Thursday, December 31, 2020

Spoiling the Keep (p. 2)

The last couple nights, I've been reading Tolkien's The Lost Tales (volume 1)...a Christmas gift from my wife...but I'm still only in the "foreword" of the thing. With regard to The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien's opus) perhaps the thing I find most fascinating is that his trilogy is built on a fully developed (or near-full) world and mythology of his own creation; Tolkien was writing stories about silmarils and elves long before he was writing about hobbits and their antics. And all the "allusions" to fictional history found in his main works...including The Hobbit...are more reference to these earlier, unpublished works, rather than an artistic device to make his fantasy world seem bigger than it is. 

For most fiction, this ain't the case. When Ben Kenobi is telling Luke Skywalker that he fought alongside Luke's father in "the Clone Wars," George Lucas had no idea of what that was or meant to his Star Wars universe. It was color added to exposition establishing a relationship with the character (an uncle-like figure) while simultaneously developing that character (establishing Ben as a former warrior); the "prequel trilogy" had not yet been conceptualized (and would, in fact, undergo several various SW mediums...prior to the actual films getting green lit). That's a good example of how the device usually works.

However, when Tolkien writes that Glamdring is a famous sword worn by the King of Godolin in the Goblin Wars, he is referencing an existing history...The Fall of Gondolin was, in fact, the first story Tolkien ever wrote down (and attempted to rewrite multiple times during his life). It's not just "color," nor is elvish language simply composed of nonsensical syllables smashed together. This depth of world building is responsible for much of the richness of Tolkien's stories. 

And "richness" and "depth" is what we're looking for in our D&D campaigns...not because we want to dazzle our players with our ability to write fake histories (that they generally don't care about), but because it allows DMs to create a sensible environment for exploration, aiding the immersion process. 

The Keep on the Borderlands, as written, has very little to it in terms of backstory and history. Part of its power comes from its succinct distillation of what some might consider "pure" D&D play. It presents a home base, a small wilderness, and a progressively tiered "dungeon" of monsters, and then asks players to go explore (while trying not to get killed). It is a GREAT introduction to the long as one doesn't examine it too closely. In a vacuum, there's a lot to recommend it.

But campaign play requires demands that close examination, because adventure sites and scenarios need to be fit into the campaign world in order for adventures in that world to have value and heft. Long term campaign play cannot be sustained with unrelated episodic play because nothing of value can be built in a purely improvisational world and the padding of a PC's stats over time gets stale when one's play has no concrete impact. 

So let's try to give the Keep some context.

The first thing to discuss, I think, is WHY the Keep exists at all. Large stone fortifications are not just built in the middle-of-nowhere "just for the heck of it." With all apologies to Ludwig the Mad, large stone structures aren't built ANYwhere without reason. Building any castle structure is a large undertaking, requiring substantial resources of time, money, material, and manpower, and aren't undertaken lightly. 

The Keep in B2 is clearly meant to be a military fortification, with the majority of its listed NPC population being fighting men...a bit more than 200 men-at-arms, plus officers. That the Keep is ruled by a castellan ("The Castellan") backs this up, based on my understanding of the history of the term (i.e. based on what I can glean off the internet, especially wikipedia).

[people are going to have to excuse my lack of scholarship and general hackwork. I am not a historian (except of the armchair variety) and did not study it at university. Also, libraries are still closed in my city due to the pandemic, and even before they were, I can tell you that the public libraries were pretty light on the types of scholarly references one might use for this kind of work...assuming, of course, I could speak any language besides English in order to DO research across multiple cultures. So apologies; I'm just a blogger]

The title of castellan can be hereditary (with the domain presided over called a "castellany") but it is more usually understood to be an appointment by a higher noble...and given Gygax's own definition of the term in B2's glossary ("a governor or warden of a castle or fort") I think it safe to assume that this is the type of castellan we have at the Keep: a career soldier type assigned the task of running the garrison. Being that the Keep is set "on the Borderlands," one might imagine the region to be part of the march (and, thus, under the jurisdiction of a marquis), a buffer zone between the civilized realm and the untamed wilderness. Perhaps there are several such fortresses within a few days ride of the place.

The Keep in 3D.
However, the Keep is MASSIVE for such an out-of-the-way area. This is no wooden hill fort or lonely tower stronghold. It has shops and stores and services that appear somewhat independent from the functioning of the place as a medieval border fort. While on first pass the "village" of the outer bailey has similarities to a small western town (at least of the cinematic variety: Deadwood, Tombstone, etc.) upon closer inspection the thing feels much more like a (small) modern day military base. Here's the PX store, here's the mess, here's some on-site residences for visitors; knowing Gygax spent some time in the marines, it wouldn't surprise me if this was part of his inspiration for the Keep (albeit with medieval trappings...stables instead of a motor pool, etc.).

Regardless, the Keep has a heft of permanence to it. This motte-and-bailey took years to build, and it seems to have been built for the long haul. Clearly, someone felt the need to construct a stronghold of this size, and yet it is not the fortified residence of a nobleman and his family (the castellan, as noted, appears to be an official and a bachelor). Likewise, the Keep doesn't appear to have interest in (or means of) collecting tolls (from the southern road) or taxes (from the local populace...which appears absent anyway). In short, there seems no way for the Keep to generate income...certainly not enough to feed and supply the military personnel. Some "state power" (marquis, king, whatever) must be footing the bill...and they must have a good reason for doing so. 

But what? Protecting one's borders? That would make more sense if there was a rival power, but in the generic D&D realm it would seem that border only divides "civilization" from "wilderness." As a base to act as a launching point for taming the wilderness? Even if there was evidence of the Keep engaging in warfare with the nearby humanoid populations (there isn't), the scale of the place is off for such an undertaking. Plus, one would assume that once a hostilities commenced, there would be no respite for building a massive stone construction until AFTER the locals were pacified. 

