Tuesday, July 1, 2008

A New Look for the PHB

1989 saw the release of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 2nd Edition, the first revision of the AD&D line. The origins of 2e are multifarious. Gary Gygax, while still at TSR, indicated his intention to produce a new edition of the game, but he never had the opportunity to do so. He was ousted from the company in 1985 and shepherding the new edition fell to David "Zeb" Cook, who'd been at TSR for many years and had produced numerous classic adventures, such as The Isle of Dread (with Tom Moldvay) and Dwellers of the Forbidden City. By some accounts, 2e was published in order to sever the link between Gygax and D&D, much in the way that 1e itself may have been published in order to sever the link between Dave Arneson and D&D.

In any case, 2e was intended primarily to be a clean-up and rationalization of the original AD&D books. There was no apparent mandate that it be innovative and Cook worked hard by all accounts to make the new edition backward compatible with the previous one. By my lights, he largely succeeded on this score, although the incorporation of non-weapon proficiencies was a poor design decision, as was the elimination of classes such as the assassin and the monk and began the transformation of the thief into the rogue that would be finalized in 3e. Still, 2e, for all the little tweaks and changes it introduced, was, at least as presented in the Player's Handbook (the first time the apostrophe is used in the title, incidentally), about 80% identical to 1e, perhaps even more. One could easily pick up a 1e module or supplement and use it with 2e without the need for mechanical conversion.

In terms of feel, though, 2e was far removed from 1e, as is evidenced by the cover of the Player's Handbook, shown here:


The cover illustration is by Jeff Easley, the same artist who did the revision of the 1e PHB. The same logo is used, this time with the addition of the words "2nd Edition" and without the word "official" at the front.

Unlike the 1e revision cover, this cover has context, albeit a vague one. The heroic rider -- a warrior or knight of some sort -- is galloping astride his equally heroic steed through a canyon or mountain pass, followed by at least two companions, also on horseback. The overall thrust of the piece is dynamic; it's definitely not a static pose, but it is a pose nonetheless. The rider is looking directly at the viewer and he's holding his sword aloft, despite the lack of an obvious opponent. His companions are doing the same. Were they more clearly heading into battle, the presence of their swords wouldn't bother me so much, but seeing as they are traversing some rough terrain while mounted, one would think it more prudent to have both of their hands on the reins. The riders are attired in mostly plausible gear, although the focus character has a ridiculously winged helm. Again, the piece has at least a toehold in the past while pointing toward the future.

In many ways, I find this cover even more unsatisfactory than the 1e revision cover, which at least showed a wizard engaged in magical combat. The 2e cover says nothing about what D&D is about except in the most generic sense: it's a game of heroic sword-wielding guys boldly going off somewhere. I give it credit for illustrating more than one figure; D&D is, after all, about parties of adventurers, not lone wolves. But, overall, the cover simply conveys nothing at all. It has no flavor or feel. Indeed, I'd go so far as to say it is bland, evoking neither the grim and gritty sword & sorcery world of Trampier nor presaging the frenetic "wall of action" we see in the art of Wayne Reynolds.

Quite simply, this is a terrible cover and its flaws suggest to me a game that is unclear about its origins or purpose and that owes its existence to something other than creative expression.

25 comments:

  1. Quick accuracy comment; in AD&D 2e the Thief did not become the Rogue any more than the Fighter became the Warrior. There are four groups, Warrior, Wizard, Rogue and Priest, amongst which the classes are divided. The Magic User, on the other hand, was renamed the Mage. The actual transformation of the Thief class into the Rogue class was a strictly D20 innovation.

    I actually really like this cover, it just says 'D&D' to me, but that's probably because 2e was my first exposure to AD&D. It should be noted that in combination with the DMG cover they denote the chief theme of the game as "Swords & Sorcery."

    The winged helmet, although ridiculous as a practical war helm, reminds me of the teutonic tournament great helms, so I give it a pass in this instance.

