Thursday, April 30, 2009

Dungeonmaster Notes

There are a few different "types" of Dungeon Master that play the game. Now, for those not-in-the-know, the Dungeon Master is the person who runs a specific game of Dungeons & Dragons. The players each have one character (or possibly more) that they control in a specific game, and the Dungeon Master controls all the other characters (called Non-player Characters), all the monsters, and pretty much everything that goes on in the world. They are the Writer and Narrator of the story, and the Referee during fights (between the characters and the monsters, not between the players. ;) ).

Two types I've already mentioned:

1) The Killer DM. This type sets themselves up as the adversary of the group. "Oh, so you beat those 12 orcs, huh? Well, let's see how you do against 20 OGRES!!" Typically they are quite stingy with the treasure too... you fight those 20 Ogres and you might get a few silver pieces out of it. They favor a gritty style of play, to my experience, with broken bones and missing limbs, so hit-location tables and critical hit tables seem to be favored by them. This type of DM can be alright for awhile, especially if you're just interested in "one-off" games, rather than campaigns, but eventually you get tired of never being able to progress a character... since unless you're incredibly lucky, or Batman (he's always prepared for everything), you'll never survive to the end of the module.

Honestly, I don't think there's any redemption for the Killer DM. People eventually just stop playing with them. That's what we did. Eventually we just told Steve we weren't playing in any more of his games. He offered to increase the amount of treasure in the games, but we pointed out that there wasn't much use for that, since we'd never survive to do anything with it. So, he became a player after that (and a rather disruptive one, unfortunately).

2) The Monty Haul DM. Yes, that's a deliberate misspelling of Mr. Hall's (stage)name. This type of DM is all about the treasure... the more you get, and the more fantastic it is, the more satisfying it is for him or her. Typically this type of DM learns this behavior from the Ooo's and Aaah's they get from their players about treasure and magic items, and they want to please their players, so they give them more. However, the rewards are typically quite larger than the risks... "Okay, the two goblins are dead, what do we find? A +5 Holy Avenger and 4000gp, plus the crown jewels?!"... and so it eventually becomes tired after awhile. You know that commercial with the poor man who has the Skittles Touch? It's like that... but not with skittles, 'cause skittles are ass. Yeah, I could have talked about King Midas, but why, when I have such an obvious pop-culture reference to draw upon... plus the opportunity to diss Skittles. :)

There is redemption for the Monty Haul, though. I was one when I first started. It just takes a bit of maturing, and realizing that it's okay to make the players fight for their rewards... and that the rewards don't have to be as fantastic (but still keep 'em good). I think I recall it being a tough transition, as I think the guys were expecting a good haul again, but eventually it all evened out. Danny, though, wow, his games were FULL of crazy shit.

My characters alone had: Glamdring (Alron), Orcrist (Geldan), Stormbringer (Geldan), "Diamond-alloy" armor (Alron), Nenya - the elven ring that Gandalf wore (Alron), two "sun-swords" - ever seen Thundarr the Barbarian? (Clarissa)... Alron flew in a spaceship, it was some kind of fighter, maybe like a Colonial Viper from the old Battlestar Galactica, now that I think about it. Crazy stuff.

I should explain Diamond-alloy, I think. This was a creation of Danny's, wherein, through magical forces, iron is infused with the strength of diamond. In the game there are several "special" metals, arranged by strength: Meteorite Iron, Mithral, Adamantite. Diamond-alloy topped 'em all. I always had the view in my head of this being crystaline armor, with facets and the like, but I guess it would be more like iron that shimmered as if it had tiny flecks of diamond in it (and it probably did). An interesting idea, but pretty funky at the same time. :)

3) Hack & Slash. This is another one of those that's not so bad, if you're just looking for a one-off adventure. This is typically how we played to start. Little or no story involved. We just swung swords and flung spells. One big slaughterfest with big treasures at the end. Nothing particularly wrong with that, but it does get a little tired after awhile. Ho, hum, another randomly thrown together dungeon with little to no reason or consequence. Why is there a dragon in the 30'x60' room, next to the 30'x30' room with the beholder? Who cares! Kill 'em both! It was kinda like a game of pirates, really. To paraphrase Barbossa: "Kill 'em all. Take what you can. Give nothing back."

4) Pretty much everyone else. Easily the most generally rewarding kind of play. A good mix of evil creatures to fight, mixed with the right amount of story and roleplaying, with excellent but appropriate rewards at the end, and usually all with a purpose in mind, and with your character's continued survival being the best interest of both player and DM. I didn't encounter much of this type until high school. I'd probably put Craig down as the closest up until then, but we didn't really run a lot of campaigns at the time. It was just mostly one-shot modules or adventures, so the story and purpose really didn't matter, overall.

Next post... I'm levelin' up!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Politics of Hell

So, I made mention of devil worship in my last post.

For those of you haven't heard (and if you're involved in this game, it'd be a shock to me if you haven't), there has been a long-standing tradition for the religious right to attack roleplaying games as being the works of Satan. My mother was one of the followers that fell for their fear-mongering.

