Retro Gaming: AD&D 1st Edition, Part 1

And now for something completely different.

In an effort to show some friends how gaming’s come along in the decades since the formative years, I’m doing some retro games. First among these is my first game, AD&D 1st Edition. Not Basic D&D, though I played some of that… AD&D. This is what I cut my teeth on, so there’s a strong nostalgia factor, but now that I’m older I can understand the rules a little more easily. For Part 1 of this series, I’ll be talking about how 1st Edition is different from ‘modern’ D&D(referring to both version 3.X and 4th) and how my own game will be set up. Future installments will cover summaries of the game sessions, both to relate interesting game stories and commentary on how the game system affected play.

Optional and House Rules

First Edition wasn’t like Third Edition… or even Second. Both of those Editions of the game had a large collection of supplementary material, largely the ‘Complete’ series for 2nd and the various class books, which were later expanded into ‘Complete’ books, for 3rd. But First Edition was in the early days of gaming, and though there were a few supplements and even some third party add-ons(Role Aids from Mayfair Games, for example), the bulk of the rules both official and optional could be boiled down into a short list of books:

  • Player’s Handbook
  • Dungeon Master’s Guide
  • Monster Manual I & II
  • Manual of the Planes(covering the Planes, of course)
  • Legends & Lore/Deities and Demigods (same book, different name. Covered pantheons of gods)
  • Fiend Folio (more monsters, including the now-infamous Githyanki)
  • Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide
  • Wilderness Survival Guide
  • Unearthed Arcana
  • Oriental Adventures, Dragonlance, Greyhawk, and other setting books.

The vast bulk of the rules were in the PHB and DMG. The Survival Guide series(and Oriental Adventures) introduced Nonweapon Proficiencies, while Unearthed Arcana was a collection of rules refinements and additions which included the Cavalier, Thief-Acrobat, cantrips, and I believe the Barbarian class.  I’m not using the Unearthed Arcana, but I will be using the Non-Weapon Proficiencies rules from the Survival Guides. The DMG also has an alternate rolling method that I’ll be using. The “official” rolling method is 3d6 in order, but nobody uses that now. Method I in the DMG is the more familiar 4d6 drop lowest, arrange as desired.

This short list of materials isn’t to say 1st Edition lacked rules or options. For one thing, these books are incredibly information-dense. The Survival Guide series alone has a ton of generic information and specific rules to deal with those situations that explorers might find themselves in. If you cut out all the fluff from Frostburn, Stormwrack, and Sandstorm and put them all together, they might just begin to approach the usefulness of the Wilderness Survival Guide. 1st Edition didn’t have a need to fill page space with Prestige Classes and magic items… they put information in there, instead.

Most of the additional rules and spells and equipment for 1st Edition came from Dragon Magazine, which was back in the day an incredibly useful resource.  For example, when I first began playing, I’d often use the shield rules presented in issue #127, which allowed attacking with shields and refined the defense bonus. And that was just one article! That issue alone also covered a slew of new magic and mundane bows, some optional combat rules, video game reviews, book reviews, and the infamous Editorial from Roger Moore on Tucker’s Kobolds. Given the lack of playtesting these rules had, I won’t be using any Dragon Magazine rules or classes even though I have the CD collection of Dragon. The only exception is for rules not covered in the basic books, like the aforementioned Shield Bash.


You might think from all the gushing I did about the sourcebooks and Dragon Magazine’s quality that I have a thing for 1st Edition. Nothing could be further from the truth. While I do look back fondly upon it, you have to realize that at the time, options were limited. D&D was practically the only game in town, and the industry was in its infancy, still developing techniques to differentiate itself from the more mature wargaming industry. This edition was a mess of rules and holdovers from that, and lacked the streamlining and standardization of later editions. The fact that it worked at all was something of a miracle. Dungeon Masters had to track so many variables and conditions that most just let things slide. Let’s take a look at the system, in brief.


Attributes in 1st were mainly used to qualify for classes. Unlike in 3rd or even to some degree 2nd, characters only had a real use for attributes if they were extremely high or very low.  Most didn’t start a real payoff for high scores until around 15 or so, and the only official way to raise them was through the Wish spell or certain one-use magic items. Every one had its own chart, too, so there were no standardized bonuses like in 3rd. Often, the associated roll was a percentile roll, such as with Strength’s Bend Bars/Lift Gates or with Constitution’s System Shock.  Constitution also limited how often the character could be raised to the Con score itself, and only assuming the player made the Resurrection Survival check. If they failed, the character couldn’t be raised. Ever.


