Archive for May, 2010


Gen Con’s Tower of Gygax Needs Volunteers

You could be the rat-bastard DM that hands these out like candy!

The hard-working organizers of the Tower of Gygax event need:

  • DMs who can run two-hour shifts of this fantastic old-school AD&D experience during Gen Con 2010, especially on Thursday and Sunday; the goal is to have gaming going on 24/7 throughout the con
  • Designers who can create “death dealing, not gimicking, real player churning rooms” for the Tower, the kind of Tomb of Horrors set-pieces where it’s as much fun to kibitz the players who are about to die as it is to take over their seat when they do
  • Event coordinators who can help keep the event running smoothly (and also earn volunteer hours towards a free Gen Con four-day pass!)

If this sounds like fun (which it is), register at the Tower of Gygax forum and let them know how you want to be part of this event, which draws 10,000 gamers to experience the fun of old-school lethality every year.

I will be running several shifts myself and hope to see lots of y’all there!


we killed the beast lord. you missed it.

The Beast Lord enjoys his last meal

Tavis’s White Sandbox campaign is largely centered around Paul Jaquays’s 1979 masterpiece, The Caverns of Thracia.  On Saturday night, we defeated its arch-villain, Stronghoen the Beast Lord.

Thirty-seven players and fifty-five characters have played in the sandbox over its twenty-two session lifespan, and they’ve all been gunning for this moment.

What was most impressive to me is that defeating the villain was a beautiful team effort, in which everyone at the table that night played a part.

The Cast

Ookla the Mok, Elvish Ranger
Theos, Dwarven Magic-User (played by JoeTheLawyer)
Lotur the Scurrying Cur, a Fighting-Human (played by Greengoat)
Thales, a Faun
Arnold Littleworth, a Human Magic-User (played by me)
John Fighter, a Fighting-Human
Merselon the Magnificent, a Fighting-Human
Lucky, a Fighting-Hobbit (played by Eric)

Snapshots of Awesome

Ookla the Mok

Fred the Talking Fish (billion years old, made out of wood, you wear it around your neck, it never shuts up–in short, don’t ask!) cast an illusion on Ookla so that he looks like an Ixchel wearing a sombrero. Ookla would spend the next several hours going “Boogita-boogita-boo!” to every NPC in the game. (Dave had another awesome moment below, but I’m not sure if it was OOC brainstorming or in character.)

Theos the Renegade Dwarven Magician

Armed with our wand of paralyzation, Theos – unafraid to scout ahead – immobilized half a dozen slime-monsters which exploded out of barrels dropped by an especially pesky group of vines.  (He later made a pretty strong bid to operate the wand of wonder while high, which given Tavis’s glee at the idea would have been disastrous but showed massive courage.)

Lotur the Scurrying Cur

After overcoming a swarm of slime-monsters, Lotur ran up the side of a cave wall, and jumped down in front of a female Minotaur so impressively that she decided to worship him.

Thales the Faun, a Faun

Being half-goat means you can haltingly communicate to half-cows. (Who knew?) Thales managed to interview the female Minotaur, discovering much about their lair.

Arnold “Zolobachai” Littleworth

Armed with this information, Arnold cast Zolobachai’s Impertinent Invitation and strolled into a Minotaur Sorority Party. When his attempt to poison everyone failed, he made friends with their Druid-Queen Raven Gargamel.

(It turns out Raven’s gang views the Beast Lord as a sell-out to the lich roaming the dungeon, and she agreed to help fight the Lich if we first neutralized the Beast Lord.  She gave us a straight line of access to the Beast Lord’s palace.  I am pretty sure she didn’t want us to kill him, cannibalize his body for trophies, and then cook what was left in Arnold’s trusty frying pan, but all good relationships are built on keeping some facts strictly to yourself.)

John Fighter, True King of Thracia

With the help of our scouts, John found a group of ten were-bears whom we sorta knew.  After getting the bears good and drunk on Lucky’s dwarven ale, he promised them half the Beast Lord’s treasure if they would help us fight. Were-Bears are 6 HD monsters who cannot be injured by normal weapons – in other words, far more bad-ass than we are.

(So, with 8 of John’s soldiers, and 10 were-bears, we stormed the Beast Lord’s citadel. Everyone did brave things. Kudos especially to Ookla’s player, who ingeniously suggested using illusionary Harpies to trick the victims of a real Harpy’s mind-control powers. I don’t know if this was suggested in-character, so maybe it’s not an Awesome Thing for Ookla, but it was still damn clever, and built on an idea Joe had.)

Merselon the Magnificent

After the gang demolished six Gnolls, five Harpies and a Hydra, Stronghoen the Beast Lord and his group of Gnolls charged out at us. Though Theos managed to paralyze most of the Gnolls, Stronghoen incinerated all eight of John’s soldiers (including like 3 George Foremans) with a fire ball, which also put 5 of 7 party members at death’s door. When Arnold blinded the Beast Lord with the wand of wonder, MERSELON THE MAGNIFICENT magnificently vaulted into melee combat alone, and was the first of the Grey Company to draw the Beast Lord’s blood. For a round or two, Merselon fought the Beast Lord alone … until the Beast Lord slew him with single stroke of his enormous battle axe. It was an epic death.

Lucky the Hobbit

With Merselon down and the Were-Bears running away in terror, things looked grim. As Arnold desperately tried to revive the others, Lucky kept nailing the Beast Lord with critical after critical. As John, Ookla, and Lotur – all with 1-2 hit points – swarmed into melee, Lotur’s preposterous fumble managed to distract the Beast Lord long enough for Lucky to nail him straight through the throat with one of his deadly arrows, and as the Beast Lord fell to his knees, King John ran Stronghoen through with his blade, Heart of the Mok. (Then Arnold hit him upside the head with the busted frying pan.)

