House Rules
Engines & Empires
Labyrinth Lord

The Core Rules: D&D vs. AD&D

Shade Isle is a role-playing campaign that uses the classic Dungeons & Dragons rules. Unfortunately, classic D&D isn’t as well-known as its more popular and complicated cousin, Advanced D&D. The AD&D game has always been more popular (at least in the English-speaking world), largely because of the perception that AD&D was a grownups’ game, and D&D was for kids. But as many have noticed and commented on, particularly since the blooming of gaming’s Old School Renaissance during the last decade, the reverse is often true.

AD&D was originally conceived of by Gary Gygax as a means of regularizing the D&D rules, so that tournaments and conventions would thereafter have a set of standard rules to play by, and so that every casual hobbyist and home-player across the country would likewise be playing by these very same rules, making AD&D as immutable and everywhere recognizable as chess or Monopoly. (There is also, quite naturally, a cynical strand of politics running through this tale’s sordid underbelly: D&D was co-created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, but AD&D was Gygax’s effort alone. Since AD&D was considered a different game, Arneson could be cut out of the loop.)

To that end, the philosophy behind the design of AD&D is frequently summarized as, “a rule for everything.” And while this has waxed and waned over the years, it’s pretty much true. Every edition of AD&D has a lot of rules. 1st edition and 3rd edition have a whole heck of a lot of rules. 4th edition is somewhere in the middle (and it’s also weirdly different from all the other editions, catering heavily as it does to “Combat & Tactics” style skirmishes). 2nd and 5th editions are on the lighter end of the scale, but even then, they have classic D&D beat by a mile.

What are the features of Advanced D&D? Lots of classes, including sub-classes of other classes. Not just fighters, but also paladins and rangers and barbarians. Not just thieves or rogues, but also bards and assassins and sometimes ninjas. Not just clerics and mages, but also specialty priests of specific mythoi and specialist wizards that study one particular school of magic. Esoteric classes, like monks and psionicists and warlocks and warlords. Lots of races beyond the classic elf, dwarf, and hobbit: throw in gnomes and half-orcs and half-elves as well, and later on, half-ogres and half-dragons and tieflings and aasimar and genasi and warforged. Sub-races, like hairfooot halflings and mountian dwarves and forest gnomes and high elves and wild elves and wood elves and sea elves and drow elves. Nine alignments, on an orthogonal axis that ranges from lawful good to chaotic evil. Thick tomes of monsters and magical items, and lots and lots and lots of spells—anywhere from fifty to thirty spells per spell level per spell-casting class. Creatures particular to Gygax’s taste and imagination: mind flayers, beholders, slaad, githyanki, and the list goes ever on. And this doesn’t even start to cover the stable of metallic and jewel-colored dragons.

The classic Dungeons & Dragons game is simpler in just about every way. Fewer rules. Fewer races and classes. Far fewer magical items, and only ever a dozen or so spells per spell level for each magic-using class. Monsters are mostly limited to the folkloric and the mythological. The only alignments are Law (good guys), Neutrality, and Chaos (bad guys).

The result is this: AD&D looks like it should be the game for grownups. But all those rules mean that it’s holding your hand and stifling your creativity along the way. D&D looks like it should be the game for kids. But it’s so loose and free-wheeling that it takes experience and maturity and a sure hand to run it properly—and moreover, it works better not as a complete game, but as a kind of skeleton or framework cum toolkit, for each game referee to invent their own variation on the rules. (This is what I did with Engines & Empires.)

Now, I’ve already listed off the five editions of Advanced D&D. What about classic D&D? Certainly, it’s changed over time. There are approximately four different versions of the classic D&D rules, but the lines aren’t so clear cut here, because these rules have been slow to change, and it’s only ever happened in tiny increments, if you discount the early leaps and bounds that separate the “original” and “basic” flavors of the game. Here are the milestones:

1974: Gygax and Arneson publish the original D&D rules, three little brown booklets in a white or woodgrain box. The booklets are called Men & Magic, Monsters & Treasure, and The Wilderness & Underworld Adventures.

The following years bring out four supplements to the D&D game: Greyhawk, Blackmoor, Eldritch Wizardry, and Deities, Demigods, & Heroes. 1977 also sees the publication of the first Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, written by J. Eric Holmes, commonly called “blue book basic” because of its light blue cover.

I consider all of these booklets taken together to the 1st edition of classic D&D, with Holmes’s Basic set serving as the introduction to the game, the “little brown books” (or “LBBs”) forming the core rules, and the four supplements expanding the game if desired. (Pretty much all of the supplement material made it into 1st edition AD&D.)

