Archive for the ‘Advanced Dungeons and Dragons’ Category


To strengthen, protect, and revitalize

This continuing series highlights, in most pedantic form, the class of characters known as the druid through its many incarnations of the worlds most famously famous game of the recent past, Dungeons and Dragons. The previous article discussed my first character, the druid Schmuckley, who vowed to choke every dungeon he came across with specialized potted plants and entangle. He was an old-school hero.

Years passed. The Second Edition came and went, then Third Edition rose over the horizon and a new dawn of gaming was born. The table top was cleared for dungeons and dragons for the first time in ten or more years. With the new campaign came the druid Bill and his war dog Ted.

Let me pause one moment to state that the picture of the druid featured in the classic 3E Players Handbook, and heading this article above, captured for me the epitome of a druid. the antlers, the wolf companion, the scimitar, and the earthy tones of the piece combine to make this my all-time favorite art piece of the third edition era. But then, i am a druidophile, so my opinion is colored (green.)

Played by a long-time dnd’er, and the brother of a friend with whom I had never played before (except for a single uncomfortable episode of Shadowrun in the extremely late eighties, but I digress) Mike had a druid with an 18 strength and a 15 wisdom – in a game where you rolled and placed the attributes to suit. That seemed wrong to me on a deep level, to make a minimally wise yet brute strength character whose main attribute was wisdom, but each to his own. I had never experienced optimization before, and only knew of the idea in the exaggerated “monty haul” or “munchkinism” forms. A conscientious player would never do those things: try to get an unfair advantage in a game of imagination, but an experienced and intelligent player would, I discovered, be fine with exploiting, twisting and bending the rules away from their intent in order to gain a “fair” advantage. Such a case was Bill and Ted.

What really annoyed me about the pair was the power of that dog. being relatively cheap (i.e affordable to starting characters), the war dog was 2 hit dice and did great damage, possibly even a trip attack if i remember correctly, making the dog more than twice as powerful as any character in the party. The dog continued to steal the show, to the point that I worried I might take on a vindictive desire to slaughter the misused pup, and lose my arbitrary edge. The dog had so many hit points, and such great abilities that it had avoided or shrugged off most of the things that could/did kill the first level party. (Looking back, I could have resolved the whole issue before it began by having the dog start as a pup. Heh, if only…)

The player left before going much past third level and so i never really resolved the Bill and Ted issue. Bill was the most un-druid-like character imaginable. He rarely cast spells, except a few buffs, nor did he heal much, and waded into melee like a drunken brawler, with his overpowered hound at his side. Nonetheless, the only real issue I had with the character was that a war dog severely tipped the power-balance of a low level party, and with the delicate tweaking of encounter parity necessary in the third edition system, it was constantly an issue. Either the dog gave an unfair advantage and the encounters became cake walks, or the presence of the dog meant that the encounters were even more deadly to those poor characters not of the canine persuasion.

As a dm renowned for poor dungeon mastering skills, the author freely and smilingly admits that the problems with the encounter balancing was totally his fault. Nonetheless, a spotlight-stealing non-player animal companion twice as powerful as any player character is a system fault. Shoulda strangled that dog at birth.

Two things remain to be written about Bill and Ted about their ability to survive. On his first encounter, the druid went up aganst a trio of ghouls, was attacked multiple times, killed a couple, and was finally paralyzed with a single hit point left. (I can’t remember what the dog was doing then, probably feasting on the horde of skeleton’s bones that were attacking.) Later on, while rescuing an innocent victim in enemy territory, he was knocked unconscious behind enemy lines, left to die so that the victim could be saved, and bled out for hours, slowly losing hit points before stabilizing at -9 when -10 would have meant death. It was an intense series of dice rolls that everyone was sure the druid would lose, but incredibly, amazingly, he made the final roll and his character survived. The table cheered. I was so non-plussed by the survival that I ruled he gained consciousness through the loving licks of his canine companion and crawled back home at -9 hit points. There was an episode of Band of Brothers where that happened.

night-elf-druid-wowThat was Bill and Ted. Unrelated drama caused the player to leave the game. Let’s pause in this dungeons and dragons tale for a moment, to talk about another druid – the night elf druid from World of Warcraft, the nuclear bomb of computer role playing games. Who among us has played WoW and not experimented with a night elf druid? As I thought. Like all the character classes in the game, the druid was a conscious attempt to create an iconic druid, heavily steeped in the lore of D&D and the years of fantasy role playing games, tabletop and computer both, that led to the WoW druid. It had everything – a focus on animal transformation from low levels, restoration abilities, scimitars, plant based magic, trees.

