30 March 2015

Chaos Bubbles

I casually mentioned, during a local gaming session, my use of chaos bubbles as a wandering monster encounter. When fellow gamer "A" questioned what I meant by that, it took a moment for me to realize this was an encounter of my own devising and not a part of the rules. I'd been using them for so long I'd forgotten.

Chaos bubbles had their genesis in the Dungeon Geomorphs marketed by TSR back in the day. When this result was rolled on my (always) customized encounter tables I would simply remove the geomorph I was using and put a new one its place, rearranging room descriptions and making up new stuff as needed "on the fly." I liked it so much I began using the idea when I drew my own maps, marking out areas ahead of time that would change if a chaos bubble percolated up from the chaotic underdark (new expression for an old idea used in the name of brevity).

The whole idea sprang forth from the understanding the underworld was opposed to the Forces of Law. This, in turn, was inspired in part by the rules about doors opening easily for monsters but resisting the player-character's attempts to open them. Or, the fact denizens of the underworld had infravision but not players ... and a monster entering the service of the players (and Law, presumably) would lose that ability.

As I began to use this idea on my hand-drawn maps, I began to expand upon it. There were often 4 or 6 such areas with the potential for changing if a chaos bubble came up. The appropriate die was used to generate which area was so affected. Players trapped within a bubble's area of effect might find egress from the room or area significantly changed and their maps of the immediate (or larger) area rendered inaccurate. In addition, the players themselves might suffer subtle changes: gems changing value, gold coins turning into less valuable copper pieces or vice-versa, rations appearing or disappearing from their packs, even the number of arrows in their quiver changing.

You Do/Don't Need To Know The Rules!

There's been some talk of how players need to be ignorant of the rules in order to play the game as it was played in the halcyon days of the hobby. Though I feel this is a fine way to run a game (more on that below) I'm going to have to call foul ball on the "authentic" part of the claim. I submit as proof for my assertion the following: 
If you are a player purchasing the DUNGEONS and DRAGONS rules in order to improve your situation in an existing campaign, you will find that there is a great advantage in knowing what is herein. (OD&D Volume I: Men & Magic)
It's the first line of the second paragraph of the bloody rules! The first paragraph of the introduction is written specifically to referees, making this second paragraph the very first statement made directly to potential players. As a referee, I never had a huge problem with players knowing the rules. My reasoning was they should know the basics of How Things Work™ ... just as we know by experience and observation how our world works. They should know the basics of the protective factor of armor, how far an arrow flies, how tough a giant is to kill, and how likely a blow will actually hit an opponent. Of course I always caution against assuming my goblins (or any other monster) are the same as the rulebook goblins, doing so might get their player-characters killed. Some things should be a mystery, after all.

SHOULD THEY KNOW? I'm speaking from supposition and not experience here. Because I was the first geek in [small town in TX] to own the rules I had to know them well enough to run the game. Thus, I never had to play OD&D without thorough knowledge of what was in the little box. Still, years of running the game allows me to speak from cumulative experience.

Excessive gamist thinking tends to pull players out of the game and into reality. Suspension of belief is a fun part of the game for many of us ... even the referee. When folks ask me how players opened locked doors or chests when there was no thief in the game, my reply is how would you do it? Don't think only a thief can pick a lock, if you yourself were actually in the game with the resources your party had, how would you open that locked door?

Player-Characters don't "know" they have only 1 hit point left during a fight (you feel weak and your vision is beginning to blur), they have just gained second level (your experience has taught you a better way to use your sword and shield in combat), or the monster has a high armor class (you gasp as your powerful blow harmlessly glances off the young dragon's hide). On a personal note, I think it's more fun when you don't know all those things. I played in a campaign here in Austin TX in which a monster's AC or a magical sword's bonus was discovered by trial and error. I know many players feel the same way. But ...

DO THEY WANT TO KNOW? Geeks (and I use the term affectionately) are a smart bunch of guys and gals. Some just can't relax until they've unscrewed the back of the cuckoo clock and disassembled the blasted thing to figure out how it all works. There are just as many who feel this way about the rules of the game as those of us who feel looking at the man behind the curtain steals the magic away from "The Great & Powerful Oz."

A common theme in my 'blog writing is "what do your players want?" A player having a well-rounded knowledge of the game can be a big plus at the table, as I learned when I was conducting a Traveller campaign and overlooked a significant rule in ship-to-ship combat. Then there is the darker side of same. As alluded to in my previous post there are barracks room lawyers out there who want to beat every bit of advantage from the rules; this being fun for them. Unfortunately their fun usually sucks all the joy from the game for everyone else at the table.

