11 Apr

Points of Experience: Square Roots

A later incarnation of our old AD&D battle board.

In the earliest days of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, my gaming group relied on the descriptions of the DM and the players to track positions in combat. During intense moments, a character sheet would be flipped over and rough sketches would outline positions (and, over time, provide a record of battles gone by). You knew where you were, and where your allies were, or you paid the price for it. If you snoozed through the fighter and the ranger charging into hand to hand combat and decided to throw a fireball at the orc patrol, you’d better be sure you killed the fighter and ranger as well because there was going to be hell to pay if they lived… Put another way, there were no “take-backs.” You were responsible for knowing what was going on.

Movement and range was expressed in inches, a holdover from the game’s roots as a tabletop wargame, but these became 10’s of feet or yards, depending on whether the party was indoors or outside. As I recall, we eventually did away with the yards, treating everything as feet. After all, nothing really changed mechanically because you were supposed to keep spell effects in feet whether you were inside or out. I’m getting mad just thinking about the math so, rest assured, I’m glad we were all about feet.

How did I survive a childhood playing with toys made of lead? Easy. I didn't eat my toys.

At some point, though, we opted for more complexity in combat. While intended to do away with the occasional dispute over who was standing where, it also ushered in a new layer of tactical thinking in combat. (And my early D&D group was extremely tactically minded.) I believe the solution came in the form of a grid drawn on a wooden board with a sheet of Plexiglas or clear plastic placed over it for using colored markers on. This, combined with a handful of lead figures and a box of wooden “barrels” became the foundation of our combats.

"I see one gnoll. He might be a sentry."

The wooden barrels were available, cheaply, from a local craft store and were sized perfectly to fit in the gridlines of our battle board. They represented everything from kobolds to hell hounds. A few of them were stained a different color to represent leaders, NPCs, and other exceptional troops. Despite the proxy-like nature of the barrels, I don’t recall ever being unable to imagine my foes’ appearances in my head. I never felt like I was fighting barrels and when I pointed to one I’d say, “I’m attacking this gnoll” without any sort of disconnect occurring. As a tool, they worked exceedingly well.

Some foes, however, got the royal treatment. The worst villains and most dangerous foes often got a special figure. It was an important moment when a particular miniature was placed on the battle board because it signified a turning point or even the climax of an adventure. One could argue that it was meta-gaming to see a special figure and know that the ensuing fight would likely call for the majority of your resources. But I would add that every fight was potentially life-threatening and every single one received the party’s full effort. Casualties were high enough before the special figures came out.

By the time later editions made tactical movement part of the rules, I had unfortunately moved away from my original group. Other than during all-too-infrequent visits, I never got to see later iterations of the rules put into play there. But, in my own experience, the mechanics played out in a very similar fashion to what we had been doing all along. While there were no attacks of opportunity, we ruled that disengaging from melee allowed your foe a “free hack” against you. If an ally was adjacent to you, he could cover your retreat, preventing the parting shot, if you spent your full round moving away from your opponent.

"Use your imagination, Luke."

There’s a part of me that considers tactical movement a fundamental aspect of the game, but as one that developed through house rules. The battle board was a tool to play a game, not the game itself. It was a means to continuously and collectively agree on positions as the rounds progressed but the action still took place in my imagination. If someone removed the board from the table, I could still carry on with combat as if nothing had changed and, to a point, could picture the battle even clearer in my mind (even if what I imagined wasn’t precisely the same as the players around me).

I recently had the opportunity to return home and play some D&D with my old group. They’re playing Pathfinder these days and tactical movement is as important as ever. The battle board has been taken to a new level with a ring of numbers surrounding the grid for tracking initiatives and spell durations. There’s a box on hand filled with the D&D figures put out by WotC over the years. But when there aren’t enough of a particular creature in the box (or when there’s just too much digging going on to find the right monster) out come the barrels. I never realized how much I missed them.

6 Apr

Points of Experience: Off the Grid

“Does my Robe of Eyes help?”

At some point, my brain transitioned from 10-foot squares to 5-foot squares. Paging through old rulebooks, I can’t help but guess that it happened when Third Edition D&D arrived. Prior to that, my mind projected rooms in 10 x 10 blocks. And it didn’t really matter all that much.

