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Category Archives: Dungeon Fantasy

Religion in Fantasy Role Playing Games

My default tendency when running fantasy games is to follow more or less a Tolkien style approach when it comes to religion. Tolkien took great pains to remove any sort of reference to religious beliefs and practices from The Lord of the Rings. One of his few slip ups would be the silent prayer of Faramir’s men as they looked to the west. Then there was the odd reference to the “heathen kings” that burned themselves on funeral pyres. Much more subtle would be Gandalf’s speculation that Bilbo was meant to find the ring (meant by who?) or even his rebuke at Bilbo for being surprised that the prophecies had turned out to be true.

Dungeons & Dragons does not allow for quite that level of subtlety, though. With that darned cleric class mucking up the AD&D Player’s Guide, it sure is hard not to notice the very obvious crosses on their armor. Even setting that aside, much of their spell list is pretty plainly derived from stories and tales of Elijah, Moses, and Jesus. People ask me the nature of the clerics’ religion at conventions and I flatly state that they serve a generic Nondenominational type monotheistic God. If you say only that much and get on with things, whatever wonkiness that could be derived from this fades into the background as the players strike across the wilderness and delve into dungeons to kill monsters and gain treasure. From a game mechanics standpoint, the cleric has as much to do with the logistics that underlie hexcrawling as he does with anything else. Nevertheless, I sense a palpable disappointment in the fact that my campaign embraces a vague Judeo-Christian sensibility.

There is of course a great fault line through this syncretic mush that is Dungeons & Dragons. It sort of spot welds the elves, orcs, and halflings of Middle Earth to a strange chunk of the Crusader era. A close reading of Tolkien reveals that while Middle Earth is in fact our world, it is certainly a depiction of times much further in the mythic past than our more recent dark ages. Hints and scraps of what elves and dwarves were survive in odd words in various pieces of old poems, but what those words actually reference would have been around in a  time well before the days of Christ– though perhaps there are still halflings about that quietly slip away as we noisily stomp our way through forests. That odd reference to the “heathen” was as much of an anachronism as Lobelia’s umbrella or the Gaffer’s potatoes.

Of course, the average gamer back in the day was neither a historian nor a Tolkien scholar. And whatever it was that we did with these games, it sometimes became obvious that it was the clerics that didn’t fit, not the elves and dwarves. We all came up with our own solutions to these contradictions. Probably the most common fix, though, was to add in paganism– or rather, what we thought paganism was. The chapels and crosses were relegated to the dust bin as unending lists of made-up gods were fleshed out with various quirks and flavor texts. (That first Forgotten Realms box set was a watershed moment in my gaming consciousness.) All of it had about as much to do with reality as Oriental Adventures had with historic China and Japan. (Which is odd given the general mania for realism in the eighties.) Ultimately, we had to develop separate classes for each of these gods… at which point, you kinda have to wonder why anyone should bother with classes anymore.

That was about the time that GURPS Fantasy hit the scene. This should have been a bombshell. Not only did it replace traditional D&D magic and with a skill and fatigue system, but for the fantasy setting, Steve Jackson decided to go with real world religions. In retrospect, that obvious question was… if you were going to play in a medieval type setting, then why not people it with real Christians and Muslims…? This never really took off like I thought it should, though. As we saw time and again, whatever D&D was, it worked far better in practice than it ever had a right to. Most of us were content to hold it together by stictching another patch to the crazy quilt.

In all these things, my mind always ends up wandering back towards Tolkien. Its no accident that the guy was author of the century. Most fantasy authors are in danger of losing me just with their hokey made-up names– this is something I’m reminded of in almost every session report that gets posted on Orbs and Balrogs. The made-up religions are worse… with the exception of Lovecraftian style menace. There is some meat there. Plus, it opens up the idea that all these chaotic priests are evil not because of their morals or lack of church attendance… but because they are going literally end up burning everything to the ground and unleashing horrors that really don’t care where anyone comes down on  the issues. Even chaotic characters in an “evil” campaign are liable to get on board with putting a stop to those guys.

