Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Things To Come

I've always been a sucker for sneak previews, trailers and "Next Week on...." blurbs. Now that I have an official blog, I have so many ideas it's a fight to see which I want to throw down next. But with my once a month D&D game coming up this weekend and other commitments, I may not be able to post in awhile (how do these other guys post daily????). Anyway, a few of the more coherent subjects I want to cover in the near future include:

Why I Might Not Be Old School

Ruins of Undermountain: The One True Megadungeon

The Most Useful D&D Item Ever Sold

The Genius of Ed Greenwood: Maskyr's Eye

The Holmes Delusion

How much is that Castle Zagyg in the Window?

My Love Affair With Dungeon Magazine

The Greatest Modules Never Sold: Winners of the IDDC Contest

Top Ten D&D Items of All Time

A Blast From the Past: The Tabletop Warriors Story

Might be a week until I get around to any of these, but I can't wait....!


Do you have a campaign or gaming session that, even after many years, sticks out in your mind? The one you and your buddies like to mull over when you are deep in your cups on a hot summer night, "Ah yes, remember when...?" The one you wish all the rest could be like...even if you know deep in your heart it was so perfect that you could never again approach that?

I've had a few really fun campaigns over the years, ones that went over and above what you get out of gaming with friends..some that come to mind are my AD&D Ruins of Undermountain campaign that lasted about 2 and a half years that involved about a dozen players, over 30 characters, and never left the walls of the City of Waterdeep but twice in all that time period; the Villains and Vigilantes campaign I ran in the 80s that was the absolute antithesis of anything superhero long before it was "hip" for comics to do so (the group was led by a 12 year old megagenius and they killed all their defeated bad guys to prevent any recurring foes); the "all brothers" AD&D Forgotten Realms campaign I ran in the early 90s that had myself and my two brothers gaming every Monday night from dusk until dawn for a couple years. Maybe a few others. But the #1 campaign I ever ran was Call of Cthulhu's Masks of Nyarlathotep in 1985/86.

Now, at this point of the 21st century, Masks' greatness is not a secret. It has long been discovered by the masses, reviewed, lauded, and called not only the best CoC supplement ever, but possibly the best all around RPG supplement ever (Rick Swan's Guide to Roleplaying was the first to name it thus, but many have followed). It is epic in the way only a few published campaigns have been epic before or since. A true world-spanning adventure, it is like a Lovecraftian Indiana Jones pulp novel, with separate chapters for New York, London, Cairo, Kenya and Shanghai (this was before the "lost" Australian chapter was added) as the characters rush around the world to prevent...well, the end of the world, of course. An ill-fated expedition to Africa by dilettante Carlyle and his entourage turned into an unspeakably evil ceremony and may hold the key to releasing Nyarlathotep's full power on earth, unless the lost members can be located and the evil plan discovered in time. The players travel around the globe, finding clues and the means to stop the evil plan, and end up in Shanghai for the spectacular denouement in a live volcano of all places (think James Bond, Lovecraft, Doc Savage and Astonishing Tales pulps all rolled into one....)

I won't go into too much detail since I assume most gamers are at least passing familiar with this incredible campaign by Larry DiTillio and Lynn Willis, and I don't want to ruin anything for those who hope go play in it someday. The original box set was a thing of beauty, with separate books for each location/chapter, each crammed full of detailed Mythos goodness. I had purchased this as soon as it came out in 1984, because at the time I had a CoC group that would meet on the occasions when my youngest brother Matt came into town on vacation (he and my mother moved to South Texas after I graduated high school, and I only saw him on holidays and during the summer). Along with my other brother and who ever we could rope into playing, we managed to work our way through Shadows of Yog Sothoth and several other stand alone adventures in the early 80s(the entirety of The Asylum was one such endeavor). Unfortunately it remained somewhat of a guilty pleasure since I couldn't get anyone except for my youngest brother (also a huge Lovecraft fan) to play it on a regular basis (most of my D&D buddies were terrible CoC players, going through characters like crazy, as they tended to play gangsters, private eyes and ex-WWI vets so as to load up on guns...which as any CoC veteran knows, is not going to help a whole lot)

Anyway, I bought and read through Masks when it came out and was pretty excited...I started working up a campaign in a notebook, and made notes on and off for the next year or so. On one of his visits I told my brother Matt about the campaign, showing him the box and books, and he got excited too. So we decided to tackle it the next time he was up for the holidays. I ended up getting some cheap "mood music" cassettes of African, Chinese, Egyptian to play in the background during the various chapters, along with a few old 1920 National Geographics for visual aids (the first time I had ever done something like that). The African music actually got to be quite the favorite by the time we finished, and the mags got a workout too, as I used several old, grainy B&W photos to illustrate locations. Nowadays such props are looked on as essential, but these were quite the novelty back in the mid 80s, and much appreciated by the players.

So we started Masks during Thanksgiving holiday (everyone rolled up characters that weekend and I set up the adventure), then when Christmas break came the next month we played nearly every day for two weeks. The group consisted of five people (one guy attended every other session or so because of work commitments); the other four were there until the bitter end. Sensing some deaths on the road to Shanghai, I had the group roll up three characters each (except for my younger brother, I had him pick from his stable of CoC characters, admonishing him of the difficulty and low survivability) and had them each run two at a time. I pulled out a few tried and true CoC NPCs from the group pile to fill in the holes. The usual CoC game I ran was based around a rich lawyer named Goddard who basically supported a group of multi-talented adventurers in their jaunts across the globe in the 1920s...sort of a Lovecraftian Mission Impossible set-up. So whatever the situation called for, Goddard could send a character to fill out a party who had a specific need, from gangster to archeologist to airplane pilot (Goddard and his mansion/base were destroyed years later, sucked into a gate in an epic campaign conclusion that spelled the end of our 1920s campaign and beginning of our Cthulhu Now campaign, but that's another tale....).

