My Fantasy Closet

While doing some (early) spring cleaning around the house, I decided to consolidate all of my gaming "stuff" into our only walk-in closet.   Even though the space is only about 30 sq feet, it has turned out to be a great decision.  Before, all the board games went in the linen closet, the RPGs went on the hallway bookshelf with my books, and my computer games were hidden in the entertainment center.  Now they are all displayed together, neatly, in a very accessible place where I can go at any time to access.

Using some leftover Christmas money, I went over to our local charity store and found the neat little book shelf.  It's the perfect size for the small closet space and easily fits my favorite computer games, fantasy novels and RPG books.  The wood and stain is in great condition and the "pillars" on the front look like something that could have come from the carpenters in Rivendell.

I also bought a small, cheap desk, an old elementary school desk chair, and a 15 inch CRT television for my next surprise.  Everything feels a little rustic and worn, but that's exactly how I wanted it; this is a room dedicated to not only fantasy, but old school fantasy.  I want to walk in here and feel like it's a room out of 1985, more or less.

Since this room connects to my sons' bedroom, this is also the place I have been running my Tenebrous campaign.  I have all of my notes, maps, dice and other tools here to run the game out of the closet while they sit on their beds or on the bedroom floor.  I can record sessions with my audio recorder from here, and I take care of all character sheets as well . The only thing they need to bring is their imagination.

Using the rest of the gift cards I had left over, I finally invested in something I had been wanting for a very long time: a Commodore 64, complete with the original manuals, 1541 disk drive and joystick.  I also got my hands on a few early C64 RPGs on Ebay: The Magic Candle, Deathlord, Pool of Radiance, Curse of the Azure Bonds, and Age of Adventure.

Now, I was a little apprehensive about doing this at first.  I could have used the cash at Lulu or RPGNow and gone on a spending spree getting a metric ton of modules.  I could have also gone out and spent the money on a boatload of CRPGs on Steam or other digital download sites (that I'm sure would never have gotten played).  But after flipping on the C64 the first time and seeing the beautiful blinking cursor overlayed by the blue screen, and typing in a few BASIC commands, I knew I had made the right decision.

The C64 is a wondrous computer, before the days of GUIs like Windows and Mac OS and even high level command-line operating systems like DOS and Linux, there was a time when you were one with your computer.  These were the days when computers lived in the wild west, every idea was a new idea because there were really no "conventions" to hold onto like we have today.  An OS meant something very different back then.  The best way to describe it is like modern vs old cars.  Today, you jump in your seat, turn on your GPS, you speak to the car to get it to start, listen to your Itunes, and your auto-park and rear camera does all the work for you.  Your car today is almost an Artificial Intelligence, it knows more about itself than you do, the insides are full of microchips that do it all on their own.

An old car, like and old computer, wasn't driven, it was operated.  Back then when you said you were "good at computers", that really meant something.  Reverse engineering the thing wasn't just for those with the tickling fancy, it was designed to be done - and in many cases it had to be done.  The C64, in particular, was a machine that was clearly aimed at gaming too.  There is something amazing about a computer manual that introduces the machine by telling you how to write games, on the first page.  There were over 20,000 games made for this thing, both commercially, and independently.  Many games came as BASIC or MLX source code in magazines and books for typing into the computer.  This system is what you'd get if your computer and your gaming console had a baby.  There is truly nothing like it on the market today, it's clearly not for everyone, but for a tinkerer like me, it's digital heaven.

As stated above, I also picked up a few C64 RPGs (still have a lot on my list).  I'd like to get into some specific reviews of each one at a later date, but I have to say that these are some of the best RPGs ever made.  Yes, ever.  There are ideas and concepts in some of these games that have been completely lost in time, concepts that still blow modern RPGs out of the water.  These old RPGs provided a complete experience that occurred both in and out of actual game-play.  Most required note-taking and map-making which included hours upon hours of meta-game pondering and planning to complete.  They were really, really hard.  Hand-holding didn't exist, you were literally thrown into a fantasy world with little to go on.  The risk versus reward mechanisms were the bread and butter of these games and the satisfaction from finally conquering one was a memory you carried with you the rest of your life.

Another fantastic thing about the C64 is the sheer number of type-in games available.  Several magazine and book publications in the 80s included games and other software that you could enter into the computer memory as either BASIC or MLX (machine language).  I spent some time last week and typed-in a couple MLX entry programs and then a full "Space Invaders"-like game using said software.  Some of these games are trivial arcade time-wasters, but there are a few gems, including the Graphical Adventure Kit (GAK) and Stephen Blakemore's dungeon crawlers.  What games you can't find on Ebay, there are plenty more to choose from in the old magazine scans.


Putting Magic Back Into Monsters: Hobgoblins

I've always hated the way these guys are depicted in D&D:

Hobgoblins are larger cousins of goblins. Hobgoblins' hair color ranges from dark reddish-brown to dark gray... 
-Labyrinth Lord.

Bleh...I feel like we already have a creature just like this with Bugbears, Ogres or even Orcs. It seems silly to have so many Goblinoids with such similar descriptions. Must we turn every monster in the game into big weapon wielding brutes? Turns out their historical description is a little different. There are a few interesting things to note in this entry.

1. Tolkien admits to have made a mistake in LotR by depicting these as larger Goblins, when they are actually smaller than Goblins, "the statement that hobgoblins were 'a larger kind' [of goblins] is the reverse of the original truth".  Also notice that "Hob"bits share the same root word as "Hob"goblins.  And "hobbling" something means to inhibit or diminish something.  Hobbits are considered shorter humans, so it makes sense that Hobgoblins would be the same coming from Tolkien's works.  Interesting mistake from the Professor of Linguistics!

2. Folk lore describes them as the size of brownies (smaller than Goblins). In the book, Finn Family Moomintroll, it is unclear as to whether the "Hobgoblin" is a race of creatures, or a single creature.

3. Here's my favorite. The word "Hob", in folklore, refers to a "spirit" creature causing mischief around the household.

Is it possible the entire line of Hobgoblins in D&D, and therefore the depiction of the creature in nearly every video game since, was founded based on a mistake later admitted by Tolkien himself? An oversized, hairy goblin/orc thing may be highly inaccurate as far as its origins go. Now, I don't have a problem with D&D changing up things in its later incarnations (since I don't consider modern D&D anything resembling the original game anway), but I want the classic game to feel a heavy, accurate, influence from its roots.

Now let's paint a picture from the points above. A Hobgoblin is a hairy, but smaller Goblin possessed by a mischievous spirit. Mischievous as a trait can mean a lot of things. I take it to mean that this creature is smarter than its larger cousin, in other words, it knows how to "push your buttons". It also means that it isn't necessarily evil, but can be. It can also be a good creature that can provide help, even if the help is a little inconsistent.

I would go even further and not even make them a separate race of Goblinoids. I envision them as a rarer sort of aberrant Goblin, possessed by a spirit living too deep within the Fey world to present itself without a host from the material plane. It's using a Goblin to manifest itself, but has had some adverse effects on it (size reduction and hair growth).

Like Trolls, we can easily make our RPG monsters more genuine and true to historical folklore simply by doing a little research.  We don't simply have to accept popcorn-fantasy's definitions of such things.  The result is a game that has far more character, magic and depth.


A Game of Thieves

I recently listened again to an old podcast where James Raggi explained his reasoning behind divorcing negative stereotypes from Thieves in designing his game LotFP (starting around min 42). James Maliszewski, with a different argument than Raggi, has also often said things about Thieves in gaming that has made me cringe a little. I have a lot of respect for each of these guys, they understand a great deal about the fundamentals of the game, and I certainly mean no disrespect to either of them. However, I completely disagree with this kind of thinking.

I've heard this argument from many grognards and, until recently, I understood it. The argument goes something like, "Why would you want to bring along a 'Thief' on your adventure? Isn't he as likely to slit your throat during the night or steal your gold as he is likely to actually be an asset to the team?". Another argument I've heard used often is that, unlike Fighters, MUs, and Clerics, the Thief is the only class who has had no real professional training of some sort other than perhaps working in the shadows of a large city. A Thief, they say, isn't really a profession at all and has no place in the adventure.