But I tire of the fake stuff, really. I want more meat for my game. Wither shall we go…? Medievalism is not it. Not for me, anyway. The inherent dishonesty of “oh yeah, I’ve vowed not to spill blood so I’ll just bash your skull with this mace” just doesn’t do that much for me. An honest Pagan from the fourth century B.C. would be an improvement. Such people had the respect of guys like Tolkien and C. S. Lewis… which should give anyone pause, really. As far as I can tell, whatever it is that we tend to think paganism is tends to be light years away from the what the ancients held to. The Enlightenment was the child of the Reformation. The post-modernists were merely post-Christian. Neo-paganism is merely the patronizing elevation of the noble savage that doesn’t even exist. It’s like the degree to which the aliens in Avatar correspond to actual African and American Indian cultures. It’s a celebration of what we wish other people were… in order to buttress whatever ideological fads we’re patting ourselves on the back for at the moment.

Whatever discussion the previous paragraph leads to, it is not one that I’d want infecting my fantasy world at all. Tolkien’s instincts were the correct one– better to eliminate religion altogether than to wander into that cesspool. That’s why I’m heading to pre-Christian writings for inspiration. That’s why I’m reading Herodotus’s history. It is epic and mythic and awesome and I wonder why his works never came up in the course of my liberal education. No matter. I can read it now. Putting this sort of thing at my fingertips is what the internet is for.

Reading it, it becomes clear that Socrates was no outlier. And neither was Theoden’s desire to die in battle all that exceptional from the standpoint of history. Herodotus tells of how king Croesus asked an Athenien guest who was the happiest person he knew of. Instead of sucking up to him, the snarky philosopher type responded with this:

Tellus of Athens, sire…. First, because his country was flourishing in his days, and he himself had sons both beautiful and good, and he lived to see children born to each of them, and these children all grew up; and further because, after a life spent in what our people look upon as comfort, his end was surpassingly glorious. In a battle between the Athenians and their neighbours near Eleusis, he came to the assistance of his countrymen, routed the foe, and died upon the field most gallantly. The Athenians gave him a public funeral on the spot where he fell, and paid him the highest honours.

Emerson, Lake, and Palmer would not have been held high in esteem among such a people. Another thing that is evident is that “pagan” is not actually a synonym for irreligious. It is not indicative of a person having turned away from traditional morals. For instance, one king thought his wife was so good looking, that he just had to show her off to his buddy. He concocted this scheme where the guy could sneak into his room and see her getting undressed. The man replied, “our fathers, in time past, distinguished right and wrong plainly enough, and it is our wisdom to submit to be taught by them. There is an old saying, ‘Let each look on his own.’ I hold thy wife for the fairest of all womankind. Only, I beseech thee, ask me not to do wickedly.” Those are words I could imagine a Rider of Rohan speaking.

The guy was persuaded eventually… but he was caught. And he quickly found out that the pagan women of that day were not necessarily peaceful earth-loving types that sit around singing Kumbaya. (The Spartan mother that told her son to come back with his shield or on it was also no outlier.) The next day, the man was called before her. She spoke to him thus:

“Take thy choice, Gyges, of two courses which are open to thee. Slay Candaules, and thereby become my lord, and obtain the Lydian throne, or die this moment in his room. So wilt thou not again, obeying all behests of thy master, behold what is not lawful for thee. It must needs be that either he perish by whose counsel this thing was done, or thou, who sawest me naked, and so didst break our usages.” At these words Gyges stood awhile in mute astonishment; recovering after a time, he earnestly besought the queen that she would not compel him to so hard a choice. But finding he implored in vain, and that necessity was indeed laid on him to kill or to be killed, he made choice of life for himself, and replied by this inquiry: “If it must be so, and thou compellest me against my will to put my lord to death, come, let me hear how thou wilt have me set on him.” “Let him be attacked,” she answered, “on the spot where I was by him shown naked to you, and let the assault be made when he is asleep.”

This is a woman that makes Samuel L. Jackson look like a cream puff. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. At any rate, the thing I take away from all of this is not that the cleric is in need of “paganizing.” No, if you want to incorporate real paganism into your game… the place to start is with the fighter class– guys like the one Sean Connery played in Time Bandits, for instance. That is not at all where I expected to end up…. But then… that’s why you read real literature in the first place.

Back in the Game: How I Handle Replacement Player Characters

Chris Mata writes in: Half the party wipes (say 6 players) night one of the campaign. What are your favorite ways to let the 3 guys who lost their PC’s ‘back in the game’? another shipwrecks crew? random wanderer on the island? I would like to hear your thoughts.