1981: In the early 80s, the D&D basic set was revised by Tom Moldvay. This 2nd edition of basic D&D was a major leap in simplifying and cleaning up the rules. The following year, Zeb Cook and Steve Marsh wrote the D&D expert set, which did the same thing for the LBBs. However, this new version of the game, “Basic/Expert D&D” (also called “B/X”, “red book basic/blue book expert”, or sometimes even “magenta/cyan” after the colors of the boxes that the booklets came in), mostly ignored the four supplements to the original game. Thus, from this point forward, classic D&D established its own identity as markedly different in feel, form, and tone from AD&D. Still, the B/X rules are very, very close in feel (and, often, in detail) to the original 1974 D&D game which they were meant to revise and replace.

1983: From 1983 to 1986, basic D&D was revised again, this time with a series of five boxed sets, mostly authored by Frank Mentzer: the red Basic set, the blue Expert set, the green Companion set, the black Masters set, and the gold Immortals set. This 3rd edition of the Basic and Expert rules saw only a few very minor substantive changes. What was really added here were the other three boxed sets, which fleshed out high-level gameplay. For most D&D games, though, which take place at lower experience levels, very little really changed during the update to the “BECMI” edition.

The late 80s did see a lot of supplements (like the Known World Gazetteers and the Creature Crucible series) which added more character options to basic D&D: lots of new races, more spells, and a detailed skill system were added to the game. But the core rules remained as simple as ever.

1991: The 4th and final edition of basic D&D doesn’t really have a proper name; but this is when the “classic” appellation first appeared in a print title. Most people call it simply “Black Box / Rules Cyclopedia D&D”. It began in 1991 with the “new easy-to-master D&D game” by Troy Denning, more commonly called “black box basic”; followed by the D&D Rules Cyclopedia by Aaron Allston. Again, the rules only got tiny tweaks to set them apart from Mentzer’s five boxed sets. In the big picture, nothing really changed, except that the Rules Cyclopedia collected all of the core rules and lots of options and supplements into a single, handy book. (Well, actually, there was one big change: Mentzer’s gold box Immortals rules were replaced by Allston’s Wrath of the Immortals set, which is vastly different and much improved.)

In 1994, the black box was replaced by another basic set called The Classic Dungeons & Dragons Game. There were also several D&D adventures and rulebooks published in the early 90s under the “Challenger Series” label, and there were adventure modules set in Mystara, the Hollow World, and Thunder Rift. These were pretty much classic D&D’s death throes: the last version of the Classic D&D basic game, from 1996, was also the last classic D&D product officially published by TSR.


Although classic D&D is long out of print, its spirit is kept alive by many “retro-clones”, unofficial D&D substitutes which seek to replicate, reimagine, or update the D&D game. Sometimes, the motive is preservation: to keep the old rules (or something as close as is legally possible to those old rules) in print, under a recognizable label that everyone knows means compatibility with the original game. At other times, a retro-clone serves a dual purpose of both preserving older styles of D&D and implementing tweaks, changes, updates, and one’s favorite house-rules.

There are many classic D&D retro-clones, but four in particular stand out as far and away the most popular:

Labyrinth Lord: A very faithful clone of the 1981 (“B/X”) 2nd edition of D&D, with only a few tiny tweaks.
Basic Fantasy: A looser interpretation of the 1981 D&D rules, adding many house-rules.
Swords & Wizardry: A semi-faithful clone of the original, 1974 D&D rules.
Dark Dungeons: A mostly-faithful clone of the 1991 (Rules Cyclopedia) D&D rules.

Finally, I need to mention Engines & Empires, which is a setting that I wrote and published ostensibly for use with the Labyrinth Lord retro-clone, but which is, of course, compatible with any of the aforementioned sets of rules. The Shade Isle campaign doesn’t take place in E&E’s world, but it does use a great many house-rules drawn from the E&E Campaign Compendium.

House Rules

On top of the basic framework of classic D&D (or Labyrinth Lord) plus Engines & Empries, the Shade Isle Campaign has some campaign-specific house rules. These mostly center around the races and classes available in the world of Færith. The rules found on the House Rules page of this wiki take precedence over rules from E&E, and those take precedence over the core rules.

Regarding the core rules themselves, I tend to hold the 3rd edition of classic D&D, Mentzer’s BECMI rules, as definitive; but in practice, I actually use and consult the Rules Cyclopedia at the table, since it’s just more convenient to reference a single book.


The Shade Isle Campaign jhiggins327 jhiggins327