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D&D Theory: Why Old School?

Recently I have gotten myself into a 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons game as a player, as well as wrapped up a second season as a GM in my Game of Thrones RPG game while simultaneously preparing a new RPG for online play with my friends back in the states. Suffice to say, role-playing has suddenly become “it” in terms of where all my gaming time is going. In so doing I have been kind of jotting some notes down for future articles, the loot from many conversations and I realized this week I finally have enough to put one together. In today’s D&D Theory article I’m going to be musing about the concept of “Old School Gaming”, which I think is a very relevant topic these days given the rather sudden shift of Wizards of the Coast to return the game of D&D to a more classic or old school state with the release of 5e last year.

Now I say Classic/old school state with a grain of salt as the exact definition of what that is, is a bit murky. After all D&D is 40+ old, has had many editions, sub-editions, clones and spin-offs and as such what is “classic” or “old school” is probably different for everyone depending on which generation of the game you started in and how far back you go.

Whether you love old school D&D play or not, you should thank it for some of the wonderful settings it produced.

As such I think it’s relevant to first identify what “old school” gaming is, which as I found was a deep and fairly complex, albeit interesting topic that took me quite a bit to get my head around. The question really is, is it a “feeling”, is it a “mechanic” or is it some sort of “conceptual design or philosophy”? All good questions and today I’m going to try to answer them!

I started my research in perhaps the most obvious place, first edition of D&D and tried to identify what in that early version(s) of the games like Basic, Expert and Advanced rules system differs in approach, feel, design, mechanics etc. as it compares to modern systems like 3rd, 4th and 5th edition of the game.

At first, it was quite unclear to me. While certainly the mechanics were different in many respects, the fundamentals where very much the same, D&D as a concept in 1e is really not any different than any other edition that has come out since. To me it was clear that early editions of D&D weren’t as streamlined, and refined, there was certainly a lot less standardization and quite a bit more limitations on character classes and races, and players in general. Though I can’t imagine how having those limitations and lack of rules clarity really altered the experience for the better. Fewer options sure, but I didn’t find anything within the scope of the mechanics that couldn’t be accomplished in a modern RPG if you really wanted to include it or exclude it as the case may be. A DM for example could simply say “hey in my game Dwarves hate and never use magic so they can’t be any kind of Arcane caster”. Is having the limitation as a rule in the book as opposed to an option for the DM “old school”? I don’t believe so, there had to be more to it.

The realization didn’t really strike me until I read and was reminded of one very unusual rule in 1st edition AD&D called “XP-Treasure Conversion”. The basics of this rule was that if a character hauls out treasure from a dungeon of some sort and brings it back to a safe place like a town, the value of that treasure can be converted into XP. Gygax explains and reminds us in the DMG (paraphrasing here) that while the rule doesn’t make narrative sense, D&D is a game and games have rules and this is one of them. Simply put, the rule was there to remind and motivate players (not characters) that the premise of the game is that the players characters and their alter egos (PC’s) are in fact treasure hunters. Another words that the core premise of D&D is that you go into dungeons, kill monsters and take their treasure.

Now I would imagine a modern gamer would have a real problem with that explanation when defining what they do when playing D&D. After all, what that rule & premise suggests is that the cliché about D&D is a less a myth and more a fact. That D&D really is just a light hearted adventure game about going in dungeons, killing monsters and taking their treasure. I think most modern gamers would disagree with that assessment of what D&D is. The question is however, is that the source of “old school” or “classic” gaming mentality, another words is that the goal of “old school” gaming to capture that feel of this classic premise?

While I think at this point I was getting close, I don’t believe this was it in its entirety. One clear aspect of early editions of D&D was that the game itself was very unforgiving. This concept of the dungeon crawl as a core, was layered by the uncanny deadliness of the game itself in particular as it applies to the core premise of fighting monsters. Simply put, fighting monsters in early editions of D&D was extremely dangerous, something to actually be avoided hence it was at odds with the core premise on which its founded. Mind you when I say deadly, I really mean it. I recall in the 1st edition AD&D days, having one or two characters die each session was fairly common. 1st level characters were so fragile most of the time you would make 2 or 3 in advance, create them without back story’s, hell sometimes without a name and put them in the game to see which of them survived long enough to hit 2nd or 3rd level at which point you would flesh them out a bit and give them some much needed dimensions.

