More Reasons Why You Don’t Want to Play AD&D Second Edition (Races)

Having covered the core Attributes in our last article and Basic D&D even earlier, it’s time to move on to the races.

Where Basic D&D treated races as classes all their own, AD&D split them off into their own category so that you could have an Elf thief, or a Dwarf cleric, or whatever. Though this offered a bit more freedom, it wasn’t quite as open as you’d be accustomed to in the modern game. In fact, every choice didn’t so much open possibilities as narrow down your options.

To be any race other than human required that you meet the attribute requirements for the race in question (which included not only a minimum score but also a maximum one, sometimes; no 18 dexterity Dwarves, for instance). Most races were restricted in what classes they could take and also how high a level they could progress to, meaning that even though you were able to take a certain combination you might not get to play it for very long. Races could also adjust attribute scores (often by dropping one attribute one point to boost another one in return) and offered certain special abilities.

It’s probably fairest to start with the baseline. After all, we might as well get the worst out of the way…

Pictures throughout this article are taken from the 2nd ed Monstrous Manual (sic). This particular human is described by two words, one of which is caveman and the other one that I’m certainly not going to republish…


Humans sucked in second edition, as a general rule.

They didn’t get any attribute boosts, they had no special abilities, they didn’t get infravision (that’s the old darkvision,) and they had nothing about them that anyone would consider “special.” That’s not to say they had absolutely no benefits, it’s just that the benefits kinda sucked too.

The first benefit you got for being human was that you could be any class (of those in the core book, anyway). That’s all well and good, but it did mean that unless the class only allowed humans (such as paladins or necromancers) you would be largely better off taking the same class with another race. The second benefit was slightly better in that humans didn’t suffer level caps, which was a pretty fair reason to take a human but only provided the game was expected to run long enough for it to matter. Certainly some people have played in many campaigns where the party has progressed all the way from level 1 to level 20 or more, but I’m guessing most of us haven’t travelled far into the teens very often. If your campaign is gonna be running only up to level five there’s really not much to say in favour of humans.

There’s one other peculiarity about humans and it’s once again sucky. Multiclassing in second edition meant choosing two or more classes at character creation and dividing your experience gained between them. The result was that you generally got the best of each class at the cost of a few of the more important drawbacks and a slower level progression. But, most vitally, multiclassing was a purely non-human capability. Instead humans (and only humans) were given the option of dual-classing, which was a completely awful option all around.

Dual-classing allowed your character to decide to stop following their chosen career by suffering a mid-life crisis, cashing in their superannuation, and pursuing their childhood dream of becoming a rock star. More accurately, it provided a do-over. You kept your hit points and started again in a new class at level one while desperately trying not to use any of your old skills.

If you did use something from your old class you got heavily punished for your temerity and weren’t likely to get any experience at the end of the session. This does kinda work for characters trying to put sorcery or criminal behaviour behind them, but refusing to hit people so well now that you aren’t a fighter any more can seem a bit silly (I do dig the idea of a character putting violence behind them, but refusing to use all your talents on a sneak attack has very little reasonable justification). It’s a moot point however as you’re probably unlikely to be allowed to dual-class anyway as you’ll need at least a 17 in any prime requisite attributes for the class you want to take on, which is unlikely unless you’ve intentionally engineered your character to eventually dual-class.

It’s a pretty fair call to suggest that this was all arse-about. Considering that humans are meant to be versatile shouldn’t they be the ones who can multiclass? And since the non-humans have a level cap, mightn’t it be worthwhile giving them the option to move on to a different career?

So that’s humans. There was very little point playing them so very few people did.

Many elves were covered under the bog-standard elf monicker. Aquatic elves and dark elves/drow got their own entries and portraits


Elves rocked. You were usually much better off playing an Elf than anything else.

Elf characters didn’t require anything too strenuous in attribute scores (providing most things were about 8+ you’d be fine) and added +1 to dexterity and -1 to constitution. They had infravision to 60′ and had an impressive 90% chance to shrug off sleep and charm spells on top of their regular Saving Throws. They also added +1 to hit with short swords, longswords, and bows other than crossbows for reasons not detailed in the core book.

Additionally, when not wearing metal armour they could sneak up on enemies subtracting -4 from their surprise roll, which was a bone of contention because if there were non-Elves in the party this dropped to -2 (though Halflings were exempt as they had an identical rule.) That meant Elf-players were constantly being hamstrung by their mates purely on racial grounds, which created unnecessary tension for those who don’t thrive on conflict. Elves also managed to find secret doors fairly easily, even when they weren’t looking for them.

Elves could become clerics, fighters, or thieves up to level 12, and mages or rangers up to level 15, which is pretty damn reasonable for a demihuman. The classic multiclass option was to be a fighter/mage, and later inclusions such as the bladesinger took this a step further.

