Monday, 28 May 2018

Aligning with Alignment

Is there a single topic in gaming that generates more discussion, anger, opinion and friction than that of alignment? Nope.  Many gamers hate it, “I don’t bother with it!”, “It’s good that Wizards have removed most alignment mechanics from the game!”, “Why should my character be forced to do something because of the alignment I chose?”.  These are all pretty common statements I see in online discussions.  True, it can be seen as a way of limiting options in play, but is that really the case?


Alignment is an underused source of inspiration, a guiding hand, and something that can be of great help when portraying a consistently believable character.  What is most important though is that it is used in a descriptive way, not a proscriptive one.  When creating a character, (or an NPC), consider how you would want them to behave in certain situations, and THEN choose the alignment that best describes that behaviour. Try to be consistent.  “I am really nice to peasants 95% of the time, I give food away. I am free with my money, but every so often, when I feel like it, I’ll murder a few just because I can, take my money back, then give it away again to more peasants.”… A DM should answer this with something like, “What causes the rage?  Are there any specific triggers? Is there a motive to it? Anything in your past that might have brought this about?”  If the player can come up with something that logically justifies such behaviour then fine, it can provide interesting storylines, generate consequences, and maybe result in a character trying to come to terms with the urges.  That’s great. The character is Chaotic Evil, often a red flag to many games, but there’s logic there, potential plot hooks, and maybe a chance of redemption.  But if the player’s response to the questions is “Dunno, lol, ‘cos I feel like it” – that’s crap, that’s being a dick, that’s Chaotic Evil too, and that’s precisely the sort of play that causes DMs to create rules such as ‘no evil characters’ and thereby make alignment proscriptive.

We all have different ideas of what each alignment means, thus discussion is important.  Players need to talk to their DMs beforehand and ask them how they picture the various world views. Define Lawful, define Chaotic, what is considered Good, etc. A player should never simply write an alignment down, then come to the table and argue the point of whether a certain action is Good or not with the DM.  That’s disruptive to the game, and should be avoided where possible. I recently had a player of a Neutral Good character try to justify torturing a child by claiming “My character has low Wisdom and Charisma”, it derailed a session, and generated a lot of ill feeling towards that player from the rest of the group.

So think about the character’s personality, their purpose, what drives them and their opinions on justice, life, law, etc, then choose an alignment – with the help of the DM, and play it consistently, according to the agreed ideals of that alignment.

But… isn’t that limiting player choice at the table? 

No, that’s called ‘Being fair to the DM and the other players.”  You see, RPG games are a group activity.  While everyone has freedom, we also have social expectations. If the PCs are erratic, murdering peasants one session, saving them the next, all on a whim with no real rhyme or reason to it, then how can a DM seriously be expected to create a cohesive story.  “Create consequences!” is the usual answer – yes, that’s good advice, but only to a point, as if it keeps happening then it becomes clear that the player(s) simply are not learning.  They are ignoring the social contract of sitting down and playing a group game together.  Also they are not being fair to the DM.  I, as a DM, like the concept of alignment.  If the player puts real thought into the personality, and then plays it consistently then games are better.

Sure, in my current 1E game I’ve not done much with it mechanically.  We’re playing 1E modules in a mostly fixed game world with 4 players, the adventures are usually designed for larger party sizes, each player has 2 characters, thus the game has been more about the adventures themselves than the characters.  I’m working however on a 2E game in a homemade world in which I will be changing that style.  Players will have multiple PCs to choose from if they wish, but will only play one in each session, so we will be able to focus more on individual motives.  Alignment play will be a factor. Reactions with NPCs will have more of a lasting impact, and the plan is for the world to evolve organically – this will require the players to portray their PCs in a consistent manner as indiscretions will be noted.  Crucially though, I will not use alignment as a proscriptive stick – “You wouldn’t do that, you’re Good” will not be in my vocabulary - but “Please erase the ‘Good’ part of your alignment” could easily be.

I’m looking forward to it.