But here's my problem with these arguments:


This is something I think we often forget, as we've been coddled in modern games to think of our characters in D&D as heroic white knights saving the world from evil monsters. They are perceived as noble, honorable, etc. None of the literary characters D&D was actually modeled after were very good people when you really think about it. Conan was a nasty, murderous, thieving, skulking, womanizing sob. He'd sooner raid and pillage an orphanage rather than help one. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser? Yep, about the same thing could be said of those guys too. Works of Burroughs, Moorcock? Check, check.

Don't get me wrong, I know many of you already realize this. But it is amazing to me how many people understand this yet, at the same time, seem to throw so much hate on the thief class for his "dishonorable" connotations. Why hate on something that fits perfectly into the style of the game as it was designed to begin with?

It's not just the literature of D&D either. If there is a winning condition of D&D, what would it be? Stealing stuff. Hell, that's how you gain experience in D&D, by hoarding as much treasure as possible. It doesn't matter if it comes from a dungeon full of goblins, or St Cuthbert's church. It's all means to the same end. So we're actually instructed by the game's rules to steal as much stuff as possible. We're supposed to be thieves.


Our modern definition of Thief has changed a bit. Today it pretty much always means something bad. That's why we get "rogues" and other family friendly names plastered on the class these days so nobody has their feelings hurt. Nobody wants to play something that starts with a giant black chip on his shoulder, everyone these days wants to be a hero not a villain. But, were thieves always perceived like this? I don't think so.

In non-contemporary literature, a thief was as much a law-breaker, as he was a poor man, peasant, or underclassman. This definition or perception was especially stark when judged by higher nobility of the lower class. The 1862 novel, Les Miserab, a story of a wrongly convicted "thief", means The Miserable, The Wretched, The Poor Ones, The Wretched Poor, orThe Victims. The story of Robin Hood is a story of tax rebelling peasants, labeled as "thieves" by the sherrif.

Even today, the wealth gap between rich and poor often precipitates feelings of class warfare. The social-program participating people are often labelled as "thieves" of the state by opposing parties or groups. How about the "illegal" immigrants crossing borders for need of food, shelter and a job? They're defined thieves by some, and desperate honest people by others. Please note that I'm not trying to make any political statements here. I'm just pointing out some realities that have existed from the beginning of time.



What in the world are Clerics doing, supposed "men of [a] god", robbing people in D&D? Well perhaps the modern Cleric stereotype we're so used to in fantasy is not what Classic D&D's Cleric is. I don't think of D&D Clerics as monestary-dwelling "holy" men, a stereotype we often associate with Christian Priests and Clerics. I believe the D&D Cleric is more of a charlatan, a person who may be "lawful" to his own beliefs, but is not necessarily a "good" or moral person.

Thulsa Doom is a Classic D&D Cleric (and no, they don't have to look like James Earl Jones):

I think Old School D&D Clerics have more in common with religious radicals and idealists. It's not that you can't have a "holy" cleric in your game, but if the goal of the game is to loot treasure, that kind of character is going to be really tough to play unless he has some holy reason to go after it. Think of Nacho Libre, a movie based on a true story about a man of "Priestly duties" by day, and a money/fame grabbing wrestler by night.

Magic Users

Magic Users in Classic D&D are more like crazy hermits than wizened sages. Because magic is so unpredictable, they use it as often as they use parlor tricks and other cheap sleight of hand gimmicks to impress people. They are likely reclusive and shunned by the general population as dangerous freaks. They and their powers are to be feared not revered. Again, it's not that you can't play a Gandalf type of Magic User, and even he helped the Dwarves steal their treasure from Smaug, but I feel that Classic D&D MUs are a little more rough around the edges.

I don't have much to say about this class, as I think it's fairly obvious to most of us how these guys fit into being thieves. But I have to ask, was Conan really a fighter or was he a thief? I think a fair argument could be made for both. A "barbarian" really is just a fighter who takes what he thinks is his, and has little use for laws as a civilization-created concept. His combat prowess is obvious, but his goals were surely to feed his own appetites. He also had some fair ability at many of the skills we have in the Thief table including climbing and moving silently.

So the problem I have from many who try to remove or change thieves in D&D is that the game was setup from the very beginning to be all about thievery. If you're going to remove or rename thieves because of the negative implications, then you must also remove the concept of experience gain from gold and you might as well dump Appendix N. But if you're going to go that far, I wouldn't even call it D&D anymore.


So if they're all thieves anyway, why do we need a specific "Thief" class? Seems kind of redundant doesn't it? There are several reasons, but my biggest (and this may sound really weird), is so that we all remember what Classic D&D is REALLY about. As soon as you change the name to "rogue" or "treasure hunter", then the game's integrity becomes damaged. Cracks begin to form in the principle of the game that make it what it is. I think it would be near blasphemy to not include a class called a "Thief", it would be a slap in the face to all the thieving fantasy literature the game is based off of. If you're not ashamed of the Thieves from Appendix N reading, why be ashamed of them in your game?

If that answer is not good enough. Here's another: There should be some difference between a combat focused character and a non-combat focused character. My rule of thumb when building new non-magical classes revolves around two focuses: Combat vs Cunning. Fighters do more combat than cunning in battle. Thieves do more cunning than combat in battle. Does that make sense? It's really that simple.

Think about heroes from fantasy literature and film. Was Jack Sparrow more likely to decapitate his enemies OR was he more likely to talk them out of it, trick them, and hide from them? The answer is obvious. Conan, on the other hand would more likely take their head off and ask questions later. Some characters are less discernible and harder to distinguish. Take Aragorn; his early career (Strider) was more about cunning, but by the Return of the King, he was a full-bore combat character.

This is how I approach each character when building them. I need to decide what their focus is going to be and make sure to STICK to it during game play. A swashbuckler or pirate can really go either way. Some are fencing/dueling maniacs, others are acrobats. Combat vs Cunning. Fighters vs Thieves.

The final answer to why we need thieves is an answer to another argument I've seen used against them. Some say that their skills are useless since other classes can do it too. My answer to this is simple: In Classic D&D there really is nothing stopping ANY class from doing ANYTHING, but some just do it better. I see the Thief tables as merely a short-cut OPTION for Thieves. I don't want to get into this in too much detail because I already did that during my last mega post (and I really don't want to beat that horse anymore), but I believe that nothing should stop a Fighter from detecting traps, or secret/concealed doors, he's just not nearly as good as the Elf, Dwarf or Thief. In essence, use common sense: Rulings, not rules.

In summary, I hope this may clear things up for someone with negative feelings about thieves in D&D. I believe that D&D simply cannot be D&D without them.


Appendix N

I saw this today and thought I'd share it.

One of the greatest things about Classic D&D is, that to fully enjoy it, it almost requires you to understand the roots of things that we take for granted in fantasy gaming today.  One big example is the race-as-class system, as I often hear people complain about the lack of freedom in class choice in Basic.  "It's just dumb that I can't be a Dwarf Thief if I want".  Setting aside that you can actually be a Dwarf Thief with some simple DM/Player creativity, I think modern fantasy literature and media has cheapened the meaning of a lot of the fundamentals of the game.

Before Tracy Hickman, RA Salvatore and other modern authors who wrote in much of the D&D universe, there were no Dwarf Thieves, or Dwarf Clerics for that matter.  Dwarves were....Dwarves.  Same thing with Elves and Halfl...er...Hobbits.  Also, other than The Lord of the Rings, there were very few stories prior to the 1980s about people going on adventures to save the world, simply because they wanted to save it.  Modern, what I call "pop-corn", fantasy has brought in a lot of tropes that never existed for a very long time in the genre.  Now if that's your thing, great, but there's good reason behind many of the concepts in early D&D that many would shun today.

I personally feel this older fantasy is a far more pure recipe for the myths and legends that existed for thousands of years among hundreds of cultures.  It's grittier, a little darker, and a little more slow-paced compared to the grander than life fantasy we get today.  Appendix N is a great place to start to understand this better.  But I'd take it even further than that, go back and study the most early fairy tales, legends and myths of western culture.  There's a lot to learn about where all of our tropes took root and it may help you to get a better understanding of why things are the way they are in early D&D and, perhaps, why the modern game screwed things up a little too much along the way.

