Monday, March 25, 2024

Dungeons and Dragons Campaign Back Story- Basic D&D Character and DM Lessons

Before I can chronicle the tales of the mostly young players I ran a campaign for, I need to lay down some important back story that came from none of them. The reason for this is- I weaved the tales of the characters I played (well before most of them were born) into the exposition to get this gang of adventurers assembled together and into various hazardous situations.
Jesse was the Dungeon Master for all of these characters I played as. (For the most part. Gonzo had some Monty Haul days, but more on that later.) I got better at running the game myself far after my initial days. At that time, I would occasionally DM for other groups, but frequently ran TSR Marvel Super Heroes and (with a bit of a learning curve) the James Bond game.
Finding magic rules annoying and confusing, my character was always some variation of the Fighter. I felt having the simplest of character types allowed me to focus on being more creative with problem solving and role playing than figuring out the requirements, properties and statistics behind spells, other character class abilities, or complex items.
First Extended Use Character-
Halfling (lawyer approved Hobbit)
Created using the Red Basic Box Set and leveled up into the Blue Advanced Box Set.
In those moldy olden days, there weren’t separate race and class selections. They were mixed. Fighters, Clerics, Magic Users and Thieves were all only human. Dwarfs, and Halflings were more or less fighters with some extra abilities, maximum level limits, and other modifiers. Elves were fighter/ magic users with extra abilities, plus high leveling up costs and a level limit to balance it out.
Gonzo the Halfling mostly travelled with the two characters played by Ben, Jesse’s younger brother, and Doug, a mutual friend between our ages from down the road.
Their respective characters were Barf the Magic User, and Calibos the Thief, making Gonzo the muscle of the team. We were not a physically mighty bunch, and there was a fair amount of running involved.

This is the party where Mom panicked when I told her I had fallen off a ladder on the much smaller Doug 
before she knew it was all in our heads. (The first time we ever played with Jesse using the "side view dungeon" from the basic book.)  It is also where I greatly misunderstood the connotation of “Giant” for both Centipedes and Hobgoblins. (FRENCH FRIES!!!!)

This was the wild and wooly “Monty Haul Gamer” days of early D&D. (Those treasure and magic item soaked players are called “Munchkins” currently.) While those three characters were our main group, most of us at that age and time didn’t understand the concept of “a campaign” where a group of characters who lived in the same D&D world only interacted with it and advanced their characters together. Instead, we’d drop our characters into whatever module someone happened to be running- gaining experience, magic items, and gold willy nilly.
It didn’t help that many kids didn’t understand the whole point of the game was interactive storytelling. I knew of several who would read their own copy of Module B2, Keep on the Borderlands that came with the Basic game, and get someone else to Dungeon Master them, often using their own book. Then they'd walk their characters into the Minotaur or Owlbear caves, kill the highest level monsters in B2…
Then walk out and walk in again where they acted as if it would “reset” allowing them to kill the monster once more, racking up the experience points and treasure many, many times.
I suspect that this is how Todd, who will feature in the stories later, ended up with a Thirty-Sixth level Magic User, when he only owned the Red Basic Set, featuring rules for characters up to level three. Also, this explains the guys who used the back of their character sheet for hit points or gold, with a one in the upper left, rows and rows of zeroes following it, and an adjustable tally at the lower right.
I feel like these early experiences soured me on what is arguably the most famous beginner’s module in the game's history. I’d seen it used poorly so many times it made me not want to start with it as I associated it with meaningless, story free, slaughter fests without any role playing. Looking back, that’s in a large part because most people who ran it ignored the town. Y’know, the “Keep” that the whole module was named after. The idea was- that’s the city the players begin with as a base and establish themselves and any local relationships in. It's the jumping off point for allowing them to build their character’s personalities and develop their role-playing skills. There was also the surrounding woods, the legends designed to add narrative reason to exploring the Caves of Chaos and the multiple other areas of the lands detailed in that module. Instead, the inexperienced game masters would throw the players into the Caves to kill things at random. The urge to “jump right into the action” removed a great deal of what the Dungeons and Dragons experience was supposed to be. Heck, even I, as a close to first time Dungeon Master, did that with my first group of new players Up the Lake, (when Tracy tried to steal the Kobold’s spears) most of who ended up not wanting to play again.
It took quite a while to learn that “jump right into the action” is a small part of what makes Dungeons and Dragons (along with other role-playing games) as much fun as they can be. Learning how much preparation is involved to enhance the enjoyment of everyone playing, including myself, massively improved my abilities. It’s kind of like Disney World trips. Laying all the groundwork ahead of time leads to much clearer sailing, AND the ability to shift and improvise when the actual group fun is occurring. Along these lines, I kept a Disney Grid like summary sheet with character information behind my screen. Coupling that with post-it-note marked tables in the rule books prevented delays to the "real time flow" feel while the players were acting in character. Having the player's statistics handy made surprises more surprising, as well. I got in the habit of randomly rolling dice while we were playing, so I could easily throw in a "did they notice that?" type roll for the characters without the players knowing. 

