Why and how I’m playing First Edition AD&D

You might be wondering why a guy like me would be playing First Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.  And yet, here I am in 2017 playing AD&D more than any other tabletop RPG.


It’s strange especially now!  In my opinion, tabletop roleplaying is going through a bit of a renaissance.  5th Edition D&D is drawing new players in and old players back.  The success of sites such as DriveThruRPG makes independent games readily available.  And beyond that, the vast variety of games available simply makes it a very fun and fertile time for tabletop roleplaying.  So, yes, it is odd that I would go back and play AD&D 1e.

Since MadCleric.com has recently seen an upward spike in new readers, I thought I’d give you a more clear and comprehensive on the when, why, and how of my current AD&D project entitled, Chasing the Dragon:

So why play AD&D 1e now?

I started roleplaying in 2011, using the oft-maligned 4th Edition D&D.  Maligned or not, me and my friends enjoyed it for quite a while.  For three years in fact.  Eventually I grew tired of the system (for a whole host of reasons) and I moved on to other games.  But when 5e starting getting really good reviews, I found myself wanting to go back to the swords and shields…yet I was left with a nagging question:

Why play 5th Edition, when I could play 1st Edition?  Why play new modules and scenarios, when I haven’t even played the oldest, most revered, and most nostalgic?

In fact, it was the plunge into the unknown nostalgia of yesteryear that powerfully drew me into the game of our gaming forefathers.

As I considered the idea more seriously, I started learning the history of the game as well.  I learned about Gary Gygax, TSR, their successes, and their difficulties.  I learned about the myriad modules, books, and publications released during that wonderful period of the late seventies and early eighties.  As a lover of arcane knowledge, this scratched another itch: I love to read and to learn.


By stepping into this era of gaming, there were so many new voices, new perspectives, and frankly foreign ideas compared to the gaming of today.  It was a perfect combination for me.

What’s the plan?

I appreciate all the kind readers who have written to warn me that “chasing the dragon” is actually a term related to illicit drug use.  I appreciate the kindness, but I actually intended that!  “Chasing the dragon” means someone trying to recapture that initial experience–trying to get back to that first high.  And my project, Chasing the Dragon, is attempting to do just that:

It’s all about going back in time and recapturing the experience of the first D&D players.  I’ve been learning the rules of 1st Edition AD&D from the ground up, attempting to play them rules-as-written.  And now that I’ve done that, here’s where I’ve gone and am going.

I want to play (as DM or player) all the classic AD&D modules, based upon the recommendations of my readers and my research.  I started with a classic Gygax starter module and am moving on from there:

One of our last sessions in T1: The Village of Hommlet (Photo by Lauren LaCaze)

We’re having a third child (hooray!) mid-year, so that will probably slow things for a very short period–or at least force me to play primarily online.  But in time, I’m hoping to play the following modules (not all this year, of course):

T2-4: The Temple of Elemental Evil (Lev 1-8)
S4: The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth (Lev 6-10)
WG4: The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun (Lev 5-10)
WG5: Mordenkainen’s Fantastic Adventure (Lev 9-12)

G1: Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (Lev. 8)
G2: The Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl
G3: Hall of the Fire Giant King (Lev 8-10)
D1: Descent into the Depths of the Earth (Lev. 7-9)
D2: Shrine of the Kuo-Toa (Lev 9-14)
D3: Vault of the Drow (Lev 10-14)
S1: Tomb of Horrors (Lev 10-14)

N4: Treasure Hunt (Level 0)
U2: Danger at Dunwater (Lev. 1-4)
U3: The Final Enemy (Lev. 3-5)

A1-4: Scourge of the Slavelords (Lev. 1-7)
S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (Lev 8-12)
WG6: Isle of the Ape (Lev 18+)

As you can see, I have them split into some possible campaign groupings.  But that is likely to all go out the window, as I’ve renegotiated them about thirty times thus far.  And, yes, I’m always open to suggestions in comments below or on Twitter.

