Sunday, September 28, 2008

I never understood ear seekers until now

It's a minor thing, really. But I think it reveals a great deal about my gaps in D&D lore.

Ever since I read the entry for ear seekers in the 1st edition Monster Manual, I had never understood how they were employed in the game of Dungeons & Dragons. Gygax described them as small insects that live in wood and need warm places to lay eggs. That's all.

Well, how does that work? How do they "attack?" Do they wait around in the rafters and then drop on the heads of unwary adventurers? Do they crawl into the ears of sleeping adventurers camped out in the woods?

I never understood why ear seekers were in the D&D rules at all. The presence of dragons in the Monster Manual needed no explanation. Orcs and halflings might require some knowledge of the writings of Tolkien. Perhaps the existence of otyughs needed explanation as a component of self-contained dungeon ecology. But ear seekers? What the heck?

It wasn't until I read something recently that I finally understood. (I think it was in Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works or maybe in the Hackmaster rulebook. Or maybe it was someone's recent blog? I'm not sure.) Ear seekers are meant to be the bane of people who listen at doors. It's as simple as that.

For the last 30 years I had no clue. This says a lot about me. For starters, I feel I never got my fair share of dungeon crawling experience and I've always been itching to do much more than the scant amount I got to play in my youth. I also think it says much about the fact that the old school style of playing D&D might become a forgotten art.

Friday, September 26, 2008

I miss the old spells

I'm a fan of 4e D&D but there are many aspects of the older editions that I miss. One of them is the handling of magic spells. There are still some aspects to the new spell rules that strongly resemble the Vancian magic system. These are the daily powers specific to wizards. Although I agree that making certain spells available at-will is useful, the structure of the 4e rules makes the invention of new spells a little difficult. Or does it?

As soon as I heard about the new fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons, I declared that I was going to buy it as soon as it was published and use it from then on. I tried to learn as much as possible beforehand. I bought the preview books and listened to the podcasts made by Wizards of the Coast. I understood the wisdom of the drastic restructuring of the rules. There needed to be a balance to all the character classes. They achieved that. But the result is a radically different game. I'm still getting used to it.

The wizard is my favorite player-character class. It has always been my favorite since my early days of gaming. I loved pouring over the vast variety of spells given in the various rule books. Over the years, new spells were invented. However, inventing new spells seemed arbitrary. Much like new monsters, new spells were created by comparing the effects to previously published spells. This philosophy has changed with 4e.

A new aspect to D&D in 4e are ritual spells. This appears to be the catch-all for the spells that can't be rationally incorporated into the structure of character powers. But if you want to create new ritual spells for 4e you have to compare them to the ones given in the ritual spell list.

But what about creating new spell powers? Would that throw the game out of balance?

I'm not sure I like being married to spell powers. To me, it seems that a wizard should be able to switch out at-will, encounter, and daily powers as he or she desires. Perhaps a fair set of house rules could address this?

Time will tell. And I have a feeling that a future splat book may greatly expand upon the handling of 4e spell powers.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

You've got to make the time

The number one killer of a gaming group is schedule conflicts. All too often role-playing games are relegated to the bottom of the list of life priorities. But if you really love to play your favorite game, you have to learn to make the time. Or else you will never get to play anymore.

Work is the usual cause of schedule conflict. That is understandable. Work hours always takes precedence. Unless you have a job with flexible hours or a very understanding boss, there is little you can do except try to convince your group to move game sessions to a different time or day.

Family is the second most common cause of scheduling problem. This is sometimes unavoidable. Especially if you have kids. Having no kids myself, I can provide little advice in this regard. If you are a single parent with an infant, I imagine that gaming is almost out of the question unless you are the one hosting the game nights. If you are a parent with a spouse with children who are out of diapers, it seems to me that some sort of arrangement can be worked out. As children become older, it stands to reason that accommodating your favorite hobby might become easier.

Young people sometimes have problems scheduling games because of a boyfriend or girlfriend who is either uninterested in gaming or thinks it's a waste of time. If your significant other has never gamed before, you could try to get them interested and bring them along to a game session. This usually never works out but it's worth a try. It's very rare that a previously uninterested boyfriend or girlfriend will suddenly take an interest in tabletop strategy role-playing games. Even worse, you might have a romantic interest that is actively trying to prevent you from gaming because it's time that's not spent on her. This latter variety should be dumped. Your partner should respect your interests as much as you respect theirs. But this is a subject for Dear Abby.