As a juggler, I learned applause is THE most addictive drug on earth, producing a high with no ill effects that beats any other. Being a good Dungeon Master allows one to tap into that. When running a game, during combat I’d wait until all the rolls were done, figure out how actions, happenings and damage would translate from the pure die rolls, and then describe it to the players. The rolling phase was usually yelling and chaos filled. On the completion of a round, one kid hollered “QUIET! Jeff’s going to tell us what's happened now!” Then they all were filled with anticipation and attentiveness. There’s no greater thrill for any storyteller than seeing a group totally hanging on what the next word of the story will be.
Honestly, now that I know what I’m doing, I could probably DM the hell out of a low-level campaign set in and around B2's The Keep on the Borderlands and the Caves of Chaos. 
Oh well, maybe next time.
Back to my character history that, as a better DM, I weaved into the stories of my adventurers.
Gonzo the Halfling travelled for quite a while in a few badly run adventures but mostly good ones with Jesse and company. When our main group was switching over to the first edition hardcovers of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, I kept Gonzo's sheet around for use with the less reputable bands of players. It seemed like everyone in school had one of the artifact weapons from S2- White Plume Mountain. This is remarkable, as there were only three of them, and they were all unique items. Based on this time period, Gonzo amassed too many magic items and too much gold, leading to him “building a Stronghold” as the books said high level characters often did. There were rules for this, which we most likely did not follow any of at the time. More or less, it came down to me writing, “Has a castle” or something like it on his character sheet, and making sketches and lists of what would be in it using one of many graph paper notebooks tucked into my gaming stuff.  
One night, staying over Jesse’s we decided to try out a Module he’d recently gotten with my overpowered for Seventh Level, little fighting guy. 
That module was the most trap laden, character destroying monstrosity of a module TSR ever published: S1- The Tomb of Horrors. Gonzo never returned from that quest. He was mostly alive when we stopped playing that night. However, gaming wise, we had moved on to bigger and better things and never finished it.
While we had mountains of fun on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) adventures without him, I always felt that Gonzo had made it out alive and continued on his journeys. When I created my own campaign, I was able to act on this.
Sadly, the character sheet for Gonzo is the ONLY bit of my Dungeons and Dragons documentation history that is missing. This includes my Mother's one and only character I convinced her to make a couple months after starting when I first got my own Basic Set and she wanted to see how the game worked. The fact that she immediately chose a Cleric, just like my wife did about thirty years later could likely be a basis for some psychological studies...
as was her choice of name- "Mother Elephantopopolis."

It is completely believable my original Gonzo character sheet is still folded up inside of Jesse’s copy of The Tomb of Horrors.
[Later edit, Ben informed me that Gonzo was not in Jesse's module, and "No one gets out of Tomb of Horrors alive."   Alas.]
Click here for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Characters


Jesse said...

This sure brings back memories! I very much agree with you about B2 - in the hands of a skilled dungeon master, it could be excellent. I think that’s my biggest gripe about those old basic sets - too much focus on mechanics, and very little about how to be a great DM. It’s funny - when I look back, I still have guilt about not being a better DM back in those days! I’ll look again through my remaining D&D fragments for Gonzo’s sheet - but I don’t think I’ll find it, for a simple reason: Ben is wrong - Gonzo did not perish in the tomb of horrors; Gonzo instead fully escaped into the true world of Dungeons and Dragons and still lives and thrives there today.

Jeff McGinley said...

Thanx for reading and joining in. If it makes you feel better, most of my better ideas for DMing I learned from you. Going back and looking at the books there's a surprising amount of "tips and tricks" for being a better player and DM in the old DM's guide but its buried under a zillion tables lists and charts. I believe that about almost all old characters... except the ones that exploded, but they're in the next post. Thanx again!