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

The Price of Nostalgia

One topic that crops up frequently is the cost of game rulebooks, modules and materials - especially the second hand market for items long out of print.  With the recent resurgence in gaming popularity, prices for the iconic products of the 70s and 80s are on the rise.  This will also be due to the fact that many of us who cut our teeth on early editions of D&D in particular are now in our 40s and 50s, with secure finances and therefore cash to spend, and a need to satisfy those fuzzy warm nostalgic urges to recreate the feelings of our youth.

When I was about 30 I threw all my gaming stuff away, after all, I was never going to need it again was I?  Most of it was damaged, written on, well used, as it had been with me through my impetuous teenage years, followed me in a box to University, and then sat in my parents' garage gathering damp.  I dumped it all, felt slight twinges of pain at the time, but soon forgot about it.

Until about 5-6 years ago when the urge to play again resurfaced.

Since then I've slowly been rebuilding my collection of 1E and 2E AD&D books, mostly through Ebay.  I go through phases, watch the auctions intently, buy a handful of items, and then forget about it for a few months, then repeat.  What has become very evident in the last year is the alarming rise in prices - not just the asking prices (greedy sellers have always been there trying to rip people off), but in final auction prices.  I bought my 1st edition Players Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide and Unearthed Arcana for a total of about £20.  To repeat that now would be nigh on impossible.

But it's still possible to get a decent deal.  As long as you don't succumb and pay what the greedy sellers are asking.  Be patient, set limits.  It seems we are blighted by the existence of a number of people who have spent a while buying up supplies of available items, sitting on them for a while, and then listing them for resale for vastly inflated sums. Something is only worth what somebody is willing to pay, not what someone else wants to sell it for.  Remember that mantra.

So, in an effort to help people avoid being ripped off, and in what might be a futile attempt to contribute towards keeping prices more sensible, I intend to keep a page updated fairly regularly here detailing UK Ebay auction prices for B/X, 1E and 2E items. I hope somebody finds it useful.

PRICE LIST - 1st Edition AD&D

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Are You Experienced?

On aspect of D&D as it was in the late 70s through to the late 80s that still causes people to hmm and hrrrrr is that of experience, or rather, how experience points are gained.  In Basic and Advanced (1E) D&D, most of a character's experience points come from treasure.  Not from slaying beasties, not from rescuing Princesses (or Princes if you want to be more modern), not from being all heroic, not from saving this world, or that world, or recovering the Chalice of Xgyzzzy, no.  Common thievery.  Getting rich.  Grabbing loot and legging it. Smashing an Orc got you about 15xp, 20 Orcs got you 300, robbing their chest containing 2000gp got you 2000xp!

The emphasis of RPGs has changed significantly.  In 1980 it was primarily a case of hire cannon fodder, follow cannon fodder into dungeon, cannon fodder (and several party members) get slaughtered by overwhelming numbers of foul things, run, divide loot between surviving party members, then repeat...  By 1985 Tracy Hickman had happened.  Dragonlance was taking over the world, and now adventures were all about following a storyline.  Characters had destinies to fulfill and were meant to survive to achieve that greatness.  And for the most part it was a good and/or holy destiny, backed up by benevolent deities, ridding the world of all that is horrid.  Thievery still existed as there was still loot to harvest, but it was always in the name of a good cause.

Thus it was no surprise that when D&D was cleansed to appease the dribbling pond life that were burning entire libraries of their children's cherished gaming books, experience for loot was punted into history.  Unless you were a Rogue PC, but that was an optional rule. And thus it has been so ever since.  From 1989 onwards, PCs got their experience points from slaying beasties and being heroic, and generally doing good stuff to further the plot.

It's all good, right?  Because getting 'experience' for gold pieces was stupid and illogical right?


The assumption when one hears the term 'experience points' is that adventurers get better at their craft through the process of adventuring, and when they reach a certain point they just get that bit more Conan/Hercules/Merlin-like in their prowess.

That's illogical.  Well done, you've killed 500 Orcs, now you can learn one more spell!

'Experience Points' is a term that has lasted in RPGs, most seem to have them of some variety, and their purpose is usually pretty much the same.  But in AD&D 1E, it was not a good choice of words.

In 1E you got better through training, and money paid for that training. The purpose of adventuring was to get rich, to pay for training, to enable you to get richer.  Slaying monsters only made you slightly better, getting the money made you much better - because you spent it getting someone better than you to show you a piece of their knowledge.  They should have been called 'training points'.