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  2. Quick accuracy comment; in AD&D 2e the Thief did not become the Rogue any more than the Fighter became the Warrior.

    Yes, you're correct. I had forgotten that until now. I'll amend the entry accordingly, although, for reasons not immediately germane, I am not at all fond of how the 2e thief was implemented, because it laid the groundwork for the 3e and 4e rogues, which have little to nothing to do with the pulp fantasy origins of the archetype.

    It should be noted that in combination with the DMG cover they denote the chief theme of the game as "Swords & Sorcery."

    I am disinclined to review the D&D core books as a group rather than individually, since (in theory anyway) the PHB was intended as the sole book needed by players to participate in the game. To my mind, that means the PHB should be viewed on its own merits rather than as a part of a larger whole, though your point is a fair one.

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  3. Fair enough.

    I do think the relationship between the PHB and DMG is significant for the visual presentation of 2e in a way it was not for previous (or latter) iterations, but I guess that is a somewhat tangential discussion.

    Certainly, what lacks most from the 2e PHB is an actual 'dungeon', but I suspect that was a purposeful decision.

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  4. I like the cover, but as with Matthew it's possibly because it was my first real exposure to the game after the red-box Basic version.

    There are better pictures, and it is rather bland. But on the other hand it raises the sorts of questions which you praised in the first incarnation of the AD&D PHB: Who are these guys? Who are they about to fight? (I imagine someone or something waiting to meet their charge, just behind 'the camera' as it were.) Have they just been ambushed or have they finally caught up with somebody they've been pursuing for weeks?

    I think it adequately sums up what 2nd edition play was supposed to be like: Outdoorsy, more epic in tone, with stories happening as opposed to just dungeon delving and 'adventuring'. I don't really see that as a negative thing - both approaches are equally fun and interesting to me.

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  5. I do think the relationship between the PHB and DMG is significant for the visual presentation of 2e in a way it was not for previous (or latter) iterations, but I guess that is a somewhat tangential discussion.

    Oh, I absolutely agree. 2e was the first fully "fresh start" AD&D had gotten since 1977 and 1e's books were released piecemeal and existed side by side by OD&D, even sharing the same general logo (with only the word "Advanced" to distinguish them). 2e was a full revamp of the game, including (perhaps especially) its graphic design and branding.

    Certainly, what lacks most from the 2e PHB is an actual 'dungeon', but I suspect that was a purposeful decision.

    I think that's very true. 2e marks, to my mind, an attempt to broaden D&D into a generic fantasy rules set that could be used in a variety of different styles of fantasy. That's why we got specialty priests, specialist mages, thieves with variable skill points, etc. It was intended to be more of a tool kit on the mechanical level than 1e was. And of course 2e was when we saw an explosion of official campaign setting options, many of which I still consider brilliant in concept if not always in execution.

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  6. But on the other hand it raises the sorts of questions which you praised in the first incarnation of the AD&D PHB: Who are these guys? Who are they about to fight? (I imagine someone or something waiting to meet their charge, just behind 'the camera' as it were.) Have they just been ambushed or have they finally caught up with somebody they've been pursuing for weeks?

    Yes, you could ask those question, but I don't, mostly I think because I just don't find the illustration compelling on any level. It elicits questions born out of annoyance on my part rather than interest. I realize that's entirely subjective, but then this whole series of entries is entirely subjective.

    I think it adequately sums up what 2nd edition play was supposed to be like: Outdoorsy, more epic in tone, with stories happening as opposed to just dungeon delving and 'adventuring'.

    I think you're absolutely correct. 2e is the first edition of the game that's informed strongly (and perhaps primarily) by a "literary" tradition other than that of pulp fantasy. Indeed, I'd argue that it was the first edition whose primary influence was D&D and the conception of fantasy it spawned rather than by actual literature.

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  7. That is probably the prime reason I have for liking 2e, the very simple default rule set combined with a "do what you like, here are some suggestions" attitude. In many ways, I consider the ethos of 2e to be much closer to OD&D than AD&D 1e.

