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Category Archives: Role Playing Games

Thoughts on Running an AD&D Campaign

So I am six sessions into an AD&D campaign with no modules, no resources beyond the core rules and the monster books. Normally this is a crisis point in a campaign. If I am running something that isn’t D&D, I am generally burned out from the effort required to keep things going. AD&D is not like that! It has many qualities that bring energy into the system. An AD&D campaign that gets over the initial hump has a momentum of its own. It is far less effort to keep it going than it is to go do practically anything else. The act of allowing the AD&D rules to set the baseline structure combined with a willingness to allow play to go where it must opens up a deep well of inspiration.

For those not following the campaign play by play, here are a list of differences between AD&D and B/X:

  • Magic is way more interesting. Tons of off the wall spells get used. Having to find magic the AD&D way creates one of the best incentives to adventure ever made. Success here– finding even two or three new first level spells– can fundamentally change the nature of the game and the balance of power between the first level classes. Exciting!
  • With three big books of monsters instead of a “pure” edited down list of archetypes, the players run into something they’ve never seen before almost every session. Everyone knows the original monster manual monsters by heart and they can recognize the B/X monsters especially with minimal description. AD&D monsters are all over the place, and because they were created before anything was really systematized, they have big broad-brush features that eat standard dungeon operating procedures for breakfast. Weird is good!
  • The “down and critically injured at exactly zero hit points” rule takes out some of B/X’s arbitrary death, gives one more thing for players to consider doing when in the heat of battle, and presents a real problem when the players have to figure out a way to evacuate someone from the dungeon when monsters threaten to overwhelm the slow moving party. Also, having a particular character being out of play for a week of game time allows a player to continue attempting to level their main PC while giving them the chance to sample something completely different.
  • The crazy rich range of player characters can completely change the tenor of the party in an instant. A group with an assassin will play completely differently from one with a paladin. The presence of a ranger or a half elven fighter/magic-user/thief can have wild effects on the behavior of the party as a whole. The nature of the game seems to change faster than the players can master it, keeping things surprising, weird, and fresh where B/X might turn into a grind.
  • Specifically, unbalanced classes that warp and stress common assumptions about the rules do something unique to the game. ACKS, for instance, has many variant classes. The assassin and the priestess classes there were sampled, found to be uncompelling, and then passed over. AD&D eschews balance, even coherence in favor of over the top archetypes. This is not a problem to be solved but rather a phenomenon to be leveraged– it makes everything more dynamic, less static. If attribute methods can limit the frequency of the weird stuff sufficiently (and one-in-nine chance of a paladin seems just about right) then this is a potent spice for exciting gameplay.
  • The easy access to healing at first level is balanced by the mind-blowing amount of gold required to pay training costs. Making it to second level– anyone making it to second level– is something that can take two or even three times as long. Anyone that makes it there will be out of play for a couple weeks of game time for training, again opening things up to allow for the player to try out a completely new character type.
  • The “one real world day corresponds to one game day” rule is the one thing that ties all of this together. I am strongly tempted to run more than one session a week when a time-dependent opportunity emerges in play. Players haven’t suggested this, but I suspect that two competing groups with some overlap between players would be insane. (One would probably cohere around the paladin, the good group… the other would be the circus freaks.) What I have seen at the table is that there is an extra incentive to do “just one more delve” when the players come back with no treasure. They see an opportunity, they fear it won’t be there next week, they know a little more than they did before, they think they can just go get it, they’ve underestimated how much real time it will take to do this because time just flies while you’re playing this game– and so they go back into the dungeon when other groups are tempted to call it a night. Gaming gold, y’all!

In summary, AD&D is objectively better than every other incarnation of the D&D game system.

No one understood what in the heck OD&D was, what it ought to be, what it could be. (Ken St. Andre and Steve Jackson had entirely reasonable responses to early D&D– ie, actually go design a game that people can understand.) Meanwhile, Gary Gygax had certainly discovered something that could keep people coming back to his house nightly for years on end.

Holmes and Moldvay only saw parts of this. What they saw and what they expressed about the game was certainly good. But Gygax knew something that they didn’t. And proven gaming wisdom that can allow you to recreate the wonder and excitement of his home campaign is baked into the AD&D rules.

All you have to do is let it work for you!

Just quit trying to fix it. The stuff you think is obviously broken all solves gaming problems you don’t even know you have.