So while the Keep is most assuredly "on the Borderlands," I don't think it's purpose has anything to do with extending or protecting its border. I think it's there to protect itself...and since that interest isn't a familiar one (i.e. there's no ruling family present), it must be guarding some resource. A resource that is desirable enough for the nobility to fund such an undertaking. Something valuable worth guarding, in other words.

Given the personnel and services found in the Keep compound, the absence of any other revenue source, and the nearby terrain, I'm inclined to think the place has been set up as a mining operation. The place has all the trappings of an "Old West" boom town, save for an undertaker and an assayers office...and the latter is less useful in a state-run operation than when dealing with numerous independent miners. The wealth from such an operation (depending on the ore being dug up) would explain the nobility's interest in bankrolling a sturdy, permanent fortress in the wilderness. It explains the need for a money-changing bank and a guild house, it explains the presence of both a provisioner and a trading post, as well as the reason why traders bother making the journey into the disputed Borderlands (and the reason the Keep has warehouses, stables, and an inn within its 20' high curtain walls). 

I am inclined to believe that "the Caves of the Unknown" are the original mines (now played out) that the Keep was set to guard. It explains why the Caves are so close to the Keep (a couple miles), and it starts to paint a picture of the Keep's relationship (and potential dealings) with the nearby humanoid tribes in the area dubbed "the Caves of Chaos."

But I'll discuss those guys in my next post.

; )

Monday, December 28, 2020

Spoiling the Keep (p. 1)

For those of us who started in the D&D hobby with some version of pre-1983 "basic" (Holmes or Moldvay) the adventure module B2: The Keep on the Borderlands is pretty familiar. It was included in those old box sets and many of us cut our teeth on it (as a player or DM or both), back in the day. Many folks, re-entering the hobby after decades (or returning to "old school" play after experience dissatisfaction with latter edition sensibilities) have pulled a weathered copy of the module to fire up a new campaign. I've used it myself for this purpose...more than once! 

The B2 adventure is ubiquitous in old school circles...and in D&D, generally. Towards the end of the 2nd edition era, Return to the Keep on the Borderlands was published, a silver anniversary rewrite of the adventure updating the thing while reusing the history and locations found in module. Goodman Games put out a "5th edition conversion and classic homage" called Into the Borderlands -- with the original Roslof art gracing the cover! -- a couple years ago, and that mammoth tome can still be found in stacks at local game shops, including WotC's main retail store here in Seattle. 

The original adventure has been lauded and lambasted; analyzed, scrutinized, and criticized. People have apologized for the module, praised it (and elements of its design), and suggested ways to "rehabilitate" it. Many of us have run it, played it, read it, and blogged about it over the years; on my own blog I see I've already more than 30 posts tagged with the "B2" label...not surprising given the impact it's had on me as a DM. After all, it was the first published adventure scenario I ever picked up.

And now I'm returning to the thing, running it for my kids, albeit using the AD&D system.

[which doesn't require all that much adjustment...really]

Pretty sure I've posted
this image before...
This time, however, is a little different. In past runnings, I've always played the module "straight," i.e. as written and wholly unexamined. The play has been the thing, not the "story" of the Keep and the Caves. And this approach has served MY needs well enough, though frustrating in one respect: players have had difficulty with the challenges presented. Back in my (very brief) BECMI days, I had a party that managed to clean out most of the Caves, earning enough x.p. and treasure that they were ready to move on to a new adventure site. But in the main, I've seen players fail miserably at invading the Caves, losing character after character (and party after party) until finally "giving up" and deciding to take their adventure aspirations elsewhere. 

And none of that has required any more story than what is given in the text. A fortress on the edge of the wilderness. A cave complex occupied by hostile monsters. A band of plucky adventurers looking to score a pile of bloodstained coins. Do you need more "story" than that to have a good time? Not everyone does; I didn't, for a quarter century.

I'm looking at things differently now. I'd like to say that my "needs" as a DM have changed, but only because that's an easy phrase to reel off; there's something more going on in my head that is much harder to articulate. And I'm not going to try right now...suffice is to say that the old approach to running B2 no longer satisfies. The text as written can no longer go "unexamined."

SO, my plan (such as it ever is) is to start a new series of posts on this hoary, ancient module, even as I run it (again) for my children. They will include my thoughts on the thing, its setting, and my modifications to the adventure as I try to beat it into some semblance of a "useful play aid." Because that's how I'm looking at the module at the moment...not as an adventure to be "won," but as a campaign opportunity to be explored without any sort of expected outcome.  Doing some examination and analysis will (I believe) allow me to do a better job running the adventure that way.

This series (I am assuming it will be a series...there's a lot to discuss here) will, by necessity, contain a lot of *SPOILERS* because, I'm sorry, if this type of thing is at all interesting to you then I'm going to assume that you are already familiar with the module and none of the things I "reveal" will ruin the adventure. Not that there's a whole lot of surprises in the adventure as written (though more than I want to enumerate), but you can consider this my one and only warning on the issue.

All right, that's it. I'm still putting together the order in which I want to do this, but I'll start in earnest with "Part 2" of this series...hopefully before the New Year!   ; )


Wednesday, December 23, 2020


 This is a bugbear:

I'm absolutely certain that 100% of my non-robot/spambot readers will recognize the character in this image, even if they haven't made a point of seeing every Star Wars film in the Lucas library.

The original description of the bugbear (from OD&D's Supplement I: Greyhawk) simply states:

These monsters are of the "giant class," being great hairy goblin-giants. Despite their size and shambling gait, they move very quietly, thus increasing their chance to surprise a party by 16 2/3%.

[for the uninitiated, that would mean achieving surprise on a d6 roll of 1-3, rather than the standard 1-2]

Holmes's description in the original basic book changes this description very little, adding only that "they attack without warning whenever they can." Holmes also notes their alignment as chaotic evil, whereas the creature was originally presented (in OD&D) as having the potential for both neutrality and chaos.

