D&D Editions: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1977-1985)

This is the third part in our ongoing series looking at all the D&D editions over the years. Enjoy!

Original Dungeons and Dragons was a success on a scale that was hard to predict. It managed to be much more than a simple hobbyist’s modification to an existing strategy game. It was a cultural phenomenon, one that was more restrained by its initial form than anything else. Dungeons and Dragons would have to evolve to capture more of an audience, and that’s where the next iteration of the game – Advanced Dungeons and Dragons – would come in.

A Brief History of AD&D

While Original Dungeons and Dragons was a fairly strong hit for TSR, it had a number of very real problems. Some of the material used in the game infringed on the copyrights held by other companies, many of the game’s best ideas were featured in supplements and magazines, and the game itself was nearly impossible to play if you weren’t familiar with Chainmail. D&D had gained a fair bit of traction in the gaming world, though, and it became apparent that the best way to deal with the inherent problems of the game was the clean things up. Thus Gary Gygax and company would recompile and reorganize the game into something far more like its modern incarnation with Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.

AD&D’s first edition took the disparate rules from the first game and folded them into two hardcover books. One book, the Dungeon Master’s Guide, would give the rules for the game and the tools a DM needed to run his or her campaigns. The other book, the Player’s Handbook, would feature information about classes, races, treasure, and other information that players needed to play the game. These books were joined by a third hardcover book, the Monster Manual, which provided the information necessary for making combat and role-playing encounters involving the monstrous races of the game.

The AD&D Supplements

Like most version of Dungeons and Dragons, this version wouldn’t be quite complete when it was released. There was a host of supplementary material made for the game, some of which would end up being very important to the long-term health of Dungeons and Dragons. The biggest supplements, though, were simply the same kind of additions that one would have seen with original Dungeons and Dragons – quick rule patches and new character concepts that could be printed in magazine form and picked up on by enthusiasts without really doing anything to change the balance of the game.

Check out my DND Backstory Generator made with the latest, greatest AI...

There were, however, a few very important supplements that would end up becoming a major part of the Dungeons and Dragons world. Deities and Demigods, for example, really helped to set up the cosmology of the Dungeons and Dragons universe while also helping to add to the growing moral panic surrounding the game’s supposed occult influence. Oriental Adventures would introduce a number of concepts that would make their way into the second edition of AD&D, while the Fiend Folio would help to prove that there was a market for more books based on the monsters of the Dungeons and Dragons world. The supplements for AD&D wouldn’t be quite as important as those released for the later edition of the game, but they’d nonetheless help to provide some much-needed flavor to a growing brand.

A Game in Competition

One of the most interesting parts of the AD&D saga has nothing to do with the game itself. Instead, it surrounds the publishing history of the game. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons was part of an ill-advised publishing scheme in which TSR pitted one version of Dungeons and Dragons against itself. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons may have initially been the focus of TSR, but it was pitted against The Basic Set, which tended to be positioned more as a book for beginners and thus tended to be seen as a better introductory product for new players.

This competition between products was, as you might expect, not exactly a great business move. The Basic Edition actually hit shelves before Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, so it’s very likely that some of AD&D’s potential audience was lost to another in-house product. This created one of the first real splits within the D&D community, one that would only become worse as both AD&D and The Basic Set continued to iterate on their own rule sets. It wouldn’t be until the mid-90s that AD&D would become the clear winner in this fairly useless in-house war between competing systems. One can only imagine what TSR’s history would have been like if the company had stuck to a single game.

AD&D: The Game

If you’ve played Dungeons and Dragons before, this is probably the first edition that you’d be able to play with relatively little outside help. Dungeons and Dragons really started to coalesce into a full game at this point rather than just a Chainmail supplement, so you’d be experiencing a full game that didn’t assume that you’d already played something else. In fact, this is the point in the series where most of the more common meta-tropes of the game really go into play.

If you want an idea of how much the modern game depends on AD&D, just take a look at the first books released. You get the general trinity that is released with every major edition of Dungeons and Dragons – a Player’s Handbook, a Dungeon Master’s Guide, and a Monster’s Manual. These books really provide you with everything you’d need to play a game. There’s a reason, after all, that both TSR and Wizards of the Coast would end up following this same publication schedule for every remaining version of the game. Because this game is able to be played from scratch, this is also the first version of the game that would assume that new players were truly new to the genre and thus would spell out the basics of how role-playing games worked.

Introducing Ideas in AD&D

As the second iteration of Dungeons and Dragons, it’s harder to call any of the ideas in this game particularly new. In fact, it’d probably be more honest to say that the game did a lot of heavy lifting when it came to bringing concepts from the older material into the main game line. Much of what it introduced was altered to work with new (and streamlined) rule systems, with various tweaks made to ensure that the new editions wouldn’t be quite as game-breaking as they might have initially been when included in a magazine article of fan publication.

