Wednesday, August 20, 2014

This Guy Has Game!!

One of my stated goals for 2014 was to begin playing Dungeons and Dragons again.  Actually, my goal was a bit more lofty than just playing D&D.  I set the bar high by tasking myself with playing games in several different formats:  Moldvay, Mentzer, AD&D, and even 5th Edition.  Since I live on an island I'm fairly isolated from the gaming community. So as an additional goal, playing in a virtual environment was also included (a necessary inclusion, I might add).

Well I'm happy to say that I've been able to knock out not one, but two goals over the last several weeks.  That's right!  This guy has game!  Now bring on them kobolds!

I responded to a Google+ post seeking players for a Moldvay Basic campaign set in the World of Greyhawk.  At first I was a bit worried.  There were a few house rules being added that I felt could possibly change the character of the game.  After speaking with the organizer/DM and being assured that the new rules would not change the overall flavor of the Moldvay set, I agreed to take part.  I'm so glad that I did.  We have been playing every Thursday night over Google Hangouts and the experience has been everything that I had hoped for.  We've had taverns, goblin battles, intrigue, roleplaying, character death, and magic.  I can't even begin to explain the rush of nostalgia I feel when we get together for our sessions.

I'm playing an elf.  I actually dislike playing elves (for reasons that I may explain in another post) but I chose to create one for this campaign for two reasons.  The first reason was based upon my desire to recreate that magic I experienced on that first night back in 1982.  I played an elf that night and I thought it would provide perfect historical symmetry to play one again upon my return to D&D.  The second reason was more of a logistical choice though.  At the time I joined the group, we still did not have a magic-user and were low on fighter types.  Due to the high mortality rate of Moldvay Basic D&D, I did not want to play a regular squishy magic-user.  I thought that by choosing an elf I could provide some much needed magic while still adding some brute force and fire power.  We did gain a true wizard shortly thereafter but by then my decision (and my character) was made.

The campaign is taking place west of Woolly Bay in the foothills of the Abbor Alz.  The DM has heavily modified a commercial adventure and set it in Greyhawk.  I must say that he has done well with his conversion.  His setting fits organically with the original and had I not known otherwise, I would swear that the town of Skogenby had always existed in that location.  It has been fun to have Greyhawk as the background setting.  Though we have not ventured away from our starting area, elements of Greyhawk proper have crept into our game.  For instance, our party recently stumbled upon several ancient texts written in Old Oeridian.  It may sound simple, but for me the inclusion of a Greyhawk language in our session last Thursday opened a floodgate of memories for me.  I can't wait to see what else the world has to offer after my long absence.  Did I mention that I love this game?

The DM's house rules also fit well.  At first I was worried that having multiple house rules would detract from the Moldvay set.  I wanted as pure an experience as I could get for my return.  But after the first session I quickly realized that the rules added by the DM only enhanced Moldvay instead of tainting it.  I'm happy with the additions and may actually steal a few of the new rules when I begin DMing again.  I will list them in a future post if anyone is interested.

Fortunately my character hasn't died yet.  After six game sessions I'm still only first level though (damn that 4,000 XP mark for elves) so my longevity could easily change on any given night.  I'm trying to play intelligently to keep him alive but I can't control fate or the dice.  My elf has been in some sticky situations but so far has come out relatively unscathed.  Wish me luck for tomorrow night's expedition.

I hope readers will forgive me for posting more about this campaign from time to time.  I'm having such a blast that I can't help but want to share my experiences with others.  I wish you could all be there and take part (especially my frequent commenters).

So....two more goals down!  Now I need to find other games so that I can return to the other systems.

I'll close for now, but as always I'd like to leave you with a few questions:

*  Do you prefer "pure" D&D or are house rules the norm?
*  What is the best/favorite house rule you've encountered in your games?
*  How about the worst?
*  Are you aware of any Mentzer, AD&D, or 5th Edition games that are seeking players?

Thanks for you participation and comments.  Most of all, thanks for reading!

Friday, August 1, 2014

Rereading the Moldvay Basic Set - Part 4: The Encounter

Time to get back on track and post another entry from my Moldvay rereading project.  Section 6 covers the encounter and combat phases of the game.  At first I was going to discuss both but before I knew it the entry started getting too long.  As a result, I will cover the first section dealing with the encounter on this post and actual combat on the next.

A word of warning before I begin.  I strongly dislike blogs with too much text.  In my opinion, blogs should be fun and light reading with plenty of photography, art, and illustrations.  Unfortunately the Moldvay manual skimped in the art department for this section.  As a result, my output mostly resembles the very type of blog I do not like to read.  Hopefully the information will keep the reader entertained and hooked long enough to finish the post.  I did throw in a few pics here and there to break up the blocks of text but they really have nothing to do with Moldvay.  My apologies in advance.

The chapter is basically broken down into two sections.  The first part deals with the non-combat portion of an encounter while the second details the steps necessary if the encounter evolves into fighting.  I'm sure I didn't DM this way back then (at least until I matured to a certain degree), but I think it's important to note that the first part does not always have to lead to the second part.  In other words, magic, missile fire, and melee are not the ways to solve every encounter.  It took me a while to learn that but once I did, D&D become something more than just a game.  It became a living novel that the young me loved to immerse himself in.

The first section begins by reminding the reader about time.  Ten minutes of in-game time equals one turn.  Therefore six turns equals an hour.  Timekeeping changes dramatically during an encounter however.  Moldvay writes that it's best to envision this period of play as taking place in "slow motion."  Players and the DM represent this slowing of the action by switching from turns to rounds.  Unlike turns where a character can do many things, rounds are usually represented by a character performing only one or two quick actions.

Rounds are ten seconds long each.   It takes six rounds to equal just one minute of in-game play.  A turn then is comprised of sixty rounds.  I don't know about you, but I have never been in combat for that long at once.  That would be a marathon hack and slash session indeed.  Moldvay advises the DM to keep things simple since 99.9% of encounters do not last that long.  The leftover rounds that would equal a new turn can be assumed to take place while the characters catch their breath, bind their wounds, clean blood from weapons, etc..

What I love about this simple yet elegant system is the implied chaos that happens in a short amount of time.  Many encounters are over in six to ten rounds, so if one were to speed up the "slow motion" view, it would become obvious that combat is a vicious chaotic event.  Arrows are launched, magic unleashed, wounds received and monsters and characters fight and die all within a very short amount of time.  Some players criticize the system as unrealistic but I would argue the opposite.  It's the long drawn out fights on TV that are the problem.  Historical references seem to support the short, dirty, brutal fight as the norm.  Moldvay provides us just that sort of combat.  We simply have to remember that we are watching it in slow motion.

Curiously, after describing the differences in time and emphasizing the shorter round, Moldvay goes back to the non-combat encounter and describes the Order of Events in One Game Turn.  This is the list of actions the DM should follow when a party encounters a possible obstacle.  During my upcoming Metzer Basic rereading project it will be interesting to see if the section was laid out a bit more logically than in Moldvay.

Order of Events:

1) Roll for wandering monsters.
     I hated wandering monsters.  As a player I would cringe every time I heard the d6 bounce around on the hardwood table behind the DM screen.  I felt like the DM was out to get us.  We just survived a close fight and were licking our wounds when out of nowhere another monster with a chip on the shoulder arrived.  Damn, there was no rest for the weary back then.
     When I first started DMing, I did away with wandering monsters.  I guess I was influenced by my hatred of them as a player.  But the more I played and the older/more mature I got the more I realized that there is a place in the game for those wandering brutes.  Without wandering monsters the world is no longer a living breathing entity.  It's nothing more than episodic encounters....a story board if you will.  The chance of encountering random beings in the wild or in the dungeon enlivened the situation and brought the game to life.  But....and this is a big but, a good DM doesn't completely rely on random tables.  The creature encountered should have a reason for being there.  For example, if a party is in a dungeon complex that is home to a tribe of goblins, then encountering a monster that is completely out of place can ruin the feeling of immersion that the wandering monster rule tries to create.  Where did those skeletons come from?  Shouldn't the goblins have been aware of that gelatinous cube wandering around their home?

2)  Movement, searches, etc...
     This is self explanatory.  The party describes their intensions for the turn and the DM narrates the outcome of each described action.  A wise party will cover the important tasks first like searching for traps or listening at doors before searching for loot.  If they do not then it's not a question of if, but when ill fortune will strike.

