Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

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Get ready, y’all. This one’s gonna blow you away!

The Fractal Nature of the AD&D Game

Peter Conrad writes in with a question about the AD&D:

Hi Jeffro, I’m really enjoying these play reports, and have been planning to run “orthodox AD&D” as well. I’m wondering how you interpret the initiative rules? I have been pouring over the DMG and online and I can see a few ways that people do it.

Thanks for the great question, Peter!

I think Gygax is pretty clear about how initiative works in the DMG. (His surprise rules do make a bit of static, though.)

Here’s my take on it:

1) DM decides what the monsters will do. Check reaction and/or morale if need be.
2) Players declare their actions. If they want to win at rpgs, they will advise a high t caller who will then speak for group.
3) Roll for initiative by side. Highest gets to resolve their actions first. Ties indicate simultaneous action.
4) Gygax has detailed direction on how to handle multiple attack routines and spell spoilage, but this tends to not to come up a whole lot.

So the pattern is (a) make a plan in the face of uncertainty, (b) commit to it, (c) accept the consequences, and (d) imagine and describe the new situation that emerges from all this. This is the soul of the game and both requires and inspires imagination.

The vast majority of people have looked at these rules and dismissed them without considering the consequences of doing so. When you pick up this game there is going to be a great deal of social inertia in play to allow each and every player to operate independently. Don’t give in to it Even in the seventies there was a great deal of pressure to move to a separate initiative roll for each figure in the game. This is a disastrous move for a lot of reasons.

In the first place, AD&D is a game that is primarily focused on the strategic level. Making a design change that will inevitably inflate the amount of time it takes to resolve a given combat situation absolutely destroys this. It puts a lot of pressure on the dungeon master to make smaller, less epic battles that are unlike the epic monster mashes that Gygax took for granted. Furthermore, it creates a whole host of game design issues. The AD&D rules do not have the sort of granularity required in order to manage the hyper-detailed situations that emerge from this type of thinking. One tempting house rule in this area fundamentally changes the game while creating an impetus to overhaul practically everything about it.

The worst aspect of it is the social dimension. The meat and potatoes of AD&D is forming a plan with your friends. It’s something you can do sitting around a camp fire drinking beer. You don’t need a basement full of Napoleonics miniatures to get into this. But what happens when you switch to individual initiative? Players stop coordinating so much with the other players. They are not as inclined to think outside the box and work together. Lots of people just check out. You go in a circle and then multiple times re-explain the situation to the guy that stopped paying attention or the girl that started playing a game on her phone. They then hem and haw about what they want to do in isolation from everything else with knowledge that the AD&D game assumes that they can’t have!

Definitely hold the line on this! If you do, you’ll begin to rediscover the “lightning in a bottle” that made AD&D such a phenomenal cultural force in the first place. The social dynamics involved in players learning how to coordinate and work together and use their imaginations are far more engaging than anything that war games, euro games, or computer games have to offer. It’s crazy fun.

So accept AD&D for what it is, a game of epic adventure and imagination. Go all in on this core concept of the game: (a) make a plan in the face of uncertainty, (b) commit to it, (c) accept the consequences, and (d) imagine and describe the new situation that emerges from all this. This is how you run the game when the players arrive at the tavern looking for something to do at the beginning of the session. It’s also how you can run each and every encounter– including those that involve combat.

Good luck!

Running First Edition AD&D Without Modules or Campaign Supplements

Just looking over these old sessions and I have to say, it really takes my breath away:

  • The Hole in the Sky
  • The Thing in the Sewer
  • The Big Score
  • The Drums of the Dog People
  • Altar of the Beast-women
  • The Pugs of Slaughter
  • The Overbearing of the Crystal Men
  • The Song of Fàgor

The excitement from that initial flash of inspiration coming to life. My attempts at adventure design blowing up in my face or collapsing in unexpected ways. One page dungeons that never got used. My mistakes in carelessly interpreting monster manual entries being revisited and then evolving into significant campaign elements. Encumbrance rules creating an awesome game scenario out of nothing. Players going in disorganized and without a plan and nearly meeting their doom for nothing. That time we stayed up until midnight because we HAD to play one more delve. That one multi-class elf character that took over the game session with his unquenchable thirst for the ludicrous. The Swoleceror spellbook that never got recovered. Oghma sitting in and showing everyone what play is like when an elite player seizes the initiative. The crescendo of a half-orc’s improvised composition conjuring an entire world.