The AD&D Monster Manual, as usual, expands the creature's description considerably, with special consideration given to armaments and tribal organization. However, the introduction to the entry is my main interest:

Bugbears live in loose bands, and are typically found in the same areas as are goblins. Unlike their smaller cousins, however, these hairy giant goblins operate equally well in bright daylight or great darkness (as they have infravision to 60'), so they are as likely to choose a habitation above ground as they are to select a subterranean abode.

Just what am I doing here? Well, I'll tell you. Remember this recent post of mine discussing how I've found I can get by without alignment in the game? All well and good and working just fine (still). Here's the thing though: once you remove the idea of "cosmic evil" from the game and are simply left with sentient humanoid species, you've only got a couple easy ways to go with your "fantasy races:" full on conquistador (conquering the "savages" and all of the imperialist tropes and associated awfulness), OR  create some sort of fantasy Star Trek-like utopia with all the species intermingling and elbow-rubbing one expect to find in a Roddenberry space station.

I don't like either of those options. And since my fantasy world has some established concept parameters (for example, humans dominate, cultures tend not to mingle unless sharing a species, no concrete alignments), I've got to go a different, harder route and make things work. I've got to basically make each species its own damn alien thing, that keeps the creature from adapting to humanity's ways (setting up shops in the town) while not making it a cardboard villain to be cut down.

And there are a LOT of humanoids in the game. Gnolls are basically Warhammer beastmen (uplifted, mutant animals), and orcs are simple mutants ("half-orcs" being first generation spawn of normal parents). But goblinoids...there are a LOT of goblinoids...especially if you start including the aquatic versions and variants found in later "monster manuals." 

TWO...two types of goblins are about all I can stand (which is why, when running UK2: The Sentinel I changed the blue-skinned xvarts into blue-skinned goblins). "Goblin," I've decided is just a human word for any sentient, non-allied humanoid species. Big goblins, little goblins, hairy goblins, and militaristic, jackbooted goblins (could D&D hobgoblins take their name from the hobnails they sport? Sure, why not). 

But I'm only having two species of goblin in the game, and their differences are largely that of culture and priority. Hobgoblins are to goblins as Spartans were to ancient Macedonians, and if you think I'm paying them a compliment, then you should probably read Bret Devereaux's blog. Spartans were pretty awful, in just about every way possible, and hobgoblins (in my campaign) are the same.

SO...bugbears. They are most assuredly not goblins. They're not big goblins, they're not hairy goblins, they are their own darn species. They are wookies. They can live in caves, but they prefer arboreal surroundings. They are diurnal, unlike goblins...their "infravision" is a way to model their keen sense of smell. Their armor class and high hit points represents their innate toughness; they wear little in the way of armor (hence, their increased stealth ability...which is still not as good as an unarmored elf, seeing as how freaking big they are). They are, however, tool users, and construct their own homes and weapons. They hire themselves out as mercenaries, and covet treasure both as a means of exchange with other races, and for ostentatious displays of wealth. 

They have a love for family and a cultural tradition of honor that includes life debts, ritual combat, and mating for life. Despite their mercenary ways, they hold themselves aloof from other species and tend to look down on them (for failing to share their cultural values) and they often bully smaller species. It doesn't help that their ability to communicate is hindered by limited vocalization, but they comprehend other languages -- including the common tongue -- as well as any human of equal intelligence, and other races can learn their language with a bit of patience. Still, this lack of "speech" and their intimidating stature has led some to see them as little more than primitive savages. 

They are strong workers and are prized as slaves by unscrupulous cultures. This has done nothing to improve their relationship with other races.

"Bugbear" is not a name they call themselves. In fact, they find the term derogatory and insulting, and have been known to pull the arms off those brazen enough to use it as a form of address. 

My players (i.e. my children) have not yet encountered bugbears...not in B/X or OD&D or (as of yet) AD&D. That will soon be changing. They have created new 1st level characters, ostensibly to give their other PCs "a rest" after the saga that was UK2 and UK3. This time, the plan is for them to once again journey to The Keep on the Borderlands. Yes, yes...cue the groans. I'm trying something a little different with it this time around, and I'm not just talking about using it in an AD&D game. 

I'll tell you all about it, one of these days; just not right now (sorry).

My plan is to be pretty busy over the next couple days. Hope everyone has a happy best we all can. Best wishes!

Friday, December 18, 2020

Elven Beef

More thoughts on the AD&D game...

My son's character is an elven fighter. Not a multiclass character, just a fighter.  

He is a beast.

Back in the day (ah, the days of youth) such a character would never have existed in our campaigns. Never did exist...not even as an NPC. Oh, I think my half-elf's elven father was a general in the elven military (if I remember correctly) which would probably have made him a "straight fighter," but he never made an appearance except for a note on my character sheet. They were estranged after all.

[yes, backstory. We were dumb kids back then...and anyway, it ended up having zero impact on the game, except perhaps explaining why my character was out adventuring]

Certainly, we would never deign to use an elf fighter as a player character.  For multiple reasons: level restrictions first and foremost. Limits to the race's strength score is another (how can you fight if you can't hit?). And there was definitely a bad taste left over in our mouths from our B/X days, which we played prior to AD&D: the "elf" class is paper-thin (1d6 hit points per level) despite being expected to melee, and it takes twice as long to advance as a "normal" (i.e. human) fighter.

But level restriction was the main issue. When we sat down to the table, our intention was to be in the game for the long haul...thoughts of death or retirement were far from our minds! And none of us considered our D&D play to be a short-term, passing fancy thing... SO, any character "type" (race-class combo) that didn't allow unlimited level advancement was deemed as wholly undesirable. Ours was a human-centric game (as Gygax fully intended), though there were of course halfling thieves and half-elf bards, too.