Very young gamers can sometimes come into conflict with parents about gaming. Sometimes it's just a matter of doing your homework or getting good grades to earn the right to game. Then there are those parents who still believe the myths from the 1980s about D&D being somehow unwholesome. Even worse, there may be parents who are extremely oppressive. The only thing you can do is put up with their rules until you are an adult.

The bottom line is that it's your hobby. It's your passion. Engaging in your favorite pastime makes you happy. You look forward to the sessions every week and you feel satisfied when they conclude. Along with work, family, and romance, gaming is an important part of your life. If you want to play your favorite game, you have to make the time. You have to make it clear to everyone around you that this is an activity that you love and you should not be somehow ashamed of it.

Look at what others people do. They seem to be able to devote large quantities of time to other activities. An unreasonably high percentage of people in my country spend a half a dozen or more hours each week devoted to just watching some sport on television. Some people play football or soccer with their friends once a week. Or maybe they're members of a bowling or softball league. Personally, I find the time, money, and real estate usage dedicated to golf to be a complete mystery to me. All sorts of people engage in a variety of pastimes. You, as a gamer, like to engage in one of those pastimes. It's what you are. It's what you do.

In my humble opinion, one of the problems that face the gaming community is a lack of unified structure or organization. I have never been a member of the RPGA but perhaps I should investigate that further. I am trying to use to organize some sort of gaming group at my local Civic Center. I know there are RPG tournaments conducted at conventions. Why not outside of conventions?

Anyway, I have found that once you establish gaming as something important in your life and you make a point of devoting a regular time slot to your favorite hobby, the people around you in your life will eventually accomodate it. You might be surprised when your wife says to you one day, "I was going to invite the Smiths over for dinner on Tuesday but then I remembered that Tuesday is your game night."

It can happen. But you have to make the time.

Friday, September 19, 2008


This is one aspect of D&D that I've never fully experienced. I have long dreamed about it ever since I got my 1e DMG back in the early '80s. But none of the campaigns I played endured long enough to warrant the building of a stronghold for my characters. The adventures I played always seemed to have been one-shot affairs. We would prepare characters and dive into a published dungeon.

As I mentioned earlier, I never became involved with an ongoing campaign until around 2005. For the first time, the players I was gaming with were actually developing their own fiefdom. But as I explained, I never had much say in that group and I eventually left it.

I'm wondering if building a stronghold for PCs is a dead art. Is it all about adventure paths? Judging from the resurgent interest in old school sandbox gaming, it might make a comeback.

To this end, I want to draw attention to a relatively recent splat book, Stronghold Builder's Guidebook. I believe that it was published before the advent of 3.5e. However, I think that it can be perfectly useful for any edition, including 4e. It's similar to some of the rules presented in Gygax's 1e DMG but with much more detail.

But then the next question is how do you conduct seige warfare in D&D? What about large-scale battles? I wonder...

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Why no hirelings or henchmen?

Even though I played D&D in the early days of its popularity, I never took full advantage of the rules pertaining to hirelings and henchmen. Although I confess ignorance of 2e D&D, the Charisma attribute has no relevance to the recruiting of henchmen in 3.5e or 4e.

James over at Grognardia blogged about an old set of hireling miniatures. In the comments, I confessed that I never used henchmen or hirelings. Most people in the comments also confessed that they never really used them either. Why not?

When I returned to D&D after 2000 and actually started playing again in 2005, I felt that they were sorely missed. Without hirelings, who is going to watch the camp outside the dungeon and help carry your loot? Without henchmen, how else does one start a fiefdom?

I saw Robert Zemeckis' Beowulf last year. It's a great inspiration for D&D adventure. I pictured the hero as a high-level fighter with a large group of henchmen. I lament the fact that such an arrangement is no longer a part of the rule mechanics of D&D. Any henchmen or hirelings are now adjudicated by the DM and do not have anything to do with on Charisma scores. There are no guidelines.

Even though Gary Gygax provided some rules in the DMG for hirelings and henchmen, how they are found by the PCs is left up to the DM. Like much of early D&D rules, knowledge of medieval culture is assumed to be already known by the players. Rules governing such NPCs was largely open-ended.

In my opinion, hirelings and henchmen should be an integral part of old school campaigns. If there were some sort of splat book dedicated to the subject, common usage might increase.

Is there any rules about them Hackmaster? Other game systems? Splat books I don't know about?