Lucky is more of a bad-ass than I'd previously assumed


We pretty much stopped right there: six survivors, each with one foot in the grave, gathered around the Beast Lord’s corpse in the depths of the Lost City. Though a Dog Brother was gathering reinforcements deeper in the palace and casting nefarious spells, the Slayers of the Beast Lord bowed their heads to honor all the brave souls who have soldiered at their side:

Merselon the Magnificent (Acrobat)
Christos, Assassin
Maldoor the M-U
Obscura the Illusionist
Lydio the Spider-Dwarf, M-U
Thisilyn, Cleric
Fostra, Archer
Caswin of Aeschlepius, Cleric
Emurak the multi-classed
Bartholomew Honeytongue, Cleric
Brother Gao, Cleric
Into the Mystic, Cleric
23, Robot Cleric
Myggle the Priest
Mallo Beer-bane, Cleric
Thorsten Skullsplitter (Fighting Man)
Garrett Nailo, (Cleric)
David Carradine, Monk
Colin, F-M
Tommy, M-U
Argus the Rat Knight, F-M
Narcissus, M-U
Elston, Elf
Sir Hendrik the Halfling
Garrock, Alchemist
Obamabiden the Druid
Fark the Dwarf
Orb the M-U (and his spider)
Fletcher the Fighting Man
Bluto, F-M
Morena, F-W
Chance, Cleric
Billy the Rat
Nicholas, Cleric
Axum Maldoran (Axum)
Dr. Meridian Kaine the Cleric
Doghead the M-U
Tiburo, F-M
Wolfrey, F-M
Rebmik the Cleric
Balint, Sapper
Goo the baby Elf
Mariano the Fighting Man
Renaldo the Cleric
Florin the Dwarf
Oban the Cleric
B’Var the Fighting Man
Wallace the Caged (Fighting Man)
Mungar the Fighting Man
Tusk the Fighting Man

We could not have slain Stronghoen without their bravery, creativity, and fellowship.


Starting a Dungeons & Dragons Afterschool Program

Following on the successful auction of my D&D kids’ birthday party, which will hopefully this weekend become a successful actual play experience, I just submitted an course to my son’s after-school program:

Dungeons & Dragons with Tavis Allison

Grades 3-6

Come explore this imaginative role-playing game of group cooperation and problem-solving with professional D&D writer Tavis Allison! Students will learn to play or acquire new skills if they’re already experienced players, including making maps, designing adventures, and handling group dynamics.

Putting the instructor’s name in the title and mentioning it again in the body is standard procedure for the other course listings, not rank egotism on my part.

I am following in the footsteps of:

Becky Thomas’s Abantey Roleplay Workshop, the longest-running and most successful I know about.  Becky told me once that she thinks she’s been able to have more positive impact on kids’ lives, especially the emotionally and behaviorally disturbed kids she integrates into the workshop, than she ever did as a teacher. Because she’s been doing this for 19 years, and it’s been her full-time job for many of them, I suspect she has logged more hours playing roleplaying games than anyone in history.


The first thing we'll do is give kids one of those awesome '80s haircuts.


Shippenberg College D&D Camp, pictured above, is a famous example from the ’80s, but there were many more that weren’t as well documented. Whether or not Frank Mentzer also visited those other ones is yet to be determined.

Todd Academy in Indianapolis currently offers D&D Camp Beginner, Advanced, and Dungeon Masters. I don’t know anything more about it than that link, but will try to check it out when I’m out that way for Gen Con.

Some things I haven’t figured out yet:

  • Do I use Moldvay Red Box (dear to my heart), Mentzer (even clearer for teaching purposes), or 4E (which some of the students I know will sign up are already invested in)? Getting the requisite number of sets of either could be a pain, unless I solicit donations. Another option would be to use Labyrinth Lord, and have students draw a new cover for it to avoid “You said D&D, what’s this L&L business?”
  • How much do I try to steer clear of killing sentients and looting their corpses? When I was thinking of doing an afterschool RPG program before, the project foundered on this issue (and the related idea of designing a new system accordingly). I thought of using Mouse Guard to de-centralize the more antisocial D&D tropes, but wound up deciding that buy-in to D&D is too strong to pass up. Besides, the group dynamics of D&D make it inherently pro-social IMO even if you’re roleplaying a gang of insanely greedy, stupid, merciless cowards.
  • Can I find someone to co-teach the class? If not, then there are probably more kids wanting to play than the six I could conceivably wrangle by myself.
  • Will we just spend the hour-or-so playing, or should I try to work in other activities like designing an adventure or making a map – maybe by having a co-teacher lead one group in doing that while another games?

Telling Players What They Need to Hit

During a battle in last night’s White Sandbox game that involved seven PCs, ten werebear allies, and another ten men-at-arms, I often made announcements like: “OK, everybody who’s firing missiles, go ahead and roll your attacks. A 12 will hit the harpy, or a 10 for a hero.” In doing so, I fly in the face of several people I respect greatly:

Don’t ask me what you need to hit. Just roll the die and I will let you know!

– Dave Arneson

and howandwhy99, in response to a thread at the OD&D boards called “Do you tell players what they need to hit?“:

Never. Or for any roll. It defeats the entire design of the game, if a referee does this. IMO it is the purpose of the game for the players to figure out what works and how through play. At least it is in mine. I’ve pointed out before I view D&D and some other early RPGs as interactive pattern finding games. This may be scoffed at, but it’s what I see a lot of folks doing, if even only part way. This doesn’t mean all groups must play according to this design and/or in this manner, but in my experience it delivers the most enjoyment for exploration of the unknown – at least the unknown outside one’s own desires.

