Monday, February 27, 2012

Moldvay - Your character doesn't know that

In this section, Moldvay says:

"A player should not allow his or her character to act on information that character has no way of knowing (for example, attacking an NPC because that NPC killed a previous character run by the player, even though the NPC and current character have never met). If the players get careless about this the DM should remind them. The DM may, in addition, forbid certain actions to the characters involved. The DM should make it clear to the players before the adventure begins that characters may not act on information they don't have. It will save lots of time later."

This can be a tricky policy to implement, especially in an old-school campaign where you want to emphasize player skill over things like class features or "skill checks".

What Moldvay is referring to is more story-based knowledge, however. This can be interesting to monitor if, for instance, you're running "White Plume Mountain" for the fifth time in twenty years. How many players know right where to go to lay hands on Blackrazor? Or which doors will eat you in the "Tomb of Horrors"?

More interesting still is when this comes into play as a result of inter-party intrigue or struggles. This can be as basic as the party thief filching an extra gem from a chest while no one's looking, to something as complicated as one player's character paying to have an other's assassinated. In all these situations, its a good idea for the DM to take an active role in maintaining the "fog of war" - it keeps the story as compelling as possible and helps maintain immersion.

It's not always possible to completely keep player's from acting on prior knowledge though - players can be crafty, and will often go out of their way to look for way to exploit or otherwise act on their knowledge. Such as a character going into another character's backpack "for a torch" or something, because the player knows that character stole his character's healing potion. It might be a good idea to let players know you're going to be on the lookout for such actions, and impose some sort of penalty for infractions, such as a hit on experience points.

From behind the screen it can be more obvious than a player thinks that he or she is acting on prior knowledge. I had an instance where one of my players owned and had obviously read a module I was running - obvious because he was heading in a beeline towards the biggest treasure in the adventure, which was well out of the way and hard to find and get to. When this became obvious to me I discreetly made a couple of location changes - the player was confounded when he didn't turn up the treasure he was looking for, and kept going back to search again. It was hard to keep a poker face during this!

What are your experiences with players acting on knowledge their character's don't or shouldn't have?

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Moldvay - Everything is balanced.

In this section, Moldvay says:

"The DM should try to maintain the "balance of play". The treasures should be balanced by the dangers. Some groups prefer adventures where advancement between levels is swift. In such a case, since the treasures are generally greater, the monsters should be "tougher". Other groups prefer adventures where character development is more important, and advancement is slower. If the monsters are too tough, and if the parties are reduced by many deaths, then few characters will ever reach higher levels."

Most of this seems like common sense, so I don't really have a lot to elaborate on here.

It is interesting though, that Moldvay reminds us that there are higher levels there to be attained and that the DM should keep this in mind when plotting out adventures and campaigns.

I'm curious - how important is "leveling up" in your campaigns, as opposed to more in-depth character development?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Moldvay - Everyone is here to have fun.

In this section, Moldvay says:

"The DM should make the adventure seem as "real" to the players as possible. All should avoid getting stuck in long discussions about rules or procedures. The game should move along with humor, as well as excitement."

Here, Moldvay takes the time to reinforce what he's already expounded on in "That's not in the rules", which is to never disturb the flow of the game due to a question of rules. (And by making the adventure "real", I am confident he is talking about keeping the players' mindset out of the toolbox and firmly in the action).

It is certainly compelling to consider the idea of having the players know almost nothing but the most rudimentary rules of D&D. B/X is, keep in mind, an iteration of D&D for which players are extremely unlikely to have any sort of "players handbook". Even in 1E, where there is a players handbook, the lion's share of the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of the game is still largely confined to the DMG.

It begs the question as to exactly what sort of Pandora's Box was opened when rules were put, wholesale, into the hands of the players (extravagantly demonstrated by any 3E or later PHB) , and the DMG became less crunchy and more fluffy. Could Moldvay be any clearer about what he's talking about? Let me try it out myself:

Having Fun = Not worrying about the Rules

For all the in-depth dissection we like to do about the apparent disconnect between the OSR and the "contemporary" D&D community, Moldvay seems to have understood it all too clearly, even if it was 20+ years before it became an issue.

How did this principle get left by the wayside? Granted, a brief paragraph buried on page 60 of a "basic" 80's D&D manual is not exactly a trumpet fanfare announcing the Law of Good Gaming. But still, how exactly did the game's toolbox get passed from the craftsman to the homeowners?

But here we are, and Pandora's Box is already open.

How do we go back to that "age of innocence" when the majority of gamers you meet know full well how to build a "CR7 Defender" or the DC of a Climb check? Is it possible for us all to just forget what we know? To take a step back from our rules mastery of a system we pretty much know backwards and forwards and could probably, if time and motivation permitted, write out our own very complete version of the game from scratch?