How about some tables indicating the chance of finding a particular type of hireling or henchman in a different types of towns and cities? Check once per day, perhaps. Just a thought I'd throw out there.

Jeff posted some nice box art. Take a look!

Friday, September 12, 2008

How I discovered sandbox campaigning

When I got back into playing D&D in 2005 after a long haitus, I wanted to dungeon crawl. I had started reading Knights of the Dinner Table comic book and it made me nostalgic for the game session of my youth in the 1980s. So I was happy to join up with a group that had started delving into a couple of the famous modules by Necromancer Games, Tomb of Abysthor and Rappan Athuk. Although I ended up leaving that group for various reasons, I did appreciate the manner in which they approached their campaign. Even though they were using 3.5e rules, they were playing D&D the old school way. And it seems that this year a term for this mode of play has developed among various D&D bloggers: the sandbox campaign.

Back in the 1980s, I usually played modules as one-shot adventures. I don't recall playing a character through more than one module. However, I was fascinated by Darlene's map of Gary Gygax's World of Greyhawk. It is a hex map. There are specific rules in the 1e DMG for hex mapping campaign worlds. But I had never actually played a campaign with that attitude towards personal player freedom.

I'll never forget an occasion in the late '80s when I attended a party at an older gamer's house. I was in my teens and had played D&D for several years. This guy was in his forties. In one of his rooms he had a very large hand-drawn campaign hex map up on the wall. I asked him about it and to my surprise he told me that it was an old D&D campaign that he and some others had played many years before. Presumably during the '70s when the original D&D rules were published. Ever since then, I had wondered what it would be like to play such a campaign.

Last year, when I wanted to start up my own D&D group, I wanted to do just that. I wanted to run a campaign world of my own design. It was explained to my players that I was going to start them off with an old published module and that their adventures would lead them elsewhere. I also tried to emphasize that they were free to do what they liked. I studied 3.5e rules and prepared encounters. I developed a quasi-Cthulhu story arc that I knew my players would appreciate. It seemed that the so-called adventure path style of gaming was the latest evolution of RPG.

The adventure path is a term that I think was coined by the writers of Dungeon magazine for their series of published adventures. Over the years, I had taken for granted that RPGs were all about story. An improvisational story in which the players helped to construct. Although the players created their own tone and style, there was always required an overall story arc that was provided by the game master. One of the initial reason why I ditched D&D back in the '90s was because of what I perceived to be a limitation of style. RPGs, I thought, were more than hack-and-slash. Stories were important!

Thus I concocted a campaign with a story arc. And I found that I hated it. I realized that no matter how much I dressed it up, this adventure path method of play was nothing more than railroading. With the 3.5 rules, I spent too much time preparing encounters. Since there is no way of predicting which way the players would go, I had to put a great deal of preparation for contingencies. And those contingencies had to have the primary goal of keeping the players on the adventure path's track. To me, it felt dirty and dishonest. Like I was rigging the game. What was the point? Where was the challenge?

This was my epiphany. I subconciously realized that adventure paths dictated avoiding the dreaded Total Party Kill. This was no longer a challenging game for the palyers. Sure, the adventure path is entertaining. But if a DM spends time and money preparing a complicated story arc, he will naturally have the tendency to spare the PCs in order to complete that story. The players will always be victorious. Where's the challenge in that?

When I started my D&D Meetup group, I stated from the outset that I wanted to run a do-it-yourself campaign. I would provide various adventure hooks or knowledge of such-and-such nearby dungeon. But I wouldn't tell them what to do.

As I explained elsewhere, the Meetup group didn't work out for various reasons. Scheduling was the main problem for each individual player. One of the most loyal attendies listened carefully to what I was looking for in a campaign. I lamented that I was unable to keep a weekly campaign going if people were not going to show up regularly. I wanted the players to be able to explore and do what they want, to build strongholds, to create wizardy schools, to build great temples, to start thieves guilds. I wanted to make dungeons and adventures available to the players but not require them to follow a specific story path. I said I wanted to run a game like the ones that they had in the old days.

That loyal player recommended that I read a couple of blogs about something that's been termed, "sandbox campaign."

Yes, that's exactly what I'm looking for. And I've decided that this is the only way I'm ever going to play an RPG from now on.