I think this idea of “RPGs as interactive pattern finding games” is valuable and interesting, and have been working on understanding it through conversations with its proponent both online & at GaryCon. Some analogies he’s suggested that I find useful:

  • In the game Mastermind, one player sets up a hidden pattern of colored pegs. Gameplay consists of the other player trying to guess the arrangement of pegs and receiving feedback from its creator; the game ends when the pegs placed by the guesser match the ones hidden behind the screen. (Paul Jaquays chose to write about a similar game, Black Box, as his entry in The 100 Best Family Games).
  • In a classroom, one person sets up a syllabus of knowledge they possess that others do not. Teaching consists of the other people trying to demonstrate their understanding of the material and receiving feedback from the teacher; at the end of the course, the students’ success is gauged by how well their understanding of what the syllabus means matches its creator’s.
  • In Dungeons & Dragons, one person sets up a map with a key showing the locations of monsters and treasure. Gameplay consists of the other players guessing which areas shown on the map to explore and getting feedback about where rewards can be found and dangers avoided. At the end of an adventure, the player’s success can be gauged by how well their map of the area matches the one behind the screen.

Although as with any analogy, there are points of difference between each of these situations, I am swayed by the argument that figuring out what the referee knows that you don’t is a key aspect of D&D play. So why don’t I make players roll to hit?

To answer that let’s look at another kind of pattern-guessing game, which I was introduced to on a high school camping trip. All the Outdoor Club newbies are told that there’s a story that old members all know. As a rite of initiation, you’re going to learn what this story is, just by asking yes or no questions. So you go: “Is the story about Outdoor Club?” and everyone replies “Yes.” And then you go “Does the story take place here?” and everyone goes “No.”

The remarkable thing about playing the game is that everyone’s responses are unanimous; whatever question you come up with, it takes hardly any time at all for the group to decide whether the answer is “yes” or “no”. This goes a long way towards making you believe that there really is a time-hallowed story whose contours are well known to everyone who’s been on an Outdoors Club story before. But soon discrepancies creep in. If Thea asks “Does the story include Tavis, Sunyoung, and I?” the answer is “no”, but if I ask “Does the story include me, Thea, and Sunyoung?” the answer is “yes”. Puzzling out these discrepancies eventually lets you figure out the pattern whose logic creates the story, which is that (spoiler alert – select the following text with your mouse to see the answer) if the last letter of the question is a vowel, the answer is no; if the question ends in a consonant, the answer is yes.

So if D&D is a pattern finding game, would gameplay be enhanced if I added this layer of pattern to be discovered? If we take this rhetorical question seriously, the answer varies from “obviously not” – it’d break the logic of the rest of the game if “I rolled a 12 against the harpy, does that hit?” and “does a 12 hit the harpy?” got different answers-  to “maybe as a one-time thing.”

For example, solving this kind of puzzle might make a good trick room in a dungeon (with excellent old-school credentials; when I played with Frank Mentzer at the first Tower of Gygax, we encountered some NPCs at a tavern who needed help figuring out how to split their rations and gold pieces to make it come out even, and also an insectoid monster who couldn’t be hit by normal weapons; gameplay in both situations involved making guesses and taking damage if they were wrong.)

The reason I don’t usually stock my dungeons with doors that require this kind of puzzle to get past, and that I don’t usually make players figure out what they need to hit, is that doing so uses up time that I’d rather spend on other kinds of pattern recognition. Last night I called out what you needed to hit the monsters because saving a few seconds on giving feedback about that would speed up our mutual exploration of the patterns we care more about, like “will the Grey Company defeat the Beast Lord?” and “what new aspects of the dungeon’s hidden pattern of forces will emerge as a result of his death?”

I don’t think that giving away to-hit numbers greatly weakens the tactical decision-making aspect of combat. I usually don’t tell what you need to hit on the first round, so there’s still uncertainty about initial target selection, and I’ve always given lots of narrative feedback to reduce that uncertainty: first “This slime is covered in rocks, this one is clinging to bones in plate-mail armor” and later “One arrow finds a chink between the rocks, the second one pings off the armor”. I’ve got nothing against the mini-game of figuring out what you need to hit by tracking which numbers do or don’t, and mechanics (like Power Attack in 3.x D&D) that reward players who solve this puzzle by letting them optimize their tactical choices. It’s just not where I want the pattern-seeking emphasis to fall in this particular campaign.

I can see the argument that asking for target numbers breaks immersion and reminds players that it’s just a game. But carrying this logic further, I could increase immersion by rolling all the dice for PCs and NPCs alike and just narrating the results – or, to keep the bit of pattern-finding data about whether or not a 12 hits, by having the player roll the dice where I can see it, but not allowing anyone to announce the number out loud.

The thing is, I think rolling the dice and seeing what your fate will be is pure awesome. And part of why rolling a natural 20 is so much fun is that the feedback is immediate; your fate is sure to rock. When you roll a 12 and have to ask me whether that hits, the gratification is delayed, but if I’ve told you ahead of time that a 12 will succeed, there’s no lag between rolling the dice and getting immediate confirmation of your success.

All the above is a lengthy explanation of things of which I’m already convinced. Or, at least, areas where I already know where I want to draw the line. For example, I’m OK with another delayed-gratification step in combat, in which the player rolls for damage and has to wait for me to tell them whether that kills their target. I could remove that by telling everyone the HP of each creature in the battle, and letting players tally their decline so that they’d know right away when their blow drops a foe. In an OD&D campaign I don’t see the time that would save as being worth the decrease in immersion and uncertainty, but in a 4E convention game I might decide differently.