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  8. Hi James! I'm european (non-english), so sorry for my language errors. Am reading Your blog systematically (along with Philotomy's too).

    I'm OD&D player [for just 15y - I know ;) ], but started whole rpg-mess with this handbook... I need to add: I disagree completly with You :). This guy can look in the Eye Of the Beholder - not readers... His helmet is just fantastic, amplifying dynamic. They are spread out? Gosh, they heard some horrible scream of dying at the corner. Nerves up! It's Cult of the Dragon terrain! And no realism in pose/surrounding? So what? AD&D 2e is epic, heroic fantasy, no pulp. Pulp isn't universal and rusted a lot over the time (not to mention that in Europe never was something valuable). Illustration of PHB 1e (orginal) better? Hell no! Dali isn't better than van Eyck or than Da Vinci. It's different. As ages changing, techniques and epistemic view of the world changes. That's all. Non-gygaxian? Sure, why not! If it didn't scare players (like could possibly 1e cartoon), or they didn't laughed? Fine - it's just another food for mind's-eye theater. Modern (in 90's), catching eye, plain: good work. Not passe scarecrows from the past...

    Awesome, inspiring thing. DMG 2e was even better, more surrealistic with those bubbles, blurred pirest/mage and in contrast Red, awesome-as-always-by-Easley, Dragon. All in some ritual. Last and truly heroic-fantasy incarnation of AD&D/D&D.

    Cheers and Fight On! :)

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  9. Why can't we be honest?

    We knew at the time that 2e was the result of the company being burned out. They had run out of ideas to sell, so they decided to reprint all the same ideas as second time, because they knew the geeks would buy.

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  10. Hey! I just realised you can say pretty much the same about 4th Ed.

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  11. I always found it strange how much the 2nd Edition Player's Handbook's cover art almost seemed to riff off of the Rules Cyclopedia.

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  12. That would be strange, given that the Rules Cyclopedia was first published in 1991, the AD&D 2e PHB was first published in 1989. Still, a bloody great sea serpent/dragon thing would be a legitimate thing to be fleeing from.

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  13. In many ways, I consider the ethos of 2e to be much closer to OD&D than AD&D 1e.

    I can sort of see what you're getting at, but I'm not sure I buy it. In any event, OD&D and AD&D are of a piece, because they are both grounded in literary pulp fantasy, while 2e is not. I'll grant that AD&D is more specific and less of a tool kit than OD&D, but it's much closer in spirit to it than 2e in my opinion.

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  14. Hey! I just realised you can say pretty much the same about 4th Ed.

    There are definitely similarities in approach, no question, and that's not a coincidence, as I'll discuss in my 4e cover critique on Friday. However, 2e and 4e commit different sins in my opinion, as 2e is a game whose designers still believed the game to be a continuation of what had gone before, while 4e is much more explicitly a break in continuity.

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  15. That would be strange, given that the Rules Cyclopedia was first published in 1991, the AD&D 2e PHB was first published in 1989.

    Indeed. Both are by Jeff Easley, however, and I think that's the really significant thing. Most of his covers have a dull sameness to them.

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  16. One of the things I don't like about the Easley covers is the trade dress. To my eye, they gave both books a very cartoon/comic-book/movie-poster feel, where the first PHB was muted and literary in its appearance. I rarely worried about carrying around the first PHB or DMG (the MM, however...), since neither would draw too much attention - a factor that was important in high school when D&D was for "geeks", and "geeks" wasn't a good thing.

    I also liked the little wizard TSR logo more than the inter-locking T-S-R logo that they ended up using. The wizard suggested fun and games, while the T-S-R logo said "Hey, we payed someone to design a brand!" Actually, I suppose I could say the same thing about the use of the dragon ampersand, too. More signs of the encroaching corporatism.