What about the rules?  And what about 5e?

These are questions that I have gotten pretty regularly.  People fear the ruleset of First Edition AD&D, because they’ve heard rumor of its difficulty.  Really, truthfully, it has moments that lack clarity.  And sometimes it’s unnecessarily wonky.  But all said and done, it works great.  It’s fun.  It’s consistent.  And it’s easy to catch onto for players.

So if you’re interested in playing, the best thing to do is to read the Players Handbook.  It’s one of the most fun gaming books I’ve ever read.  I basically read it all in one sitting.  Check it out and I think you’ll be surprised at how innovative and fun it is, even in comparison to today’s games.

And as far as 5e is concerned, it’s a really great system.  I played through the D&D Next Playtest and enjoyed every moment of it.  But frankly, that playtest was one of the major influences that urged me toward AD&D 1e.  I kept seeing hints of an older, more mysterious, and less streamlined way of gaming.  It seemed complex, arcane (in a good way), and…might I say…advanced?!  5e in the end influenced me to look for the old ways.


So here I am telling stories about Greyhawk, St. Cuthbert, and oddly named PCs like Elmo and Otis.  And I’m loving every moment of it.

Who cares?

Well, I hope you do care.  And I hope you’re interested in following my journey.  Here are the best ways to follow along.  They’re pretty redundant, so feel free to pick the one that you prefer:

Join my Facebook groupFollow me on Twitter
Follow by email (on the left sidebar)

I’m glad to have you on this journey of Chasing the Dragon.  And who knows?  You might just catch the bug too.  Happy travels!

Disclosure of Material Connection: the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

28 thoughts on “Why and how I’m playing First Edition AD&D

  1. Play whatever game brings you and your gaming group joy. I enjoy AD&D 1e as much as I enjoy D&D 5e and will be playing both in the years to come. I look forward to reading about your forays into the classic modules.

  2. George says:

    I like your reasoning, I would further recommend branching out into other games of that era and finding out why so many gamers turned to games other than D&D and remain serious proponents of those other systems. I would start with Runequest by Chaosium. The classic 1979 2nd Edition rules are available on Chaosium’s website. One book, 130ish pages, that covers everything you need to play the game.

    • BaronGreystone says:

      I agree with George. Classic RQ2 is one of my favorite games, and I still play it. Along with Call of Cthulhu, Stormbringer, FASA Star Trek, Gamma World / Metamorphosis Alpha and Classic Traveller. Even West End Games’ Star Wars, although I’m not really a SW fan. All of those games were periodically rewritten or replaced, but I still play the old editions. The last of the companies to lose my business was Chaosium. They recently released a rewritten 7th edition of Cthulhu that changes the rules after all these years, and they’re releasing a 7th edition of RQ that will likewise change the rules from my beloved 1979 book, even after re-releasing the classic edition last year. In any case, if you have the time and inclination, I second George’s suggestion.

      • BaronGreystone says:

        Classic RQ2 currently in print in pdf, hardcover and I think softcover too, check the Chaosium website. Comprehensive Classic Traveller available on CDs from Far Future Enterprises, the one-volume book available print-on-demand from Drivethru, and individual pdfs from Drivethru. There’s a fan-based pdf of WEG Star Wars available, some folks get that printed. The rest are ebay material if you want the old editions, although there might still be a reprint of original Metamorphosis Alpha around. If you need specifics let me know and I’d be happy to help.

        • BaronGreystone says:

          Whoops, forgot that there’s also a fan version of old Gamma World circulating out there, if you need it. Basically just a cleaned-up doc.

  3. Baron Greystone says:

    I’m pleased that you’re enjoying your 1st ed experience. I began with the Holmes boxed set, which was something of a bridge between what’s now called OD&D (the original, Zero Edition if you like) and AD&D (the first edition, of course). Then I played in a combo game incorporating elements from both OD&D and the released-one-bit-at-a-time 1st ed AD&D (as we all had to do, back in the day). Eventually all three 1st ed books were out, and that’s what I used from then on.

