Another in-depth look at some troublesome rules in first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.
By R. Nelson Bailey
Anyone who has played Dungeons & Dragons knows that it’s a game that contains a multitude of rules. Chances are that, like most of us, you probably have never used all the rules in your own game. You probably have used an altered version of them, ignored some, or overlooked others. Sometimes this is because of the confusing or complicated nature of many rules — whether by design or wording. First edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons contains many such rules. A variety of reasons exists why these rules are problematic: omission (a key concept left out in part or whole), clarity (sparse, overwrought, or muddled text), inaccuracy (typographical error or incorrect information), or organization (information spread over two or more sections or books). This article serves to highlight those rules lurking in the rulebooks that players commonly misunderstand, misuse, overlook, or neglect.
If you have not done so, also read this article’s companion piece, “Confounded Rules!”. As with this one, it examines and explains difficult AD&D rules.
Cavalier Hit Dice
The first edition cavalier is a tough character class with a lot of special abilities. Amongst other things, such as the ability to increase character attributes, the Unearthed Arcana (p. 15) notes that they use a d12 for Hit Dice generation. However, this is incorrect. As noted in the “Arcana Update, part 1” (Dragon #103, p. 13), cavaliers use a d10 for hit point determination.
Rules governing dragons in the first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game have long vexed Dungeon Masters. The chief source of contention stems from the pervasive ambiguity in their ability descriptions. Two such problem areas are dragon Hit Dice and spellcasting level.
1. Hit Dice: Each dragon in the first edition game has a range of three Hit Dice listed in their monster statistics. For example, a blue dragon has a Hit Dice range of “8-10”, i.e., 8, 9, and 10. The general dragon description notes that three sizes of dragons exist, i.e., “small”, “average”, and “huge”. The DM determines the size of the dragon by rolling a d8. Finally, a dragon has eight growth stages that determine its hit points. The problem is that the text is ambiguous about how a dragon’s Hit Dice equates to its size. Does this mean that there are three separate types of dragons (small, medium, and large) with each with a different number of Hit Dice? Does each type go through all eight growth stages? You can find the answer on p. 29 of the Monster Manual: “This size determination indicates the number of hit dice a dragon has.” This murky statement means that as a dragon ages, it increases in size and Hit Dice. Thus, a small-sized dragon has the least number of Hit Dice listed; an average-size dragon has the middle Hit Dice; and a huge dragon has the highest number.
2. Spellcasting Level: Another issue with dragons is that the Monster Manual does not note the level at which they cast spells. Is it done at a level equal to their Hit Dice? Their age group? Some other method? “Dispel Confusion” in Polyhedron #20 has the answer, which is, ironically, confusing. It says that their spellcasting ability, “…is a function of the spell level that they can cast. If a dragon can use fourth-level spells, that is also the level of its ability.” Does this mean that the dragon casts fourth-level spells as a fourth-level caster? Or, is it done at the minimum level required to cast a fourth-level spell, i.e., as a seventh-level caster? The former seems quite low for a powerful magical creature. The latter makes more sense and aligns with other types of spellcasting monsters. “Dispel Confusion” notes that the Dungeon Master has the authority to adjust the spellcasting level higher with a “particularly old dragon”.
You might recall an article concerning the weight of a gold coin that appeared in issue 80 of Dragon magazine. Titled “How Many Coins in a Coffer?”, the article explores the issue of the size of a gold coin when ten of them equals one pound in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game (PHB, p. 102, & DMG, p. 225). The author goes to great lengths to accurately estimate the size and weight of coins based on the density of the coin’s metal. The author explains that a gold coin would have to be quite large to weigh 1/10th of a pound. However, this thesis contains a fatal flaw that renders it useless to players. The problem is that gold piece (G.P.) weight is not a measure of the actual weight of a coin or object. Instead, it measures encumbrance — a game weight that encompasses “the combined weight and relative bulkiness of the item” (DMG, p. 225). For example, a staff has a weight of 100 gold coins, or 10 encumbrance pounds. Since encumbrance accounts for weight and bulkiness, a staff made of Styrofoam would have a similar G.P. weight.