Variable Weapon Damage

One hotly debated topic for grognards of old-school D&D is which weapon damage system is superior: variable or non-variable.  Tom Moldvay wrote the game using both methods, so I suppose even he was unable to settle completely on one or the other.

In Basic D&D, the rules were written with the option where all weapons rolled a D6 regardless of size, reach, weight, etc (Holmes only included this method).  The basic argument here was that 1) the weapon's wielder was the determining factor behind a weapons deadliness, not the weapon itself, and 2) it was just easier to remember.  The latter is just old-school silliness.  If you can't remember you roll a d8 instead of a d6 for damage, but you still manage to remember your dexterity is 14 and your strength is 11, then I suggest you retake kindergarten math...the counting on your fingers part.

Anyway, the first argument has some merit, which I want to get to in a moment.  But before that I want to talk just a little bit about role-playing a weapon.  First of all, there is nothing stopping a DM from deciding that a halberd or battle axe is going to have a really difficult time swinging in a 5'x5' narrow corridor regardless of damage.  There is also nothing stopping said DM from deciding that you can't attack from 6 feet away with a dagger.  Oh, and before I hear someone retort, "Basic doesn't simulate reach", my answer is, "Basic doesn't simulate getting drunk at the tavern either".  Just because the rules aren't there doesn't mean we don't and can't still simulate them all on our own.

A big part of Classic D&D is letting the DM decide what goes and what doesn't.  As I explained in an earlier post about non-combat encounter resolutions, there isn't a roll for every procedure in the game.  If you're into going by the book, play 3.5 or 4E.  At the same time, however, we shouldn't have to throw the baby out with the bath water by abandoning all realism just for the sake of trying to out-old-school everyone else.

The goal should always be: how can I make this situation both as realistic and as simple as possible.  In other words, I want to make this Battle Axe feel like a heavy killing machine, and I want the rules to be easy to use.  There is a reason why there are hundreds of thousands of different medieval weapons, and not just "GENERIC KILLING TOOL A" - some were better at doing different things.  Cave men generally didn't throw pocket knives at mastadons because long spears did more damage, in general, for all warriors in the tribe, even the unskilled ones.

You start cutting a potato with a big sharp knife, no matter how skilled you are with a butter knife.  No matter how good of a coin flipper you are, if the coin is weighted on the tails side, statistically you will get tails landing up more often then down.  It's called physics.  And that's why non-variable damage is more unrealistic while at the same time providing very little to no simplicity advantages in the process.

Now let's get to some gaming examples.  First, let's set the stage:

Two 1st level fighters wield a battle axe and a dagger respectively. They duel in an open grassy field with no environmental factors, wear no armor whatsoever and their to hit targets are equal. They have exactly the same amount of training in their respective weapons.

Now even in the best of conditions, in the real world, there is no possible way we can create perfectly equal conditions.  But, by doing the best we can, we can create probabilities.  You see this all the time on Myth Busters.  As much as those guys annoy the heck out of me, it's based in real science, and it does actually work.

Really, the only thing left here is physics. Plain and simple. Imagine the two fighters swinging wildly at each other. Hits would be scored with an equal probability since our sample is equal, and I would imagine that neither would have a great chance of targeting "vital" areas because they are equally trained in defending those places.  Now you're telling me that a swipe with a dagger would have the exact same effect as a swipe with a battle axe?

In other words, when all other things *are equal*, there is absolutely no reason for physics to be the ONLY factor that matters. The axe is equally sharp as the dagger, but is far heavier. An averagely swung slice with a dagger is likely to produce a nasty cut across the hand, arms, legs, face or shoulder. An averagely swung slice with a BATTLE AXE is likely to produce missing appendages.   The former may cause the individual to swoon in pain, but applying pressure and bandages will likely heal it within a few days. The latter would produce instant shock, paralysis and severe bleeding - in all likelihood, death within seconds or minutes.

Bringing this back to real world executions, the purpose of them is to deliver the quickest and least painful death possible (at least in a humane society).  There's a reason why modern executioners use a firing range, and medieval executioners used large axes or halberds rather than daggers. Physics. The scientific method requires a control and experimental groups. It's simple to understand why variable weapons work when they are tested against a sterile, controlled environment first like this example.  Now put the dagger wielding thief  in shadows, or in a narrow cave tunnel and his advantage becomes obvious.  The DM should necessarily setup advantages for the thief, but that doesn't change the physics of the weapons, if it does happen to connect to a victim.

Another problem I have is when big monsters come into play. Many non-variable weapon apologists will argue that a weapon on the equipment list is just as good at killing another human being as any other.  True, but this isn't Dungeons & Humans is it?  Is a battle axe is really going to have the same effect as a dagger, versus a dragon? A dagger relies on hitting vitals to be effective. A dragon's vitals are FAR harder to reach than a regular humanoid all things considered equal.  Like the mastadon example above, taking out large beasts requires larger weapons.  Simply put: they do more damage.  I don't go deer hunting with my .22 because it would take around 12 rounds to put the beast on the ground.  Bigger bullets and more powerful guns cause damage more quickly than smaller bullets and weaker guns.  It's all in the physics.

To further promote variable damage, I'd argue that it is more fun. Being able to throw a unique die for your character makes your role in combat more *unique*. If my weapon looks different from yours, it only makes sense for it to roll differently than yours too.  The non-variable damage person will argue that it's all about the role-play, not the mechanics, but then why not play with non-variable hit points, non-variable ability attributes, non-variable AC, and non-variable hit tables too?  Because it is, indeed, a lot about mechanics too.  Perhaps for these non-variable apologists this is less about simplicity and role-play and more about trying to appear more "old-school" than the next guy.

And seriously, is it really that hard to remember what your weapon rolls?


Mirte: A Recent Timeline of Events

I will soon be posting live recordings of play with my two sons in our Tenebrous campaign.  Just to set things up, here is a very brief historical timeline of what has happened since we started the campaign about a year ago.  By the way, I define a "campaign" as a game world, the goings-on within it and the various characters that tell their story through it.  I don't use the modern linear definition of campaign as a single character and his personal journey from zero to hero like it has come to mean today.  Another advantage of running worlds using the Lovecraftian method is that my campaign is mutually exclusive from the characters in it.

Note that I have interpreted Mirte as using Earth's Gregorian calendar.  We still do not know what happened exactly 1623 years ago, and very little about much of the history between then and now, as none of the characters have attempted to investigate it yet.

Chapter I: The Kobold Invasion: 