One thing constantly shockeing me inWoW was the druid’s in-your-face combat style: leaping amongst enemies in bear form to soak up damage and tear up faces, streaking across the battlefield in panther form; these are not the actions of Schmuckley Shillelagh the first edition druid, who was more likely to avoid direct conflict through his magic and natural lore, than to bite faces. That is the nature of combat-focused ultra-violent computer games, and it turns the multi-faceted tabletop social game into a tedious grind of combat after combat.

Rant time: I lost one of my best friends to World of Warcraft. We learned dnd together at recess in sixth grade, but when I tried to get the band back together decades later, begging him to return to the game, reminding him of a teenage promise we all made together, he told me that World of Warcraft had killed his imagination and that was the way he wanted it. Very heartbreaking, with an added knife twist that we reconnected online after being out of contact for years, and I introduced him to Wow. He had been playing Final Fantasy Online up to that point. He played the thief Malek in one of our long ago games, and he played Malek the human rogue in WoW. The thing is, in D&D Malek spent most of his time climbing walls searching for traps, and picking locks and pockets. Backstabbing was uncommon (and it usually involved climbing up the wall and dropping from above with dual short swords flashing.) These are things you can’t even do in Wow. It just floors me, but enough about WoW and computer games.

halfling paladin2Later on, around level five or six, a different player created Ozymandias, the halfling druid-knight, who wielded a long spear and rode strapped to an armored ward dog. OMG the war dogs! This dog was called Bull, named after the player’s pit bull. The first encounter started out well. they were crossing through a mire and came upon a wandering pack of hunting bonesnappers. the druid cast entangle in a wide radius that caught many of the charging bonesnappers, but a few managed to veer out of the way of the entanglement. Aklways impetuous, when his turn rolled around, he charged a free bonesnapper like Don Quixote against a windmill. I don’t even remember if he hit, but the heavy foliage and treacherous footing in the mire meant that he ended his turn in range of the formidable jaws of the bonesnapper, who commenced to swallow the halfling whole. The dog however was still attached to Oz by the straps of the saddle, which for same reason the player was very insistant upon. it was a pretty gruesome sight, and the druid survived,but not without wounds both visible and not. He never rode that dog again and in fact went through a pretty extensive re-write of his character, losing many of the riding based feats.

Oz went on to become an animal conjuring nightmare. He could call hippogryphs by the flock and often did, and his first few rounds of combat would see half a dozen animals released upon whatever challenge he might face. Dogs and wolves tripped, hawks and other flying beats struck and disrupted while poisonous snakes and other reptiles attacked from concealment. The longer a battle lasted, the more of the animal kingdom would show up, as if Noah’s ark was unloading just off the map, two by two down the plank. I was starting to miss Ted. One over-powered war dog was manageable, but lions, scorpions, and dire raccoons were sometime overwhelming, not in power as much as dice rolling and paperwork involved in keeping track of the zoo. The bureaucracy was over-powering.

When the optimal choice is not the most fun choice, or leads to a sub-optimal outcome, that is a problem with the game which we grappled with for some time. In the case of the over-powered druid of third edition Dungeons and Dragons, there were only two methods of controlling the steam-rolling: an agreement with the player to tone it down, or to find ways to up the danger to deal with the imbalance. When multiple characters are on the cutting edge of power, it can lead to an inevitable ramping up of a campaign. The monsters and NPCs have to be more powerful to keep the challenge alive, which leads to ever greater treasures. This in turn leads to ever more complications, look-ups, dice rolling, interrupting, and other bureaucratic means of slowing the game and draining it of any residual fun. In our case it happened around 11th level, and we switched to the shiny new fourth edition of the game. Along came Felipe.

felipeFelipe was a cross dressing shifter druid with an affinity for the insect world that only came out through extensive play. S/he started out typical enough: a misunderstood wolfy man searching for love and also for guts to chew on. From an early level, Felipe had the disconcerting ability to explode into a horde of a thousand tiny boar-headed bumblebees.

It went on from there to ever greater and more disgusting creepy crawliniess, culminating in the druids ability to transform into a heap of maggots. I mean, really.

She was never better than when she was switching between her natural feral shifter form and her animal form, biting and chewing through her enemies, acting like a tank, soaking up damage and dishing it in equal measure. There was not much archtypically druidic in this character concept, which became so confused that her mere sex was the least of her worries, her entire species was in doubt. She had a few notable spells, starting with a great ranged attack spell called Flameseed, and later an even better spell Firehawk. She switched forms so often, practically every turn she was shifting between her normal form which itself was shifter, or her animal form, or the many powers and spells that let her shift into the aforementioned vermin or any number of other beats.