Here are some things I haven’t decided about:

In last night’s game, Arnold used Zolobachai’s Impertinent Invitation and a good reaction roll to gain an audience with the Beast Mistress (or at least her successor, the previous holder of the title having been killed in the previous session by “drunken adventurers” with no relation to the current party). Once contact had been established, he attempted to poison her with a waterskin full of the Water of Life, whose generative properties he knew had caused all manner of foulness to spawn from the attempt to heal the dead leather of its lining. I rolled her save vs. poison, which was a success. Then I decided to roll a new reaction roll to see how she’d respond.

This was an exciting moment for me; separated from the rest of the party, surrounded by minotrice in their lair, Arnold’s fate hung on the roll of the dice. They came up 9, “favorable”, so she assumed he was an idiot who didn’t know that the Water of Life can only be transported in a living vessel. But since I kept that roll to myself, the players didn’t share in the tension, and had no way of knowing how close Arnold had come to being killed and eaten.

When the Beast Lord was in combat with Merselon the Magnificent, before I rolled for the blow that killed that brave adventurer, I announced “The Beast Lord needs an 8 or better to hit.” I did this because it was a key moment, and to enhance the feeling of hanging on the roll of the dice, I wanted everyone to be able to know right away whether Merselon had or hadn’t dodged that lethal axe.

Should I have similarly announced my thought process beforehand with the wineskin: “The Beast Mistress will correctly intuit that Arnold was trying to kill her unless I roll a 9 or better on 2d6?”  This goes against my previous thinking about reaction rolls, which kept some of the outcome secret from players, but I feel like that scene might have been more satisfying for the players if, knowing what was at stake, they’d had a glimpse of the odds and a ringside seat when the dice delivered their judgement.

Another way to not keep patterns secret from the players that I’ve been considering recently comes from a post at Delta’s D&D Hotspot:

Showing wilderness encounter charts. In a very concise format, players get a concentrated, playable dose of campaign setting information. They can use this information to strategize about the exact advantages and disadvantages to different travel routes and adventuring locations, connecting gameplay to campaign knowledge in a deep way. It simulates well the lifelong experience and rumor-mongering that their PCs would have. Anticipation is raised to an intense degree when encounter checks are rolled.

I want there to be a place in my game for the ideas that inform howandwhy99‘s decisions not to tell players what they need to hit – that information is an essential resource in old-school play, and there can be great satisfaction in wresting knowledge about how things work from the DM’s cold, dead hands. Although in many ways I admire the way that 4E makes the rules of the game transparent and equally curated by everyone at the table, it struck a chord with me that, when George Strayton was talking about his 4E Temple of the Frog game at the Arneson Gameday, he said that it took a dose of the Master’s “don’t ask me what the rules say, just imagine the situation and let me tell you how it responds to your actions” to get his players into the mode of exploring an unknown and often deadly pattern instead of simply stepping through a series of comfortably level-appropriate and rules-bound encounters.

At the same time, I also want there to be a place for just handing players concentrated, playable doses of information in order to raise anticipation to an intense degree. These motives pull in different directions, but I don’t believe they’re ultimately incompatible because giving away some parts of the puzzle of how things work can free up time to devote to solving other parts. Speeding up combat gets us quicker to the question of what Tavis and Paul Jaquays know, but the players don’t, concerning the consequences of touching the solid gold throne of Zeus…

UPDATE: Just saw this post by Cyclopeatron in which he lays out arguments for and against telling players what to hit based on that OD&D board thread I cited above, which he started!


Alas, Poor Black Leaf

It gets worse, as is to be expected from Jack Chick.

Suicide in D&D is less about the fate of poor Black Leaf’s player than it is about drawing a bloody line between your old unwanted character and your shiny new one.

It’s a story as old as D&D itself. A player doesn’t like their character—these things happen!—and decides to play a new one. But instead of a pleasant retirement, the old character suffers a drastic and terminal end. Methods vary from self-inflicted injury to lurid player-narrated tales to the time-honored “death by goblin,” where the character is thrown into deadly situations until the dice take their grim toll.

Why suicide instead of peaceful retirement? There are, I think, three reasons:

1) The Reroll: By the book, if you don’t like your character’s stats, you can’t reroll. You have to play the character you rolled. Character death provides an end run around the problem! Just view your replacement character as your “reroll.”
2) Player Authority: In a world where the DM controls everything other than your character, you may feel that surrendering control of your character is anathema. Killing your character is a final gesture of defiance in the face of the DM’s implicit tyranny.
3) Closure. What’s the end of your character’s story? If the character recedes into the quiet mists of NPCdom, you may never find out! Better, perhaps, to write your own ending to the story while you still have authority to do so.

Personally, as a DM, I find it annoying when players casually kill off their PCs. Characters in which the group is emotionally invested are valuable assets to the DM, and I hate to see such assets tossed away thoughtlessly or inefficiently. On the other hand, I can see how players can find such an attitude grating. This tells me that this is one of those things that should be talked out between players and their DM.

The important thing is that if you’re going to wipe the slate clean of old characters, that you incorporate it into the story of play just as you would everything else. Adventuring is a ghastly profession. Does it drive people to suicide? Does it welcome those with a death wish? Is it a magnet for character-killing weirdness? Of course!