Every session completely different from every other. Rude sketches on loose leaf paper held together by little else than random monster results, a fanatical commitment to playing by the AD&D rules as closely as possible, and the audacity and persistence of the players.

All of it emerging out of exchanges that go like this:

Players: Who the frack is this guy’s superior officer?
DM: Uh… I dunno… uh. He answers to the prince.
Players: What? That’s insane.
DM: Yeah, yeah. Sure. He totally answers directly to the prince.
Players: Okay, we go talk to the prince.
DM: (Under his breath) Oh crap.
DM: Okay, you go see Prince… uh… um…
Players: Yeah?
DM: Yeah, it’s Prince Elric.

It shouldn’t work. It can’t work. None of this makes sense. But then out of the chaos something just seems to emerge in spite of everything: Swords & Swolecery! A Game of Terrific Trollops, Glittering Gold, & Punishing Pugmen!

No other campaign would play quite like this. And yet… it is undeniably pure and unadulterated first edition AD&D.

Easily the best game ever made. Don’t settle for less!

AD&D Session 8: The Song of Fàgor

So last session I’d just stolidly stood back and did nothing to frame up a situation or scenario for the players. I’d just left it entirely up to them to recall any loose threads from former sessions that they wanted to follow up on. This time I decided to try the exact opposite of that.

I waited for a lull in the conversation and then took a moment to rapidly move several things forward that had been suggested in earlier sessions:

  • There is an index card on the tavern bulletin board from Zanzel Melancthones offering a 1000 gold reward for the return of the cadaver of a crystal monster that had been brought to him previously. He offers 5000 gold for the apprehension of whatever thief presumably broke into his tower to take it.
  • There is an army of 50 Giant White Apes, 100 Apache horsemen, and several hundred orcs converging on the city of Trolopulous.
  • Fàgor (and only Fàgor) has noticed a blood red moon in the sky that nobody else seems to have seen.

We have six very different players this time. How in the world do they sort this out?

Some have this idea to go scout out what is going on with this army for the city. Others are very much enticed by the gold for the reward. The scouting missing looks to have the most support then Fàgor’s player stops everything to get more information about this red moon thing, but this turns out to be even more baffling.

The players go see the captain of the guard. The guy seems to be rather incompetent, declaring that they are a bit short on men-at-arms. The players (some of whom have served) ask who this guy reports to. Off hand, I just say the prince. They are shocked. This nudnik reports to the prince?!

Evidently some sort of common sense world building fail here. Naturally I double down. But the players want to see the prince now. And I have nothing on this guy. “The prince? Oh yeah. The prince. Prince… um… Prince Elric???” I tell them he looks like Nekron from Fire & Ice,

The players are really concerned about the fair city of Trollopulous and want to help. Prince Elric is not too concerned.. When informed of the approaching army, he declares that greatest treasure of the city is its trollops. He proposes holing up with them in his tower for a few days and then maybe summoning some extra-planar entities if things look like they’re getting out of hand.

The players decide to go north into the jungles. The set out after picking out their mules and war horses. I immediately get a random encounter of 20+ orcs. Obviously a detachment from the coming army. Maybe some kind of rearguard or something. Spies? Fàgor and Maubert ride straight up to them while the rest of the party keeps going on. Maubert scolds them for being out of position and rudely directs them to go a few miles west. They buy it and fall all over themselves to get going.

The players camp out on the jungles edge. At some point, Fàgor calls the other player characters “faggots”, explaining the “fag” is of course orcish for human. (Though his name means “great hero” in orcish, it transliterates as “human killer.”) In the night these four lions wake everybody up. Next day the ranger notices one trailing them. He send a couple arrows at it but misses and then hits a tree it was crouching behind. It slinks off with a growl.

The players get to the huge ruined pile in the jungle. Fàgor wants to go up the rope that the party had left behind, but when he pulls on the rope it nearly brings a precariously balanced boulder down right on top of him. They want to work out a way to get their horses into the ruins. The players find a place in the ruins where they can house their horses then get ready to go into the temple. (They don’t have any men-at-arms or henchmen with them this time for some reason.)

The players head in and cut left. They find a door and inside are jail cells with skeletons in them Fàgor uses his pike to carefully retrieve a golden belt buckle from one of the skeletons without opening up the cells. The players then continue in the maze of twisty passages, going in a complete circle. They head back in down another path and come to a hallway with five seven foot tall statues, each with twelve wings.