The most notable aspect of all of this was that none of it had anything to do with the story of the game. The premise of the game, the deadliness of the game, and this concept of detachment from characters, it all pointed to one thing. It was less a game about story and more a game about, well the game. Putting that question to old school gamers came with its own reactions as they rejected the idea that the game was not about story. In fact, they adamantly insisted that old school gaming was “real role-playing” and what they do in modern editions is “playing CRPG’s”.

The logic was that the story wasn’t about individual characters, the story was about the world and its events, the characters were parts in it. Sometimes those parts were small, insignificant and short lived and sometimes those parts were epic, elaborate and detailed. Your roles in the game might change periodically as a result of death of an adventurer, but the story lived on with new characters. A campaign was bigger and more to them than any individual character and they were adamant at saying that there was no detachment from their characters, but rather the solemn reality that adventuring life was dangerous as it should be and the results were often tragic. Interesting concept and I think Shakespeare would agree!

Still I believe I’m right at least in one thing. I believe early editions of D&D were less about a focus on characters and more of a focus on players. I believe there is a lot of evidence to support this theory and I also believe within that logic is actually the reason that “Old School” is a premise that is different from modern gaming. I don’t believe it’s purely rules or feel related,  some part of this movement is about nostalgia.  Still I think there is a concrete difference that is identifiable between modern D&D and early (1st edition) D&D as a design concept.

That premise or concept if you will is the difference between Character Centric game design and Player Centric Game design. I will define both but it’s worth noting up front that these aren’t always rules driven concepts nor are they mutually exclusive in that all RPG’s have some Character Centric elements and some Player Centric elements. It’s just that in 1st edition D&D, the Player Centric design is both more prevalent and more firmly defined as a part of the expected flow of the game and vice versus for modern game design as Character Centric systems.

Old School RPG’s are definitely about nostalgia, but Old School design is a lot more than that.

Ok so let’s define Player Centric and Character Centric Design. The principle is really quite simple.

Character Centric design means that by the logic and premise of the design and by the implementation of mechanics into the game, a player character is the focus of the rules and ultimately the mechanics of that character are what drive the resolution of challenges and conflicts. Another words, when a players character is faced with a problem, there is a mechanical property on his character sheet that is designed to address it via mechanical rules.

For example, if a player needs to search a room, in a Character Centric design, that players character will have a skill or attribute available that he or the GM can activate to resolve the search and determine if the character finds what he is looking for. So a player will say, “I search this room for the magic ring, I think it’s here somewhere” and the GM determines “Ok make a search check, let’s see if your character finds it”.

It’s worth pointing out that Character Centric design doesn’t mean the GM is obligated to character centric play, a distinction with a difference. However it is kind of presumed that when you make a skill check, as a player you roll the dice, you know what the result is and hence know if you succeeded or failed the check. Hence if you find nothing, you know it’s not here, else you find it, vice versus if you fail you know you have failed hence you know, it might still be here, but you just didn’t find it or the ring may in fact is not here in the first place (boy that’s a mouth full!). You can also further layer this by having the GM make the roll in secret, in which case you have no information about whether or not you fail the roll, hence, if your GM tells you that you find nothing you don’t know if it’s because the ring is not there or if it’s because you failed the check and simply didn’t find it.

Creating characters in AD&D was something you did often, because they died often. Fortunately in a Player Centric design, what is on your character sheet is not nearly as important to your success as what’s in your own imagination.

Regardless however as a Character Centric designed mechanic, the activity of searching is mechanized and the results are determined with the dice.

In a Player Centric design the challenge and obstacles of the game are instead directed at the player, and it’s the player who is expected to resolve these challenges through a narrative exchange with the GM as opposed to a function of mechanics associated with his character.

Taking the same example of searching for the ring, in a Player Centric design, the GM would describe the room and situation and the player would feed the GM instructions about his activities. For example he might say, I check under the bed, in the mattress, under the pillows, all the drawers in the dresser, I search for loose floor boards and check behind the paintings and so on. The GM in turn would respond to the activities of the player. It’s presumed the GM knows where the ring is hidden so if the player says, I check in the flower pot, he finds the ring, otherwise he does not.

The point here is however that there is no mechanical function of the character that assists or somehow affects the outcome of “searching the room”. The event exists purely in the narrative, a strictly player driven resolution and it’s typically (or at least it was the case in 1st edition) because no “search” mechanic actually exists. There is no search skill, you don’t make attribute checks. It’s simply a narrative exchange between the GM and the player.