Now, the coolest part of the entire set up was two of the players. My two brothers and the sporadically attending guy were veteran gamers, and had played CoC many times. The two guys that joined us were friends of my brother, and had never played CoC before....amazingly, one guy had NEVER played ANY sort of RPG before in his life! The best part of the entire experience was watching these two guys (especially the guy who had never roleplayed) become totally immersed in their characters and the entire unfolding plotline of Masks. I have to say they had the most fun of anyone, and years later I unexpectedly ran into the guy who had never played RPGs before....he still remembered the game fondly and brought up several incidents from the game that even I had forgotten. He played an Indiana Jones type that used a whip and pistol, and in his mind he was basically acting out the Indiana Jones movies (albeit with horrific other dimensional evil creatures); I believe his character was named something silly like Ohio Smith. Needless to say he had a blast, and his enthusiasm got ahold of the entire group and translated into above-average play (and gamemastering) through the campaign. The other most memorable character was my brother's WWI veteran, Jimmy Jack Jones, who my brother had selected among several characters that had survived over the last few years from the horrors of Shadows of Yog-Sothoth and The Asylum (shout out to any old school CoC players who also ran adventures from those supplements and somehow had a survivor). Jimmy was a good old boy farmer turned sniper, and his expertise with a rifle saved the party's ass too many times to count (he personally assassinated several high priests with called shots to the head at extremely tense times of the game in London and Egypt)....when he died in the final battle by a purely random die roll, it was perhaps the most affecting death we ever experienced in an RPG up to then (due to the absolutely senseless nature of the death and the horrors he had survived from WWI, through Shadows, and all the other games we had run plus Masks). Only a really, really good RPG can give you those connections a make-believe character.

Anyway, the players very quickly jumped into the action as we started off in New York, and my youngest brother very efficiently was able to keep track of all the members of the Carlyle expedition and different locations/rumors/information through a small notebook he kept by his side during the entire campaign. The battle at Ju-Ju House was considerably epic, with a bloodbath there which included their first death (an intrepid NPC reporter woman who had managed to survive several earlier adventures but was torn to pieces by raving cultists), and the incredible swordplay of the clinically insane actor James Raven (a totally throw away NPC from Shadows that the players had adopted into their group because of his expertise with the sword and the fact he was already totally nutso) who single handedly killed over a dozen bloodthirsty cultists in a series of impaling rolls even I could hardly believe. The adventure ended with a Hunting Horror and naked, screaming, pranga swinging cultists chasing the surviving party members through the midnight, rain slick streets of Harlem, dodging cars and killing random passersby until brought down by twin sub machine guns wielded by party members, supported by two of New York's finest who showed up (who promptly went insane when they saw what they had killed, after which the party members calmly picked up their weapons and stole their police car to escape...waste not, want not!!!). Let's just say after such a riotous beginning, it only got better as time went on....

Several characters distinguished themselves: The afore mentioned Jimmy Jack, who took out both Edward Gavigan in London and Omar Shakti in Egypt with amazing impaling head shots that defied science and logic; Father Michael Flannigan, who fought only with staff and the holy book and was finally hacked apart by cultists in Kenya while holding them back as the rest of the party escaped; the absolutely amazingly average HP Jones the third, a completely average character that somehow survived over a dozen CoC adventures including this one by nothing but sheer luck, for actually coming out unscathed from Gray Dragon Island being attacked by the Bloated Woman, insane cultists, deep ones, and a shoggoth while carrying a wounded party member to safety....all by the virtue of insanely impossible luck and dodge rolls (made every dang one of them). Never have a I ran a campaign where so many characters impressed themselves on my memories for so many years afterwards; to this day I remember the Indiana Jones-like Ohio Smith dying during the final battle using his whip and pistol to bring down super villain Aubrey Penhew into the magma as he himself lost his balance and fell in after him. Who remembers the death of a third rate Indiana Jones knock off among hundreds of gaming sessions over the past 25 years? Masks just creates memories like that, it seems.

Due to the circumstances we could only game during holidays, so we continued the campaign during Spring Break, and finally finished up at the end of May when summer break started. The campaign was hideous, hilarious, sobering, exciting, frightening, and nail biting by turns. Twice the party was a hair's width away from a TPK (underneath the pyramids in Egypt and in Carl Stanford's hideout in China) that would have necessitated a reboot of epic proportions. Needless to say we couldn't wait to get at it every chance possible, with the two novice players practically jumping up and down with excitement as they waited for my brother to come into town during the Spring Break and Summer breaks. We gamed from 8 am to midnight a few times during the campaign, and no one was tired when we would finally have to call it quits each session. The best parts were the aforementioned Ju-Ju House, underneath the pyramids in Egypt, the horrific scene on the mountain in Kenya (probably the most outrageous set piece in any RPG ever published), and of course the final battle on Gray Dragon Island. No one was safe, anyone could die or go insane at any moment, and the fate of the world hung in the balance. By the end half the original characters had perished, and the rest weren't looking too hot (sanity scores were teetering, dangerously so on a couple of characters...James Raven, he of the 20 SAN, of course made every roll along the way and came out more or less just about as insane as he ever was before this entire Carlyle business). The end was suitably majestic ( I won't spoil it for anyone), and all the living party members had to make a final luck roll at the end to survive the explosive conclusion (this is where the poor, doomed Jimmy Jack made his one crap roll of the entire campaign, and died after experiencing all Nyarlathotep could throw at a fist sized rock that struck him on the head, killing him instantly. No heroic death for the most bad ass character in CoC history, but such is life).

I could go into minute detail of the entire campaign, but suffice to say that afterwards, every other CoC adventure seemed drab, colorless, and somewhat....mundane. Even later, battling a Dark Young in the woods outside of Jimmy Jack's grandpa's house (his grandfather became a recurring character after JJ's death in Masks) took on the gravity of the JLA coming back to earth after fending off an alien invasion to bitch slap the Riddler. "Dark Young? Suck it, WE KICKED NYARLATHOTEP'S ASS!!!" Needless to say, rather than ruin their remarkable run of luck by dying at the hands of some random Deep One later on, we retired most of those characters (and the entire campaign, via End of Days final battle that took out their benefactor), and continued with the characters grandkids in a 1980's Cthulhu Now campaign (supplement that was very conveniently released in 1987, just in time for the switchover).