Backtalk: Old School and New School Are Not Just In Your Mind

Okay, got a lot of feedback this week that deserves a response. Here’s a hot take from Trever Bierschbach over on Twitter:

“I think all the limitations people see in old and new school gaming is of their own making and within their own group. So many people seem to forget the most basic rule in TTRPGs…the rules are guidelines, change, adapt, eliminate as your group sees fit.”

This is a good example of a very common position you see in rpg discussions whose only purpose is to stop constructive analysis altogether. Its invocations of banal truisms make its position seem far more plausible than it actually is.

You hear this sort of thing a lot because it is easy to express and it sounds smart. The truth takes rather more effort to elucidate:

  1. Rpgs do indeed require referees who will make rulings and also adapt, extend, and modify the rules of whatever system is in play. Some systems will require a modest amount of this primarily in their application (ie, Moldvay Basic), some will force you to do a great deal of this (ie, AD&D), and still others will (through the table experience of the game designer) seem to anticipate the vast majority of rulings and interpretations you will be required to make well before you realize the designer has already sorted the hard stuff out for you. (For the latter sort of game, see the Adventurer Conqueror King System.)
  2. The fact that these games require this sort of modification does not make all changes to the rules equally expedient. Some changes are in the spirit of the game and enhance play. Others are more akin to placing money on Free Parking: they violate the intent of the rules and transform the system into a sort of non-game.
  3. The fact that people played D&D according to “new school” style anti-principles very early on in the history of the game in no way legitimizes the grossness and tediousness of this type of play.
  4. A great many people think they are particularly creative and intelligent for taking a least common denominator approach to the old games. They are in fact following the path of least resistance, pretending to play a game rather than exploring the potential within one. This is not smart and it is not special. It is in fact painfully common.
  5. Most of the rest think they can simulate the salient qualities of what the old school has to offer by incorporating elements of what they think that entails into games that were designed from the ground up specifically to repudiate those qualities. They are of course mistaken.

I hope this clears things up!

Games are real. Rules are real. And playing them produces consistent, repeatable, and observable situations and dynamics at the table. Don’t let a spurious pose of rpg ecumenicism seduce you away from the best that tabletop gaming has to offer!

The Key Difference Between Old School and New School D&D

The thing the really differentiates the old school from the new school in role playing games is where player choice manifests itself.

New school games typically give the players latitude to play whatever type of character they want. This ranges from GURPS where classes and levels are dispensed with and every conceivable character ability is broken down into point values all the way up to recent editions of D&D where there are a bewildering range of races, classes, feats, and so on. The newest of new school games emphasize elaborate player character backstories that the Dungeon Master is expected to somehow tap into in his campaign story.

But notice where all this choice for the players manifests itself. It resides almost entirely in the pre-game area. Players can be the exact type of character that they want to play, but in game they end up pretending to play a more or less linear set of situations that are already charted out.

Old school games in contrast give the players very little choice in character creation. You roll your attributes, pick a race and/or class, roll your hit points, buy equipment and you’re done. There is, for example, only about a 1-in-9 chance of someone qualifying for the paladin class. There is no guarantee that there will be one in a party and if there is one, there is no telling which player will be the one that gets to try it out! Playing an old school character is thus more about looking at what the dice give you and then making something out of it. Someone in the group is liable to be stuck with a “hopeless character” while someone else gets to play the best character they’ve ever rolled up. It happens! Dice are like that.

While choice is quite limited in an old school character generation, everything changes when play actually begins. In an old school game, the players can pretty much go anywhere and do anything. They can freely take actions that aren’t even covered by the rules, set their own campaign objectives, pass over the Dungeon Master’s scenario hooks and set off to find a place that an improvised non-player character mentioned in an offhand and ad-libbed comment. Rpgs are like that.

One more factor exacerbates these two difference and that is of course the frequency of player character death. New school players can be expected to play their character effectively forever, so they require a lot of choice (and balance) in character generation because this one choice will pretty well be set in stone. Old school players are playing a game. If their pawn is “killed” they have a chance to come back with a better character or perhaps one that is more suitable to the current strategic situation. Balance between each player’s characters can emerge over time due to the law of averages, but only if death is allowed to level the playing field and cull the herd.

In general, the inevitable result of player choice is to create unused system and/or unused scenario preparation. A dungeon master that has created an elaborate dungeon will start the game at its entrance and limit the campaign to its exploration. Give the players a choice and all that prep is liable to be in vain!