Red Box Workshop: The Ogre PC


Eight to ten feet tall and disproportionately broad, these hulking humanoids generally live brutish lives in the wilderness, killing and eating animals and the occasional passing human. But a few have higher ambitions than living in a cave atop a heap of stinking furs and broken loot. These ogres—some young, some old, some sickly, some simply strange—have been known to associate with adventurers and similar outcasts.

The prime requisites for an ogre are Strength and Constitution. An ogre character whose Strength or Constitution score is 13 or higher will receive a 5% bonus on earned experience. Ogres whose Strength and Constitution scores are 13 or higher will receive a 10% bonus to earned experience.

RESTRICTIONS: Ogres use ten-sided dice (d10) to determine their hit points. They may advance to a maximum of 8th level of experience. Ogres may wield polearms, two-handed swords and enormous clubs that deal 1-10 damage per hit. They cannot fit through narrow tunnels and openings designed to accommodate creatures smaller than man-sized, such as goblin warrens and halfling holes. Ogres’ tough hides grant them a base AC of 5, but they may not wear armor or use shields. Ogres must have a minimum score of 9 in Strength and Constitution.

SPECIAL ABILITIES: Ogres live in caves and caverns, and have infravision (heat-sensing sight) which allows them to see 60 feet in the dark. Their long arms give them an impressive reach in combat; when rolling for individual initiative (an optional rule), ogres add +1 in addition to any Dexterity bonus. Even the weakest ogre is tough and resilient by human standards: an ogre takes the maximum result of 10 on its initial hit die at first level. All ogres speak Common, Ogrish and the alignment language or dialect of the character, plus the language of orcs.

SAVING THROWS: As fighters.


ADVANCEMENT: As per the fighter advancement table.


pillaging by the numbers pt 2

Following up on Part I of the discussion, here’s a draft Mean Profit per Challenge Rating chart for the Moldvay Basic rules, showing gold per hit-die in a lair.  As a player, I want to know who to kill and what stuff I should take.

Avoiding any monsters which can murder you just by thinking about it, the juiciest targets are Dwarves (by a huge margin!), Troglodytes, Gnolls, and Hobgoblins.

Explanatory notes are at the very bottom of this post.  Expert Set monsters are a little harder to gauge, so I’ll do them later.

dragon white 6 12 2.5 0 30 H 50000 1666.67
dragon black 7 14 2.5 0 35 H 50000 1428.57
dragon green 8 16 2.5 0 40 H 50000 1250
dragon blue 9 18 2.5 0 45 H 50000 1111.11
dragon red 10 20 2.5 0 50 H 50000 1000
dragon gold 11 22 2.5 0 55 H 50000 909.09
dwarf 1 1 22.5 5.5 28 G 25000 892.86
troglodyte 2 3 22.5
67.5 A 17000 251.85
medusa 4 8 2.5
20 F 5000 250
shadow 2 4 6.5
26 F 5000 192.31
gnoll 2 2 10.5
21 D 4000 190.48
bandit 1 1 82.5 9 91.5 A 17000 185.79
hobgoblin 1 1 14 15 29 D 4000 137.93
giant rat 0.5 0.5 16.5
8.25 C 1000 121.21
Doppelganger 4 6 3.5
21 E 2500 119.05
carrion crawler 3 5 2
10 C 1000 100
orc 1 1 35 5 40 D 4000 100
lizard man 2 2 21
42 D 4000 95.24
wight 3 5 4.5
22.5 B 2000 88.89
owl bear 5 5 2.5
12.5 C 1000 80
ghoul 2 3 9
27 B 2000 74.07
rat 0.13 0.13 27.5
3.44 L 250 72.73
ogre 4 4 7
28 C+ 2000 71.43
elf 1 2 13 9 35 E 2500 71.43
halfling 2 2 12.5 4.5 29.5 B 2000 67.8
Were-tiger 5 8 2.5
20 C 1000 50
Were-bear 6 9 2.5
22.5 C 1000 44.44
harpy 3 5 5
25 C 1000 40
minotaur 6 6 4.5
27 C 1000 37.04
gargoyle 4 6 5
30 C 1000 33.33
thoul 3 6 5.5
33 C 1000 30.3
Were-boar 4 7 5
35 C 1000 28.57
bugbear 3 3 12.5
37.5 C 1000 26.67
gnome 1 1 22.5 15 37.5 C 1000 26.67
Were-wolf 4 6 7
42 C 1000 23.81
Were-rat 3 5 9
45 C 1000 22.22
goblin 1 1 33 17 50 C 1000 20
driver ant 4 6 14
84 (N/A) 1650 19.64
berserker 1 1.5 82.5
123.75 B 2000 16.16
neanderthal 2 2 25 12 62 C 1000 16.13
stirge 1 2 19.5
39 L 250 6.41
kobold 0.5 0.5 33 5.5 22 J 25 1.14

Couple observations:

  • Holy moly, Dwarves.  They really, really said bad things about your momma. Let’s get ’em.
  • Also: Giant Rats. Who knew?
  • Bandits have good treasure, but it’s only found in the wilderness, so the mean Number Appearing shoots sky high. They’re still pretty good targets though.  Leaders is an estimate only.
  • For similar reasons, Berserkers are a huge headache. According to the Mentzer challenge calculations, Berserkers have the most dangerous lair of all. Which probably points to the weakness of Mentzer’s approach, but hell: everyone feared the Reavers, now we know why.
  • The Halfling monster entry seems to suggest that most of the people in their village are non-combatants, so I’m only looking at the 2 HD militia members and their leader.
  • For the most part, the Treasure Tables as-written are for chumps.  If you want to get ahead in this game, the DM or the module has to hand you heaping spoonfuls of gold.

