Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Writing 1e AD&D Adventures is Easier

My favorite adventure of all time. Does that say more about me or the adventure? Not sure, but this adventure epitomized the deadliness, capriciousness and evil whimsy that was AD&D. The reputation ToH earned placed it forever more in the trophycase of great adventures of all time, and a model of what Gygaxian gaming could truly be. And if you think it is just me, this module took 3rd greatest adventure of all time in Paizo's Dungeon Magazine's 30 Greatest Adventures of All Time.
My second favorite adventure was ranked 9th overall in the same contest and takes its place for gonzo whimsy to an all new level. Yes, this  adventure is also deadly in new and tricksy ways, but not in the same death trap spirit of ToH. Going through this adventure is like climbing on the haunted roller coaster at the amusement park without seatbelts and the mortality failsafes turned off. Which brings up something else about these early gems. You might see them as somewhat "railroady", but this is an illusion. The idea here, and with all three of my top picks, is to place before characters a truly strange, wondrously, bizarre and immanently deadly location filled with amazing treasures (not to mention bragging rights for surviving) and allow a story to unfold. Sure there is a storyline in the background, an evil lich protecting his horde while tauntingly tempting PCs to their deaths, or a trio of hidden artifacts kidnapped by an insane wizard and his gnomish henchmen. But the real story unfolds as the players and their characters face the challenge of the module itself.
My last pick for top three adventures of all time: Expedition to Barrier Peaks. Here we have the uniquely pulpy blend of science fantasy of which so many great novels of yore were made. Inspired to one degree or another from Metamorphosis Alpha, Gamma World, or Dave Arneson's penchant for including science fantasy tropes in his Blackmoor campaign. Barrier Peaks hits all the right notes for including such "otherworldliness" into a fantasy campaign. This module also went to great pains to guide the DM to running such a "never before seen" environment with medieval fantasy characters. Thus the whole adventure becomes a puzzle of sorts that is just as fun running as it is figuring out. Also deadly in wholly new ways, but so satisfyingly bizarre simply because trying to describe a robot or a laser gun or powered armor to a medieval wizard or paladin is about as awesome as it gets! And rated in the article cited above as 5th greatest of all time.

All three of these works have several things in common. Note that they are all dungeon crawls. They are all special adventures originally designed for tournament play. This lent their use as one shot, all in one, "self-contained" adventures. Such was the play in much of the early days of D&D. And note as well, they reside in that special place of AD&D before 1981 when the lines between AD&D and Original D&D were blurred. They are all extremely deadly, surprising, puzzle oriented, trap heavy and gonzo to one degree or another. And as of 2004 all three in the top ten.

I consider such work to be the epitome of AD&D, the game at it's height, for me, and indicative of the type of game we generally played. It was also indicative of the kind of adventures which we wrote and ran. I start this way in a post titled Why Writing 1e AD&D Adventures is Easier (for me) to perhaps give the reason with adequate explanation. Is this background what makes writing these kinds of adventures so much more approachable for me?

If we look at the time span I played games it might also help: I played

  • 1e from 1981 to 1989 or 8 years
  • 1989 to 1995 I read 2e stuff sometimes, but never liked it and mostly didn't play--these were my college years and I think I played less than three times.
  • from 1995 to 2004 I took off from gaming and had sold all of my gaming stuff.
  • from 2004 to 2006 I played 3.5 with a club at the school I taught in.
  • from 2006 to 2008 I played Castles & Crusades and some OSRIC with the same club and in my home group from time to time.
  • from 2008 to 2010 I played 4e with my school club.
  • from 2009 to 2012 I played Pathfinder/3.5
  • from 2012 to 2015 I mostly read OSR stuff but wasn't gaming very much
  • from 2015 to present I play in a 5e game at my home. 

So, 8 years with 1e (10 if you count OSRIC and C&C), 5 years with 3.5/Pathfinder, 2 years-ish with 4e, and now 5 years with 5e. That could certainly account for some bias. but truthfully stacked to 1e for 10 years, I have been playing d20 based higher powered versions for a total of 12+ years.

However, I was talking to a good gaming friend the other day, who has played since like 1990-ish and is now playing 5e about why I might feel this way. I thought his response very interesting and helpful. Says he, "I would say it's gotta be old school gaming ethos. But hear me out ...

"OSG was rooted in the idea that adventurers were regular people trying to survive in a deadly environment, but newer editions of D&D promote the idea that adventurers are heroic at level 1 and superheroic at level 9 (when wizards start casting 5th level spells). It's an idea that permeates the core rules of the game and makes a DM feel like s/he needs to write an adventure endorsing this belief."

"But whatever the root cause, comfort with a campaign setting and fluency with game mechanics / rules are the two main factors that influence my personal confidence when I am writing an adventure."