Elves were in many ways the best of the demihuman classes, especially when multiclassed, and they were included in almost every party. In fact, there’s probably only one race better…

There is no dedicated half-elf picture in the Monstrous Manual, so instead of giving you a token Tanis shot I’ll give you the book’s big in-joke, the Invisible Stalker. The book credits the combined talents of Tim Beach and Doug Stewart as artists. Ho ho ho!


Half-Elves were basically the way to play a human without having to suffer for it. Though they offered no attribute changes they also didn’t require anything special in the way of minimum scores, and they got 60′ infravision, the same chance to spot secret doors as elves, and a 30% chance to ignore sleep and charm (not as good as the elf, but nothing to sneer at.)

The only classes out of bounds were the paladin and some of the specialist wizard schools. Though they did suffer level caps it wasn’t as restrictive as some other races. They could get to 9th in druid, 12th in thief or mage, and 14th in fighter or ranger. Best of all was the bard class in which they had no limit, so there was literally no reason to play a human bard instead of a half-elf one (other than planning to dual-class, which is a pretty crappy reason.)

From a flavour position, Half-Elves had a really weird description in that if you had more human ancestors than Elven ones then you weren’t considered a Half-Elf but human. Fine, but considering Elves live for up to 1200 years, it seems likely that the human side of the family will probably be a lot bigger than any Half-Elf’s Elven side… unless there’s a much higher turnover of Elves than I’m led to understand.

Hill Dwarf on the left, mountain Dwarf on the right. My, they look well-groomed, don’t they?


Dwarves got a bunch of interesting little twists that almost made them as good as elves. Almost.

You needed at least an eight in strength and an 11 in constitution to be a Dwarf, and that constitution got kicked up an extra +1 at the cost of a point in charisma. The high constitution really helped out with a special rule they had where they got a +1 bonus to saving throws against magic and poison for every three-and-a-half (!) constitution points they had (+3 at 11, +4 at 14, +5 at 18.) They got a significant chance to detect various mining, stonework, and other underground details (ranging from 1-3 to 1-5 on a d6 roll) which a clever player would try to take full advantage of. They had very specific combat benefits where they got a +1 to attack Orcs, Half-Orcs, Goblins, and Hobgoblins, whereas Ogres, Ogre-magi (oni), Trolls, Giants, and Titans suffered a -4 to hit them due to “their small size and combat ability.”

(Speaking of small size, I was curious to see what size category they were given, but found that this information was incredibly hard to find. I eventually resorted to looking up their entry in the Monstrous Manual where I discovered that mountain Dwarves were Medium, hill Dwarves were “small to medium,” and the Underdark Derro and Duergar were small. Since being Small restricts your weapons and armour options, I recommend choosing to make your AD&D 2nd ed hill Dwarf medium.)

The benefits of being a Dwarf were offset by some really annoying restrictions to do with magic. First of all they could never cast magical spells (clerical spells are fine.) Secondly, any magical item that wasn’t a weapon, shield, armour, gauntlet, or girdle had a 20% chance of failing any time a Dwarf tried to use it (unless it was specifically meant to be used by Dwarves.) I have certainly seen at least one Dwarf die while party members poured potions of healing down their unresponsive throats. The only advantage to this is that cursed items also suffer this problem, and in such a failure the Dwarf notices the matter and can turf it away.

Dwarves could be clerics up to level 10, thieves up to 12, and fighters up to 15. They could multiclass as long as it was a fighter/thief or fighter/cleric, with the former being much more common.

Those clumsy feet have narrowly missed stepping on the sig of Tony DiTerlizzi, who became the core artist on the Planescape line


Second edition Halflings are like a cross between Elves and Dwarves that are tailor-made for the thief class. They needed a constitution of 10 or more, 8+ in strength and dexterity, and 7+ in intelligence but only 3+ in charisma, which is weird since the fluff mentions that everyone tends to like them. They got +1 to dexterity and -1 to strength (meaning they couldn’t get that weird exceptional 18(00) score we saw in the last article.)

They got the same sneaky benefit that Elves got for surprise ambushes, as well as the same bonus against magical attacks and poison that Dwarves got. They also got +1 to attacks with slings and thrown weapons because they like to chuck rocks about as kids or something. They could be clerics (max level 8,) fighters (max 9,) or thieves (max 15. Pretty unsurprising what most people chose, eh?) They could also be fighter/thieves, but nobody bothered. As Small creatures they suffered from an inability to use decent arms and armour anyway.