The way I prefer to do this depends greatly on the scenario. If I had placed Stonehell Megadungeon a half day’s march from Specularum, then I can see letting people roll up however many new characters they need for the next sortie. The only hitch is that I might require the players to spend a few days in town making arrangements– this would give the monsters time to restock a few rooms and otherwise freshen up the dungeon.

For the Isle of Dread, things are different. The fact that the place is totally remote is central to the module’s theme, and letting players infinitely respawn isn’t consistent with that. So bringing in new player characters is more problematic. Here’s my thoughts on each method:

  • If you’re running a fourth level player character, then it wouldn’t be a surprise for them to have a second level henchman. If you worked this character up over the course of dozens of hours of play… you’d probably even have the maximum number of armor bearers and meat-shields that your Charisma can muster just to help keep them alive longer. But people don’t seem to play that way as much anymore, even if their Dungeon Master strongly encourages it. Maybe they’d change their minds if they knew how stingy you might be with respawning! At any rate, for the Isle of Dread, this is the most logical source of replacement PC’s.
  • I like it when the players pick up new hangers-on in the course of the game. (It’s reminiscent of Ultima IV among other things.) I generally play the locals as being persuadable, but cautious. If the low level flunkies they loan to the players make it back with some gold in their pockets, then others might want to give it a shot, too. If the players spend these characters like they’re red shirts or something, then they shouldn’t be surprised if this source of assistance dries up. And the players might have missed that part of the contract that requires life for life…. At any rate, this is my favorite source of replacement PC’s because it’s a good source of local color and it gets everyone involved in developing the cultures of the island’s inhabitants.
  • I let the players have “no fair do over” characters back at the ship for anyone that wants to roll them up. The trek across the island is onerous enough that I expect that people that go back that far probably don’t care anymore and that the party might as well fast forward a few years and bring back an entirely new expedition. I try to give the players a lot of choices on how they proceed, so this one is up to them to a large extent.
  • As to having replacement characters be from other shipwrecks… yeah, you are not the first to suggest that. This idea is over the top for me unless there was some reason that there would be a bunch of ships heading out to the island at more-or-less the same time. (If the Island is super-dangerous, you’re probably not going to have a lot of people like Ben Gunn from Treasure Island hanging around.) I suppose you can make it a campaign based loosely on the Lost television series… but if you are running the module as written, it doesn’t seem to fit with that. The module implies that the players are the first serious expedition to the Island in a long time. Also, while there is plenty to do on the Island, it is still primarily a worked example so that you can see how to run and develop the larger campaign map that is included with it. (This is my primary reason for not getting too creative on this point, but then… I am a purist.) Nevertheless, if the players ask for this, I’d give it maybe a one-in-twelve chance that their replacement character could be something like this. But there’s a three-in-eight chance that the guy is from the Asian themed continent. Keep your Oriental Adventures hardback handy!
  • Oh… and as to the characters being shipwrecked themselves… well… in the first place, that’s not the module-as-written. In the second… that is an obvious railroad device and I’d prefer to leave a very large and very obvious door open that will allow the players to choose other pursuits if they want to. It’s a sort of release valve on the campaign. If the Isle of Dread is “meh” after a while, then the players always have the option of going somewhere else. This distributes responsibility for the campaign’s course between the players and the Dungeon Master while emphasizing the complete autonomy of the players.

The Isle of Dread: A New Campaign Frame After Much Death

(SPOILER WARNING: If you intend to play the Isle of Dread, you probably shouldn’t read any further!)

“If the PCs unknowingly venture into an area they’re not prepared to handle, they should suffer the consequences, including death.” — Justina’s Player

Here’s the score:

