Posts tagged ‘editorial’

August 18, 2010

Old-School Modules: Actually Rather Boring.

For our Black Peaks game, I decided to try running various old-school D&D modules, in order to get a sense of how the game is really supposed to play (as opposed to just making things up myself and hoping the game comes along for the ride). The first module I ran was B1: In Search of the Unknown.

This is, probably, the second-most canonical starting module (Keep on the Borderlands holding the top position). It’s also an incoherent mess of nonsense with no hint of internal logic.

The first thing I had to do was modify the map, and not just because some of my players had done this adventure before. The text states that the walls of the dungeon (called “Quasqueton”) are carved right out of the black slate that the hill is made out of. But there’s secret doors in this black slate? My ass. I went over the map with markers to denote which walls were black slate and this had no secret doors in them, and which were lined with brick, stonework, and wood paneling. The wood paneling was the easiest to check for traps, because they could just tear it off with their crowbars to observe the bare wall behind it. I made sure there were no secret doors in the brickwork, though some of the stone carvings in the brickwork were secret doors. Most descriptions of the construction that came with the module were of the variety that might impress 14-year-old boys, like the seventy foot stone mural in the wizard’s bedroom. Compare this with, say, Hammers of the Gods by James Raggi IV. That module has both enthusiastic descriptions of the architecture, as well as the motivations behind the dungeon’s construction and what it was used for.

I kept most of the more bizarre architectural elements, eliminated those I thought were just too ridiculous, and made some of them even stranger. The main result of these strange features was a constant stream of “architects on acid” jokes. For the four sessions it took to run this adventure, I did not make any maps for the players. I described the dungeon and one player drew it out, based on my words. While this had some charm to it, and lead to a few chuckles, for the most part it was a pain in the ass. Additionally, while I understand the reasoning, I find it patently ridiculous that adventurers who take ten minutes to travel sixty feet can’t remember their spatial surroundings better than players sitting around a kitchen table listening to a DM describing ten foot stone walls. Perhaps if every room had been memorable, this would be a more fruitful practice, but in the first session, the players somehow managed to explore the emptiest part of the dungeon. Too much time wasted mapping empty rooms makes me think about how I’m going to die soon. And I’m the youngest person in the room!

I also cut down the wandering monster chart, so it didn’t feel like a monster zoo. Aside from the strange habit of taking unique monsters and turning them into species, the other monster problem D&D seems to have is that every member of the species is the same, so the only way to get variety is to have a bazillion different types of monsters inhabiting one tiny dungeon. I also added a new back entrance for the orcs to enter, and came up with a reason for them to be there—they were the remnants of a marauding army who had slaughtered the nearby village, and now lived in holes in the ground near the mass grave. They entered the dungeon to hunt the goblins and eat them. Strangely enough, the players kept trying to find a way to seal off the back entrance, even though it was just on the other side of the hill from the front entrance where they were camped. They never did try to track the orcs down.

Out of all the weirdness in the module, two things worked best, and even then, the module doesn’t really follow up on them. The cat preserved in a jar who comes back to life when the cork is removed is certainly bizarre, but didn’t really pay off until I had them find a much larger jar, with a woman in it. The magical stone that grants you “wishes” when you eat it proved to be an even bigger success… when I started rolling on the mutations charts in Realm of Chaos: Slaves to Darkness.

But really, the most ridiculous part of the module is the premise. What are these two great heroes doing living in this crazy dungeon? Nothing in their background suggests that they have ever even adventured in dungeons, they are known for defeating barbarian hordes. And yet, they live in a series of windowless tunnels carved out of slate, they keep goblins as slaves, they grow mutated mushrooms, they ply their contractors with LSD, and they have the physical essence of Chaos itself in their basement! Clearly, these two have been traumatized by the horrors of the endless dungeoncrawls they undertook in their youth. Before they were famous, they watched in horror as their colleagues and fellow tomb-robbers were eviscerated, disintegrated, crushed, and mauled. One turned to the obsessive physical perfection of bodybuilding and skill at arms, the other poured over arcane tomes recovered from underground, and dared to uncover mysteries man was not meant to—yeah, you get the idea. When the player characters found their secret notes, it gave me the opportunity to plant some hooks and let them know about dungeons the pair never finished looting, which led to the Tomb of the Red Mummy, one of the best sessions of D&D I’ve run.

But that stuff’s not in the module. The module feels pretty dated, actually. Sorry.

I’ll trash Bone Hill in a future post.


August 12, 2010

Something Other Than Nostalgia

Unlike most of my fellow Red Box players here in Vancouver, I never played D&D when I was a kid. I bought the AD&D 2e books, and barely played it a handful of times before getting rid of them a few years later. Instead, I found other games, like Cyberpunk 2020, Call of Cthulhu, and Vampire: The Masquerade, and lost all interest in games with experience levels and dungeoncrawls.

While I always liked the promise of epic fantasy that AD&D 2e promised, but never delivered on, I never found 3rd edition at all attractive. Amusingly enough, the first time I enjoyed playing D&D, it was 4E, which had both epic fantasy and satisfying tactical play. When we started playing Basic D&D last year, however, I realized I already knew how to play. It wasn’t something new like I thought it would be.

I’d certainly picked up a lot of the culture from other gamers, and during that first game when Paul riffed on ten foot poles and flaming oil, I got all the references. But that’s not the same as understanding how play works. No, it wasn’t gamer chit-chat or blog posts that taught me to play D&D, it was Call of Cthulhu.