Anyway, the Masks campaign is by far the standard bearer of all future campaigns I have run or will run. If I could someday again channel the excitement, suspense, and thrill we experienced the first time, I'd love to run it again, but I'm afraid that no matter who played or what happened it wouldn't match up. I don't know, maybe nearly 25 years is long enough to wait for lightning to strike twice. I still have the National Geographics, the 1996 printing "Complete" Masks (with the Australian chapter included), the old ethnic music cassette tapes ( I guess I could spring for CDs at this point), and with the power of the internet could pull up tons of reference material....but it would have to be a helluva run to top that original game.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Non-Weapon Proficiencies?

Certainly the authors could have included a skill system covering activities such as “horse riding” or “swimming”, but doing so is actively detrimental to heroic gaming. Had we included a “horse riding” skill, characters would start falling off their horses.
---From the OSRIC rules

When a character uses a proficiency, either the attempt is automatically successful, or the character must roll a proficiency check. If the task is simple or the proficiency has only limited game use (such as cobbling or carpentry), a proficiency check is generally not required. If the task the character is trying to perform is difficult or subject to failure, a proficiency check is required.
---From the 2E Players Handbook

Soon I'll have a post entitled "Why I might not be Old School" and list the reasons, despite my favorable demographics, why I just don't "fit in".

One of the reasons: I regularly use (and use, and use) NWPs, and have for 20 years.

I absolutely love the things. The make DMing easier, because I never have to decide if Player A can swim the raging river carrying a halfling on his shoulders while being shot at by orc archers; or whether or not Player B can train the war dog he just bought to attack on command; or if Player C can tell by the way the victim in the tomb was ritually sacrificed what evil priest is awaiting them further on; or if Player D can throw his voice, make a metal weapon, or literally "sing for her supper" and perform at a local tavern without having food thrown at her (Ventriloquism, Weaponsmithing and Singing, respectively). It's all there in black and white on the player's printed up (core rules, natch) character sheet, and the best part, the PLAYER HIMSELF has chosen these NWPs based on his own ideas (character development, an attempt to min/max, or just because that particular NWP "looked awesome").

Frankly, who would have any sort of problem with this?

Oh, of course: Old Schoolers.

As a tacked on system late in the life of 1E AD&D, the appearance (while imaginative and mold-breaking in it's simplicity yet depth) got mostly jeers, sneers and the middle finger at the time because old schoolers were in a huge snoot about EGG getting booted from TSR. When it made a prominent (but optional) appearance in 2E, it was thrown out by them like everything else that was wrong with 2E (in the eyes of Old Schooler); I won't even go into it's appearance in 3E and on because, frankly, I don't know a thing about it past 1999 since I don't use 3E and only pay attention to the d20 rules set when I happen to glance through a module, adventure or supplement published past 1999.....but I could give a happy hoot since I play 2E anyway.

So, despite finally giving rulesy types a way to have a FINAL SAY on subjects like making your own arrows or training your pet bear to gently bite the rope typing your hands to untie them from behind your backs, all that came out of the collective arse of the old schooler was whining about how "NWPs tell more about what a player CANNOT do, than what he CAN do! It's LIMITING OUR IMAGINATIONS!". They were more concerned, and I quote (from OSRIC), that reliance on NWP instead of DM fiat would lead to endless rolls having characters fall off horse, burn their bacon while cooking, and failing to catch a squirrel for dinner in the woods (despite the rule SPECIFICALLY STATING THE OPPOSITE in the 2E PHB...a book, while detested by many old schoolers, that has never been formerly read by the same).

Now look, in the old days, if your player wanted to do something like jump over a waterfall and swim to safety to escape the orc horde, or survive in the arctic wastes for a week on nothing but ice, or canoe upstream while being chased by hungry cannibal headhunters, we pre-2E DMs had a simple yet elegant solution: We just rolled the dice. Maybe, if you had established a bit of a backstory (you were raised by an eskimo-like tribe and grew up in an igloo), we might cut you some slack on the arctic survival (but probably not on piloting the canoe upriver in the jungle for the same character, since it would be stretching your backstory even by heroic fantasy standards). If we were feeling generous, we'd hand wave the entire thing. If not, we'd hem and haw a bit ("Ok, Bob, since you have never owned a horse the entire time we have been playing, and you're 9th level, I'm going to give you a very generous 10% chance to escape the leucrotta trotting after you while you ride bareback on your stolen horse through the forest at night....) before handing you the dice and letting you roll. Inevitably, despite DM fiat, the bitching and whining and moaning (don't kid yourself, the ultimate authority of the DM could be tenuous even back in the day, especially if the player was providing the ride/beer/munchies/hot chick eye candy cousin playing her first game while giggling about how "cute" the painted lead figures were) would bog the game down at the most exciting part in Strahd's castle as your buddy grumbled about you "screwing" him by not letting him catch a dagger thrown by a gypsy thrall (Juggling NWP, just for reference).

Ok, so then 2E unveiled a somewhat clumsy, but completely workable NWP system that more or less covered all these "out of game" type things you really didn't want to bother with as DM or, they could choose whether or not they could fletch their own arrows, fall down a staircase without taking damage, or cook a meal fit for royalty, and it was all in black and white on their character sheets. The best part? They could STILL try stuff like canoeing, swimming and tumbling......even if they didn't have the particular NWP, if the DM was so inclined. The NWP only came in handy if the circumstances dictated you had to be an "expert", or do something over the top (the aforementioned swimming the raging river with the halfling on your back, etc). Heck, we could even deal with the sometimes tricky problems of "exactly what languages do I speak/read/write?" because even THAT was covered in the new NWP rules. Brilliant! In 20 years of gaming since, I have yet to have any sort of rumble over what a character can and can't do not covered in the character class rules themselves.