The ranger goes to investigate these things and then whoosh! He disappears. One by one the players go investigate, trying different things. The all disappear one after another with a big whooshing sound. Fàgor I think throws a rope near the statues and then pisses on it, maybe tries repositioning the wings. Then he steps toward the statues and disappears with a whoosh. The paladin was last. He slips to the end of the passage along the sides and discerns a circle in the floor. He considers a few different things but ends up jumping in to see what happens.

They have all ended up in this weird strobe-light filled, screeching pulse place. The players can’t think of anything to do except move in a random direction. They arrive at some sort of crystal lattice that is growing out of nothing. They find at the top of it a platform with a organ on it. Somebody goes up to it and pulls out some of the stops, hits a key or two. Then somebody else hits the lowest foot pedal on the organ and the platform suddenly starts to tip over as the crystal lattice disintegrates.

Fàgor then starts playing the organ, a soothing, peaceful tune in a Lydan mode. The pulsing cacophony ceases and is replaced with clouds and some kind of kudzu type plant begins to grow from every direction. Fàgor then modulates into a substantially different sort of song. Counterpoint is involved. It all culminates into a legitimately intricate composition. As it develops, a red sandstone structure grows around the players which then gradually spawns architectural complexity, furniture, stain glass windows. When the song concludes, they are in some sort of alien cathedral.

The players consider looting the place but decide not to as there’s nothing demonic about the artwork. They go outside and see a world full of gigantic mushrooms. They explore a ways, concerned that they might inhale dangerous spoors. They find a stream of crystal clear water that leads to a pool. The players don’t want to drink it. They fill a waterskin with it.

They head back to the cathedral and decide that they want to take a mushroom cutting before they bail out. As soon as they slice into one, mushroom figures in many directions start moving towards the players. Everyone except one person fails their open door check. They all run inside, find a circle on the floor and all dive into it. They appear back at the temple, find their way back to where they housed their horses, and then camp for the night, their sleep interrupted by both the howling of wolves and the roar of lions.

Hans Franzen the Swoleceror (2 hits, Burning hands, Jump, Message, Read Magic) [Delves 3a, 3b, 4, 5, 6a, 6b, and 8] XP: 753 + 351 + 54 + 766 + 8 + 80 + 0 = 2012

Brother Pain the Acolyte [Delve 3b, 7, and 8] XP: 351 + 54 + 255 + 0= 660

Torin the Runner (7 hits) [Delves 3a, 3b, 4, 5, 6, 6b, 7, and 8] XP: 753 + 351 + 54 + 766 + 8 + 80 + 255 + 0 = [Frozen at 2250 until he levels!]

Arthur the Gallant (7 hits) [Delves 2, 3a, 3b, 4, 5, 6a, 6b, 7, and 8] XP: 122 + 753 + 351 + 54 + 766 + 8 + 80 + 255 + 0 = 2389

Fàgor — (12 hits) Half-Orc Fighter [Delve 7 and 8] 255 + 0 = 255 (His name means “astonishing hero” in orcish. For real!)

Malbert the Veteran (9 hits) [Delves 2, 3a, 3b, and 8] XP: 122 + 753 + 351 + 0 = 1226

Experience and treasure: Nothing! (They’ll get something for the gold belt buckle when they go back to Trollopulous, maybe.)


Day 1: The Hole in the Sky

Day 2: The Thing in the Sewer

Day 7: The Big Score part I

Day 8: The Big Score part II

(Day 9-14 — player characters all carousing¹; Keebler Khan fully recovered) <—- I day of real world time = one day of game time!)

Day 15: The Drums of the Dog People

(Day 16-21: More carousing, fasting, panhandling.)

Day 22-25: Altar of the Beast-women

(Day 26-31: Resting)

Day 32-33: The Pugs of Slaughter

(Day 34-39: Resting)

Day 40: The Overbearing of the Crystal Men

(Day 41-46: Resting)

Days 47-48: The Song of Fàgor

The graveyard:

Dorkorus — Half-elf fighter/magic-user/thief — Half brother to Keebler Khan, talked with a lisp! Killed by a pug-man in the Trolopulous mega-dungeon.

Dairage — Elf fighter/magic-user — Killed with his shield spell one, valiantly taking down the leader of the pug-men so that the party could have a chance to escape certain death!