(For further reading on sandbox campaigns, I recommend Alex Schroeder's post on the subject and its related links.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Improvisation: D&D is not a video game

There have been several occasions when I have tried to introduce D&D to newbies. Since all of them are familiar with board games where you take turns and move around game pieces, they would invariably look at D&D from that frame of reference. "Taking turns" is a concept that comes naturally. But in RPGs, the taking of turns only occurs during combat. The other parts of game play that involve traveling between dungeon and town seem ridiculous and unnecessary. To them, nothing happens that seems of consequence. There is no earned XP, no treasure gained, nothing that seems directly related to rules stated in the books. When I declare to the newbie players that a "wandering monster" has appeared before them on the road, it seems to them that I'm being arbitrary. It doesn't fit into their idea of a confined arena that is carefully defined by a map printed on a board sitting on a table top whereupon game pieces are pushed around.

Or maybe the newbie has played medieval fantasy RPGs on the computer. He is very familiar with the idea of exploring underground labyrinths, fighting monsters, and looting treasure. He is well aware that more powerful weapons, armor, and magic items await them once they have gained enough gold. But when it comes to the improvisational aspects of character interaction, he is almost always confronted with a barrier: actual role-playing.

I experienced the latter type of newbie the other night. He's a smart guy and has played plenty of computer RPGs. I have not.

The last computer RPG that I played was probably Wizardry on an Apple II sometime in the early 1980s. Or maybe the Farscape computer game counts as an RPG? I enjoyed that. There was that time that I gave one of the Final Fantasy games a try. I don't remember which one it was but I do remember getting bored and selling it to someone else. I made a concious effort to avoid Everquest because I knew from the tales told about it that there was a danger of becoming addicted. At the time, I was hooked on playing first-person shooters and I was afraid I'd waste even more time on a MMORPG. I've never played Morrowind, although it has been repeatedly recommended to me. Do the recent Grand Theft Auto games count as RPGs? Because I really enjoy playing games from that series. Conspicuously, I've never played World of Warcraft.

The prime reason that I've never been very interested in computerized role-playing games is that you don't actually play a role. Yes, you can create characters that you gradually enhance over time. No doubt pre-programmed NPCs react to you based on your class, race, and your choice of responses. But the player is not tasked with actually taking on the role of the character and engaging in improvisation.

I am not an actor. But I was raised by one. My mother was an actor and a theater director. Although I did not end up becoming an actor myself, I did become involved with local community theater. I tried a little bit of stage acting but it just wasn't my cup of tea. Along the way, I took part in acting classes of one sort or another. One of the exercises that actors practice is improvisation. Sometimes this skill is necessary during a stage performance when another actor forgets a line, someone misses an entrance, or perhaps because of a technical malfunction backstage.

Improvisation is vital for playing a role-playing game. It's the only way that a story can be built or advanced. Otherwise, it becomes the much-maligned hack-and-slash variety of dungeon crawling. Monsters appear, players kill, loot, buy gear, rinse, repeat. Dullsville. That's fine if you just want to play a tactical war game. That's what D&D really is at its heart. But the game evolved beyond its strategy war game roots. Role-playing is what makes it distinct.

You don't have to be a skilled actor to play a role-playing game. As a player, it's your option to actually speak what your character is saying in the imaginary game world. Or you can merely describe what your character is speaking. Sometimes the DM might just require the players to roll the dice to see if they succeed at some sort of social skill such as "Fast-talk" or "Diplomacy." Skill rolls rely upon a PC's known skill score. Social skill rolls can be used as a crutch for players who may not be inclined to resolve in-game social interactions.

But even social skill dice rolls are useless if the player does not engage with NPCs at all. That was the situation I faced the other night.

One of my players is an experienced computer RPG gamer. He is very familiar with fantasy adventure scenarios and what constitutes them. But he is used to having the computer program provide him with "quests." All interactions with NPCs are pre-programmed and have limited variability. This guy has never had a successful experience with pencil-and-paper RPGs.

I was running my group through a Dungeon Crawl Classic module that was published by Goodman Games. It took place in a building located within a city. The dungeon was beneath the building. The game was proceeding normally. But when they encountered a group of NPCs in one room, the game came to a dead stop. He wouldn't talk to the NPCs. He was clearly expecting a fight like with all the other monster encounters. The player was confused and just looked at me as if I was about to reveal to him what he should obviously do next. Nothing. Dead silence. No interaction. Eventually, the player made feeble attempts to brush past these NPCs. But I wasn't going to let him do that. This made him think that these NPCs were somehow related to the main subject of the adventure. I imagine that he was used to that sort of thing in his computer games. But these NPCs had nothing to do with the adventure and were merely placed in this module to open up role-playing, generate possible future story hooks, and/or create new allies or enemies. But the player just sat there, having no idea what to do. I finally realized that this was going absolutely nowhere and so I just made the NPCs ignore the players and go back to drinking and playing cards.