The class should have been called shapeshifter. There were a couple really cool druidic powers. Faerie Fire became a powerful spell that lit up an enemy and dazed them when it exploded, very cool. Felipe never died in battle and rose to fifteenth level. she was the only character in the party who was there from the first encounter at level one, through to the end. Felipe had a few healing spells, and minor regeneration which helped her survivabilty, and her resilience was incredible.

The way the druid class has changed over the decades of playing and evolving editions has led to a shape-shifting melee brawling monstrosity very far from the original concept of a priest of nature weighing the good and evil of all things against the natural balance of law and chaos. Gone are the ability to improve crops, inluence the weather, and become one with the trees, and in its place, first morphed into an animal handler, then shifted into zookeeper, and finally a shapeshifting mess of a class that was ultimately shapeless.

The druid was first introduced to the role playing world in the first edition of advanced dungeons and dragons, and I think its description in the Players Handbook has a crisp clarity of concept that become muddied and exaggerated in later editions. From the class description in the first edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook:

Druids… are the only absolute neutrals viewing good and evil, law and chaos, as balancing forces of nature which are necessary for the continuation of all things. As priests of nature… the spells usable by druids are more attuned to nature and the outdoors than are the spells of other clerics or magic-users… druids serve to strengthen, protect, and revitalize.

Druids can be visualized as medieval cousins of what the ancient Celtic sect of Druids would have become had it survived the Roman conquest. They hold trees (particularly oak and ash), the sun, and the moon as deities. Mistletoe is the holy symbol of druids, and it gives power to their spells. They have an obligation to protect trees and wild plants, crops, and to a lesser extent, their human followers and animals.

Gary Gygax created the ultimate, ideal concept of the druid character class: romanized celtic-inspired priests of nature who serve to strengthen, protect, and revitalize plants, crops, followers and animals in order to maintain the balance of good and evil, law and chaos.

Read Full Post »

The archetypes, heroes and champions all

First published in 1978, the First Edition AD&D Players Handbook introduced the character classes that would become iconic in Dungeons and Dragons. Over the ensuing decades, expansions and new editions would increase the overall number of classes, and some would even reach the iconic status of these original 11, but with a few exceptions, the popularity and presence of those original classes has never faded.

There are few things in nature that spring whole from nothing, and most things are improvements or advancements or adaptations of previous things. Even us. So it is with Advanced D&D being an evolution of Basic D&D, which in itself was an expansion to the Chainmail fantasy wargame rules… which themselves are said to be inspired by a game called Little Wars by H.G. Wells a century before. The same is true of the class choices in the AD& D Players Handbook. The basic four archetypes are:

    Fighter, a warrior trained in battle;
    Cleric, a holy warrior who calls down divine aid
    Magic User, a wizard of arcane magic and spellcraft
    Thief, a master of skill and cunning

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook added the following “sub-classes” which are all full classes in their own right, but simply fall under the main heading of the four base classes, since they follow many of the same paths of advancement throughout the game.

    (Fighter) Paladin, Chivalrous knight of Lawful good
    (Fighter) Ranger, woodsman, hunter, tracker
    (Cleric) Druid, priest of nature, balance, and neutrality
    (Wizard) Illusionist, a wizard trained in deceptive magic
    (Thief) Assassin, an evil killer for hire, in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, actually
    (Cleric-Fighter-Rogue) Bard, the first prestige class, required multi-multi-classing,but was easily house-ruled
    Monk, its own class, based on Asian monastic tradition of super-natural martial arts, broken from the beghinning

Thus, the two sets of classes above form the “core” and “secondary” classes of the AD&D game. Many more classes became available over the span of the first edition, the main sources being the Unearthed Arcana, which included the cavalier, thief acrobat, and especially the barbarian, an instant classic, despite the 6000 xp cost for second level. These classes can safely be considered a part of the “secondary” tier as well, except possibly for the thief acrobat, which if anything, can be said to have increased the need for a more expansive skill list, but been that claim is dubious. Oriental Adventures released a slew of character race and classes that we will tucked aside as a “setting specific” tome, and thus those classes are of “tertiary” importance at best.