"The third reason my creativity can feel stifled, is when I feel like I am going to be challenged in-game by other players. I don't know if that helps explain what you're feeling, but in my case, all of the guys I play with have been playing longer than I have. My players have both challenged me in the past and disrupted the game. It's usually because they feel like I'm being too harsh or unfair, but it really takes the wind out of my sails."

"I prefer a truly deadly game and none of my players are like that."

"One player feels like a character should be developed over many levels and I feel like that should be earned not given. But in his defense he spends lots of time on his characters and doesn't want them chewed up and spit out in some Gygaxian dungeon. It's not that he feels his characters should be super powerful, he just doesn't want to open a secret door and have his face blown off by a kobold trap just because he rolls a 1 on his save and I roll max damage. Which is totally fair."

"In his mind, adventurers really are regular people trying to survive in a deadly environment. And that accepting the chance of death makes them heroic. And he's not wrong; no right minded adventurer would EVER walk into a dungeon in which survival was not at least 50-50. He believes in making plans and contingencies. He wants all the information and to be able to prepare as much as possible for success before walking into a deadly situation."

So, I am quite convinced now, that much of my problem is born out of what my friend calls the Old School Gaming Ethos. Even though I could say I know the rules RAW in 5e better than I do 1e RAW, I am more comfortable designing for the old school ethos than with the new school assumptions. I struggle because of exactly what he is talking about here. In fact it is the reason I am still playing 5e. I am too afraid of players complaining, or not wanting to play, or feeling shafted because playing adventures like S1, 2 or 3 with standard AD&D characters was an exceedingly risky proposition. I would be hard pressed to give any 10th through 14th level PC a 50/50 chance of surviving in ToH. 60/40 maybe if they were 14th level with high magic potential, but still ...

Monday, January 6, 2020

From Whence to Whither?

Day & Night by M.C. Escher
Knowing oneself is not a simple matter. Knowing one's direction is much easier.

For the past four plus years now, I have actively played Fifth Edition D&D with a home based group of twenty somethings and my teenage children. That has been my direction. Sadly, it has not been "myself".

Aligning the direction you're traveling with the truth of your inner self, is something I've rarely managed to attain.

If you were to ask me I would say that I am still more comfortable and more at home with First Edition AD&D than any other ruleset. However, I have come to believe even this isn't exactly true for me. There is the age we remember and the age that really was.

If you asked me to dig a bit deeper and be more true, more real with myself ... In the case of D&D, as mentioned in my last post, what I thought I was playing and what we actually played was not in perfect agreement. This has become clearer the more I have listened to old 1e players talk about AD&D and their play. As we revisit the rules as they were written we begin to see what we didn't see, realize or play by back in the day. There are exceptions, of course--guys who played with 1e rules and were very strict in enforcing them. And then there was my group.

And not just my group, but a whole network of guys who only agreed upon the loosest interpretation of what might be called 1e rules. Instead we were bound by an idea of imaginary worlds flexibly defined as D&D. And the closer I get to being real with myself, I probably know 5e rules better than I do 1e rules. But yet I still feel more comfortable, more at home in 1e; when I am designing 1e adventures, creating 1e characters, and playing (what I consider) 1e.

What is Gygaxian Gaming: An Opinion

Now that I've spent some time with the opinions of others, and distilled those comments into some kind of a consensus on the definition of Gygaxian Gaming--it's time for me to consider what my opinion is on Gygaxian Gaming.
What the heck is it anyway?
I started playing D&D in 1981. I've described the complete story earlier in my blog, but the salient point here is that I learned from guys that had started playing with the small woodgrained box Original D&D with supplements. By the time I started they already had the AD&D PHB, DMG and Monster Manual. That was April 1981, and of course I was hooked right from the start. But it wasn't until December of that year that I got some of my own books, a PHB, Monster Manual and Moldvay Basic Set myself. At the time I saw the Basic Set as, well, basic. I had the advanced rules and that was what I had been playing with my friends--why would I go back to basic?! But to be clear, we really were playing a style more reminiscent of Original D&D with supplements. We used the tables from the PHB for experience, abilities, weapon damage, spells and the like, but little else. We knew there were a lot of rules, and we sort of acted like we played with them all, but we were really playing a pretty light and fast version of the game. We made up most of what we didn't know, hand waving questions about rules if we couldn't look it up in a minute or less.
It was nice to think there was all this rulesy richness in the game, and that we were a part of that somehow. But when it came down to playing, Gygaxian meant the impression of depth, with the reality of maximal creativity and imagination. That was probably the biggest thing I have realized over the years. As we matured in the game we began to understand more and more about racial level limits, ability maximums and minimums, etc. In fact I recall even now when I first read the DMG, years later that we could roll 4d6 for ability scores and that most characters should have at least two 15's?! We had been rolling 3d6 in order for years. We began to debate rules more and more as I aged, but in truth, when we played, it was still that old familiar wild and wooly days of old where anything could happen and anything was possible.