The list of races should be familiar to any 3rd Edition player: Human, Elf, Dwarf, Halfling, Gnome, Half-Elf, Half-Orc. Most stat adjustments were a +1 to 1, -1 to another deal, but the real bonus was languages and special abilities. Demihumans lived longer, spoke far more languages at start, and had far superior special abilities than humans. They were also the only ones who could Multi-Class, but more on that later, once I get to The Price of being Demihuman…

Level limits. That’s right, a Half Elf(for example) could only ever reach 8th level as a Ranger. Full stop. So for short term campaigns, demihumans are great. Just don’t plan on actually getting far in a campaign beyond middling level.


Before I get into the actual classes, I’ll briefly cover multi-classing in 1st. It sucked. Multi-classing could only be done by demihumans, and involved taking two or even three classes at first level. XP was divided evenly between each class, and when a class leveled up, it granted a fraction of the HP and benefits to the character. Did I mention that each class had its on XP table? That’s right… thieves level up faster than mages, etc.  Which class used which abilities and how advancement was tracked was a huge mess, and I was never particularly clear on it. Dual-classing was different, though. This could only be done by humans, but was more similar to 3rd Edition’s system. Similar, but not the same. A dual-class character advanced as one class for a time, then gave it up /forever/ to play as another class. Until they reached their previous level, they earned no hit points(and some other stuff), but kept their previous total. Once they match or exceed their previous level, they can use the abilities of both classes. Messy, huh?

The classes were divided into four basic classes, each with one or more subclasses, plus one ‘special’ class and one optional class. I’ll cover each in the order they’re in the book.


Basically like every other edition(except 4th, which changed things drastically anyway), the Cleric is the healer of the group and a pretty good basic class. They can use any armor and use non-bladed weapons, supposedly because they’re forbidden from shedding blood. Even Evil clerics. Yeah, whatever. Spell progression was a little odd in 1st, because cleric spells only went up to 7th level, not 9th. Clerics could still turn undead(and evil clerics could turn Paladins!), but holy water was a pain to make. Also… Spontaneous casting? No such thing. Pray for your spells and that’s what you get, no trading for heals.


The cleric subclass. I won’t be spending a lot of time on the druid because I don’t have my book with me, so I can’t remember if they got wild shape(I think no) or anything like that. They were required to be True Neutral and had an extremely limited weapon and armor selection, plus they had some fairly hefty requirements.  In spellcasting, Druids had their own spell list, up to 7th level like clerics. The spell list had more attack spells than the cleric, but healing spells were either less effective or learned more slowly. Cure Light Wounds, for example, was 2nd level for Druids… though realize that Druids got 2nd level spells at Experience Level 2. They also had to fight other druids to advance in the upper levels.


If Charisma is the dump stat of 1st, Fighter is the dump class. Fighters in 1st… suck.  Their only real class feature is the ability to get a full 18/00 percentile strength, and that required having an 18 strength to start with. If your stats were that good, most likely you could qualify for another class. They did get marginally more Weapon Proficiencies and such, but Ranger or Paladin were otherwise far superior. Weapon Specialization didn’t exist, either(I think it was intro’d in Unearthed Arcana), so they didn’t even have that. The one real advantage they had was they didn’t have the restrictions on equipment that Rangers and Paladins had.


Paladin was the second-hardest class to qualify for, requiring a 17 Charisma on top of good ‘fighter’ stats. On the basic 3d6 in order system, this was pretty tough!  The advantages were a limited ability to turn undead and at later levels cast cleric spells, much like in 3rd. They also gained the lay on hands healing ability and could use most arms and armor, though had some restrictions on magic items. They did get a Paladin’s Warhorse, but could own no more than what they and their mount could carry, and were required to tithe 10% of all wealth to their church. Even so, they were one of the most ‘badass’ classes anyone could be… so long as you stayed Lawful Good.


The 1st Edition Ranger is a drastically different beast from his later counterparts. No dual-wielding, no thiefly skills. The Ranger could track and gained a very good bonus against giant-types, but was unrestricted in weapon type or armor. They also gained limited cleric and magic-user spells. Unlike other Fighter classes, the Ranger started with 2d8 HP instead of 1d10, and their HD capped at 11 instead of 9(all classes in 1st Edition had a Hit Die cap, after which they gained a flat number of HP unmodified by Constitution, usually 1-3 per level), making them far superior to the Fighter, other than the lack of ability to have henchmen or followers until 8th level, and the limitation of owning no more than they and their mount could carry.