Min-maxer tip: if you ever play a Halfling in AD&D 2nd ed, just mention in passing to your DM that it is of ‘Stout Heritage’ rather than ‘Hairfoot’ or ‘Tallfellow’. That’s because most DMs forget that Halflings (and only halflings) have to make a d% roll to see if they get some of the abilities available to them. A Halfling has a 15% chance of being fully Stout and a further 25% chance of being partly Stout. The first offers infravision out to 60′; the second halves that range. Halflings with any Stout heritage get a cheap variant on the dwarf’s underground instincts, with a 75% chance to detect sloping passages and a 50% chance to detect direction.

Hairfoots and Tallfellows get sweet Fanny Addams, I’m afraid. Considering that there’s no other race in the core book that requires such a roll, you can be forgiven for being a bit shifty when slipping the “Stout rort” under your DM’s radar.

Cool gnome, eh? Pity they didn’t appear much…


Y’know, Gnomes used to be really rare back in the day (apart from the tinker Gnomes of Dragonlance. Maybe we’ll cover Dragonlance and other settings in a later installment.) They really were the red-headed step-children of Dwarves and Halflings that didn’t really seem to be as good as either. It didn’t help that they had very few prominent literary creations to help base them on (though that old couple near the Southern Oracle in The Neverending Story are stellar.)

Gnomes needed at least an 8+ on constitution and 6+ on strength and intelligence, which is incredibly easy to pull off. Their adjustments were +1 to intelligence and -1 to wisdom (something something curiosity something something.) They get +1 to attack Goblins and Gnolls and the same defensive boost against bigger creatures as Dwarves do (which also includes Gnolls and Bugbears.) Also like Dwarves, they have infravision to 60′ and a toned-down version of the underground perception suite which is rather too boring to mention.

One more Dwarvish trait is an equivalent resistance to magic, with all the drawbacks included, though illusionist items are exempted and so are items that replicate thief abilities provided the character is a thief. The illusionist thing seems weird until you recognise that it is the premiere class for the gnome.

Y’see, though Gnomes can’t be mages, they can be illusionists up to level 15. They could also be clerics (9,) fighters (11,) thieves (13,) or multiclass as any two of the classes available to them, but really they were the way to have a spellcasting Dwarf/Halfling.

Some rare people really got into the gnome illusionist (mostly hangers on from AD&D firstt edition) and third edition tried to make them a thing again, but Gnomes really didn’t come into proper style until 3.5 where they became the iconic bard characters. Fourth edition sidelined them. Fifth edition allows them to finally shine.

Again, no half-orc pictures so we’ll have to make do with a regular orc. By the by, full orcs are a much worse PC choice than their half-human offspring, statistically


Though not included in the base Players Handbook for AD&D 2nd ed, I’m going to include Half-Orcs because they appeared in most other editions (including first, third, and fifth) and are thus arguably an iconic core race in many ways. For this we’re going to need The Complete Book of Humanoids which was a pretty common book to grab once the Big Three (Players Handbook, DM’s Guide, and Monstrous Manual) were on your shelf.

Leaving aside non-PHB details, Half-Orcs have more narrow prerequisites than the core races requiring a particularly good constitution (13+) but low wisdom (max 14) and charisma (max 12), need 8+ in constitution and 6+ in strength, and gain a point in both at the cost of losing two points in charisma. They made for middling fighters (max level ten), poor thieves (max eight), and worse clerics (max four). Admittedly, high prerequisite scores could increase these maximums as per some optional rules in the Humanoids book.

In the playspace of the ’90s when second edition was dominant, Half-Orcs were a relic of first edition where they were included as a core race. By the time they were included in The Complete Book of Humanoids they were superfluous as you might as well pick a Half-Ogre, Minotaur, or even the yeti-like Alaghi. But I can see why they were popular; dumping two points out of Charisma to add to your physical stats is a meathead’s dream.

There were a bunch of books in this series. Elves and Dwarves got one apiece but Gnomes and Halflings had to share one.

Racial Adversity

As more races were added to the game the less the core races were wanted, especially not the bland, under-powered, and flavourless humans. It’s a credit to the modern game that the races have finally become much more diverse in representation not only on the page but also in play at the table.

Because second edition was still in the mindset that there was an optimal way to portray each race, Halflings were good at being thieves and if you played them any other way you were going to suffer for breaking the mould. Gnomes could be illusionists but not other wizards for some reason, though at least they weren’t Dwarves to whom magic was anathema. I have no idea why Elves couldn’t be druids and the PHB doesn’t care to illuminate me.

Overall it simply felt like there was a right way and a wrong way to play and this had to do entirely with optimisation rather than personality. When this was pretty much the first decision a new player got to make in the game, the encouragement to seek optimisation influences the way they see the hobby. No wonder so many players became rules-lawyering munchkins; the text actively promoted it.

That concept of freedom raises its head again. The modern game tries to offer options so you can choose your own direction. The classic game wants to narrow your options until you walk the right path; a style of design that enforces its conservative principles through restriction and penalty.

Next time we’ll have a look at classes. It never seems to end…

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