Except I must have missed the really, really, really hard and obscure parts of the rules that all the Old Schoolers seem to find, because many of them have HORRIBLE problems trying to make this simple system work. Instead, all these old school DMs are continually rolling every time the characters try to climb on a horse, or fry up some bacon on the campfire, or try to catch Fuzzy the Bunny for a little snack while out in the wilderness for a few days. Despite, as I have to say again, the rules making it PERFECTLY CLEAR that this isn't the intent It's enough to think these hopefully intelligent old codgers are perhaps PURPOSELY ignoring the rules as written for some reason.....? Heaven Forbid!!!!

And don't say it's "metagaming" to pick skills. Guys, I hate to spring this on you, but practically everything about a character in 1E is "metagaming", from the fact wizards can't use swords to the fact there is some funny language called "common" running around all 1E fantasy worlds that everyone speaks. Remember, also, these are the EXACT SAME GUYS that will have an absolute hiss fit if your mage character dares to pick up a dropped longsword so he can defend himself from certain death, or your cleric happens to swing a non-blunt weapon at the ravening vampire attacking him, or your fighter tries to pick a lock, or your thief picks up a shield......because THATS NOT IN THE RULES!!!!!!! But if half the party picks Swimming, that's "metagaming" because heaven forbid you put in your character's background he grew up in a shack on the river...

Look, tongue in cheek examples aside, all NWPs are skill checks with a little chrome. There's no more simple mechanism than rolling a d20 against one of the PCs prime abilities. At it's heart that is all the 2E NWP system is (histronics aside), and if it does anything it makes adjucating situations easier, not harder, when faced with a chance to use one. Rarther than dominating a game (or even a session), they are fun little character bites that are used occasionally to let someone do something "not in the rules" to help their character shine a little.

Did I mention again I've never had a problem using NWPs in all my time gaming with them? And all sorts of players I've had during that time must have perfectly understood the rules as written because they also haven't had any problems understanding what they are and what they are used for? Am I completely wrong to wonder aloud that perhaps the problems aren't with the NWP rules as written, but the Old Schooler who hasn't actually bothered to read the NWP rules as written????

Sunday, March 22, 2009

That Post Where I Plug The Local Con

The obligatory "Here is the local way cool game con, please come!" post. Only there are a few tidbits that make this just a bit out of the ordinary, not the least of which it's being held here in Texas in June (usually that's the time of year people LEAVE our fair state for the summer to save their sanity....)

First of all, this con directly came about because of a friend of mine, Doug Rhea, who had the same idea I have talked about for years: a local roleplaying gaming con. By local I meant not in Dallas or Fort Worth (which, now that I think of it, really have none anyway). Sadly the DFW area has not had a proper RPG convention since the days of the old Dallas Fantasy Fair (which was really more of a comic con anyway) which closed up shop over a decade before. There are some anime cons and boardgaming cons with gaming at them, but nothing RPG only. So for years I made imaginary plans of how I would plan my imaginary convention if I had the time or money. Then, after meeting Doug, we both found out we were interested in the same things, but Doug can make the imaginary come true. And Doug has much more get up and go than I do, and basically pulled this together through sheer will power. So the North Texas RPG Con came into being. I told Doug I would be happy with 10 people (all the Acaeum guys that live in the area, and maybe a couple of strippers); we rented a meeting room that can hold 50 (what a joke that was, I thought). Now we have 30+ people signed up and it's still two months away!!!

The details are: on June 5-7 this year in Bedford, Texas (right between Dallas and Fort Worth in an area known as the Mid Cities) we are having a small get together at a La Quinta there, to play games and meet some great old school gamers and guests. This first ever NTRPG Con will be held there, with lots of games, merriment, and old school goodness. Here is the link to the website, will all the info you will need to plan your weekend:

Second, I'm not just talking guests. I'm talking GUESTS. We basically pulled off a coup that cons twice our size can't manage by securing both Frank Mentzer and Tim Kask, two oldies but goodies in the gaming world. Frank and Tim both worked for TSR and very closely with Gary Gygax back in the day. Tim is probably best known for editing Dragon magazine in it's beginnings, while Frank may be best known for his work on T1-4 and a host of other TSR products in the golden age of D&D. Tim and Frank have both cordially agreed to run old school games at the first ever NTRPG Con

But we didn't stop there. Oddly enough, Texas seems to be this weird gathering spot for many of the old school guys in the roleplaying industry. A lot of that is probably because of the computer companies that spring up here, such as id. Obviously Steve Jackson's SJG is based in Austin, but over the years I've discovered luminaries such as Steve Marsh (Chaosium), Jeff Dee (TSR artist), Sandy Petersen (Call of Cthulhu) and Paul Jaquays (Judges Guild) are residents (some practically neighbors!). Doug had communicated with Paul Jaquays (author of such classic D&D adventures as Dark Tower and Caverns of Thracia) on earlier occasions when Paul had placed some items up for sale on Ebay; a few phone calls later, and we had the great man himself also heading to the Mid-cities to meet and greet.

We were also happy to get artist Jason Braun (Labyrinth Lord, Bottle City) to drive up from San Antonio to be with us; and long-time Greyhawk historian, gamer and writer Allan Grohe to come down from his Kansas haunts to join us. Honestly, I've been to conventions where the lineup didn't TOUCH this all star cast of characters, and I was charged twenty bucks for the privilege.

Third, it's FREE. For our first year, the only thing you are paying for is your own food, hotel room and transportation. And that's not including the huge BBQ we have planned Saturday afternoon that is also FREE. To offset the cost, many of the guests have been nice enough to donate gifts for a raffle and auction (some items you don't have to be present to win) that include a Dragon magazine #1 (I bet Tim would sign it if you ask nicely); copies of the adventure Tim plans to run at NTRPG Con; Strategic Reviews #1-6; character sketches done to order by Jason Braun, gift certificates for Reaper miniatures, and more. I really can't think of a bigger bang for your buck unless you are talking about the new Dallas Cowboy stadium where games will cost you $150 a seat...oh, sorry, I forgot, Jerry World is a huge RIPOFF (whoops, shouldn't have gone there, let's get back on target...)