My kids, though, don't think like least not yet. The game is far too new for them still. Images and ideas fire their imaginations, not the raw heft of mechanics. My daughter is playing a halfling because, when I was toying with the idea of running a Dragonlance campaign I told them about kender; now, she insists her PC is a "kindr halfling" (pronounced "kinn-der"). She is, at once, both the most cowardly and most foolhardy example of a PC I can ever remember seeing in a game, and certainly deserves a post of her own.

The boy says his
character looks
like this dude.
Meanwhile, my boy prefers the fighter class (chip off the ol' block there) but wanted to be an elf. Unlike his sister, Diego did have an idea of the level restrictions...with only a 17 strength, I made it clear that the character would be limited to 6th level. However, I'm not sure he had all that much faith in his ability to reach such lofty heights; I don't recall any of his past characters making it past 4th level.

[reading over my shoulder, Diego just corrected me...he never had a character go past 3rd level]

Welp, as I wrote the other day, AD&D is far more survivable than many folks (including myself) give it credit for, and the kid has managed to amass nearly 27,000 x.p.. Fast approaching 6th level (at 35K), the end of his career is in sight, and I would not be surprised to see him hitting his limit after 2-3 more sessions, depending on what treasure they discover.

How? How does a lowly elven fighter, with a constitution penalty and a lack of exceptional strength manage to survive and thrive? This is a character that didn't even achieve proficiency with a longsword until 4th level (choosing short sword, hand axe, dagger, and short bow as his initial weapons), a character who eschews armor heavier than leather and shield, a character whose "party" has, for the most part, consisted of a halfling and two or three hirelings. How does he make it work?

Turns out, the elf has a lot of advantageous features for the player who doesn't have preconceived notions of the fighter's "role" in an adventuring party. Elves in non-metal armor move almost silently, surprising monsters on a 4 in 6 chance most of the time. Elves' +1 bonus with bows relates to any bow, not just the long bow, and the racial dexterity bonus makes them even better sharpshooters (especially given their infravision). The boy's character, in fact, has a dexterity of 18 because of the bonus, meaning he is almost never surprised himself (reaction bonus of AD&D) and enjoys an armor class equivalent to plate armor when using a shield...and that was before he found leather armor +1. Against goblins and giant rats...not-unusual-monsters for low-level adventures...he makes a number of attacks equal to his level, and the +1 to hit and damage from his strength made him a killing machine against such creatures...much more so after the party recovered a hand axe +1 from a goblin chieftain. 

But it's the staying power that has really impressed. A 90% resistance to sleep and charm spells is nothing to sneer at when these are the exact types of spells low-level sorcerers generally employ against  parties of invaders. And with a 16 constitution and d10s rolled for hit points, the character can take more damage than the average B/X elf of twice his level (34 at 4th level; currently 40 at 5th). That's huge. 

Of course, there're the bonus languages as well...being able to speak gnoll, goblin, orc, and hobgoblin has enabled the character (with stealth and the demihuman hearing bonus) to effectively spy on humanoid opponents and understand the tactics and commands they communicate in pitched combat. Good intel is always valuable, as is the ability to speak with foes (and potential foes) negotiating both terms for surrender and deals to preclude bloodshed. 

All of which has gone a long way to proving the basic elf fighter is an extremely viable character type. Which I wouldn't have thought possible before. 

Right, so...that's all I have time for today. Need to clean the kitchen so I can bake some gingerbread cookies.
: )

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Boots & Blood Hawks

One thing that has been a bit surprising about AD&D is the increased survivability of the characters. Surprising, I say, because I’ve been listening to a lot of AD&D podcasts and reading more than a couple of AD&D blogs, and the casual, jovial way they’ve talked about fatalities.

Maybe my vision is colored by years of playing B/X.

To date, neither of my kids’ original PCs has been killed…not even slain and brought back to life. Yes, they’ve been in some tight spots (they’re in one right now, as a matter of fact). Yes, they’ve been fortunate on at least one or two occasions, with dice rolls falling spectacularly in their favor. But I think there’s more to it than that.

AD&D is a different beast from other types of D&D play. The main thing that will do you in is overreaching, i.e. trying to punch above your weight or extending yourself when you really can’t afford to do so. This is, of course, true of ALL forms of early edition play, but AD&D has certain “brakes” imbedded in the system that can stop a bad situation from turning into an absolute freefall.

Hit point inflation is, of course, one contributing factor to survivability. Assuming you have at least one or two fighter types in the party, you should have the "beef" to survive at least a round or two of combat with low-level opponents. Goblins average 3.5 damage on a successful hit; orcs average 4.5 damage. Fighters and paladins average 5.5 hit points on D10 hit dice (and rangers even more) and I allow 1st level PCs to start with max hit points, so it's a LOT harder to be "one-shot" than a B/X fighter. 

In addition, negative hit points in AD&D provides an additional "buffer zone," albeit one that carries stiff penalties (coming back from negative hit points results in the same penalties one gets from the raise dead spell). We use the fairly strict rules found on page 82 of the DMG which do not allow survival in the case of blows that reduced a character to -4 or less in a single shot; however, even with that, for practical purposes a magic-user in my game has seven hit points before dying (4 for max starting plus 3 negative). Makes dying from the occasional stray arrow extremely unlikely, and gives everyone a decent chance of running away from a combat that's gone sideways...provided your characters are fast enough to run.

[my kids have insisted on wearing leather armor for this reason, despite better stuff being available]

But more than just mechanics, there is a mindset that comes with AD&D in the "rules as written" that just aren't present in other basic editions' text. I draw your attention to the equipment lists on page 35 of the PHB and the following items:
Boots, high, hard     2 g.p.
Boots, high, soft      1 g.p.
Boots, low, hard      1 g.p.
Boots, low, soft        8 s.p.
Some may feel that such "minutia" exists solely for the purpose of characterization, i.e. visualizing the character's appearance...and maybe that was (originally) its only reason for being in the book. After all, the rules provide no specific advantages to an individual wearing any type of boots; the question of one PC's taste for a particular style of footwear is mainly a matter of preference. 