May 2, 1623 to May 31, 1623

  • Alixe Boudemonte is born and abandoned at Cloudwood Castle under the tutelage and care of Ardinar.  Nothing is known of his parents, why the castle is left empty, or why he was abandoned.
  • At age 15, the castle is besieged by a dark army of Kobolds from the west.  Alixe is led through a secret underground passageway, and ends up at the village of Longroad where he briefly meets up with Amana, the female Half-Elf Ranger who flies southward to warn the King.  Alixe also meets up with Caseg the thief who vows to accompany him southward.
  • Accompanied by the Ranger, Alixe descends into the catacombs beneath the church and retrieves an ancient, but partial, document of key historical events as well as a crystalline necklace said to hold the power to defeat the evil beyond Stoneholt.
  • The people of Longroad are forced to flee southward as the Kobold army advances from the forest in the north.  During the flight southward, a band of thieves steal the historical document and flee to the eastern moorland.
  • Alixe descends into an underground bridge complex, defeats a baby black dragon and pulls a lever disabling the bridge which causes a large bulk of the Kobolds to be killed along the southern path.
  • Alixe and Caseg reach the lake and are helped by the Elves who fire upon the invasion force and lead them across to the Faery Vale.
  • The leader of the elves explains that they are weakening and that the Rainbow Stone is the key to protecting the forest from the invaders.  Alixe and Caseg are tasked to retrieve the stone, lost in the depths of the Twilight Tower to the west.  They are accompanied by three Elven fighters, Starflec, Moonleaf, and Boarlyn.
  • While travelling through the forest, Alixe's company finds a small child who warns them of the witch living in the ruins of the tower and joins them as their guide.
  • Alixe and his company (the boy stays atop) descend deep into the ruins of the tower, finding a wet, and muddy cave full of dead and decaying beast filth.  Starflec and Moonleaf slip into a mucky hole in the ground where they cannot be retrieved.  
  • While crossing an underground bridge, Alixe and Caseg descend using a rope, to the bottom, where they at last, find the Rainbow Stone and escape the clutches of an animated statue that protects the Stone.  Alixe finds an enchanted sword, "Magebane", and Caseg finds a magical dagger, "Giant Needler".
  • Coming out of a separate entryway, they find the witch who has already killed the last elf companion, Boarlyn.  Alixe and Caseg do battle with the witch, slaying her.  The boy arrives, revealing himself to be a demon sent to spy on them from the witch who is also eventually killed by the companions.
  • The two survivors return to the Elf King. Golden Leaf, who takes the Rainbow Stone and reveals himself to have become a servant of evil and flees into the night with the Stone.
  • The Elves, along with Alixe and Caseg ,are forced to abandon their forest home and flee south toward Stony Deep.   The creatures of darkness take up residence in the forest and do not pursue.
  • The people of Stony Deep, with deep prejudices against the Elves, block their entry to the city.  The refugees are forced to camp outside the gates.
  • Alixe petitions the lords of Stony Deep to allow the Elves entry, and are promised to do so, but are contracted first to eliminate the source of evil from the Crypts of Adrar to the south first.
  • Alixe and Caseg descend into the crypts and face down terrible undead creatures.  Entering a strange room, Alixe sees a great pile of treasure sitting in the center.  Consumed by his lust for gold, Alixe rushes forward and triggers a trapdoor trap where he falls 30 feet onto poisoned spikes and perishes.
  • Unable to retrieve his friend's body, Caseg continues onward and finds a glowing orb of darkness, a necromancer crystal being used to awaken the dead, guarded by a great Orc.  The two do battle, but the Orc is too powerful and finally runs Caseg through by the tip of a giant spear.
  • When the adventurers are not heard from again, the King orders the crypts sealed with a great slab of stone, and the Elves, denied entry, are forced to journey onward to the west.
  • Thus ends the adventures of Alixe Boudemonte.

Chapter II

July 24 to August 2nd, 1623

  • Hunter George, a first year tenderfoot of the Stony Deep Fighters Guild meets up with Reder Windsalt Bowe, an eccentric, but scholarly duelist at the Screaming Elf Alehouse.  Bowe is the son of a wealthy family of nobles in the city and he has found a clue from his studies which lead him to believe he has found the location of the lost Book of Shoth somewhere in the Wizards Tower.
  • Hunter joins up with Reder and the two sneak into the tower complex discovering a trifecta of alters, each holding a glowing Orb.  One of the altars is empty.  They find a back room closet with a trapdoor leading underground into the dark catacombs of Stony Deep.
  • In the catacombs they discover very old clerical altars and some mysterious holes in the walls, ranging between 6 to 12 inches in diameter.
  • Hunter and Reder are attacked by large groups of small, furry creatures known as mugwumps by the wizards, with glowing yellow eyes and sharp teeth.  They are dispatched quite easily for a while, but they seem to swarm with great tenacity.
  • While outnumbered and backed into a corner, a stranger arrives out of the darkness and fights with incredible skill.  He calls himself Themp Khul, a dark elf originating from far beneath the city.  His history is mostly unknown, but he promises to help Hunter and Reder.
  • The three continue on in the vast subterranean complex, finally coming upon a split passageway  one leading through a man-made stone-working, and the other leading through a narrow cave passageway  The party chooses the latter course and comes upon an entry way where the lost book is found at last.
  • The book of Shoth is found along with a ring of water walking for Themp, and a magical cloak of polymorph which Hunter takes for himself, and the party heads out the way they came.
  • The party is ambushed by a ghoul and nearly defeated.  All are paralyzed  except for Themp, who manages to drag the two out by himself while distracting the ghoul.
  • Reder instructs Themp to take them to the sage, Hecten, a family friend and mentor who will know what to do with the book.  Once there, the sage takes them in and nurses them back to health.  He also discovers the true powers of the book, but needs an amulet of far-seeing to scry the full text.
  • Hecten sends the now-healed, party on a quest to retrieve a scrying amulet in the Dark Tunnels of Sorrow just east of town.
  • The Dark Tunnels are apparently infested with bats, but nothing more dangerous, until they find a dug out pit, with some kind of humanoid creature stuck in the bottom of it.  Hunter decides not to let the creature out nor disturb it.
  • The party finds a decrepit old horse tied-up and abandoned near a pile of bones.  The bones contain a story of a couple miners who came into the cave earlier and discovered the amulet.  The man describes his partner as going insane and "changing" somehow and he begins to worry for his life.  Among the corpse, a finely-wrought dagger is found by Themp which he keeps for himself.
  • Plodding deeper into the cave, the party discovers a human-like beast with pale white skin, bulging white eyes, and white hair come lumbering toward them ready to attack.
  • The party battles the creature, but its tremendous strength is too much to overcome.  Reder jumps down from a ledge above to deliver a killing blow, but is caught by the beasts great forearm first, and his head is knocked clean from his body ending his life.  Themp finds an opening in this instant and slashes the beast through the heart.
  • Whilst mourning their loss of Reder, the party at-last finds the amulet of far-seeing and makes way back to Hecten with the old horse in tow.
  • With the loss of Reder, the party's friendship with Hecten doesn't last long.  After taking the amulet, he orders Hunter and Themp to leave.  Hunter angrily refuses and the guards are called.  A brief battle takes place and Hunter and Themp flee into the night, where they end up staying in a back room at the Screaming Elf Tavern.  Hunter pays for a weeks worth of lodging and stabling for their new (old) horse while they lick their wounds.
  • While staying at the tavern, three cloaked strangers arrive asking for Hunter's assistance.  They say that they are dragon tamers from the north and have a pet dragon in need of protection.  If Hunter travels to their dragon cave and gives protection to the beast for one week, they promise to pay "handsomely".  Hunter accepts.
  • While travelling north, Hunter becomes lost in a great storm.  He finds a decrepit old tower, but fears to stay there and continues onward.  He nearly freezes to death during the night, finding poor shelter under a tree, and trudges forward in the morning.  He at last comes upon a village which he soon discovers is the one he left the day before, Stony Deep.  He had unwittingly traveled in a complete circle.
  • Back at the Alehouse, tired and depressed, he is approached by a wealthy noble who overhears his story of poor luck during the night and the tower.  The man tells Hunter that the tower is haunted and bets him 1,000 gold pieces that he cannot stay in the tower for just one night.  With money in desperate need, Hunter accepts and he and Themp set out the next day.
  • While leaving town, they run into a young girl, Amelia , a 15 year old fledgling member of the Thieve's Guild who has been tasked to take a scroll far to the barbaric north-lands.  Afraid to go alone, she joins up with Hunter and promises to help him stay the night in the tower if they accompany her north afterward.  Hunter accepts the mission.
  • Hunter, Themp, and Amelia enter the haunted tower and Hunter immediately gets separated from the party after falling down a pit.
  • The party returns to the city of Stony Deep to lick their wounds.
  • Amelia informs the party that she must now accompany the party to Pasimar on a long trip to deliver the scroll.
  • The party sets out on their journey and stays the night at Lionlin's Inn.
  • They are awakened in the middle of the night to a terrible scream.  Along with the Innkeeper, they investigate a well in the basement of the Inn where the screams emanated.

Chapter III

August 2nd, 1623 to ... 