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  17. I can sort of see what you're getting at, but I'm not sure I buy it. In any event, OD&D and AD&D are of a piece, because they are both grounded in literary pulp fantasy, while 2e is not. I'll grant that AD&D is more specific and less of a tool kit than OD&D, but it's much closer in spirit to it than 2e in my opinion.

    I don't mean to say the ethos of 2e is closer to OD&D than 1e is, but closer to OD&D than it is to 1e, if you see what I mean. The idea being that AD&D 1e is a codification of OD&D (allegedly for the purposes of tournament play), whilst 2e is a decodification of 1e.

    In terms of literary inspiration, I am not sure that I would draw a very great distinction between 2e and 1e, but I would say that the late 80s and 90s saw an increasing tendency for TSR to develop their own IP instead of relying on what had inspired it.

    In that respect, the ethos of the 2e core books was very conflicted, since it rarely referenced anything outside 'the stable'.

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  18. In terms of literary inspiration, I am not sure that I would draw a very great distinction between 2e and 1e, but I would say that the late 80s and 90s saw an increasing tendency for TSR to develop their own IP instead of relying on what had inspired it.

    2e seems a much more self-referential edition than 1e to me. It's certainly far less directly influenced by literary fantasy than was 1e. Any remaining pulp fantasy elements in 2e are almost entirely mediated through 1e. It's also the first post-Dragonlance and post-Forgotten Realms edition and I think that's significant.

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  19. 2e seems a much more self-referential edition than 1e to me. It's certainly far less directly influenced by literary fantasy than was 1e. Any remaining pulp fantasy elements in 2e are almost entirely mediated through 1e. It's also the first post-Dragonlance and post-Forgotten Realms edition and I think that's significant.

    It is more self referential, there is no doubt, but I would not draw the line at an edition change. The introduction of official campaign settings and accompanying literature is what created the means for self reference, and that started in the early eighties.

    In many ways I would argue that AD&D 2e was more strongly and directly influenced by fantasy literature than AD&D 1e, especially in its push towards 'storytelling' over dungeon crawls. The fantasy it was influenced by, though, no longer predated the game (except perhaps for Tolkien).

    To me, the 2e core books are just way blander than their predecessors. As you rightly note, it is the campaign settings that really allow the game to become inter related and self referential, edging out other potentially more interesting possibilities.

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  20. 1e & 2e mixed pretty easily, at least early on. When I started gaming in 1989, my books were a 1e PHB (second cover, bought at Toys 'Я' Us), the the Monster Manual, Fiend Folio, Monster Manual II, and Deities & Demigods from the local library, and the 2nd Edition DMG (also from Toys 'Я' Us).

    The only difficulty we noticed is that we didn't have the table for assassination, but the 1e PHB said the chance was roughly 50%, so I house-ruled it at 50% +/-5% per level difference. Which, strangely enough, is very close to what the actual 1e DMG table says.

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  21. 1e & 2e mixed pretty easily, at least early on.

    This was my experience too... I started playing in 1990, and the first year was mainly about dungeon crawls. We learned the game from 1e veterans. We used the 2e books, but when we needed something that wasn't covered in 2e, we used the 1e variants. For example Illusionist was in the 2e books, so we dropped the original. Assasin, half orc, we used the 1e rules... It was natural... When we started buying the campaingn boxed sets, and the new rule books, we slowly forgot all the 1e books. It took years... The Manual of Planes we had to use till Planescape etc... We had to notice, that 1e was in a lot of ways better than the 2e variants... But it's not about the rules, but the feel of it. The art, the wording of the rules, the additional explanations, the literary influences... RPG fiction (TSR novels) in our vocabulary, means bad fiction (there are good ones though). While the inspiration for OD&D, and AD&D is good fiction. I'm just starting to understand this as I'm reading these blogs, and old school forums... :-)

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  22. In that respect, the ethos of the 2e core books was very conflicted, since it rarely referenced anything outside 'the stable'.