SO? SHOULD THEY OR SHOULDN'T THEY? In my opinion, a basic but not specific knowledge of the rules is the best way to proceed. Whether you agree or not, don't allow yourself to believe not knowing is an authentic "old school" (how I hate that term) playing experience. Focus on the behavior and desires of the players. Explain to them you'd like to try running the game with a minimum of knowledge on their part, though they will still need certain specifics such as prices, how their spells work, etc. Most players will enjoy the challenge, even if it makes them feel uncomfortable. If the majority of your players do not feel this is a good way to proceed then pass out the rulebooks with a smile ... along with the caveat these are merely suggestions not rules. An evil smirk and brisk rubbing of the palms together whilst making this pronouncement will go a long way toward keeping your players on their toes!

17 March 2015

... And Then Everyone Went Home

I've wondered how much to say about my first ever session of OD&D but, to the best of my knowledge, none of those individuals are currently active gamers. So, here goes.

After selling my parents on the idea of having friends over for a game, I eagerly laid out all my materials on the table in the breakfast nook. They were used to me taking over this area for constructing Estes model rockets and pretty much whatever else had caught my fancy. Our religious beliefs didn't take a dim view of the game, though I was to run into one that did (and hard) within a year or two of this time. One by one my nerdy friends from the Chess Club, the euphemism for wargaming club at my high school, began to show up. They'd heard me talking about this "new game" and all were eager to give it a try.

There were 7 of us in all. A brief explanation of the dice, mapping, and character creation followed and we got to work. Character creation took longer than I thought it might but we muddled through. Already some troubles were beginning to show. Two of those present, "D" and "R," were arguing with every little aspect of the rules ... rules laywering as it came to be known as the hobby caught on.

With a bit of time D began to relax and get into the flow of the game. He was the fellow who'd taught me wargaming with Avalon Hill's Blitzkrieg and quickly came to realize bickering over the rules was a fruitless endeavor. On the other hand R never caught on to that bit of wisdom.

It wasn't subtle, even from the start, his voiced objections growing increasingly strident as the party progressed from equipping themselves, to the 2 game hour trip to the actual dungeon, to entering the huge ruined pile, a vast castle built by generations of mad wizards and insane geniuses. As the player-character party stood outside a dungeon room door arguing with R about how to proceed, I rolled for a band of wandering monsters. The rest of the party wanted to sound retreat but R's fighter (18 STR!) attacked the group of berserkers. He was quickly slain with the first exchange of blows and the rest of party retreated with no further losses, pursued by the berserkers as they fled the dungeon.

R was glowering at me, interrupting me constantly as I tried to run the pursuit. As soon as the party was deemed safe, he exploded. Red-faced and shouting, he demanded an explanation of how his 5 hit dice fighting-man (original nomenclature for the fighter) was slain with but a single blow. Puzzled, I ask why he believed his first level fighting-man was 5 HD. He pointed to his character sheet and the PC's rolled hit points. Five of them. As I attempted to explain the difference between hit dice and hit points he got angrier and louder and the rest of the group began to snap and snarl at him.

The situation was spinning out of control so I attempted to take charge. Quieting everyone down, I calmly explained his error again and politely asked him to respect my ruling as the referee. When he began yelling again I managed, with great effort, to quiet him for the last time. I understand your frustration, I told him, but you must believe me. I've read and reread these rules every day for the past week since I'd bought them and you're just wrong.


That word hung in the air like the aroma of rotting eggs. His face, already flushed, became even more red, his eyeballs bulged, and the shout became a scream as his dice whistled past my face.


Maybe I should have used the term "incorrect" instead of "wrong"?

No, I do not believe it would have made any difference. Chairs were knocked over and my rulebooks thrown to the ground as he made his exit from the room, slammed the door open and shut, climbed into his car, roaring off into the night in a blind fury. To call the stunned silence in his wake awkward would utterly fail to hint at the shocked speechlessness filling the room. In a daze I gathered the fallen dice and rulebooks, righting the 2 chairs he knocked over in his flight. My dad casually wandered through the breakfast nook with a look promising a long "talk" with me later.

... and then everyone went home.

The post script to all this: the friendship between R and myself was forever damaged that night. I tried to patch things up with him but he was convinced I purposefully killed his character, we never again gamed together in any capacity. I tried, and I believe he tried too, but the continued strained interaction killed what little goodwill we had left for each other. The rest of the group continued to meet, though there were some nervous smiles the next time I ran a combat for them. Our group otherwise thrived until I moved from that town a short while later. I was off to University and at the same time my family moved out of state. As a result of this I subsequently lost track of them all. Except R, as fate would have it. I've run into him a few times over the past 40 years since I left [small town in Texas] and, though we've never spoken of the incident, it seems time has finally healed that wound.

For both of us.