Fourth, what are we going to do here? Well, old school game for one. Both Frank and Tim are running games; Allan Grohe has volunteered to do something Greyhawky if asked; there will be lots of boardgames like Divine Right, Arkham Horror, Talisman and others strewn about the place just begging to be played. If you are an old school gamer, or you just got into the hobby recently, I would have to say a chance to pick the brains of contributors to the hobby like Frank Mentzer, Tim Kask and Paul Jaquays and NOT HAVING TO TRAVEL TO GEN CON TO DO IT is close to a once in a lifetime opportunity. Remember, these three guys were there during the Golden Age of RPGs (1974-1982) and saw things that you and I can only imagine. I've spent time with Frank at the last two Gencons, and I can honestly say he's got more stories than is humanly possible to tell in one weekend; I've seen Tim hold court and if anything he might even be more verbose and opinionated than Frank. And my question list for Paul is already half a page long.....

To top it off, there will be a tour of Reaper miniatures in Denton Sunday morning (thank you, Gus Landt) that should be fun. I'm a huge Reaper fan myself (a huge lead fan) so I am very excited about this:

And as an added bonus to anyone stopping by here and finding out about NTRPG Con for the first time.....Tim and Frank aren't leaving town until late there could be a smaller, more intimate setting for gaming or just shooting the bull when a lot of the other attendees have left to go back home. Stick around after the tour Sunday and you might have some tales to tell the grandkids!!!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

All I Really Need To Know I Learned In B1

The first adventure I ever played in (and ran) was the classic Mike Carr instructional module, B1 In Search of the Unknown, which was included with the Holmes set I bought in the spring of 1979. To this day, it's my favorite published adventure, and considering the amount of use I have gotten out of this adventure (I've run it probably two dozen times at minimum), it was also the most bang for the buck I've gotten for any gaming item except maybe the Core Rules CD Rom (more on that in a later post).

James Maliszewski has a great post about B1 here , and I agree with many of the points he makes. As a beginning adventure, it does so much for both the player and the DM. It is an exciting, mysterious, and unusual environment for a first time player; it's format makes it easy to run for a 1st time DM. To top it off, it literally contains everything you might need if you are the DM, from good "how to" tips to tables random rumors, treasures, monsters, and NPCS. Even the backstory is perfect, with just enough detail to intrigue the players but not enough to tie the hands of a fledgling DM who wants to set the adventure in his own (or any) campaign world.

I'm going to assume that anyone reading is familiar with the set up of B1, which is full room descriptions minus any monsters and treasures which are placed by the DM (ooops, there's the set up, wasn't that easy). The descriptions are simply perfect; enough information and detail to tweak the imagination of beginning DMs and Players, yet enough left unsaid to leave room for lots of innovation. In a few cases (#8 Wizard's Workroom, #10 Storeroom, #11 Supply Room, and #13 Implement Room) long lists of items as room contents are given, none immediately useful (not like, say, a glowing broadsword), but intriguing enough to get any fledgling player thinking and using his noggin (and getting the more paranoid players wondering "Should we carry around that small barrel of lard, just in case???). For example, the list from the Implement room reads thusly:

A box of wooden pegs
A coil of light rope, 50'
A coil of heavy chain, 70'
A coil of fine copper wire, 20'
Mining picks (32), all unusable and in poor repair
Chisels (15)
Shovels (13)
Empty barrels (11)
Mallets (8)
Iron bars (29, each measuring 1" in diameter, 8' in length)
An iron vise (12" jaws)
Mining jacks (2), broken
Crosscut saws (2, 2-man)
Hacksaw (4)
A mason's toolbox (containing trowel, stone chisel, plumbline, etc.)
A cobbler's toolbox (containing small hammer, knife,heavy needles, etc.)
A small barrel of unfletched arrows (60, all normal)
An empty wooden bench, 10' long

If half a dozen uses for, say, the hacksaw, mallets, and heavy chain doesn't jump inside your head while toiling around Quasqueton, perhaps you should give up gaming and take up sewing. What these lists do is give the beginning DM a sort of insight into how to make a dungeon somewhat "realistic" (obviously, if Quasqueton was under construction, the supplies would have to be stored somewhere, correct?), and show him how fun it can be to stimulate the mind of the players in directions "off the map", so to speak. There is no given use in B1 for the iron bars, a sack of barley, a jar of vinegar, or a box of wooden nails...but the players don't know this, and it forces the beginning DM to learn an important lesson of dungeon crawling: "Players will always do something you don't expect". If later on in the lower levels, the players use the copper wire to their advantage, they have exceeded the parameters of the game and should be rewarded.

I've always been surprised TSR didn't publish more of this type of adventure to help out the hordes of new players that would be flocking to the game in the early 80s (B2, while also a classic, is nowhere near the cakewalk B1 is to run and tinker with). Considering that the initial Top Secret adventure (Sprechenhaltestelle, including in the Top Secret boxed set) contained virtually the same set up (area descriptions without "treasure" or "monsters") it seems the powers that be realized the potential, but never really followed up on it. A B1 type adventure, published every five years or so and included with whatever boxed set was being sold, would have been a perfect companion to the rules set. I really wish TSR had continued down the path Mike Carr started, we would perhaps have a handful of classic beginning type adventures instead of just this one perfect example.