    In those days, products couldn’t come out fast enough for us. As you probably know, at this point TSR divided their products into AD&D, and the new Basic D&D. From what I understand this was to avoid paying Arneson for the “new” AD&D line. As consumers, if an AD&D DM wanted additional materials, we would use modules from the Basic D&D line. Sure, it took a little conversion work (if you bothered at all), but if the product blurb sounded good, you went for it.

    In any case, while I’ve explored other game systems, I still play 1st ed AD&D. I never accepted post-Gygax TSR’s decision to re-write the game for a second, and subsequent, versions. Such a concept has no appeal for me. On the other hand, in those early days I played or ran some of the other games that began to spring up, and I continue to play many of those old games to this day (also in their older editions). But I’ve put the greatest number of hours into 1st ed AD&D.

    I’d like to say that I applaud your intention to run the game using all the rules, as written. Many people did that, but many other people also felt just as free to drop sections, or house-rule. This was already a time-honored tradition in roleplaying, and something I don’t hesitate to do today. I just produce a house-rule pamphlet for my players.

    I know you’ll hear many different opinions about what to include or exclude from your gaming experience, so I’ll toss my fedora into the ring. I would suggest that you stick to the original Players Handbook, Monster Manual and DMG for a good while. Then I would recommend that you look through Unearthed Arcana. It’s one of my favorite books. Some people don’t like all of the new classes and races, but you should feel free to choose what you like or make modifications at that point. There’s also tons of useful supplemental information included. I also like the Oriental Adventures book, although I leave its artificial mechanical Honor system out (I prefer Honor to be handled in roleplay). The other books: Dungeoneers, Wilderness, Manual of the Planes, Greyhawk and Dragonlance, are safely ignored (but feel free to mine them for info if you’ve a mind to). The Fiend Folio and Monster Manual II are of mixed quality, but if you’re looking for variety you’ll find some use for them. Dieties & Demigods (aka Legends & Lore) serves a purpose, but can also be safely ignored.

    Now I’ll say up front that I’m not a huge fan of the modules you’ve listed on your future playlist. I’m going to make some alternate suggestions for you. And my list includes some Basic D&D products. By “Basic D&D” I mean the BasicExpertCompanionMasterImmortal series of rules, rewritten and condensed in the Rules Cyclopedia. The major difference between that rules set and AD&D is the use of ‘race-as-class,’ ie Halfling is a character class. You can’t be a Halfling Fighter or a Halfling Thief, you’re just a 1st level Halfling. Some DMs even allowed both types of characters in the same game. Nowadays I either use the products as-written, or make minor modifications.

    B1 In Search of the Unknown: The first module I saw/read/played. It was originally included in the Holmes boxed set. Do-it-yourself module population, never the same twice.
    B4 The Lost City. Similar theme to I1 below, a cool lost city adventure.
    X1 Isle of Dread: beats the pants off of WG6 Isle of the Ape.
    X2 Castle Amber: If you like crazy humor in your game. Includes an amazing trip somewhere else (and I won’t write a spoiler here but it’s a classic).
    I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City: Can’t say enough about this open-ended, pulpy sword-and-sorcery lost city.
    I3, I4, I5, later known as the Desert of Desolation series: pyramids and stuff.
    I6 Ravenloft: If you don’t know what this is, just buy it. One of the very best, ever.
    OA1 Swords of the Daimyo: adventures and a setting for that Oriental Adventures book that you know you want to use. Includes a way to move Western characters to the Orient a la Shogun.

    B1, B4, X1 and X2 are part of the Basic D&D line. If you want to see some of the best settings ever written, you might want to look up their Gazetteer series, set in the Basic D&D world of Mystara. Each includes tons of story hooks, along with optional rules. I heartily recommend GAZ3 Principalities of Glantri as the best of the bunch. It’s like a microcosm of Europe. It’s also a bit tongue-in-cheek as written. That’s something that was much more common back then than it is today, but you can ignore that if you like. Includes campaign ideas and a setting for playing students in a school of magic, pre-dating Hogwarts by years! A word of caution, not every Gaz is to everyone’s taste. Also there were a couple of boxed settings in the line that I recommend, Dawn of the Emperors (sort of like Rome vs Atlantis) and Hollow World (Burroughs eat your heart out). I’ll also point out that I don’t recommend the first gazetteer, Grand Duchy of Karameikos. While it has its fans, my observation is that’s at least in part to its being the first-published of the line. Therefore it got the most exposure, and holds that special nostalgic place in some people’s hearts. Objectively though, I don’t find it inspiring at all.

    If you know your history, you also know that a company called Judges Guild was the first company to make non-TSR D&D accessories, including some of the greatest modules and settings. The company started out in the OD&D timeframe, then moved to producing AD&D products when that edition was released. Finally, TSR yanked their license, so their products became generic. Although they’re still around, I recommend the ORIGINAL editions, as follows.

    OD&D Products
    Setting: Wilderlands. Start with JG0048 Wilderlands of High Fantasy. I ran a campaign there for 20 years. Is that endorsement enough? The first published D&D setting.
    City: JG0062 City-State of the Invincible Overlord. Centerpiece of the Wilderlands. The first published D&D city.
    Modules:
    JG0027 Tegel Manor. Doesn’t get more old-school than this. Warning, this is really chaotic, and what modern gamers would call ‘unbalanced.’ Pfah. Not for beginning DMs though.
    JG0052 Thieves of Fortress Badabaskor. This one is kind of hard for younger players to imagine. It’s a fortified, inhabited and defended bandit lair on top of a wild dungeon. In the days when your character had a troop of hirelings following him around, it would be normal for you and your fellow PCs to storm such a place and fight your way down. You might lose tons of flunkies on the way, stepping up to challenge the “bosses” yourself. You great hero, you. See also Arneson’s Temple of the Frog, as written in the OD&D manual Blackmoor (Supplement II), for the same kind of situation. It’s really an amazing read, even if you can’t see yourself running it as-is. You could always mine it for ideas, or have players infiltrate, join up, etc.
    JG0063 Citadel of Fire. One of the first modules I played in, tons of fun, not complicated to run.
    JG0102 Caverns of Thracia. One of the classics of the industry. My favorite module of all time. Run out and buy this now.

    AD&D Products
    JG0088 Dark Tower. Another classic of the industry, fiendish and high-level. Better than Ravenloft. Buy now.
    JG0114 The Maltese Clue. One of my favorites, but seems to be relatively unknown these days.

    I will confess that I’ve made room in my campaign for a 2nd edition concept: Spelljammer. The very concept is too cool to ignore. I use 1st ed rules, of course…

    So there you have it. If I can help in any way, let me know. Have a blast!

    • MadCleric says:

      Wow! Amazing list of recommendations. I forgot to add Ravenloft, as that is one I definitely want to do. I’ll have to do more research on these others. They sound great!

      I was a little concerned about the conversion from BECMI to AD&D, but a friend recently lent me the Basic D&D rules. So that may help in the process.

      Again, I really appreciate this thorough list. I’m still learning a lot!!!

      • BaronGreystone says:

        I can get you a copy of a one-page “conversion sheet” that lists all the technical differences. Let me know if you’re that concerned.

      • Beoric says:

        I think its worth giving a shout out to newer modules generated by the OSR. The 0e, 1e and B/X modules mentioned represent an entirely different playstyle from anything published for 4e (including the conversions of things like Hommlet), and since TSR/WotC went in a different direction after that period, the modules are among the best of that playstyle to come out of TSR, and certainly WotC.

