21 Sep

Review: Frank Mentzer’s Lich Dungeon Level 1

Frank Mentzer's Lich DungeonThe OSR movement has been quietly swelling, to the point where it’s less and less quiet, really. OSR, or Old School Roleplaying (or Revival, or Renaissance, depending on who you ask) delves into the earliest dungeons and their straightforward philosophy of slay the monsters, pillage the loot, abide by the rules only as necessary, but have as much absurd fun as possible. For those who picked up and cast their dice in the 70’s, there’s nothing new about this mindset. But gamers who believe in the bipartisan Pathfinder versus 4E split as the foundation of gaming might be surprised by what they find in the origin story of “their” game and Frank Mentzer’s role. Continue reading

6 Sep

Dungeon Master Tips – BYOB Means Bring Your Own Background

Neon Bar SignThe Dungeon Master usually has a lot on his or her plate. I know that I usually have maps to make, dungeons to stock, NPCs to name, and plots to devise. And, when it comes to the “big maps” such as the world, or even a prominently featured city, I often hand wave the details until they are immediately necessary.

For example, I never keep a list of the exact businesses that are present in a given settlement. I just determine if what a player is looking for is available if they ask. Plainly, it saves a lot of time because then I didn’t fully develop the cobbler’s shop and give him a cool back story only to discover that nobody in the party was not in need of footwear repair. That’s time I could have spent on a location they were more likely to visit. Continue reading

5 Jul

Vote of Confidence

I’ve discussed a character’s right to survive in a previous entry. But what about the right to succeed? Generally, the two go hand in hand for most players. It tends to turn many Dungeons & Dragons’ groups into suicide squads with orders to succeed or die trying. In many of my groups, retreat was a rarely-considered option. A fellow DM, on the other hand, mentioned that his players frequently fell back, to regroup and reconsider, whenever the going got tough.

Come on 20!
Sometimes you don’t get to win. But, who knows? He might roll a natural twenty.

Players can fail at something without dying, though. An escaped mastermind or a ritual that was not stopped in time becomes an obvious springboard for the next adventure. And those things can carry consequences that demonstrate that the characters’ actions play a role in shaping the world. But this doesn’t take player morale into consideration. Note, that’s player morale, not character morale. The actual players around the table can wear down under failure.

Needless to say, this depends a great deal on the players in question and what their expectations are. It is vital in determining those expectations to understand the question: What is a hero? (I’m assuming the campaign is based around the “good guys,” and I’ll save the evil campaign discussion for a later date.) The answers from around the table, including the DM’s answer, points the way to keeping player morale up.

For some players, the hero is the character who proceeds despite adversity. He faces every challenge down, win or lose, and it is that willingness that makes him a hero. The outcome of each showdown does not define him. Getting outsmarted by the villain or retreating from a horde of foes does not nullify the character’s hero status. Instead, getting up and dusting himself off reinforces that status.

For other players, the hero is the character who succeeds despite adversity. It’s a subtle distinction, but a crucial one. She is defined by victory. If she loses to the villain, her hero status is negated. Conflict needs to be regulated with her inevitable victory in mind.

Protagonist Fail.
Wait, there’s a 3rd kind of “hero.” Succeeding despite stagnation.

Just as vital as the answer to the question “What is a hero?” is the honesty in that answer. And experience sometimes proves it out better than the vocalized answer. I think most players claim to want to proceed despite adversity. They want to believe that when they are on the ropes they can bounce back. Their player morale is still affected by losses, particularly back-to-back losses, but they press ahead to bolster their heroic status and seek to turn the tide.

Despite the claim of wanting to proceed despite adversity, some players need to succeed despite adversity. An accumulation of failures undermines their heroic nature and just being against the ropes is demoralizing. Where conflict is fun for the previous type of player, fun rests in victory here.