Dragon Magazine was also a prolific contributor of “tertiary classes” which were usually classified as “non-player character or NPC class” but this too was easily house ruled, and my second favorite character of all time was a Duelist Alec LeFont, out of the Best of Dragon Vol. IV. The Dragon Issues, and “Best of” Compilations 1-V were a great source of character classes, such as: Anti-paladin, witch, jester, and Archer-Ranger. All of these semi-official character classes were quirky and fun. Some were over or under powered, but that usually didnt matter too much (I totally pwned with Alec for two reasons: D12 hit dice and Parry-the-death-blow.)

Of the initial 11 core classes, the illusuionist rolled into the eventual concept of a wizard’s “Schools of magic” of which illusion was but one of many, along with evocation, necromancy, and divination to name a few. As an “archetype” the idea of the illusionist survived mainly as a concept of specialized wizard. They were very unique in AD&D and even had their own extensive spell list, of which a few, like color spray, are classics.

Another non-archetypal class is the assassin, which is actually in the Dungeon Master’s Guide with warnings against its use by players. The various tables in the PHB, however, include the assassin, so it is technically in the PHB, and besides I am an includer, not a denier, and will always vote for more classes, so the assassin is in, and with it, though it may not have developed into an archetype, pre se, is the idea of an “evil character” of which the old school games tended to produce more than later editions of the game. Therefore, the assassin is doubly worthy, since it gives a tacit acceptance to the anti-paladin, necromancer, bounty hunter, to name but a few traditional “evil archetypes.” the assassin might best be though of in terms of the archetype anti-hero, of which other classes, like warlock, vampire, or werewolf, might easily fit.

I would put it thusly (although I don’t think there is no base class Anti-hero, so its not perfect):



There is no doubt that the monk and bard became instant classic archetypes. Dragon magazine was again helpful in providing updated versions of the classes, so that the bard could be played from first level, and the monk was given various treatment, to make him more or less like kung fu, usually. From Friar Tuck to a ninja, the monk was covered.

Looking Forward

Future editions would go one to promote or demote various classes over the decades since the first edition made it appearance. Second edition divided the cleric into the priest with dominions or areas of specialty, similar to the way arcane schools of magic were done. Pacificst priest became a viable class, and later on, with future editions, other types of priests like “laser cleric” who fired divine energy rays, or in other words was a ranged focused holy warrior; The invoker is another priestly type, being an avatar of a direct intervention of a deity. They bring down the flames of (insert deity) on the enemy. Similarly, another “divine” type of character class is one I think 4th edition brought to classic status, and that is the Avenger, a dark executioner of a deity, imbued with power, and trained in hunting down enemies to extinction.

Not yet mentioned is the Sorcerer who was a unique take on the wizard, being an innate user of magic, rather than book learned, and usually involved dragon blood or some other influence. Being a complete re-imagining of the wizard, not so dependent on the traditional “vancian” style of magic, since they are not beholden to memorization of spells out of a book, but rather cast spontaneously, the Sorcerer is a perfect compliment to the wizard.

The Third edition PHB might be said to have the most all inclusive set of classes, and it included the base 11 except for the lack of assassin and illusionist, which it replaced with the Barbarian and Sorcerer. I personally feel this was a fair trade off, if keeping the number at 11 is important, and would rate the 3e PHB as having the perfect set of core classes. However, other archetypes exist, and a truly great one would be inclusive of all.

Fourth edition sadly only had 8 core classes in Players Handbook 1, and two of them were brand new. This was unfortunate, in that only 6 of the 11 established archetypes were present at launch. It would be rectified in the Players Handbook 2 and 3, the following years. On the other hand, the two new classes were the warlock and warlord, and they both became the two most beloved classes of that edition.

The warlock was a creature who made a pact with a being of immense power, whence sprang their fell powers. The warlord was a captain, leader, and kept their allies going against all odds.

Next D&D

With a new edition of Dungeons and Dragons being released, comes a game that claims to be “one edition to rule them all” and claims to bring ever edition,and play-style into one core game, with modularity for added complexity.

Any time there is a new edition, players of the game worry about which character classes are going to “get the chopping block” by being out of favor, and what new flavor of the month is going to usurp long time favorites? The designers of “Next D&D” are quoted in their first public speech on the subject, claim that their goal is to “include every class that has been in players handbook 1 from any edition.”

Those are big claims, and if they are true, then this iteration of the next edition of the world’s greatest role playing game of all time might just become even greater yet.

Based on that quote above, I thought I would throw in my wild-ass guess at the future edition’s core classes:

Priest (with domains)
Rogue (modern moniker of “Thief”)
Wizard (with schools)

14 classes, or possibly 12, if priest and cleric are rolled into one, and if wizard and sorcerer are also combined. If warlord can be made a sub-class of fighter, they could even get the number to that magical 11.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »