Archive for January, 2012

The Importance of Weapons cannot be underestimated.

Leafing through my original First Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons manuals inspired by the upcoming limited re-release of said tomes, It always amazes me how perfect these old books capture the ideal D&D experience to me. They were not my introduction to the game. Like most people my age, we first experienced the game in its basic version, and then gradually moved up to the advanced game. Game and book stores in the early 1980’s featured both products side by side on the shelves, and that is how most of us played the game. Looking over the complete catalogs from that era, I can point to a lot of “Basic” adventure modules that we played in our “advanced” game – and vice versa in our younger days!

The beauty of the original dungeons and dragons products was the ease of compatibility between the two products. There really was little difference between the essence of the two games, other than the fact that advanced d&d added a thick layer of content and complexity over the quintessential basic system. In almost every case between basic and advanced, the underlying rules are the same, only the advanced version goes into more detail. Weapons are one of those areas where the rules are the same, though the AD&D PHB goes into vastly more detail. In the original basic edition, ALL weapons did 1d6 damage. An optional rule grouped them into categories of d4, d6, and d8 damage dice types.

(For those of you keeping score, by the time of Rules Cyclopedia in 1992, the optional rule had become standard and universal weapon damage was gone for good. And really, who can trust a game design that insists on calling a longsword a “sword, normal.” They even broke down and added the bastard sword by now, with its signature distinction of being the only weapon in the game with separate stats for one and two handed use.)

The AD&D Players Handbook (or PHB) was the ultimate player’s guide. It was all any player needed to play the game, and founded the archetypal character building choices that are as relevant today as they were when it first came out in 1978. Not everything was in the PHB, there were no magic items nor even the full combat rules, but it fulfilled all a player’s character’s needs. Besides laying out the basic framework of character classes and races and all the abilities and powers those characters used, like spells, the book was also full of weapons, armor, and equipment. The weapons table, or more specifically, the weapons tables, since there were four or more, depending on how you count, were exhaustive and full of rich flavor and mystique, as well as hard crunchy data.

The Tables

The first weapon information is the cost table, on page 35 of the PHB. The next table, on page 37, is arguably the go-to table. This table is known as the WEIGHT AND DAMAGE BY WEAPON TYPE table, and it shows exactly that. 50 weapons, with the damage they do against small and medium vs large sized opponents. It also give the legendary alternate names off to the side, with evocatively named weapons such as the holy water sprinkler, cutlass, sabre, and sickle sword, or the lochaber axe, to name a few. I am still not exactly sure what a Jo-stick was, but I do know that the Bohemian Ear Spoon, or the partisan, as some partisans insist on slandering it in partisan fashion, is the only pole arm, nay the only weapon at all, to be completely neutral against all armor classes. Only a monster’s attack can claim the same, rowr.

One thing about this table is that it offered different damage dice when attacking large creatures. I always loved that little twist, for several reasons. First and foremost, it mixed things up for players, and gave them a chance to use different dice, and it gave a sense of extra oomph against big monsters, since they took increased damage from most weapons. I dunno, it was cool. It was also the best reason to have a two-handed sword – 3-18 damage baby!

On the very next page we get another full-page weapon table, this one has a title too long to bother with, but at some point it includes “GENERAL DATA” in the title. This table is actually full of the chunkiest bits of information about the weapons. Starting from left to right, the main headings for the weapons included: weapon length, space required, speed factor, and finally the much maligned armor class adjustment table. This table represented a weapons effectiveness against SPECIFIC armors, rather than armor class. In other words, this table shows that a mace is a better weapon against plate (+1) while a morning star is more effective against the lighter armors (+1 to +2).

Honestly, characters were usually fighting monsters, so it was not as important as it seems now. In our group it was mostly used for dramatic duels and other important fights, or really close calls.

Example of Play

“Oh wait my fauchard fork is +1 against leather, so it’s a hit!”

Then I would be like “Sorry dude he has leather and shield, NEGATED!”

Length and space required are obvious but interesting data, and the space required came up recently in a game I was playing. The player characters were caught in a confined space, and most had to resort to their bare hands due to this rule. Weapon length and space required give a large dose of realism to the game, since they force players to really think about how they are going to try and fight with their weapons.

The length of a weapon also plays a distinct role in combat: the charge. Weapon length determines who strikes first in a charge, and if the defender has the longer weapon, they an set their weapon against a charge, dealing double (or more!) damage. Lances were devastating, and spears too, were a great choice. “I set my spear!” was usually the first words out of spear-wielders, trying to get their voices heard before I call for initiative. And yes of course we had dismounted lancers. Heh heh.

Speed factor however, eh, that is another story. I can think of only two official uses for speed factor. When two combatants are squared off against each other for multiple rounds, the swifter weapon may get extra attacks between the slower weapon’s attack. This rarely happened, since most battles are big scrums, but it was awesome to see a battle between slow and fast weapons play out. Dagger vs Two handed sword, for the win.

The other use of speed factor came when determining an attack against a spell caster. If the weapons speed factor was lower than the amount of time it took to cast a spell (in segments, with a really confusing formula that involved subtracting initiative rolls) and if the weapon hit, it would disrupt the spell. Another really flavorful thing that only came up occasionally, but was incredibly fun. It is why wizards rightfully fear rogues over warriors.

All of these factors seem like over-kill, and most of them rarely came up. But rarity of occurrence is no fair measure of importance. A weapon’s cost only comes up once, but it is still useful information. More importantly, though, the weapon properties provide distinction for each weapon, and allow a player to focus on certain aspects, like speed or armor penetration, or to choose multiple weapons.