  • Aug 2nd: Companions, Human Demon Hunter, Skipper Poosenberry and Fey Elf, Faren Amelinfer travel together to the northern borderland and arrive at a human keep.   
  • Aug 3rd: The party is asked by the Castellan for help in dealing with local problems.  Their first task is to hunt down and kill an "old wizard" in the north forest.
  • Aug 4th: They are ambushed by a puma, which they barely escape from.  An old hermit tells them to stay away.
  • Aug 5th: The hermit's puma tracks the party down, resting at camp nearby, and attacks.  Skipper breaks his crossbow, but Faren manages to kill the puma by leaping on top of it from a tree branch.
  • Aug 6th: The Faren uses the puma skin as a disguise to distract the hermit while Skipper casts poisons food which kills the hermit.
  • Aug 6th: The party is congratulated by the Castellan for their success and asks them to track and kill an ogre in the caves to the north that has been harrassing his patrols.  The blacksmith's young apprentice, "Wort" who is an exceptional warrior with a massive frame, joins the party.
  • Aug 7th: The party rents an apartment to rest.
  • Aug 10th:  The party arrives at the caves.
  • Aug 11th: The party entangles, then slays the ogre in his cave.  They kill a few goblins and drive off the rest by burning their trap room above.  The party stays the night in a room with some female goblins.
  • Aug 12th: The party continues their slaughter of goblins throughout the caves, ambushing and tricking the dumb creatures into poor tactics.
  • Aug 13th:  The party is awoken from sleep by a patrol of 3 hobgoblin warriors.  They barricade themselves in a room and are able to kill them.  The party find a large hobgoblin armory.  Faren finds a +2 elf scimitar, elven chain and an eagle helmet.  Skipper acquires a double shot light crossbow, spiked leather armor, and a crimson cloak.   Wort equips a masterwork longsword, platemail, a white/round shield, and a minotaur helmet.  The party rests here for the night.
  • Aug 14th: The party finds a secret door and is ambushed by a party of 6 hobgoblin warriors and the hobgoblin chief.  The party slays them all including the leader.  They ransack the hobgoblin's room, taking the treasure, including a poison potion..  The remaining goblins form peace pact with the heroes and lead them out of the caves.
  • Aug 14th:  The party receives a reward from the Castellan and they level up.  The party has their loot inspected by the blacksmith.  The blacksmith finds that the poison potion is from the extremely rare "Kraken" spider, a monstrosity found deep below the earth.  The poison can melt flesh like acid and the blacksmith accepts 1000 gold to reforge Faren's scimitar with the poison as an enchantment.  The party must wait one week to finish the new weapon.
  • Aug 16th:  Skipper sets out with Wort to destroy the bandit threat south of the keep.  They are ambushed by a lone bandit archer which they kill.  The party attacks the village, slaying 9 more bandits including a lieutenant, two retreat into a cabin.  They approach the cabin and the bandit leader comes out, a level 2 fighter wielding a massive spear.  Skipper casts Sanctuary and Chant while Wort wrestles the bandit to the ground.  Wort finally slays the bandit leader but not after sustaining heavy wounds.  The other wounded bandits flee.  The party returns to the keep, selling beaver furs, keeping three horses and selling the rest.


My Encounter Resolution System

Non-combat encounter systems are a common feature in modern game books.  This is the meat and potatoes of modern game design, everything else is periphery.  However, there really is no hard and fast written rule in any of the early gaming books to describe how this is done, unless you count some of the, "in case you can't come up with a way to resolve an encounter, roll a d%", bits in some of the text. I think it was generally assumed a matter of DM fiat, mixing and matching what he thought was best for each situation. Some use equivalency rules consisting of % dice similar to the Thief tables. Some use a hackneyed universal die roll system that mimics 3Es D20 system (like Castles & Crusades Siege Engine). I've even see a few who go by the rules exactly as written, meaning there is no possible way for a fighter to climb a wall. Ever. There are others who simply throw out ability scores altogether or nerf them, relying on player level and class only. Others rely mostly on player skill and very little on character skill at all and vice versa.

I've used a combination of some of the ideas above, but I personally reject any kind of universal roll mechanic for all classes. I personally believe that the D20 mechanic (or any unifed die mechanic) was the worst thing to happen to RPGs as it caused role-playing to go flying out the window. My favored system is a combination of die roll, character skill and player skill all wrapped into one. Over the years, I've found this incorporates the best of both worlds, and simply feels to me like the way the game was meant to be played. So here it is:


All non-combat skill is resolved based on a balance between two opposing forces which I call positive and negative factors. In modern gaming terms, this would be called "skill vs DC", but since I hate modern gaming, and my definition of "skill" is far more encompassing, I've changed the terms up a bit (I dont actually refer to this in my games, but here it is for explaining purposes). Each basically boils down to the following:

Positive Factors (PFs)

1. Player Ability (The character's soul)
2. Character Ability:
a. Skills
b. Race
c. Class
d. Level
e. Ability Score
f. Equipment
g. Health/History/Genetics
h. Cosmetics (age, gender, appearance, etc)
i. [Anything else about the character I've missed]


Negative Factors (NFs)

a. Opposing NPC factions
b. Terrain
c. Weather
d. Character Health/History/Genetics
e. [Anything else about the environment I've missed]

Most of the above is a no-brainer, we all take these things into consideration when resolving encounters. The only major difference you may find with my list is the relationship between player ability and character ability and how they can be used together. A player's ability can be thought of as the character's soul, will, determination, or self-esteem - the conscious voice inside all of us that can either guide us to better realities or belie our reality. Understanding this is the most critically important aspect of my system. We often -believe- we can do something well or not well in contrast to our physical limitations. A person, for example, may believe that they are great singers, but the reality is that they are terrible [See American Idol]. On the other hand, someone may underestimate their ability to cook and then impress others when attempted. So just like the real world, in the world of fantasy Role-Play of D&D, we are always tempering our personal, player skill against the physical limitations of reality within the game itself.

Simple game example:

Jason plays Bo the Half-Orc fighter, a character with low charisma, but a large strong frame. He and a party of adventurers have snuck into the palace through the sewers and have been caught in the act by two human guards in the prison dungeon. In real life, Jason is a high school debate champion so Jason's character approaches the guards and begins to explain an incredible story to outwit them.

The Dungeon Master makes a judgement call using relevant factors that would make the difference in a conversational challenge. Because of Bo's lack of charisma, the DM explains that what came out of his mouth was not nearly as eloquent as Jason imagined. But because the performance was so masterful and the stature of the half-orc was a little terrifying, the DM allows for one of the guards to be fooled while the other is not convinced.

The result is a small quarrel between the guards giving the party time to either gain surprise in combat, flee, or take other measures.

[Note that no die rolling was used in the example above]

In this example, the DM made a call using the relevant PFs vs NFs above. Some circumstances may require dice, however, because sometimes situations arise that necessitate random factors coming into play. In other words, random factors are those PFs and NFs that are so small and insignificant that they would slow the rate of play down far too much. A wandering mind during spell casting, an itchy index finger of a climber, a small gust of wind, and the distracting smell of rotting flesh while fleeing from zombies. Because these minor distractions (or bonuses) DO actually happen in real life, the dice is a way to simulate that. But let me be clear: The dice should not be used to simulate large factors that can be controlled and/or obviously noticed by the PCs, NPCs, and DM involved. Climbing a wall during a tornado, or even a rainstorm, is a stupid idea, plain and simple, and dice rolling is not necessary.

One thing I do allow in my games is the option to give your character bonus abilities and weaknesses. A player can come up with these during character creation when making up a history, or they can be acquired during play. An example would be a character who was raised on a farm and has an knack for taming animals and identifying plants and herbs, but was gored once by a bull and lost an eye. These are my old-school answer to new-school feats, other PFs and NFs that can come into play during game-play encounters.

Some characters include more defined roll tables to obtain these random factors, like the Thief. The most important thing to remember is that these random factor tables are simply a shortcut, not an advantage. When the Thief makes the decision to climb a wall he may choose to roll on the random table or he may use OTHER Positive Factors in his arsenal. Because the Thief is so skilled at doing his "thiefy" things, he can take these kind of short-cuts that others cannot, but that does NOT mean he must always exclude player ability to resolve such thing. The choice is his, unlike the fighter who must always use player ability as his starting point. Such things could include his intelligence score, equipment he is carrying, and his race. Sometimes rolling is dangerous because it disallows for Player Ability completely. Only in the simplest of challenges should rolling be used. Any character class can attempt to climb a wall, but the difference is that they do not have access to the Thief shortcut.


Kerik the Thief approaches a 5' x 8' x 10' pit trap. He may either attempt to bypass the pit trap by using his innate % abilities by rolling dice, OR he may decide to role-play out the situation. There is a danger to both approaches. Relying solely on the dice roll means you are putting your life into the hands of your past training, you are RELYING on old skills that may or may not come to you. In this case, Kerik rolls the die because the trap is fairly simple. Failing would not mean much damage, and by doing so he can quickly get across before his non-thief companions can come up with a role-played solution.

