With a new edition of Dungeons and Dragons coming, a lot of talk has been floating around about people's favorite edition of the world's most popular fantasy role-playing game. My answer is unequivocally AD&D 2nd Edition, for a lot of reasons. First of all, I feel it had the best presentation and artwork of any editions. I am sorry, but the art for 3rd era, Pathfinder, and especially 4e doesn’t do it for me. I look at the illustrations and I don’t feel the urge to play out the scene depicted, it doesn’t tell me a story, and frankly the proportions of the bodies, both male and female, are completely unrealistic. They don’t say 'fantasy' to me as much as anime, but WotC's target audience has never been old grognards like me.
Barring the rather subjective issue of artwork (or maybe not, someone explain to my why dragonborn and wildlings have breasts), What really sits 2e apart in my mind is the strength of the system and the richness of the settings. This is a system that could take a lot of beating and still produce a fun game, and wow did TSR beat it apart. Unlike AD&D 1e or even the old Basic Set, 2e was more flexible, possessed the concept of optional rules right in the Player's Handbook, and provided a varied game play. When you consider all the options added by the Complete Handbooks series and the Player's Options series, you have a system that even the designers were willing to admit didn't suit everyone's purpose, but could be altered to taste.
Not to say the system is perfect, there were glaring issues that were fixed in later editions. Racial level limits always seemed silly to me, and I never enforced them in games I ran. The proficiency system needed some paring down and rationalization, I am sorry but fire building is part of basic survival and doesn’t need to be a separate expenditure of those rare non-proficiency slots. A lot of people did not like THACO, but for them all I have to say is learn some basic math you slacker.
One of the things about 2e that really resonated with me was the kits. I think this was possibly the best idea to come out of the edition, and I wish they had made it into 3e (4e has its themes, which are close, but are often too over the top for the types of games I normally enjoy). Instead of playing a fighter, you could be a swashbuckler, myrmidon, or even peasant hero. Here was a game mechanic that aided in the creation of character back story and personality, you know, role-playing, as well as granting a small mechanical bonus. For the most part the kits were well balanced, though some of the racial books got a little too far beyond what I would consider fantasy and entered the realm of super-heroics.
The settings, this is where 2e shines, and the best part is these can always be used with any edition. Forgotten Realms, Dark Sun, Dragonlance, Ravenloft, Greyhawk, Planescape, Birthright, Council of Wyrms, and especially Spelljammer, if you want to see me nerdgasm get a Spelljammer game going! The sheer amount of source material in these is amazing, and far better than what happened with setting material in 3e and 4e. As D&D became more mechanic driven, the fluff started to disappear (or worse, became horribly dry), giving way to new feats, new prestige classes, and new spells.
Balance and character optimization were not design features, and this was good. There was little you could do to 'optimize' your character, other than choosing a race. Class, kit combo, but even then your basic ability scores needed to be good enough to qualify for these. Some things were unbalanced, and that was fine, we didn’t expect them to be. There was also no formula for a balanced encounter, like you see in 4e and Pathfinder. GM skill was important, just as important as player skill.
This brings us to one of the big pluses of older editions of Dungeons and Dragons. There was less of an emphasis on character power and more on player skill, as well as a different power dynamic between the DM and the rules. It began in character creation, even with a kit, you had to develop your character's personality based off of only a handful of numerical sources, this encouraged role-playing in a way that I have rarely seen in games that feature a lot of mechanical character personality and background options. Once play began, you were a fragile little adventurer on his way up in the world, but one who would only survive through good decision making, not the use of powers and feats, or other special abilities. You were encouraged as a player to innovate, use strategy and tactics, and to not make every fight one to the death; running for it was a reasonable option.
So much of the rules of older editions were left to DM discretion, whereas today there is a rule and stat line for everything, including how to design adventures. This takes the power, and a lot of the fun, out of the DM's hands and places them in the rules. I think this development over the past decade is what has led to the growth (in fringe parts of the hobby at least) of GM-less games. When you take away a lot of what makes a DM special, of course you find out you don’t need him. Go right ahead if that's your thing, I won’t tell you how to have fun, but for me that's akin to decaffeinated coffee, missing the whole point.
All this is not to say that I don't like Pathfinder or 4e, I do. I run a weekly Pathfinder game and write for Frog God Games in their Pathfinder adventure series (Northlands Saga for those of you unfamiliar with my work). Golarion is like a throwback to the great settings of 2e, lots of fluff, imaginative settings, and well written. 4e falls short on the setting department, but does give two great settings, the updated Dark Sun (which I love) and the Points of Light/ Nentir Vale mini-setting. I also greatly enjoy the planes in 4e, and I may be the only grognard who never liked the Great Wheel cosmology. Of course having spelljammers in it helped. I also like the Feywild and Shadowfell, in fact I will be playing in a 4e Feywild game that starts in March, and my only concern is what class for my pixie PC.