For the most part, combat occurred through description. I knew I was toe-to-toe with the clay golem because I told the DM that I was closing into melee combat. And I knew the magic-user (to date myself) was far behind me because he announced that he wasn’t entering the chamber but instead was lingering in the doorway. And the thief was somewhere on the opposite side of the golem, towards the as-yet unexplored passageway, making sure nobody was coming to investigate all the noise. And when spiders descended from the ceiling on all of us, we realized that a) each of us now had a melee opponent we hadn’t planned on and b) our torch didn’t illuminate all the way to the top of the arching ceiling when we first entered the room.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not staunchly against battlemats and tactical combat. (As you’ll read later, my old group actually employed such a thing in AD&D.) In fact, I became a fan of the dynamic nature of 4E’s combat and the fact that people did more than stand next to their opponent trading d20’s. I’m overstating the point a bit there, but I really did like the fact that combat could turn into the rolling, whirling melee that crashed across dungeon features and smashed through a tavern’s newly replaced barroom furniture.

I’ve always liked hearing, “I charge the rogue with my sword over my head but at the last minute turn and hit him with my shoulder to knock him into the fireplace!” Unfortunately, I started getting, “I move through these four squares –no, wait, these four squares to avoid attacks of opportunity- and use my Frosted Mountain Goat Romp to push this miniature through both squares of the fireplace so he takes fire damage twice.”

I know, I know. I say “KO-bold” and you say “ko-BOLD.” But I really feel like the first description is a character taking action while the second is a player moving his game piece. Neither is wrong. It’s a matter of play-style and preference. But for me, I play board games on a different night than RPG’s (unless we get a low turnout). I like the action to be descriptive and to use my imagination to picture the burning rogue flailing across the bar. (He totally had it coming, by the way.)

If I have an actual criticism of the latter of the two approaches, it’s that it took too long for the player to find his Frosted Mountain Goat Romp power, to count his squares, to recount his squares when he realized he’d suffer attacks of opportunity, and finally to rethink where he wanted to push the target so it would somehow catch fire twice. The only upside is that everyone else had time to sort through their dozens of powers as well…

Now I’m being deliberately harsh here, I’ll admit. A great deal of this can be mitigated by speeding up players’ turns and adjudicating things like, “once on fire and done.” And, yes, I’m complaining about two different things at once, but they’re deeply interrelated to me. I want the player to tell the DM what he or she is doing, not have the power tell the player what he or she is doing.

For me, less map is often more. If I’m not counting squares, I can come up with creative plans and feel as though I’m participating in the battle rather than pushing miniatures around. (Like board games, miniatures war games have their own separate time to get played with.) Friends recently reminded me about a battle with a beholder (in AD&D) and I can’t think we would have come up with the same “solution” in 4E…

Scouting ahead, the thief spotted a beholder guarding a chamber we need to cross. The save-or-die nature of his attacks left us all dreading the encounter. We’d struggled to reach the levels we were at and nobody was keen to stake their life on barrage of saving throws. After a (potentially flawed) discussion, we rounded up the doors from many of the rooms we’d already explored, taking them off the hinges, and built a fold-up shield wall of doors. Advancing up the hall with our Jacobs’ Ladder of rope and doors, we would burst into the room and unfold our “ablative armor” as the party advanced behind cover to close the gap with the beholder! What could possibly go wrong?

“He seems pissed. I think we’ll need more doors.”

Round one and two proceed according to plan as we burst into the room and unfold our shield, followed by a round of the beholder holding back (probably because his mind was completely blown by what he was seeing). Then round three brought the bad news: the center door disintegrates, and the left flank is torn away by telekinesis. Shouts of “Retreat!” resound through the halls as we flee in disarray, leaving a pile of doors in the center of the room.

So, yes, for all my espousing “creativity” the idea still failed. But it remains more memorable than many battles that took place “on the grid.” As I’ve been typing, I’ve tried to recall a moment when the grid is what made a combat exciting: “Remember that time there was a one square gap between those two fire giants and the whole party double-moved between them because they were last in the initiative order?” Nope, nothing comes to mind.