9 Hapless men-at-arms!


AD&D Session 7: The Overbearing of the Crystal Men

Session six is about where I normally reach creative exhaustion with an rpg campaign. The desire to try some other obscure system is one threat that must be overcome. One or two players being on the low energy side could easily sap my will to continue at this point. But AD&D is great. Everyone knows what it is. The campaign can easily handle new people coming and going, sure. But I’ve got to say, it sure seems like people really want to play this. None of us has any clue how any given session will go. And people just really want to go back in. It’s a real enthusiasm that is very hard to say no to.

I am still a bit worn down from the futility of attempting to plan for a session. My brilliant campaign idea went out the window the first session. My lovingly made one page dungeons have sat unused for weeks as the players stomp through my ridiculous campaign world doing random stuff. What can you do in such a circumstance? Oh, that’s obvious!

I open up the session with a flat, “what do you do?” Somebody points out that they have a lot of options. They can go back to the ruins in the jungle that are two days journey to the north. They can check out whatever is going on in the south where a group of large creatures headed some weeks back. They can tackle the dogmen yet again. They can explore the sinkhole that they discovered previously. And they can go investigate the weird laughter that they heard in the northeast section of the sewers. Five adventure scenarios to choose from.

The players decide to go after the dogmen. It’s been seven days since their last foray into the dungeons, though. So there’s no telling what’s going on down there. I make up a quick D12 table with the three outcomes I think are most likely– a 1-3 option, a 4-7 option, and a 5-12 option. I get a twelve and imagine in my head what has happened during the week. The AD&D rule of having one game day pass for each real day creates pressure for the players to complete objectives while they have the chance. Opportunities can just evaporate due to inaction! Which is sorta where we ended up this time. The hostages were all dead by now, for instance. The value of the haul is thousands of gold less and the chance of having grateful first level adventurers joining the party’s retinue is off the table. Ya snooze, ya lose!

The party has mass quantities of flaming oil this time. The had trouble deciding how to carry it all. They spend a lot of time working out the ideal marking order for the sewer section where they can go three abreast. They find a door that they forgot about and try to open it. I dutifully check for wandering monsters. Somebody made a map and explained where they were, though. So they continue on toward the lair of the pug-men.

They send the half-orc Fàgor up to check things out and he doesn’t see anything with his heat vision. The party rolls up to the entrance and see that the pit is wide open. They concoct a scheme to cry out as if they just fell in so that the pug-men will come investigate. They ham it up and I check for wandering monsters– a one! I check my tables and see what investigates.

The party is surprised to have something come up on their six in all this. Before they can really react, the cleric back there took some damage and the two remaining men-at-arms got dropped– the torch in the back goes out! The players wail away on these things and I tell them they are hard. Hitting them makes a clanging sound.

As things evolve, there are two competing plans. One is to throw flaming oil onto the bodies of the two men-at-arms who were each carrying five vials of the stuff. The other is to fall back a bit and (somehow that I can’t really imagine) throw the monsters into the pit. This stops the game as one of the players suggests that we use the grappling rules on page seventy-two. I have never played these things in anger– I’ve never even heard of someone playing these things in anger. But somehow we ended up on the Overbearing Table where it turned out to be rather easy to knock an opponent to his knees and/or knock them flat. There is not much defense for this except to be big and win initiative.

Anyway, I let the player responsible for this narrate it from his perspective, one tweet at a time:

  • Real time game report. The thread: I have spent 48 minutes making sure none of the players are culturally sensitive.
  • We have purchased 30 oil flasks and are determined to kill Dog men. Furries beware.
  • We are hunting the Dog Men in their home. We believe they may be holding men captive in their lair. Which them being furries can mean only one thing: Sodomy.
  • We are now fighting a group of Dog Men. We set a trap for them but some snuck up from behind like the perfidious snakes they are. The Henchmen are actually earning their pay.
  • My character Funk holds the front with the cleric. The rear guard are now taking on the dog men and are missing. Darkness is rising, fear grows. DM: “These things are hard.” Oh snaps….
  • These are not dogmen. These are something made of stone. The darkness has deceived us!
  • We are luring them towards us with a pit in front of us. We are bringing them to death, flaming oil flasks being sent. Destruction everywhere. The half orc was hit but his momma hit him harder in grade school.
  • They are healing the half orc. We voted to only heal half of him.
  • SESSION DONE Lesson for the day is dont trust mute on your mic when talking to your wife. If they DM rolls heavy on you bust out obscure rules and wreck his evening. Godspeed you beautiful animals.

One of the men-at-arms turned out to still be alive, lying in a pool of filth and flammable oil. He is the last one of ten! During the fighting I needed to roll the paladin’s henchman Gilbert’s strength. He got a 17!