Explanatory notes:

  • Everything here is the mean average.
  • “Modified Hit Dice” reflects the Mentzer method described in this post.
  • “Number” is Number Appearing.
  • “Leaders” reflects any Hit Dice of leaders listed in the monster description.
  • “Lair Toughness” reflects (Number Appearing * Modified Hit Dice) + Leaders.
  • “Profitability” is the mean Treasure value divided by Lair Toughness
  • In Moldvay, wilderness lairs have five times the Number Appearing.
  • Your Dungeon Master’s mileage may vary.

Weinbaumian Naturalism

Sure looks like a roper, don't it?

Some of the entries that Gary Gygax included when he wrote the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide’s Appendix N: Recommended and Inspirational Reading are harder to make sense of than others. The trickiest are those where an author is listed, rather than specific works, and said author’s works are science fiction rather than fantasy.

That said, it’s very satisfying when you can connect the dots. Stanley Weinbaum is one of the writers whose connection to D&D I’ve always found the most mysterious, so recently I used Paperback Swap to pick up a Ballantine collection of The Best of Stanley G. Weinbaum. Isaac Asimov wrote the introduction, and one passage in particular really struck me:

Now what was most characteristic of Weinbaum’s stories? What was it that most fascinated the readers? The answer is easy – his extra-terrestrial creatures… The pre-Weinbaum extra-terrestrial, whether humanoid or monstrous, served only to impinge on the hero, to serve as a menace or a means of rescue, to be evil or good in strictly human terms — never to be something in itself, independent of mankind. Weinbaum was the first, as far as I know, to create extra-terrestrials that had their own reasons for existing.

What caught my eye about this was its resemblance to what James Malizewski described as Gygaxian “Naturalism” in a famous Grognardia post:

a tendency, present in the OD&D rules and reaching its fullest flower in AD&D, to go beyond describing monsters purely as opponents/obstacles for the player characters by giving game mechanics that serve little purpose other than to ground those monsters in the campaign world… The intention behind Gygaxian Naturalism is to paint a picture of a “real” world, which is to say, a world that exists for reasons other than purely gaming ones. The implication is that monsters have lives of their own and thus go about their business doing various things until they encounter the player characters.

I think there’s a compelling argument that the thing that Gygax found inspirational in Weinbaum’s fiction was exactly this lesson about monsters having lives of their own, which he later expressed in the idiom of D&D rather than its near cousin, science fiction. As another example of overlap, here’s Asimov again from the introduction:

In Weinbaum’s stories, the plots, though tightly and well-constructed, exist in the reader’s mind largely for the opportunity they present for a voyage of discovery of strange worlds and of ever-fascinating life forms.

There isn’t, so far as I know, a single phrase or post that captures this comparable idea that D&D is a game of exploration, but I think it’s an aspect of the same thing. Seems to me that for both Gygax and Weinbaum, what Grognardia identified as naturalism was not a goal in itself but rather a potent tool used to help enable a voyage of discovery.


D&D Party, Art World Type

Last Saturday I went to a D&D party thrown by the New York artist Ryan McGinness, part of a series of 50 parties he’s been doing weekly in his studio for the better part of a year. Here’s its flyer:


click for the D&D section of the 50 Parties website, from which the following images are taken


Ryan chose D&D as the theme for this party because he used to play as a kid; one of his old maps is below. Other parties were devoted to Autopsy, Mini Golf, Pictionary, and Shoot the Freak, so the series covered a lot of territory. I was introduced to Ryan afterwards by one of his friends who played at my table, and asked him what the inspiration for the 50 Parties series was. He said it was a reaction to the proliferation of parties with corporate sponsorship, where you’re always going to a party that exists to showcase the introduction of a new brand of vodka; this series was just to have fun. All of the parties I go to these days exist to celebrate eight-year-old birthdays, so there was definitely some worlds in collision here.

Another colliding world was that of the NYC Dungeons and Dragons Meetup group; Ryan’s studio manager tapped its organizer James Leivers to put together the D&D aspect of things, and (after some clarifications – no, we aren’t going to act things out LARP-style; tell people to be on time if they want to play; we need there to be enough light to read by, and not so much music that we have to shout to be heard) James invited five DMs, including myself, and a subset of the 1,300 members of the Meetup group, of whom about 25 wound up coming. I then got James’ permission to invite Chris Hagerty and Timothy Hutchings for their cross-cultural gamer/artist expertise, and nerdNYC’s jenskot and evilyn for social skill and enthusiasm as gamer-evangelists. Big ups to James for making this happen,and I’m extremely grateful for the invite and the suggestion that all the DMs run the same adventure, which I think creates points of reference between everyone’s experience that can be fun to talk about after the event.

That said, the Meetup milieu is strongly 4E focused and shaped in large part by RPGA play, and I felt both the adventure James created for us to use and the approach the other DMs took to running it reflected this background. I don’t think this is the best introduction for party people of whom 90% are new to roleplaying altogether and 10% have purple-hazy memories of playing AD&D back in the day, so I tried to balance fitting in to the Meetup framework with being more accessible to newbies. One thing I did in this regard was to draw up simplified character sheets, leaving off skills and movement speed and referring to feet instead of squares in case people wanted to play in a more freeform way:

Here’s some ideas about what went well and what I’d do differently if I were doing a D&D party again:

  • Work the Door. The collision of worlds was immediately apparent in that the Meetup folks showed up on time, as you do for a RPG session, while the artist’s friends trickled in belatedly as you do for a party. This meant that the gamers were already locked into adventuring parties in mid-swing by the time the others arrived, with the result that the non-Meetup folks mostly gawked and talked amongst themselves at the bar. I think it would have worked better to have each DMs doing a high-turnover gameshow deathtrap, like the Tower of Gygax event or Jim Ward’s convention games of Metamorphosis Alpha, and to have someone (ideally in a wizard costume or somesuch) meet each newcomer and direct them to whatever DM has a vacancy. It’d help to have a handout that had a few social-level rules, like “people take turns saying what they want their character to do in the game” and “if you want to take a break from playing, you can either wait until your character dies or say that they’re going to help guard the mules.”