For myself, the adventure is IMO the best introduction to my favorite game that I have ever used. It's the one I reach for when I run into someone that wants to experience D&D for the first time (it's the only adventure my wife has ever played, when she was in her "What's this D&D thing all about anyway?" stage). It's versatility is a strength. I've run it as a necromancer's lair (full of undead); as a base for a group of orc bandits; a base for hobgoblin bandits; a base for kobold bandits; as the hideout of a evil priest and his minions; as the base for a low level thieves' guild; as a decades-sealed dungeon filled only with mindless creatures and constructs; and sometimes just as written: a bunch of random encounters in a long abandoned stronghold. I've used it in the World of Greyhawk (set right outside the Village of Hommlet so characters could get some experience before tackling the moathouse, or in the mountains outside Geoff, or in the hills of Keoland); Forgotten Realms (in the hills outside Shadowdale); my own campaign world (many, many times, usually in the hills right outside of the town the player's characters meet in for the first time). The setting and intro are so classic and generic the adventure could be set anywhere, from the jungles of Delos to the mountaintops of the Thunderspires (locations in my own campaign world where I have used B1).

While reading over this minor masterpiece yet again, It's really hard to come up with the definitive "IT" factor that makes B1 such a great adventure. There are some great set pieces (entry hall magic mouth with the dead bodies; room of pools; mushroom chamber) but nothing that really jumps out and blows you away. When looking at it, this is actually a strength of the adventure, in a lot of spots it's all very mundane and rote, and just what a newbie expects an abandoned dungeon area to up to expectations can be a good thing. Sure there are a couple of surprises (the portcullis in the NW area of the fortress that can trap characters; the one-way secret doors that monsters can use to surprise characters that exit and return time and again; and of course the pit trap that empties into the pool of water on the lower level) and in truth the lower level is actually quite a let down compared to the upper level; but on the whole it's competent and workmanlike instead of all Ravenlofty. Then again you don't want to hit the beginners with too much, and the simplicity of mapping Quasqueton (and the obviousness of secret rooms...they are all where the empty spots on the map are!) is actually a plus here (The party is MEANT to discover that secret lab anyway!)

The lower level comes as a bit of a let down, in my estimation, since it's really nothing more than caverns, tunnels and caves. It does, however, show the newer players that mapping isn't always a "10x50" hallway leading south (especially if they forget a light source, don't have a mapper, or are running for their lives like scared ninnies from a pair of ghouls!). There are two good areas, however: #53 the giant bat cavern (perfect spot for a nasty melee) and the #55/#56 connected area that just begs to be used as the boss bad guy's last stand (or final encounter if there isn't a "organized" opposition in the ruins).

To top it off, the very structure and set-up of B1 lends itself to all sorts of one-shots and pickup games, even for those who have braved it's dark hallways many times. The funnest, and funniest, pickup game I ever ran involved my two younger brothers and myself one Christmas Day several years ago. Sitting around with nothing to do after dinner (with the kids all tired out from Christmas presents), I had them roll up 3d6 in order characters (two each) and gave them an NPC cleric as they did what I billed as a "completely random" run through B1. One of my brothers had a fighter with a great strength but a very low intellect (I'm thinking it was 4 or 5). He was ruled to be a moronic brute, and I rolled his possessions randomly on the AD&D equipment table. His weapon turned out to be a club, and his possessions included no armor and his pet cat. We had a lot of fun in the ensuing crawl, which included a classic combat vs orcs where my brother's moronic brute threw his cat into the face of an orc...and the cat promptly killed the 1 hp orc with several hits from his panicked claws. Sweet! The fact that half the party died in the ensuing pitfall into the 2nd level pool of water (who knew the kobolds in that room would be so accurate with their arrows???) was icing on the cake ("Ha, ha, your characters got killed by kobolds"...and yes my brothers are the only players I'll mock like that during a dungeon crawl).

To top it off, who doesn't feel a surge of nostalgia at the names of Kracky the Hooded One, Presto, Eggo of the Brotherhood and Estra Zo? Ah, the days when you could get away with naming your character one of these or "Fred the Fighter" instead of something all flowerly like Renarius Daelon of the High Forest? As a matter of history, "Krago of the Mountains" was used by my brother in this adventure, and survived to one day 7 years later finish up the GDQ series with the rest of the original party members I ran through B1.

As a last note, I leave here the list in the back of B1 entitled "Tips for Players", which IMO should just be stamped inside whatever is currently passing for a Players Handbook nowadays. Especially #10 seems to have been lost sight of in the edition wars and old school grognards trying to reduce the game to playing a set of numbers. It shouldn't be taken to mean playing a character like you are trying out for the local production of Seven Wives for Seven Brothers, but instead encourages getting into the game and experiencing it instead of rolling dice and observing. Well, that's my take at least.

Beginning players would do well to profit from some basic
advice before beginning their D&D careers, and with that in
mind, the following points are offered for consideration:
1) Be an organized player. Keep accurate records on your
character (experience, abilities, items possessed, etc.) for
your own purposes and to aid the Dungeon Master.
2) Always keep in mind that the Dungeon Master is the
moderator of the game, and as such, deserves the continued
cooperation, consideration and respect of all the
players. If you disagree with him or her, present your viewpoint
with deference to the DM's position as game judge, but
be prepared to accept his or her decision as final—after all,
keep in mind that you may not know all aspects of the overall
game situation, and in that case, not everything will always
go your way!
3) Cooperate with your fellow players and work together
when adventuring. Remember that on any foray into the dungeon
or wilderness, a mix of character classes will be beneficial,
since the special abilities of the various characters will
complement each other and add to the overall effectiveness
of the party.
4) Be neither too hasty nor too sluggish when adventuring. If
you are too fast in your exploration, you may recklessly endanger
yourself and your fellow adventurers and fall prone
to every trick and trap you encounter. If you are too slow, you
will waste valuable time and may be waylaid by more than
your share of wandering monsters without accomplishing
anything. As you gain playing experience you will learn the
proper pace, but rely on your DM for guidance.
5) Avoid arguing. While disagreements about a course of
action will certainly arise from time to time, players should
quickly discuss their options and reach a consensus in order
to proceed. Bickering in the dungeon will only create noise
which may well attract wandering monsters. Above all, remember
that this is just a game and a little consideration will
go far toward avoiding any hard feelings . . .
6) Be on your guard. Don't be overly cautious, but be advised
that some non-player characters may try to hoodwink
you, players may doublecross you, and while adventuring,
tricks and traps await the unwary. Of course, you won't avoid
every such pitfall (dealing with the uncertainties is part of the
fun and challenge of the game), but don't be surprised if
everything is not always as It seems.
7) Treat any retainers or NPCs fairly. If you reward them generously
and do not expose them to great risks of life and limb
that your own character would not face, then you can expect
a continuing loyalty (although there may be exceptions,
of course).
8) Know your limits. Your party may not be a match for every
monster you encounter, and occasionally it pays to know
when and how to run away form danger. Likewise, a dungeon
adventure may have to be cut short if your party suffers
great adversity and/or depleted strength. Many times it will
take more than one adventure to accomplish certain goals,
and it will thus be necessary to come back out of a dungeon
to heal wounds, restore magical abilities and spells, and reinforce
a party's strength.
9) Use your head. Many of the characters' goals in the game
can be accomplished through the strength of arms or magic.
Others, however, demand common sense and shrewd
judgment as well as logical deduction. The most successful
players are those who can effectively use both aspects of the
game to advantage.
10) The fun of a D&D game comes in playing your character's
role. Take on your character's persona and immerse
yourself in the game setting, enjoying the fantasy element
and the interaction with your fellow players and the Dungeon
Enjoy yourself, and good luck!