Another interesting aspect about the overabundance of weapon data is that it allows a much smaller diversity of the quality that really matters – DAMAGE. All the weapons in the PHB fall into a range of 1d4 up to 1d10 (with exceptions) No weapon does a d12 of damage in the Players Handbook, and similarly, no weapon comes with the prefix great-, war-, or (shudder) full-. No a hammer is just a hammer, or maybe a lucerne hammer, but whatever. Lower range of damage die distribution allows for the smaller differences to be meaningful, and allows a player real choice, based on real science. Interestingly, there are no weapon descriptions or pictures in the original PHB. The reader was expected to know what the weapon was, or to look it up. The above picture is taken from the Unearthed Arcana, an official supplement.

This might be the perfect place to mention that there are other “core” AD&D books that have different, expanded weapon lists. Oriental Adventures introduced the katana, ninja star, and the full panoply of Oriental Arms, while the Unearthed Arcana introduced a mix of instant classics and oddities. We all love falchions, but who wields a khopesh? It is also worth noting that in neither of these expansions was a weapon that dealt over 1d10 introduced. Now THAT is how one prevents power creep.

Advanced Dm of Doom has spoken

Yes Gygax, you really struck a critical hit with you weapons tables. We won’t even mention the Gygax Pole Arm Fantasy chapter of the Unearthed Acana, not with a 23′ awl pike. Shown above.

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Penned by Gygax himself Oriental Adventures brought “Martial Arts” to AD&D, and each style had associated special maneuvers not unlike the powers of 4e. There was always something about making up characters in 4e, especially picking powers, that I found strangely familiar. It wasn’t until I flipped open my old copy of Oriental Adventures that it came flooding back to me of the first time I flipped this book open. We spent many months steeped in the mythos of the far east, making martial arts characters (and monsters!) and having wild kung fu action around the table.

Martial Arts special maneuvers have all the hallmark of modern powers. Most take the place of a standard weapon attack, or replace a “melee basic” in 4e terms. There are some great ones, like Flying Kick and Choke Hold, and no one could ever forget dreaded Eagle Claw. These attack powers were full of great flavor, and most did something exceptional, besides damaging the opponent. Some attacks stunned or knocked an opponent prone, or lowered their defenses. The effects in most cases are identical to 4e effects.

Not all the special maneuvers were only for combat. Levitation and meditation, for example. There was a centralized pool of special maneuvers, which fell into broad categories, like kicks, punches, movement, etc, and each “style” would take a few from each category. Very simple and elegant, and it allowed for endless combination of martial arts styles, which it provided rules for creating. I know this because one of my best friends Chris Stevens immediately began converting every known martial arts style into AD&D, then began creating his own. For all I know he resides in a dojo now, but it all started here on page 101 of Oriental Adventures…

Advanced Dm of Doom has spoken

5e, you could learn something by cracking open Oriental Adventures. Never underestimate the genius of Gary Gygax.

(Incidentally, this book was edited by the inestimable Steve Winter, who still worked on D&D up until a few months ago!)

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A new girl came walking up the lane (Welcome back Shannon!) into Hommlet just as the party was leaving their interview with the lords Rufus and Burne. Her name was no more than Strong Girl and she was well endowed in every attribute, those that mattered and even those that didn’t. She was on a quest to slay a fabulous beast, a unicorn in fact.

In short, Strong Girl was a barbarian, and joined the group with a promise of riches and adventure. She had nor arms nor equipment, but a bag of shiny gold and a willingness to adventure, so the party took her around town where she bought a battle axe and hide armor.

They ended their shopping spree at the trade depot of Rannos and Gremag, who had been called out as spies of the Dark Priest according to Mama Lynchfield. The traders charged their usual 200 per cent mark up on all standard equipment, which didnt amount to much since New Girl only spent 2 gold. They left into the gathering evening of Hommlet’s town square.

At this time they began to hear rumours of Mama Lynchfield’s other son: Lynch. He was begat after the young Matron Lynchfield was caught by an orc raider. Lynch went away to live in the woods at his earliest age, but he would often meet his mother in the forest. He was very protective and a renowned hunter, though rarely seen.

The party attends a town meeting where they are hailed for breaking up the Lynchfield gang, the supposed cause of the killings and abductions. Then the Elder Druid speaks of a growing disturbance in the force, with evil beginning to tip the balance. He suspects this “Dark Priest” has something to do with the disruption. During the meeting, Cady waits outside in the town square with the bound and fettered Mama Lynchfield. She gets the story of the half-orc Lynch, and discovers that they meet in the woods every full moon. Tonight is the full moon, and Lynch will be coming. She says he will rescue her, and he will slay Cady who Lynch will recognize by the bloody chainmail of his step-father.

They party determines to set a trap of Lynch, and they set out watchers during the night and turned the first floor of the Inn of the Welcome Wnech into a trap for Lynch. Needless to say, he didn’t show, and the next morning, Mama Lynchfield was tried for her crimes and on a hastily erected platform in the town square, she was pronounced guilty by Burne and dealt the harshest punishment. Cady’s greatsword and the wizard’s crossbow were then ready to pick up from the smith.

The party then returned to the Moathouse. Derp refused to dismount, having spent most of the previous day chasing his pony across hill and dale. He tried to ride the fat beast over the wooden planks of the old moat, and he and pony landed in the quicksand like mire of the moat. The elf wizard did a rope trick and managed to lasso the dwarf around the waist and pull him free of the sucking muck. The pony was more difficult but the pair of brawny babes eventually pulled the pony free and tied him up in the clearing with the rest of their mounts.

Kirasowa the Conniving then used his grappling hook and rope to cross the moat, and everyone else followed without incident. The first thing they noticed upon entering the ruined great hall of the keep was that the bodies of the Lynchfield gang, and that wench cousin of theirs, were gone without a trace. The party seemed relieved to not have to dig graves for the robbers, and so they continued their exploration of the southern wing of the small keep. This area included three doors, and they knew stairs leading down to the cellars (where the Dark Priest kept his lair) was behind one of the doors.

