading – somewhere, someone else is being wrong on the Internet! And as James says the standards for rhetoric have changed; what’s beyond the pale is not what it was in 1979.

  16. 16 Robert Stevenson
    February 9, 2012 at 1:07 pm

    Surely Gary had the foresight to know that his D&D works would be recalled as being written by a shroom-eating, child-diddling rain man, and certainly would have wanted to be known for other things as well.

    I’m certain his widow and children would be thrilled to find that his legacy is being contributed to in such a manner.

    There is plenty of hyperbole scribbled all about the web by 2e hating edition warriors, fraught with narrow-minded one-true-wayism. Any of that could have been teed off on without scraping the bottom of the barrel and heaping insults on a dead man – the man who happens to be the creator of the hobby you supposedly enjoy. The tasteless rhetoric doesn’t bolster the case for 2e in this blog post. Rather, it reveals much about the author, serving only to lower his credibility as a reviewer of the games. Perhaps Mr. Nostack could show us on the doll where Mordenkainen touched him?

    Referring to someone as a child molester for no reason other than attention-whoring is beyond the pale. No matter the decade or current standards, the rhetoric in this blog post is completely tasteless and void of class.

  17. February 9, 2012 at 1:21 pm

    An Indemnification
    I hope it’s obvious that whatever I wrote, it’s just me writing it, not any of my co-bloggers like Tavis, who is more than capable of creating his own trouble.

    @ Richard
    “If someone’s done “build you own thief” and actually added something interesting to the game with it, then I’m in.”

    I don’t know if 2e goes far enough in that direction for you, but coming at this class from the hopeless PermaFail of 1e and Basic was a huge improvement. That said, there’s clearly more design room, since Several folks in the OSR have created Thief-variants where you assign skill points as needed. There have been so many of these that I’ve kind of lost track!

  18. 18 Adam
    February 9, 2012 at 3:27 pm

    2e is my least favorite version of D&D (I haven’t played anything from before 1e AD&D and Mentzer, so I can’t really compare it to the three little book version), but I don’t think it’s awful. Mostly, I view 2e as a missed opportunity. They did a major revision on 1e, which was badly needed by that point for clarity of prose if nothing else, and they made something that was, at best, only marginally better and with some changes for the worse. A cleaner revision that didn’t try to cut some of the flavorful bits of 1e would have been better; a system that switched to ascending armor class and so forth would have been better; but what they ended up with was meh. I think it’s not surprising that gazillions of us played and enjoyed 2e for years, but that when people started going back to pre-3 systems, 2e got very little love.

  19. February 9, 2012 at 4:01 pm

    “They did a major revision on 1e, which was badly needed by that point for clarity of prose if nothing else, and they made something that was, at best, only marginally better and with some changes for the worse. A cleaner revision that didn’t try to cut some of the flavorful bits of 1e would have been better; a system that switched to ascending armor class and so forth would have been better; but what they ended up with was meh.”

    It’s a very interesting point. TSR published a pamphlet which I’ve read, but now cannot locate, that was designed to explain what to expect with 2e. They consistently took the line (paraphrasing) “This game is going to be almost totally backwards-compatible with 1e. What we’ve changed, we’ve changed because we think it’s an improvement, but we haven’t changed all that much–just reorganized and done some spring cleaning. If you want to keep using 1e characters, you can and won’t notice much change. We hope you will like our game.”

    I’m getting the wording wrong, but that was the tone: very respectful, very much “we’re not taking your game away from you.” And the design adopts the same philosophy. A couple changes to certain classes and races, and Dragons got a huge power-boost, but even the crazy, hard-to-defend legacy systems like descending Armor Class and goofy Saving Throw categories were retained intact.

    The one thing that really was a big change is that the 2e DMG is far less useful, though arguably much better organized. And the Monster books are full of mostly extraneous information, which I sort of like if I’m in the mood for it and have no problem ignoring when I’m not.