1st ed. AD&D didn’t really add skills untill later supplement books, triggering the concepts that lead to more Character Centric designs.

Again just like Character Centric design, Player Centric design is not limited or somehow unable to switch and become Character Centric at the GM’s discretion. A GM might call for some sort of dice roll based on the attributes of the character anyway, perhaps asking him to roll his IQ or lower to see if he finds the ring. It is however just like Character Centric design, outside of the premise or core function of the rule-system, it is in a sense a “GM call”.

This concept of Player & Character centric design however is a core fundamental difference between “old school” D&D and “New School” D&D. Original AD&D is very much a player centric design, while modern games starting as early as the end of 1st edition AD&D with expanded books like the Survival Guides and 2nd Edition core transitioned into a more Character Centric design with each new edition. By 4th edition the adherence to Character Centric design was so firm, it even went so far as to add “skill challenges” to avoid Player centricity as much as possible..

I think in part why Old School gamers look at modern system and make classic comments like “That’s not real role-playing” is because the game they know is heavily buried in Player Centric play, which is by nature much more narrative as it lacks the ability to resolve challenges and obstacles with mechanics.

The main commonalty all D&D systems share is that they are all, since the very beginning, purely character centric in the execution of Combat. For some reason, no one argues or has issues with combat being purely character centric, but in other areas of the game there is a never ending discussion as to what degree a game should be player or character centric.

The cliches and myths about D&D being about going in dungeons, killing monsters and taking their treasure is a definitive core of the game supported by its mechanics. However combat itself is squarely Character Centric.

One thing to note however as mentioned earlier is that combat in 1st edition AD&D was very deadly and unforgiving and as such, just by the sheer volatility of characters, the meta of characters in its own right is very player centric. So while combat might not be player centric at all in any editions of D&D, most of what’s involved around it in early editions is and I think this is also a part of the definition of “Old School” gaming. As my friend pointed out, the game is about the campaign, about the story and the events in the story and while it’s focused on characters to a degree as they act as our avatars, it’s clear that all players understand that sooner or later their characters will die and they will make a new one, but the game is not over. They as players steer the avatar and it’s their decisions, their actions, their activities that bring the resolutions to conflicts, not their characters (in the meta of course) hence it doesn’t matter which character you are using all that much as their mechanics are not involved outside of combat.

Making characters and doing so considerably more frequently than in modern design is just part of the experience of old school gaming. In Character Centric games, characters getting killed is not desired and considered more of an “event”, as it’s their abilities, skills, attributes and powers that drive conflict resolution and in essence much of the narrative. They are an important component of a players success. Character Centric designs is why we have terms like “Character Build”, as the avatar is not just a representation of a character in the narrative sense for the player, but also his abilities, skills and influence over conflict within the confines of the game. In essence in Character Centric play, the player has considerably less influence over the success of his character as he is reliant on the mechanics to resolve conflict as opposed to the player’s narrative exchange.  I will point out that I think its weird that no one has issue with overcoming challenges with character centricity in combat, but for some reason its a big fight when it comes to resolution for conflicts outside of combat.  Weirder still are the exceptions like pick pocketing and climbing walls, suddenly, its ok in 1st edition AD&D, but only for the thief class, for everyone else, I guess you just die trying?  The logic of this player vs. character centric design is a strange beast.

The use of modules in many ways is also part of the decor of early D&D play, but its not like it ended there. There were more modules produced for 3rd edition D&D then all other editions combined.

It’s expected in Character Centric games that characters are relatively safe and they walk into dangerous situations that are kind of rigged in their favor mechanically. Which is why things like CR ratings, the concept of balanced encounters, death rolls and other survival mechanisms exist in modern games, it’s all in the name of saving characters from death but more specifically in the name of preserving the importance of the narrative. Characters are an intricate part of the story, not because of their narrative but because of their mechanics and removing them from it, is in general bad. It means a new character needs to be made and the story components of the previous characters are lost, in particular for the player, as well as the mechanic advantages that reigned in his success. In a way in character centric games, characters have a greater importance.

The question is then which is better? Get ready for me to drop some life affirming knowledge, the answer is modern is better and the reason is that it’s the same fucking thing!

You might argue about old school mechanics vs. new school mechanics, but to me, Old School art blows what we put out today out of the water 10 fold.

