Retrospective on 2e style & Blogger



I’ve been doing research lately, and happened to stumble over one of my old comments that I had made. I didn’t always play the way that I do today, I am a 2er, and that reflected in my style. The meta-plot and me were close companions, and I would get frustrated writing because everything was so specific, but that was the way that it was supposed to be. Players wanted a story!

2nd Edition had a specific style, players were some times expected to do the bidding of NPCs, and then at the end, the NPC would complete the task and you’d just get to watch as these world changing events unfolded. That was actually the formula for the perfect game! We enjoyed doing that. We also enjoyed playing games were we really didn’t have any influence on the plot what so ever. We’d go to famous places and experience stuff. Granted, some of these games were actually quite good, even by today’s standards, it can be fun trying to stay alive while a couple of gods are locked in combat! But, I wasn’t ever really happy with them. It can be over done, and a party that consisted of excellent players will often find themselves escaping the module, which I couldn’t handle because it would ruin the rest of the plot, so I had to railroad them back on track, or even stop the game and explain to them that they are doing it wrong.

2e storytelling was very ridged, and domineering, and I wasn’t always happy with the results that I got. I’d put too much importance to a specific PC and ignore the others, and god forbid that they didn’t show up for game day because then I’d have to play their character for them, else we’d have nothing to do that day.

In those days, I protected my NPCs to the point that they were gods. I ignored all of the signs that players weren’t happy and would just tell them to stay with me, because the ending is awesome. This is what we did. I spoke to other DMs at the time and they played the same way. Protect your characters, the DM is the storyteller, the players are just along for the ride, and a successful DM is one who can tell amazing stories. Character involvement meant that you followed the script. We ignored dice, ran multiple DM PCs, and generally played very badly and had no idea.

I formed this blog to defend my ideals during the edition wars. I was right in the middle of the storm too! You had the 4ers vs. old-school and the one thing that they both agreed on was that 2e sucked. I had no idea how others played the game, and reading some of the blogs at the time was eye opening! Thankfully guys like James Maliszewski from Grognardia, and James Edward Raggi IV of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, among others, though none so influential than those two. Both took time out of their day to explain a new way of playing, with advice and the reasons behind it. At first I was arguing with them, but it is hard to argue with a sound idea, so instead of fighting, I started asking questions and they were answering. Everything that they did was different then what I did, but it sounded so interesting, so I began play-testing it. My players at first kind of rejected the idea off hand, they were used to having a sense of clear direction in my games, and I was taking that net away and allowing them to fail. At the end of the night we sat around and talked about what we had done, and we were very happy with the results. I could put together an original campaign much faster and easier with this method, I didn’t have to sit at my computer for months on end writing the thing, and instead just let it flow naturally and see where it goes.

I contacted Maliszewki and told him what had happened, that the players were really excited, more excited than they had ever been! He recommended a list of old-school modules that I should play, which I hid into my current campaign. They were written in a way that amazed me, these weren’t the bossy NPC dependant stories which I was used to, I could drop them in any thing! However this briefness and lack of detail kind of spooked me, there wasn’t any direction and I’d whine to James and he’d say how that was why they were so good. Add my own details, but don’t write anything down. The result was, literally, a game changer. The old modules taught me teaching points which were never provided in modules again.

Eventually I decided to try it. A full sandbox! I used the module “Isle of Dread” which would provide a great backdrop to what we were doing at the time, which wasn’t even true fantasy D&D but a heavily modified setting set in 1890’s earth, and that module still worked! Now I stumbled and fell on my face during it, but Raggi saw where I was going wrong and made it his mission to help me fix it and get back on track.

That turned out to be the greatest, and most rewarding campaign that I had ever ran. My style is even stronger now, my players are excited to play again, and I am a total convert, all because I spoke up and said something, and because I listened. Today I am more apt to try new things, and go into different directions. I’m not a tyrant at the table . . . well, not as much of one anyway. It is funny to see an old comment that I made years ago, and smile at it because I had no idea when I made it, how different I would become because of it.