"Low, Soft"
I'm of a different mind. Rather than being "meaningless" (mechanics-wise) stylistic minutia, these little touches help shift the mindset of the players right from start of character creation. Armor, weapons, backpacks, torches, thieves tools, rations, rope...those things, resources every good adventuring party will strive to purchase...have been around since OD&D, and are tools of play. Things like boots, or a cape, or a chicken...these are touches of world building that puts players in the realm of thinking NOT "what do I need for the game?" but instead "what do I need for the world?"

And it's amazing (to me) just how much gets accomplished with just a little nudge. A little nudge, mind you: the equipment lists for the entire game fits on two pages. I scan through the 10 pages that make up the "Equipment" chapter in the 3E PHB and, quite frankly, my eyes start to glaze over. I don't WANT to read a description of the differences between a "courtier's outfit," a "noble's outfit," and a "royal outfit." I've got a pretty good idea what boots, low, hard look like without any need for description.

[and just for the record, the three outfits I mentioned above? Bland as their descriptions are, none of them even bother to include footwear. And since boots aren't sold separately, I suppose that means nobles are walking around barefoot unless they want to spring for a "traveller's outfit" with its sturdy boots]

Look: do folks understand the difference of what I'm getting at? In DND3, you ARE just picking a style when you purchase an outfit for your character. My fighter dresses like a noble. Someone else's fighter dresses like an "explorer." It's just changing the "skin" on your avatar (to use video game terms). It doesn't make you think about what you're doing. And 5E...well, heck, everyone just starts with the same gear based on their class and background (and maybe race), right? The 5E PHB doesn't even bother listing clothes for sale...though if your choice of class includes a "diplomat's pack" then you pick up a set of fine clothes along with your quills and parchment. It's cookie cutter. 

Whereas the AD&D list puts a sliver in your mind. Boots...oh, yes. Very important to wear something on your feet when hiking or spelunking. What's my alternative? Going barefoot like a halfling (or a peasant)? What would work best? What can I afford? The presented choice...a small one, not an overwhelming one spread over a dozen pages with paragraphs of padded text describing a mess kit or a two-man tent...immediately puts your mental state in that of a D&D adventurer. It begins the immersion process. 

And players who approach the game as if they were IN the game, rather then just playing a game...well, I've found they tend to be a bit more cautious with their (imaginary) lives. Yes, even young children, like my kids. And that leads to increased survivability, too.

Fiend Folio original
Discretion isn't just the better part of valor; it's the key to playing the long game in AD&D. Failing to approach the game with some amount of discretion (and a willingness to cooperate with your fellow teammates) is a recipe for a quick demise, as monsters in the advanced game are vicious. Blood hawks? Basically a flying hobgoblin (1+1 hit dice) with three attacks per round. A wandering monster encounter in the mountains brought down seven of 'em on the party...and, no, the magic-user did not have a sleep spell (she failed her % roll to learn the spell). Somehow, they still all managed to survive...though not without severe injury.

Anyway. It's the holiday season and the pace around here has become a bit frantic. Look at this post...started writing it Saturday morning. It's now Tuesday night. *sigh*

Just to finish the point...first edition AD&D isn't as unforgiving as it's rumored to be. I've seen far more player character death in good ol' B/X and OD&D. At least at low levels, with low level challenges, and a good dose of player discretion, it's very survivable. Not "always" or even "mostly" survivable, no. But quite a bit more than "hardly" or "barely" survivable. 

Next post: more "duh" observations regarding first edition AD&D.
: )

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Morality & Justice

AKA What I Learned from Saint Cuthbert

Yes, another post about alignment in Dungeons & Dragons.

My last post on the subject (just reread it this morning) is a good example of just how far down the rabbit hole one can fall when one spends an inordinate amount of time theory-bashing, putting the cart before the horse when it comes to world building ("cart") and running ("horse"). NOW...well, I've been running the game for a couple-three weeks, and I just wanted to share my experience. 

When we started this up, I decided to simply ignore the entire concept of alignment until such time as it became "necessary" to the game. There were a number of reasons I made that decision, but the main one had to do with laziness: I am running Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1E) for small children, and I didn't relish the idea of putting a 9 point alignment system in terms they could understand (i.e. in a meaningful, playable way) when the concept is A) pretty shaky anyway, and B) mechanically meaningless. Besides which, as a parent to these small children, it's already my job to instill in them a sense of right and wrong, and I don't need to confuse that message with the artificial concepts of a game...especially a game that (often) celebrates murder and robbery.

We are, after all, Christians, and the main lesson of Christ is to love everyone (including one's enemies) as much as you love yourself. I'll be honest, I've been less rigorous in my proselytizing as I probably should be (given that we haven't been to Mass since February) but I try to point out examples as they come up in daily life. And they both understand that D&D is a game and that stabbing people is a "no-no" without me needing to throw down a disclaimer at the beginning of each session.

But rather than confuse things in their mind...forcing them to shift their paradigm of thinking when we're deep in the throes of imagining and expecting them to compartmentalize...instead of that, I've simply tried to create a bit more richness to the game world and pay closer attention to the depth of choices that abound AND the consequences of those choices.

Some examples:

The players were ambushed by a half-orc (read: "mutant") thief and his mountain lion pets while conducting a raid of the old goblin fort where the mutant made his home. The players won the fight, reducing the thief to negative one hit point which (per AD&D rules) left him alive. They then ministered to his wounds so he would survive, and took him hostage...for a time. What they found was that they had little use for an NPC who bore a great deal of resentment for the party (they'd invaded his home, killed his pets, robbed the place...not to mention beating the crap out of him); any "gratitude" he might have had for sparing his life was tempered by the overriding desire for revenge on his oppressors! 