Now that's logical.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Grown Up Fantasy

A theme I see crop up time and time again on RPG forums is one of what subjects are, and are not, acceptable in 'modern' gaming groups.  Over and over again I see contributors make comments along the line of 'no sex', 'no rape', 'don't kill the children', 'orc babies are redeemable', 'I don't want to be in a game where people exercise their weird fantasies'.  There seems to be the opinion that should such topics emerge within a game, that whoever introduces them gets some sort of weird inner satisfaction from it, that it's a perversion, and that sensitive people need protecting from such nastiness.

The group I DM most frequently for have just started through the venerable Slavers series, modules A1 to A4 in the 1E canon. These were originally published way back in 1980-81, when AD&D was at its original peak, and before the crazed US God-Squad helped bring about the more sanitised feel of 2E.  The opening module, Slave Pits of the Undercity, is set in the city of Highport on the Greyhawk peninsular known as the Pomarj.  For those unfamiliar with Greyhawk history, the Pomarj is a near-lawless place, overrun with humanoid tribes - and Highport, one of the few settlements of any size, is a devastated cesspit, destroyed by war, and partially rebuilt using the proceeds of the slave trade.  It is NOT a nice place.

The Greyhawk setting has roots firmly based in medieval Europe, the terminology used in Gygax's writings on his world, the heraldry, the political systems, are all clearly derived from history.  Marry that with the pseudo-historical feel of 1E AD&D, and the world is most definitely not the comic-fantasy melting pot of 5th Edition's Forgotten Realms.  Elves don't like Dwarfs, neither are especially friendly to humans, and nobody really cares about Halflings. Half Elves are supposed to be somewhat uncommon, given that Humans and Elves don't really socialise. And everybody hates Half-Orcs.

The term 'fecund' is used to described Orcs in the racial description of Half Orcs.  Highly fertile.  No niceties, no love, just fertile.  Given that Orcs are naturally evil creatures, it can be assumed that Half Orcs are not the product of any form of loving relationship. 

The 1E world is not a nice place.  And Highport is a foul place by the standards of the world in general, making it truly repulsive. So, what is repulsive, how do you portray an utterly foul place without touching on the topics in the 1st paragraph?  After all, this is a city that is built on the proceeds of the most vile trade of all, that of slavery - where people can be bought and sold, used and abused, beaten, tortured - their lives are meaningless. The lucky ones are the strong and healthy, the others are sold to the temples for sacrifice, or to the humanoid tribes for the cooking pot.  So in answer to my question - you don't!

My party happened upon a band of Gnolls, roasting a headless corpse over a spit.  I described it as small, mutilated beyond recognition - possibly a halfling, a gnome, or a human child.  While in Highport they saw diseased beggars, corpses with whip-scars thrown into alleyways to rot - some of these being those of women and children. They were advised by a contact to stay at 'the only inn which did not have slave meat on the menu'. At the inn a group of drunken revellers tried to buy the party's female fighter because she'd be valuable to the Orcs 'for breeding purposes'.

All pretty vile stuff. But it served a purpose, it fitted the world, most importantly it fitted the nature of the adventuring location and the background to the module series.  It gave the party (and players) a reason to hate the place and to rid the world of the Slavers. It was an excellent gaming session, my players loved it.

Those contributors to online forums would be up in arms. Let them be.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Fantasy Cupcakes

While browsing the cesspit that is Reddit I stumbled upon a thread in one of the D&D subs where some people were discussing cupcakes. Upon reading said thread, expecting to see tales of delicious treats consumed by players whilst rolling dice, he was actually talking about characters in game consuming cupcakes.  My immediate response, “Cupcakes! D&D? No, not possible.