  20. February 9, 2012 at 4:31 pm

    I avoided 2e until about 1995-6, finally acquiring copies of the PHB and DMG. While I didn’t regret passing it by (I will never forgive TSR for the horrible art of that era), I was really impressed with the rules. The books actually made sense when you read them. Incredible!

  21. February 17, 2012 at 9:53 pm

    2E was my first rule set, so that is my “nostalgia” edition (and the DMG was my first real rulebook). Stuff like OD&D and Moldvay (which I just discovered last year) feel positively novel to me. The sanitized aspect of 2E does suck, and I remember hunting down some of the AD&D books to have access to the dark bits like the assassin and the demons. I think WotC did a really good thing when they brought back some of that stuff with later editions. We still have silliness (from my point of view, at least) with Pathfinder considering a penis on a statue to be obscene, but at least there has been progress.


    I wouldn’t consider the 2E thief a “build your own” thief. It’s more like a point-buy thief. IIRC, I pretty much always put all my points in climb to begin with, because that was the only skill that you could have a decent chance with at first level.

    One thing I really like about 2E is how they explicitly sprinkle all the optional rules around. Like, here’s a good default way, but if you don’t like it try this optional rule or this other optional rule. It really highlighted the fact that you should personalize and experiment with the rules.

  22. February 17, 2012 at 10:02 pm

    Oh, I would also add that many of the blue (DM) and green (historical) expansion books from 2E are quite good.

    Some of my personal favorites:

    Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide
    The Castle Guide
    The Complete Book of Villains
    The Complete Book of Necromancers

    Full list of DM expansion books:


    And full list of historical reference books:


    (With the exception of the one on Ancient Greece because it was terrified of mentioning homosexuality; another example of the prudishness of 2E.)

    All of these are quite useful for any TSR edition of D&D (and their retro-clones).

  23. February 18, 2012 at 10:28 pm

    I agree that the historical books are quite good. I’ve been kicking around the idea of throwing together the Vikings vs. Charlemagne’s Paladins in the ruins of an earlier Celtic culture.

    I had the Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide when I was younger. At age 13, it was a huge inspiration in how to be a decent and fair GM; now it’s one of those things I read and think, “Really? People had trouble being polite and nice to each other? WTF?” Unfortunately I thought the adventure prep notes in that book were almost meaningless, at least as far as my own mental blocks go.

  24. 24 Heron Prior
    February 23, 2012 at 4:16 am

    Not to sidetrack the discussion, but as the author of that particular dungeon I was thrilled to see an actual play report. I have to confess, I never play-tested the damn thing (*ducks*), so hearing that it was viable for a smaller party was great. You’re right, it’s pretty hack and slash…basically Against the Giants, but with lecherous trolls. But I did try to make sure there were a few places for role playing (the wounded prisoners, the rival thieves, and maybe the Annis queen).

    Anyway, glad to see someone actually used it!

  25. 25 blah
    February 25, 2012 at 3:11 pm

    @James —

    It’s a very interesting point. TSR published a pamphlet which I’ve read, but now cannot locate, that was designed to explain what to expect with 2e…

    Here ya go: http://www.wizards.com/dnd/files/2ebook.pdf

    Fun read.

    Oh and by the way: diddling jokes aside, pointing out that Gygax’s rules-writing was (unquestionably) incompetent and (somewhat arguably) unpleasant should at this point be totally uncontroversial. The 1e core is an embarrassment (of riches, sure, but an embarrassment nonetheless) and a lot of its problems come down to Gygax really having no idea how to go about putting together several hundred pages of complicated game rules. Falling back on compulsive verbal ticcing and vocabulary-dick-waving doesn’t actually solve the problem, and calling his logorrhea ‘inspirational’ or ‘atmospheric’ isn’t a defense; there’s a reason the ‘B/X + some AD&D stuff’ version of D&D was (by OSR accounts) so popular…

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Past Adventures of the Mule

February 2012

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