One of the first things I house-ruled in the first days of my campaign were the various non-human player-character races. These are now referred to as demi-humans to distinguish them from the humanoid bad guy races, but in the boxed rules both were collectively referred to as man-types. And, no! I did not eliminate demi-human level limits as part of those changes. I understand the objections some have raised over them but understanding does not imply agreement. I've found those who came into the hobby from a wargaming background are generally more accepting of these.

CHAOS TINGED The Law and Chaos dichotomy was a big part of the background picture of The Shattered Lands campaign. I liked the notion of segregated human and demi-human civilizations and used the idea of a strong aversion to Chaos resembling the Communist paranoia of the 1950's in USA history ... they are among us, they look like us, but they are not us. I didn't make this a strong element, one in which those accused of being minions of Chaos were dragged from their homes in the middle of night. It was more like a case of assumed suspicion until proven otherwise, particularly in less urban settings. Chaos Tainted (or tinged) is not the same thing in the minds of common man as Chaotic. Calling someone Chaos Tainted means it is believed the person in question is Lawful or Neutral alignment but they are influenced, in sometimes subtle ways, by Chaos. It should be noted the demi-humans are not Chaotic in my campaign, at least as a group.

This suspicion was especially heavy upon the eldest races, the High Elves and the Dwarves. The former due to their historically strong but now waning connections to magic and all things fey, as well as their odd dual nature as both Fighter and Magic-User. In the latter case due to their delving deep into the earth, associated with the underworld and the Oldest Powers of Chaos. This cue was taken from the association of infravision being granted by a mysterious and non-specified underworld power in the printed rules. Wood Elves and Gnomes were slightly less distrusted by humanity. In the case of the Wood Elves, though still of fey origins, their association with woodlands and growing things is seen as more pure. Gnomes are a similar case, in my campaign associated with normal and giant varieties of normal burrowing animals. This coupled with the fact their burrows did not delve as deeply into the earth as Dwarves made them seem less menacing. Their shorter stature no doubt aided in this regard.

And last of all, Hobbits. Their bucolic communities and epicurean ways made them seem innocuous to the humans. Hobbits faced no suspicion of Chaos taint the other man-types faced, though the general suspicion of strangers still needed to be dealt with.

In general terms during NPC interactions? Humans would deal with Hobbits, Gnomes, and Wood Elves in the group; speaking only to High Elves or Dwarves with necessity. This would quickly ease with repeated dealings, and might be relaxed if the individual demi-human had a high Charisma or somewhat local good reputation. 

NOT LIKE US I downplayed the more insular nature of medieval communities in my campaign. I felt it an impediment to fun. Not that player-characters were treated as long lost brothers, but spending lots of game time trying to prove to the natives one is a good Joe seemed to be a useless exercise. In 40 years of gaming I've never had anyone raise this objection.

PLAYER-CHARACTERS INTERACTIONS ARE DIFFERENT It was assumed none of the general suspicions regarding trust or mistrust between the races was a strong player-character dynamic. In my campaign, for instance, Dwarves and Gnomes are bitter enemies whose nations are in a state of Cold War constantly threatening to break into open conflict. Players are not expected to evince this dynamic and are, in point of fact, encouraged to work together in a spirit of cooperation. 

SHORT GUYS Fans of mythology had no issue with this, but fans of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings were a bit taken aback to discover elves weren't tall, beautiful, ideal realizations of the human form. Neither variety of PC Elf exceeded 5' in height, Dwarves were 4.5' tall, Gnomes 4' tall, and Hobbits were 3.5' tall.

  • High Elves had the abilities generally outlined in the rules. When they achieved 4th level as a Fighter and at least 5th level as a Magic-User their dual nature integrated into one and he was able to function in both classes simultaneously and without restriction. Until then they acted as one class or the other.When I adapted the Chance to Know Spells percentages from Greyhawk, I allowed High Elves to know any spell of all their usable levels.
  • Wood Elves early on were Rangers of a sort in much the fashion of Strider from Lord of the Rings. When the official Druid PC class came out I gave them the spell-casting abilities of that class, though I did not grant them the other special powers of that class (e.g. skin-changing). Because of their association with forest and outdoors, Wood Elves were also given low light vision similar to that of animals, this is not the infravision ability of the chaos tainted Underworld denizens. This ability made Wood Elf eyes reflect light in the darkness in the manner of cats and other creatures. 
  • Dwarves were used pretty much out of the box except I increased their level cap by one, to 7th level. This granted them access to 2 attacks per round per my house rules. As a side note: calling a Dwarf a Hill Dwarf (see Gnome, below) is a grave insult likely resulting in bloodshed.
  • Gnomes were not just a hill dwelling variety of Dwarf. They lacked the nearly supernatural architectural ability of the Dwarves but kept the giant fighting abilities. Gnomes were given the skills of increased accuracy in gem appraisal. They also had the ability to communicate with all normal and giant variety of normal burrowing animals, gaining a +2 to all reactions rolls when dealing with same. 
  • Hobbits were used pretty much right out of the box with one exception. They could be either Fighters, as laid out in the rules, or Scouts. Scouts were my campaign's Lawful variant of the Thief.