Behind door number one was a chamber full of musty old hunting trophies, but after a thorough search it turned out to be rubbish. As the thief was checking the second door, the wizard cast detect magic and after a few moments, he detected a faint magic coming from the other side of the door. The thief unbarred and opened it, then heard a hissing sound from the back of the room. Then the barbarian Strong Girl charged in, just as the giant lizard leapt to attack. They met in the doorway and both were bloodied by the exchange. The magic was coming from the lizard itself, and the barbarian saw its mid-section was distended.

She determined to find out what was in the lizards stomach, and soon had the chance. She pulled a magic shield from the corpse. The rest of the room, which was once a small barracks, was empty of anything of value, which meant the last door held the stairway down to the dungeon. Opening it, they saw a long narrow pantry with a doorway at the far end. Shelves of old, mildewy bags, jars, and bottles lined the walls, and they could hear the squeaking and shuffling of rats from the shelves.

They made their way through the pantry towards the stairs, when the rats suddenly attacked in mass. 13 of the rodents of unusual size launched themselves from the floor to ceiling stairs intent on a fresh meal, and they almost had one.

The chamber was so confined that no long weapons could be used, so most of the party was forced to fight their bare hands. The rogue shouldered one rat, smashing it into the shelves, before taking on the other. The dwarf was able to use his hammer to great affect, but behind him, the two wizards were being torn to shreds by the rats. John Smith especially was losing lots of blood from the three rats on him, and he fell unconscious and was quickly losing his fight for life. He failed two death saving throws, and would have failed the third, had we not realized we skipped Cady’s last turn. Alas, I had the sheet in my hands, ready to tear it in half before we back-tracked. It will forever bear that crease.

Only by Cady acting fast and side-stepping around the elf wizard was she able to pour her healing potion down the poor wizard’s throat and save him. Before doing that, she used her grappling hook to slay first one, then a second rat. Her greatsword remained sheathed on her back.

Finally the rats lay in heaps at their feet, and they were covered in gore and slime and rotting flour, ready to descend to the dungeon.

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The Moathose sinks into ruins hidden in the swamp

Last we heard from our doughty adventurers, they had just spotted the Moathouse through the creepers and hanging vines, when they were savagely attacked by giant ravenour frogs. The outcome of said battle, other than bumps and bruises, was that most of the horses and ponies bolted. The rogues nag in particular became mired in quicksand just off the path and it took everyone’s help to pull the steed free. The rest of the horse were rounded up in due course, except for poor Derp the Dwarf and his old pony. The beast took off and the last they saw of Derp he was chasing his pony over the hills and all the way back to town. Poor guy, he is going to miss out on his share of the 2,000 copper piece treasure hoard.

The party tied up their mounts in the area cleared by the frog ambush and continued on through the last few hundred yards of swamp on foot. They wondered why such a place would be called a moathouse, and reflected on what history they could recall – the temple of elemental evil started as a simple shrine, no more than a pile of rocks and bones. It grew to become a hidden enclave of evil, and kept growing as it attracted more and more evil humanoids under its spell. Its goal was to enslave the countryside, and to that end it began building defensive keeps in ever expanding concentric rings around the temple. Like moats, the ring of forts defended the temple, and the Moathouse was one such. Rather than to project strength, these fortresses were built to remain hidden, and used for raiding retreat. Thus they found the small stone moated castle, slowly sinking into the mire.

It was thrown down some thirty years ago, when the poor folk of the surrounding lands threw off their yolk of oppression, slavery, and butchery and laid seige, after the victorious Imperial armies had destroyed the temple and moved on. It has lain in ruins ever since, but the tracks and rumors lead the party to believe the moathouse is where the robbers and kidnappers are hiding out. AS they reach the old moat, they see that the drawbridge is down, and broken, with a few rotting planks thrown across to bridge the gap. On the other side, the two massive doors of the castle wall are slightly ajar. One has a hole through the middle of it from a battering ram, the other is tilted on one hinge.

The rogue Kirasowa the Conniving is the first to test the strength of the planks, and he makes it across safely and with only a quiet creaking of the planks. He can hear nothing, but as he peers through the doors into the courtyard of the keep, he sees that it is ruined and was burned, and the upper stories have all fallen in., Gaping doors lead into the darkened of the grand hall across the yard. Then he notices two heads of guards posted among the rubble of the upper stories.

Each of the party members sneaks through the doors and into the courtyard where they can’t be seen, and somehow they all succeed, even the dwarf cleric, who refuses at first to leave his pony, until the beast balks at crossing the planks of the broken drawbridge. Eventually they make it into the shadowy interior of the ruined grand hall, and see that the place was once regal but it has been sacked, ransacked, and sacked again. They knew the two bandits were above them, and so they quietly poked around the room, finding nothing that wasn’t bent, broken, blackened, or destroyed, before the rogue slipped off down one of the side hallways. He went past the closed doors towards the end of the hall where an archway led into yet another chamber, but listening closely, he heard the faintest rattling sound – a snikka-sniklka-snikka sound. He thought it might be a prisoner rattling his chains and strode forward into the utter darkness of the chamber.

The two dwarves with their infravision also came forward while Cady hung back, ready to light a torch. Will the Brony (a dwarven term meaning “brother to ponies” or ponydwarf, like horseman for humans.) he stepped forward and saw the heat signature of a great curving body on the floor just as a huge snake head rose up out of the rubble to lunge at the rogue for disturbing its lair. The fangs tore into the rogues flesh, and he felt himself injected with a poison. His face flushed, then went white as a sheet as his body fought off the poison. Kurasowa turned to the side, trew up ha little, and was as good as new.

The party quickly surrounded the huge snake, which continued to lunge first at one, then another, but never again managed to score a hit as it was silently hacked to pieces. There was nothing else of interest in the chamber, so they retreated back towards the grand hall, checking the doors as they went. THe irst one contained nothing of interest, and the second one seemed to be covered in wall hangings of fine quality. Again the roge and fighter entered the chamber together, this time to pull down the rich tapestries. As they tugged however, the colth shredded in their hands and began fluttering to the floor. Soon an explosion of activity blainded them an confused the as swirling shapes began slamming into them from all side.