Truly, there have been some disturbed people who have played this game (I've met some of them), and really, and truly, they should NOT be playing... or, from a different perspective, maybe they should, so that they can take out their rather deranged fantasies in a completely unreal setting, rather than expressing them in real life... those type I have NOT met, thankfully. Needless to say, though, if anyone who has played this game has gone wacko and killed anyone, they were truly disturbed long before they laid hands on the rulebooks of Dungeons & Dragons.

However, the fearmongering persisted. It was rather ironic, too. Here I am, playing my ranger or paladin, or even lowly fighter, battling the forces of evil and corruption in the world, trying to take my character to the heights of heroism, and I'm told even though I'm portraying only the most goodly of characters, that I'm following Satan because of it. Baffling.

I wonder if the author of Argonautica was accused of doing Hades work at the time? Was Clash of the Titans denounced as satanic when it came out in theaters? I saw that in the theater, and I recall no picket lines to cross. I know for a fact that Gary Gygax, the man who made D&D what it is, was a very pious man. Every email I received from him had a biblical quote in the signature. I'm sure it stopped bothering him years ago, but at the time, I can imagine it burned his britches to listen to these blowhards slam him and his game like that.

Of course, it was all based on parental fears. They didn't understand what D&D was, and it scared them. Learning that there were demons and devil in these books, many bearing the various names that have been used for the Big Bad Guy throughout history, as well as pictures like this, probably didn't help much.

It would certainly have been nice if my mom actually, you know... ASKED me what it was about. I'd have gladly sat down to explain it to her. But no, she took the information from Pat Robertson and his ilk. She even tried to sit me down one day to listen to one of them about how evil the game is. The guy talking, I don't remember which one it was, tried to quote something out of the rulebook... a book he probably didn't even pick up, I might add... about how the goal of the game is to backstab your party members and steal all their stuff, and so I went and got my rulebook, and opened it up to the part he was talking about (he quoted page and paragraph), and showed my mom.

"Do you see the part he's talking about?" I asked.

My mom looked at the place I pointed to, and frowning, replied "No."

I snapped the book closed, satisfied, but I doubt it made much of an impression on her, regardless of the fact that the man was lying.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Information for Players

Only a short time after I started playing D&D, new books started appearing on the shelves. The Players Handbook, The Dungeon Masters Guide and The Monster Manual, all under the title "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons".

Advanced! Damn, I had to have that! I bought The Players Handbook, and poured through its pages. Now you weren't just a class, but you had a race and a class. There were new races... the half-elf and the half-orc and the gnome. They added classes like Druid, Paladin, Ranger, Illusionist, Assassin and Monk. New weapons, new armor, new equipment. All the spellcasting classes had tons more spells to choose from... Magic Users got to pick more than one spell at 1st level, and clerics actually got spells at 1st level now! It was a golden age!

What's more, there were cool drawings inside, like this one:

Now, you probably can't read it, but down near the bottom right corner of that picture is the artist's signature... it says SUTHERLAND. That's MY last name. "Man," I thought at the time. "I was DESTINED to play this game!"

I also discovered several other people at school that played the game. There were the Mattius brothers, Joe, Frank and George. There was Quentin, who I was best friends with, and Danny, who was a nice guy, but my mother's nightmare. He smoked and was into the drugs, but although he offered once, never pressed the issue with me. He just wanted to play D&D. Still, my mother must have been freaking out that I was smoking and doing drugs, along with the Satan worshiping.

I don't have a lot of memories of the actual adventures we played then. I think it was just a lot of random dungeons at first. Break out the graph paper, draw a map, and put random cool monsters into it for the characters to fight and awesome treasures to find. No rhyme or reason to it. I remember playing on the picnic table out the back of the Mattius' house, using a tomato box as the DM screen, and the guys looking through the hole in the bottom of the box to see the map (they were just screwing around, not really trying to cheat. heh).

I actually don't remember any of the characters I used to play at this time. Between the silly, random dungeons with the Mattius', and all the characters lost in Steve's killer dungeons (yup, he was a Killer-DM)... oh, well, this was where Alron began.

Alron was my first Ranger character. I asked Danny what a good name would be for a ranger character, and he suggested it. I'm sure it's a direct take-off of Elrond, but hey, it worked. Alron is special, not only because he was the most powerful character I played in Danny's overwrought campaign that combined Tolkien magical items with technological scifi stuff, and his own stuff, like "Diamond-Alloy" armor and weapons (if Steve was our Killer-DM, Danny was our Monty-Haul DM)... but Alron was name I re-used for a Ranger character I started playing in Highschool, that became my favorite character of all time. So, this was, technically, his start.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

What's Really Going On...

The version of D&D that we were playing was this one...

These days it's referred to as "The Holmes Edition Basic Set". A gentleman by the name of Eric Holmes took all the information that was in the original, now called "Classic", D&D boxed sets that came out a few years before, and compiled all the info into this set. This was the first set to be called "Basic Dungeons & Dragons".

At the time, it came with a bonus introductory adventure module, called "In Search of the Unknown". It was a full two-level dungeon map, complete with background and room descriptions, but it lacked monsters or treasure. That was the DM's job, to "stock" it.