As in all things at the D&D table, the solution rests in the balance point between the DM and the players. Much like polling the players for the level of lethality sought from the game, it’s important to gauge the resilience (or fragility) of the table’s morale. Answers to the “What is a hero?” question are key, but should also be taken with a grain of salt. And it may not be consistent among the players. Just like adjudicating the rules, the DM needs to adjudicate the levels of success.

Obviously, major quests succeed or fail based on the actions of the party overall. But sowing success in the form of easier to defeat monsters at times or simple to unravel schemes on the part of the villains go a long way to bolster flagging morale along the way. Is this “grading on a curve?” I used to think so, but there’s really no point in handing out F’s if the primary goal of the table, fun, isn’t being met. Over the years, my DM style has slowly shifted, and it continues to shift based on my own experiences and those of other DMs, either through play or conversation.

More and more, I find myself adjusting elements on the fly by gauging the players’ reactions as they occur. So long as I apply those adjustments consistently, I feel the role of the DM as arbitrator remains intact. The only place that the illusion of a threat becomes genuinely visible, in the hands of a capable DM, is behind the screen. And if studying the various schools of magic has taught anything, it’s that illusions can prove just as challenging as the dangers they depict.

29 Jun

Kickstart the Weekend: Pens, Swords, and Anvils

So it’s been nearly a month since I told you how you should spend your money. Well, other than buying my stuff, anyhow. Here’s a diverse selection of interesting and noteworthy projects in the works. Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s also Sangria Friday.

Artwork from the AD&D Rogue’s Gallery

AD&D Rogues Gallery
This was, hands down, the thief from my old AD&D group!

I was talking to someone after my appearance at the York Emporium about some of the “lost treasures” of the early days of D&D. Several artists have set out to recreate some of the artwork from those days (apparently, there was a “purge” conducted at certain corporate offices when space was at a premium). Jeff Dee is tackling the old Rogue’s Gallery and those images tweak my sense of nostalgia just a little. Now’s your chance to get some signed copies of those iconic images.

Clang

I’m all for games where my angry physical exertion creates a game effect! Don’t get me wrong, my first love is still the steady trigger pull on a perfectly executed rifle shot in a solid FPS. But there are times when my rage must be given form and motion. Hopefully Clang will make that a reality. Plus, I like Neal Stephenson. And the video made me laugh.

Tabletop Forge

Tabletop ForgeYup, they hit some stretch goals already so they don’t need your support. But you still might want to get in on this action. I have to say I’m pretty impressed with it, and that has a lot to do with the fact that they aren’t trying to do too much. Instead, it’s giving me the tools to create what I need without shoving me into a box with predefined actions. It’s lean and functional, and I actually like that it’s a part of Google+. (If you think Google+ is stupid, please keep thinking that. I want it to stay as nice as it is…)

31 May

Minor Divination: Indecent Disclosure, Part 2

Wine pour
"Not sure what I think of it yet. Just keep pouring more glasses."

Upon reading the first iteration of the “Friends & Family” playtest set of rules for Dungeons & Dragons I was shocked. It reminded me of AD&D but also of Basic D&D, my old, familiar boxed set. At least, it did while I was reading it. When I was done reading it, there were still hints of 3E (and, yes, that’s means 3.5) and a subtle 4E finish. Having previously sampled those vintages as well, the interplay of flavors was unmistakable. And, sticking my nose back into it, I couldn’t help but feel drawn back to a time when I played 2E.

But it didn’t feel like flesh golem of parts stolen from a variety of graveyards. It felt whole. Granted it wasn’t complete, but it wasn’t presented that way. Pieces were clearly missing but the playtest was clearly concerned with focusing on the core of the rules, the fundamentals that most people claim are immutable components of D&D: the six attributes, hit points, the stock races and classes, and so on. Beyond that, it borrowed upon the best elements of later editions but it wasn’t outright theft. The rules didn’t take healing surges wholesale and drop them in but approached them as a good idea that needed to be reworked and integrated into a new set of rules. And reworking them might make them unrecognizable to a devout 4E player as much as their very presence might shock an “old-school” gamer.

D&D Expert Rulebook
"You're my boy, Blue!"