I am also a more entertaining DM now, I received the tools and the advice that I needed to really push the game into the direction in which it was intended, I can’t stress enough how important that that little comment window is to this game. It allows us to see past ourselves and what we are doing, through it we can strengthen our own games and look at others. It also allows us to help others, not just those that comment, but those who will read those comments in the years to come. Maliszewki & Raggi never once got hostile with me, they never said, “You’re doing it wrong”. They just told me what they do, and what works for them, and why they do it that way. They reinforced a method of play which allowed me to better express myself, to look at what I was doing and keep the story telling elements but keep them in check. They were the loudest voices of their time, and I miss what they had to offer. You don’t see that much in the loud talking heads of today. Today it is about shocking the reader, and berating ideas. They offer very little of anything else, which is sad.

As far as I’m concerned, the Edition Wars are over, and we all won, and the people who complained so loudly about 2e sucking weren’t really complaining about the rules, but how TSR taught us how to use them, which did suck.

Writing Lore: Who really owns that sword?



I have been really pushing the mechanical aspects of the game, so for today I’d like to address something that is more lore related. Creating lore is probably the most rewarding aspect of Dungeon Mastering, with the growing dependency upon modules, this aspect is being forgotten. In worlds such as Forgotten Realms, people are so obsessed with canon lore that they spend more time looking for somebody else’s work than just sitting down for a moment and writing it on their own. The more WE know about the world, and how it works the better, and players appreciate a unique spin (or even a stolen one) on an old idea. The problem is that people are at a loss when they are staring into the abyss of a blank page, how does a DM create something from seemingly nothing? That answer is simple, we ask ourselves questions.

So the fighter has a magic sword. Typically this is as far as the idea goes, unless the DM adds stuff to it, which he should! A Sword+3 is kind of like calling the gal who works at the tavern “Serving Wench #4”, but I am going to assume that you know all of this already. We can add an adventure seed by asking one simple question, who owns this? Chances are, especially with a powerful item, it ISN’T the PC.

I suppose this question leads us to define the weapon even further, who constructed it? In my worlds, once in a while a very skilled craftsman can create a +1 weapon; a king can gather the finest materials in the land and have a weapon constructed that is capable of great things! There are always exceptions to the rules, but for the most part, magical weapons are relics of a lost civilization, or the fantastic creations of the great fantasy races, the dwarves and elves. In this case, as they are longer living races, perhaps they see ownership and lending differently than humans do?

Is it a far reach for a fighter to defeat a powerful enemy and claim his sword as his own? We all know that the enemy was one dubious fellow who deserved what he got, but where did he get the sword+4 from? Maybe it was looted and stolen from the crypt of a great hero of men, and the sword had been gifted to this hero by the elves, who allowed the sword to be buried with him. Now, how do you think that they will react when they see the PC carrying it around?

In the land of Dwarves, they have long memories and have lost much of their culture, are they going to look kindly upon a man finding a relic that had been lost and who refuses to return it to them?

Now I am guessing that this is going to create some drama at the table, because PCs aren’t willing to drop torches and store bought junk never the less a cool magic sword that they righteously feel that they had earned. How they keep it is up to them and you, perhaps the dwarves will allow it to stay with the character if they perform a brave act which furthers their cause?

Elves are a secretive race, the player characters will no doubt be arrested while a long drawn out discussion may eventually turn into a trial, assuming that they are cooperative, which probably won’t happen. Maybe the players will escape with the sword, maybe they won’t? Being forced into a situation that they don’t want to be is fun! Do they engage in combat with the elves, further convincing them that the party is evil, or do they find some other means of resolving the situation nonviolently?

Do you hear the voices? Perhaps the sword itself can communicate to the loremaster what had happened, that the PC had saved it from committing vile deeds? The weapon need not be intelligent as defined in the DMG, but it can still have a voice that speaks to those who know how to listen. Maybe there is even a hidden power in it? The sky is the limit! And stories like this make an item more than just a string of numbers on the Character sheet.

Perhaps the lore master charges the player to return the sword to its dead owner who is terrorizing the countryside in the form of an undead creature? Perhaps the loremaster is full of beans, and though he says that it should be returned, using the sword to slay the previous owner is enough to quiet the creature as it sees that the blade has betrayed it . . . then again, maybe it will refuse to betray it.

All of this from one question, who REALLY owns the item? Once you start with a seed, and ponder its implications the lore will flow from you, and I guarantee you that your stories will be better than anything that Wizards of the Coasts will ever publish.