Interview with the Troll

Let's just say I can't think of a good way to start this...

So how about a little Q&A with the Blogspot Troll (Otus drawn, natch) so you can take a peek at what I'm all about?

OtusTroll: So good to have you with us today.....

Badmike: God this is stupid, let's just do it....

OT: When and where did you start playing D&D?

BM: That would be spring of 1978, here in Texas (I'm a life long Texan) in a suburb between Dallas and Fort Worth were I went to high school. I was introduced at the end of my first year in high school. A new neighbor (who I am still friends with, btw) moved into the area and kept raving about this new game they all played in his hometown of Maryland. We both went out and found the Holmes boxed set at a local hobby store, brought it home, and the rest is history. I've been playing RPGs ever since.

OT: Did you continue playing Holmes style?

BM: No, we switched to AD&D almost immediately, even if we did have to wait for the DMG to be published. Having no access to the original white box (I seem to remember having a Greyhawk supplement) we had to wing a bunch of it at the time, including most of the magic items.

OT: Do you still play 1st edition AD&D?

BM: No, we switched to 2E when it came out and have stayed there since. I have a lot of fond memories of the original AD&D game, but we had houseruled it so much that when 2E was released, it was pretty darn close to the game we were already playing. It was a pretty seamless switch, and I've never went back. I do play the occasional 1E or Holmes version D&D game at conventions or for special occasions.

OT: What about 3E?

BM: Uh, no.

OT: 4E?

BM: I'm pretty comfortable playing what we play now. Over the past couple of decades our house rules have been adjusted and codified enough that I'm perfectly satisfied with them; new editions are just more rules to learn. Often we'll have sessions where I never glance at the rule book once.

OT: Do you regularly play any other RPGs?

BM: Unfortunately, I don't at this time. There is just a finite amount of free time you have when you get older and have more responsibilities. I have, however, played a lot of Call of Cthulhu (my second favorite RPG after D&D), and have run a long going campaign of Villains and Vigilantes back in the 80s. My group also dabbled in Gamma World, Top Secret, Champions, and a few others. I actually haven't played a lot of RPGs outside of the ones I mentioned, although I've collected almost every system put out before the 90s.

OT: Do you play any boardgames?

BM: I am really not a "boardgame" type person; one of the reasons I enjoy RPGs so much is that I hate to lose with a passion, and always have, as far back as I can remember. I remember getting furious losing a game of Monopoly when I was maybe 12, and pretty much giving up on boardgames at that point. When I discovered RPGs, I realized the abstract system was perfect for me, with no real "winner" or "loser" to gum things up. The result is nowadays I'll only play a boardgame I have a better than average chance of winning. Games of pure chance are straight out. I enjoy a game of Trivial Pursuit every once in awhile, along with Dungeon, Search for the Emperor's Treasure, Arkham Horror, and Talisman. Divine Right is one boardgame I still love to this day, even if it takes all day to play.

OT: So you mostly concentrated on RPGs, specifically AD&D. And it seems that most of your formative gaming years were spent in the "Golden Age" of RPGs, specifically 1974-1982 or thereabouts. Can you tell us a little about that?

BM: It was really a great time to start gaming. I was the DM probably 90% of the time simply because no one else wanted to, and I was fine with that. I always loved peering "behind the curtain" and knowing what was behind the next doorway. I wasn't much of a "creator", more of an "adaptor", so I would run all the TSR modules as they were released, but changed up considerably over what was on the page. I think I've run pretty much every published adventure that came out before 1986, some more than once (some many more; I've run B1 several dozen times). At any one time I would have at least two campaigns going, one was my original group (which gamed from 1978 through 1986) that ran through most of the classic TSR modules of the period including the GDQ series. The other group started later, about 1981 or so when I started college, and ran through a lot of the lower level classic modules like the U series, A series, and most of the I-Series, and later on the S-series. I'd throw in the occasional Judges Guild or Dragon magazine adventure for good measure. The trick wasn't writing them, it was taking a finished product and adapting it to whatever level the party was and changing it up enough so that it felt like "mine". I never understood how anyone ever had the time to write an adventure from scratch! I was pretty busy with school and work during those years, and played RPGs every chance I got,

What was great back in those days was the lack of familiarity with RPGs was actually a plus when you were trying to recruit people to play. That along with the fact that EVERYONE just played ONE sort of D&D....the question wasn't "Do you play ODD/1E/2E/3E/4E", but "Do you want to learn this really cool new game?". The plethora of worlds that would come with 2E, as well as the different editions and styles of play, hurt the hobby more than anything else I can think of....particularly the divisiveness that is now worn as a badge of honor by a lot of gamers. Back in the day, you sat down and played, and didn't particularly cared if it was white box, 1E, Moldvay, Mentzer, etc. You were just playing "D&D" and sometimes you would mix it up; I played in Howardian games, Lovcraftian games, Vancian games, Burroughsian games, whatever. To this day I can't even remember what edition or rules set most of them were. The fact that now people will "only" play Type X D&D but never Types Y & Z is really quite an odd mindset to me after almost 40 years of our hobby.

