Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Off the Rails

As I'm sure I've written before, the problem with not posting for a month (or more) is that the brain keeps working and the ideas/concepts keep accumulating and you end up with a bunch of random detritus you want to talk about and no good way to organize it into something manageable.


Ah, well. Guess I'll start with the title.

The AD&D game with my kids continues (sporadically) and they're doing fine and still rather enthusiastic about the game. But (of course there was going to be a but, right?) I'm having...um..."issues." It's not the system, or the complexity, or the rate of advancement, or the game "tone" that's bothering me. Nor is it the attention to detail or the depth of simulation which (despite adhering to the rather abstract AD&D rules) is (still) pretty deep. All that is well and good. 

It's just that...mm...the thing lacks "magic."

How to put this...hmm. An idea came into my head a few days ago; an idea that took the form of a couple questions and a couple answers. For the benefit of my readers (and my own sanity), I'll go ahead and type 'em out so they stop rumbling around my noggin:

  1. Why did Gygax end up adding so many new spells to (the original) D&D rules, beginning with the Greyhawk booklet ("supplement 1")?
  2. Why did Gygax end up adding so many new monsters to the game (see Fiend Folio and the Monster Manual 2 for plentiful examples).

I have come to believe that the answer to both these questions is: because he needed to.

After all the work I've done over the last 11+ years of writing this blog, I consider myself something of an expert on the B/X edition of D&D, and a passingly knowledgable mind when it comes to OD&D as well as other "basic" editions of the game. With regard to AD&D, however, I barely scratch "journeyman" status...yes, I can run the game just fine using the core three books, even down to running an unarmed combat with the system given in the DMG. I can parse out the initiative sequence and make use of speed factors and whatnot, I can locate drowning rules and wilderness travel rates, and have a good head for encumbrance and what constitutes "bulky" armor. I've got a handle on the basics of the game.

But I don't know everything. Not in a truly comprehensive way, not by a long shot. Not in a way that allows me to take in and digest the game as a whole and manufacture something that makes use of its various nuances. 

This became readily apparent to me when I was listening to last week's Grogtalk podcast (their "Valentine Special").  The use of two monsters from the MM2 in their playtest adenture (the "annis hag" and the "stench kow") completely threw me for a loop...despite having owned the book for decades, I had no idea that these creatures were even "a thing," and simply assumed that the monsters in Carlos Lising's game had been specifically created from whole cloth for the module. Not so; Carlos was utilizing the AD&D resources that he's become familiar with over decades of constant AD&D play. Then there was the (frankly hilarious) discussion of various hybrid creatures and PCs that took place over the last 40 minutes or so of the special (interbreeding and "love connections" being part of the Valentine theme)...it raised all sorts of valid questions like: Just why the hell are there half-elves in the game anyway? All issues of disparate cultures aside, the sheer magnitude of longevity difference between the species makes any sort of romantic relationship incredibly unlikely. What elf wants to marry (or dally with) a human whose lifespan isn't even a tenth of her own? What elven parent wants a child that will age and die before she's even reached middle age

Kind of crazy...once you consider it. Which I hadn't. Because I'd been too intent just running the game.

And that's the thing. Focusing on the simple nuts and bolts of the system and the game world...things like halberd formations and goblin motivations and market economics has been a "drill down" that sacrifices the forest for the trees. Resulting in a game that has been interesting and (in its way) "logical," but lacking in magic. Not magical items or wizards per se (though both these things have, to date, been rare in the game)...I'm talking about the magic of playing a fantasy game in a fantasy world. Not going gonzo and nonsensical but certainly "off the rails" more than negotiating relations between humanoid tribes and the local human garrison. Jesus, this is a game that contains the Machine of Lum the Mad for goodness sake! Shouldn't it be a bit wilder than the step-and-fetch (or seek-and-destroy) of a 5E scenario?

[wondering what I'm talking about? Check out the 5E "Essentials Kit" for examples. Here's one: take a message to a logging camp. Fight some ankhegs. Return for a reward. Go to an apothecary hermit with a message. Fight a manticore. Return for a reward. That kind of thing...]

It brings me back around to those questions above (and my presumed answers for them). Gygax didn't just add astral projection and gate to the spell list of Greyhawk just because he wanted to fatten the page count, nor did he throw owlbears and beholders into the book just for the sake of creating new intellectual property. Things like probability travel, nightmares and devils, liches and golems, artifacts and relics...these were things that were used...they weren't just added to show "what is possible" or define parameters of the game or "fill in niches" (like aquatic elves or evil dwarves). Rather, these things were practical content, used to enrich the game being played at the table. These things...just like assassins guilds and psionics and level drain and (yes, even) alignment language...these things that seem wily-nilly, half-baked, and off-the-cuff (i.e. poorly thought out) aren't just there for kitchen sink, 31 flavors, pick-and-choose your poison. They ARE the game. 

Setting limitations and toning down the weirdness is a bit of a disservice. 

That's why, I think (maybe), my recent experiences have seemed to lack "magic;" the scenarios created in UK2 The Sentinel and UK3 The Gauntlet and B2 The Keep on the Borderlands are far too reasonable; it is far too easy to assign real world analogies, motivations, and "naturalism" to them. These adventures are dealing with banditry and sieges and diaspora and treachery and colonialism...dammit, that's all just too "normal" for the campaign to feel like a D&D game. Where are the giant magic statues? Where are the subdued dragons being used as mounts? Where are the sentient blobs and oozes looking to melt your face off?