Another big problem I had with this player was a puzzle that the group had to solve. It was an entrance to the next level of the dungeon. In order to open the portal, words had to be spoken in a particular language. The required language was not obscure. It's just that none of the players could speak it. It was just like that scene in Lord of the Rings where all Gandalf had to do to enter Moria was speak "friend" in elvish. So there my players were, in this dungeon, and none of them knew the language required to open the magical portal. They knew it was some particular language, but they had no idea which one.

They had absolutely no idea what to do next. The computer RPGer could not conceive of the idea that, because no one in the group could speak dwarven, the solution to the puzzle was not within the dungeon. He tried searching through all the rooms that they had previously explored. Reading all the books that they found. Nothing helped.

Other DMs might have done something to help the characters along. Perhaps I could have said that they finally find a piece of paper in a desk drawer that describes exactly how to open the portal. But that doesn't challenge the player. I recently vowed that I would not allow my players to get off easy just so they could advance. No, they would actually have to solve the puzzle and I wouldn't allow them to just "make a skill roll."

Nothing was coming to them. I realized that as far as my computer RPGer friend was concerned, this dungeon represented the entire reality of the PC. The most I felt I could do was give him this very general clue. The player eventually suggested the idea, "Well, I guess I could find someone in the city who might help. But I have no idea who." I awarded him bonus experience points and we ended the night's session.

I'm not sure that this campaign is going to get anywhere if the player is not willing to interact with non-player characters. If the dungeon doesn't have the obvious means to overcome obstacles laid before him, he doesn't seem to have the ability to improvise.

D&D is not a video game.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

How do you play D&D?

No, really! Exactly how do you play Dungeons & Dragons? On the face of it, that statement makes me sound like a rube. The fact of the matter is that I've played D&D and other RPGs since nearly the dawn of the genre's popularity.

Down through the years, I have noticed that D&D has been used to play in a variety of modes of fantasy fiction. As has been pointed out, it was originally rooted in pulp fantasy such as Conan the Barbarian and not necessarily epic fantasy like that of The Lord of the Rings. Yet many people these days seem to gear their campaigns towards adventure paths with epic plots. This trend has come to the point where the word "campaign" has become an archaic term.

In my humble opinion, I think part of the problem is that all of the scattered groups of people around the world who bought copies of the original D&D rules (Holmes, 1e, OD&D, whatever) did not know exactly how to play the game. What do I mean by this? I mean how exactly did Gygax and Arneson conduct the game? There is a wonderful example of game play in the 1e DMG along with an example dungeon. That example is only a few pages long. But I have never seen an example of an entire old school campaign from beginning to end.

I have many questions about how an old school campaign is conducted. For example, how does the DM begin presenting the players the campaign hex map? Do people playing old school style D&D even bother with complicated back stories for characters? Is it up to the DM or the players to recap the events of previous game sessions? Does the Dungeon Master keep the players' character record sheets to help offset inter-session cheating? How are hirelings and henchmen handled? There are many habits, traditions, and house rules of the original D&D gamers that I can only wonder about.

All I've ever read are vague suggestions about what to do during game play. Much like OD&D rules assumed that the players already had a working knowledge of strategic war games, all of the D&D rule books I've ever read have assumed that the player already has a working knowledge of role-playing games.

Chess has a definable beginning, middle, and end game. Monopoly has a rigidly defined procedure of rolling the dice and moving your game piece. Risk has a clearly defined goal of world domination. I have never seen D&D game play rigidly defined in terms other than "it's up to you." But over time we've seen trends develop. And here were are discussing the virtures of old school game play.

Well, what IS old school game play? How does it begin? Do PCs commonly establish fiefdoms at high levels? Does the DM reveal the campaign map to the players? We all know how we play the game. But every time each of us joins a new group of players, we learn an entirely new method of play.

You might scoff at my idea of presenting a highly detailed description of an entire old school campaign. Such an example of carefully documented campaign play might be thousands of pages long. Well, that's exactly what I would like to see. The closest that I've ever seen to anything like this is the Knights of the Dinner Table comic book.