3)  The turn ends if monsters are not encountered.  Every other turn the DM returns to step one and rolls for wandering monsters.  Otherwise he repeats step two.  If monsters are encountered then the DM should determine the number appearing.
     I will get more into number appearing when I go through the monster section of the manual.  For now it's important to note that the roll is not always necessary.  Moldvay reminds us that the design of the dungeon will often dictate how many foes the party is to face.  Also I think it's important to use the same common sense I mentioned in the wandering monster section.  Don't rely completely on the dice to determine the game.  The encounter should make sense in the grand scheme of the adventure. Otherwise the game loses its immersive feeling.

4)  Check for monster distance
     This roll is only necessary if the distance between the party and the potential encounter is unknown.  The very shape of the dungeon determines the distance on most occasions.  The surrounding landscape often plays the same role in wilderness adventures.  When the distance isn't specified or obvious then the DM can roll 2d6 to determine the number of feet separating the party from their potential foes.
     I didn't do it back then but I would certainly take into account the effect of light sources on the encounter distance.  One party may be aware of the other long before by watching the approach of light given off from a burning torch or a lantern.  This should definitely be a factor when determining encounter distances.  I think light sources should also influence the surprise roll.  When I start DMing again I can't wait to try out this mechanic.

5a)  Check for surprise
     The DM should check for surprise for both the party and the monsters.  A roll of a 1 or a 2 on a d6 indicates that one or both sides is surprised.  If both are surprised the mechanic cancels out and events proceed as normal.  The side which suffers a surprise cannot move or act during that round.  Again, a good DM will not rely completely on the dice to determine surprise.  Sometimes the situation will tell the story.  Loud noises, light sources, combat, etc... can alert nearby monsters to a party's presence.  Rolling the dice in such cases makes no sense and removes the consequences of a party's actions. Along the same lines, monsters should be given similar consideration by the DM.

5b)  Roll for initiative
     The die is cast and the side with the highest result goes first.  That means that if the players win initiative then they all get to act before their opponents do.  Unfortunately that also means that if the players lose then they must endure multiple actions before acting.  At lower levels, losing initiative can be a deadly occurrence.
     At first glance, the initiative roll separates Moldvay Basic (and other early sets) apart from later editions.  Rolling a d6 for the entire party probably seems foreign to many modern D&D players.  But upon further reading, Moldvay provides an additional option for initiative that looks very similar to today's system.  The Pair Combat optional rule allows individual initiative to be rolled by each participant rather than by side.  The rule also allows characters to apply their dexterity bonus (if any) to the d6 roll to determine the order of action.  The Moldvay optional system looks almost exactly like modern initiative rules in this instance.  
     One interesting note about initiative in Moldvay:  unless I'm reading it wrong, initiative does differ drastically from modern versions in that initiative covers more than just combat.  Remember that in this post we are discussing only the encounter, and not combat itself (though the system works the same between the two).  The two sides are rolling for initiative for the right to go first in the turn, not the combat round (that will come later).  I find this interesting and wonder a) where the mechanic came from and b) why did it not survive in later versions.
     To be honest, I never realized this fact until my rereading of the text.  Back when I played, the encounter was not structured as Moldvay is suggesting.  It was just played fluidly and story-like.  There wasn't a strict ordering of events until if and when (usually when ha!) combat ensued.  I will have to experiment a bit when I start DMing again to see if it affects the game in any noticeable manner.

6)  Party Action and/or Monster Reaction roll (I have combined steps 6 and 7 on page B23)
     Remember that before combat ever takes place, initiative is rolled to see which side acts first.  The party can obviously decide for themselves what action to take without the need of a die roll.  If it were me nearly thirty years ago the question would not even have to be asked.  Of course I will attack [XYZ] monster with my +[pick a number] [fill in the blank with weapon of choice].  If asked today I could chose to do any number of things such as (gasp!) try to speak to the monsters or even run away.  Obviously if the party goes first and decides to attack then the action switches to the combat round.  If the party does not attack or if the monsters win initiative then the DM should roll for monster reaction.  Yes....another random table.  Once again, a good DM will not rely completely on the roll of the die to determine a reaction.  If the party has been wreaking havoc throughout the goblin's lair then they will probably not offer to form an enthusiastic friendship with the slayers of their kin and family.    But for those times when randomness is desired there is a table on page B24 that should be consulted after rolling 2d6 to determine monster reaction.  The options range anywhere from immediate attack to "let me give you my treasure and show you the secret door."