INVASION OF THE SUPER ELF


Today I’m going to step on some toes, but it is something that I feel needs to be addressed. The game as it sits is fundamentally flawed in regards to races, and for whatever reason later editions chose to further widen this gap instead of tightening it. I speak of course of Elves and all of their super powers that they never really have to pay for. The other demi-human races have their own bonuses, but they are limited, and appear to be in balance with the system, but elves, for whatever reason, are seriously overpowered! They get way too much for free, and there doesn’t seem to be much incentive to not play them.

Munchkin power-gamers always go right to the elf, and considering that in most of our DM worlds, the Elf is getting pushed out by men, in a death heavy campaign you’d think that eventually you’ll have all of the elves accounted for in the world. In my opinion, those that choose to power-game with the elf are never role-playing them, and just chose them for the crazy amount of bonuses that they get.

Elves were in the original CHAINMAIL rules, and have stayed with us through every edition of the game. In the early rules there was a nice restriction placed upon them which defined them not as a race, but as a class. Say what you will, as a mechanic this works! At the start of a gaming session, a PC elf could choose to be either a fighting man or a magic-user, this was changed in later updates: More powers were granted to the race, and the disadvantages were minimized. In the 2e rules, the only mechanical disadvantages are class restrictions (which honestly don’t effect them much), and level restrictions (which also aren’t very restrictive, as not many campaigns even get to high levels of play). In later editions, even these small restrictions were lifted, completely removing any incentive to play humans who are supposed to be the dominant race.

What do humans get in 2e? Humans can advance 5-8 levels higher than elves, and humans can be “Duel Classed” instead of the multi-classed options given to demi-humans. Duel Classing is a very strange rule, and one that most tables choose to ignore because it is confusing. A human cleric can choose to become another class, but he can not use any cleric abilities until his new class is higher than his previous, and he can never go back and improve his cleric abilities. There is a strategy to creating a Mage/Fighter, but WOW does that take a long time! I would be interested to hear from folks who have actually done it. I tried once but found the whole process to be frustrating; but I’ll probably touch on this in later posts.

The goal of this article is to “Fix” the elf, and balance it out. The danger with this is obvious, it will affect the NPC elves and the Monstrous Manual: We don’t want to over-correct, but as things sit, the elf is just too imbalanced for me.

MORE DM CONTROL

Sub-races of elf are within the domain of DM control. We are the ones that place them, thus the easiest method of controlling the over-balance is to keep them where they belong, and don’t let them stray away. If your adventure is started 8,000 miles away from the nearest elf village, PC elves are not possible.

The problem with this is that players might get mad, and the other demi-human races would suffer as well, however the other demi-humans do enjoy more trade with the humans than elves do.

Another possibility is to have those that really want to play elves create a very good back-story and be subject to very critical Role-playing judgments. This would require a Dungeon Master being very precise as to how the Elf sees his world and what his function is within it. It would also be desired to have better control over the elf’s alignment.

DISTRIBUTION OF POWERS

Player may pick a few special abilities from the list of bonuses given to elves. This of course would alter the NPC elves if you let it. Probably the preferred method would be to equally distribute the abilities between the sub-races of elves. Drow would get infravision, wood elf a bonus to bow, high elf an automatic chance of finding hidden doors . . . etc.

ALTER THE XP SYSTEM

We can create an alternative XP system for elves which dramatically slows them down. I’d say that it would be fair to double or triple the XP needed to gain a level. This would be harsh if an elf is multi-classed, so perhaps the best fix would be to force all elves to multi-class and just run it that way.

LOWER THE LEVEL RESTRICTIONS

This is another possibility. I know that many DMs have allowed high ability scores to affect the level that an elf can max out at, if we lower the level limit to 9 and allow a system of ability to raise the number fairly, this would keep the elf in check.

NON-WEAPON PROFICIENCY PENALTIES


Demi-humans must pay for bonus abilities by taking specific non-weapon proficiencies, such as cooking, singing, instruments, etc. Alternatively, the DM can create a list of NWP that are only available to elf races; strip all powers away and add them as NWP so that a player must spend his slots on them.

Or, we can go the other way, Humans get bonus proficiency slots or alternatively, their available proficiency slots can equal 3, non-elf demi-humans count as 2, and elves only count as 1; this wouldn’t give more bonus proficiency slots, they just count as more when checking them during play.