I think Call of Cthulhu is the most successful repurposing of the dungeoncrawl style. Leaving aside sandbox play for the moment, the dungeon adventure transfers almost exactly to the mystery and investigation style of CoC. Instead of adventurers, you have investigators; instead of corridors and rooms, you have leads, clues, and persons of interest; instead of finding treasure, you stop the Great Old Ones from destroying the human race. And there lies the real difference in play: in D&D you try to avoid dying so you can level up—in CoC, just surviving is considered a triumph, and a few extra points on your Handgun skill is a bonus. Oh, and the skills, of course.

See, Basic D&D has this one major advantage over s many other games: it’s honest. In Call of Cthulhu, you spend all this time determining your character’s skills, and this tricks you into thinking the game is somehow about your character. It’s not. The game is about the dungeon. It’s about some dudes going into that dungeon and exploring it, and how they interact with it, but those dudes could be anyone. As individuals, they don’t matter—the game doesn’t give a fuck who your character is. All that matters is how well you can deal with the dungeon and the threats, the puzzles, and, yes, the opportunities within it. Basic D&D doesn’t encourage you to spend time investing in the Accounting and Locksmith skills, only to put you through an adventure with no money and no locked doors in it.

Both games are about people in unfamiliar situations, and so neither game cares about what your character does at home. If your character doesn’t want to go into the dungeon, or investigate the mystery, you make a new one who does. But D&D is the one that only gives you what your character can do in the dungeon, and little else.

This makes it a remarkably easy game to play. With such a rigid premise and the small selection of rules that everyone at the table has to agree to, we easily move to the point where we start thinking about what extra stuff we want to throw on top of that (if any). Every time I DM, I tweak the rules, or add new ones, to see what works for the people playing, whether that’s adding attacks of opportunity, how we roll for initiative, what to roll when you throw flaming oil at the ground or dissect a carrion crawler, having your Wisdom modifier affect your chances of finding traps or secret doors, including magical items of my own invention, or using mutation charts from other games. But this is all part of play itself, not part of the process of learning how to play.

And that’s why I play. Not for the nostalgia of coming back to a game I used to play, even though I kinda did, and not because this is the game I’ve always played, because it ain’t. No, I’m playing Red Box because it knows exactly what kind of game it is, and it doesn’t try to be anything else. Instead of making you screw around with stuff that doesn’t matter, it starts right at the dungeon, and that’s where I want to go when I play D&D.

– Johnstone.

August 9, 2010

Destroy All Monsters

Our next post comes from one of the first RBV players, Jason L. Thanks, Jason!

I am a 41 year old white North American male. This means that during the early 80s my friends and I were directly in the crosshairs of TSR in it’s heyday. I wasn’t a wargamer nor did I have the White Box but we pretty much had everything they put out after that. We played Boot Hill, Gamma World and Top Secret but were pretty much the target demographic when TSR was selling 7000 Red Boxes a month.

In Grade 7 our free thinking teacher, Mr. Bergland, allowed us to take over a large alcove in the back of the classroom. On the table there we laminated to the surface our various character and tables to the exclusion of all others in the class. This meant we gamed at recess and lunch in addition to our after school and weekend sessions.

One weekend we convinced my father to go up into the woods behind our town and set up a sort of D&D proto-LARP. He drew detailed maps and hid little treasures then we tore around battling imaginary goblins and beholders that came out of the woods. We had plastic swords and I believe these Star Trek disc guns that we were somehow able to integrate into the fantasy narrative.

All these reminisces were brought to mind after coming across an article in McSweeney’s The Believer magazine called Destroy All Monsters.  In it, the author Paul LaFarge, describes his lifelong experiences with D&D.  The article is in 2 parts: in the first he describes the game and how it came to be.  It is a well written account and he tries to link the popularity of the game with his pet theories about how:

“in a society that conditions people to compete, and rewards those who compete successfully, Dungeons & Dragons is countercultural; its project, when you think about it in these terms, is almost utopian. Show people how to have a good time, a mind-blowing, life-changing, all-night-long good time, by cooperating with each other! And perhaps D&D is socially unacceptable because it encourages its players to drop out of the world of competition, in which the popular people win, and to tune in to another world, where things work differently, and everyone wins (or dies) together.”

We certainly felt this way when we were young boys immersed in our fantasy world.  Not only did it cement friendships that I have maintained until today but at the time it generated an “us vs them” feeling that I think helped us weather the small town peer bullshit that was a part of growing up then.  The reason I play D&D today is not because it is “retro” but because it brings together people who I like to spend time with.  As LaFarge says:

“D&D conjoins: this is not the first thing you notice when you enter the cave; nor is it mentioned very often by the game’s recruiters (or by its detractors), who prefer to talk about killing and money and other things the uninitiated can understand. And yet it is an essential feature of the game—ritual–whatever you want to call it. Adam’s fighter may be more powerful than Brian’s elf, but if the fighter kills the elf, or even pisses him off seriously, who will find the secret door? In order to get very far in the cave, the players need to work together. Which would make D&D not very different from any other team sport, if there were another team; but there isn’t. The remarkable thing about D&D is that everyone has to play together. Even the DM, who plays all the monsters and villains, has to cooperate; if he doesn’t–if he kills the entire party of adventurers, or requires players not to cheat on life-or-death dice rolls–the chances that he will be invited to run another session are small.”