Not Wizard, not Mage… Magic-User. I’m going to call it the mage anyway, because I’m lazy and not a pedant.  Besides, it should be familiar. Can barely use any weapons at all, can’t use armor, has very few HP. Can cast spells, of course, and uses the long-maligned but familiar Vancian system of memorizing from spellbook, then casting to ‘forget’ the spells.  This paradigm didn’t change much over the first three editions, though the addition of Metamagic Feats gave a little something to the 3rd Edition version. Magic-user spells went all the way up to 9th Level.


Unlike in 2nd/3rd, the 1st Edition Illusionist was an elite class, not just a specialist. They had stricter requirements, yet their spells only went up to 7th level. They did, however, have a completely different spell list with some impressive stuff in it. Otherwise they were fairly similar to Magic-Users.


Ah, the Thief. In 1st Edition, the game didn’t really have ‘skills’ per se.  Sure, there were Secondary Skills or NonWeapon Proficiencies, but both were optional systems. The Thief, thusly, had several special class abilities such as Climb Walls, Pick Pockets, Open Locks, Read Languages, etc. All of these were percentile-based, and adjusted by race and attributes.  They also had the backstab ability and Thieves’ Cant. Of all the classes, Thieves progressed the fastest in level, and had a decent spread of weapons they could use. Not a bad choice if you didn’t qualify for an ‘elite’ class, really.


What? Assassin? Yep.  Assassin was a subclass of the Thief, and required some good stats plus an evil alignment. They used Thief skills at a 2 level penalty(meaning they started to at 3rd level) and could backstab, plus use poison. I don’t much like Assassins, so I won’t go into the rules for them much. Best to think of them as evil, combat-focused thieves.


As if Assassin weren’t bad enough. Monk is the fifth class, the ‘special’ class. It’s very hard to qualify for, harder than Paladin in some ways, and very… Eastern-influenced. Monks have low hit points, using a d4, though they do start with 2d4 instead of 1. But they get open hand damage, falling damage reduction, and lots of special abilities. In fact, this article is getting so long I’m going to skip describing their abilities. It’d take a while.


The old joke about the Bard in 1st is: “My DM doesn’t allow them.”  Bard is the optional class, and is in fact found in the Appendices of the PHB along with things like Psionics(do NOT get me started on 1st Edition Psionics), so it’s often forgotten about. Possibly because it’s a pain in the ass. Bards get a lot of special powers, fight as fighters, and cast druid spells in addition to using thief abilities.  The reason for this is because to be a bard, a character must play as a fighter, change to druid, and change to thief(not necessarily in that order), then become a bard by seeking out a bard college.  It is, in other words, the prototype for 3e’s Prestige Classes. It doesn’t help that the bard rules are contradictory to the main rules. In order to be a bard you have to dual-class, which should logically limit it to Humans… but supposedly it’s open to half-elves as well. Whatever.


This post is already running long, so I’ll try to be brief… even though combat in 1st was a huge mess. AC went from 10 down to the negatives, and the lower the better.  To hit was done by looking up tables and charts, not calculated.  Weapons had a speed factor that delayed when in the round they could be used… and 2-handed weapons got no bonus beyond their larger damage die.  This made sword and shield by far the most effective combo.  Weapons also had further bonuses/penalties against certain armor classes, which just muddled the issue further(and was often ignored), and then there’s the fact that each character had a limited number of Weapon Proficiencies that were limited to one specific weapon each. Only fighters could attack multiple times in a round, and even at top levels, only twice a round… except against creatures under 1 HD, in which case they could do a number of attacks equal to their level. And don’t get me started on Saving Throws…

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  1. #1 by JoeSnow on May 17, 2010 - 9:58 am

