Thursday, January 11, 2018

How to Win at any Edition of Dungeons and Dragons

Howdy readers.  Since I’m battling the Sinus Infection that Wouldn’t Die, here’s a blast from the past.

It's a write up I did on a message board back in the early 2000’s when Third Edition Dungeons and Dragons was being modified.  It’s up to at least 5th edition now, but most of my points still hold as those aspects haven’t changed.  

Since the whole "what is Dungeons and Dragons" question has been raised at work thanks to Stranger Things, this post is now timely again.

I think.  (achoo!)

Now that the conversation has turned to “Old School” I have to stop lurking and speak up.  First let me list my credentials as a cranky old gamer.  I started playing D&D in 5th grade (1980-81), with the Red Basic set (one of my DM’s was older and had used the blue set).  We switched over to AD&D pretty quickly and our DM has the Deities and Demigods with the Cthulhu section (I just missed it).  The first issue of Dragon I read had “Finieous Fingers” in it, and the first one I bought had “WHATS NEW” in black and white.  My subscription ran before during and after the Snarfquest run.

So sit back folks, here’s a long one to try to shed some perspective on this.  

The reason I’m posting is that I played 1st edition.  In fact, I still do.  I dusted off all my old stuff and started DM’ing a year or so ago for my wife, sister, and some kids in my parents’ neighborhood.  First edition still works fine.  Yeah, the rules can be a little unclear and contradictory in places, but as long as you play consistently they work. 

When they finally finished one of the modules, one of the mothers asked the eternal question, “Who won?”

And the kid answered, “We all did, don’t you know anything.” 

Therein lays the key.  “Winning” in D&D, AD&D or whatever it’s called is all about if the group has fun.  Winning is not connected to gaining levels, finding gold, or wielding the Staff of Gygax that can incinerate all monsters instantly.

Whatever set of rules you pick, as long as you can have fun playing, “it just doesn’t matter”.

Before writing this, I did some homework reading through my old Dragons, specifically when they were planning Second Edition, and looking for feedback. 

The big worry everyone had was that it wouldn’t be compatible with all the first edition stuff that was out.  It was promised that it would be.  This is my first concern with 3rd edition, that it’s a new system. 

My second concern is that the Monty Haul gamers (I believe you guys call them Munchkins now) have taken over the asylum.  When the really high level supplement (I don’t know the name) for 3rd Ed. was released, I read several customer reviews saying “it’s about time”.

You see, they were playing for almost a whole year, and they couldn’t advance their 20th level characters any further. 

Now… I played D&D pretty regularly from 5th grade up through high school.  In that time I had 3 major characters in campaigns that started at 1st level.  None of them advanced beyond 8th.  This is not a complaint; we always had a great time on our adventures.  Again, that’s the point, with a good adventure; a good DM and good players, power-gaming never became an issue.

In fact, several articles in Dragon magazine mentioned how it takes “months or years” for a character to reach 10th level, even with regular play. (We made up special ones, if someone had a high level adventure they wanted to try out.)

To drive this point home, the First Edition Books recommend retiring 20th level characters, because they aren’t as much fun to start new ones.

My final concern is the skill system, the idea that any character can be any class, and being able to change classes when the player wants.  These all lump together. 

The game balance argument comes up a lot for the old way of doing things, and I’ll admit, it’s pretty weak.  There were a lot of requests for more freedom in what each character type could do when 2nd edition was being worked on.  The reasons for not allowing it weren’t truly game balance.  By design, the game was set up to keep a single player character from being able to do everything.  D&D was made to have each character type have areas they specialize in, and things they couldn’t do.  This set up a unique kind of cooperation requirement that doesn’t exist in skill based games, which I’ve played plenty of, and enjoyed.  By allowing this, Third Edition becomes different than the previous versions, not necessarily better or worse, but still requiring a very different attitude and method of play.  Because of this and my first concern, D&D is now a different game than it was.

If I may also chime on the edged weapon Cleric debate: Although it makes sense that a Cleric of Ares (for example) could wield a sword, you do lose something. 

Many times when I played (and more so with weapon specialization allowing multiple slots on the same weapon) the cleric was the ONLY character in the group with a blunt weapon.  Not only did this add diversity, a feature in the original game, it came in really handy when attacked by skeletons, clay golems, and other monsters that are immune to pointy type weapons.

Now I’m finished picking on third edition, meaning it is time to pick on Second Edition a bit. I played it a little in college, (with a good DM, more on that later) and didn’t see much difference. 

A big complaint I’ve seen now is that the Forgotten Realm’s setting is no longer being used, supported, whatever.  When I was playing, those Realms were only Ed Greenwood’s campaign, not THE WORLD.  Greyhawk was the “official” world, but I never really went there. 

Any DM I ever had who was any good had their own world, and wrote their own adventures.  There may have been elements from the standard world included, but it was a unique entity.  The longer we gamed in it, the more the “DM’s world” it became.

I’ve used the old modules B1 and B3 for my players, but heavily modified most (if not all) encounters and added a bunch of my own stuff. As a DM, if you just pick up a module as is and follow it “because that’s what it says”, you rob yourself and your players of the enjoyment and inside jokes that come from a world created specifically for you and your friends.

The best way to use the published stuff is as a basis for ideas, then you make a world and adventures tailored to your players and what will challenge them and make them have fun.  You don’t need newly published information on a constant basis to keep the campaign interesting.  Roger Moore (Dragon Editor, not Actor) had a great story about how a pack of Kobolds (again, intelligently run by the DM) decimated, and sent a group of 10th+ level characters running for their lives, where they chose the lower dungeon levels where the demons were.

Any monster can be a push over, any monster can be a party killer, and any monster can be modified. Or in some cases, made up from scratch. My players were fleeing from an “unkillable” animated quilt in one adventure.

To paraphrase Mel Brooks, “It’s good to be da DM”.

To sum up (finally! you cry).  Third edition retooling has made it a fundamentally different game than AD&D has been.  This is not an improvement, nor is it a detriment, but it is a difference that a lot of people might not want. However, some people will like the new system, and that is the way the game will be published now. 

If you don’t like it, you can still use your old stuff for years.

My rule books are older than most of my players, but they work just fine, thank you very much. 

One last bit of advice for the DM’s out there, which I finally have accepted myself.  The dice are your tools, not your master. If the players need to find a secret door to finish the adventure…they find it. But if you’ve worked out a particularly clever trap, don’t let them bypass it with a die roll, make ‘em figure it out on their own.

The thief's die roll can yield hints in this situation…if you feel nice. 

Above all, D&D in any of its forms is an interactive storytelling game at its heart.  If the story is good, with a lot of suspense, humor and excitement and if the characters have a good mix of challenges and successes, meaning they’re not constantly killed, nor bored nor swimming in loot, then “Everybody wins” regardless of what set of rules is used. 

Happy gaming folks!

Post Script- I answered a couple questions people had which have become irrelevant over time, mostly siting playing Baldur’s Gate II as my source of enjoying some of the changes in Second Edition.

However, since I liked this joke that only old D&D players will get about solo adventuring, I’ll end with it.

“As for soloing, you don’t need rule changes for that.  I soloed S2: Tomb of Horrors with my first character, a Halfling Fighter named Gonzo at Seventh level…

I’ll miss that little bugger”

No comments: