I already have entirely too many old school and OSR fantasy RPGs: Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox, Swords & Wizardry Complete, OSRIC, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Adventures in the Eastmark, Basic Fantasy Roleplaying, Iron Falcon, Dark Dungeons, Deeper Delving, Dungeon Crawl Classics, as well as original classics like the Rules Cyclopedia and AD&D 1st Edition premium reprints. I'm never going to play all of them - not even if I didn't have a full time job, a toddler, freelance writing and my own publishing company to juggle. So why in the Seven Hells would I buy another? Especially one that stepped away from my Basic/Expert wheel house that I love so dearly into the much less used "advanced edition" likes the aforementioned OSRIC?
Well, that's because Adventures Dark & Deep isn't quite a retro-clone. Almost, but not quite. Adventures Dark & Deep (abbreviated ADD) bills itself as being "based on Gary Gygax's plans for expanding the game." So it's claims to be a clone of neither 1st or 2nd edition AD&D. Instead it is a spiritual successor to AD&D 1st edition, with a distinctly Gygaxian design. Constructed by +Joseph Bloch from notes, articles and blog posts by Gary Gygax it claims to be written as what the author believes AD&D 2nd edition might have been if the game's original creator had not parted ways with TSR some time before the release of second edition.
The original incarnation of AD&D is direct, but grew as it became more and more popular. Initially we had no skills, and few ancillary rules beyond what was necessary to plunder dungeons and slay dragons - and it was a helluva a lot of fun. But it always felt a bit... thin. Something was missing. We got expansions in snippets and pieces through magazine articles which added to and expanded the game. Then came Unearthed Arcana, Dungeoneer's Survival Guide and the Wilderness Survival Guide. The game suddenly had new (often horribly imbalanced) classes and races, non-weapon proficiencies, weapon specializations, and tons of extra rules that, though they were billed as options, seemed to be taken as unbreakable canon by everyone I played with back in the day. The bloat had begun.
AD&D 2nd edition came around in 1989 and while things like proficiencies were technically optional, there seemed to be an implication that they were meant to be utilized from the ground floor. Soon after we got hugely expanded campaigns settings and the brown book series of class and race supplements. Towards there came the now infamous Player's Option series. Suddenly there were countless "options" that seemed to be anything but optional and the power creep had been ratcheted up to eleven.
ADD takes a step back, starting from the roots of AD&D 1st edition and begins an organic progression that feels right. Yes, it has barbarians, cavaliers and a skill system - but its all implemented in an even manner that feels appropriate - not as slapshot and untested as the original Unearthed Arcana options. In short, the rules feel unified and consistent. No longer is there a question of "Why should I bother to play a fighter when I can play a ranger or even a cavalier." God help the DM if someone brings the issue of Dragon magazine to the table which features the Arch-Ranger class or any other of the horribly balanced "NPC Classes."
In going beyond first edition, there comes a collection of several classes that either found their origins in Dragon magazine or other supplements - but they're included here from the get-go, which gives them both a validity and a natural sense of presence. Jesters and mountebanks didn't just appear because the latest issue hit your gamin table, they're integrated from the beginning. Because of that integration, they don't feel shoe-horned in or unbalanced. Extra classes like this give a greater sense of player option while avoiding the glut of "splat books" that many believe ruined AD&D second edition.
But more than its unification is its presentation. It holds close to the simple black and white presentation of first edition, keeping things crisp and easily presented. But Bloch doesn't rely on obtuse rule descriptons and a vocabulary rooted in High Gygaxian. He speaks clearly and directly to the reader, while not seeming boring. Because of this concise verbage, ADD packs a lot into its pages. Damn near every concievable situation is covered in Players Manual and Game Masters Tool Kit - and its done so in an approachable, easy to digest fashion.
ADD doesn't try to distract its reader with dazzling layout or full color art. The art is present and it's evocative and fitting - but it doesn't feel like its trying to steal attention away from the text. The author focuses on the game and making the most of it. The majority of the necessary rules are found in the Players Manual because players are going to need to have quick access to a variety of rules. The Game Masters Tool Kit isn't bloated by "secret rules" that players shouldn't know. Instead it talks to the reader about social encounters, unique environments, magic items, adventure design, divine pantheons and other necessary tools and rules for running the game. The Bestiary is jam-packed with almost 450 pages of adversaries and offers a few brief appendicies for unique features and designing your own creatures - not that you'd need to with the plethora of predators found in these pages.
Even while covering every nook and cranny of gaming, ADD never feels oppressed by detail. But because the game is so complete there is a subtle professional presence that breeds confidence in the reader. If someone isn't covered in these pages, a reader will be able to find a similar rule or get a sense of how they should handle a ruling in any given situation. The game breeds confidence in both player and game master. With that confidence comes a sense of excitement.
In short, Adventures Dark & Deep has replaced AD&D as my go-to "advanced edition" fantasy roleplaying game. I'm already in talks with some of my old gaming buddies to run Temple of Elemental Evil using it, and they're excited to play. Now we don't have to decide between the clean but confined rules of first edition or the bloated infinite options of second. A perfect balance is found in ADD.
Adventures Dark & Deep is available in PDF, softcover, and hardcover print on demand through RPGNow and DriveThruRPG. It was written by Joseph Bloch and is published by BRW Games. There's even a bundle which includes all three hardcover books along with PDFs for around $100. A friend of mine called that a big buy in, and he's not wrong. It's a lot of faith to put in a game to blindly drop that much cash on any game - but I can say that Adventures Dark and Deep is unequivocally, bar none, the best incarnation of "advanced" fantasy roleplaying on the market - including those published by larger, more mainstream presses. I'll be running and playing it soon - and for years to come.