Later on, Kerik comes across a trapped chest, covered in black widows, hanging from a thin strand of webbing over a 100 foot chasm. In this case, rolling the dice would be foolish. Kerik relies on his player ability PLUS his PFs to bypass the trap and obtain the treasure. Again, as we discussed earlier with the Half-Orc. Kerik's player ability (PF 1) is measured against (PF 2) to obtain a result. Kerik decides that he will use his torch to burn the spiders off while swinging the chest toward the ledge with his 10-foot pole. Sounds like a good plan, except for the fact that the torch ends up burning the webbing too quickly, causing the chest to fall straight into the chasm. However, Kerik has a Dexterity of 15, and the DM decides that it is just BARELY enough character ability to overcome Kerik's player's ability to win the treasure successfully.

Now, had Kerik failed the previous pit trap and caused 2 points of damage, the DM could have decided that Kerik's knees where bruised causing him to move a little less accurately. This could have caused him to miss the falling treasure altogether.

So, you see how in my games Player Ability (PF 1) and Character Ability (PF 2) come to work together, sometimes bailing out a poor role-player, and sometimes ruining a good one. The DM makes a quick decision based on all factors (or as many as he can think of) in a non-combat situation to resolve it. A good RP performance by a player can certainly help a situation, but it cannot completely override his character, just as "heart" and determination cannot always override muscle and brain power.

As an Eagle Scout myself, I am an admirer of Bear Grylls, the current Chief Scout, and star of the popular series, "Man vs Wild".  Here is a man that has an astonishing control of the negative factors in his environment.  There is clearly a lot of control and planning in place when things go wrong for safety concerns, but much of what he does is real and very dangerous.  If Bear was part of a D&D game, it wouldn't make a lot of sense to put his fate into dice because he has such a mastery over the elements.  It is clear that the vast majority of what he accomplishes happens primarily because of the intelligent decisions he makes, and not because of chaos in the universe "willing" him to succeed (dice rolling).

I cringe a little when I see DMs constantly asking for dice checks in games.  Train your players to make intelligent, vigilant decisions whenever tough situations arise and help them rid themselves of their habit of relying on dice as a shortcut out.

To sum things up:

All non-combat encounters rely equally on both Player Skill and Character Skill that balance each other out. A player cannot completely override his character's ability, nor can a character completely override his player's ability, EXCEPT for certain classes which have inherit shortcut skills like the thief that can be used at his own risk. Dice rolling ought to be the exception to the norm, a tool relied upon only in the simplest of situations.

I've never seen an encounter resolution system quite like this one and hopefully I may give someone else some ideas. I honestly believe this is the most accurate way to play classic D&D and that this is the spirit of the old-school game as it was designed to be played.  I've come to rely on it every time I play and have found a lot of success from using it.


Considerations For Subterranean Adventures

It's been debated for a long time whether or not the creators of Dungeons & Dragons implied it was a game meant to be run with miniatures or without.  The short answer is: yes to both.  By most accounts, Gygax and Arneson played using both methods.  However, I think it was mostly restricted to character combat positioning, and marching order.  It can't rightfully be said that someone who plays one way or another is "doing it wrong".  Both methods are okay, depending on your preferences, even if strict miniature use has become far more prevalent among modern RPGs.

As for me, I very rarely use them in my games.  Unless we're talking small or large-scale war scenarios with more than a dozen units engaged in combat, I generally just keep to mental descriptions to handle things.  Even when things get hairy I'll, more often then not, use some left over dice or whatever is in reach on the table to represent monsters.  A lot of this is just my pet-peeve with using a mini that isn't what the game calls for.  This seems to take away far more from the game than it helps.

Here's the thing: bird's-eye-view RPGs became a very popular convention among CRPGs going all the way back to Ultima.  I think a lot of the time we get used to the "need" to have our table-top games look and act like the ones on the computer because it gives us a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.  But doing this really turns a 3D game into a 2D game and puts up all kinds of roadblocks in our fantasy worlds.

Ever been inside a real cave before?  And no, not one of those ones all lit up with pathways and paid guides to help you along.  I'm talking about obscure caves with naught but a basic map and a travel guide reference where you "enter at your own risk".  A year or two ago, I had the chance to do some casual spelunking with my two brothers in some nearby caves.  For one of the larger caverns, I brought along a nice little map with several routes to follow.  We picked, what looked like the easiest route to follow that led from one entrance and out another.  About a few minutes inside we literally started to lose all bearing on up and down.  After a short period of time, intense claustrophobia began to set in.  You begin to ask yourself questions like, "what if there was an earthquake right now?", "what if my light went out?" , "what if I get stuck in that narrow section?".  It's an eerie feeling, Cyclopian, as Lovecraft would say, and, all the angles feel wrong.  

Subterranean exploration is a wholly 3-dimensional experience in every sense of the word.  There is no convenient flat corridors to walk down like most CRPGs would have you think.  There are many places where you must squeeze through tight passages, descend sheer drops, and get on your hands and knees to progress.  Whilst doing all of that, you must carefully remember your course as to not get lost - and believe me, it's extremely easy to become lost.  It is exhausting and requires all of your focus and effort at the same time.  And remember, this is without wearing a suit of armor, a helmet and carrying a sword.  It's easy to talk about this, but to fully understand it, you've got to spend an hour inside a cave to really get it.

Suddenly that map that I had studied before entering the cave, with the clearly marked route from start to finish, was becoming useless.  It no longer resembled anything at all that I was seeing inside this subterranean nightmare.  Now take all of these factors into account and then imagine some horrible monster from your worst nightmares suddenly jumping out of a crack in the wall, or coming straight at you in the pitch darkness.  No wonder the Mayans thought of caves as gateways to hell...

Considering the intense and taxing experience of cave exploration, I've considered doing morale checks for characters in D&D every so often, especially for the novices in the party.  The experience inside a cave is simply too taxing to not have the urge to go running out as fast as you can.

All of these factors paint a very different picture than the often neat, clean "gridded" surface that many modern RPGs and CRPGs take place on.  In such a place, movement, exploring and combat would very rarely take place in a "20x20 foot room with an 8 foot high ceiling", the kind of description that we constantly see in games.  More often than not most adventuring in such a chaotic environment would take place on our hands and knees, on our bellys, hanging by some rope or ledge, or among a plethora of jagged boulders and other rock features.  In other words, there would hardly ever be a fair fight, one side would always have some sort of advantage or disadvantage.

I feel it is crucial we represent these incredibly uncomfortable, and realistic conditions while we play RPGs.  Miniatures in our games make it extremely hard to do that because they cannot represent the 3rd dimension. The right way to setup a fight is to describe it verbally as best we can.  An example:

"You've just crawled through a narrow passageway, dragging your heavy shield behind.  Your knees and arms are bruised up and you've got a bad gash on your forehead from the nasty bump you took on the jagged rocks.  Above you, about 15 feet away and at a 45 degree angle, off to the left, there are several sets of yellow eyes staring down out you in the blackness, between the rocks.  They suddenly attack eliminating the possibility for you to avoid being surprised, by leaping down from above.  Because you are missing your shield and your current kneeling position, you cannot take your full AC and you also cannot make a counter attack until you can find better footing in the room."

At this point, it's highly imaginable that the characters would be completely bewildered about what is going on.  There is no point in even using miniatures or grids to represent things because the characters have no idea where anything fully stands right now.  All they know is that their world has turned upside down and they are being mauled by a bunch of nasty clawed mystery creatures from the darkness.  In fact, because of the circumstances, it is likely they will never fully get a full bearing on the situation, thus swinging wildly in the darkness or retreating.

Now, this is just a cave example.  A dungeon or ruin may have more "order" to its layout.  Even still, a place that has been sitting around for hundreds or thousands of years may have taken a great toll from the forces of nature.  Consider what a Machu Picchu looked like when Hiram Bingham arrived and before the excavation crews got there.
These ruins aren't the nice and organized structures you see as tourists.  That's not to say that the denizens in such places in our fantasy worlds wouldn't have cleaned the place up a bit, but I would assume they don't have access to heavy machinery like we do to clear out the earth and thick foliage today.