The players on the other hand, were clearly loathe to murder an unarmed captive...what to do with the guy? Enslave him? Keep feeding him like a pet? After a couple-four days at the village where the players were staying, the town Elder asked the players to resolve the situation as it was making the locals decidedly uncomfortable (for a number of reasons). So they took him to the edge of town and let him go...basically banishing him into the wilderness, charging him with keeping his nose clean. This small mercy would give them a spot of trouble later, but in the end it was a decision they could live with.

In a later game session, the players were able to end their personal feud with a certain goblin tribe through a combination of negotiation and concession, sparing additional bloodshed (on both sides) and creating the possibility of allies while somewhat mitigating a local threat AND advancing their own goals.

In Saturday night's game, the players came upon a village that had been recently devastated by a band of gnoll raiders. Literally (per the adventure) there is NO ONE LEFT ALIVE in the place, except the gnoll chieftain (and his dog) who was abandoned by his own people for being too wounded to travel/fight. The players captured him pretty easily and, after getting what info out of him they could, were discussing what to do with him. I had the henchman magic-user blow him away with her single (unused) magic missile spell. She had, after all, been hired in this very village by the PCs a month earlier...she'd known these people and enjoyed their company, and this creature had led his people here to rob and slay every single man, woman, and child in the place. Killing him was justice for an unrepentant monster (who was only bitter at being left behind).

None of this has anything to do with alignment.

The plot of the adventure module (which I still plan on blogging about, one of these days) is that one ancient artifact of "good" (The Sentinel) has a beef with another ancient artifact of "evil" and wants the players to carry it into a final confrontation. But when one examines the reality of the artifacts' histories, it is clear they were simply created by two rival nations who were at war with each other...a war that has long since ended and which was won, rather peaceably, by the "evil" side (one kingdom being subsumed into the other). The sentient "good" artifact wants to be wielded by creatures of good alignment (and uses the know alignment spell to discover the proper person)...if PCs are unwilling or unable to use the item, the adventure provides a wandering 10th level ranger lord to which they can dispose of the thing...but this part of the narrative is completely unnecessary to the scenario. All it does is penalize (i.e. "You can't go on the adventure") players who don't buy into the module's heavy handed morality. Characters of evil alignment (not to mention druids, thieves, assassins, and bards, all of whom the Sentinel ignores) need not apply.

And considering the item's raison d'etre and purpose (a mutual destruction suicide run) the alignment of the wielder has zero impact on the possible outcomes. It doesn't even mean anything as far as forcing the players down a specific railroad: the item itself has an incredible 38 personality (the sum of its intelligence and ego). To put that in perspective, the Sword of Kas only has a 34 personality, and "will certainly attempt to control whomever takes it as his or her own." (DMG161) If the Sentinel wants to force the PCs to do its bidding, it has no need to appeal to their "better natures;" it can simply seize control, in what I'd argue is a typical hazard of D&D.

[Blackrazor's personality is only 33]

The POINT being (man, I wander) that alignment is easily removed from the adventure...and from the game...and isn't really missed. This is perhaps even more clear when one examines the second module in this series (UK3: The Gauntlet) and find the PCs in parley and allied with a lawful evil fire giant family.

But what of clerics and deities and extra-planar cosmic struggles? Because those things are often cited as reasons that alignment makes sense and should be retained (some have said that alignment ONLY makes sense because of this). But I've been thinking long and hard about clerics and religion and theisms (poly- versus mono-) lately and I had a bit of an epiphany the other day, spurred in part by a recent post at Grognardia: one does not need rival gods to have a multitude of competing temples and religions. Even in the medieval Catholic church, you have different orders, different saints, different motivations, not to mention multiple schisms, scandals and heresies.

Why do all clerical spells look the same (as opposed to water magic from sea gods and battle magic from war gods and whatnot)? Because they're all coming from the same divine source. The "lords of light" in my campaign are simply a collection of ascended saints and holy men. Saint Cuthbert, for example (if I ever decide to throw Hommlet into my world). But while a seaside fishing village may have a church dedicated to Saint Barto of the Depths (or whatever), and the people pray to him like travelers rubbing their medals to St. Christopher, everyone understands that their patron's power comes from a "higher source."

[where does this leave traditional "evil high priests" and their underlings? In the realm of demon worshippers and satanists (diabolists), I suppose, performing twisted "miracles" (reversed spells) due to the nature of their patrons. Does that make their patrons as powerful as God Almighty? Hardly. The evil cleric's magic is (for the most part) destructive in nature while the good cleric's heals, restores, and extends life. In the final race for supremacy, Good can be expected to outlast Evil]

All of which is a long-winded way of saying: I'm finding less and less need for alignment...for any my game. 

Issues like paladins' alignment restriction can be accomplished through oaths and vows; their penalties are, after all, based on behavior and actions taken. Assassins and thieves, purveyors in murder and theft respectively, need no artificial stamp of "evil" and "non-good" as their professions speak for themselves. Things like whether or not a patriarch will heal a character can be judged by what purpose such restoration will serve, regardless of what "alignment" is noted on the character sheet. Likewise, sentient magical items can decide for themselves whether or not a character's motivations fit their own.

[with regard to other magic items with effects based on alignment...a libram of silver magic versus one of ineffable damnation, for example...I think it's fine to allow use to any character, especially as no character can benefit multiple times from a work of the same type. Other items, like a talisman of pure good (or ultimate evil) are fairly self explanatory in their function, regardless of the existence of "alignment"]

In closing this post, I think it's important to consider that "heroism" may be more a matter of reputation than inherent propensity for good (or evil); heroes are known for their press releases far more than even their actions. After all, how many folks in the D&D world actually get to witness the party's fight with the dragon? Sure, sure, the PCs have the thing's head (and hoard) to show for their prowess, but tales of their battle might well be greatly exaggerated (and/or "spun") by the party itself...especially if less-than-heroic means were used to slay the beast. I am reminded greatly of Reid's Rangers, a band of NPCs from the Rifts RPG sourcebook The Vampire Kingdoms. Considered legendary heroes by the local population for their exploits in fighting blood-sucking extra-dimensional entities, they are (to a man) of evil and anarchist alignment, a group consisting of sadists, bullies, drunks, necromancers, and megalomaniacal narcissists. Still, because of their reputation they remain beloved by the people; it's one of my favorite write-ups in any RPG ever.