I don’t think the goal of the game is to give everyone what they want. That’s clearly not possible, not because of the limits of game designers but because of the limits of human nature. Instead, I think the goal is to give everyone a new game that they can all play.

The biggest treasure to me was the de-crunching of the rules. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that solid rules are crucial to a well-designed game. But as a DM I like generalizations that I can adjust based on the circumstances. My style of play doesn’t really require a page of rules for each corner case that can arise at the table. Just because I can commit a set of rules to memory doesn’t mean that I want to. Because while a player is arguing that he can climb a wall underwater using his climbing modifiers instead of his swimming modifiers, we could have been advancing the story after a quick die roll. To me, the “white space” around the rules is what lets them breathe.

The most contentious part of the early iteration of the rules at my table was the lack of a battlemat. I’ll point out that this was a conscious choice, not because the rules didn’t allow for it. In fact, I could easily see how the rules could allow for it. But I wanted to jump back to the days before I had a mat in front of me, not because I don’t like them but because I wanted to see if I enjoyed it as much as I remembered. 4E became so tactical that it verged on tedious at times. (Without going off in that direction I’ll just say that it had a habit of miring players in minute decisions causing them to overlook any actual adventure taking place.)

The two most vocal responses at the table were almost diametrically opposed. One player felt immediately more immersed in the game and felt his imagination was much more engaged than it had been in a long time. Another felt severed from the action and activity of combat and any situational awareness his character might have. I could see both sides and, as a DM, experienced both sides. I gained the time to discuss spaces and plot more descriptively as players engaged with their environments more (What do I see when I look here? What about there?). And I lost time when I frequently had to reiterate positions in combat.

AD&D PHB Weapon Versus Armor Table
D&D Edition Color Blindness Chart: does this image appear rose-colored?

When things came to a head with an argument over two PCs’ positions I did feel like the game had come full-circle. It had been a long time since I’d seen that. And it’s precisely things like that that keep the rosy hue off the lenses of my glasses. I don’t kid myself that the good old days were all good. I just feel its important to test the old notions from time to time to determine if they’re still a good or bad fit moving forward. I think that’s what the playtesting is all about: dispensing with assumptions and making sure that when you put all the parts together they work and represent the best possible effort.

I’ve already talked Vancian magic, several times in fact, and I remain a fan. But there’s still more to come regarding the early playtest before I dip into the public playtest. And I might start using the battlemat again… at least some of the time.

10 May

Authorizing Lethal Force

Lana Del Rey
"Look, Lana, I'm just saying Constituion might not be the ideal dump stat."

In preparing one of my regular gaming groups for a new campaign, I decided to take an informal survey from around the table. Surveys are the new thing, by the way. Maybe you noticed. The goal was to ensure that we were all sitting down to play the same game. We were playing Dungeons & Dragons and we intended to keep playing Dungeons & Dragons, the real question was how we were going to play it? And this goes beyond the obvious question of 4th Edition or Pathfinder or something earlier (or the infamous playtest rules). Because, despite the rules used to govern the game, there are a varying series of conventions adopted by the players (and DM) around each table. Of particular interest to me was the mortality of heroes.

There is something distinctly un-heroic to me when heroes troop out to face the dragon with the knowledge that they face an optimally balanced encounter that only results in death in the most unlikely of circumstances. Moreover, is it anything close to heroic when they know that even if a string of bad rolls gets them killed, they can be saved by the story? While the first half of that anti-heroic condition is usually rooted in the mechanics of a system, the latter is a product of the DM.

For years, I’ve always asked a player who just went below zero hit points if his or her character was ready for death or if they were going to have it staved off by unknown forces. It wasn’t always a fair trade. Sometimes it cost money and Constitution, like the old days, but other times it led to conflict with (or service to) deities, curses, or the destruction of prized items. But the option existed and I permitted it. At my table, the back-story of a character was usually bound to the world and the campaign. The characters themselves were adventure hooks and players wanted to see their stories played out to the end. Death got in the way of that.

