Thursday, March 25, 2021

Too Much D&D

The Flies and the Honey Pot

"Flies were attracted to a honey jar. They ate greedily. But, their feet and wings got covered with the honey so they could not get free. They died."

The Moral: Too much of a good thing can be bad.


I was looking at my bookshelf the other day. I have limited book shelf space -- well, actually I have over 175 feet of shelving space, I just have too many books. Which in and of itself is probably a sufficient application of Aesop's above quoted fable. But I earnestly believe there is no such thing as too many books. But, back to making my point, my gaming shelf holds all my 1e materials, my Hackmaster 4th and 5th edition collections, a few other games I refer to often and my 5th edition stuff. 

As I perused them from a distance, it hit me that my 5th edition collection outnumbered any single other edition present. Now, having said that I do have 3rd and 4th edition D&D books in storage that probably outnumber 5e, but with this awareness came the thought the Gary and others expressed in 0e, "why have us do all the imagining for you?" 

I hate DMing in Forgotten Realms. There is so much damn stuff in that world I feel stifled. It feels like there is no room for a DM to breathe, no bare spot for me to set down my own creation--at least not if I want to include canon in my game as well. Now, I know this is an illusion. FR really does have space, and plenty of GMs fill it with their own stuff, and still allow most things from canon to exist in their campaigns as well. But the feeling for me is like I'm stuck in honey and can't breathe. 

To be fair, AD&D began to feel this way sometime before Unearthed Arcana came out. The addition of Oriental Adventures came with so much extra stuff and rules that were ported in one way or another into the game that it was already creating arguments. Dragon Magazine, though I loved it, didn't help. So much optional lore, NPC classes, race variations, etc. etc. was coming out a DM couldn't keep up. And no matter how cool we all thought UA was when it came out as we began to play with it it was clear no only had the game began to suffer from bloat, it also had jacked the power level up by at least half. Each subsequent release, the survival guides, Manual of Planes, and the Adventures tomes were almost ignored with a sense of growing supplement numbness. 

Now, I know that they were releasing these to try and save the brand. TSR had become a money machine, and a poorly run one at that. Frankly I think if -- no, I'm not gonna go there again. My point is that too much of a good thing had become a bad thing. The 2e re-boot didn't help. Well, it helped financially to propel the company through the first half of the 90's, but they multiplied the supplement load by over 200% and I now think it would have almost been impossible for one person to have everything 2e related. Although current day collectors are proving me wrong. 

But D&D, by then in Wizard's control, didn't learn. 3rd edition was known for the flood of supplements and the OGL, which just made the playing field enormously overwhelming. Back in the day it was considered a badge of honor for DMs to have actually read the DMG. Knowing the rules was a large part of game mastery. And by gamer mastery I do not mean game mastering, I mean mastery of the game. See Gygax's two works in this vein as well as the original rules themselves for proof of this ethos. Simply put a Dungeon Master was supposed to have read and know the rules. By the time 1e was dying, having been dealt it's death blow by the ousting of Gary, the company was simply about churning out as much as possible to make more money. 

I realize this is a controversial and almost unavoidable part of the hobby. Gamers thirst for material--I get it. I do too. But anymore, I'm just not impressed. I know Gary himself fell pray to this as he tried to right the company's mismanaged finances with the production of both OA and UA. They had learned along time ago that modules where big buck and gamers were dying for them. And the fact is if a company is pulling in more money they can't support the fans. Fans want product and companies oblige them.

The problem is what happens every single time! We flood the market with product, and in the end (five or six years after release) it usually isn't of the highest quality. Less and less sales happen and eventually a new edition gets talked about to revitalize the company's finances. All of a sudden that game we thought was so great seven years ago we now see as irreparably flawed and in need of a major overhaul. We all need $5000 of new books, while the others go into storage. I mean has anyone noticed that most of the 5e books released are re-releases. Of course you notice. Sure, they gave them a new coat of paint, and a theatrical screenplay makeover but what they're churning out now isn't even new. And I know all about the nostalgia market and WOTC's attempt to appeal to the grognards who had fled the modern gaming scene with 4e, but even still aren't we repeating mistakes of the past? 