Fantasy RPG Random Tables Books

Make life as a Game Master easier.... If you play Dungeon & Dragons, Pathfinder, or other fantasy tabletop role-playing games, this RPG random tables book is full of encounters, NPCs, and more. I also have a complete adventure, including a dungeon map and room descriptions. Check out the Dungeon Maps Described series today!

While OD&D might have come first, this is arguably the version of the game that introduced the recognizable Dungeons and Dragons classes. Ranger, Paladin, Thief, Druid, Monk, and Bard all make their first appearance here. A new wizard class, the illusionist, would also be introduced in this version of the game. While the illusionist might not exist as a separate class today, the introduction in AD&D of a separate school of magic was a mechanic that would continue on through present iterations of the game. This was also the first version of the game to bring in a supplementary Monsters Manual and Unearthed Arcana, both books that have a long and storied history in the D&D world.

Drawing from the Past

There’s really been no edition of D&D that has drawn as heavily from the past as the initial version of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. This is very much a version of the game that took a look at everything that’d been added to the original box over the course of its release and attempted to shove it into a single version of the game. As such, you have a wealth of material incorporated into the game that not only already existed, but that most hardcore players had already seen by the time that this version of the game was released.

Oddly, this is a version of the game that did help to set up a future trend for Dungeons and Dragons releases. With Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, it became very apparent that anything that was particularly popular in a supplement or magazine article would eventually find its way into a mainline game. While there are still supplement and magazine-only classes, spells, and characters today, they’re very quickly folded into the main game whenever an update is made. If you enjoy looking at supplementary releases as a testing ground for new concepts, you probably have the first version of AD&D to thank.

AD&D: The Cutting Room

The first edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons had quite a few concepts that wouldn’t make it out of this edition. In fact, the development of the second edition seemed to largely be an attempt to white-wash certain concepts from this version of the game. If you remember, this game was released during a time when there was a real moral panic surrounding Dungeons and Dragons, so the fact that this fairly morally-grey game existed meant that TSR would have to leave behind a number of its concepts if there was to be any more development of the D&D line.

Do You Love DND & Tabletop Gaming?

Get access to 26+ RPG generators + our growing RPG content library.
Try my AI-powered DND Backstory Generator or my Random Dungeon Generator built with GPT-3 from OpenAI.

This is the last version of the game to feature angels and demons, for example, even though they’d be replaced with similar creatures going forward. The assassin, half-orc, and several other dubiously-moral character classes and races would also be left in this edition, only to be revived decades later. This was the last version of the game to give any real encouragement to players who wanted to play DND villains or morally-suspect characters under TSR’s watch, making the final chapter of the game to be released before it would have to be toned down. Luckily, much of what didn’t make the cut in future editions would be restored once Wizards of the Coast took over the game.

Reaction to AD&D

The reaction to Advanced Dungeons and Dragons was largely positive. Players tended to enjoy the fact that the rules were consolidated and that the game itself was quite as dependent on Chainmail. This was very much its own game, one that allowed players a chance to start from scratch and really get into a new system. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons would end up being successful enough to run for nearly two decades, becoming one of the versions of the game that would end up codifying what Dungeons and Dragons was meant to be and how it was meant to be played.

AD&D is also the version of the game was probably the most controversial. While most of the religious mania surrounding the game actually occurred during the reign of the second edition, it was the players of the first edition that largely gave rise to these issues in the first place. Dungeons and Dragons place in the popular landscape would be largely shaped by these preconceptions, preconceptions that actually still exist today. Even with that said, the game never really experienced the level of popularity it did during this time frame, so the infamy was certainly balanced out by the fame generated by the same edition of the game.

The Legacy of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons

For many people, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons is the true Dungeons and Dragons. Most of what’s present in the current iteration of the game owes a debt to the current game, as does much of what you’d see in virtually any other fantasy role-playing game. Just the idea of making sure that all the useful information about the game is released at once and in specific types of books is something that can be traced back to AD&D, If nothing else, it should also be pointed out that this version of the game gave birth to what’s arguably the most popular version of the game, 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons was the natural evolution of OD&D. It was time for the game to step out of the spotlight of chainmail and to truly become its own product. Thanks to AD&D, D&D was able to flourish as something much more than a simple add-on and it was able to embrace an entirely new audience. While D&D audience would be split for the next decade due to TSR’s publishing decisions, there’s no doubt that this game had a great deal of influence over how the role-playing genre would develop.

Paul Bellow

LitRPG Author Paul Bellow

Paul Bellow is a LitRPG author, gamer, RPG game developer, and publisher of several online communities. In other words, an old school webmaster. He also developed and runs LitRPG Adventures, a set of advanced RPG generators powered by GPT-3 AI. Here at LitRPG Reads, he publishes articles about LitRPG books, tabletop RPG books, and all sorts of DND content that's free to use in your personal tabletop campaign - i.e. non-commercial use. Enjoy your stay and reach out on Twitter or Discord if you want to make contact.