  1. Last I heard, you are chomping at the bit to go back into the ruins and try to find that giant pearl, because trudging back to the ship empty handed is too much for your pride. But some of you want to have all sorts of third level characters just magically appear in the village next to the dungeon. Sorry… that’s not happening. If you want a brand new, balanced party that starts at level three you can have it… but not there. If you want to go back into the ruins for loot, you’ll do it with your surviving 3rd level characters and the all-new complementary first level warriors from the village that I already promised to you. (Oh yeah, there’d also be that first level “shaman” that you wheedled out of me.)
  2. There is also the entire freaking Island to explore, of course. Also… the treasure map that… uh… someone (??) has indicates that there may be something potentially valuable to the northeast of your position. (This was not clear to Justina at one point so I am making it crystal clear now. He/she thought the ruins was where the X is on the map– not true!) Maybe you’d want to use this village as a base while you look for other potential adventures that you could have. Who knows what could be out there….
  3. Replacement ~3rd level characters are back at the ship if you insist on them… but of course it took y’all ~20 days or so to make it to the central plateau. No telling how many people will get eaten by dinosaurs on the way back. Heh.
  4. The above three options are the most obvious ones off the top of my head. If it doesn’t cross your minds to even consider what else you can dream up to do… then… well… you may not understand just how much autonomy your actually have– not to mention the lengths I would go to accommodate it. Not that you should feel guilty if you don’t go off on a random tangent– straight ahead old school treasure hunting is perfectly legitimate goal. But #1-3 outlines “the box.” I remind you that you’re free to think outside of it. But it’s also your responsibility. I’m not going to spell out every possible option or goal that you could set for yourself.

It is not my view of this island that characters can necessarily respawn there ad infinitum. Unless you come up with a different vision/goal, you are conquistadors. You’re here to pillage and loot and then GO HOME. That’s part of the reason why I was originally pushing that XP would only be awarded to the folks that make it back to Specularum. Two reasons for that: civilization is the only real home base… and this extreme lost world wilderness location does not provide the fame aspect of the leveling up process. (I have ruled that Justina, Han Yolo, and Steve Erwin will get XP before next session, though. I’m not going back on that agreement– mostly because I’m curious what you guys will do with access to the second level cleric spells.)

Now… there is some objection to the wimpy first level villagers that now make up the bulk of the party. There’s a few reasons why I think you should embrace this:

  • They may be what it takes to get your surviving party members back to the ship. In a conquistador scenario, they are a HUGE windfall. Not having them at all could mean that Justina and Han Yolo are effectively stranded to die of some random disease. If they made a run for it back to the ship by themselves, who knows what their chance of making it back alive would be? Probably not very good. Show some gratitude to an otherwise stingy dungeon master!
  • “But that’s no fair,” you say. “We didn’t know something bad would happen when we killed off most of our party and our new-found Rakasta buddies.” Well yeah, sorry if you didn’t see it coming… but death is already fickle and all-too-likely. You were going to lose characters no matter what. But face it… you lost more because you were careless and you took your matériel for granted. Okay, so you had no idea a dungeon master could be so cruel. The “No Fair Do Over” characters are back at the ship.
  • If any of the tribesmen survive to level two… that is a significantly cool accomplishment. I’d think it would be awesome if you actually did it. I don’t know what your exact odds of doing this comes out to, but it’s there. Adventure around the plateau and see if you can pull it off if you want. You’d risk losing your now-fourth level characters in the process, or else improve your chances of making it back to the ship. Who knows what the best course of action is– or if there even is one at this point.

It would be pretty darn useful for continuity purposes if either Justina or Han Yolo actually did make it back to the ship. (And I know this has been a low-treasure high-death game… but do not underestimate the value of the exploration you’ve done and the intelligence you’ve gathered.) BUT… that’s my assumption. However… I haven’t heard anything to make me think that you guys think that would be awesome. In fact… maybe it is that you… dread… the onerous trek through the wilderness. Maybe the thought of taking a twenty day journey back the ship and then backtracking back to the plateau again– maybe that sounds just completely silly, dull, and pointless. If you genuinely feel that way… let me tell you. Maybe you don’t really want to play “The Isle of Dread.” If you want to do unlimited respawn with a town that is very close to a massive dungeon such that you would not ever have to play out very much in the way of hexcrawling… then what you actually want to do is play Stonehell Megadungeon. Just sayin’!

So… that last bit is the reductio ad adbsurdam that explains why I am so stingy with the concessions you’ve been asking for here and there. At some point, you can make so many modifications to the implied campaign structure of this adventure that you’re not really playing “The Isle of Dread” anymore. If you genuinely want to play a different type of game, that’s fine. There’s a reason why there is a big campaign setting map included with the module. I know I need to be flexible juggling the desires of the players and all that, but I’m not going to tinker with the parameters of this scenario until it is functionally identical to every other adventure you’ve played. The Isle of Dread is its own place. It has its own distinctive qualities and if we’re going to play it, I intend to preserve them.