As Cady pulled her longsword out of its sheath the rogue shouted, wait! its bats! And so it was, they watched as hundreds of bats funneled out of the room from some hidden crack or crevice. A dark cloud of bats rose above the moathouse into the noonday sun, temprorarily shading the ruins like a passing cloud. The party felt their secrecy might be compromised.

Indeed, the next few seconds saw Cady again lighting a torch, while the two sentries climbed down and into the chamber from holes in the collapsed upper floor. One of them went to an unexplored door in the corner and shouted “Oy! We got company!” while the other bandit sentry threw his javelin at the strobe light outline of the wizard lit p by Cady’s flint and steel. The javelin tore threw his cloak and drew a line of blood along his shoulder. He quickly retreated into the shadows of the corridor, and he spent the rest of the battle casting blinding ray into the eyes of the bandits. The other wizard also crouched in the shadows, wisely throwing one silvery missile after another into the heavily armored bandit leader.

5 more bandits emerged through the door, Two women had longswords, and one of the women was the young bar wench – one of the abductees they had come to rescue. She ran to engage the rogue, and after questioning why she would fight for these bandits, she admitted she was second cousin to Mama Lynchfield, wife of D Lynchfield, who was the nominal leader of the Lynchfield gang. Kurasowa vowed to subdue rather than slay her, but soon a lucky hit sent his rapier sliding straight into her heart, killing her instantly.

Meanwhile the dwarf cleric Brony Will was fighting with Mama Lynchfield, who was calling for a cease fire, and even suggested they might join the band. Will struck her one massive blow to the side of the head which knocked her unconscious for the rest of the battle.

The warrior maid Cady was slugging it out one on one with old man Lynchfield, who proved to be an implacable foe, ad hard to hit with his chain and shield. It was only with the aid of the wizards who shot him p with thei missiles, then hit him with a blinding ray, that allowed Cady to finally cut him down. As he fell he called upon the gods to curse those who defeated the Lynchfield gang. Cady was already pulling off his suit of chainmail.

After the battle, they argued with the woman, Mama Lynchfield, whom they had captured. She wanted to be let go, o ofered swift justice then and there, but the party questioned her and learned that those they abducted were given to soldiers of the Dark Priest who dwelt in the dungeon beneath the moathouse. The people they captured were taken to the stairwell, w=here minions of the dark priest would drag them down to an unknown fate. The two farmers had already been given over that morning.

When they got back to town, they explained the situation to Rufus and Burne the wizard, and the two were not surprised to learn the infamous Lynchfield mob were behind the robbery and kidnappings. The news about the Dark Priest was interesting, and further interrogation led to Mama Lynchfield admitting that the two who worked at the Trading post – Rannos and Gremag, were passing information to the Dark Priest through her gang.

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D&D Shelf

Such momentous news, even if expected. So many emotions about what is just a game, yet also more. In a busy life, it is a social outlet, a creative outlet, hell even an outlet for pent up violence. I mean there has to be a reason we all love splitting goblins heads open with axes, right? The Wizards of the Coast are designing a new edition of Dungeons and Dragons. So soon!

I am divided. One part of me is disappointed, like the last few years were a waste, or at least the money spent was a waste. That if I had been more conservative, and stuck with 3rd edition, or moved into Pathfinder, the whole debacle could have passed me by unscathed. Then I think of the fun we had, and I know that is not right. For one thing, the D&D Encounters program alone was enough for me to switch to fourth edition. Indeed I have learned more DMing the first 6 seasons of that program than in a lifetime of DMing comfortably amongst friends. And I am not talking about anything as foolish as rules or mechanics. Ironically, getting a good understanding of the rules was one of my original reasons for signing up for Encounters.

Indeed, the mechanics are the dullest part of any game, and in a perfect game they fade into the background to the point of invisibility. So why are we all so uptight about them? What is the edition war, if not a giant kerfluffle of opposing rules lawyers? I’m not sure, but I know I have enjoyed every edition of D&D (except 2nd edition – blech! I kid… seriously) and this article is an attempt to highlight something unique and personal from every edition.

The Original Edition

In the beginning… Sadly I was too young for the Original Brown box, or for the first Blue cover Basic rulebook. A friend’s older brother, however left us a treasure trove of original edition material, including a tackle box full of miniatures, but we cut our teeth on Basic and Advanced, so to us these little books were little more than novelties from a past era. Our game was big and shiny, and ADVANCED.

One thing I took away from those old books however, was the feel of the game. Those books were dripping with flavor, and little things, like the note that dungeon doors will always be hard for players to open, but rarely difficult for the monsters – that struck a chord with me. The dungeon was a place of fantasy and mystery, and there was a REASON those doors worked that way, though it might be unknowable. Even the weird creepy drawings caught the eye, like that freaky giant lizard mount at the beginning of that first basic manual, just staring out over a vista. Another funny thing about those early books was the jargon, like mentioning “A unit of foot” to describe a group of footsoldiers. The game was a rough framework erected over its wargame roots and much of the wargame showed through.

But what can we really take from it, to bring to the new version of D&D? The modularity of design might be a good start. While the mechanics themselves were improved as the game grew, the original set started out as basic as you could get. Not even all the archetypes were there – the thief would come out with the first expansion, Greyhawk. The orginal set ws three books, but there were another 4-5 books produced which added everything from the rogue to ranger class, alternative combat styles, including a location chart for hits. This modularity of design, created by literally building the game up from book to book is something the new edition can take from the Original Edition

Basic and Expert Sets

A funny story. I was an ignorant sixth grader (which was still part of elementary school in the 1970’s) and I had a gift certificate for Waldenbooks from X-mas or something. I knew about the game, but not enough. I ended up picking up the Expert Set (in the same manner someone might choose a ‘medium’ drink or fry, I tried to split the difference between basic and advanced. I was sadly mistaken. To go along with it, I bought the module Q1 Queen of the Demonwb Pits. I spent that spring playing D&D in the cafeteria with 2 or 3 others during recess. Playing Q1 with nothing but the expert set was difficult if not impossible, but we had fun. I remember the opening moments of the adventure. My opening words were “You have a lightning bolt betwixt you” whatever that meant.