In my mind, D&D is medieval.  Technology is limited to that era, societal attitudes from that era are the norm, and there are no cupcakes…. because they are American, and weren’t invented until the late 18th century.  And the US didn’t exist when D&D is set. And they are called ‘fairy cakes’ in this country anyway.  But I digress.  D&D’s roots are in games that attempted to simulate medieval warfare, and it’s easy to pick up on those themes when browsing through the 1E hardbacks for example – the weapons are drawn mostly from the period of AD1000-1500, as is the armour – though there are a couple of mistakes in there in the historical sense, as Studded Leather did not exist, and the jury is out on whether Ring Mail ever existed too. There are chapters on castles, complete with the correct old English terminology, and some of the terms used to describe spells and magical items are drawn from the Old English language – dweomer for example.  The infamous ‘random prostitute’ table contained multiple archaic synonyms for the world’s oldest profession - Gary Gygax was clearly an avid enthusiast of European medieval history.  Gygax’s own Greyhawk setting also showed direct feudal Europe inspiration – Perrenland is clearly Switzerland, and Veluna looks to be based on the Papal States.

I'll have a double Saucy Tart with a dash of Haughty Courtesan please barman!

Europe in the Middle Ages was a brutal place, cities were vile, rat-infested places, the general populace were uneducated and impoverished.  Society was very superstitious and extremely intolerant of anything ‘different’ – resulting in religious persecution, genocide, mass public executions, civil war, and so on. AD&D (and the Greyhawk setting) reflected that.  Various races did not get on with each other, certain states are at war, others are brought down by human frailties, and there are frequent clashes between devotees of various opposing faiths. It is a constant fight between clearly defined ‘good’ and ‘evil’. There is a grittiness to 1E and to Greyhawk, and beneath the layers of monsters and magic there’s that basis in historical fact.

 Nobody really likes Half Orcs - quite right too, the smelly beasts!

As a child, the 1st fantasy novel I read was The Hobbit. Tolkien also drew on similar inspiration – the technology of his world is very much of the early medieval era, most racial groups are portrayed as being wary of ‘foreigners’, and his world is also very brutal.

So, in my early teens, ‘Fantasy’ meant a medieval setting with magic and monsters.  I had no interest in the sci-fi that enthused many of my peers, and the modern day was just plain dull, no, when I retreated into my gaming world it was also back in time to an era of swords, chainmail, brave knights, and damsels in distress.

Towards the end of the 80s Forgotten Realms became popular, then the likes of Spelljammer (D&D in Space!), Planescape, and onto the techno-magic of Eberron.  Over the next few decades it appeared that the historical grounding was being forced out - the game was becoming more 'fantastical'.  Classes were opened up to more races, traditional racial enmities were quietly left to wither and die, as it seems the game attempted to incorporate more modern societal norms in its play*.  Gone was Gygax’s colourful, lengthy, often difficult prose – in its place were more direct rulebooks written in a more basic and mechanical style.  The game was no longer imparting its ‘feel’ on its players, it had become more of a framework around which DMs and Players could build their own definition of ‘Fantasy’ - for better or for worse.
But mine will also be that gritty, medieval, somewhat historical fantasy of the 1st Edition.

A time before cupcakes existed. And the USA.  And Reddit.

·         * something I’m planning to write on soon.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Analysing the Feedback

There were several reasons why I asked my players what they thought of the modules we had played thus far.  Of course, part of it was to gain tangible feedback on how I had DMed them, but also, I wanted to gain an insight into the style of game that each individual player enjoys.  The modules I have selected thus far have been very different in their approach, some have had very focussed plots, others have been weird and wacky, and others have had a more sandboxy approach.  We've had claustrophobic combat in cramped tunnels, wilderness skirmishes, and several very large battles.  In short, I've thrown the whole gamut of gaming at them in the last year or so.

Some of the feedback was quite predictable, but there were several surprises.

The first of the group to fill in his rankings was Jordan.  In play he is the one who seems to get most engrossed in a *story*, preferring a defined direction rather than the freedom of sandbox play. His top 3:

1st Castle Amber
2nd The Gauntlet
3rd equal The Sentinel
3rd equal The Village of Hommlet

Castle Amber featured highly for 3/4 players, so I will discuss that separately.  Of the others, Jordan was the only one to placed The Sentinel and The Gauntlet in the top 3. I believe this is because they have a strong plot that ties the 2 adventures together.  Crucially too their plot is self-contained - it starts with The Sentinel, ends with The Gauntlet, and has little or no impact on the rest of the world.  This means it is a very focussed and compact storyline.  Jordan was the most critical of Dwellers of the Forbidden City, feeling that it was *too* big. Of course, that adventure is a massive sandbox, with only a loose structure laid down representing the enemy motives.