I can only guess that the only way DMs and players can learn exactly how to play D&D is through first hand experience with an experienced group. But that experienced group had to learn how to play it from someone else. Is there an unbroken chain of masters and apprentices leading all the way back to Gary Gygax himself? I doubt it. It is more probable that a few brave individuals here and there picked up the rules and made the best guess about how to proceed. And from these scattered groups, styles developed on their own.

What we have today is a dominant style that is commonly called the adventure path. I bought into this attitude towards game play gradually over many years. But in the last year I have been closely re-examining what playing D&D is really all about. The best that I can determine is that what I'm looking for is the method that was used to play D&D shortly after it's invention. And that's what's commonly called "old school" D&D.

Well, exactly how do you play "old school D&D"? It's more than just using the sketchy set of rules from the original boxed edition. It's more than merely focusing on the rules used in 1e AD&D. It's a state of mind and a method of play. Rules are immaterial. I'm not going back to using older sets of rules. I've examined 4e D&D and I think they are solid. I'm certain that I can use 4e for playing an old school style "sandbox" campaign.

But how exactly are old school sandbox campaigns conducted?

I hope I can use this blog to help solve this mystery.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Oak Ridge D&D Meetup

At the beginning of 2008, my new D&D game group had kind of fallen apart after the first adventure. We had many game sessions and we had a fun time completing the module, Keep on the Borderlands. But the stream of players who responded to the Knoxgamers forum post had quickly dried up.

There has to be people in this area who want to play D&D but haven't found a game group. It stands to reason that there must be people out there who are my age and are interested in playing some good, old-fashioned dungeon crawling. For whatever reason, they stopped gaming because of life commitments. I stopped because I went off to college and lost contact with the gamer friends of my adolescence. Others had no doubt stopped gaming because of marriage, family, or busy jobs. But despite these commitments, there had to be people out there who wanted to return to the hobby that they loved all those years ago.

At the beginning of April 2008, I discovered It's a website that allows people to organize meetings for groups and clubs of all sorts. It's free to sign up. For a fee, you can run a web page that announces meetings, sends emails out to members, and even has a small forum. I decided to give it a shot.

To my surprise, people responded. The first meetings were at a local book store. Since there was clearly an interest, we needed a more permanent location. I decided that the Oak Ridge Civic Center would be a perfect, neutral place for strangers to meet and play games. People use it for playing basketball, volleyball, and pink-pong. Why not D&D?

The room we used was great. It was more than enough space. There were plenty of utility tables and chairs. One entire wall was a plate glass window with a view of the park. A giant dry erase board was a perfect place to keep track of initiative, hit points, and any other game notes.

Everyone was welcome. Young and old. There was no alcohol or drugs, of course, because it was at a community civic center. No smoking at the table but there was a smoking area outside. And there were snack machines right outside the game room door.

A couple of dozen gamers showed up. The trouble was that they didn't show up at the same time. Regular attendance was dismal. It wasn't for lack of enjoyment. I had started two or three campaigns with several groups of people. They all had a great time and they all said they were interested in returning for more. But for whatever reasons, there were always things that would come up in their lives that would take precedence. I had to keep to a rigid schedule because I was reserving a rented room in advance. I couldn't simply postpone game sessions for the next day.

We did, however, have our first experiences with the new fourth edition of D&D. The day it came out, I bought Keep on the Shadowfell. This module comes with an introductory set of rules. It was fun. But if people weren't going to consistently show up for further game sessions, we couldn't continue.

After a couple of weeks with only one loyal gamer showing up, I decided to call it quits. That was at the beginning of July. And now I'm not sure what to do next.

I have a few ideas. And I've found some like-minded people on the internet. I've been inspired to start this blog. And now that I've finished recapping my life's game experiences, I'd like to start talking about what playing D&D is really all about.

Friday, September 5, 2008

A history lesson

Sorry I haven't posted in the last couple of days. For now, I want to direct your attention to a very interesting interview with Frank Mentzer:

Frank recounts some of the early history of D&D. It's worth a look.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

I did it my way

Having been frustrated with the players I had been gaming with, I decided to quit that group. For a while, I wondered where I would go from there. I wound up receiving some unexpected support. Two of my friends had recently moved back to the city where I live.

One had actually tried to game with the group I had just left. But he was even more unhappy with that group and had less patience. He had left after only a few weeks.

The other guy had never played any sort of role-playing game at all. Although he knew the DM of my last gaming group, he was too intimidated to even begin playing with them.

