Gonna let y’all in on a little secret: I never actually played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.
Sure, I had all the core books for both 1e and 2e, but all I ever really used from them were the races, classes, spells, magic items, and monsters. This may seem like a lot at first glance, but it’s how they were used, and what got ignored in doing so, that makes my secret true.
I never used any of the “Advanced” rules for segmented combat rounds, proficiences and secondary skills, helmets, encumbrance, weapon speeds, weapon type vs. armor type… you know, all the jiggery-pokery nuts’n’bolts stuff that honored the advanced edition’s roots in miniatures wargaming, and distinguished it from the simpler Basic rules.
So, essentially, I was playing Basic D&D, but plugging in the classes, races, magic, and monsters from the AD&D core books.
And evidently, I wasn’t alone, as reflected by the existence of the Labyrinth Lord Advanced Edition Companion, a 1st edition retro-clone that’s offered as a supplement to (rather than an entirely separate game from) the core rules of the Basic D&D clone that shares its name. So, while I’d like to review the Advanced Edition Companion on its own merits, I can’t do so without first reviewing its parent, Labyrinth Lord. Not that this is a bad thing, because LL is a pretty nifty little game.
This review will be published in two parts: the first will look at the Labyrinth Lord Core Rules, and use them as a window onto the rulesy-wulesy differences between Old School and New School D&D; and the second part will examine how the Advanced Edition Companion uses those core rules to model the way people actually used their 1st-edition AD&D rule books, as opposed to how the authors presumably wanted them to be used.
Back To Basics
Labyrinth Lord, published by Goblinoid Games, is a pretty straightforward re-statement of the Basic D&D rules. It’s got everything old-timers will remember and, perhaps, yearn for, with just a few subtle new tweaks.
As in the original Basic game, there are 7 classes, three of which are also races: the cleric, dwarf, elf, fighter, halfling, magic-user, and thief. In LL, all non-human player characters are essentially Tolkien-esque icons of their respective races. Dwarves are a gruff warriors with a love for underground places; elves are near-immortal warrior-wizards who reside in the wild places; halflings are lucky, roguish woodsmen. There are few character abilities listed for each class (at least compared to later editions), but all the hallmarks are here. Clerics turn the undead, use healing magic, and are forbidden from using edged weapons. Fighters are focused on combat, with little variation between them beyond individual weapon and armor choice. Magic-users practice Vancian magic, record spells in their cumbersome spell books, and are pretty much doomed at low levels without constant protection from other party members. Thieves have an array of abilities (picking pockets, opening locks, finding/removing traps, etc.) that are ranked as percentage chances of success, and every thief character begins play with the exact same rankings in each skill. In short there is little room for character tweaking in Labyrinth Lord; all fighters will look pretty much the same on paper. Ditto for the other classes. This can actually be a strength of the game, since it will require a player to flesh-out their character with nothing but their imagination.
Character creation is no-frills, and leaves little room for customization. You roll 3d6 each to determine your ranking in six different ability scores (repeat after me): Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma… in that order. You also roll them up and fill them in, in that order. In the default rules, there is no shuffling of points or arranging the ranks to choice so you can plan on a specific class ahead of time. You’re normally stuck with what you rolled, in the order you rolled it. After abilities are rolled, you choose your class & starting equipment, and then you’re ready to go out and slay some goblins. Easy peasy, and likety-split. No more sitting around for hours, calculating skill ranks and thumbing through half-a-dozen volumes to find the perfect Feat. Once you get the hang of it, char-gen in LL is done in about the time it takes to make a good sandwich.
Combat is handled in classic style, as well. Initiative is rolled on a d6, Armor Class is ranked from –6 (the best) to 9 (the worst), and attacks are resolved by rolling a 1d20, applying modifiers, and comparing the result to a number on your class’s attack table. Said number is cross-referenced with your character class level in the column on the left, and your target’s Armor Class on the inner columns to the right. This seemingly archaic mechanic saves you from doing any math at all, however. Just have your attack and saving throw charts handy, and you can always quickly and easily cross-reference your target number.
Speaking of saving throws, the original five categories are here, though slightly re-named to keep them compliant with the Wizards Of The Coast OGL that allows the rules to be published. And just as with combat, saving throw tables are class-specific and used to cross-reference a target number using your class and level.
Rolling high on your dice is always desirable… except when it isn’t. You have to roll high to make saving throws or attacks, but roll low when making ability checks (the grand-daddies of skill checks) or using thief abilities (roll your percent chance or below on a pair of d100). There is no unifying dice mechanic in Labyrinth Lord, just as there was none in Basic D&D. Really, the only difference I’ve spotted between LL and the classic Basic rules is that clerics gain a spell at 1st level, which is a generous concession, in my opinion.
In short, Labyrinth Lord is a nice, concise, rules-light fantasy RPG that’s suitable for introducing newbies to the hobby, or just whipping up an impromptu game at a party or other get-together. Character creation is over in a matter of minutes, and the rules leave a lot to the interpretation of both players and DMs. If you’re the sort of gamer who likes to tweak every single aspect of your character and maximize their impact on the game world, LL is unlikely to appeal to you. But if you like something quick, that gives you a lot of narrative freedom and evokes the old days, Labyrinth Lord is what you’re looking for.
Of course, there are drawbacks to the system, things I don’t like and never did… but those are criticisms I have of the original D&D, not of LL itself. I’ll save talk of those for the 2nd part of this review, which looks at the LL Advanced Edition Companion, Goblinoid Games’ attempt to replicate the experience of 1st-edition AD&D without actually replicating all its arcane rules.
Insofar as it seeks to revive the spirit of old-school gaming by faithfully replicating a beloved prior edition of D&D, Labyrinth Lord is an unqualified success. And given that its art-free PDF version is available for free download at Goblinoid Games’ website, there’s nothing stopping you from getting it right now, if that experience is what you’re looking for.