James was the second player to send me his opinions.  He is the youngest member of the group, and revels in comical situations, the dafter the better.  Killing monsters is very much a secondary concern.  And his top 3:

1st Castle Amber
2nd Beyond the Crystal Cave
3rd Temple of Death

The key outlier in his rankings was placing Beyond the Crystal Cave as high as 2nd place.  This is a whimsical scenario with minimal combat, set in a fairytale garden inhabited by Leprechauns, Pixies and Satyrs.  We played it in a single session of about 6 hours, so it was a brief and highly light-hearted interlude, with some amusing (and somewhat risque) moments.  This adventure suited James perfectly. Also quite telling was his placing of the gritty, cerebral Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan down at number 11.

Ritchie was the third of the group to voice his opinions.  A little older than both Jordan and James, he seems to enjoy a fairly direct game, with a leaning towards a combination of puzzle solving and the darker side of fantasy. In his feedback he mentioned it took him a while to adjust to 1E, but has enjoyed it more as his familiarity with it increases. His top 3:

1st Castle Amber
2nd Master of the Desert Nomads
3rd Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan

His top 2 were played using 5E rules so that fits in with the rule familiarity issue.  Master of the Desert Nomads is quite heavily scripted in places, and ends at an Abbey occupied by semi-undead Monks - this gave us a highly memorable session of play, and was very much in the vein of the aforementioned 'dark fantasy'. Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan is also dark and atmospheric, packed with puzzles, and forces the party to hurry and think quickly.

Finally, Bryan gave me his verdicts, which differed quite wildly from those of the other players.  Bryan invests himself more heavily into his characters, creates rich backgrounds for them, and likes a module's story to be tweaked so as to make it feel relevant for the PCs.  He would probably most enjoy a homebrewed campaign in which the DM wrote material for the group between sessions, based on what occurred in the preceding sessions. His votes:

1st Master of the Desert Nomads
2nd Temple of Death
3rd Eye of the Serpent

With his top 2, I did develop some of the encounters so as to challenge the party members specifically.  I added Bryan's character's brother to the roster at the Temple for example, and the desert Dervishes interrogated his character over his faith. These embellishments clearly appealed to him!  Eye of the Serpent provides a realistic wilderness environment with very little story, but a lot of freedom.  He was the only one to really criticise Castle Amber, saying that Stephen Amber's Tomb felt rushed, as if it was tacked on in a hurry.  I agree with him there.

So, 4 very different players.  None of them are powergamers, none of them are overly tactical in their play, none of them are rules lawyers - for those 3 factors I am very thankful.  But they do have differing playstyles, and mostly they enjoy different types of adventure, and that's the challenge for me as the campaign progresses.  I need to personalise the experience for Bryan, ensure there are puzzles for Ritchie, inject some daftness for James, and ensure rich but logical plots for Jordan....

So why did Castle Amber do so bloody well in the vote?  Well, first we need to examine the material itself.  The module does not have much logic, the Chateau's layout is clearly designed for fun at the expense of any sense of realism, and has a number of monsters living in very close proximity to each other... clearly my players don't care about that.  This is quite an old-school mindset.  The adventure is very much location based - there are very few big 'events', and it gives the party a lot of freedom to roam within the Chateau at their own pace.  Many of these encounter locations lack any real logic, but much of the fantasy manages to be very dark as well as whimsical - a ghostly feast, character possession, hallucinations and the like, combined with traditional trolls under bridges ! There also are a lot of NPCs, each with no more than a few lines of text giving their personality and motives, so it is left up the DM to embellish these.

So I did.  I gave them silly French accents, played up the cross-dressing Ogre, added songs (in French), and tried to inject a real sense of fun.  The module inspired me, which in turn made for a great game.

DMing Castle Amber was hard work, it wore me out, and I was glad when it was all over.  But it was worth it.

(but yes, the module is a bit too long, and Stephen Amber's tomb is crap in comparison with the rest of it)

Monday, 10 July 2017

Player Feedback, and a little experiment...