The basic edition came in boxed sets and everyone loves boxed sets. Even the original three little books of the original edition came in a boxed set made out of real freaking wood. I wouldn’t mind if the new edition came packaged in a mithral and titanium boxed set. We have come along that far, right?

Basic D&D to me is a condensed, concise form of the essential rules of dungeons an dragons – with a limited array of race and class choices. Except for the unfortunate lack of race and class (or especially because of it according to some) the basic version of d&d is the absolute essence of the game distilled into its minimum intrusive element. Many people continued to play basic d&d even though they claimed they were playing “Advanced” What was really happening was they were playing the basic game with some of the options of the advanced edition – namely the wider variety of classes and races for the players, and the monsters from the monster manual, and the esoteric tables of the dungeon masters guide. Which brings us to:

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons

Nothing will ever, or could ever compare to the first edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons for one reason more than any other: the inestimable writing talents of its author Gary Gygax. Reading those books is like a journey into the depths and dungeons of a mad man. The train of consciousness of the dungeon masters guide especially follows a labyrinthine route through the authors expression of the rules. One might find tables for stomach disease followed by the affects of aging, normal and super-natural, mingled with information on casting spells while underwater and a table to determine the quality and class of every harlot in the game. The game had spirit and above all, character.

Advanced D&D was deemed the perfect role playing game by everyone I knew. We all played it, we all slavered over every new release. The modular complexity of the game allowed us to pick and choose exactly how much or how little to use the rules provided. For example, there was a table that cross referenced specific weapons against specific armors. Because everyone knows that a mace is best against full plate, while a morning star can puncture chain or scale. This is just the tip of the ice berg of some of the complex micro-rules mechanics sprinkled throughout the game. To call ad&d byzantine would give credit to the Holy Roman Empire.

I still firmly believe ad&d is the perfect system, because it was whatever you wanted it to be. It could do speed factors and NPC reaction tables – or it could be basic d&d with rangers and paladins, depending on what you wanted out of the game. Whether this was intentional or not, I cannot say, but there was some kind of divine muse at work when Gygax and Arneson created dungeons and dragons. To think that Gary Gygax went one direction with “advanced rules” while Dave Arneson stuck with “Basic set” yet each was made greater by the existence of the other – there is a kind of zen logic to the idea.

Second Edition

Because of the first rule of why 1e ad&d rules above all other rules, I never, ever played second edition. It appeared one day around our old gaming pool table, and after leafing through the first few pages, I was appalled, nay revolted by the lack of Gygaxian Prose. Its release forbode my departure from role playing games for a decade or more as Real Life intervened.

With hindsight, and a vibrant used book market, I was able to re-discover much to love and admire about the second edition era. It had some of the best campaign worlds ever, including legendary Dark Sun, Planescape, Birthright, a full fledged Ravenloft and Dragonlance, Spelljammer, to name the most popular.

Second edition also continued the tradition – started with the release of Unearthed Arcana during the first edition era – of releasing expansions that continued to push the limits of the game as far as character development. Skills and Powers was a very different game than the core rules. There were rules for creating a class, and it was so broken that classes could be made that required zero experience points to level, by taking disadvantages. Also, it was impossible to re-create the core classes using the class builder. But none of that seemed to matter due to the great stories being told around the table each week. Well it did matter after all, because D&D went out of print for its first and only time (so far) during the startified and meandering end of the second edition era. The world was ready for something fresh and new. Wizards of the Coast, creators of the wildly successful Magic card game bought TSR and released an instant classic…

Third Edition

I was 20 something, out of gaming since marriage, children, and work intervened. On the internet, playing great games like Baldur’s Gate, and remembering the good times. I pre-ordered the rulebooks from Amazon months before they were released, though it took until 2008 before I sat down at a table to finally play the game as it was meant to be played. Those first few months playing were like the old days re-born. We fought orcs and undead with abandon as the heroes tried to save the world from demonic conquest. At higher level it seemed to come apart at the seams, and the campaign broke down completely at level 11 – but the campaign lasted over a year and 11 was 3 levels higher than any first edition game I ever DM’ed. It was a complete smashing success.

The picture of the druid in the Player’s Handbook epitomizes to me what d&d is all about, and how well third edition expressed it. The antlers and leaves, the wolf companion and the awesome scimitar she wielded. It was classic yet sexy, and the druid was always my favorite character. This was no Schmuckly, my first edition druid who threw potted plants as his main attack. Oh no, this was something old yet something NEW too.

Character customization was at the forefront of 3e, and it had all that would be considered the core races and classes built into the main game. That was one of its best qualities – all the core classes of the original Player’s Handbook, with playable versions of monk and bard and the new fan fave sorcerer right out of the gate. Now THAT is a Players Handbook. Sure feats would end up being the scourge of the game and multi-classing became ridiculous, and prestige classes threatened to break the game altogether. Those major problems aside, it was a great rendition of classic dungeons and dragons with the best character development and the best stable of core classes of any edition of the game before or since.

Fouth Edition
…broke onto the scene with much gnashing of teeth. In hindsight, it split the foundations of the role playing world down the center like a massive earthquake, but it was a slow simmering process, completed only by the release of Pathfinder and the lackluster reception of Essentials. Fourth edition broke down the barriers between game and simulation, and it went its own way to create the best fantasy battle game of any version of d&d. It introduced powers, and most aspects of character actions were codified by these powers. They complimented the terrain effects, the traps and hazards, and especially the monsters who had their own powers to counter the powers of the characters. Every battle was a puzzle, and it was a great foundation for a campaign.

