Oct 04

I Was A Goblin: My Favourite AD&D Rules

TMFD9 comments • 5,870 views

(Caution: not for the softcore)

gnoll Alignment: AD&D employed a notorious form of psychometric profiling, the Alignment System, whereby every living thing’s personality could be summarised by a phrase like “Lawful Neutral” or “Chaotic Good”. The two axes of alignment dealt with reaction to authority and moral outlook: these were Gary Gygax’s only concession to the idea that characters should have a personality. Absurdly, each of the nine alignments had its own language which only similar people could understand – various glosses tried to explain this idea, settling on the notion that “alignment language” was sort of like body language. Bad people, in other words, smile less.

Hit Points: HP are now such an accepted part of computer gaming that it’s odd to remember how disliked the system was in the 80s roleplaying era. The problem in AD&D was that while a character’s hit points rose with experience, the capacity of weapons to do damage stayed pretty constant. The implications were that a higer-level mage wearing only a robe, for instance, could survive several maximum-damage blows with a broadsword which would immediately kill a lower-level character wearing full armour. This made it very difficult for the referee to actually describe what was happening in combat. “You are hit with a crossbow bolt. No ill effects though.” Again, exegeses of these rules were common: one idea was that only the last 10 or so ‘hit points’ were real, the rest represented a character’s luck gradually running out in a fight. (There was also another rule whereby your HP could go down to -10 before you actually died, or something. Nobody used it.)

Economics: The unit of currency in AD&D was the gold piece. There were also silver pieces, worth 1/10 of a gold; copper pieces worth 1/10 of a silver, and platinum pieces. Worth 10 times a gold piece, you’d think? No. Five times. And then there was the electrum piece, worth half a gold piece. All these different coins were accepted without question anywhere in an AD&D world – who minted the coins, and how this oddly complex five-tiered system had evolved, and why the electrum piece even existed other than to show that Gary Gygax knew the word “electrum”… these questions were left to the individual referee’s discretion.

Greed Is Good: You could get experience points in two ways in AD&D. If you killed a monster, you got some XP. And you got 1 XP for every gold piece you found. I am pretty sure you had to find them – you couldn’t just bank them and grow powerful from the interest. But on the other hand it was also implied you had to actually get the things home, just seeing and planting a metaphorical flag on the treasure wasn’t enough. Why did having gold improve your fighting or magic skills? Don’t ask that. The general thinking was that the experience-for-gold trade-off represented a boost from completing a particular mission, and most adventures were designed to follow this logic, with the big pay-off at the end. The obvious solution – of just giving XP based on how well an adventure went – was forbidden by Gygax, though nearly every ref just ignored him.

Encumbrance: The gold-as-XP logic of the AD&D gameworld meant that characters would routinely be faced with the problem of getting several tons of cash from place to place. The rulebooks were quiet on the logistics of this, but did include an extensive ‘encumbrance system’ to simulate the effects of excess weight on movement and combat. Of all tables in the AD&D rules the Encumbrance Tables were the most widely ignored* – referees quickly worked out that even trying to take them seriously would render characters completely immobile.

*actually, no, the Armor Class Modifier Tables were the most ignored, but of them we need not speak.


  1. 1
    amuletts on 9 Sep 2006 #

    In critiquing Gary Gygax I think you should remember that desite his assertion of the rules he often broke them. Examine his scenarios and compare them to his suggested ‘game balance’ to see what I mean. Personally I like the alignment system and the fact that it is the only guideline to your characters personality. It gives more scope for making the character your own as opposed to other systems I’ve played, where personality is determined by dice roll. The lack of rules regarding personality doesn’t negate it from the game, (how the hell do you write rules for personality anyway?) but provides freedom. You can’t get stuck with a character you don’t want to play because you can give them whatever personality you want with alignment the only limit. It’s a good limit too. If the player pushes it too hard it breaks.

    I do think the alignment ‘language’ is rather silly and I don’t know anyone who pays attention to it.

    “There was also another rule whereby your HP could go down to -10 before you actually died, or something. Nobody used it.”

    Really? My role-play group use it. When you hit 0 hit points you are concious but too injured to move. At -1 you fall unconscious and will loose hp at 1 point per round unless stablised either by healing magic or good, old fashioned bandaging and tending. The former restores hp (it’s magic, it’s basically ‘miraculous restoring of health’) whereas the latter merely stops loss of hp. Healing proficiency can restore hp at 1 point per hour of constant tending I believe, as the healer attempts to repair injuries by non-magical means (like a medievil doctor).

    I think going into the minus’ works, as at this point characters can be assumed to have received grevious injury preventing them from functioning anymore. Going straight from 1 hp – walking around merrily fighting monsters – to 0 hp – dead – is very silly! We generally consider the minus hp period as a chance for companions to administer CPR or take precautions against their friend bleeding to death.

    Ahem. Sorry, am I rule-ranting.

    As for the ‘Greed is Good’ principle I have to say it’s part of the game I don’t like. I’ve been through some hefty adventures and received pitiful xp purely because the party was motivated by helping others rather than wealth. It felt a lot like punishment for a good deed (and since we were of good alignments entirely inappropriate).

    Encumberance works alright, as long as you take it with a pinch of salt. After all, the books don’t list how much everything weighs so most of it is guess-work anyway. But it makes sense that weaker people simple can’t carry as much and even strong people have limits. You also have to consider where you would put everything. For example a fighter is carrying five swords. How? He could comfortably have two at his waist and on his back, but a fifth can’t go anywhere that isn’t encumbering.

    As for carting gold around the place well it’s not something you want to be doing ideally. Couldn’t you leave it somewhere and go back to collect it? If something is too heavy for your character give it to a stronger one to carry on your behalf. I have a thief and she generally isn’t all that interested in gold, she tends to pick up small items of high value. They have the advantage of being light and easy to conceal. Why carry 10,000 gold when you can carry a handful of gems? Besides, there are ways to get around encumberance such as bags of holding, portable holes and their ilk.

    Hmm yes the AC modifier table does get forgotten a fair bit, but I wouldn’t say ‘ignored.’ More that since the majority of combat is with melee weapons it’s generally performed in an open enviroment. There have been some fun moments where a character of mine has needed to fire a range weapon at a monster behind cover and the ‘cover’ has been her fellow party members!

    Perhaps playing with one group means you only know one way the game is played. Play with another group and you will get a different experience.

    I’ve read though a few of your post and I’m not sure of your current age but if you think you are too old to return to the game you should know that there are players out the in their forties and fifties. If it’s a pastime you enjoy there’s no reason not to return to it, apart from perhaps the time commitment. Is it really something you are ashamed of?

  2. 2
    amuletts on 9 Sep 2006 #

    Sorry, right before the indent there should be this quote:

    ‘There was also another rule whereby your HP could go down to -10 before you actually died, or something. Nobody used it.’


  3. 3
    Pete on 9 Sep 2006 #

    Amuletts, this is interesting – can I ask who you are quoting above? Certainly for me the hole role-playing games filled in my teenage life has latterly been filled, though i do look back on those days with an equal amount of fondness and embaressment (though the embaressment is more tied up to being a teenager than necessarily the hobby itself – though the two cannot be seperated unfortunately).

  4. 4
    Pete Baran on 9 Sep 2006 #

    Oh, I see, you were trying to quote Tom and the HTML went all silly [html now corrected]. Sorry, you were quoting yrself!

  5. 5
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