So, you ask, what's my solution. I think we need to get back to our roots. And those roots are in 0e. Yep, not even my preferred edition. I suppose you could say basic D&D just as well, but the idea of a very light, flexible and open game. And what about support? I think the answer is zine based--high quality print AND digital. A robust OGL is a must, and instead of just the open marketplace like DMs Guild (which is not a bad idea, though they need to get away from the template based garbage they force people into now), we need a sense of connection to other DMs worlds as was intended in the early days of D&D. Somewhat like Planescape, only with gates to different worlds leading to the millions of DM created worlds instead of company produced planes of existence--although that could be included too. DMs and players would be responsible for their worlds and what exists on that world starting from a very limited base: something like fighter, thief, cleric magic user, and human, dwarf, elf and halfling. 

There is no need for the company to control the product so tightly any more. Or offer ten thousand options themselves. Back in the day this was an issue for a time due to tournament play. But we have left that far behind. I thought 5e was supposed to replicate this feel, with a very basic, flexible template upon which people could write their own stories. But instead we end up with the same thing was always have had--a company based product bloat that has made the game and playing overwhelming to the point of pointlessness. DMs aren't master of their game any longer. 

And, yes, we all know you didn't have to read the DMG back in the day to DM, nor do you now. You need to know a few critical rules and run with it. This is what such a system should be. A light, flexible system that as it is played fleshes out a world and gives rise to unique and an infinite variety of options for all concerned. Cause too much of a good thing is a bad thing. And right now, there is way too much 5e on my shelves. I'm sure the business managers at Hasbro are happy--but I'm not. 

Friday, March 19, 2021

In Defense of the Save or Die Trap


The argument here is simple really. As the sinister, evil-genius baddie who has gone to all the trouble to hide my secrets, and my loot, six or more levels below the earth and guarded them with all sorts of fell beasties, foul magics and traps the reason should be crystal clear. I don't want ANYONE coming near my stuff. Especially a band of those pesky, meddling, and potentially quite dangerous, adventurers!

Now sure, there are other purposes to set traps. Maybe I want to maim someone, or slow them up so they'll be easier for my minions to take care of. But why main or cripple or slow someone down when I can just kill them with the trap itself? Maybe it's to keep my somewhat rock-brained minions away from places they shouldn't be meddling, but a key and lock does that job cheaper and costs me less minions. Or perhaps mark them with permanent die, so I know who opened my spellbook when they shouldn't have. There could be lots of reasons, sure.

But the most straightforward reason to set lethal traps is to kill people I think are a pain in the asp. Death traps make all the sense in the world. Of course, these traps need an off mechanism of some sort, and maybe even a reminder or sign to help me and my minions remember where they are. Which makes the whole process for adventurers a lot more fun and manageable. 

Now, I'm not saying every trap should be lethal. As outlined above, there are other reasons to have traps. But don't shy away from the good old save or die trap just because players think they suck. Provide a different avoidance mechanism the players can figure out, and go for it. It only makes sense.

Oh, just as one other possibility why the arch nemesis of the adventurers may choose to prefer less than lethal traps--the ToH principle. Quite often our baddie is a twisted sadist and he finds it funny to prolong the adventurers agony. He wants to slowly whittle them down and torture them. A finger here, a head of hair there, a gender change in one room, a blinding one in another. In such cases the baddie almost always wants some way to watch this happen, or at least know when it happened. This too can be a clue to the party. Instead of the slightly off colored brick at every trap, that creepy floating eye appears. You get the idea. 

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

The Spirit of AD&D


AD&D is magic items. I don't think it's possible to overestimate the importance of magic items in AD&D. They were the premium of treasure taken in adventures. And they grew to define what your character could do and accomplish. As opposed to all of your abilities being defined by abilities you gain as you advance, AD&D often defined a character's power level by the items they had managed to win on their adventures. Some feel like this is a bad thing. For such items can be lost, broken, stolen or otherwise stripped from your character. That is exactly the point. Certainly a 10th level fighter was far superior to a first level fighter. But a 10th level fighter with a Vorpal Blade was much more powerful than a 10th level fighter without a magical blade. This may seem unfair, but it was a matter of drive and motivation for characters to adventure to gain such items. Items such as a Holy Avenger were precious beyond belief. A paladin who lost such an item was presented with a powerful challenge that cased them to play much harder and more strategically than one who could simply take a short or long rest and rise again just as powerful as they were yesterday. 

The purpose or intent of some of the changes in 5e's magic items was said to make them more strange, usual or rare. This is not at all what they have achieved. In fact magic items are almost irrelevant in most of today's 5e games. They are not near as wondrous or useful as they were in AD&D making them less impressive and "magical". And moreover they are often superfluous to a character that already possesses a great number of super abilities. 

In AD&D magic items played a major role in most games and were far more magical than people are used to today.