LtL Round
Sometimes, 0 hit points looks like this...

But that was the implicit convention adopted at the table. Everyone had the option so it remained “in balance.” And not everyone took the option. In fact, several players could almost always be counted on to immediately whip out a backup character from the pages of their notebook and be ready to carry on before the corpse of their previous character was even cold. As a DM, it also made life easy because I didn’t need to tie up too many loose ends, contrive ways that a random (yet apparently wholly trustworthy) character was found in the ultra-secure lich’s tower, or devise many new hooks.

40mm rounds
...other times, it's more like this.

After years of running the game this way, I feel the game of D&D that I play has traveled far from its origins. And I don’t just mean the fact that it’s been through several revisions of the rules but the fact that there is no genuine danger anymore. When a player is unhappy because he died after charging into an encounter that “clearly wasn’t balanced” the barrier of playing along is broken. For lack of genuine danger, a player’s responsibility becomes acting frightened when confronted with powerful foes, roleplaying a sense of mortality. More importantly, an expectation of enemy CRs falling within a prescribed range shouldn’t override common sense (unless you used Wisdom as your dump stat).

At this point, DMs of the old school and draconian varieties should be saying (in a rather judgmental tone, no doubt) that they’ve never had this problem because they’ve been playing by the rules. Fair enough. But I can’t even count the number of happy players that the use of less-than-lethal force produced, and not just because their character lived. In fact, the surviving character was a byproduct. The player usually just wanted to see their story come to an end. A dead character is like a good novel that you never get to read the last chapters of. I get that.

The key, of course, is to begin from the same line, hence the pre-game survey. The choice is simple: spend the campaign roleplaying fear and self-preservation or behave genuinely with the knowledge that there is actual risk involved in achieving rewards. As a player, I want to earn my accolades not receive a “Participant” trophy. As a DM, however, I want the make sure the players are getting what they want: fun.

I have to admit, they (pleasantly) surprised me. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go empty the rubber bullets from the shotgun and reload it. It’s game night.

3 May

Minor Divination: Reese’s Paradox

No Bulettes Allowed.
“Sci-fi only. Please take your fantasy and get out!” Artwork by Jeff Dee

I prefer science fiction. There, I’ve said it. I can provide no account of why, at least no more than I can explain my love of lobster. It would appear I’m just wired that way. I read far more science fiction than fantasy and I certainly prefer science fiction to fantasy in the few movies I go to see. I draw the line at television, however, where neither genre ever succeeds in engaging me enough to hold my attention for more than an episode or two.

On the heels of that confession, however, I should continue by saying that when it comes to roleplaying games I settle in most comfortably with fantasy. Dungeons & Dragons has remained my touchstone game since I first started playing RPG’s. When I think of gaming in general, I revert to a fantasy mindset. It might be rooted in the fact that D&D was my introduction to RPG’s and thus I’m a creature of habit. It could just as easily be as inexplicable as my love of science fiction stories.

Peanut butter in chocolate.
“Nice going! Now we both have to make Sanity checks!”

But my passion for the two genres in equal measure in separate directions would seem to lend itself to mashups of style. It doesn’t. A player in one of my groups is perpetually trying to sell me on bizarre settings. The exchange is a typically quick and brutal: 1) he accosts me with an absurd notion such as dragons in space or cowboys casting spells, 2) I roll my eyes and declare his words an abomination. (Despite the frequency of these exchanges, we remain friends.) I explain that when I was in the tiny, poorly stocked hobby shop in my old home town I saw the Spelljammer boxed set and grew physically ill at the very notion it conveyed. I want to scream with a certainty only my imagination can provide, “Magic is terrestrial!”

Of course, I am a complete and utter hypocrite. Second to D&D, Shadowrun is one of my favorite settings. And even it won me over after a glowing recommendation from someone else. Prior to that, I saw a troll carrying a gun, rolled my eyes and, per usual, declared “abomination.” Now two of my bookshelves actually bow under the weight of Shadowrun material. (In my defense, I will point out that magic remains terrestrial.)