15 March 2015

No One True Path

Note: by sheer coincidence, a few hours after I posted this article I saw a very similar thread over on Dragonsfoot. I just didn't want anyone who saw both that post and this one to think this was a reaction to what was being said over there. I've posted a brief opinion over there but I want any readers to know I don't strike from the shadows ... I am not a fan of passive-aggressive tactics (or trolls in general).

There is much discussion on how to run a D&D campaign. Newbie referees (DMs in the later vernacular) are often frustrated by the frequently repeated adage there is no right (or wrong, by logical extension) way to run a campaign. 

There! Now we have that out of the way. I'd ask you to keep it in mind so I don't get a lot of "but what about ..." type of responses. 

You see, there are many ways to conduct a campaign. Lately, I've been seeing a lot of posts from longtime players of the game that are strongly implying if you don't run a "high concept" type of game with layer upon layer of plot, intrigue, and machinations then you simply do not "get it." I believe this is a result of becoming jaded, perhaps coupled with a desire to prove to the rest of the crowd just how bright and above the pack one really is. And? If that's the kind of campaign you want? I truly believe that is great. Play it your way, run it your way.

For the rest of us? The casual gamers, both relatively new and long-time, and folks who want to try that game with the elves and goblins and magic swords? Here are some thoughts for you!

IT'S OKAY TO RUN A FAIRLY "BY THE BOOK" CAMPAIGN! This is not to say the rules are sacrosanct. In point of fact, those holding the the text of the rules as holy writ not to be violated are missing the spirit of the authors' stated intent behind publishing the game. Most referees tinker with the rules right out of the box. This is natural and expected. What I'm saying is every campaign does not have to be like Barker's Empire of the Petal Throne Tékumel campaign with all its layers of complexity. Tékumel is an amazing role-playing experience but you don't have to have all that to run a great game.

Understand that a lot of newcomers and many casual gamers want the familiar experience ... that typical D&D game existing in the shadowy area between Conan the Barbarian and Aragorn the Ranger. Gaming isn't a serious business to them, they want to roll some dice while socializing with their like-minded buddies. Not that a complex campaign precludes any of that, but the referee may find of lot of his work and much of his subtlety lost upon his group as they swap anecdotes about their week and munch on snacks.

IT'S OKAY TO CHANGE THE RULES AS YOU SEE FIT It's your game by any reasonable definition of the word. If you don't like the way something works in your campaign? Change it to something you like. It's that easy! Many aspects of D&D often cited as issues by some gamers can be altered, removed, or replaced without breaking the way the game works. Don't like the Vancian style fire and forget magic system? Add in your very own spell point system and get to playing. Don't like 3d6 in order character generation? Add in your own point buy system, or assign attributes according to class, or anything else your mind can devise. Don't like the gold standard monetary system? Change to the silver standard and get to playing the game.

THE PLAY IS THE THING In all its aspects, D&D is a game and not a business (for most of us). The idea is to have fun, this means you, the referee, will have to figure out what your players want and give it to them. Do they want a deep Tékumel type of game? Do they want a somewhat lighter campaign where dungeon exploration is the key aspect of play and trips to town to resupply are nearly abstract in their simplicity?

FOR EXAMPLE My own campaign began with the original boxed set, no supplements. While I did acquire the OD&D supplements after a time, many of the issues addressed in them had already been house-ruled so I carefully cherry-picked campaign additions. There were many aspects of my campaign not from any official rule book, but my campaign could have easily been understood and run by a referee new to it with a very short (a few minutes) introduction to the variant material. I've always liked the simple and fast resolution for doing things the OD&D rules (in my opinion) espoused and kept my add-ons similarly simple.

I expanded the combat rules, added non-weapon fighting, invented a pantheon of deities, inserted additional armor types and weapons, more spells, some future technology, in general I tried to do things to keep the players from becoming complacent. Knowledge of the book rules were insufficient to give the players an undue edge, I was always trying to keep new things coming at them. My game add-on The Gnome's Jewel Crosstime Pub & Mercantile might give one an idea of how I tried to mix it up for gamers.

AT ANY RATE These are my general thoughts. Every gamer is different, but as one who has played since the 1970's in various campaigns? I've been in games profound and deep, shallow and bordering on the silly, campaigns both new and well-established. To my mind, the key is to have fun. If you aren't enjoying yourself, find a different group or run a campaign yourself.