It's easy to lose sight of what subterranean adventuring is really like when we're munching on pretzels, laughing and having a good time at our kitchen tables.  But I think our games become far more rewarding when we take a minute to add even a small sprinkling of more realism into our fantasy worlds.  Take a little moment longer to ponder how that cavern would really affect your party and perhaps consider refraining from the habit of putting down miniatures and grids to represent it just because everyone else does it.


Putting Magic Back Into Monsters: Trolls

This is a re-post from Dragonsfoot, but I thought I'd continue on with a mini series on making monsters more magical, which I feel is part-and-parcel of classic D&D.  Many of the bestiary creatures are great exactly the way they are written, but I feel some could use some sprucing up.  For example: Trolls.

I recently saw this 1950s Hobbit short and, although its story hardly resembles anything by JRR Tolkien, the way it depicted the Trolls really piqued my interest. Instead of turning into stone in the sunlight, they turned into trees.  This actually made a lot of sense to me, and I thought it was far more original than the one Tolkien came up with in "The Hobbit". Gnarled, old trees look a LOT like Trolls. A folk story about Trolls originating from or ending up as trees seems perfectly plausible and seems to actually fit really well with how they're depicted in D&D:
A troll's rubbery hide is moss green, mottled green and gray, or putrid gray...They are very wiry and lanky, but excessively strong and have menacing, dirty claws and sharp teeth. Trolls have the ability to regenerate damage they receive...A troll can reattach a severed member instantly by holding it to the stump....trolls cannot be permanently destroyed except by fire or acid. - Labyrinth Lord


I had never noticed it before, but that description sounds a lot like something made out of a tree. "Moss green", "wiry and lanky", "reattaching" to the "stump", destroyed by "fire or acid". WoW! I don't know about the rest of you, but I have never thought of Trolls as trees before. Most of the time, in modern media, they are depicted as oversized Orcs or Goblins.

This also got me thinking, though, that there could be different kinds of trolls - trolls that come from rocks (or hills), cave trolls, etc. Any natural outcropping of stone that looks like a troll could be thought of as their origin or their destination after death. But this idea could be taken to a lot of other places too. There's a place in eastern Utah called, "Goblin Valley", which I was very fond of when I visited as a kid, because the rock formations really look like goblins.


Both trolls and goblins and could originate from rock formations like this in and out of caves.  I've also heard people use overgrown or decaying pumpkins as their source for goblin origins, and Orcs come from mutated or magically enhanced pigs and boars, fairies and pixies coming from flowers.


The Lovecraftian Approach To D&D

No, I'm not really talking about something as superficial as the monsters (though that's important too).  I'm referring to a D&D campaign as not simply a world the DM creates, but the idea and theory that your campaign world might really exist in some parallel universe and you, as the DM, are merely discovering and describing it for the players.  Now stay with me here, I'm not trying to be some kooky, extradimensional, monkey worshiper here.  I'm not saying that D&D campaign worlds really exist, just that we approach them in a quasi-literal sense as if they do.

Lovecraft thought and wrote this way in his works: We're just a back-water collection of puny humans who have no clue about what truly lies outside of our own little corner of the galaxy.  Every so often, people in his works would get a quick glimpse through the portal into those worlds and be changed forever.

This way of thinking has fundamentally changed the way I approach the game.  When seeing it from this perspective, the DM isn't really creating a world himself, it's more like he's relaying it.  That presents some interesting things.  First of all, it means that a DM's description of it is not necessarily going to be precise, it's just his vision or interpretation.  The DM thinks that it's a 30 foot drop onto the cave floor below - at least that's his best guess.  He thinks the monster has 14 hit points.  He thinks this merchant knows the real cost of the armor.

Now, that's not to say that this is a guessing game.  The DM has a pretty darn good idea of what this world is about, but it gives him some flexibility.  It's a great excuse to give to his players when he screws up a little.

Secondly, this philosophy means that his player characters have an equal right to live in this world as anyone else does.  Stop thinking about NPCs in a dull, lifeless way, and consider them as other characters with real lives of their own that are not controlled by your players.  They get up every day and do real stuff, they don't just stand around waiting for your party to arrive to buy something from them.  The Goblins aren't just walking experience points for your group to harvest.  They're real beings that have absolutely no objection to killing your players simply because the DM wills them not to.  This is a real world with rules that have real consequences.

Setup timelines and events that would really happen based on the layout of your world.  If the castle lies next to the troll caves, it's likely those trolls would come raiding the castle and its surroundings quite often.  They should be doing this with or without your players input to the situation.  They don't just start raiding when the players arrive.

This is the mindset you should have before even planning to run a campaign.  I call this site Tenebrous Tales to imply that these stories are not for us to create, they ought to be thought of as already existing, and we're just the messenger of it.


Basic D&D: The Game For The Table

My gaming system of choice and the system I use for my Tenebrous Campaign is the Tom Moldvay Basic/Expert Set first published in 1981.  The rule system is my favorite because it represents both the best set of rule mechanics to most adequately and accurately portray the world of D&D.  If "D&D" were sold next to Clue and Monopoly at your local Wal-Mart, I believe this would be the edition to best represent it.

I've always felt that D&D was actually two games in one: the one you read in the books, modules and supplements, and the one you play at the table.  The former is complex, full of awesome rules that can be put to paper and make even your math major friend's head spin a little.  "This" game of D&D is meant for grognards and students of the game who love to discuss, debate (often hotly) on message boards, blogs and forums.  More power to you if you're into that.

The second type of D&D, in my experience, is the one that actually gets played, at least for good, honest fun.  I've tried for years to put all those great rules into my games and have utterly failed 99.9% of the time.  Table-top D&D is all about enjoying the company of friends, telling great stories, and relaxing.  If you're lacking in one of those areas at your games, you may be trying to hard to play "book" D&D.  While I love the presentation in AD&D the most, Basic D&D accomplishes the table game far better.

But why not the OD&D brown books, Holmes or even Mentzer D&D?  First of all, my complaints of these editions are very minor.  I'll gladly sit down and play for a DM who wants to run them.  They all have the same general spirit that I'm looking for, but minor quirks keep me from making my "goto" game.

For me, OD&D is a mess, even with its retroclones cleaning it up.  When most of the rules offer optional secondary rules, I start wondering what game I am actually playing.  Add to that my gamer ADD and I can never feel completely comfortable with one "option".  OD&D with the four supplements just feels like AD&D to me.  If I'm going to play AD&D, I'll play the real thing.

My problem with Holmes and Mentzer is more presentation than anything else.  Moldvay's art is superior for me, and in the case of Holmes, I have a real problem with how the game came about.  It was a hackneyed approach that was completely unplanned while Gygax worked on AD&D that always leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth.  Oh and I dislike non-variable weapon damage, but I'll get into that in a later post.  Mentzer is a great edition, but here we start to feel the oncoming Silver Age starting to creep in.  Things start to feel a little -too- organized and quantified at this point.  The story layout was original, but it was also a little jarring to me.  The supplements totally ruined the spirit of the game as well, I feel, with ultra-epic levels, etc.  Cool, but that's just not for me.

So here I am with Moldvay Basic/Expert.  What do I love about it?

1. Layout
There has never been an edition of D&D that made character creation so simple.  Everything is laid out step-by-step on one page.  Doing this was absolutely brilliant and something that was never done again quite so well for a complete edition of the game.  Tables and stat blocks were also beautifully done, monster stats were extremely easy to read and left a lot for imagination.

2. Style
Modern D&D is to Lord of the Rings as Basic D&D is to The Hobbit.  It's really true if you think it through a bit.  I could go through all the reasons, but I'll state the most obvious: race as class.  Once I became converted to this thinking, I could never go back.  "Gold = Experience" is also a tribute to the days of fantasy literature before some sort of Dark Lord needed to be slain and heroes were just out to get rich and have adventures.  Elfs, not Elves, and Dwarfs, not Dwarves is also a way to sum up how fantasy creatures were handled in Basic.  Magic is more magical, monsters are more monstrous, and men are more mundane in Basic.

2. Playability
The game plays wonderfully.  The game is a beautiful balance between player and character skill, in contrast to modern games where character skill always rules the day.  Actions need to be vocalized in depth most of the time and the DM has complete control over the action.  He is not merely a referree or a rules lawyer, but a builder of magical worlds.