Probably not. But we can, at least, try not to worry about the rules so much, or change things up on purpose once in a while.

Here's a homework assignment for all you DMs out there: change three rules you dislike on purpose (I'll let you decide whether you've told your players you've done so or not) before your next session, and try to make sure you use them. See if the players notice, how they react, and whether you think you can move them away from caring about it, simply because they are having too much fun to care.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A brief intermission

Yes, there is more Moldvay goodness (and even some Cook/Marsh) to come. In the meantime, enjoy this Frazetta Girl.

Aren't Frazetta Girls nice?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Moldvay - The DM is the Boss

In the section titled "The DM is the Boss", Moldvay says:

"The DM decides how these rules will be used in the game. A good DM talks about problem areas with the players and considers reasonable requests by them. The players should realize, however, that the final decision is the DM's: not theirs, and not this booklet's! If a disagreement holds up play, the DM may make a temporary decision and talk it over with the players when the adventure is over. If a player disagrees enough, he or she may quit the game. It is up to the DM to create an adventure the players can enjoy."

In a nutshell, a good DM is open to discussing issues with the group, but in the end, the DM's decision is final. If that's not good enough for the dissenting player, "he or she may quit the game."

That last (bolded by me) quote is worded vaguely enough that it can be interpreted two different ways: a warning to the player ( if you don't like it, quit), or a warning to the DM (if you don't keep an open mind, the player might quit on you). Judging by the subtle humor evident in much of Moldvay's writing, I suspect this is intentional. Being the "Boss" means more than getting your way all time, it also means accepting responsibility for the consequences of being too pushy about it.

Be that as it may, the two things I like best about this section are "If a disagreement holds up play, the DM may make a temporary decision and talk it over with the players when the adventure is over", and "The players should realize, however, that the final decision is the DM's: not theirs, and not this booklet's!".

Running a fun, engaging scenario is, absolutely, the DM's first priority. If some quibble over a rule or something is threatening to derail the action and use up valuable gaming time (something we can all appreciate as we age and have less and less time to actually game), the DM must be able to make a ruling on the spot and move on, whether the disputing player agrees with it or not - there are other people in the room who deserve to enjoy the session they showed up for, not get sidebarred into a rules discussion for the rest of the night. If, after the session is over, the dissenting player still wants to have his opinion heard, the DM should be open to this discussion, and invite any players who feel like sticking around for it to put in their .02 as well. DMs and players alike will find this sort of discussion is often easier once tempers or discomfort has cooled anyway, and the issue might turn out by end of session not have been such a big deal in retrospect.

If, however, after this frank discussion the DM and player still can't come to an agreement, the DM needs to either be firm on his ruling and able to accept that this may be the end of the road for that player in his or her group, or decide whether to give in and let it slide because the player is too valuable to lose.

Secondly, I like the emphasis on the DM's word being final over "this booklet". This is another crucial point as well. If a DM decides elves don't get infravision or sleep spells don't work underwater, for whatever reason, that's the DM's call, completely, and it doesn't matter what the book says. It's the DM's game, not the booklets game. The players deserve to be heard, the rules do not - they are there to help serve the DMs needs for running a good game; guidelines, not laws.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Moldvay - There's always a chance.

In this section, Moldvay says:

"The DM may want to base a character's chance of doing something on his or her ability scores (Strength, Dexterity, and so forth). To perform a difficult task (such as climbing a rope or thinking of a forgotten clue), the player should roll the ability score or less on 1d20. The DM may give a bonus or penalty to the roll, depending on the difficulty of the action (-4 for a simple task to +4 for a difficult one). A roll of 1 should always succeed, and a roll of 20 should always fail."

Not only is this an elegant way of handling all those little actions in the game that shouldn't be an "auto-success", its also a good way to put emphasis on those six ability scores, which otherwise really only come into play on a regular basis for combat resolution. It also is a handy tool to get players who have only had later edition gaming experience get over the mindset that a character has to have a particular "skill" rating to do something like decipher some old runes or catch a fish.

This is such a simple little resolution system, its easy to overlook how huge of an impact this can have on your game, again reinforcing creative play. When players have the mindset that "There's always a chance", they should actually start taking those chances more and more.

It might be a good idea to read the above quote aloud at the beginning of each session, just to remind everyone and keep the concept fresh in the players' minds as the night's adventure begins. When the players are actually looking for something to test their "skills" against, it leaves a whole lot less empty space for the DM to fill.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Moldvay - "That's not in the rules!"

"The players will often surprise the DM by doing the unexpected. Don't panic. When this happens, the DM should just make sure that everything is done in the order given by the outline or sequence of events being used. Minor details may be made up as needed to keep the game moving. All DMs learn how to handle both new ideas and unusual actions quickly and with imagination."

