D&D & Me (part 1)

Back in 1975 my father took me to The Games People Play in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and bought me a copy of the new game Dungeons and Dragons, which he had read about somewhere (I think in some science fiction magazine). That gift literally changed my life. Hardly a day has gone by since then when I haven’t read, written, or done something to do with RPGs. All of my closest friends, save one, are people I met doing RPGs, and almost all them I still game with at least semi-regularly.

My first game group was my 6th grade friends, none of whom had ever even heard of the game, and a teacher I roped into running an after-school club for us to play D&D. I played D&D almost every chance I got, and when I wasn’t playing I was making dungeons, doodling monsters, or reading fiction that would work its way back into the game. I remember actually running a fairly longish campaign in High School set in Xanth, based on the first two books. The girls in our group1 liked that better than the previous Arduin Grimoire-based campaign; I’m not sure whether it was because it was more whimsical or they just liked having what were in effect super-powers instead of magic spells.

In the beginning I was the only DM in our group, but my step-brother started to DM as well, and we played a lot of two person games with one or the other of us as DM and the other as a lone PC, possibly with retainers; it never seemed to occur to us that one person could run more than one PC and having a party would make things such as recovering the bodies of fallen adventurers easier. We never worried much about lethality, because resurrection was easy in our games. In my Arduin game, it was something that the inn-keeper at the home base could do for you; granted, influenced by the over-the-topness of some of the Arduin random encounter charts the inn-keeper was a Platinum Dragon, whose human form was a 70+ level “techno.” We made all of our own dungeons and setting materials; I never actually even purchased any of the classic adventure modules, although I did get the Judge’s Guild City-State of the Invincible Overlord and my step-brother used it pretty heavily for a while before making his own cities and overland maps. We heavily modded the combat and magic systems, borrowing from Steve Jackson’s Melee and Wizard tactical fantasy arena combat games.

Actually, though, I moved on from D&D pretty quickly, both through D&D-likes such as Empire of the Petal Throne, and Arduin Grimoire, and also outward to different takes and genres: Chivalry and Sorcery, Runequest, Traveller (lots and lots of Traveller), Villains and Vigilantes, Metamorphosis Alpha, Gamma World, The Fantasy Trip… if it was an RPG of the era, I probably tried it. By the time the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook came out in 1978 I mostly thought of myself as an ex-D&D player. It had been fun at the time, but it was too limited and clunky. There were so many better, more coherent, and “realistic”2 systems out there. It chapped my hide that to the general public they were all “D&D.”

My complaints about D&D were the usual ones: what’s a hit point, anyway? How can one person have so many multiples of how much another person has? In what world is a cat a deadly threat to a wizard? Class restrictions are so pointless, and invalidate so many good character concepts. Balancing wizards by making them nearly useless at low levels and god-like at high levels doesn’t actually accomplish anything useful when it comes to day-to-day play. How does armor make you harder to hit, shouldn’t it just reduce the damage? How can people possibly be moving so slowly both in and out of combat?

I kept trying new systems, but eventually most of my gaming moved to various home-brews of my own devising that–mostly by design–rejected most of the features of D&D. It would be a long time before I played D&D again. But that’s a story for Part 2.

1- We had girls in our groups, even from the earliest years. The stereotype of D&D being something that was only played by boys never matched my experience.

2- Yes, I used to value realism, or at verisimilitude, in RPGs very highly, while having a pretty narrow view of what counted. But I’m much better now.

Original Edition Delta Plus DCC

As much as I’m looking forward to getting back to the stark simplicity of OD&D (as streamlined and simplified by Original Edition Delta) there are certain rules from Dungeon Crawl Classics that I’m unwilling to do without because they fix what seems to me to be genuine problems with OD&D (at least for me and my players).