Which leads us to option five: We could just rule that Justina and Han Yolo made it back to Specularum only to get killed in a bar brawl before they could get another expedition together. Your new party would have their log, so you’d know everything you already know and you can take another stab at the adventure with that information more-or-less intact, but out of date by a few years. This gets your balanced, full-strength party in place without violating my precious sense of narrative coherence. It would also preserve the island as being a remote, treacherous location that you cannot adventure on indefinitely. Option six would be the same as five except that you would do something else for a while on the mainland and then tackle the Isle once you think you have enough levels and magic-items to do it. If that is the case, then I can place both Stonehell and The Darkness Beneath on the campaign map and you can take your pick of those two megadungeons.

My chief concern in all of this has been to reasonably and impartially present this classic module to you as a change of pace from whatever else it is that you normally do. I am not necessarily trying to steer you one way or the other… but I do hope this explains why things have been done the way that they have been. It’s not my job to continuously throw resources at you which you then spend like drunken sailors until you manage to systematically clear out every stinking hex on the island. It’s your job to take the resources that you do have and then see what you can accomplish with them in the context of a situation that is rapidly evolving.

Nothing Sacred: Separation of Concerns in Role Playing Games

“There’s some kind of weird six armed statue on the dais. It’s about four feet tall and it looks like it’s made out of some kind of metal.” This was it. The epic climax of my adventure. Half the party had died to make it this far, and a trail of bodies was strewn across three levels.

“How heavy is it? Can we carry it?” That would be Ogbar the dwarf’s player– only interested in one thing.

“You can’t tell how heavy it is just by looking at it,” I said… perhaps a bit too smugly. “I dunno, though… if it was made out of brass or something, a couple of you could haul it out of the dungeon. It’d slow you down because you’d have to stop and rest every ten minutes or so.”

“Thief! Check it for traps!” Ever since getting hit by that crossbow bolt while looking for secret doors, Flinderflaff the elf had been noticably more careful. Heh.

“Yeah, okay. I check it for traps,” said the thief’s player.

“Yeah, but how do you check it for traps,” I asked. “Describe your actions!”

“Well… I walk around it and look it over very carefully. I keep my distance, though. I don’t want to come any closer than one foot from it.”

“Okay. You see nothing special about the statue.”

“Fair enough,” said Ogbar’s player. “I’m going to sort of tip it over to see if it comes off the dais without us doing any stone work. Thufir, give me a hand with this, will ya?”

Thufi’rs player nodded in assent.

“Okay, Ogbar…. You grab the statue and give it sort of a shove… and yes, it does tip over. It doesn’t seem overly heavy. Not for you, anyway. But before Thufir can pick up the other end of it… you notice that the statue begins to glow with a dull cobalt light.” At this point, I picked up an oversized twenty-sided die and rolled it in front of everyone. It was a seven! “Huh. That’s weird. Your hands have gone numb.”

“Wait, what did you just roll? Was that a saving throw?”


“I’ve always rolled my own saving throws.”

“But, well–”

“That’s not right!”

Sometimes things happen like this that make me realize just how big of a cultural gap there is between me and some of the players in the games I run. In the first place… the rules at best govern what goes on in maybe twenty percent of what we do at the table. And secondly, most of the rules that we have are there for one reason only: so that when I say, “you’re dead,” you starting rolling up a new character instead of kicking the table over. Role playing rule sets are, if anything, a solution to the long standing cops and robbers problem. (And you do realize, of course, that if things get to the point where you’re making saving throws that it’s pretty well game over for you anyway, eh?)

Never mind, for the moment, the absolute absurdity of anybody insisting on being able to roll their own dice. Sure, it’s a courtesy of the game master to let the players to do that. And yeah, gamers love their personalized dice sets. Role players especially are superstitious as hell. But at the end of the day, the only reason you get to roll your saving throw is that it’s fun. You hold that swirly D20 in your hand and think about all the stupid stuff you’ve done in the game… and everyone is watching to see how this plays out…. It’s just stupidly fun.