My friends were basically newbies to playing D&D but they said that they'd be interested in playing the game if I was the Dungeon Master.

One person decided to be a fighter and the other a rogue. We needed more players, figuring that at least four would cover the basic roles of a typical D&D party of adventurers. Someone to be a cleric or a wizard. And, if needed, I could run a fourth member of the party to fill any missing role. So we enlisted a mutual friend as a third player. He needed some convincing. But he decided to be a cleric. And I decided to run a wizard.

To make things easy, I decided to take these newbie players through the classic D&D module, Keep on the Borderlands. In order to spice it up, I decided to combine that module with elements of its sequel, Return to the Keep on the Borderlands. The original module from 1979 lacked character detail or any sort of plot. The sequel had what I needed on that front.

Unfortunately, the guy playing the cleric wasn't working out. He wasn't all that interested in the game, let alone opening up the rule book to learn the rules. I could have taken over the role of the cleric but I wasn't interested in running two DM-PCs. The one wizard I was running was already one DM-PC too many.

Eventually, I discovered and its forum. I posted a big "want ad" in the appropriate sub-forum and waited for something to happen. To my surprise, I actually got some responses.

During the course of our playing through Keep on the Borderlands, we rotated through about three different new players.

The first one seemed unhappy with the fact that I wouldn't allow all the cleric spells from all the different splat books compiled in the Spell Compendium. He soon disappeared.

The second new player that responded to the want ad was an experienced DM and a very nice person. He was interested in trying out the Psion class and so I let him do so. It was a very interesting experience. Psions make for an interesting alternative spellcaster class. I even developed a Psi Guild for my campaign world that was incorperated into his character's backstory.

The second player invited a third player to be a cleric. Now that we had four real players, I could finally put my wizard DM-PC in the background of the party. But that didn't last very long because this third player took a new job and wasn't able to attend game sessions any longer.

We completed the module around the beginning of this year. And it was at this time that our golden psion player who had been such a tremendous asset to our gaming experience informed us that he would no longer be able to play with our group. He was starting a new semester at college and was already devoting time to his own group that he was DMing.

So that effectively ended the game group. I wasn't getting any more responses to the want ad I had posted at the forum. And I felt that I couldn't run a game group with just two players.

It is so frustrating to live in a part of the country where gamers are so few and far between. We live on the fringes of society. And D&D still has the stigma of being the purview of dorks and nerds. This prejudice is gradually changing since the advent of cultural phenomenas like World of Warcraft. But even the most popular online computer game in history has a similar stigma.

Anyway, I decided to take a new tack.

Monday, September 1, 2008

A bad gaming experience

Prepare for a rant about a recent experience I had with a gaming group. I should preface it by stating that it was not my worst gaming experience ever. And the experience doesn't even compare to the legendary Worst Dungeon Master Ever. Despite what happened, there is still a chance that I might game with a few of them again. So I don't name any names. Except for you, Ray. You're an asshole. Fuck you.

Although I had copies of the rules and had read much of it, the best way to learn and remember the rules is by actually playing the game. And D&D 3.5 is not as easy as the version of D&D I played in the 1980s. The people in the gaming group I joined in 2005 knew the rules very well. Unfortunately, they had little patience. For example, they were always yelling at me for forgetting to declare that I was “casting defensively” when I’d start throwing spells in combat. It’s a rule that didn’t exist in the first edition and it didn’t make intuitive sense to me. Of course I would cast “defensively!” What else would I do in a combat situation? The rules for combat procedure are complicated in 3.5e and I wasn’t picking it up fast enough for some of the people in this group. It was tremendously frustrating. In their view, it was all my fault because I wasn’t “paying attention.” It's hard to concentrate on learning rules when you're in constant fear of being yelled at for the slightest mistake.

Another problem is that I barely knew what was going on in the campaign. At least they had a campaign hex map of the area within which our characters existed. But when it came to dungeon crawling, I had no idea what was going on at all. No one was mapping the dungeons we explored. Apparently, everyone had a map in their own heads and they never forgot what it looked like. There was no way for me to understand how far we had progressed, what passages were unexplored, where we were when we ended the previous week’s game session, or where we were planning to explore in the future.