That's Ryan underneath the beard.


  • Roll 3d6 in Order. Even though the pre-generated characters had ability scores already point-bought in accordance with 4E norms, the first thing I had each player do was roll up Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, Constitution, and Charisma just for descriptive value. When we eventually managed to enlist some non-gamers, one of the Meetup people who was eager to get the newbies integrated so we could get back to playing asked if I really wanted to take the time to go through this since it didn’t matter mechanically. I insisted, and felt validated when a minute later one of the party people rolled a 3 for Wisdom and the table erupted in laughter and cheers. I think that rolling your stats is fun and exciting for the same reason a horoscope is – you know it’s random yet want to see what it says about you – and that it’s paradoxically easier to get into playing a persona whose genesis is partially out of your control, because all the embarrassing mistakes that character might make don’t reflect on you personally the way they would if you were playing an idealized fantasy version of yourself.
  • Choose Name, Race, Alignment, and Class. Again, in game terms only one of these “mattered” – your choice of class determined which pregen character sheet I gave you, and as those didn’t include any of the mechanics that differentiate races in 4E (which has no mechanics tied to alignment), those were as much a matter of cosmetics as your name. However, I think playing a RPG is as much about making choices as it is rolling dice, and making decisions about these four has an enormous payoff in giving you handles on how to roleplay your character, for a relatively small investment of time- especially if I’d prepped a handout with the AD&D or 3E racial “police lineup” and the chart of the nine axis alignment. Fortunately, this one was up on the 50 Parties site if folks checked it out beforehand:

(In the event, the party people created Faz the human wizard, Stickman the hobbit rogue, and Flyer the flying fighter, who was a member of some race she invented on the spot that could fly. “Chaos evil” was a very popular choice for alignment.)

  • Hit Them With Choices. As written, the adventure follows a standard-in-my-experience RPGA format where you go into town and make skill checks trying to figure out where the action is. I decided to kick things off right away by having a farmer come up as the players approached the town, croak “Goblins attacking!”, and die. (Rich Rogers of Canon Puncture mentioned that he got this “the people in town tell you what the problem is right away” revelation, and used it to stun D&D players who were used to the runaround, from playing Dogs in the Vineyard. I haven’t, but it’s not unlikely I also got it from Vincent through osmosis.) This is awesome because it creates immediate, meaningful choices: do we help the townsfolk, try to find the goblin lair and raid it while they’re away, etc. When our newbies arrived I found myself doing the same thing when their turn came up: describing the situation their character was in and using it to frame two clear options they could choose between, with the example of the more experienced players showing that you could also do other stuff I hadn’t listed. I overheard one of the party people explaining to a friend that “it’s a game where he gives you choices and you decide what to do,” so this part of my method was evidently apparent.
  • Say Yes to Player Input. As soon as they arrived in town, our heroes found a house with its doors boarded up. They called out to any inhabitants, and were answered by a goblin disguised as a hobbit (my favorite part of James’ adventure framework). Because they already knew how to play D&D, they kicked in the door. As I was sketching the battlemap for the house, I tried to put in as many exciting terrain elements as I could – a staircase, a chandelier, and a fireplace where a goblin had set the wall on fire while trying to toast a rat on a stick, putting a timer on the fight as the fire spread. Then I asked “What things should be in a farmhouse that I forgot?” The player of the brawler-fighter replied “A ballista,” so I said “OK, so obviously the first thing the goblins would do after breaking in would be to A-Team up a makeshift ballista. Let’s say on a 1-3 it’s where you can get at it first, on a 4-6 it’s closer to them.” The dice came up 6, so we had some exciting moments of PCs dodging ballista bolts.
  • Play Rough. At one point I rolled a d6 for my own use to determine if the goblins would run or stick around to reload the ballista; it came up 6, and when I then had them still reloading it everyone with experience of the 4E monster power recharge roll was like “no, you rolled a 6, that means it’s ready to go!” So I gave in and said “By popular demand, the goblins fire another bolt at the fighter.” Another thing I added to the adventure was goblin slingers firing glass globes of a hallucinogen gas; if it hit your Will defense, you’d imagine you were in some scene from childhood. I was open to having people try to manipulate the hallucinated scene to try to achieve something useful in the combat, but much more often players chose hallucinations that would make them do terrible things: “I’m back at the old elven swimming hole, about to jump in…”, aka “Please, Mr. DM, I would like to take 5d10 points of falling damage.” This tendency for players to root for really awful things to happen to their characters was fun and should be supported!
  • Make Up Rules on the Fly. I followed the 4E rules as far as they go, which is to say “in great detail about events on the six-second, five-feet scale.” But there’s a lot of scales, from the narrative to the cosmic, where you can add stuff to suit your group and the imagined situation. Playing OD&D helps teach you to use dice and invented structures to make stuff happen on those levels, and it was at this game that I really felt like I’d been able to get my head out of the low-level 4E details and realize their constraints didn’t need to limit my creativity at every other scale. In the goblin fight, two people rolled natural 1’s in a row. I said “If the next player rolls a 1, it means the Goddess Miss Fortune has manifested.” Sure enough, the next roll was a 1, so I announced “OK, at the end of each turn I’m going to roll a 1 in 6 chance that some terrible divine intervention occurs. That chance will go up by 1 for each natural 1 rolled, and down by 1 for each natural 20.” This touched off a string of awesome play, where the hay wagon that Tim contributed to the scene in order to set up an acrobatic stunt turned out to be full of contraband statues to the Goddess – apparently the goblins broke into the home of some cultists – and he decided to spend a round destroying the statues in the hopes of driving away her attentions. We decided the odds that this would work and rolled it out; lo, it was so. Q: How often do gods manifest in most 4E sessions? A: Not nearly often enough.
  • Use wandering monsters. When the players – now including the influx of party people to replace some departing Meetup folks – took a short rest after the goblin fight, I rolled to see if anything would come along and whipped out my OD&D wilderness encounter chart when the dice said it would. What I got was a flyer > a pegasus, so I described a black-armored knight with a penneted lance soaring overhead on a winged horse. The players thought this was awesome in a Heavy Metal-meets-teenaged-girl’s-poster kind of way and shouted up at him. I rolled his reaction and found it favorable, so I quickly took stock of what other elements I had in play and decided that this guy was hunting the black dragon, Scather, that I’d thought of throwing in at the end. (The new players chose to enter through the dungeon that the goblins dug under the village, so we did hit both of the classic D&D elements, but folks were much more interested in flying around on pegasi than on going into a goblin-infested dungeon.) So he agreed to call winged mounts for everyone from his stables to help him search for the dragon, and the adventure went off on a tangent driven by the interaction of randomness and player choice. It proved to be fun and easy to whip up somewhere for this tangent to lead by drawing on accumulated knowledge of D&D (the players did, in fact, know that black dragons live in swamps, so let’s do that) and the 4E level of detail (let’s put in a ruined tower with four levels you can fall through, dragon babies in the basement,  and goblins hiding in piles of gold, so that we’ll have a fun battlemat).
  • Do an epilogue montage. Over at Delta’s excellent blog he’s been talking about how putting explicit win conditions into convention games increases player focus and excitement, and provides a sense of accomplishment to replace the level-up-and-get-new-toys reward of campaign play. I think that’d work well for some games, but in this case I’d have been sad if thinking about a game-defined objective caused players to say “let’s not ride off on pegasi, we won’t score any victory points that way.” What I did instead to create a sense of closure was to go around the table asking each player “What are you going to do with your share of the dragon’s hoard?” The answers showcased some beautifully unfettered player invention. Some were obvious, if still surprising to me. Tim insisted that he was going to be killed, since we ended with his character in a bad spot amongst the dragon babies. The player of the bard named Prince said that he would form a band of goblins and go on tour. Others riffed on random events from earlier in the game. The cleric of Pelor, who decided that her solar faith is opposed to lunar worshippers after a mention of wandering lycanthropes, said that she was going to build a giant telescope attached to a rocket, and blow up the moon.