        However, it’s not like the people who continued playing in that style over the last 40-odd years haven’t learned anything, and it is worth looking at later modules designed for the earlier editions of D&D and their retro-clones. There is a lot of chatter about things like Anomalous Subsurface Environment, Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, and Deep Carbon Observatory. I have read a handful of these successor modules and I see where the OSR is coming from on this.

        If you start to get a bit jaded with Gary I would branch out into the Moldvay modules (eg. Lost City, Isle of Dread) and the Judges Guild products listed above, especially Jaquay’s, as well as these newer products.

        You can find a good shortlist of the newer products here: http://tenfootpole.org/ironspike/?page_id=844. The list includes a few freebies.

  4. Nigel Guest says:

    Wonderful read. Thoroughly recommend your plans. I often revert to earlier systems. My favourite is 3.5 for reasons of character diversity and skill usage. AD&D original is a classic as Im sure you are aware of and there is so much Judges Guild material (wonderfully Kitsch) that was written for 1e as well as some of the great classic modules. Enjoy! It’s a pity I live in Australia otherwise I’d be hitting you up to join!!

    • MadCleric says:

      Maybe I’ll get an online group going one of these days? I’m not sure how that would feel though…AD&D online?

      I’ll keep you posted. Make sure to follow on Twitter, FB, or email!

  5. I agree with T.R. Anyone should feel free to play however they like. For me personally I played so much 1e as a youngster and the fact the 5e just appeals more to my sensibilities as a player. Being someone who has played every edition of DnD I can look at 5e and go, ok this is were they took that from and this is the grandchild of that idea. It feels very nostalgic to me because many of the early ideas have been brought back but at the same time it is very lean and modern because it is the product of not only decades of iteration from earlier versions but also the companies willingness to make the people that play the game part of the process of refining it. I do like the fact that you have gone back and started playing the OG material and getting to experience many of the things that I did as a much younger man.

  6. Back in the day (1978-1982) I played 1e. The Player’s Handbook was the first D&D book that I owned. The DMG wasn’t even out yet (though it was eagerly awaited). Then I took 30 years off. 🙂 When I returned, I found that 4e was an entirely different game. I had no idea. I hated it. So I went back to 1e and then discovered the OSR. But the funny thing is, the more I learned about the history and craft of the game, the more I discovered that everything I liked about 1e I liked even more about 0e (the 1974 original edition). I’m curious as to what made you settle on 1e as opposed to, say, Basic, Holmes or 0e? Not arguing (1e is a great game), just asking.

    • Honestly, when I began this project, “The Dragon” that I was chasing was Gary Gygax. I found him, his history, and his thought processes fascinating. So AD&D felt like hte best representation of him in the D&D world. He would argue that Lejendary Adventures did more so. Plus, I’m a child of the 80s-90s, so I grew up hearing about Advanced D&D more.

  7. BaronGreystone says:

    For myself, I found OD&D disorganized and obscure. Holmes was simplistic. Basic looked like a rewritten Holmes (which it was). AD&D had oodles of awesomeness on every page. When I later tried to work with the B and X series of modules, I was again reminded of how disappointing I found their Elf, Cleric and Dwarf classes, when I could have so many more choices in my AD&D books. So I can’t answer for our Mad Cleric, but that’s my experience.

  8. John says:

    Late hit here, but I can’t believe B2 wasn’t mentioned. Though included with the later printings of the Basic D&D box set, adapting it to AD&D is trivial. Now, what B2 requires is some work to flesh out–Why are all these tribes living in close proximity? How to they react to intrusion and attack? Do you change the state of the caves after the initial foray or do you leave the conditions static? These factors are what makes each instance of B2 special and unique. I ran it recently, taking a rigorous approach, and found it a load of fun. Things didn’t go down as expected–it was better in every way.

    • MadCleric says:

      I’ve actually had B2 on my more recent list of modules to explore. Earlier I was worried about the conversion process, but less so now.

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