Still, Dragonstar and Spelljammer hold no appeal for me (to my friend’s continued disappointment). And its nothing against the quality of the material. I’ve read it. I’ve genuinely enjoyed it. I just don’t want to adventure there. And, finally, I think I can offer an explanation for this particular personal taste. It goes back to Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. Be warned: there are (30 year old) spoilers ahead.

Expedition to the Barrier Peaks
It’s a spaceship. Also, Darth Vader is Luke’s father.

When I read S3 in preparation for running it, my mind was blown. I was young, relatively new to D&D, and had barely scratched the surface of what was possible. The idea that I could present the characters with something entirely unfamiliar to them, while simultaneously being tropes that are utterly familiar to the players, astounded me. It proved to be an incredible adventure. But the replay value suffered. Once you know you’re on a spaceship, know that you’re collecting keycards, and know you’re toting a laser gun the excitement fades a little. Still, we frequently played it, often as people decided it was time to forcibly retire a character.

More importantly, though, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks offered itself as the exception. Greyhawk wasn’t littered with spaceships (well, not too excessively anyway). I knew I could continue to explore a fantasy setting after that weird, (literally) experimental weekend in the Barrier Peaks. Eventually, the science fiction equipment would lose power and turn into curious metal junk and my character would go back to worrying about lost caverns and whatever the drow where up to hanging out with the giants of the Crystalmist Mountains…

My hypocrisy made landing my recent contribution to D&DI, Dungeon #201 on DTRPG that much more important to me. Nods to Expedition to the Barrier Peaks were important to me, but I wanted the integration of the adventure to function as the exception that the old AD&D module was. I loved the old adventure but I didn’t want to deliberately “corrupt” a fantasy setting with space ships and blasters in my ode to it. Instead, I wanted it to be a bizarre backdrop for the continued machinations of the existing fantasy villains.

If the setting speaks to the players, they can continue to pursue that version of the world. The other Dungeon and Dragon articles of the month all support that idea of integrating and exploring that strange new world. And they present it piecemeal so the DM can approach it from a variety of directions and set hooks that the PCs either bite for or pass up. I recommend giving all of them a read, because whether they fit your setting or not, they are all incredibly well done:

For me, the gradual approach is also the best approach. I like exploration in my fantasy games, but I like charting my own course. If I don’t want to begin a five year mission to explore strange new worlds, I don’t have to. I can take the fight to the illithids in the Underdark (where they belong) but, after a few too many rounds in the tavern, maybe I’ll mention how I’m pretty sure I fought their ilk on the moon. Patrons will laugh nervously and excuse themselves. But who knows? Maybe I’ll start to wonder what else is out there…

16 Apr

Putting the “Vance” in Advanced

"You can all hang out in your suspended humiliation and think about what you learned today."

Earlier posts have indicated just when I embraced Dungeons & Dragons, meaning I obviously grew up on Vancian spellcasting. I dutifully toted my spellbooks, the Player’s Handbook and Unearthed Arcana, to gaming and pored over the arcane details late into the night seeking unexpected uses, both creative and devious. My understanding of the nature of segments in a round and judging my foes’ timing in the initiative pass was its own concentration check.

To say I’ve been enjoying the discourse on Vancian casting versus the merits of the A/E/D system of 4th Edition is a misstatement. After all, a lot of what I initially encountered was neither enjoyable nor discourse. But, eventually, civility and a pursuit of knowledge found its way into some circles. Then the discussion finally grew meaningful. Plus the topic had come up among the folks I play with regularly and I was pleased to find varied opinions among them.

Now just because I’m a confessed Vancian fan -a “fancian” if you will- that doesn’t mean I reject other practitioners’ methods. I’d also like to point out that my preference does not stem from nostalgia. Granted, I’m prone to it but, as I’ve said before, I have nostalgia for memories rather than rules. I like the Vancian system because it makes a wizard feel like a wizard.