So why has this author* misinterpreted this rule when the rulebooks are unambiguous that encumbrance does not equate to actual weight? The problem stems from the rules using “pounds” as a measure of a quantity of gold pieces. When a player fails to read the rules, whether wholly or partially, they can easily misconstrue “pounds” as a literal measure of weight, and not as an abstraction as intended. This situation serves as a great example of the perpetuation of erroneous rules in a role-playing game. It starts with a Dungeon Master who ignores or misinterprets a key rule; they, in turn, pass on the error to their players; these players join other games and pass it on to newer players. The lesson here is that DMs and players must read the rulebooks in full, and not count on others to inform them of the rules. Knowing the rules only leads to better play.
* Similarly, the author of a letter in Dragon #122 (p. 10) who criticizes the use of gold for weight also commits the same error.
Encumbrance...encompasses “the combined weight and relative bulkiness of the item”.
Experience points measure a character’s ability in their chosen class (PHB, p. 106), and acquiring them through defeating monsters and gaining treasures is the main goal of the game (DMG, p. 91). In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, calculating experience points (XP) are a simple matter. The Dungeon Master starts by tallying up the total XP value of all the monsters slain and the gold piece value of all the treasure taken during the adventure. The DM then divides it amongst all the player characters in the party, with some going to henchmen (who most certainly did not earn their share!). Done and done. Ha-ha! — just kidding. Of course, it’s not that simple. However, this is how most DMs handle the collection and division of experience points. In fact, I would be surprised if anyone used the actual method as spelled out in the Dungeon Masters Guide (pp. 84-86). While the above method is correct, the DM must also take in account the following factors when giving out experience points.
1. Adjusting Experience: The DM adjusts the amount of XP collected for monsters slain or treasure taken in comparison the level of the characters (DMG, pp. 84-85). In short, player characters gain less XP if they are significantly more powerful than the monsters they defeat. A single goblin defeated by 10th-level fighter is certainly not an even match. Characters might gain half the normal amount of XP or fewer, depending on the circumstances.
2. Magic Items: Magic items have a set experience point value which is only used if the player characters choose keep it. If not kept and sold, the party gains XP equal to the G.P. amount of its sale (DMG, p. 121).
3. Character Performance: Once earned and calculated, the DM has no obligation to immediately disperse experience points to the players. The DM must first assess the performance of each player from “excellent” to “poor”. Poor players are those who do not adhere to their profession, such as a cleric who does not heal or assist the other players. Undoubtedly, the DMs decision concerning the assessment of the players’ performance is purely subjective. Its intended purpose is to alert weak players to their lack of performance. Ideally, they would get the hint and improve their play. In practice, however, this penalization only builds resentment with the players who feel they were cheated out of experience points.
4. Training: Characters must undergo training before they can level up, assuming they have accumulated enough XP. Each character must pay for each week of training they receive. The amount of money paid depends on their level (naturally, higher level characters pay more). The number of weeks of training needed depends on the player’s performance in their last adventure(s). Characters with good performance need minimal training, while those played poorly must pay for more weeks of training. “What is the point of this training?” you might ask. It is to bleed surplus funds from the characters so that they must continue adventuring (see “Upkeep” below).
5. Other Experience: Characters typically gain XP for monsters slain or treasure taken (it must be taken, not simply found [DMG, p. 85]). However, the DM can give XP for defeating monsters without combat, capturing opponents, ransoming captive monsters, overcoming traps or tricks that guard treasure, and overcoming problems through “professional means” (DMG, p. 84; PHB, p. 106). However, no specific rules are given to determine how to calculate these types of experience. Experience points are not given for player characters performing or practicing their skills. As noted in the DMG (p. 85), player only gain experience by adventuring. To do so otherwise would only be “conducive to non-game boredom!”