In the end, any sub-system, mechanic or function that is added in a system becomes “available” anything that is omitted is “unavailable”. Availability however does not require or assume use, its simply there and as a GM in any system be it 1st or 5th edition, the decision, the ruling if you will of what mechanics to use and when to use them is entirely up to you. Hence in a fully Character Centric game, you can with virtually no effort go fully Player Centric at any time. Its 100% fully backwards compatible, however in a Player Centric system you cannot just “switch” to a character centric system as the rules do not exist for you to use and fall back on. If search doesn’t exist, you can’t make a search check and as a GM you’re going to have to make a mechanic up on the fly to fill in for the missing rule, if the search does exist and you want to play out a search scene, simply don’t allow the check. The obvious logic is obvious!

That said, there is a problem with running a Character Centric system in a Player Centric style, which is of course player expectation.  Consider that a players character is his investment, hence in a Character Centric system, the player invests points, or other advancements into various skills and abilities.  If as a GM you choose to go Player Centric and ignore those aspects of their character, you are kind of cheating them out of their investments.  Hence, if you are a GM (like me) who has a Player Centric style (aka old school) then you should stick to Player Centric systems if for no other reason than to ensure expectations match the result and you are not ignoring parts of the mechanical character the player might deem important to his role/story or whatever.

Old School gaming is all about enforced limitation. I find it odd that because the rulebook tells you something is not allowed, or simply by omission makes it unavailable that this somehow makes a game better than one in which all options are available to use at your discretion. It’s a silly concept and I actually hate conversations like this with Old School gamers even though, on this little blue planet there is no bigger old school gamer than me.  Still, I do understand it from a player perspective that if a mechanic exists, in particular as it applies to characters, it should be used and used often.  You wouldn’t deny someone spells or combat abilities that their character can perform, hence you should not ignore other aspects that are on the character sheet either.

If you ever wonder if new school designers have any affection for old school gaming, you need look no further then the latest releases from Wizards of the Coast. Strahd is as old school as you can possibly get, his appearance in a 5e module should quell any doubt about where modern designers loyalties lay.

I adore limitations, deadly game systems, player centric gaming, Gold to XP conversions and all that great stuff, but at the same time I don’t see why having a lift on limitations in a book, or having safety nets in a system or the absence of a Gold to XP rule changes anything at all. I’m a damn GM, if I want or don’t want something in the game, I snap my fingers and it happens. I don’t care if there is a search skill, if I say “there is no check, if you want to find something tell me how you are looking for it”, we are instantly in Player Centric gameplay, the system cannot stop me, I’m basically the god of the game. It is however a problem if I want to make a skill check and the rule for it is not available, and then I’m forced to invent shit on the fly. I don’t really see how that will result in a better experience old school or otherwise!

Hence Character Centric games do not change anything for me at all, I actually largely prefer them because it really just gives you more options on how to handle stuff. Even as an old school gamer I recognize that sometimes, stuff is just irrelevant and I want to get through a scene quickly. Skill checks are great for that. Oh your searching this room, go ahead make a check, oh you failed, great, scene done. I don’t have an obsessive need to waste time on irrelevant shit in my game and I don’t believe this makes me “new school”, it just means I’m a good GM, I know how to spend session time to keep the game fun and interesting.

Of the many things that are unequivocally classic, Keep on the Border should be a picture in the dictionary by the definition of the word.

Now I will say this. I adore, I mean truly love 1st edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and I will happily run a campaign anytime. I think Gygax’s work is absolutely fantastic, I love the light hearted adventure and the player centric concepts of dungeon delving, for me D&D IS going into dungeons, killing monsters and taking their treasure. Is that simplistic? Is it really role-playing? Hell I have no idea, I just know that it’s absolutely fun and I love doing it in the confines of the many restrictions and funny concepts of 1st edition. I love 1st edition modules, I love its deadly nature, I adore the natural progression of meta characters from farmers with a rusty dagger to Lords of Castles and everything in between. I love watching beloved characters getting killed, I love creating new characters, I love everything about the system. I am, without a doubt an Old School gamer.

I do believe however, the argument that someone who plays modern games is “not really role-playing” or that it’s somehow a different experience is quite ridiculous. I hate these old Gonards that think their way is the right way, or even that somehow they do it differently than the rest of us. It really is absolute bullshit. I can turn 5e into 1e in a two page document, hell I can run a D&D game without you even knowing what system I’m using. It really is not that hard to add limitations, it is however hard to design RPG mechanics on the fly.

Rules are just that, rules, they are not the definition of role-playing nor do they quantify your style as a GM. You can be old school in the new school. It’s a different cover, different rules, but we are still the same GM’s.