Now, don't get me too wrong here. The fact was, D&D always had the impression of rules depth for us. We knew there were guidelines and lines we shouldn't cross and that if you did you were not only cheating, you were a Benedict Arnold of some sort or other. It wasn't exactly anything goes ... at least in principle.

So when I think about what Gygaxian means to me, it does mean crazy zaniness at times, but it also means a game more or less rooted in medieval fantasy. It means death and danger. It means roll your HP and if you got a 1 you kept it. And 3d6 straight down the line. It definitely meant GM fiat and at times the game was adversarial within the bounds of the friendly contest. And as much as I love High Gygaxian and think it should be preserved, I didn't ever read the manuals all the way through from cover to cover. For you see Gygaxian to me was the magic in a bottle captured back in 1974 and illustrated so well in the supplements through 1977 or so. D&D was once described as make believe like you used to play as a kid, cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians, but at a table in your mind's eye with rules. And when it comes right down to it, you don't need many rules to play either of those make believe games. The barest minimum of guidelines will do and if there are problems, we'll make a call along the way. That was the way we played D&D.

If I had to encapsulate the extent of the rules we used it would probably be something like:
Dice of course,
Ability scores and their modifiers, mostly to hit/dmg/and AC,
Classes, their abilities (and they were few) and spells,
Races and their abilities,
Money & equipment,
Saving throws,
Armor Class and a to hit table,
Monsters, their AC and HP and abilities,
Magical Items,
And that was about it.

Chase rules, how far you could move, grappling, how infravision actually worked, or the fact that lair treasure type was different from individual treasure type, and all the rest, well, we just didn't use them. So it wasn't a surprise to me when one of the hosts of the Grogtalk Podcast, Dan, began to realize that actually trying to use all of these rules can not only be intimidating, it can be irritating. No matter how much I like the Knights of the Dinner Table parody of the rules intensive version of D&D, I never really played that way. Oddly I didn't find KODT funny back in the day probably because it made fun of something I took so seriously. Call it lack of maturity or lack of awareness, probably both, the fact is the perception of play vs the actual play was something that hadn't been clarified for me until years later.

Thus the odd marriage of a weird fantasy roleplaying game of light rules, flexible, highly creative play, filled with bizarre strangeness, high risk for high reward, and the rich depth of a plethora of optional rules presented in classic High Gygaxian is what I experienced as Dungeons & Dragons in my youth, and what continues to truly inspire me now. 

The problem is in achieving that now in my adult years. Even I have fallen into the trap of thinking  First Edition AD&D played RAW is the way to achieve what I remember. But that isn't the case at all. I have never played 1e RAW, and don't even know if I could. Just take a look at the AD&D BtB Combat Flowchart for a taste of what including all the rules might look like in regards to AD&D combat!! Not something I have ever done, nor will likely ever use. And from what I understand, neither did Gary Gygax. The fact is if we are going to play 1e to achieve this we have to agree we are only playing with a small selection of the rules. This was the idea behind Labyrinth Lord's Advanced Edition Companion. "The way we all played AD&D back in the day." And it was certainly closer to the way we played when I started playing.

Now, that being said, what the rules actually are matter, and they matter a lot. For me 3d6 for abilities, random rolls for HP, humanocentric play, death at zero HP, save vs death, descending armor class, to hit tables, 9 point alignment system, and the like all create a game that is much more distinctly Gygaxian in feel. But there is some bend in some of these areas. 4d6 drop the lowest doesn't kill it, max HP at level 1 doesn't either. Doing away with racial level limits is iffy, but what it mostly does is cheapen the racial differences in the game. It tends to make dwarves and elves play like nothing but funny looking humans. Increasing AC and a d20 foundation doesn't kill the feel, and certainly speeds things up, but it feels different. And I actually think playing alignment with a strong Law vs Chaos ethos deepens play and avoids lots of the alignment related issues people seem to have with it nowadays, and I would say is more truly Gygaxian, than the moral code it has evolved into.  So there is some give even on these rules. And quick death can be enforced simply by only allowing magical healing and a healing restore after a night's rest. Even that isn't canon, but is much better than healing surges, spending HD or allowing faster healing. Additional rules like wounding, crippling, thresholds of pain, bleeding and exhaustion are all cool and sound good, but they can be cumbersome and limit play more than deepen it. Even Gary acknowledged this when he dissed Arneson's hit location rules. Of course then he turned around and added weapon speed and armor class adjustments, so ...