Find the Path
You might have heard this one before. The adventurers stand at the entrance of a dungeon — let’s just say it’s the Tomb of Horrors. The cleric casts the find the path spell. Viola! The party has an express ticket to the end of the dungeon. The spell allows them to bypass those nasty time- and resource-wasting rooms they would have to explore to locate Acererak’s vault. I do not need to tell you that this is a gross misinterpretation of how the spell functions. First, the spell only lasts 10 rounds per level of experience. In first edition AD&D, movement in dungeons is slow — characters only move 10 feet per turn for each 1” of movement. Thus, a party that has a Move Rate of 9” only moves 90 feet per turn (PHB, p. 102). When guided by the spell, they can move five times faster, or 450 feet per turn. When factoring in encounters, secret doors, traps, and such, a party will not get far into a dungeon before the spell ends. Once the spell is over, the cleric who cast the spell forgets the route to the place or object they seek (PHB, p. 51). The spellcaster must also have some specific idea where they want to go, not just a vague notion like “the end of the dungeon”. The spell simply allows the caster to “find a way to a locale or area” (DMG, p. 42), such as locating the nearest pool of water. It also does not locate specific areas, such as “Acererak’s vault”.
How a monster’s gaze attack functions is another source of confusion for Dungeon Masters. The manuals tell us that monsters, such as basilisks and vampires, have gaze attacks and what their effects are. That’s all. The unaddressed question here is: do gaze attacks affect a single target or multiple ones? “Dispel Confusion” addresses this issue twice, in Polyhedron #2 and #9 (qq.v.). Both answers note that gaze attacks affect only one target at a time. Related to this, rules concerning whether a target meets the gaze of a monster exist. You can find them in the “dracolisk” entry in Monster Manual II (p. 55); REF1 Dungeon Master’s Screen; and S4 The Lost Caverns of Tsjocanth.
Missile Weapon Targeting
In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, fired and thrown weapons, such as arrows, axes, spears, and sling bullets, have the advantage of range and rate of fire not available to melee weapons. They also strike before melee weapons in the initiative order (DMG, p. 61). Left unchecked, these weapons could easily dominate the game. However, the game has a built-in check to prevent this from occurring: those using missile weapons cannot strike a specific target in melee (DMG, p. 63). Instead, the Dungeon Master assigns values based on the size of all the targets involved in the melee, then randomly rolls to determine the actual target the missile strikes, be they friend or foe*. The rationale is that participants in the melee constantly move about jockeying for position. An attacker’s position is fluid. During each melee round, they each roll, duck, dive, and dodge to avoid strikes or to make an attack. They do not stand perfectly still trading blows like Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots. Thus, a designated target can easily move out of the path of the missile before it strikes. The errant missile then has a chance to hit another unintended target, possibly even the shooter’s ally.
Note: The module, A3 Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords (p. 23), offers a simplified version of the rules for firing into melee. While similar to those found in the DMG, it allows players to select a specific target.
*Characters can target very large opponents, however, without the danger of striking others.
Whilst creeping through a dungeon, the party’s thief scouts out a closed door. The player tells the Dungeon Master their character quietly opens the door to have a peek inside. The DM tells the player to make an ‘open doors’ roll. The player scoffs, “You had me roll to open the last five doors? They can’t all be stuck.” The DM says, “It’s a regular door. Just roll the die.”
What exactly is going on here? The reason the DM has the player make an open doors roll on a seemingly standard door is that in dungeons all doors are considered stuck. As such, every door requires the player characters to succeed with a roll to open one (DMG, p. 97). Furthermore, inhabitants of the dungeon do not need to make such a roll. Thus, it might take the player character three or four attempts to open a door, but a lone kobold could just sail through it with unimpeded ease. What is the point of this odd rule? Without this rule, an organized party would have an easier time ransacking a dungeon. It keeps the player characters from flinging doors open and surprising any monster who lives behind it.
An interesting piece of trivia about doors: the average dungeon door is 8 feet wide (DMG, p. 97). That is roughly the size of a barn door!