    I have to disagree with you about multi-classing sucking in A,D&D 1st edition. It was one of my favorite aspects of the game back then and all my characters were multi-class. The system they have today where you can ‘dip’ one level into another class while running your other class(es) to the max is BS. The front loading of abilities and spells to make dipping more viable is also BS. What happened to starting out gimp and acquiring your abilities over time? That was part of what made the game interesting. The limitations on weapons and armor also made the game more challenging. You could be a Fighter-Magic User but were limited to cloth armor, daggers and staffs. You got bigger bonuses from using those items, though, because of your fighter nature so you would have a Magic User that had a more reasonable life expectancy than a pure Mage because his AC and to hit bonuses would be better when he ran out of spells to cast. Seriously, how realistic is it that someone can multi-class a fighter/wizard now and be able to wear their full plate armor while fighting but have to take it off when they want to cast a spell? Or a fighter-rogue who has to remove his heavy armor when doing anything stealthy? Then you have the issue of them having to carry their heavy armor and weapons around when they want to do anything outside the realm of fighting. Have you ever seen anyone putting on or removing a suit of full plate armor? It can easily take a half an hour or longer. It’s not realistic to expect player characters to do that in the heat of battle. Restricting their choices is far better. I used to multi-class mostly fighter-cleric characters because clerics could still wear some of the heavier armors and the cleric limitation on blunt weapons only wasn’t so bad for a fighter. I did once roll a Fighter-Magic User-Cleric that was fun because he could only use a staff (the only weapon common to all three classes) and wear cloth (magic user restriction) but could fill a multitude of roles in group. Versatility should come with a price and the price was gear restrictions and longer level up times. Characters that can do it all and still level up quickly are no challenge and no fun. You might as well switch the game to god mode if you’re going to have characters that overpowered in the game. All rulesets after 1st Edition sucked tremendously.

    • #2 by Alamar on May 17, 2010 - 10:37 am

      3.X multiclassing was flawed in many ways, though 3.5 tried to address front-loaded abilities. There was a cost to multiclassing in later editions, and spellcasters were hit especially hard. I would note, however, that your interpretation of the rules of multiclassing in 1e appears to differ from everyone else I’ve seen. A Fighter-Mage-Cleric could use cleric weapons, unless I’m misremembering. I’ll check later when I have my books on hand, I forgot to load the 1st edition ones on my pad.

      Most of the other issues you brought up are nonexistent. Fighter-rogues have to take their armor off if they want to use their abilities well… so what? That’s the price they pay for being a fighter-rogue. I played a very fun Paladin/Rogue not so long ago, and I just wore a chain shirt for my armor because that let me use rogue abilities reasonably well. I really think you’re picking nits with the 3e system and ignoring the bad parts of 1e here. Even the ‘dipping’ you mention is discouraged in the rules by having an XP penalty for multiclassing with a gap between your classes, though I think the rules are a tad too lenient on it, what with Favored Classes and all.

      That said, 1e didn’t have the ridiculous matter of a Fighter suddenly deciding to pick up Wizard spellcasting, while the Wizard had to spend years in apprenticeship before chargen. 3e was a phenomenal leap forward in many ways, but it wasn’t without some major wallbangers.

      • #3 by Relic on October 27, 2011 - 3:36 am

        Spot on, Alamar.
        More importantly, in addition to multis being able to use any of the allowed classes weapons, any 1st Ed AD&D multiclassed caster could use ANY ARMOR the noncaster class could use, WHILE CASTING. Only the thieves and assassin mixes got harmed by multiclassing . A 1st Ed. elven F/M-U for instance could wade into battle in full plate with a sword, and the only limitation on casting he had was needing to sheathe the sword or drop the shield to have a hand free to cast. Once he did so, he was there flinging Magic Missiles and Fireballs while wearing full plate. Anything else was house rules or a misread. The Multiclass rules were very specific an noting the armor advantages of various MCs, and only the thief combos got armor warnings.
        * * *
        In 1E, if you were a non-human, there really was NO reason to single class, really. The only class that was unlimited to all races was generally the Thief, which was a lousy class in most cases, and the only advantage of single classing was the (optional, given it was in UA) Unearthed Arcana rule permitting single-classed non-humans to rise 2 lvls higher in any class that they COULD have multi’d into. Level limits on non-humans meant you lived it up while you could, and having 2 classes worth of abilities for maybe a 1 level XP difference was, esp. at 1st lvl before you had to pay those XP differences, a no-brainer issue for living that fantasy life to the fullest right up front. This is why 1st ed multis had to round their HP down; it was to compensate for being OP. Multiclassing was THE way to go for nonhumans in 1E.

  2. #4 by zetsu1919 on January 2, 2011 - 5:29 am

    okay you didnt get duel class right. you do get hitpoints as you level up in the second class though i do agree it was bad. and what you say about bard is stupid because you said bards need to duel class fighter druid and theif but not in that order. 1 that would be 3 classes which wasnt allowed 2 you didnt take druid you just naturally got druid spells and 3 you had to take thief first then fighter then bard, another thing, in the begining of the book it says that half elfs can be bards because they can triple class so they could be a fighter/ thief and at the right level use the 3rd slot as bard. you also said you didnt know if druids got wildshape and they do get it just so you know. the way first edition worked is that you rarely level up and dont need to level up. level caps werent that bad. i have been playing 1st ed. for 2 years and om still 9th level. ive played 3rd edition before and was 9th level in a couple months. you also said you have to multiclass at 1st level, you could be a 5th level elf fighter before deciding to be a mage. oh, and i agree that the weapon speed sucks because according to it you can attack 5 times with a dagger for 1-4 while a 2-handed sword attacks once for 1-10, its stupid so nobody runs it that way that ive ever met. you should look at unearthed arcana because that book was a revision of first edition. it added like 3 classes, more spells, and better rulings on everything.