My favorite part of this is "minor details may be made up as needed to keep the game moving", or, more specifically, "keep the game moving". Few things can derail the sense of immersion and involvement in a session than stopping to flip through a rule book to look something up.

This is probably one of the hardest aspects of DMing to "teach", it must rather be learned from experience. When faced with a dilemma, it is the DMs responsibility to react, quickly, with a ruling, rather than stop the flow of the game to look up, or worse - debate!, a rule. Its important to remember that your fairness, impartiality and sense of balance play a huge part here - if your players trust you and trust that your rulings are fair, even if they don't necessarily always hew to the letter of the rules, you're going to be able to implement this a lot more effectively.

Lets say, for instance, the party is battling trolls. One of the players, in the midst of combat, wishes to light a torch and start burning troll bits to stop a defeated troll from regenerating back up into the fray. In a "DM vs. Players" scenario, the DM would most likely be inclined to favor getting "his" troll back into action to whup up on the PCs some more, and tell the player its going to take a couple of rounds to light the torch, a couple more rounds to effectively burn troll bits, and all the while suffering the undefended attacks by the remaining trolls.

Unfortunately, what this DM is actually doing is punishing creative play. "Get back to unimaginatively rolling 'to hit' and damage", he might as well say, "or you're going to get pounded on."

This results in one or both of two things - the player demanding rules to back up the difficulty of burning some troll bits, and/or not trusting further rulings from the DM.

A little leniency in situations like this can go a long way towards not just getting the players to trust your rulings, but not have to worry about stopping the action to back up every single ruling, and it encourages more interesting and creative player actions (ie. cutting back on the "roll play"). Make up your "minor detail", such as "a torch can be lit this round, and you can either move somewhere with it or burn something next to you", and make sure this fits into the sequence of events, and get on with the game.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Moldvay - Dungeon Mastering as a Fine Art

If you flip to the back of Moldvay's Basic book, p.B60, you get a nice 3/4 page detailing "Dungeon Mastering as a Fine Art".

It covers the following:

"That's not in the Rules!"

"There's always a chance."

"The DM is the boss."

"Everyone is here to have fun."

"Everything is balanced."

"Your character doesn't know that."

Seeing as Moldvay managed to produce, in my opinion at least, the most concise and user-friendly version of the D&D ruleset, I feel it's worthwhile taking a look at his opinions on the more ephemeral and arbitrary elements of running a good session. So I'll be writing a bit about the above elements over the next few posts.

Introducing this section, Tom says:

"It is important that the DM be fair, judging everything without favoring one side or the other (BtBG - something I like, and talk about a bit more here). The DM is there to see that the adventure is interesting and that everyone enjoys the game. D&D is not a contest between the DM and the players! The DM should do his best to act impartially when taking the part of the monsters or handling disputes between characters."

The bolded portion above (and this is bolded in the actual text, not by me), is deservedly so. Again, as Tom does so well in every aspect of his little corner of the D&D library, he sums this up very concisely. Its a little like dropping two scorpions into a jar and letting them duke it out, only one scorpion is the players, the other is the adventure you've designed, and the jar is your campaign setting. Fudging/cheating in either party's favor defeats the purpose. The reward for the DM is not "beating" (or coaching, or assisting) the players, but rather the pleasure of watching all the variables and challenges the players bring to the table unfold as they react to your creations. As Tom mentions, there are many players, and only one DM!

I behooves those of us who are DMs to take this advice to heart.

Friday, February 10, 2012


What should we play tonight?

As is obvious from the ragged covers, these books have seen a lot of use. But its been a long time...

Incidentally, wouldn't it be something if, assuming WotC's 1E reprints sell well, they reprint these awesome books as well? Probably unlikely, they seem to favor the Mentzer stuff, but (no disrespect to Mr. Mentzer), the Moldvay/Cook stuff was always my favorite.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Death of the FLRS

My first year of college, 1989, my first year on my own, I would take a walk down the street to the nearest "record" store, Specs, to grab a new album. I had heard rumors that a favorite group of mine, Marillion, had reformed with a new lead singer after the exit of its former front-man Fish. No, I'm not going to get into Fish-era Marillion vs. Hogarth Marillion here (maybe a future post?), this is about record stores in general.

At the time, it was interesting that half the store was racks of CD's, and the other half was rows of cassettes. I ended up buying one of each (the system at my apartment was CD, but my car only handled cassettes).

What's interesting now, to me, is that this store was one of several in easy reach, and they all had a wonderful and extensive variety of albums and groups available for sale. A phenomenon that, like the FLGS, seems to be, now, lost in time.

