Tuesday, April 19, 2011

P is for Prestidigitation

[over the course of the month of April, I shall be posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic this month? Things necessary to take your D&D campaign from “eh, fantasy” to “kick ass.” And who doesn’t want that?]

P is for Prestidigitation, the ol’ slight o hand, now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t bit. Flim flammery. The ol’ switcheroo. Trickery, in other words.

We need more of it.

The most recent editions of D&D (and here I’m going back to the Rules Cyclopedia edition even) have done quite a job of codifying and stream-lining the game. Now there’s a difference between “dumbing things down” and working for consistency of design, and I think the most recent designers to work on the game have MOSTLY done the latter. But consistency comes at a price…it limits imagination.

Now that is NOT to say you can’t go “off the reservation” with any edition of the game. Hell, they’re your books, you are allowed to scribble sections out and add as desired and freely mix-n-match editions. But one of the reasons the designers have been striving for consistency (since 2nd edition, really) is an attempt to CLEAN UP the game, to define what was undefined, to set some boundaries.

Which is to say “limits.”

If you want to play balls-to-the-wall craziness where the lines are so broken it’s hard NOT to “color outside the boundaries,” then you’re going to be playing an older edition more often than not (or else, house-ruling your new edition game into something that resembles an older edition). In the older editions we find the rule is Anything Goes most of the time.

You can do this when there are no hard and fast rules for spell and magic item creation…and when monsters are defined by half-a-dozen stats that bear little or no resemblance to a player character’s stat block.

3rd edition is where the changes to the latter bit really comes to the fore with the monsters, but even BECMI put limits on what could and could NOT be created as far as magic goes. You want to make a +6 sword? Tough…unless it’s an artifact (and there are very strict limits on artifacts, too). Yes, you can ignore the limits of the game…but then, why play that edition?

If you DO go back and look at earlier games you’ll see a ton of craziness, especially in the published adventures of Mr. Gygax. The iron golem in Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Adventure? Lasers and froghemoths in Barrier Peaks? The crazy tricks and traps in Tomb of Horrors and Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth? Hell…in ANY of the older, 1st edition adventure modules. How does that 3rd level priest animate dead zombies and skeletons in Caves of the Chaos…especially as there’s no clerical “animate dead” spell in the B/X rules? It’s a “mystery.”

No…it’s just craziness.

TRICKS…much more so than traps, in my opinion…are a huge part of the joy of Old School D&D. Traps are usually mechanical, often dis-armable, and almost always detectable and avoidable. With TRICKS, all bets are off. How do you deal with the Mouth of Annihilation in the Tomb of Horrors? Um…you don’t. I mean you can DIE IN IT, I suppose…but otherwise, there’s nothing else to do with it.

How do you deal with falling into lava? How should you handle a monster that can decapitate you with a single blow. How do you handle magic objects that change your character’s sex or teleport your character one way and all your gear another? How do you cross a frictionless room?

Who knows? As I said, all bets are off when it comes to tricks. Later modules tone down the level of tricks by about 100-fold. Why? Because they break the internal consistency and logic of the game. I look at a later edition module…even late 1st edition modules like H4: The Throne of Bloodstone…and I see a lot of pedestrian stuff, simply adhering to the rules of the game. So much so that, in that last example (H4), you’re advised to own copies of all the Monster Manuals, the Manual of the Planes, BattleSystem…and probably Legends and Lore. All so you can run a pedestrian fight with Orcus, a pedestrian fight with Tiamat, and celebrate a pedestrian victory over Evil (and not even a PERMANENT victory…”Orcus will return some day.” So then why did we go through all this BS? Jeez!).

Whether or not Gygax and Schick and Moldvay (check out his dimension-hopping Castle Amber!) and Sutherland (Demonwebs!) understood their own genius or not, I can’t even guess. Clearly, they knew what they liked themselves when it came to adventure design…nutty stuff that was waaay off the reservation. Regardless of whether they knew it or not, WE should be learning from their examples when it comes to adventure design:

1. Break the rules.
2. Tricks over Traps.

“But tricks aren’t FAIR,” whines the geek who’s angry his naked paladin just jumped into a Mouth of Annihilation. You know what? So what? Your character was 14th level…doesn’t one of his buddies have a ring of wishes or something that’ll bring him back to life?

And even if he doesn’t…TRICKS are the way you truly challenge the players rather than their characters (and their characters “stat blocks”). A spear trap has a certain chance of being detected (a “difficulty class” in 3rd edition, or your thief’s “detect traps” skill in 1st). A poison needle or pit is the same. Throw a bunch of those into your adventure and you just get players saying, “I search EVERYTHING for traps,” every single damn room.

But give ‘em a cavern of boiling mud to somehow traverse…or a floating river…or a lake of lava…or drooling radioactive monkey whose spit and saliva burns holes through plate armor…give ‘em SOMETHING WEIRD to overcome and THEN you’ll see your players get creative.

More trickery, that’s what I’m advocating. More switcheroos. More dopplegangers and rust monsters and cursed magical items and insane magical traps that “don’t make sense.” It doesn’t have to make sense. Haven’t you ever read Vance’s Dying Earth books?

: )

1 comment:

  1. Hell yeah! That's what D&D is all about...to me at least.

    Ed Green