The first edition Monster Manual contains many monsters that have a poisonous attack — be it bite, sting, gas, and so forth. In most cases, the book fails to tell the reader what the poison does to a victim. For example, the iron golem entry tells the reader that it can breathe “a cloud of poisonous gas” once every seven rounds. That is all. So, what are the effects of poison in the first edition game? The answer is that, unless noted otherwise, poison kills anyone who fails their saving throw. As noted in the Dungeon Masters Guide (p. 20): “The poison of monsters, regardless of its pluses or minuses to the victim's saving throw, is an all-or-nothing affair. That is, either they do no damage, or they kill the victim.” First edition doesn’t mess around. Finito.
Maybe you have wondered why there was a separate saving throw for devices that typically duplicate spell effects?
Save vs. Rod, Staff, or Wand
The saving throw versus Rods, Staffs, or Wands was a staple of Dungeons & Dragons from its inception in 1974 to the appearance of the third edition in 2000. It appeared in the Original D&D game (aka, the “brown books”), “Basic” D&D, and the first and second editions of AD&D. Maybe you have wondered why there was a separate saving throw for these devices that typically duplicate spell effects? At first glance, it seems superfluous, even nonsensical, to have a separate saving throw for devices. However, there was a good reason for its inclusion. You might have noticed that these saving throws are always one better than the save versus Spells. This shows that the magical power imbued in the devices is not as powerful as a cast or innate spell. A staff’s powers are equal to a spell cast by an 8th-level caster, while wands are limited to 6th-level (DMG, pp. 133, 135). Another indication of this concept is shown by the Hit Dice of conjured elementals. A magic-user can summon the most powerful types (16 Hit Dice) with the cast conjure elemental spell, while those summoned with a staff are limited to 8 Hit Dice.
So, what is the point of cast spells having greater power over those from devices? The rationale lies with D&D’s spellcasting system. Magic-users and, to a lesser extent, clerics, have many restrictions on their spellcasting abilities to preserve game balance (PHB, p. 100). Spellcasters must declare and memorize/pray for their daily spells (PHB, p. 40), and they can have their spells disrupted and lost in combat (DMG, p. 65). Magic-users must keep a spellbook, which can be stolen, lost, or destroyed (PHB, p. 25); they must successfully learn a spell and are limited in the number they can know (PHB, p. 10); they must keep spell components, often expensive ones, at hand (PHB, p. 40). Clerics must have a holy symbol to cast many spells (PHB, p. 20); their god may withhold spells if the cleric deviates from their alignment, or might deny a request for a specific spell if using it does not align with the god’s goals (PHB, p. 40). The purpose of all these sanctions is to prevent spellcasters from dominating the game over those classes that possess no spell abilities, especially at higher levels. This is where devices, such as rods, staffs, and wands, along with scrolls and potions, come into play. These magic items fill the gap for all these inflexible sanctions imposed on spellcasters. While a lowly 3rd-level magic-user has little in spellcasting ability, the game assumes that this gap in power is made up by access to these spell-mimicking devices. Since these items are usually of limited power, expendable, and can be destroyed or lost, they will not overpower the game in the long-term. This is also why devices are weaker in power compared to the cast spell.
That's all good and fine, but why not just give everyone a +1 to their Spells save when a wand is used against them instead of having a separate saving throw? The answer to this question stems from D&Ds earliest days. In the “brown books” using modifiers to saving throws was not common practice. Only a few spells and magic-items listed in the books note any type of bonus or penalty to a roll. It seems that the saving throw was really an anachronism of an earlier time in the game’s evolution. Personally, I think this save category only adds to the unique charm of first edition AD&D.
Shamans & Witch Doctors
The Dungeon Masters Guide (p. 40) lists the types of humanoids and giants who have tribal spell-casters. Now, shamans are clerics of limited spell-casting ability, while witch doctors are multi-classed cleric/magic-user of similar ilk. The book notes that some of these spell-casters can rise to the 7th-level of experience. However, the book fails to note how many extra Hit Dice these spellcasters gain each level. Is it the same as their equivalent character class? Maybe none? As with many things in AD&D, to get the correct answer, you must look at another book. In this case, in Deities & Demi-Gods tome (aka Legends & Lore). The introductory section of the “Nonhuman Deities” chapter (p. 105 or 90) says that they accumulate roughly 1d4 extra hit points per level of experience and attack one Hit Dice higher for every two levels gained.