But maybe there are reasons that I might want to roll something like that myself. Maybe I suspect that certain players have loaded dice or else are fudging die rolls– maybe I just want to be one hundred percent sure of this roll’s authenticity. Maybe I don’t want to go through a big production of asking a player to look something up on their sheet and rolling a die. Maybe there’s some stuff going on that I want to be more discreet about. Maybe I just want to make a real quick roll to keep the game going…. Or maybe… just maybe… you have a huge misconception about what we’re doing. Maybe we all think we’re playing this thing called “Dungeons & Dragons,” but in actuality, we’re both bringing radically difference assumptions to the table about how this works.

So… let me make myself perfectly clear…. The rules aren’t there for you and they aren’t there to protect you from me. And even if I were one of those mythological “abusive Dungeon Masters,” rules cannot afford you any protection anyway. (“Rocks fall; you die.” Q.E.D.) If the rules could protect you from me, then we wouldn’t be playing a role playing game anymore. It’d be either a straight up tactical wargame or else some kind of board game. What really holds the game together is a loosely enforced separation of concerns. The players and the referee are each responsible for different things– and the individual player and the party as a whole each have their domain as well.

With that in mind, here are ten meta-rules that take precedence over anything that is spelled out in the actual rule sets:

1) Play the game I’m running, not the game you think this is. If something goes wrong or else something doesn’t work out quite like you expected, you will feel a strong temptation to blame it on the rules. Don’t do that. You’re probably focusing on what other systems emphasize anyway.

2) Quit making rulings. Focus on imagining exactly what your character is doing. (I don’t know how many times I’ve seen a veteran player explain to a new person that they shouldn’t even try something because of their interpretation of the rules… or even because of the rules in some other edition of D&D! In a lot of cases, I would have just said, “yes” to whatever they were suggesting in order to keep the game moving and reward out-of-the-box thinking.)

3) Don’t tell other people what to do with their combat turn. Sure, there are times when the party could conceivably hash out a game plan before battle; that’s cool. But in the heat of battle, you’re just not going to have time for a full-on committee meeting. Of course, explaining a new player’s options in order to be helpful is different, but the “help” should be given in a spirit of preserving their individual autonomy.

4) Likewise, if your character is not in the same location as another party member and they’ve found something cool or dangerous… then step back and let them play it out without your interference at least until your character gets into their vicinity.

5) If you’re dead… then please just be quiet about everything the surviving party members decide. Really. Go roll up a character or something. It’s part of the suspense to slowly be losing the creative input of other players over the course of a session.

6) Some players get hung up on who knows what and which players can communicate with which other characters. For the most part, I am happy to hand wave all of this and just assume that the entire party knows everything that is discussed at the table. In an immediate situation, who knows what may matter a great deal… but after it is resolved, it’s safe to assume that the party has hashed out the ordeal even if they have to pantomime it.

7) If rules and rulings are the domain of the referee, then deciding what your character does is yours. I will not stand in your way– even if it will kill you or set the campaign on an unsustainable course. Player autonomy is sacrosanct.

8) Strategy and tactics are therefore the domain of the players. It is bad form for a referee to tell players the finer points of these things directly. Divulging “what might have been” or even slightly more efficient solutions to known problems really kills the magic of the game for some reason. (I’ve never heard anything good come of it.)

9) Death, then, is the only real way that I have to signal that your tactics aren’t effective. Sure, a lot of deaths are just stupidly random… but others are flat out your responsibility. And even the random ones are something you have to be prepared to manage. Instead of begging for more resources or more character options, try to think about what you could have done differently.

10) If I’m running a classic module that has unique monsters in it, it is an extremely bad idea to announce their true names and then start iterating through everything you can recall about them. Anything that smacks of this brazen, meta-gaming, spoiler-ridden attitude makes me want to kick the table over!

The B/X Sequence of Play for Combat

“So the set of rules we play by is the shared cultural set of rules passed down through the generations, and not the ones written on the booklet inside the box.” — The Campaign For Real Monopoly (via Noble)

Normally when I’m running a game, I just do initiative by sides. When it’s time for the players to attack, I just go around the table and have them roll to-hit and damage. I usually can’t even see the die rolls from where I’m sitting. They just holler stuff out while I frantically make notes on the status of their foes. Usually these combats end pretty quickly– either the players cast one of the “we win” type spells or else the monsters fail a morale check. (Alternately, the party is surprised and loses initiative on their first turn and then is almost completely wiped out… but that’s another story.)