But, before you think I hate battle maps, I’ll tell you that my next post is about how important they can be. Like I said earlier, we were using a grid for movement back when things were expressed in inches, and that could mean feet or yards, depending on whether you were indoors or outside… see, there’s plenty I’m happy to be rid of from the old days.

5 Apr

Points of Experience: Level 1 Player

After my frenzied, youthful foray into my D&D Boxed sets it was time to get serious. Through the proverbial “friend of a friend,” I garnered an invitation to a D&D group. Now obviously I’d been playing with other people before this point, but they were friends. I knew we already had common interests and we’d been hanging out long before D&D came along.

"I had 1d4 hit points once!"

But now I was headed into a situation where the game was the unifying force. Other than that, I’d be sitting in a roomful of strangers. More nerve-wracking still was the fact that I was the youngest by several years. These were high school kids! And they played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons! I got dropped off with my new Players Handbook and Dungeon Masters Guide along with a fresh set of dice (the fancy crystal kind with the razor-sharp edges). I wanted to make a good impression after all.

It was a “tossed in the deep end” experience. I was given the rundown on how they rolled characters and told once I was done I’d be inserted into the story. Play proceeded without me while I frantically scribbled numbers and filled my spellbook. When I was done, my character sheet was passed the length of the table to the DM (who had an official AD&D screen, rather than a barrier of early module covers paper-clipped together). He nodded and complimented the character sheet I was using. (I think it was an early Armory sheet, a descendent of countless photocopies and dittos, its lineage lost to time.)

After meeting the party in the wilderness with a minimum of exposition, we were shortly fighting for our lives against a swarm of humanoids. (I’ll say “goblins” and pretend my memory is what it used to be.) The party was coordinating their attacks, supporting one another, and I felt like the stereotypical private, fresh off the helo with the world exploding around him. It was a big group, at least seven players at the time, and it was easy to get lost in the noise.

I fired off a magic missile but it was met with groans of disappointment when I targeted a “fresh” goblin rather than one that was hovering near 0 hit points, meaning there would be one more attack against us on their round. One more attack against me, really. And it was only a miracle of poor damage rolls that I kept my feet. My 3 starting hit points (yes, you read that right) absorbed the two 1-point hits. The well-drilled party dispatched the surviving goblins in the following round.

With the fury of battle over, the cleric dispensed a couple of cure light wounds to the injured, starting with the fighters. One extra healing spell was held in reserve for a potential future encounter. It was deemed a waste to spend 1d8 points of healing on a magic-user who only needed 2 hit points to return to full. I was too embarrassed by my performance in combat to point out that those 2 points would be a 200% increase on my current state…

We tracked the goblins to a camp and waited for them to bed down before attacking in the hopes of making our attack easier. Unfortunately the thief’s lackluster move silently roll must have tipped them off because, when the party advanced, the goblins leapt from their bedrolls and attacked. Our ambush had been ambushed and the tide quickly turned against us. The cleric and fighters were injured early in the fight and the thief seemed to finally be succeeding at his hide in shadows rolls in an effort to be the sole survivor.

"Dart-proof since 1977."

After several ineffective fusillades of darts, I was crouched behind a tree with the wounded cleric. One of the fighters went down, meaning the other would quickly be mobbed. Wearing heavy armor, there was no chance the cleric could cover the distance to the downed character and administer a cure light wounds before being cut down. I eyed my 1 remaining hit point. I assessed my 10 armor class. I had a pretty good idea of how this would end, but at least I had double the cleric’s movement rate.

I ran forward for the fallen fighter and tried to drag him back towards the cleric. What I didn’t take into account was my disappointingly average strength. His dead weight and gear meant I only made it halfway back with the bleeding warrior in tow. My heroism was rewarded with a half-dozen goblin spears in my back. But now both bodies were close enough to the cleric, both near death. The cleric sprinted forward and cast his final healing spell into the fighter. It was enough to turn the tide, although barely. I think one of our other fighters still ended up dying (along with me).

Two encounters in and I’d already managed to die. This would likely affect my first impression. I worried I might not even be asked back. But I ended up celebrated as a hero as I had managed to save (with the cleric’s help) the highest level character in the party. And it was only a first level magic-user who was lost, anyway… apparently, that was a job well done! As an added bonus, my corpse was propped up at the campsite to lure other unsuspecting goblins while the party concealed themselves nearby. Not exactly a hero’s send off.