Subduing Player Characters
Rising from behind the blood-stained altar, the gloating priest points a bony digit towards the band of adventurers who have profaned his god’s unholy fane. With a withering glare, he hisses at his guards, “Capture them! More sacrifices for the demon prince!” Unheedingly obeying his command, his devotees lurch forward, the flat of their blades ready to subdue the interlopers.
This scenario seems reasonable. A villain knocking out and capturing a protagonist is a common trope in the fantasy literature that influenced Dungeons & Dragons. Like orcs capturing Merry and Pippin in The Lord of the Rings, or Thongor in every other chapter in Lin Carter’s series of books. One problem: monsters and NPCs cannot subdue player characters. That is, they cannot intentionally knock them unconscious by non-lethal means (Dungeon Master Guide, p. 67). The rules do not explain the reason for this, but it probably has something to do with the fact that those captured must “submit” to the will of their captor (Unearthed Arcana, p. 109). This robs the heroes of their agency, as the players are always the final arbiter of their character’s actions. No problem, though, as enemies can always capture them with spells, like hold person, confining traps, or beat down to zero or less hit points the normal way.
In first edition game, gaining surprise over an opponent is paramount in melee. The results of a surprise roll can tip the balance of power to one side or the other, often with dire results for the loser. The effects of surprise in the first edition game are significantly harsher than in second edition Advanced Dungeon & Dragons (one free action [no spellcasting allowed], +1 ‘to hit’, no AC bonus for high Dexterity) or Basic D&D (move and attack for one round). Unsurprisingly, the surprise rules detailed rulebooks are complex and murky, leaving the reader confused with many questions. Here is a quick walkthrough as to how surprise works in first edition AD&D. In this example, a group of adventurers encounter a 10-headed hydra in a dungeon.
1. Surprise Conditions: Each encounter has a different set of circumstances that influence the surprise roll. Depending on the situation, surprise might not even be possible for one side or both. These criteria include line of sight, noise, light, and distance (detailed on p. 62 of the Dungeon Masters Guide). While the rulebooks list the conditions that modify surprise, they do not list specific values. For example, if the party makes noise, the rules have no concrete set of modifiers that apply to the die roll, e.g., +1 for soft noises, +2 loud noises, etc. Instead, it is up to the DM to determine these. The only example given is that a party who is silent and invisible surprises an opponent on a roll of 1-4 on a d6 instead of 1-2 (PHB, p. 103).
2. Roll Dice: Under normal conditions, the base chance for surprise is a roll of 1-2 on a d6. Each side rolls a d6 to determine whether they are surprised. Any situational conditions modify the number range of the roll.
a. Party: Since they carry light, must open a door, and the hydra is relatively silent, their chance to be surprised increases to 1-5 on a d6.
b. Hydra: Because of the conditions listed above, the party surprises the hydra only on a roll of 1 on a d6.
c. The Roll: The party rolls a “1” and the hydra rolls a “5”, therefore, the party is surprised. This equates to four lost segments (5‒1=4; see table on p. 62 of the DMG).
3. Actions: The hydra has four full segments to take actions, i.e., one full action for each lost segment (DMG, p. 71). The party is inactive during this time and cannot take any actions. The hydra has the option to perform any action on the initiative list (i.e., A to H, DMG, p. 61). Since it is only 10’ from the door, it is within striking distance (i.e., 10’ or less), and does not have to use any segments of surprise to move closer. It opts to attack, making a full attack routine during each segment. This means that the monster makes a total of 40 head attacks during the four surprise segments! As you can see, being surprised can have deadly consequences.
Surprise Chance: Some monsters (e.g., bugbears, dopplegangers), races (e.g., elves, halflings), and classes (e.g., rangers, monks) have different base chances to surprise opponents and/or be surprised by enemies.
Reaction Adjustment: Reaction Adjustment from high or low Dexterity increases or reduces the number of segments a character is surprised (DMG, p. 62).