There's not enough "dungeon" in my Dungeons & Dragons game...and I'm not talking about some sort of absurd, dozen level mega-dungeon. Been watching a lot of History Channel this last year with the Search for Yamashita's Gold and the Curse of Oak Island and all that jazz: finding subterranean treasure chamber's in our real world is hard, dangerous work and it should be even more so (with suitably bumped up rewards) in a fantasy adventure game. In D&D, Howard Carter would have had to deal with actual magic curses (and probably undead monsters) before he could recover King Tut's treasure because that's the game. I haven't been giving that part of the campaign enough attention. 

I realize there are those people who, upon reading this post, will reflect that my issues relate to the pre-fabricated source material I've been using for my campaign, and that's a fair point to bring up. While the main reason for using these adventures has been a matter of convenience (my time for producing adventure material is pretty scarce) and familiarity, I suppose I could be choosing different modules...except that many end up in the same category of mundanity when scrutinized. Certainly I'd throw the Slaver series (especially A1 and A2) into the same pot, the Giant series (though giants are neat, they're still just big humanoids), and even Dwellers of the Forbidden City (not enough snake-folk to make the thing truly strange). The Special series (S1-S4) clearly fits the bill of what I'm looking for, but those adventures are all designed for higher level characters than what my players have...all the low-level stuff is uncovering cultists and rooting out bandits and fighting goblins. 

Ugh. Simply not good enough. And maybe I'M not good enough (or not familiar enough) with AD&D to design myself out of this funk that I seem to be digging for myself.

[if you think THIS post is ranty, you should have seen the one on the draft board that was never posted. This is my attempt at being "thoughtful"]

Anyhoo, that's where my head's at (with regard to gaming) at the moment. Just to be clear, I'm not of the opinion that "all hope is lost;" the campaign is still in its early stages and I think there's plenty of time/space to inject some "magic" into the thing, but it'll probably require me taking my eye and focus off the mundane aspects of the campaign/system, and instead shift to the strange(r) aspects inherent in the game. Heck, I'm even considering bringing back cosmic (capital-E) Evil...despite all the handwringing over alignment, it does provide some shape to the cosmology of the game.

[perhaps in a later post I'll talk about how that lack of "shape" ends up requiring a lot of rewriting of system when one starts needing to justify souls and spirits and raise dead with regard to different game species (like elves)...systems that provide balance and necessary checks to the game. Pull one thread and the whole thing starts to unravel...]

Too bad there're no gnomes in the party; would really love to introduce some talking squirrels or woodchucks into the mix. What ancient secrets could they reveal!   ; )

All right, that's enough for now. We're still on mid-winter break in the JB household, and while the snow from "Snowmageddon 2021" distracted us for a couple-three days (building forts and snowmen and having snowball fights) things have warmed up enough to slush-ify most of it. As such, our gaming has moved indoors, and I'm nearly certain we'll have a chance for some more campaign crawling once the kids are up and breakfasted. Maybe. We still have a pretty solid game of Axis & Allies (& Zombies) going on from last night. More info to follow.

Later Gators.


  1. The Keep on the Borderlands is too blah for me now. My go to intro module is now In Search of the Unknown for its gonzo bits.


  2. I think the answer to #1, honestly, is that he had more spells developed at that point. Years of play had resulted in players controlling spellcasters creating their own spells. This is why the books talk about magic users creating their own spells, but never give you an actual system for doing it. I'm sure there's also quite a few that people had sent him in the mail, and some that he developed himself while designing the AD&D game line.

    I think you're correct on Monster Manual II, but Fiend Folio and Unearthed Arcana are pretty widely accepted as "TSR was failing financially and Gary was trying to save the company".

  3. I havent read them in awhile but i feel both UK 4 When a Star Falls and UK 6 Dark Clouds Gather both fall into a bit more magical teritory though the later is a bit if a railroad. Still its got the PC fighting winged monkeys from a giant flying manta ray.

    Personaly I like my fantasy grounded and low magic so I can keep society more like the real world and not have it be totaly unrecognizable. Magic users are rare, elves only live 150 years or so, the church is a unified organization that peiple respect, ect.

    I get rubbed the wrong way by how much magic is in 5E. Almost ever class knows magic but somehow things are still medieval feeling and not totaly gonzo like they should be.

    The essentials kit is basicaly DnD designed to mimic a video game. Job board, fetch quests, ect. Complete Garbage.

  4. Yes... Well, I'm DMing for my kids too. They're wondefully imaginative and also mostly clueless about what to do. Railroad is unfortunately easy to default to.

    Axis and Allies and... Zombies! O_o

    1. To be clear, my "off the rails" title has nothing to do with railroad plotting or "illusionism" (as some designers might call it). My kids generally make their own choices based on what's going on in the immediate (imaginary) game environment and their situation. Fortunately, I haven't had to resort to any "railroading!"

      When I wrote the title of the post I was thinking more along the lines of the Ozzy song "Crazy Train," i.e. I need to be a bit less staid and normal in my fantasy. Sorry if that was confusing.

      AA&Z is actually a pretty cool and interesting game...the zombies throw a serious monkey wrench into one's strategy. Because I was partnered with my six year old (who played Japan...poorly), I spent most of the game getting my teeth kicked in by the Allies, and by the end I was actually CULTIVATING the zombie apocalypse in order to force a "tie" scenario (if the zombies take enough IPCs, everyone loses). I felt like I was really in the role of the Mad Fuhrer, trying to burn the world down about me! Fortunately, the Allies were able to take Berlin before I could complete my grand design...
      ; )