In yesterday's Open Friday question, I asked people to cite the cover image that immediately springs to mind when they think of "Dungeons & Dragons." I'd like to thank everyone who took the time to respond. I found the comments really interesting, if only because I discovered that, for a great many old schoolers, the Erol Otus cover of the Basic Rules is hands-down the most iconic representation of Dungeons & Dragons. After that, it was a close race between Tramp's Players Handbook cover and Elmore's "red box" cover. The Holmes cover did well too, though it was cited less often than any of the other three already mentioned. Interesting too was that there were a very large number of commenters who chose none of these four popular options, instead citing other cover images.
Now, as everyone knows, I was introduced into the hobby through the Holmes "blue book," which is an edited and pared down version of OD&D, even though, for marketing reasons, it sometimes presents itself as if it were an introduction to AD&D (it's not). Despite that, my friends and I eventually "moved on" from Holmes to AD&D anyway, as it seemed to be the only way to go. In 1980, which was our first full year of roleplaying, getting the AD&D Players Handbook was the only pathway to levels above 3 that was readily available to us. The Moldvay/Cook/Marsh sets were still a year in the future and, though we knew of the existence of the LBBs and supplements, for some reason none of us ever considered the possibility of using them in conjunction with Holmes. Plus, the PHB was a 128-page hardcover book selling for (I think) $12.00 , while Greyhawk or Blackmoor was half that length, softcover, and $5.00 -- hardly worth it in our opinions.
And so it was that we all became AD&D players. Or, rather, we became users of AD&D books to play Dungeons & Dragons. I honestly don't think we ever played AD&D using all of the rules it presented. I'm not talking about stuff like weapon speed factors (which we never used) or weapon vs. AC adjustments (which we sometimes). I'm not even talking about psionics, bards, unarmed combat, weapon proficiencies, or any of a dozen other rules that, in my experience, lots of gamers ignored, then and now. I'm talking about really basic stuff like initiative (has anyone ever used AD&D's version?), armor types (I still have trouble with "unarmored" being AC 10, not AC 9), and damage vs. different-sized opponents. AD&D's peculiar (to us, anyway) divergences from Holmes were honored more in the breach than in the observance.
Yet, if someone had asked us back then, we would have unanimously claimed to be playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, especially once Moldvay/Cook/Marsh was released, which we tended to look down on as "kiddie D&D," even as we bought them and the adventure modules associated with them. In our adolescent minds, AD&D was "a man's game," so to speak and we proudly carried about our Gygaxian tomes, even though we regularly ignored the man's actual words when it came to running our games. I don't imagine we were the only ones who did so. Indeed, as the years pass, I have become ever more convinced that very few people ever played AD&D as written, instead simply using Gary's books as source material to flavor games that were, in their essentials, far closer to the LBBs, Holmes, or Moldvay than what's presented in the three volumes released between 1977 and 1979.
I'd hazard a guess that more people entered the hobby through some "basic" version of D&D than directly through AD&D and yet it was AD&D that was the favored son at TSR. Some of this, I am sure, had to do with the disputes between Gygax and Arneson over OD&D, but that doesn't explain it all. As a younger person, when I thought of "D&D," I always thought of AD&D, an association I still haven't shaken to this day. It's not for nothing that I have an image from Dave Trampier's PHB cover on the masthead of this blog, for example. But, when I returned to old school gaming in late 2007, I never seriously considered playing AD&D despite my fondness for it. I found that I like a lot of the Gygaxian flavor of the game, but I preferred OD&D's presumed association with flexibility and open-endedness.
I don't think it can be denied, though, that, even amongst people who don't prefer AD&D over other versions of the game, it remains their mental "default" for imagining "Dungeons & Dragons." Why is it, for example, that we call WotC's current version "Fourth Edition?" That implies that AD&D is "First Edition" and that is what most people call it, including myself. Yet, in truth, AD&D isn't the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons and, to its credit, never claimed to be. The term "First Edition" arose only after the game's revision in 1989. Prior to its release in 2000, you might remember that there were references to "AD&D Third Edition." Even though WotC ultimately dropped the word "advanced" from the title, the company still called its new version "3e" or some variation thereof. The third edition of what? AD&D, of course.
Now, I actually think the name "Third Edition" is an accurate one. For all the ways in which D&D III differs from its TSR ancestors, it still retains a lot of ideas and even verbiage that can be traced directly back to Gygax's manuals (take a look at many of the spell and monster descriptions, if you doubt this). D&D IV, so far as I can detect, can make the claim far more tenuously (especially when it comes to verbiage), but WotC still promotes it as "Fourth Edition." Again, fourth edition of what? The game implicitly presents itself as a successor to Gary Gygax's Advanced D&D, not any other version of the game, even though it's now employing imagery not derived from it.
AD&D casts a long shadow over the subsequent history of Dungeons & Dragons. Every version of the game that has been released in its wake, from Moldvay/Cook/Marsh down to WotC's latest offering, is, to varying degrees, influenced by or reacting against it. It's a testament to its enduring power that, more than three decades on, AD&D remains as iconic as it does. I'm far from certain that that's a wholly good thing (I'm pretty sure it isn't), but there's no denying it. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons is the proverbial elephant in the old school living room; it simply can't be ignored.