Powers however are not the thing I would take above all others from fourth edition. They can also act as blinders to the players, and force them to use powers to solve problems instead of common sense or imaginative or cool ideas. I asked my wife why she rarely tried cool stunts or maneuvers, and she replied that her bonuses were so good with the powers, any other stunt she tried would be at an automatic disadvantage.

What fourth did well was to give the DMs those tools to build monsters, hazards, traps, and encounters. It had the best monsters of any edition. It had multiple types of most monsters, which increases the variety in battle, and it also introduced minions, one hit wonders that I think are one of the editions best inventions. It also had elite an solo monsters, and the way encounters were built using an experience point pool was intuitive and easy. The focus of fourth edition was on epic fight scenes like over the top action movies, and we had some amazing fights.

Fourth was also well balanced, even too balanced so might say. The proper level of balance is up for dispute, but having a balance between characters is good because it fosters equal play time for all. Being balanced against the game world is god to maximize the fun. The game achieved that in a commendable way, though at times the balance seemed to dilute the quirky wierdness that is one of d&d’s hallmark features.

Fourth edition was sleek and shiny, ad it took advantage of the most modern rules design in the industry. Other great innovations of fourth were saving throws, healing surges, the bloodied state, non-divine healing, second winds, death saves, and other types of saves. One of my favorite changes were the way certain creatures, like a medusa turn a character to stone. Rather than one save them boom – to the topiary garden (known as save-or-die affets) it is a series of three saving throws. The first one renders you slowed, the second lost save and you are immobile, and only on the third failed save do you turn to stone. Classy, dramatic, and an awesome way to handle save-or-die.

All the editions have great things to offer. I don’t know if the claim that they can make “one game to rule them all” is even possible, but I know that they could take the essence of what makes each edition of the game so great, and put them together to create a great game of d&d. If they can make a game that allows us to plug in features of our favorite edition, and give us a reason to keep and have those old (and new) books out on the table, then they will have made one life-long fan of the game very happy.

I await the future with optimistic trepidation and bated breath of suppressed excitement.

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It is possible to take the sleek ultra-modern design of Pathfinder Beginner Box (which is essentially 12 years worth of refined D20 Dungeons and dragons stripped to its barest form) and meld it with the obsolete old school editions to create ONE GAME to rule them all.

I shall attempt, in this series of articles to emulate the methods of many madmen of human history who attempted to create something new by combining diverse things: Basic, Expert, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons combined with Pathfinder Beginner Box (and elements of Core Pathfinder) to create the perfect fantasy role playing game.

Beware, O Gentle Reader, lest I continue this series with a Part 2: Integrating the Power of 4E. To the fifth edition and beyond…

Or something like that. This project is about using the Pathfinder Begginner Box as a basis to build a retro-classic game of D&D. The goal is to play a Temple of Elemental Evil mini-campaign levels 1-8 (or thereabouts, we may stop before the nodes) as close to the original as possible, using the most modern “gamer friendly” system out there. There are some things that annoy me about every version of D&D (with the exception of first edition – she was a saint!) so I will be surreptitiously changing some things based on my preferences alone, but most of these house rules are designed according to a scientific determination of categorically superior game design.

First up, character creation

Pathfinder Beginner Box uses the classic “roll 4d6, drop the lowest and add them together” and then has the player assign them to whichever ability they choose. To be more traditional, it is better to write the scores down in the order they were rolled – strength, dex, etc. After the first roll, the dm should assure all players that there are plenty of chances to increase their scores ahead, and that rolling completely average was ok. The benefit of this is that many players discover a concept for their character as the ability scores unfold.

Then the player can switch any two ability scores around. By switching them around after they are rolled, the character concept has had a chance to grow and now it can be fine tuned with some ability score swapping. Now the character can formally choose race and class, and alter the ability scores per the racial modifiers. The last step, straight out of the original basic rules, is that the player may, if they choose, subtract 2 from one score and add 1 to another. In this manner the ability scores can be tweaked into practically any character concept.

Skill and feat selection should be done as quickly as possible. Some players may want to spend more time delving into some of the options (like feats for human fighters) but most characters should take the default. The reason for this is that the default choices offer the quickest route to play, and that if an inquisitive or wise player wants to leaf through the book and change some choices later on, that is ok. For skills, the points can be distributed down the class skill list, and the player can then spend whatever are left over, if any. For feats, only fighters and humans need to spend much time here, and power attack-cleave is the obvious option.

It angers me that feats were included in the Pathfinder Beginner Box, and I would assign them rather as class options at each applicable level. They are one of the ways that characters are customized, and are an innovation of new school character design, but it is an imperfect design – with many possible pitfalls and paralysis of choice by the large numbers. AS class options, done in the manner of rogue talents, they are easier to handle. The only saving grace of the Pathfinder Beginner Box is that there are so few feats, but this exacerbates the problem that it is even more likely to offer sub-optimal picks, like a wizard taking power attack for example. Feats as class options at each applicable level is the way to go.

Finally, I would like to have seen the characters roll for wealth, and would house rule the chart straight out of the 1e PHB which matches up just fine with the equipment costs found in the Beginner Box. One last house rule I was sorely tempted to add, was to change modifiers so that a 15 was +1, 16 was +2, 17 was + 3, and 18 was +4. The only reason I didn’t was because it was easier to go along with what was printed in the book, and I felt like the players might balk. In the end, the modifiers do not affect the Old school vibe of the game, so I left them alone. For now.


Group initiative. Both sides roll d6, winner goes first. If it is a tie, whichever side has the highest initiative mod goes first.

During its turn each combatant can do a main and minor action. Attack, move, charge, cast a spell are all main actions. Take a step, stand up, drop prone, quaff potion are all minor actions. Double move is a full round run action.

These rules, added to the core combat rules of the Pathfinder Beginner Box, brings combat closer to its original mechanics, and allows for gridless, miniatureless play, since exact distances are not as important as general positioning. The original rules featured combat turns of 1 minute apiece, and no one wants to return to that. Even while playing 1st edition, we house ruled that combat was quicker, generally around 15 seconds or so. We used miniatures then and still do today, but the placement on the table is more of an overview rather than precise positioning, though that can be accomodated when needed.