    I think it's fair to say that 2e was a transitional edition. It still looks back on the pulp fantasies that animated 1e, in part because it's a true revision of that edition rather than a new game entirely. However, 2e is also the first edition of the game to be strongly influenced by itself or by "D&D fantasy," a type of literature that simply didn't exist when 1e was written.

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  23. I just recently read the 2e PHB for the first time, and although obviously a controversial point, I agree the 2e PHB is close in concept to OD&D. 2e PHB is more organized and thought out, and some what self aware, but there is little to no setting and the whole friendly vibe to the writing is that the book is a toolkit for you and your friends to have fun telling your own stories. As much as I love 1e, the PHB pretty much assumes your party will explore dungeons with lit torches, kicking down doors, and carrying out gold. 1e almost ignores the possibility of exploring wooded terrain, traveling by see Argonaut style, and gives only a passing mention of higher level characters setting up Barony. Dave "Zeb" Cook even says in the introduction to 2e if you don't find a rule in here then make it up! This is very similar to Gary and Dave's take in OD&D, going so far as to say if you want to explore planets instead of running around in a medieval world then go for it! 1e's take was you are going to explore dungeons to get gold and this is the right way to do it.

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  24. This is very similar to Gary and Dave's take in OD&D, going so far as to say if you want to explore planets instead of running around in a medieval world then go for it! 1e's take was you are going to explore dungeons to get gold and this is the right way to do it.

    I think the point would be stronger if the subsequent development of 2e had followed through, but it didn't really, instead focusing on fleshing out a plethora of ready-made settings, each with its own idiosyncrasies and hacks to the 2e rules. I don't think this was by accident; 2e was certainly more planned as a line than was 1e. Most of what was produced for it was done as part of a business plan rather than as an expression of creativity.

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  25. I think 2nd edition is unfairly maligned. There are elements of it that I thought were godawful, but most of those were "optional" supplements.


    Granted, I do lament the loss of the gritty edginess of the 1st ed (Devils, Demons, Assassins, Nekkid Ladies, Harlot encounter table). But at the time, there was a very real issue of moral panic from ignorant people assuming we were all Satan worshippers, so it was an understandable survival response.


    Personally, I just added that stuff right back in anyways. And eventually, even TSR reintroduced demons and devils under less inflammatory terminology.


    2nd ed had a do-anything spirit to it that really resonated with me, and the plethora of addtional content gave us a lot of stuff to work with to customise the game. I think some of the settings got out of hand, but that's another issue entirely.


    For what it's worth, I do think the covers on the 2nd edition PHB and DMG are terrible. Even at the time, I thought they were terrible. They're bland and boring, and there's no sense of setting.


    Compare Easley's galloping fighters of the PHB to the Kieth Parkinson cover on "Cyclopedia of the Realms".


    Easley's riders are galloping down a featureless place (Tunnel? Cave?) raising their swords for no particular reason. There's a sense of movement, but no real sense of place. We don't know if the riders or good guys or bad guys, and there is no apparent conflict. Even the quality of the artwork is weak. The riders have no real personality and the painting style is... unpleasant to look upon.


    Parkinson, in contrast has painted a story on his cover. In the foreground, a nasty-looking hobgoblin on a horse has a handful of a pretty blonde rider's hair. He's got an axe poised to smash into her face, but he could just as easily drag her out of the saddle. Either way, she's in trouble.


    Another mounted hobgoblin and female rider are in the background, giving the whole thing a really dynamic, chaotic feel.



    This painting actually has a setting... the ground is wet and muddy, and the galloping horses are splashing through puddles. Through the fog in the background, a castle can barely be seen.


    The painting is exhilarating. There's a very visceral, emotional response when you see that woman about to be yanked off of her horse. You want her to escape, but man, it's gonna be close!


    Kieth Parkinson has always been one of my absolute favorite artists, due to his gritty, realistic, gloomy style. But this one captures a life and death moment perfectly.

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