Anyway it was a great time for could always find a group, and there was always a game going on somewhere. I remember at one time playing a pickup game at my college while at the other tables there were games of Runequest, Traveller and Boot Hill going on. So you could table hop and play medieval fantasy, SF and western RPGS all in one day! For all I know that kind of stuff is still going on, but I doubt it....with all the other attention stoppers like minis and CCGs I doubt you could find that sort of variety in your average gameshop or college campus. But maybe I'm wrong, I'm starting to fall into the role of an old fogy these days....

OT: Back to D&D, do you consider yourself "Old School?"

BM: I think it's getting harder to define Old School. Is it a system? A philosophy? A way of playing? I enjoy nostalgia but I think a lot of those who call themselves "Old School" get really caged in by a set of tropes that stagnate rather than expand the possibilities. I come from the school of "If you're having fun, it's all good". Unfortunately a lot of old schoolers seem to come from the school of "If you're not doing it my way (or the old way), you aren't doing it right." I understand a lot of people don't want to use any set of rules that was released post-Gygax when it comes to D&D, it's a "thing" with them and I respect that. There are groups that can't wait to roll through the Caves of Chaos for the 99th time, and more power to them (I just ran B2 myself last year). It does get a bit ridiculous IMO when someone is really proud about the fact they haven't picked up anything published after 1986, or haven't given a look to any adventure published by Necromancer games, or think that anything that makes the game easier (say, the CD rom core rules for 2E) is the tool of the devil, etc. They are missing a lot of good stuff. It's like saying all fantasy writing stopped with Tolkien, or with Howard, or Lovecraft. Which come to think of it, there are those out there also.

So obviously I dislike when the "Old School" starts becoming the equivalent of the old man shouting "Get off my lawn, you young punks!" and instead of trying to become inclusive, revels in their ability to put up roadblocks. Value judgements based on minor changes in the rules really get my dander up. I appreciate that people still enjoy the "old way" of doing things; I think it's against the heart and soul of the games to tell others they are doing it wrong.

But yeh, sure, give me a 16 level megadungeon and a party with a elven mage, dwarven fighter, halfling thief and human cleric and I'm happy as a clam.

OT: Do you support the Simulacrum gaming renaissance?

BM: Actually yes. I think it's very cool. I've read through most of these (Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, Swords and Wizardry) and really appreciate the feeling behind them. I'm a big supporter!

OT: Ok, this is turning into a short novel. I'm just going to run through a few quick thoughts having to do with D&D. Just give a short comment, these should pigeonhole you for the masses.....

BM: Me, a short answer?

OT: Favorite Authors?

BM: Howard, CAS, Lovecraft, Saki, Karl Wagner, David Gemmell, Fritz Leiber, Roger Zelazny, Theodore Sturgeon. I am a huge pulp fiction fan and enjoy a lot of the crime stuff from the 30s-50s.

OT: Favorite TSR modules?

BM: B1 In Search of the Unknown (it may be the "perfect" beginning adventure); I1 Forbidden City; Ruins of Undermountain; L1 Bone Hill; the entire GDQ cycle.

OT: Favorite non-TSR modules?

BM: Anything by The Companions; Midkemia city supplements like Carse or Tulan; Dark Tower and Caverns of Thracia by Judges Guild; Starstone.

OT: Favorite gaming world?

BM: Actually, my own. I've DM'd in both Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms, but in the past 15 years I've come to realize that your campaign is not truly your own until you create your own campaign world. It truly re-energizes you, and keeps your players guessing.

OT: Some of your house rules?

BM: No level draining undead (STR and CON pts are drained instead); no level limits for Demi-humans; very limited alignment choices; all priests are specialty priests; demi-humans aren't abnormally long lived (200 yrs at most); ability rolls to decide some actions; probably a lot more I can't think of off the top of my head.

OT: If the dice told you to TPK a 1st level party in the 1st room of B1, would you do it?

BM: Hmm, interesting question. If they had done something unforgivably stupid maybe. Otherwise probably not...I'd work it into the story somehow (maybe they would be captured by their foes to be sold into slavery, so I'd give them a chance to work up an escape plan). I'm not a big believer in the TPK even if the dice dictate it. The dice aren't my boss.

OT: Would you let a player roll up an assassin character?

BM: Nope. Been there, done that, have the scars to show for it.

OT: Blunt weapons only for Clerics?

BM: Unless their God says otherwise, and in my campaign many do say otherwise. I have clerics that use daggers, spears and swords in my games.

OT: You randomly roll up +5 platemail as a treasure in a low level dungeon. Do you let your players keep it?

BM: I don't randomly roll up treasure....

OT: Backgrounds for PCs, or just roll 'em up and play 'em?

BM: I like backgrounds, but nothing more than a couple of sentences, I like to avoid the "Dragonlance" syndrome where everyone has a gut wrenching back story. OTOH, I don't like throw away characters either, because if players know you don't care then they will show you how little they care themselves in their style of play. The player that will rush the red dragon with a dagger because "he can just roll up another one in a couple minutes". There has to be some small attachment to that piece of paper with numbers on it, otherwise there is chaos.

OT: Anything controversial you want to add?

BM: Let's see; I use a laptop and the core rules cd Rom when I DM instead of a screen; psionics have no place in D&D, and I consider gamers who play strictly "by the book" imagination-less bores. Nothing else right now.

OT: Thanks, and happy to join you on your blogspot!

BM: Anything Otus is fine by me...!