7)  End of the turn
     At the end of the turn, ten minutes of in-game time will have passed.  At this point Moldvay encourages the DM to check on current party/environmental conditions and perform some record keeping.  Is it time for a rest (one in six turns should be spent resting to avoid penalties), are characters hurt, where is everybody standing/walking, etc...

The encounter section closes with a few rules that are out of place.  I don't have the Metzer rulebook in front of me right now but it will be interesting to see if and how the revision rearranged these items.

Encounter Movement
     We are reminded of the quickness of time when the game switches from turns to rounds.  We are told that the quicker than normal movement cannot be kept up for longer than ten minutes (60 rounds).  Character movement rates during rounds was covered on page B19 but here Moldvay tells the DM how to find monster movement rates.  Dividing the base movement rate (given in turns) by three will yield the encounter movement rate (given in rounds).  Thus a character or monster that has a movement rate 30'/turn could move 10' each round.  I like the simple conversion system and the rates sound about right.  In the limited time I have been playing since returning to the game I have not found an instance where the numbers did not work or seem unrealistic.

     Running did not seem to happen all that often in my groups back in the day.  If we encountered a monster then we fought it until either the monster or our characters died.  Running away was simply not an option.  Lately I have found that running is a great way to survive and at low levels, is almost certainly a necessity at some point.
     Running speed is determined by multiplying the normal movement rate per round by three.  The resulting number is actually quite fast.  Using the encounter movement example above, that character could move at 90' in a single round (ten seconds).  That same character would tire pretty quickly however.  In the Moldvay rules running can only occur for 30 rounds (half a turn or five minutes).  At that point the character must rest for three complete turns (yes, that's thirty minutes) or suffer -2 on their to hit and damage rolls.  To make matters worse, due to the extreme fatigue, opponents would get a +2 on any to hit roles until the full rest period is completed.  Ouch!  Maybe I was smart for not running away back then.

     As long as combat has not yet started, characters that wish to avoid an encounter may try to evade.  It's a simple mechanic.  If they are faster than the opponent they wish to evade then it is automatically successful.  If they are slower then the DM has to decide.  Once again 'ye olde random table' is suggested but I would argue that the situation would warrant an intelligent decision on the part of the DM most of the time.  If the decision is truly up in the air then the monster reaction table on B24 can be used.

     If either side wants to chase after the other then the action switches from turns to rounds.  The running mechanic comes into play at this point.  Fortunately, Moldvay states that monsters will chase characters only for as long as they are in sight.  Hopefully the dreaded rest period will be avoided if a quick escape can be accomplished.  To help influence the outcome, characters can try to drop food or items to get their pursuers to lose interest.
     I think the lesson learned here is that if the party is going to run then they had better be able to outdistance their foes pretty quick or else they will still find themselves in a battle but saddled with some crippling penalties.  Unfortunately at low levels, unless evasion is a sure bet, it's almost better to stand and fight.  This is one mechanic in Moldvay that I really dislike now that I'm playing again.  A low level fleeing party should be somehow rewarded for having the foresight to avoid combat with a superior foe or when outnumbered.  Otherwise certain death may be swift to follow.  Looking through the speeds of random monsters, an encumbered character is not likely to get away from too many pursuing enemies.  Sure, one could make the argument that perhaps the character should not be too encumbered and thereby have a high speed value but then that character probably isn't well protected and will suffer from a poor armor class.  This is a sticky wicket indeed.

I'll move on to the heart of the system and cover combat in the next post.  Until then I'd like to close up with a few questions:

1) As a player, what are your thoughts on wandering monsters?  What about as a DM?

2) What do you think of using initiative not only in combat but during the encounter sequence as well?  Were you aware of this mechanic?  Do you know the origins of the system?  Finally, if you do use initiative during the encounter phase, does it affect the game in any significant manner?

3)  How often do you, as a DM, use random tables?

4)  What are your thoughts on running, pursuit, and resting?  Do the rules seem slightly stacked against those that choose to run if they are partially encumbered?

5)  Am I the only one who dislikes text heavy blogs?

I'm looking forward to your answers and comments.  Thanks for your participation.  I've learned so much from interacting with my readers.  And even if you do not post a comment, thanks for just stopping by and reading!