Turns fly by when players can focus on getting from A to B, instead of thinking of 2 or 3 separate actions they need to “fill up” to have a full turn. State your action, make a roll, and move on to the next. Having group initiative also facilitates this method of play, by having the next person around the table alerted that their turn is coming up by the actions of the guy next to him.

Finally, a 20 is always a critical hit, and a 1 is always a critical fail. We do not use “confirming critical threats” because that is stupid. This rule is for EVERY D20 rolled in the game, whether it be in combat, or a skill or ability check or anything else. A 20 is always wild success, and a 1 is always a humiliating failure. In combat, we use the critical hit and miss deck, published by Paizo, who also publish the Pathfinder Beginner Box.

There are a few other rules I would like to add over the coming campaign. One idea is to do away with the skill advancement system altogether, and instead have characters start out with their class skills only. Then, during play, whenever a natural 20 is rolled during a skill check, that skill goes up a point.

If this campaign achieves the heights where an assault on the lower levels of the dungeons, an “expert” set of levels 6-8 would be a possible expansion. I envision every class “specializing” at level 6, where fighters can choose to become weapon masters, paladins, or rangers. Clerics can become druids, avengers, or monks, etc. I would also like to add halflings, and some other “half” races.

Decades of egg-headed nerds have raged over every single rule in the dungeons and dragons game to the point that each is as hard and polished as a diamond. At its CORE, the dungeons and dragons game retains its essence throughout every version, and over the years, the trend has been mostly to refine and perfect the game. Mechanically the game is as close to perfect as it is likely to ever get. House ruling the Pathfinder Beginner Box with elements of classic “old school” design ethos creates a great game of Old School Basic.

You can read about the weekly game using this system as we adventure through the Temple of Elemental Evil. And watch for more articles in this series as the campaign grows.

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The Temple of Elemental Evil with Pathfinder Beginner Box

The New Year rings in a new campaign. This time we are playing a mini-campaign of the classic mega adventure The Temple of Elemental Evil, using the Pathfinder Beginner Box rule-set. Old School Renaissance is the theme of this game, and I let all the players know that we would be playing this game retro style. Save or die, baby!

Most of the players only have 4th edition experience (Dave, Caleb, Joel, Beth) while the rest also have 3e experience from our previous campaign (Lori, Jackson, and the absent Khar and Shannon.) Playing the Beginner Box adventure during our X-mas party struck me at how old-school it felt, and I resolved right then to scrap the Gamma World campaign idea and go back to the roots of gaming. The classic Temple of Elemental Evil, using the newest, sleekest Dungeons and Dragons game on the market. The Pathfinder Beginner Box is the closest thing I have found to the D&D Basic edition of the early 1980’s, even moreso than the new Red Box by D&D 4e last year. (which is a great set in its own right, but not as “basic” as I had hoped.)

The evening began with pizza (minor rant – why cant I use a single coupon multiple times, if I am needing large amounts of pizza for instance? Do they NOT want to make the sale??) Once people had plates of food in front of them and were just getting down to some serious face time, I sprang it on them – Ok, everyone roll 4d6. Gulp. All right, now take out the lowest one and add the three together. Good, write that in the box next to strength. Oh yes, it was on.

Derp vs D20

Character Creation

While we ate, we rolled up characters the traditional way: 4d6 drop the lowest in order. I mentioned that they would be able to switch their scores around, but not many people chose to do that. For some players, the rolls they came up with helped shape what character they wanted, as I had hoped and intended. Then it was time to pick race and class. The Pathfinder rules offer three races: human, elf, and dwarf, and the four classic classes. Every player had a photocopy of the 4-5 page spread describing their class, and we worked through it in the easy manner laid out on the photocopied official character record sheets.

Obviously skills and feats were the most difficult part of the creation process. For one, we only had one Players book, so I had to sort of dictate what the skills and feats were all about. Adding skills was also complicated, but we worked through it, and by the time we got to feats, except for two exceptions (the rogue and human fighter) everyone just agreed to take Toughness! Finally I told everoyn how many gold pieces they had (I wish we had rolled for that) but told them not to spend the gold – we would do that in game.

The cleric and wizards had a bit more work to do, picking deities, schools, and spells, then we went around the table. At this time, I bestowed upon each character an additional personal side quest. First up, Dave who rolled up Derp the hammer wielding Dwarf fighter. He was Chaotic Neutral and his side quest was to retrieve a stolen family heirloom. Next around the table was the wife Lori, who naturally rolled up a re-born Cady the human female fighter. She too was Chaotic Neutral. Her side quest was night terrors that led her to this place.

Next around the table is Caleb, the new guy at the table. He has the honor of being the DM who took over for me when I recently retired from Dm’ing D&D Encounters. He rolled up a human rogue named Caribou the Cunning, and his side quest was that he was on the run from the authorities for a crime he didn’t commit. He was chaotic good. Jackson rolled up a chaotic neutral dwarven cleric of Desna. Beth rolled up an Elven Wizard whose side quest was to find her missing sister. Finally Joel rolled up John Smith, true neutral human wizard, cursed by gypsies to forever roam the earth.

Once upon a time in the Village of Hommlet...

The Village of Hommlet

The small community at the crossroads
is a completely unknown quantity. What is
there? Who will be encountered? Where
should you go? These are your first explorations
and encounters, so chance may dictate
as much as intelligence. Will outsiders
be shunned? Are the reports true — is the
whole community engaged in evil practices?
Are the folk here bumpkins, easily
duped? Does a curse lay upon those who
dare to venture into the lands which were
once the Temple’s? All of these questions
will soon be answered.