Glendor the Fourth, my character for Steve's little starting adventure, was taken from the back of the "In Search of the Unknown" book. The designer, Mike Carr, conveniently provided several pre-generated characters of each type, so that you wouldn't have to get bogged down in the details (albeit much simpler than today's details) of character creation. I'm guessing that these characters were probably ones the TSR staff used when playtesting the rules.

I picked Glendor by name, as Steve didn't let us see the stats, but he turned out to be a pretty good character. His stats were (out of a maximum value of 18):

Strength 17
Intelligence 10
Wisdom 9
Constitution 14
Dexterity 9
Charisma 14

So, strong, healthy, and charismatic. He didn't need to be smart, wise or dexterous to swing a sword, so I was satisfied. As I said, I don't remember what Craig's character was. If he subscribes here, maybe he can fill in the detail about that, if he recalls.

I'm sure that most people reading this blog will have played an rpg or two in their time, but as a basic primer on how the game works... it's all based on chance. You roll a 20-sided die (like the one near the top of the page) to see if you hit your opponent. The higher the roll, the better. How powerful a monster is usually dictates how hard it is to hit it, and the more experienced your character is, the easier it is for you to hit. There was a table in the book that worked all this out. You had the monster's "Armor Class", which was a number to represent how hard it was to hit, and you had your character's "level", which was a number to represent your experience. You cross referenced one with the other in the table, and it came up with a specific number that you had to roll equal to or above in order to hit with your weapon. If you hit, you rolled another kind of die in order to tell how much damage you did to the creature.

Everything has Hit Points. This is a number that represents how tough you are. It's how many hits you take before you die. When you roll whatever die it is for your damage, once you've hit your opponent, the number you roll is subtracted from the monster's total hit points. Once it reached zero, it was dead.

Some characters had spells. Magic Users and Clerics. Magic Users were the classic wizards, like Gandalf and Merlin. They could fire off a magic missile attack... which was a little bolt of magic that did damage, or much bigger things when they were more experienced, like blast their enemies with a fireball! Clerics were warriors and healers. They could restore lost hit points through the power of their god. There were thieves, who could pick pockets and open locked doors and chests. There were elves, who could wear armor and use swords and bows, but also could cast spells. There were dwarves and halflings as well, who were basically fighters.

This was all very "basic", as you would suspect, but it was a great place to start. I still own a copy of that set. It's not the same one I started playing with. I never did own this set until a few years ago. By the time I had it in my head to buy the rules, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons books had already hit the shelves, so I started buying those.

Saturday, April 25, 2009


100 years ago the sorcerer Zenopus built a tower on the low hills overlooking Portown. The tower was close to the sea cliff west of the town and, approximately, next door to the graveyard.
Rumor has it that the magician made extensive cellars and tunnels underneath the tower. The town is located on the ruins of a much older city of doubtful history and Zenopus was said to excavate in his cellars in search of ancient treasures.
Fifty years ago, on a cold wintry night, the wizard's tower was suddenly engulfed in green flame. Several of his human servants escapted the holocaust, saying their master had been destroyed by some powerful force he had unleased in the depths of the tower. Needless to say the tower stood vacant for a while after this, but then the neighbors and the night watchmen complained that ghostly blue lights appeared in the windows at night, that ghastly screams could be heard emanating from the tower at all hours, and goblin figures could be seen dancing on the tower roof in the moonlight. Finally the authorities had a catapult rolled through the streets of the town and the tower was battered to rubble. This stopped the hauntings but the townfolk continue to shun the ruins. The entrance to the old dungeons can be easily located as a flight of broad stone steps leading down into the darkness, but the few adventurous souls who have descended into crypts below the ruin have either reported only empty stone corridors or have failed to return at all.

This is how my first adventure in Dungeons & Dragons started. It was fall, 1979, and I was sitting with my friends, Steve and Craig, in Steve's attic. Steve was the Dungeon Master, sitting on the other side of a large trunk, facing Craig and I. I don't remember Craig's character, but I was playing Glendor the Fourth, a human fighter.

Glendor, clad in his platemail armor, and carrying a sword and shield, descended those stone steps, along with his companion (whoever Craig's character was), heading into adventure. That day, we fought goblins, and rats. We figured out a puzzle involving a rotating statue, which allowed us to escape a room with locked doors (we had to rotate the statue so that it pointed at the door we wanted to leave the room by). Then we fought an evil wizard and his charmed fighter bodyguard. When we had defeated him, sad as it was, I claimed his +1 magic sword!

Exploring further, we found crypts, and the skeletons inside them rose up to attack us! One crypt even had a magical dagger that came to life and attacks us on its own! We defeated them, and pressed on, discovering another evil wizard, and had to fight him too! We continued on in this seemingly endless dungeon, discovered some sea-caves. Smugglers were using the caves and when they saw us, they attacked! We defeated them, and in the process, rescued Lemunda the Lovely! Yowsa! :)

It was all very exciting, and I was hooked from the start!

I believe this ad says it all...

Look at those stylish overalls. That was one happenin' dude.