To me, and the settings I favor, magic is special. It’s a big deal. Magic isn’t something that just anyone tinkers with; it involves study. And when a practitioner doesn’t study, bad things happen. The Vancian system meant you had to pore over sometimes lengthy spell descriptions and mechanics to understand exactly what would transpire when the words of power and precise gestures invoked arcane energies. You literally had to prepare your spells in your mind. And it also meant that in the days before the Arcana skill, the rest of the table would turn to the magic-user when confronted with an unusual spell effect because he had probably, at some time, actually studied it!

Yes, there is a great deal of blurring the line of player knowledge versus character knowledge in this process. But, to me, that was just fine because often the fighter would be paging through the Monster Manual during his downtime imagining the varied and wondrous creatures he could encounter in the world (and promptly slay). The cleric would be doing the same with undead creatures (and sometimes demons and devils depending on the campaign). And the thief? He would be sneaking peaks at the back of the Dungeon Master’s Guide and dreaming of magic items to steal. But the magic-user’s purview was, unsurprisingly, magic!

“But Marge, that little guy hasn't done anything yet. Look at him! He's gonna do something and you know it’s gonna be good.”

The wizard had to be cunning in planning his spell selection for the day and clever in repurposing spells when his planning went awry. The cleric’s divinations could prove decisive in directing the selection as could the rogue scouting ahead or asking around town to determine the opposition on the horizon. The wizard also had to nurse those spells and was often faced with those moments that prompt the clichéd moment of “we’re only gonna have one chance at this!” Finite resources meant cautious, thoughtful decisions in battle. I often pictured my magic-user stroking his beard in contemplation as the combat raged around him and the fighter grew more and more frustrated waiting for him to “just do something!” Then the world would erupt in flames and the ashes of those who dared oppose me showered the ignorant fighter… and then I would flee to the corner of the room and ready my darts.

All the studying and preparation also made the magic-user feel special (and as I’ve mentioned previously, that’s how magic should feel). He had concerns that many other classes didn’t. It made him different and when you told the party that you needed to rest, even though they were all at full hit points, you suddenly understood why some folk ran wizards out of town. But, to me, it also made classes like the fighter that much cooler because they weren’t special. Instead, the fighter was just some guy (or some girl, or some transgender gnome, or whatever) with a sword. He wasn’t getting ready to defeat the red dragon with the arcane might passed down countless times from master to apprentice. No, he was going to walk into the creature’s lair and punch it until it died. From my robe-wearing, staff-toting perspective that was pretty badass, if perhaps a little foolhardy.

So then we arrive at what started to disappoint me as I played more and more 4th Edition. My wizard stopped feeling special. Everyone else was dipping into my bag of tricks. Granted, they could pull out a dire mongoose while I was producing an infernal badger but there was a same-ness to it. Worse still, much of what I did with my magic seemed directed towards combat whereas only a fraction of my spells were of the “non-utility” variety in previous editions. And there were plenty of things I liked, a topic for an upcoming post, and wondered “why didn’t I ever think of doing this before?”

A friend who favors the 4th edition style of spellcasting commented that he grew frustrated with the Vancian system because of the amount of page-turning involved that often led to slower turns. He’s right. I’ve seen it happen plenty of times. But I also played in a group that simply didn’t tolerate it. Your turn as a spellcaster should take only a moment or two more than the fighter because you shouldn’t need to look up your spells. You should have done a good job “memorizing” them so when the time came to cast, you knew who was going to get caught in the fireball and how much damage they would take.

This mindset made spellcasting classes better for some players than others. Our old group’s “constant fighter” once decided he would change things up and play a magic-user. By the end of a single eight hour session he declared, “I can’t wait for this character to die. This is so @#$%-ing tedious! Somebody else can play the wizard and worry about spellbooks.” It’s a mindset that is not necessarily forgiving to “new wizards.” But maybe that’s why there aren’t too many wizards’ apprentices.

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.

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.