Similarly, in the Moldvay Basic D&D rules, magic users get their choice of starting spells for their magic users. This one choice typically induces analysis paralysis in new players as gameplay stops while they attempt to assimilate the implications of a dozen cryptic spell descriptions in a game they are unfamiliar with. Old hands will typically just go with the most powerful combat spell and ignore the rest. Some groups are so sure about which spell is the most essential to optimal play, the choice of which spell a magic-user takes is liable to cease to be a choice at all!

I’m not familiar with the Wizards of the Coast strains of D&D, but I’m told that choice of which feat must be chosen is pretty well set by the “community” of players that surround the game. People that refuse to go along with this out of a desire to explore something different are looked at askance; their idiosyncrasies come at the expense of the party’s ultimate effectiveness.

With the Adventurer Conqueror King System I saw the same thing happen with its proficiency system. Given free rein, players will typically spend every free slot on some sort of healing-related skill. The entire effect of this elaborate system could be dropped altogether and replaced with AD&D style bonus spells for first level clerics and the end result would be maintained with far less friction. Player choice ruins that system just as assuredly as impetuous players laughing your “old man with an adventure hook” out of the tavern spoils the adventure you had planed.

How do you get it back? With randomness. The ACKS Players Companion contains tables with a variety of templates for each character class, each one embellished with a few deft proficiency choices and equipment selection. This allows not only for the proficiency system to be used as it was designed, but it also makes each new cleric or fighter rolled up significantly different than the one before. Which obviates the need for a great many house rules and variant classes as well.

Meanwhile, further back in time we see Gary Gygax utilizing a similar technique with regards to spell selection in the AD&D game. All the way back to Greyhawk magic-users were required to make their “chance to know” roll in order to be able to use a given spell. Gygax went even further, however, and made the four spells that magic-users start with something that is left entirely to the dice. The effect on the game is immediate. Instead of players collectively limiting the magic-user to just one or two spells from the list, suddenly almost all of the first level spell list is brought into play.

This depth and range and color is only possible because the sort of choice that new school players take for granted was ceded entirely to the dice.

Life After 1980: RPG Consent Forms, Broken Elfs, and No Concept of Economy

D&D (John Blacktree) The Nature of Consent Forms in Role Playing Games — “There are great DM’s and awful ones. It’s a roll of the dice. (pun intended) but when something like a consent form is brought forth you are exerting an unearned level of control over others fun. They didn’t sign up to be whipped and burned with candle wax. They just want to play a game.”

Fantasy (Dutrope) Editor Interview: Cirsova Magazine — “For some reason, we get a lot of elf stories. Unless you’re doing something Dunsanian, no elves! Look, we can fix formatting, we can add page numbers to the footer of your manuscript, but we can’t fix a story that has generic D&D elves in it.”

Writing (Dean Bradley) Fighting Style and Character — “Before the renaissance in traditional European martial arts, a katana conveyed a much more seasoned and developed fighting style than a bastard sword. We now know that the fighting style of European knights was every bit as systematic and developed as that of the samurai, but the truth mattered less than the viewer’s impression of skill and study.”

Books (Castalia House) Swords & Dark Magic — “The better sword and sorcery writers who came out of the 1970s got their start in the small press. They started out writing short stories, then novelettes. A few then made the jump to mass market paperbacks that were generally 80,000 words long. Now it is backwards, the writers of the past ten to twenty years start out writing 700 page novels for seemingly never ending series. They have no concept of economy.”

Appendix N (Grey Dog Tales) Tarzan Reborn! — “I have no way of knowing exactly how the late Fritz Leiber approached the job, but I can easily imaging him watching the movie over and over, along with reading the original script treatment, making copious notes on what did and didn’t work. Frankly, he did an astonishing job of it. I was recently reliably informed that Philip José Farmer considered this to be one of the best Tarzan novels he ever read. I can’t disagree with that appraisal.”

D&D (The Alt-right DM) How Consent Works — “When you sit down to my D&D game, you consent to play my games. Both the RAW B/X game, and the head games that are part and parcel of dealing with a maniac like me. Like my second ex-wife’s ass cheeks, there a lot of overlap between the two.”

The Best RPG Account on Twitter!

After many, many months of putting in sweat equity in the gym, playing classic vintage games, and dropping hot takes on social media sites… all my efforts have finally paid off.

That’s right, y’all. #TeamWinningSecrets scientific polling indicates that my Twitter feed is in fact the best RPG account on Twitter.

Very stoked about this!

If you are an elite level player that would like to win at RPGs, please join me there for my wholesome D&D content!