These things won’t make munchkins happy, but they might even the playing field a bit. The core rules didn’t specify too much in regards to their place in the world, which leaves this job up to the DM, to develop them in a more advanced way that reflects their cultural differences. One thing that is evident, or implied, is that the elves of today are mere shadows of what the race used to be. It was probably them that had built much of the advanced technology, which is evident in the ruins, but was lost from unknown tragedy. Elves aren’t just humans who don’t need sleep and can see in the dark; they demand to be role-played differently, with more power comes more difficulty in playing that individual, and it isn’t cool for munchkins to refuse to role-play them. If players are capable of running them as they were intended to be ran, and the DM treats them as elves instead of just another adventurer, then there probably isn’t any problem with the system as written, but alas, if only we lived in a perfect world.

Some things don’t make all that much sense when we look at it, though much of that could have something to do with the old Appendix: N, but this would imply that we are playing like Gygax, which we might not be. Perhaps we want to play elves as more Tolkien flavored, or play a breed that is more fairy in nature? While the rules over elves are considered as CORE, there is nothing stopping us from modifying them and asking exactly why a mechanic is there.



I’m not going to go through the entire list, just some of the things that glare at me.

INFRAVISION

While I can see a Drow needing this ability, as well as dwarves, and other demi-humans that prefer living underground, the normal elf lives above ground and doesn’t care too much for the confinement of the underdark, so why would he be able to see in the dark? Elves get a bonus against being surprised, and an auto-bonus to find hidden and secret doors; I think that it is safe to say that we can remove this power from his innate abilities.  

MAGIC RESISTANCE TO CHARM AND SLEEP SPELLS

This is a hold-over from Chainmail rules that people have just kept putting in there over and over. It isn’t even a true MR so we can get rid of that too.

+1 While Using A Bow

Why is this even here? The elf should have to buy specialization like everybody else, no free-bees, this one can go too, or at least give all elves the ability to spend weapon proficiency slots on specializing if they wish, but only for the bow.

OVERVIEW

If we remove these abilities (or even just a couple of them), then the elf becomes more balanced with the rest of the races, but one can also look at the other races and make them more or less appealing as your campaign world dictates. Perhaps the problem isn’t that the elf is over-powered at all, but the rest of the races are under-powered?

Further Reading:




Mechanic Series: Critical Hits



In the AD&D THAC0 system, a natural 20 is always a hit. What this means is that even if you have a THAC0 of 20, you can still hit a negative AC, such as AC -1. It’s a 5% chance to hit, but it’s still a chance. Many players wanted more, some theories consider a natural 20 to be a true hit, which instantly breaks the system. We don’t really know what hit points are, sometimes a hit really is a hit, and sometimes it isn’t. Since one can go insane trying to pin down what hp are, it is just easier to consider them to be a mechanic of the game kept to the background, and leave it at that; even though, sometimes it isn’t.

Critical Hits is a supplemental rule: however, players and DMs were going to use it anyway, even if the rule isn’t in there. Critical Hits is actually a mechanic first introduced as core to D&D’s very first competitor back in 1975 in a game called Empire of the Petal Throne; now, it wasn’t called “Critical Hit” that term came about later, but it is credited with creating the mechanic which simulated a “Lucky Hit”. Prior to Empire including it, I have no doubt that DMs introduced it into their own loose OD&D games, and it has stood the test of time, but my question is: Is it Fair?

At this point it is also worth mentioning that all d20s are not created equal. You know this, and I know this; but it isn’t something that can be proved. Players will sit there and roll a d20 and find one that doesn’t generate random numbers because of a small imperfection in the die, weirdly enough, this imperfection typically causes a die to roll a 20 more often than 5% out of 100 rolls. It probably has something to do with how the die is manufactured, and its shape; but since the number 20 is the most affected, this tells us that the manufacturer is aware of the problem, and has known about it for a very long time and has been unable to fix it. What is funny about it is that it does balance itself out at the table because all of the other times that you roll a d20, with the exception of the attack roll, you want low numbers. A natural 20 usually signifies an automatic failure, but people still insist on using that d20 that rolls lots of 20s anyhow.