So there you have it, research complete. I can say without question that I understand Old School gaming, there are far more nuances then that of Character & Player centric play, but at the end of the day, role-playing games is a dynamic, infinitely diverse activity. Quantifying it fully is not really possible and while I do think it’s more than just a “feel”, it’s definitely achievable in all its glory in pretty much in any system. Sure, many things about modern system irk me. A Dwarf Wizard? Get the fuck out of here with that nonsense! But that’s my world, I share it with Gygax and 1st edition, but using a modern system does not exclude its implementation. I don’t need to use 1st edition to get rid of Dwarf Mages. I might prefer it (sometimes), but I don’t see how using a system that allows it, or allowing it in a system that doesn’t creates a disparity of classifiable groups like Old School and New School. I do think Old School is a thing, but I adamantly reject the idea that Old School is only achievable in Old School systems, or that somehow adding a rule like a skill check, or offering some extra options to a character some how breaks “old school” gameplay.

I’m just going to put this here because its one of my favorite modules 🙂

Well this brings us to an end, I know that many of you role-players out there have had this conversation and  so I hope that perhaps you found something useful in this little theory-crafting article!

Top 10 Dungeons and Dragons Modules of All Time

Ok so with my last theory article about the art of GMing, I thought it was about time I created a top 10 list on the subject of RPG’s.  Top 10 Modules seemed like a good choice and while I understand that new generations of players might froth at the mouth with a list that insults them by putting old school modules on a pedestal, the fact remains that as an old school player for the most part the modern age of D&D has been largely disappointing.  But don’t fret too much, some new-ish stuff made the list as well!  Enjoy the list.

Oh and I’m doing this backwards from now on so we are starting at number 10 and working our way down 🙂

10) Queen of Spiders

The Queen of Spiders is actually a module series and it is the only module on this list I have never personally run, but rather participated as a player which kind of makes it both unique for this list and of a different perspective than the others.

The Drow are among the most memorable villains in D&D, a favorite among DM’s to use as antagonists.

I think my favorite aspect of this module was of course the introduction of Dark Elves or The Drow if you will.  I recall this being my first experience encountering them and unlike today where we are quite familiar with the species, back then they were truly unique and GM’s weren’t exactly sure how to envision them resulting in some pretty fun interpretations.  I had a really great DM who cave the Drow a less sinister and more “Moriarty” vibe, kind of that super intelligent type of villain.  It imprinted this module in my mind for all time and I just knew it had to be on this list.

This module featured a compelling story that escalated upwards from start to the most climatic and unexpectedly epic ending, it featured lots of tough fights, lots of dungeon crawling and exploring and plenty of unique role-playing opportunities and problems to solve.  These modules are definitely among my most memorable campaigns I experienced as a player and unlike many modules on this list, it has been converted to several modern D&D systems.  I had the pleasure of playing both the 1st edition and 3rd edition versions.  Both were excellent.

9) Keep on the Borderlands

Nothing says classic D&D to me like Keep on the Borderlands.  To this day their is a copy of this module among my collection of books and while I don’t think its a particularly extraordinary module even for its time, what it lacked as a module,  it made up in the purity of its D&D’ness.  It is the essence of classic D&D game-play and has served as an introduction to D&D for just about every group of players I have ever DM’ed for.

Classic modules like Keep on the Borderlands are nostalgia bottled up, its as much a piece of D&D as the funky dice themselves.

While it was a simple cliche it did feature a sort of open endness that I think Gygax was trying to convey, a sort of mini campaign module rather than a linear story.  The idea was that you would explore the keep, areas around the keep and ultimately find your way to the Caves of Chaos.  Each area with its classic D&D moves like Giant Spiders, Mad Hermits and those lovable Kolbolts.

More than anything though Keep on the Borderlands is a great introduction to being a DM as its easy to run, offers plenty of workable NPC characters all the while keeping things nice and simple.  Great module that has created many great memories, worthy of finding a place on this list.

8) The Tomb of Horrors

There are a lot of reasons to love a module as either a GM or a player but for me personally The Tomb of Horrors is the module I pull out when it’s time for a campaign to end.   When characters have become so powerful that there really seems like there is no way to challenge them anymore.  In comes Tomb of Horrors, sure to challenge any player no matter how god like they become.  The truth is that, there has never been a more sure fire way to ensure a painfully and horrific end for an adventure party then this largely mean spirited, but wonderfully designed module.