Now that’s how I like a D&D party to end.


Kids These Days, Mixing Editions of D&D

A little while ago I met with the winners of my D&D birthday party auction to start talking about how we wanted it to go. One thing I wanted to be clear on was what we were going to be playing! I knew that if I asked it that way the answer would be “Dungeons and Dragons”, and I didn’t want to get into a discussion about editions. So what I said was, “What books do you guys have at the table when you play?”


I suspect, but can't yet confirm, that this is the set that got these kids into D&D.


Quoth our soon-to-be 12-year-old, “We have lots of books! We have two copies of the 3.5 Players’ Handbook, and three of the 4th Edition one, and…” some other stuff that I couldn’t process because my mind was blown.

One often hears people talk about how, back in the day, what they used in play was a mish-mosh of Basic Sets and AD&D and Dragon Magazines and Arduin supplements and whatever else came to hand. The White Sandbox campaign tends to do the same thing, and it makes sense to me because TSR editions of D&D are all pretty much alike; you might find the way it’s explained over here easier to follow, and prefer the slightly different rules variant over there, but it’s not radically different.

That doesn’t at all seem to me to be the case with WotC versions of D&D; Fourth Edition was more or less designed not to be compatible with 3.5-era stuff. So what’s going on here?

Some thoughts:

  • I am likely to be much more aware of the rules than a third grader, and maybe this makes rules differences seem much more important to me. If your understanding of what hit points means is just barely enough to make play happen, maybe details like whether you get all of your hit points back after a night’s rest aren’t on your radar at all.
  • I also have a much deeper familiarity with the fantasy milieu of D&D. Without that familiarity, perhaps the virtue of having both a 3.5 and a 4E Player’s Handbook is that they both tell you stuff about what a paladin is and what kinds of things would be appropriate for a holy warrior to do. If you’re just starting to establish the boundaries of that territory, maybe you’d see differences in how each book defines it as complementary perspectives instead of contradictions.
  • Two edition’s worth of books means twice as many pictures to daydream about. I think this was a primary use of D&D materials when I was 11, and Lord knows it’s still the #1 virtue of many of the Rifts books I just picked up on Paperback Swap in preparation for the game at Recess.
  • Probably the least important aspect of a group’s play is what the books in front of them say. James’ classic post what game were we playing? reminds me that I’ll probably never know exactly what kind of sense these kids managed to make of the Starter Set whose tantalizing appearance on a mass-market bookstore shelf got them started down this road of glomming onto D&Dness wherever they can find it. For better or worse, my presence as an observer will change the way they approach things, and I fully intend to add my own old-school influences to the mix in the form of wandering monster tables and the like.

Past Adventures of the Mule

May 2010

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