We do have dice that do roll random numbers, but players typically refuse to use these as they are deemed “unlucky”, but whatever; my favorite dice are just as bad as theirs are, so it is all good. But, back to Critical Hits: For years the most preferred method of handling the situation, and the one that is considered core to the optional system, is double damage.

I have two issues with this, first being that there are instances where a weapon automatically gives you double damage anyway. That should be a function of that particular weapon. Other weapons make it a point that if one does roll a 20, than it always does double damage, which implies that this is unique to that weapon, and we should strive to keep it that way.

The second issue that I have with double damage involves math. Lets take a look at what happens when we roll an 8 for damage, and this gets doubled to 16. That one roll takes out more than 1HD from a fighter, 2HD from a Cleric, over 2HD from a Rogue, and 4HD from a Mage. These numbers just imply what happens to characters who were able to roll their Max hp each time, so the real numbers during play are even worse. That, to me, is unbalanced.

Actually, the double damage thing technically isn’t 2e core, but that is how people play it. The true method of handling double damage is to roll 2 damage dice, such as 2d8 which gives you a much fairer number, yes the max damage would still be 16, however that would be a very lucky hit indeed!

Method #2

A natural 20 signifies a bonus attack. It gives your characters (and monsters) a chance of causing extra damage without guaranteeing success. That does present its own problems, slower and more powerful weapons may not be logically compatible with this method such as a musket or a crossbow which takes time to load. While it is still more balanced than instant doubling of the damage die, it isn’t something that really appeals to me, nor is it a universal fix: If one is charging with a lance, a twenty already signifies double damage, and the character charges through the opponents front line; a second attack would mean that he’d be able to turn the horse around and . . . well, you see where I’m going with this. Some weapons only get one attack, and they should only get one attack.

There are some alternatives worth talking about, that aren’t core, but are certainly more balanced and developed.

Method #3

Max Damage

Nothing game breaking about that! Lots of players will go for it as well, as even with the broken double damage rule there is a chance of dealing 2 points of damage, which takes the wind out of your critical hit sails real fast.

Method #4

Roll 2 damage dice, keep the highest

Again, no over-powered death-dealing here, just a simple mechanic that is fast and universal, it doesn’t promise mass damage, but there is a better chance of achieving a more valuable number than normal.

Method #5



Implementing a Critical Hit Chart

These things break the game, and are totally unfair to the players. With a 5% chance of a crit on fair dice, those things might be fun for screwing around but they make long term campaigning impossible.

The typical Hit Chart does damage to a character's stats, and since we don’t fully stat our monsters, this effects only PCs, not even to mention that this mechanic only serves to slow down combat. If you are that bored with your game that you think that you need to implement this kind of stuff to “make things interesting” it is probably time for you to sit down and really evaluate how you play.

Of course, there are times when one does want to implement this kind of system, such as when two fighters meet in one-on-one combat and they really hate each other; a second element of true danger during a very epic level confrontation could be desired by both combatants so that they can just destroy each other. For cases like this, I would suggest temporarily incorporating the system in the Player’s Option: Combat & Tactics handbook which has an exhaustive, and very thorough table system that isn’t fit for every day play, but very appropriate for special cases. It is also worth noting that the Combat & Tactics rulebook has incorporated it’s own definition of critical hits, because when we are dealing with duels like that, we do want to know what each blow is doing; but like I said: It is a system all to itself and should only be used for specific situations; such as the final fight where if the PC wins the duel, he’ll probably retire the character at its conclusion anyway.

Overview

I’m sure that there are lots of other methods out there; if you do something different, put it in the comments! We’ll take a look at it. I know in the past I have banned this mechanic from my game, but I am going to implement it again as I’m tired of looking into those sad eyes filled with longing when a 20 is rolled. When we don’t use it, players kind of feel that they are missing an opportunity, which is understandable.

FURTHER READING:

Awesome Dice Blog: d20 Dice Randomness Test; Chessex vs. Gamescience 

So it isn't just me . . .

I also wanted to add these as hotlinks from the comments below:
Castles & Chimeras: Six "20" between 19 and 21 an old-school take on d20 to hit mechanics 

 Fabio Milito Pagliara has his fix to simulate matrix-style mechanics while using a THAC0 system.

Castles & Chimeras: OSR Critical Hit Based on Armor 

Fabio also has a nice article on how armor type can effect the critical hit system.

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