Missile Weapons: Attackers who gain surprise and have missile weapons out and ready, attack at triple the normal rate of fire (DMG, p. 62). Thus, a character with a bow handy would fire six arrows per segment of surprise!
Spells: Each segment of casting time is subtracted from the lost segments of surprise. Therefore, a magic-user that has three segments to act can fire off three spells that each have a casting time of 1, one spell with a casting time of 3, or start a spell with a casting time of 4 or greater that would finish in the first initiative round.
One thing peculiar to the first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons is that the books often speak to the reader as if they are already familiar with the rules. Because of this, rule explanations often do not get to the point and spell out the rule in full. They offer partial answers spread over multiple areas in more than one book. Nowhere is more evident of this than with the clerical ability to turn undead. To find out exactly how a cleric turns undead, a Dungeon Master must check five separate areas spread throughout two rulebooks.*
The rules sufficiently address questions regarding the number and types of undead a cleric can turn. However, they do not answer many questions concerning specific game mechanics of the ability. Does a cleric always need a holy symbol to turn? Do they need to see the undead? Must they speak? What is the range? Is it their only action for that round? Do they get more than one attempt? What happens if you attack turned undead? Below lists all the unanswered questions about turning undead:
1. The cleric must have a holy symbol to turn undead (PHB, p. 104). REF 5 Lords of Darkness (p. 86) notes that higher-level clerics and paladins may turn without a holy symbol at a greatly reduced chance.
2. The cleric must see and face their target, i.e., no turning undead hidden from their line of sight (PHB, p. 104). Clerics can only turn undead in “one direction at a time” (REF 5, p. 38). No range for turning is noted, though, doubtless the undead must be in sight and within speaking range, circa 90” or so, depending on the situation.
3. The cleric must be able to speak (PHB, p. 104).**
4. Turning is the only action the cleric can take that round (PHB, p. 104; Dragon #42, p. 22). It occurs on “Step D” of the combat round simultaneously with missile, device, and spell discharge (DMG, p. 61). Therefore, a cleric might lose initiative before turning occurs (DMG, p. 61).
6. Turned undead move away at full speed from the cleric for the next 3d4 rounds, and will not return to those who turned them (DMG, p. 76). Note that turning does not make undead passive. If cornered with no route of escape, the undead will defend themselves if attacked.
5. Clerics get only one attempt for each type of undead they attempt to turn. However, they can turn the same undead again, if encountered later (DMG, p. 76).
* In case you are interested, these areas are: 1) PHB, p. 20; 2) PHB, p. 104; 3) DMG, pp. 61; 4) DMG, pp. 65-66; 5) DMG, pp. 75-76.
** “Dispel Confusion” in Polyhedron #17 (p. 31) erroneously notes clerics can turn undead in silence and that it does not count as an action for that round.
Adventurers must keep moving. Few of them ever retire from their profession. Most end up dead or broke.
One little known — much less used — rule in the first edition game is that of upkeep costs. As detailed in the Dungeon Masters Guide (p. 25), all player characters must spend 100 gold pieces per level of experience each month of game time for “support, upkeep, equipment, and entertainment expense”. In short, this is the cost of being a character-classed adventurer. The rationale is that adventurers are “a free-wheeling and high-living lot”. Think of Robert E. Howard’s stories where Conan quickly burns through his monies on wine, women, and gambling. This expense is in addition to any taxes, hireling wages, equipment expenses, tithing, spell components, bribes, and so forth. Furthermore, as the adventurers gain in level, so do they gain in reputation. As well-known heroes, they would have constant petitions from the common folk who idolize them to pay for drinks, give alms, and throw grand parties. (This concept intersects with an often-neglected aspect of role-playing games, that of reputation and a character’s role in their society.) Players uniformly dislike this rule. They look like the DM slapped them in the face when told they must part with their hard-earned cash and get nothing in return. However, there's a good reason for this rule: it keeps the players hungry for more adventures to find more treasure. The players should never be able “to obtain all of the goods they would like in order to feel safe and satisfied”. That is, adventurers must keep moving. Few of them ever retire from their profession. Most end up dead or broke. Such is the lot of those who choose to follow the path of adventuring.