The players go into the party room were they fought dog men before. They are all gone. Man, that fight would have been scary if the crystal men were blocking the exit and the dog men were coming out of their caves from the other direction. Some day!!

The players search the party room and Fàgor finds this hidden recess in the wall. There is a pouch in there, but he won’t reach his hand inside. He takes a spear and wedges it out, standing such that any flaming jets of acid shooting out of the wall. The bag falls on the floor. He carefully dumps out its contents attempting to avoid inhaling any strange dust that might be in it. Inside is a bunch of gems.

Two players gotta leave, so their characters escort the surviving man-at-arms to safety, healing everyone else before they leave.

The players explore the other two rooms of the dogmen lair. One is full of skinns and rags. The other has shackles, chains, and an iron maiden. They open it up and there is a body inside that had been there for a week. (I check to see if it is a Swolecerer clutching a spellbook… the dice say no!)

The remaining party heads west in the sewer for about half an hour. They get bored and come back to the door they found earlier. They try to open it. Another wandering monster turns up, this time it’s (rolls dice) some kind of slime that (rolls dice) lands on top of the paladin. One of the players gets really excited about this, pausing the came to consult the Player Handbook. What color is it, he wants to know. I am loath to just say “green”, but finally I tell him. He says the paladin can just cure disease to get rid of the thing. I’m incredulous, but consult the Monster Manual and sure enough… it all checks out. Three combat rounds would have been the end to the paladin’s plate mail, but under these circumstances, he just comes out with a bit of a polish.

Party drops a half-naked Brother Pain down into the sinkhole. He notes two tight passages, one to the northwest and the other to the southwest. The players mull it over and decide that exploring the second level of the dungeon at close to half strength is not a good idea. Nobody bothers them as they head back to Trollopulous.

Aulis Martel the Acolyte (8 hits) [Delves 3a, 3b, 4, 5, 6a, and 7] XP: 753 + 351 + 54 + 766 + 8 + 255 => [Frozen at 1500 until he levels!]

Brother Pain the Acolyte [Delve 3b and 7] XP: 351 + 54 + 255= 660

Torin the Runner (7 hits) [Delves 3a, 3b, 4, 5, 6, 6b, and 7] XP: 753 + 351 + 54 + 766 + 8 + 80 + 255 = [Frozen at 2250 until he levels!]

Arthur the Gallant (7 hits) [Delves 2, 3a, 3b, 4, 5, 6a, 6b, and 7] XP: 122 + 753 + 351 + 54 + 766 + 8 + 80 + 255 = 2389

Gregg the Acolyte (10 hits) [Delves 4, 5, and 7] XP: 54 + 766 + 255 =1075

Fàgor — (12 hits) Half-Orc Fighter [Delve 7] 255 (His name means “astonishing hero” in orcish. For real!)

Funk — FIghter — Also worships Issek (at best a saint) [Delve 7] 255

Gilbert (Strength 17) and Sullivan: [Delves 2, 4, 6a, 6b, and 7] (122 + 54 + 8 + 80 + 255) / 2 = 259

One shell-shocked man-at-arms: — (7 hits) [Delves 6a, 6b, and 7] (8 + 80 + 255) / 2 = 171

Experience: 804 XP for killing monsters. Gems worth 1000 + 5 + 50 + 50 + 500 + 50 + 90 = 1745 gold pieces value. Total XP is 2549 divided 10 ways.


Day 1: The Hole in the Sky

Day 2: The Thing in the Sewer

Day 7: The Big Score part I

Day 8: The Big Score part II

(Day 9-14 — player characters all carousing¹; Keebler Khan fully recovered) <—- I day of real world time = one day of game time!)

Day 15: The Drums of the Dog People

(Day 16-21: More carousing, fasting, panhandling.)

Day 22-25: Altar of the Beast-women

(Day 26-31: Resting)

Day 32-33: The Pugs of Slaughter

(Day 34-39: Resting)

Day 40: The Overbearing of the Crystal Men

The graveyard:

Dorkorus — Half-elf fighter/magic-user/thief — Half brother to Keebler Khan, talked with a lisp! Killed by a pug-man in the Trolopulous mega-dungeon.

Dairage — Elf fighter/magic-user — Killed with his shield spell one, valiantly taking down the leader of the pug-men so that the party could have a chance to escape certain death!

9 Hapless men-at-arms!