About two years later, while pursuing my Bachelors in Archaeology, the cost of tuition necessitated me finding full-time employment that would accommodate my ever-changing school schedule, and I ended up working a a record store, one of a chain of stores, in fact. I'll reserve the name of the store, but it was apparently named after a certain Arthurian capitol, nudge-nudge, wink-wink. At the time, it was a cool job for a struggling college student, replete with seemingly endless backstage passes, informal band meet-and-greets, and piles and piles of "promo" albums months before actual release dates. In retrospect though, it was a front row seat to the death of an industry.

I could elaborate on the fascinating details of being the closest record store to Gibsonton FL, the Summer retirement community for the populace of Circus "freak shows", but again, that's worthy of its own post.

About half-way through my tenure with the company we instituted a new policy at home office's directive. Called "pull sheets", this consisted of lists of what we referred to as "deep catalog" (basically all the albums by bands that hadn't released anything in the last couple of years). We would get lists of albums by artists like Pink Floyd and Todd Rundgren, and the Who, and pull them off the shelves, shipping them back to home office to make way for overflowing boxes of stuff like GnR's Use Your Illusion and Coolio's Gangsta Paradise.

Yes, we would pull, say, 500 different albums off the shelves and ship them off to make way for 500 copies of the same crappy top 40 album (which would sell about 20 copies, really). What were we supposed to do with the other hundred people that came in looking for "Tales from Topographic Oceans" or "Octopus"? We were supposed to say "I can special order that for you, Sir or ma'am!" To which, invariably, the customers would invariably reply, "no thanks", and wander off to buy the album somewhere else.

See, what corporate offices never understood was that the other 80% of our customers, who weren't interested in Dr. Dre or Ace of Base, were also not interested in waiting 2-3 weeks for an album they could find elsewhere. And so, rapidly, the music store, nay the whole chain, and all the other chains, eventually and speedily died.

Unlike the FLGS, this was a sort of suicide the record store companies underwent, a decade before iPods and file sharing. Today, thanks to events like the Napster scandal, even up to recent events like the unceremonious deposition of Kim Dotcom, it has become popular fiction to blame the death of the corporate music industry on the internet. In fact, it was the opposite, as I can attest as someone who was there to witness the death throes. It was the record companies own fault, fueled by greed, a complete misunderstanding of the industry, greed, a complete disrespect for the customer base, and more greed. If you refuse to legally sell what 80% of your customers want, you actually force them to pirate or shop from secondary markets (at least those who aren't dumb enough to wait weeks for shipping at premium prices). Sound familiar?

Way back when, in 1989, there were 7 record stores in my little college town. Today, as of last March at least (when I had occasion to make a short visit), there was only Best Buy, and that with a dramatically atrophied cd section. I buy my own music mostly from iTunes these days, but do like to support a valiantly struggling independent record store in the arts district of my current home town when I can.

I wish I had more stores to choose from, though.

I wish I had more FLGS's too.

Friday, February 3, 2012

What works in D&D - part 5

One of the iconic physical artifacts of the D&D experience is the DM screen. I, personally have a kind of love/hate relationship with the cardboard wall. Its nice, every now and then, to take it down, roll your dice in the open, and be a little more engaged with the table. Nothing to hide, so to speak.

Which brings us to an interesting point. Is the function of the screen to hide what you're doing (notes, maps, dice, etc) from the players? In part, perhaps. But those screens aren't just blank on the Dm side, the side opposite all the pretty art. They are functional - the 1E screens have all the intricate combat tables, saving throw matrices, cleric turning charts, and so on.

And I love all those charts. They work - they provide an invaluable service, and they are why 1E adventure modules have a much lower page count than, say, 3E modules.

Because they eliminate the need for stat blocks.

Its an easy thing to overlook after 12 years of giant stat blocks, easy to compare a 3E gnoll stat block with a 1E gnoll stat line, and say, "aargh, 3E has all these bloated rules!" when in fact, we just aren't seeing them all every single time a monster stat is written out in a room's description. Because most of it is right there on that handy DM screen, no need to print it over and over again.

It can all be there on the screen because a lot of it is standardized. A 4HD ogre uses the same attack matrice as a 4HD Giblet Zombie. Later editions ended this standardization in favor of more individualized and situational statistics. Why? More realistic? How do you make an Ogre more realistic than a Giblet Zombie by giving it a better save vs. spells? Do players care if fourteen different 3HD monsters have 14 different chances to hit AC 0, or 14 different saves vs. fireball, or 14 different chances to spot a sneaking thief (something taken care of in early editions by the thief's percentage roll, rather than the thief's roll opposed by the monster's roll)?

A little standardization, in actual play, becomes almost completely invisible to the players. How they interact with the world is more easily defined by their own character stats and player ability than how they struggle against an endless array of largely arbitrary situational modifiers, conditions, and self-contradicting rules.

Standardization works, and furthers the emphasis on exploration over stat-based combat scenarios.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Lord of the... Lego?

Lord of the Rings is coming to Lego.

Great, another toy for me and my boys to fight over :)


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