It's a tricky job being a DM.  You need to know the rules of the game to a decent level, you need to know the adventure material in details, you need to be able to think on your feet, and improvise and adapt when the players do things that are wholly unexpected, while hiding the fact that you are desperately calculating possible outcomes in your head, sometimes panicking inside.  Above all though, you need to keep the players happy while also enjoying the game yourself.  And players are strange animals, they come in all shapes and sizes, with differing wants and needs.

So, in an effort to better understand my group, and to give me yet another opportunity to waffle on here about my favourite subject of modules, I asked each of the 4 players in my group to rank the modules we have played thus far in order.  This has a tangible benefit for me in that I can see where I did stuff right, where I possibly screwed up, but most importantly it gives me insight into the type of game that they want to play.

I gave them each a list of the 12 modules we have played as a group:

L2  - The Assassins Knot - we played this as part of a 5E campaign.  I butchered the setting, and dropped the NPCs into a city applicable to the game were running, while keeping the plot and motives consistent with the original module.

X2 - Castle Amber - The 2nd of my 5E conversions, played almost identically to the original, with lovingly converted monsters and NPCs - that was hard work!

X4/X5 - Master of the Desert Nomads/Temple of Death - 2 more 5E conversions, though I adjusted parts of these to tie them into the backstories of a couple of the party PCs.  The campaign was effectively ended with an epic battle in the Temple itself in which all bar one of the PCs died.

UK5 - The Eye of the Serpent - the opening adventure of our 1st edition AD&D campaign, which I've followed up with:

T1 - The Village of Hommlet

UK2 - The Sentinel

UK4 - When A Star Falls

UK3 - The Gauntlet

UK1 - Beyond the Crystal Cave

I1 - Dwellers of the Forbidden City

C1 - Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan


What should be borne in mind first and foremost is that none of the adventures yet played are bad ones, I have only chosen modules that have some considerable merit, be that in terms of their scope, their plot and/or atmosphere, or maybe just ambition.  TSR produced a lot of duff adventures, mostly in the mid-late 1980s - I have avoided those - yeah I'm looking squarely at you The Forest Oracle, and as for you Dragonlance saga, you can shove your heavy handed railroad squarely where the sun don't shine.  So if the adventure is placed low here, it's akin to a sports-car poll in which a Fiesta ST comes 10th of 10, as it is pitted up against cars from Porsche, Ferrari and Lamborghini....

12th place - UK5 - The Eye of the Serpent.  This result was not unexpected, as it's quite forgettable.  It's not bad, just a little bland.  See my detailed review

11th place - L2 - The Assassins Knot.  Playing it with 5E rules was far from ideal - a whodunnit doesn't work quite so well with 5E's Insight skill and Detect Thoughts both being spammable!

10th - UK3 - The Gauntlet.  Whaaaaaaaaattt!

9th - UK4 - When A Star Falls.  You fools.  Whose stupid idea was it to allow players to have opinions?  Review here

8th - UK2 - The Sentinel.  Gobsmacked this one finished above its more superior siblings UK3 and UK4. Review!

7th - I1 - Dwellers of the Forbidden City.  I expected this to be around here, most placed it towards the middle with just 1 dissenter.

6th - C1 - Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan. As I1.

5th - UK1 - Beyond the Crystal Cave.  1 player *loved* this.  The player who would probably have disliked it was away for the session in which we played it.

4th - T1 - Village of Hommlet.  An expected result, as this has had an enduring impact on our 1E campaign.  My Review tells you why...

3rd - X5 - The Temple of Death.  Slightly confused by this, I thought my conversion was messy, and it all ended with that near TPK.  Nought as strange as folk - apart from RPG players - who are even stranger!

2nd - X4 - Master of the Desert Nomads.  No surprise. This converted really well to 5E, and the set piece nature of the battles worked well with that system.

1st - X2 - Castle Amber.  3 out of 4 players rated this as #1, but was that down to the adventure itself, or was it down to my DMing?  You'll have to wait to see the analysis.... coming soon....

Aligning with Alignment

Is there a single topic in gaming that generates more discussion, anger, opinion and friction than that of alignment? Nope.   Many gamer...