Removing alignment (as a system) from my game has not stripped it of meaning, nor caused players to devolve into murder-hobo lifestyle. BUT (and, yes, I want that "but" emphasized) this is mainly due to the PCs' actions having consequences in the campaign world. Behavior matters; reputation matters. Villages are not unlimited spawn points for hirelings, goods, and services...NPCs are not (all) nameless/faceless masses. Sentient monsters (like goblins) are not motive-less kills-waiting-to-be-tallied. Relationships matter, and issues of morality, justice, and honor all all tied up in those relationships.

At least, that's what I'm finding in my game.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Battling For Hearts & Minds

This will be (has to be!) a quick post because time is short this morning. 

A while back, my son (who has been attending classes remotely since September) mentioned something about playing Dungeons & Dragons to his class during one of their daily Zoom meetings, and was surprised to find out his teacher also plays D&D (I was not surprised as I recall her telling the class the first week of school that her favorite literary genre was "fantasy" and that her favorite books were those ones by J.K. Rowling). 

Anyway, when classes again started up this week (post-Thanksgiving break), it was Diego's turn to "share" (what my school would have called "Show And Tell" back in the day), and so he decided to show his class the D&D game he'd spent his vacation playing. He walked them through a brief overview of how the game is played, showed them books, explained differences between B/X and AD&D, and talked about role-playing games in general. Most of his 4th grade class, of course, drew solid blanks on all this...they spend the vast majority of their time playing Minecraft and Roblox or other kid-friendly video games that entertain you while melting your brain. 

[I should admit that my wife recently relented (when I wasn't around) and downloaded Minecraft on her phone and an iPad. She has come to regret this, as now the kids are gluing their eyeballs to the screens whenever they are allowed (and sometimes even when they're not). Fortunately, me upping the D&D play around the house has, especially for the boy, helped curb the addiction (Sofia's desire to "minecraft" is much less anyway). But, man, those things are insidious!]

But that doesn't mean they didn't perk up and become interested in this "role-playing thing." One kid said she had tried RPGs but hadn't liked them, but "this D&D game" made her want to give it another shot (don't know what she played before). Another girl was inspired to write her own RPG (after part of Diego's presentation included his own "RPG" he wrote - a mecha game that uses LEGO). Several kids expressed hope that they could play D&D with Diego once they were all able to get back to in-person classes.

Their teacher was (as one might guess) pretty enthusiastic and aided Diego in explaining some of the differences between tabletop RPGs and other board games...a fairly tough slog (I listened from the other room without participating); neither teacher nor student really had the vocabulary to properly express the ideas, but I think the other kids got "the gist." After that, I had to go pick up my daughter (who gets to spend a half day in actual school). 

Later, the boy told me his teacher said she'd spent her Thanksgiving playing D&D, too. He asked her which edition she played: fifth edition. He also told me she'd "outed herself," accidentally disclosing her age: 29. A little quick math in Ye Old Noggin allowed me a few speculations:

  • She would have been born in 1991; this is after the advent of 2nd edition AD&D (though, of course, babies don't usually play D&D).
  • She would have been about 9 years old (my son's age) when 3rd edition was released.
  • She would have been about 17 (high school senior) when 4th edition was released.
  • She would have been about 23ish (grad school?) when 5th edition was released.

[Washington State requires an M.I.T. to teach elementary school but there are several good programs...including my alma mater...where you can get it done in one year]

So while I suppose it's possible his teacher is familiar with the editions of D&D that I'm raising my children on, I think it's more likely her inclinations, assumptions, and concepts with regard to D&D play are based on latter day versions of the game; things like: story-driven plot arcs, assumption of inherent morality, combat-based (and/or fiat based) reward systems, low mortality/consequence challenge, and an emphasis on character build over (in-play) player ingenuity and cooperation. 

In other words, a style of Dungeons & Dragons that I'm not a big fan of.

So what? Why does it matter? Diego, unfortunately, has already inherited much of my bias (I'm such a terrible parent) and exhibits only disdain for modern innovations ("Death saves?! Are you kidding me?") so I'm not really worried about him being "led astray."

'Handle with care?' It's
not like the thing will
burn your hand...
[I say that with tongue-in-cheek: I've instructed him not to disparage other folks' preferred games, to not knock things till you've tried them, and to look critically at both the positive and negative aspects of systems...that there are reasons game design has evolved the way it has. If he were to begin playing 5E or Pathfinder or something, I would assume he is making an informed choice in doing so, not simply going with the herd. We ironed out the whole concept of "fads" years back with fidget spinners (most of his classmates had them; he did not)...he has as good a handle as one could hope from a nine year old when it comes to decision making based on expected consequences]

BUT...*sigh*. Diego does get lonely sometimes. Not that he doesn't have friends...he is very social and gregarious and is liked and respected by his classmates and teammates. But he doesn't have peers who are really on the same page. He has moments where he complains mightily about not having kids his age that relate to him with regard to his likes and interests...despite still being good friends. 

And here he has a chance to get them into his world! Share his blossoming enthusiasm for this strange hobby! And even get encouragement and a stamp of approval from an authority figure (the teacher) that could lead to peers actually entering his world (for a change) instead of only participating in their world...

I would hate for clashing biases to make the experience a miserable one for my kid.

I know, I know: such a stupid thing to worry about these days, what with everything else going on in the world. Parents have stupid things they worry about when it comes to their kids. I'm fairly certain my kids will end up as functional, if flawed, adults (the vast majority of us do), regardless of the journey life throws at them. Still, it is, I think, natural that parents would like that journey to be as happy as possible

Anyway. Just wanted to get that off my chest.