At least the general goals of this campaign were fairly clear to me. The DM was using a few modules published by Necromancer Games. Although I wasn’t involved with the beginning of the campaign, I later figured out (long after I left the group) that they had started with The Wizard’s Amulet. From there, they played through The Crucible of Freya and took over the ruined keep that was featured in that module. As they delved the Stone Heart Mountain dungeon presented in The Tomb of Abysthor, they rebuilt their keep and used it as the start of a fiefdom. As they explored this dungeon, they also started going through the Rappan Athuk trilogy of modules. This turned into a great crusade against the evil cult of Orcus, the demon prince of the undead. The paladin in our group became the de facto leader and lord of our fief.

Although I generally knew the primary goals of the group, other aspects of the campaign took longer for me to comprehend. Most of the people in this group were fans of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series of fantasy novels. These books are heavy with court intrigue and political battles between nobles. They drew considerable inspiration from those stories. And thus there was much political maneuvering between the governments of the city of Bard’s Gate and some other kingdom whose name escapes me.

I had no idea what my character, Blaize the half-elf wizard, should have care about. Sure, she joined in with their crusade and she was enthusiastic about slaying the evil priests of Orcus. But I felt that some of the other players never seemed to allow me to have any say about political maneuvering among the nobles. It seemed that taking notes was of no use. So I decided that the big goal of my wizard was to start a learning institution dedicated to magic, a la Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School of Sorcery. But this was virtually ignored by the DM and other players.

Another huge problem was that everything I suggested as a course of action was shouted down and criticized. Somehow every suggestion I would make was the worst possible thing to do because of this, that, or the other reason. Frustration does not even begin to describe what I felt about this.

One of the things that really bothered me was the house rule that nerfed spellcasters. The DM and the rest of them had decided (before I joined the group) that the wizard class was too powerful. Therefore they decided that whenever a wizard casts a spell, that character had to succeed at a Spellcraft skill check. Normally, the Spellcraft skill is only used to identify what another spell caster is casting. But the implementation of this new house rule established another hoop that my character had to jump through in order to use any spell. According to the original rules, opponents have a chance to make a saving throw against many types of spells that I cast. On top of that, some creatures are resistant to certain types of spells. This house rule added yet another layer to that. After succeeding at my Spellcraft check, there was still the possibility that my spells would fail. When I realized the situation, I bitterly complained. But I was yelled at for not remembering that I was told about this rule when I first joined the group. The trouble was that when I joined the group, I wasn’t familiar with all of the rules in the first place. I hadn’t even played 3.5e before, let alone mastered the rules! I didn’t realize how much my wizard had been crippled by this group decision that didn’t not involve my opinion at all.

It got to the point where the most enjoyment I had on game days was the 45 minute drive to the location of the game sessions. I would listen to my favorite podcasts or radio shows and enjoy the scenery while I drove. The only thing I enjoyed about the game sessions themselves was the combat encounters. I eventually became more familiar with 3.5e’s system of combat. And I got better with the preparation and use of my spells.

The only feeling of satisfaction that I got out of playing with that group was the ending of our campaign. We had all achieved 15th or 16th level. At the very end of the Rappan Athuk dungeon was a showdown with Orcus himself. Using a spell from out of a splat book, I cast a spell that prevented Orcus from summoning other demons to join in the fight. Despite the nerfed rules, I succeeded. Denied one of his primary tactics, the demon prince got the full brunt of our group’s attacks. And as chance would have it, I delt the killing blow.

There were other things that I disliked about this game group. But much of it is not important to recount here.

Having said all of this, I don’t have particularly bad feelings towards the DM of that campaign. The man really knows how to game. But unfortunately for everyone else, he knows the rules too well. He has absolutely no problem with learning and knowing D&D 3.5e or any other game rules. Despite what I’ve said, he’s actually a good DM. He keeps the game moving. He doesn’t buckle under the pressure of rules lawyers. He's rooted in the old school style of gaming but doesn't object to a good storyline. Almost to a fault, he doesn’t allow “metagaming.” He’s creative and knows how to wing it.

What it came down to is that I disagreed with their basic attitude towards the game. This experience introduced me to a term that seems to acutely manifest itself in D&D 3.5e. That term is known as “power gamer.” The primary focus of these players was using any rule available to maximize the power and effectiveness of their characters. For them, this is the entire point of the game. And since I wasn’t interested in making my character as powerful as possible and showing it off in the game, I could never win their respect.

If you don’t have the respect of the people you’re gaming with, there’s no point in playing with them at all. But I gamed with them for TWO YEARS because I simply had no one else to game with.

So I decided to start my own gaming group that I would DM myself.