  1. Mighty Deeds for Fighters. The DCC Mighty Deeds rule just makes Fighting Men more fun to play, and really makes up for the relative lack of options that FM get as they level up and the other classes get more and better abilities.  More than that, it gives me as Dungeon Master and simple and consistent way of adjudicating all the crazy shenanigans that Fighting Men ought to be getting up to: tripping, disarming, swinging from chandeliers, throwing sand in the face of the foe, etc. Of course I can make rulings on the fly, but I appreciate having a rough framework to help.  Gygax, et. al. had an actuarial approach to combat: as long as over hundreds of rolls the statistics worked out, who cares what happens moment by moment in a combat round.  Only everybody I play with regularly, that’s who.  Even back in the 70’s we never really paid attention to the “fast and furious” one minute combat rounds.
  2. Luck instead of Wisdom.  Since OED removes Clerics, and I agree with the reasons for doing that, it leaves Wisdom as a dead stat.  Luck is better for a pulpy game, and the ability to spend Luck when you really need to succeed, coupled with the sure knowledge that your Luck is running out when you do that does great things for the game, IMO.  It also helps with the the problem I sometimes perceive of an allegedly competent character getting a few unlucky rolls and coming across as a useless twerp; yes, in the long run the probabilities will prevail, but in a game with a decent dose of lethality we may all be dead before the long run. I’m not usually a fan of “meta” game currencies like Hero points and the like, but Luck is different… characters like Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser worry about their luck in a way that makes more sense with Luck as a spendable resource than just what you get from rolls of the dice.
  3. Luck Die for Thieves. as per DCC Thieves cans add their Luck Die to any of their rolls by spending a point of Luck, which they recover 1 point per level per night. Thieves in OD&D suck, and OED just simplifies the math around that.  I know all the apologetics for really low chances of success at anything except climbing (not even reaching 50-50 chances until nearly name level), and probably have written a few myself.  The fact remains that, except for climbing, you’d be better off playing a Fighting Man or Magic User that sneaks around and steals stuff.  The Luck Die fixes all that.  Even with your terrible starting probabilities, if you spend Luck you can make it count when it’s important.
  4. Recovering Spells Through Spellburn. I’m not going whole hog into the DCC spell charts, because as great as I think they are, some of my players seem to really resent the randomness.  So we’ll be using the clearly defined OED Book of Spells and the usual spells per day charts, but since I think that oh, you’re out of spells, you can just throw daggers is and always was lame, while the 5e solution of endless cantrips makes the game feel like a JRPG setting I’m going to let Wizards attempt to cast an already expended spell via Spellburning. Same as DCC rules, it’s a point of Spellburn per level of spell… plus to succeed they’ll have to roll a check against DC 11+ spell level. The points of Spellburn to recover the spell won’t add to the roll, but I’ll probably let them burn more to try to make sure that the spell actually goes off. I’m definitely going to make them roll on the creepy Spellburn actions chart instead of just ticking off the points of STR, DEX or CON.
  5. Rolling the Body. Instead of death at zero HP or Delta’s rule allowing a Death Save, just roll the body after combat per DCC: roll less than your remaining Luck and you miraculously survived… you haven’t burned all your Luck, have you?  Heh. Heh.  The loss of a point from a random physical attribute will keep this from being a permanent “Get Out of Death Free” card even for players who hoard their Luck.
  6. Crits and Fumbles from DCC. I like Delta’s rule about being able to save against crits and fumbles, as well as 1 HD or less creatures not generating crits, but the Good Hits and Bad Misses chart from the Dragon magazine that he uses strikes me as both too bland and too punishing.  I think I prefer the DCC charts as well as the way that Fighters’ crits are better than other classes and improve with level.  I think I’m also going to keep DCC’s rule that Thieves crit on back-stab, too, instead of just boring old double damage; the victim will still get a save as per Delta.
  7. Dwarves can smell gold, and Elves are allergic to iron. Those are just too much fun in RP terms to part with.  Magic armor and weapons won’t pose a problem to elves, that would be too cruel, but they better stick to leather and weapons like bows and spears or try to find some mithril until they can get magic. I note that in OD&D encounters in the wild, bands of Elves have AC 5, which implies either chain without a shield or (more likely at least in this setting) Leather, Shield and a +1 from DEX.