I debated another class but the party encouraged me to try a magic-user again. After all, they didn’t have one (due to the high mortality rate) but knew that one would pay off down the road at higher levels. This time when the random wizard showed up, the party schemed a little prior to the next fight and incorporated the new character into their tactics. I did a lot of dart throwing from cover and nursed my magic missile until I spied a foe on the brink of death before casting. In dungeons, my burning hands actually proved decisive at times. However, once I was “tapped” I was under strict orders to keep back in the hopes that I would survive to see level 3. Or even level 5!

Despite the initial movements towards acceptance, it was still a tense experience for a pre-teen eager for the approval of peers. In a very serious tone at the end of the session, the DM pulled me aside and said I really shouldn’t have my Dungeon Masters Guide with me at the table if I was a player. It wasn’t a huge deal, he said, just a house rule, but something to keep in mind for next week.

Next week… “So you want me back?” Of course, he said, you didn’t do anything wrong, you knew the rules just not the party’s tactics, but you’ll learn. And I did. And whenever I sit down at a new table, I still do.

2 Apr

Points of Experience: Thinking Inside the Box

"This is my game. There are many like it, but this one is mine."

I think I got my D&D Basic Set for my ninth birthday. Truthfully, I don’t think my parents even fully understood what they were buying me, only that I had learned to play a game from a friend at school and I was really excited about it. Upon opening the box, I was determined to play immediately and while my mother looked through the box for a game board and my father tried digesting the rulebook, I was already telling them how orcs had been pillaging the countryside and they were the heroes sent to deal with the raiders in their cavernous lair.

I can’t say I remember much of the game, really. But I’m certain I hardly looked at the rulebook and barely had a grasp of the mechanics. And I had a great time! (Meanwhile, my parents fell victim to the kobolds’ pit trip, just like countless “young” adventurers that delved there, before and since.) I finally had a way to tell all of the stories that sprung into my head after I put down A Wrinkle in Time or The Hobbit and turned off the light. And not only that, I could bring people with me into those stories. The Basic Set was, to me, the Never-Ending Gobstopper of toys!

Needless to say, the few written records that remain of those early adventures are cringe-worthy. But the same can be said for any writer’s work in the beginning. (I see countless parallels between writing and D&D but those are topics for another article.) Dragons made frequent, carnage-inflicting visits upon my friends but treasure hordes showered the heroes with gold and +8 swords. Yes, +8 swords. Because if it’s cool to find a +1 sword and way cooler to find a +2 sword… well, imagine how cool it is to find one that’s +8. (How cool is it? Ice cold!)

There was absolutely no balance there. There didn’t need to be. We were all telling our stories. A dragon overpowers the party and the one survivor lives on to tell the tale and seek revenge; the fallen are remembered even as the former players of those characters eagerly advance their replacements after punishing the dragon and forcing its hobgoblin minions to carry their newly won treasure back to town. In a capricious moment the king is beheaded by a +8 sword and a character takes the throne before a horrified audience of courtesans (and fellow players!) declaring the throne belongs to whoever can take it. A disintegrate spell (by now we had the Expert Boxed Set) brings a sudden and unfortunate end to his reign. Things were absurd. They were out of control. But we never noticed, never cared. We were too busy having fun.

Looking back fondly upon old editions of Dungeons & Dragons is frowned upon in some circles. For others it the only way to practice orthodox D&D. I’ve never owned a pair of rose-colored glasses so I’m not sure what all the fuss is about really. I remember very little from those early rulebooks. I would have to look before I could tell you what die to roll for a fighter’s hit points and I’ve long since forgotten the THACO charts I once had memorized.

But I can tell you where that pit trap is in the Caves of Chaos. I can tell you that the building contractor hired by Roghan the Fearless and Zelligar the Unknown probably made a lot of gold on change orders. I know that the king is never safe from a chaotic PC and that a dragon will show up whenever it wants.

I’ve never fallen in love with a particular set of rules. I fell in love with a game. If rose-colored glasses work anything like the x-ray specs sold in the backs of old comics, I could look inside my old boxed set and see what it really came with: six dice, a white crayon, and a 64-page permission slip that said we could do whatever we wanted.