[aaaand...turns out my time was TOO short as I'm posting this on Thursday instead of Wednesday. Sorry about that]

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Punching Through The Sentinel

A couple weeks ago, I decided to start running AD&D (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, i.e. "first edition") again. My players are my children, ages 9 and 6. They, of course, are far too young to really parse out the rules, but since I'm the Dungeon Master I can simply ask them what they want to do and then tell them what dice to roll. Isn't that how everyone plays D&D these days?

So far, the players have been remarkably fortunate: neither has lost a character, despite occasional missteps. They've also made remarkable progress as far as advancement: the elven fighter just reached 4th level, and the halfling fighter/thief is 2nd/3rd (and only a couple hundred x.p. short of leveling up). They do remain rather "cash poor" and their cache of magic items (a single +1 dagger and a suit of leather armor +1) is rather light, but they are otherwise doing all right. Heck, they've even acquired a pair of henchmen (a half-elf fighter and an elven magic-user); hopefully, they'll last longer than the last two they had.

[both were gored to death by perytons]

My DMG has been getting a workout this fingers have seen more flipping-and-turning then any time in the last twenty years (I suspect it was more back in my 3E days, but I can't say for sure). I've used the poison rules, the unarmed combat rules, hirelings and henchmen, training and advancement, character expenses, animal pelts, item saving throws, overland movement (mounted and non-), morale and loyalty, x.p. for magic items, two weapon fighting, cost for NPC spell use, negative hit points...and probably a couple other things I'm forgetting at the moment. However, it's been a LOT more than my B/X and OD&D games of recent years...enough so that I've found myself prepping (i.e. reading and researching) my DMG many mornings, trying to stay "ahead of the curve" for the coming exploits of the day (we're still on vacation over here).

It's been glorious

Part of this I'll credit to the adventure module I'm using: UK2 The Sentinel (by Graeme Morris) is pretty good, really showcasing a lot of the bits and pieces from the AD&D game that sometimes gets glossed over. Illusionist magic, ingestive poisons, humanoid shamans, disease, wilderness movement through multiple terrain types, and a profound lack of ready-made NPC hirelings...all these things have forced me to re-familiarize myself with stuff I haven't thought about in years. And I admit I've quite missed the potential for this level of detail.

But the other part has just been trying to find ways to make sure my inexperienced players are getting an even break. For a low-level adventure, The Sentinel has many difficult parts...especially considering the number of encounters requiring magical weapons. Those perytons are pretty much unavoidable, and they are vicious, vicious creatures...their +2 attack bonus means they hit like a troll, and they average 10 damage per attack. Morris seems to be assuming that most parties will have a several magic weapons by the time they reach the encounter (unavoidable, as said, because of its location); the module's "suggested character roster" includes four permanent magic weapons, a quiver of magic arrows, and a wand of magic missiles. My players didn't have a single magic item prior to starting the adventure, despite being 2nd level. 

Still, they've somehow managed to muddle through.

[*24 hours later*]

A half day of gaming later, and the kids are STILL alive, though they did lose another henchperson. Actually, they're quite well: the halfling has advanced to level 3rd / 4th (or will have once she completes her training) the party has acquired a second magic weapon (a hand axe +1) and the henchwoman magic-user secured TWO new spell books.

Money remains an issue. Total party wealth is just under 2,700 gold pieces, much of which is tied up in high priced gems and jewelry. This is a problem because the territory of Berghoff (the module's mini-sandbox) consists of a half dozen small villages, most with less than 500 inhabitants) doesn't have the kind of infrastructure to change treasure for currency. Of course, there's little to buy in these towns anyway and (or more pressing concern to the players) little manpower of "adventuring" variety to be hired. That supply has been nearly exhausted...the elf (my son's character) is making the 100 mile roundtrip journey to the farthest northern town ("Hallbridges") in hopes of finding more mercenaries. Rough.

It's just interesting (amusing?) because I can vividly recall conversations with players back when I was running a B/X campaign about how "useless" treasure was because there was "nothing to buy." Huh. Well, even in a town that boasts little in the way of shops or goods, there's always something to spend money on. Sofia's character hasn't gotten around to buying a cart yet, but it's only a matter of time (she's purchased one in every game we've played prior - Holmes, B/X, and OD&D - so there's no reason to think she won't eventually get around to it). And the hiring and equipping of henchmen has turned into nearly as big a cash sink as training costs.

Which is great! Because it keeps the party hungry and on the move

That being said, it's pushing me to fill out more of my "campaign world." The kids have gotten to a point where they need larger population centers (which I don't have). They've been unable to find the thief an actual trainer in these little villages (doubling the halfling's training time) and now they're asking where they can find a cleric capable of raising the dead. I have no answers for these queries. But I will...eventually...and I'm looking forward to seeing where the AD&D process takes me.

Problem's been, it's been hard to get a "breather" just to plan that far ahead. But (as of today) "vacation" has ended and the kids are back in school (much as they can be) and I should have time to fill in some of these gaps. Maybe even put together some cheat sheets to help me with run the game without all the page flipping...a few playing aids would go a long way to improving the game's delivery. 

But we're enjoying ourselves. I'm enjoying myself. I'm not worrying about the fiddly-ness or weirdness of the rules; I'm just trying to run them. And so far, challenging or not, the game has been a pleasure to run.  I forgot just how much I like this edition. 

All right, that's it for now. Kid needs my laptop.

[by the way, the title of this post comes from the fact that we've now been required to use the infamous unarmed combat rules from the AD&D DMG on multiple occasions...and it's worked! That is to say, excess fiddle aside, it doesn't derail the game, and it's fairly fun (watching the halfling throw herself against the legs of a half-orc and bounce off was darn amusing). In my youth, I used the much simplified unarmed rules found in the Unearthed Arcana, but that was mostly because they were easier to parse; since I'm older, wiser, and definitely not inclined to open the UA these days, the DMG version seems just fine]

***posted Tuesday due to unforeseen computer delays***