So you’re looking to play some first edition Dungeons and Dragons? Given the popularity of 5th edition and my recent exploration of 1st, I thought I’d write up some notes from my own understanding about what a player can expect moving to 1st edition.
Coming from 5e, you probably expect point buy, or if you do roll stats the ability to arrange them to suit your class, or at the very least the ability to be the class you want regardless of whether your stats are suited to it. In any case, getting the exact class you want may be more difficult in 1e.
There are 4 methods laid out in the 1st edition DMG, including options to rearrange, to keep higher rolls, and to roll multiple sets of stats and pick your favorite. I personally like the roll-in-order multiple characters and then pick your favorite set, but even with the 12 sets of stats (recommended by the DMG’s option 4) to choose from, you’ll usually have to make some compromises with your randomness.
Here’s a little good news while you’re embracing the randomness: there’s actually not that much variance in performance for a point or two difference in stats. For the most part, there are no bonuses or penalties to related activities (attacks, saving throws, etc.) between, oh, 8 and 14. The penalties on the low extreme don’t ever cut very deep, either. Yes, there are ability challenges where each point is a 5% difference, but the core things only vary at the extreme highs and lows. What this means is that you probably don’t mind giving up a few points in wisdom and intelligence to get that superhuman 18 strength that will serve your fighter character so well or the 15 needed in core class attributes to get the 10% XP bonus.
Of course, there’s also an important way these random stats will cut against you. Each class has minimum attributes needed to take it. While you’re set of characters will almost certainly contain one with the needed 9 Strength and 7 Constitution to be a Fighter, if you aspire to play a paladin, you will need certain minimums in all attributes but Dexterity, including a 17 Charisma and on the low end 9 Intelligence and 9 Constitution. The core classes (Cleric, Fighter, Magic-user, and Thief) are accessible enough, with merely a 9 and a 6 or 7 needed to achieve them. Their subclasses (Druid, Paladin, Ranger, Illusionist, and Assasin) are more demanding to varying degrees (I’ll be more specific when I cover each of their classes in detail).
And this is without speaking of race or multi-class. All races but humans are pretty limited in what classes they can choose and are almost always limited in the level they can achieve in a given class, but they also get bonuses that make them unique (including the ability to multi-class).
Speaking of uniqueness, you may feel like the loss of backgrounds, subclasses, and feats removes a lot of the levers you have for character design, leaving pretty much just class and race to customize your character. This is the part where I remind you that these are role playing games. When everyone knows exactly what a fighter is capable of without action surges and second winds and maneuvers to worry about, it streamlines combat enough to spend some more time actually playing your character. You don’t need all the mechanical differentiation to make your character different, focus on personality. That said, the survival guide proficiencies, magic items, henchmen and certain class features (to be discussed when I cover the classes individually) can make characters mechanically different as well.
1st Edition has a reputation for being deadly. It doesn’t have to be, but it’s one of the many things I find charming about the system. The expectation is that players have the opportunity to play lots of characters, whether because they die at the whim of the dice or reach stronghold level and leave regular play to get involved with political intrigue.
Characters in 1st Edition gain experience both through slaying monsters and through gaining treasure. This means that clever players can often find ways to grow while avoiding the danger of combat. Different classes level up at different levels of experience, for example a thief reaches level 2 at 1,250 XP while a paladin does so at 2,750 XP (more on that when I address the classes individually). Thus it is not generally expected that the party all be the same level (especially when multiclass distributes the XP), and in fact henchmen and mercenaries of significantly lower level play an important role in the complete party.
When your character has reached the appropriate XP threshold to reach a new level, the DM checks his notes for that character’s adventures to determine if that character has appropriately used his skills in the course of gaining XP. Better play (meaning adhering to the strength of your class, but also consistency to the character) results in faster (and therefore cheaper) leveling up. If your play was generally of good quality, then you gain the option of leveling up without a mentor, though with an increased time (and money) requirement. Thus, leveling up will generally require reaching a place where a mentor is available to coach your character through it.
The time this leveling takes will often mean that your character is busy during the next adventure his party members (who leveled up last time or haven’t leveled up yet) go on. You are encouraged to have multiple characters in the campaign world who you can play when other characters are taking a break from adventuring.
There’s a good chance that you’re familiar with managing your resources (HP, per rest abilities, spells) from playing 5e. In my experience, however, adventures in 5e aren’t designed to stretch your resources and I can’t remember a time I’ve seen a party so stretched that they turn to consumable items (scrolls/potions) to get to the next rest, whether at my own table (where I have been cranking up encounter difficulties well past the prescribed adventuring day) or in actual plays; notice I didn’t even list such items in the resources you’re accustomed to managing.
In 1e, resource management is the name of the game. Potions and scrolls have clear acquisition costs as well as their own drop chances in the random monster treasure tables; they are expected to be used. They help to make up for a few other resource limitations: fewer spells (in general), reduced opportunity to rest within the dungeon, no full heal on a long rest or even having a short rest (1 hit point per day natural healing, 4 weeks to full recovery), and (importantly) food, water, and encumbrance.
First Edition has detailed rules for the amount of food and water your character needs to keep going strong. These things, as well as your other equipment, can quickly add up to encumbrance values that reduce your movement speed, reaction, and initiative, especially if your character is wearing heavy armor. Spell options can easily cover water needs, but then your spell resources are even more limited. Covering food with magic is also an option, though it consumes greater spell resources (a level 3 spell).
In 1e, you will want to be much more careful about using resources in game in the interest of speeding up a fight or just because you don’t want to think about it very much. More on that next.
I’ve been very impressed with 1e combat in my experience with it so far, mostly through a Skull Mountain 4-session adventure with Rick Stump. With 2 out of 4 players playing 1e for the first time and each player having at least one henchman, I’ve gone back and reviewed the audio from some of the combat encounters we had and I don’t think we had a combat last more than 10 minutes, even with mapping questions in the middle of it. Even more importantly, they felt faster than that, like the characters were really combatants in a battle, not pieces on a board. I mention this because the differences from 5e I’m going to describe next may well lead you to believe combat would be more slow.
First edition combat is run in 1 minute rounds. Each round is divided into ten segments which are used for spell casting lengths (and for initiative in the Far Realms alternative rules by Rick Stump, which I like). Initiative is rolled every round, but long spells can push the caster’s action later into the round and conversely, fighters with multiple attacks (and ranged weapons that often have a high “rate of fire”) can attack both before and after their initiative. Importantly, movement is spread throughout the round and each segment all players get a chance to make decisions about their position in the battle (at least in the clarification from Far Realms, seriously, I really recommend using Rick’s combat, I say clarification because so much of what he adds feels like it just wasn’t well defined in the base rules).
In thinking about this, it is useful to remember that each of these rounds represents attacks, parries, reposts where the roll in the initiative order represents the chance each combatant gets each minute to land an effectual hit on the enemy. The constant simultaneous movement, spell casting, and attacks end up feeling like the action depicted in the active art that surrounds the game.
I’m sure I’ll think of things that should have been included but weren’t, for now, I hope this serves as a good introduction.