Anyway, when I first start playing a new rule set, I am often extremely careful to attempt to play as much by the rules as is possible. But especially with some of these older rules sets, I’ll start coming up with rules of thumb to keep things moving and hand waving other stuff… and then after a while I’m making lots of rulings based on what I’ve been doing rather than the actual rules. For instance, I’ve been ruling that magic users that lose initiative and take damage during a turn cannot cast spells. I have no idea where I got that rule other than that I just suspected that there had to be some sort of substantial justification for the legendary tactic of targeting the magic-user first. The thing about this sort of thing is that when I go back and look at the rules they have almost nothing to do with what I actually do at the table.

So… let’s go back through this and see what’s actually there.

  1. Morale Check — This is a signature component of the Moldvay ruleset and I strongly encourage everyone to use this component of the system. It shortens the combats tremendously, makes encounters far more believable, and goes a long way towards differentiating the various monsters.
  2. Movement — I don’t tend to use miniatures lately, so this generally doesn’t come up. Note the bit there about “meleed” opponents only being able to move defensively. That would be at best at half speed going backwards. This is a mechanic that would allow fighters to move forward and pin their opponents by “basing” them. Pretty cool. Also note that if the magic-user opts to move, he just kissed his spell-tossing ability goodbye for the round!
  3. Missile fire — Nothing surprising here, but note that when the movement rules are omitted, then the range modifiers on page B27 are going to be forgotten as well. Cover is something that I have rarely applied, so be sure to note the guidelines on page B26.
  4. Magic spells — Given the extreme limitations on the number of spells that can be cast in a day in Moldvay, it’s no wonder that spells automatically hit. What’s more, there’s no saving throw on some of them. The example of combat on page B28 has the party forming a “defensive line across the room” in order to stay out a Sleep spell’s area of effect, but I don’t see anything in the rules that would nail down quite how that would have to work. (I wonder if that is an artifact from earlier editions of the game.)
  5. Melee — A lot of times in the past, I have ruled that melee attacks are effectively random in terms of who they effect. This maybe makes some sense when you’re not using miniatures, but I don’t see anything in these rules that would imply anything like that. (Where could I have picked that up…?)

So here’s the thing. Why is there such an elaborate sequence of play like this when we just do initiative by side anyway? I’m not seeing a lot of reasons here right off. All I can really come up with is that if melee happens after magic, then spells will get let loose before the party can know what they heavy hitters will do. Is that really worth not being able to just go consecutively around the table? I dunno….

What really stands out to me is that these combat rules are undeniably miniatures rules. This is interesting more for the fact that in the mid-eighties, I don’t recall anyone playing with these rules even close to as they are written. Indeed, none of us would be able to afford miniatures until after we graduated college. Never mind that we’d maybe never obtain the requisite skill and patience in order to actually sit down and work them up. Of course, these rules as remembered will always be much closer to the loose, lean, simplistic form of play that seemed to spontaneously emerge on playgrounds at elementary schools all over North Armerica right around 1983 or so and which just so happened to be reflected in computer games like Zork and Ultima II.

Is playing correctly something that would even be worth the effort? Well, with a game that was utterly opaque for as long as this one was, it is arguable that it cannot ever be played “correctly.” It’s part of the attraction. Certainly there are dozens of better explained, more tightly designed games of this sort that will effectively go unplayed for all eternity. I have to admit, I take a special pleasure in playing by the more child-like rules. They not only signal that a session played with them will be focused far more on exploration, pretend, and what we now term as resource management, but they also make what is ultimately an obscene gesture at the thirty years of design and development that have occurred within role playing games since the release of Moldvay and Cooke’s B/X rulebooks.

My retro-hipsterism is short lived however, as there are still the seeds of more current styles of play within those old rules. Most notably, there are optional rules not only for d20 style attribute checks, but also for individual initiative rolls modified by dexterity bonus. (So much for being a purist.) At any rate, if there is one case where I will attempt to apply the sequence of play explicitly as written, it is in the unusual case where the two opposite sides roll the same number for initiative. Sure, it doesn’t happen very often, but it is the one situation where the exact sequence of the five “M’s” suddenly take on a lot of significance.