    • #5 by Relic on October 27, 2011 - 4:04 am

      I don’t know if your DM house-rules a lot, but most of your info is flatly wrong, tho some is close.
      * * *
      1) Dual classes do NOT get the second class’s HP until they **exceed the level** of the prior class. This is why you never (unless you wanted it for RP reasons) took M-U before FIghter, since you would be stuck w/the M-U lower HPs for those first few levels forever.
      * * *
      2) You were both wrong about Bards.
      *Fighter* to at least 5th, and no higher than 8th.
      *Thief* to at least 5th, and no higher than 9th.
      *Bard* under Druidical tutelage.
      In THAT order. NO exceptions. PHB pg. 117.
      There was a prior version of the class which was better, imo. THe split class thing was likely an attempt to reconcile various cultures’ views on musician-type adventurers. Closest is the Skald, which on occasion was just a retired fighter spinning yarns of the glory days, but the 1E Bard was a mess, tbh.
      * * *
      Multiclasses DID have to multi immediately. There was no way to delay it. Period. The reason is this: multis were actually seen as a single class made of two classes.
      This is a hold-over from the days in OD&D (still seen in Basic and Expert D&D) when non-human races **were classes** themselves. You played a human fighter or cleric, etc, or you played an elf or dwarf, AS A CLASS. Elves, for instance, were a mix of Fighting Man and Magic-User.
      1st Ed MCs could not delay the mix, and they could not *stop* it either; once you had exceeded your level limit, you still had to pay the split XP, even tho the other class no longer progressed.
      Only human Dual/Triple classes delayed class progression, and they had the lousy HP and skill-use issues to deal with as a result.
      3) Weapon Speed did NOT affect how many attks you got until you had already had a round of combat go by. Even then, if the “faster” weapon was not x2 faster, or at least 5 lower than the other weapon, the WSF did nothing at all. Add to this that initiative was actually determined by how many attks you got, and who had reach advantages, and only THEN by the rolls, and it was pretty fair.
      If you are still playing 1E, you might want to confront your DM w/these things if they are causing you pain! Sounds like he or she house-ruled a lot.

  3. #6 by taggart on September 5, 2011 - 6:18 pm

    This is an interesting blog, just got back into 1E after a 28 year absence or so and a quick tour of ebay to re-collect the books me mother binned along with other stuff when I was asked to leave ha ha. Now my lads are well into this- and their bands of friends too. I am even popular as a DM with them. Beats having them out late breaking bus shelters! I am absorbed with the nostalgia not least of teenage boys thinking they know it all and out thinking some of the rules and situations in the rules. The book of house rules is growing with well thought out tables and percentages. Fanstastic. So it seems to me there is a danger of straying far away from the Gygax vision in the early 70’s of him and his kids enjoying each others company with an absorbing challenging fun new RPG game, and being too “up ourselves” with arguing meaningless tosses. If you agree, have the rule, if not, change it. Dont be so much of a purist that the fun gets missed. Incidentally, I havent got involved with 2,3,4 E, although my little band have in various forms along with 40K. All agree, they enjoy 1stE. But they are a bit bright. It seems to me WOTC sold out after meanly ditching the Gygax connection and dummed it down for a faster younger game. Whoa, not arguing, just saying, not for me – or us. Moot point, we dont play devils or demons which was part of the bad publicity of original 1st edition all those years ago, and none of the other parents now have any concerns, – enjoy the break from their kids a bit. May your die rolls be high – and RIP Gary – Cheers.

  4. #7 by Relic on October 27, 2011 - 4:13 am

    Great post!

    Sword and Board was definitely not the way to go tho, unless you had a magical shield, as a shield only added +1 AC, otherwise. The advantage of that big ol’ 2Hander, especially against large creatures, far outweighed the shield. Magical shields did make a difference, but a whole article in Dragon was a dedicated rant about how lousy shields were in DnD, and suggested adding “Shield Specialization” to bring the base bonus to a whopping +2.

    Technically, any fighter-TYPE got multiple attks per round, but yes, other classes didn’t get them. IMO this is good, as it made fighters viable: a real factor in combat.

    Again, great post!

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