I'd love to touch on these in far more detail at a later time, but for now suffice it to say: Moldvay's edition is the game of D&D that was meant to be played.  Period...unless you're like me and you like to keep your books nice. ;)

When I sit down at the table I just bring Labyrinth Lord.  It's, in my opinion, the best retro clone ever made. It's extremely close to the original rules, with just a few minor changes.  I actually printed my copy at Kinkos and put into a nice spiral bound booklet for space saving at the table.  In addition to Labyrinth Lord, I also have a printed, spiral-bound copy of The Old School Encounter Reference #4, and my thick DM notebook.  That's about it.

With this set of books I focus the vast majority of game time world building through pure, undistilled, adventure.


AD&D: Defining D&D

As I wrote about last time, I now have a great fondness for AD&D.  Contrary to what some may feel, I place the game firmly in the realm of "Classic D&D".  In other words, the game shares the same general mechanics, direction, and spirit of OD&D even if it begins to suffer a little from rule bloat.  Classic D&D's style of game-play is vastly different from its modern descendants.

But far more than the actual nuts and bolts of AD&D, I feel that the core rulebooks explain how "the game" was meant to be played, philosophically, far better than any other.  If someone were to approach me today and seriously ask what D&D was all about, I would tell him to study, not just read, the AD&D core books and then come back to me.  Especially the Dungeon Masters Guide.

Gary Gygax is well-known for his ponderous, if not bloviating, writing style.  Much of what he says could be communicated in less than half the number of words.  But in my humble opinion, this writing convention is actually an important ingredient to D&D.  Gary loved his game, he couldn't stop talking about it, sometimes what he says made little sense, it's rambling, incoherent, and often very unwieldy in real-world practice.  But I think what we should realize is that if there isn't a little bit of that in our D&D games, we're simply not playing it right.  If we're not so in-love with our fantasy worlds, to make the effort to put care into every tiny piece of it, maybe we need a new hobby.  Today's commercial fantasy is largely devoid of that kind of freewheeling tender-loving-care Gary injected into his game.  We need more of it, not less.

But if you wanted to frame, not only AD&D, but D&D into a single picture, this is it:

No other image in all of D&D art captures more completely what the game is about (including the back cover not shown here).  I'd like to take just a moment to list a couple large points to detail exactly why this is:

1. D&D's focus is about dungeons, it's dark, a little scary, and it sure ain't mommy approved.

Ever since the 1980s, there has been an ever growing trend to white-wash fantasy into something your grandmother could approve of.  Heroes got bigger and badder, they started carrying around swords twice their size, and they were all but impenetrable.  Super hero comic books and fantasy now resemble each other so much, they are almost indistinguishable.  And remember that little fabric softener teddy bear thing?  At some point, someone decided that we needed more of him in fantasy, and we ended up with stuff like this in our video games:

Puffy Snuggly Chunky Heroes Inc.
Now at the risk of exaggeration, I'll admit that not all modern fantasy is 100% G rated these days (though I can't really think of a good example at the moment).  But, there was a point in time where fantasy and RPGs in particular were a thing quite out of this world.  Look at the big, nasty idol in the image, with its eerie lighting, and the recently-used sacrificial altar below it.  I think we can agree that it's about the last thing you'd find in your average Christian church.  Early RPGs were a little edgy, even downright occult at times.  But this is part and parcel of good fantasy; we see through a glass, darkly (1 Corinth. 13:12) - it was never meant to be paraded around on a bright, shiny, silver platter, accessible by every common layman who wants to take a pass at it.  It should require a little bit of mental exertion to figure it, to discover, to uncover, and to enjoy.

I'm reminded of the early CRPGs of the 1980s: Ultima, the "Gold Box" games like Pool of Radiance, and Might & Magic.  Those games gave you an obscure back-story with next to nothing to start with, but a vast open world with a deep, complex mythology and hundreds of secrets to be discovered.  The barrier of entry was tremendous, but the rewards for discovery were equally so.  These games emulated this tenebrous part of D&D very well.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying we should be trying to mimic Black Leaf or anything like that.  But keeping our games a little gritty and edgy maintains the wonder and magic intact.

2. D&D doesn't have heroes, it has heroics

Take another look at the people in the two images above.  The people on the D&D cover are hardly what you would consider heroes.  In fact, most of them seem like they have no business at all hanging around such a nasty place.  The old man could die of heart disease at any moment and the two in the foreground, looking at a map or ledger of some sort, appear a little confused about what to do next.  The other side of the book shows a small group of similar men hauling crates away.  Not to mention that none of them even realizes that they are being robbed right out from under their noses by the thieves prying the jewel out.  Yeah, the first thought that comes to my mind is that these dudes are not cool at all.

These aren't heroes, these are the local villagers who had a few rusty old weapons lying around and decided to raid a dungeon.  The other thing you notice is that they are all middle-aged or old men.  No women, no elves, and certainly no angsty teenage Gokus or Clouds here.  You see, feminism, Saturday-morning cartoons, and Japanese hair stylists never really existed back in the Medieval European Dark Ages, the real-world based setting where Classic D&D takes place.  That's not to say a woman or child couldn't be found in a dungeon like this, it's just that most of the time they would probably be locked up in a cage somewhere.

Gary Gygax spends quite a few paragraphs in the DMG talking about the setting of D&D.  Unlike the modern game, Classic D&D is not truly setting neutral.  It has one built in, and its tone is pretty pervasive throughout the entire collection of rulebooks.  This is a low-magic world, where humans are the dominant race, and places and things of your worst nightmares exist, basically, to torment them.  Player characters are not really there to save the world, just to save his own corner of it; himself, and more rarely, his family and maybe his sorry excuse of a town.  Often he's out to get rich and nothing more, the rules in fact heavily imply that advancement revolves almost exclusively around the obtaining of gold.

Gygax also heavily implies that player characters have no more right to exist than anything else in the world.  Those Kobolds in that dungeon are not just their to fill up your experience bar, they have lives and stories of their own.  It's the goal of the player to guide their character, as their pseudo spirit-soul, to make a name for themselves - to make a difference in that world.  Most importantly, it's about telling a story, not winning.

3. The World, not the Character

Characters in D&D die frequently, at first level they may start with only a few hit points.  But whether they die within the first game session, or manage to survive in a campaign world for years and years, the story told is equally valid and just as impacting.  The real character in D&D is the world itself, not the player characters.  Moving and shaping the world ought to be the main goal, moving and shaping your character comes as a symptom of it.  Your characters have a lasting effect on the world even after their death, through their deeds.  Towns may erect statues or monuments for them, new PC and NPC characters may go searching for their treasure, and bards may sing of their deeds in local taverns.  Winning in Old School D&D means adding to the world's richness.

A lot of people love to talk about whether you run your RPG as a sandbox or as a linear "story-driven" affair.  I'll say this right out: there is no other right way to run D&D other than as a sandbox.  If you're not playing your game as a world that is living and breathing, you're frankly not playing an RPG.  This is immensely important, and something that has been all but dropped from the definition of RPGs today.  A linear story has no meaningful choices, it is a DM's personal fantasy fetish that he has decided to force on a group of guinea pigs to get a rise out of.  There really can be no other way to sum it up than that.

Another thing people love to talk about is creating the "illusion" of choice in their game as a way to trick players into feeling like they are making meaningful choices.  Example: "If the players decide to go south instead of north, just place the same dungeon in their path without their realization".  This is rubbish.  A phony, concocted railroad is still a phony concocted railroad whether your players know it or not.  I can't live with myself if I know I've broken my world to satisfy my personal agenda.  Also, consider this: D&D worlds are not just for the players to explore, they're for the DMs to explore as well.  The DM as narrator, not creator is something I'd very much like to get into more deeply in a later post.

A true Classic D&D campaign is run mostly from improvisation.  Sure, setup all the dungeons you want, plan an awesome world with lots of people, places and things to do.  But when you get to the game, let the players decide how they will approach it.  Read S Is For Sandbox if you want a great tutorial on how to do this effectively.

Well, this is enough for today.  I could go on another 20 pages on this topic, but we'll leave some for later.  Next time I will be discussing my D&D ruleset of choice.