Each member of the party was a young adventurer searching for fame and fortune. Each of them had recently arrived struck out north, towards lands rumored to be rich in excitement. Each of them had a pouch of gold to spend on arms and equipment. Approaching the first house on the lane into the village, it appeared to be a wealthy farm. A buxom farmwife stood in the doorway wiping a mug as she watched them come up the lane. The charismatic rogue engaged her in conversation, but didnt come into the yard due to the two growling guard dogs. Four tiny heads poked around the goodwife’s skirts to stare at the strangers.

She let them know that the whole village was worried about robbers, and appeared to be quite frightened of the party, eventually threatening to call her husband and son in from the fields. The party moved on, speaking for a moment to Elmo’s 12 year old brother who sat milking a cow in the front yard. The boy said his mum was worried about kidnappers, and that they should seek out his big brother Elmo in the tavern.

The Village of Hommlet

The adventurers walked into the village square and saw a leatherworker, a blacksmith, and a large sprawling building – The Inn of the Welcome Wench. The path also continued north across a stream and to a large stone church at the top of a hill. Another path turned east towards a tower on the edge of the village.

They headed for the smith, who proved to be honest and skilled, though he was low on stock. He had some daggers, a hammer, rapier, and a long sword for Cady to borrow while he made her a great sword. He had no metal armor and suggested the leatherworker across the way. He also knew of an armorsmith in the village of Nulb, ten leagues north.

From the leatherworker both fighters and the cleric bought fine suits of hide, and the rogue bought a suit of leather. Enquiring about a bow,he was directed to the druid, who lived near the grove at the edge of town, and was also a woodworker. While talking to the druid, and buying a bow and arrows, he learned of the trouble with bandits from the druid, who was as a protector of the region.

For equipment they were directed to the trading post at the bottom of church hill. Upon arrival, each of the characters grew instantly distrustful of the overly jolly Rannos and the nosy Gremag. Matters were not helped by the fact that they sold all items at twice the prices listed in the book. This caused some intense bargaining which almost led to Cadt being thrown out of the store.

With the necessities done, they returned for lunch at the Inn of the Welcome Wench. They spent the night and were not wakened by the scream of one of the wenches during the night. Next morning, they discovered she and two farmers had been kidnapped from the inn about 3 in the morning. The innkeeper saw them running off into the trees, towards the ruined moathouse.

Rufus and Burne lifelong companions and Lords of Hommlet

The party immediately went to the to the “Lords” tower, where they met Burne the wizard and his lifelong companion, the fighter Rufus. They offered to search the moathouse, rescue the wench and kill or capture any bandits. In return, they could keep any treasure they found, excepting personal possessions of villagers, and that if they succeeding in destroying the gang, they would be paid 200 gold.

Cady was impatient to get started, and requested horses. The lords agreed to loan them steeds. Derp the dwarf instead chose to buy his own, and almost got away with buying an actual riding horse before it was remembered that he was a dwarf and must resign himself to a shetland pony. His fellow dwarf Will was loaned a pony, and they set off towards the moathouse.

They rode into a miasma of growth and rotting vegetation which they had to hack through with their swords while following a game trail that looked recently used. Finally after hours of sweaty labor they caught a glimpse of the moathouse through the hanging vines and creepers.

But what was that sound? A splash of water and dark shadows passed overhead to land in a curcle surrounding the paryy.Suddenly they were surprised by six giant frogs, two of average (man) size, and four smaller frogs. The frogs were ravenously hungry.

January 2012 Frogs at the Moat-house

Time for Battle (at last)

It was ten minutes to ten. This is what I had been waiting for since the missed opportunity at the inn. At this moment I was very happy about the suggestion for horses, for the forgs are especially frightening to horses, 90% chance to spook a common horse according to the encounter. Gary Gygax must have had fun with this encounter. I have fond memories of it from when I was younger. All the horses bolted except for Will the Dwarven cleric’s pony. Everyone else had to make a DC 15 reflex save or get bucked off their horse rather than safely dismount. (I should have had them make a riding skill check but oh well.)

Now it was the frogs turn to act and the first average sized frog shot out a 12 foot long tongue at Derp, wrapping about his neck and, for added fun, commenced drawing him towards the gaping maw of the giant frog. Derp had one chance to try an chop through the tongue but his hammer bounced off the rubbery thing and he was swallowed. The four small giant frogs then attacked with spiked tongues that damaged that lashed at the rest of the party. Lastly, the final frog attempted to swallow the elf wizard, but she narrowly dodged its tongue.

Derp vs D20 part 2

On his turn, Derp tried to fight his way out of the frog (needing an 18 to succeed) but was roiling around in the stomach acid and it was difficult. On his second try he burst through the frog, killing it instantly in the process. He splashed out onto the ground, angry and froggy. Cady slew one frog, then cleaved into another, slaying it as well. The rogue stabbed with his rapier, and when the dwarf rolled out at his feet, they teamed up to bring one of the frogs down.

Meanwhile, the elf wizard was flustered and threw her arcane bonded at the frog, losing it in the grass. On his turn, the rogue searched for it but couldnt find it. THe other wizard had a long running battle with one of the small giant frogs as he slowly turned the cold blooded bastid to ice, one ray of frost at a time.

Will the cleric had to ositive channel energy twice during the battle. After the wizard lost her dagger, she was swallowed on the giant frogs second sally. She was swallowed and failed twice to break free, unarmed and hovering at unconciousness. The second wizard John Smith was also felled by a lashing frog tongue, ad his head was being swallowed by the frosty frog until Will channeled positive energy, bringing both wizards back from unconciousness. Cady slew the frog that had the wizards head in it mouth while the implacable Derp chased down the other giant frog as it hopped ponderously back towards its fetid pool.

With a mighty swing of his hammer, Derp split the frog asunder, and the elf exploded gasping from its rubbery corpse. They shared a moment, Each of them being covered with intestinal frog fluid. It was a tough fight, and when it was over we realized the dwarven cleric Will had remained on his pony the whole battle!

Stay tuned Next week for Rustling Back those Horses loaned to us by the Lords Rufus and Burne.

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