A more appropriately named module/dungeon has never existed, it really is one of the most impossible adventures to complete. Even in 4e it was stupidly hard, a recipe for a TPK if there ever was one.

Now of course to the players this is the ultimate challenge, if you can simply survive it and walk out with treasure you have done well, if you can reach any level of success beyond that as far as I’m concerned you have won D&D.  Pulling it out and setting it on the table lets the players know that, this is the big show, it’s time to put on your big boy pants and most importantly to hug your character sheet one last time.

My groups in the past that I have run this game for have always taken it in the spirit for which it is intended, it’s a challenge, it’s the end of a campaign and everyone simply looks forward to discovering the horrible way their characters meets their maker.

One other thing, as it is a great challenge to be a player in this module, it is also the ultimate challenge for a DM to run.  Its an absolute blast to see how this massive dungeon crawl is connected and intertwined, it requires a high level of understanding of the module and for the sadistic GM who loves a challenge, its just pure joy.

7) Dragonlance Series (Dragons of …)

In D&D there are several very famous and recognizable names, Weis and Hickman are among perhaps the most recognizable after Gygax.  The Dragons of Novels are among my favorite and of course to be able to re-create the story in an a D&D module series using unique characters creates an opportunity for an epic campaign, and epic is exactly what Dragonlance is all about.  There are tons of modules to this series that will take you through the entire storyline, it would be hard to pick a favorite, but as a whole it’s an absolute blast even if you have read the novels and know the story.  It’s a little like watching Star Wars, there is a comfort to the story that supersedes the need for something new.  It sort of taps into that inner child.

If as a DM you want a complete story driven campaign that is sure to be memorable, you really can’t go wrong with the Dragons of series.

For me personally however it was always an adventure series that introduced us in great detail to the Dragonlance setting which was a kind of cross between being more down to earth middle ages Europe with a extremely high fantasy twist, full of Tolkien epic level storytelling.  Of course the core of the story is a great war that involves Dragons giving players an opportunity to face the ultimate in D&D enemies.  There is something magical about knowing at a early humble beginning of an adventure that to finish it you will need to fight dragons.

Absolutely love this series and if you have a group of players that don’t know the story, its really a must run campaign!

6) Hollowfaust: The City of Necromancers

I remember when 3rd edition was first released very clearly because the era of D&D being first in line at game tables had come and gone.  White Wolfs World of Darkness was front and center, everyone was playing Vampires and the company itself was jam packed with amazing writers who where creating stories unlike anything we had ever seen before.  It was very dark, there was a sense of dread to everything put out by White Wolf, in a sense, they evolved the genre of RPG to include adult themes and the timing was perfect as all of us old school RPG’ers were quite a bit older then in the days of D&D.

The Scarred Lands is without question one of the most unique settings for D&D, for some it might almost be too bizzare. Places like Hollowfaust really break the mold of what a Fantasy City is.

When White Wolf announced that they were going to create a D&D setting, it was a very exciting moment and really brought us back to high fantasy D&D.  What would a White Wolf D&D setting look like!?  Well they gave us the wonderful Scarred Lands, without question one of my all time favorite D&D settings.  Among some of the themes and concepts of Scarred Lands we got what really is without question one of my favorite places in any setting, Hollowfaust, The City of Necromancers.

Now while its technically a source book and not a module, the Hollowfaust source-book for Scarred Lands was jam packed with adventure ideas, hooks, locations and characters that were more then sufficient to run a very long and exciting campaign.  It’s a page turner, one that will inspire you to run a type of D&D adventure no other module could ever really do.

Easily one of the most memorable D&D supplements of the 3rd edition era in what is without question one of the best and most creative D&D settings to be created.  No surprise to me at all that it was created by brilliance of White Wolf Publishing who at the time was quite literally the center for creativity in the RPG market.  This book is so good that even if you don’t like RPG’s but just like to read fantasy its worth getting and reading, its that good.

5) Ravenloft

If Hollowfaust is one of the most memorable places in D&D, certainly Count Strahd Von Zarovich has got to be one of the most memorable villains in D&D.  A rich, fleshed our character that brought a sense of renaissance to D&D, and really showed off how much more creative the game can be beyond the standard fantasy cliches.  This module was all about the infamous vampire with whom the players must play a cat and mouse game, one left up to the a wide range of circumstances for which it was impossible to prepare for.  I think really that’s what made the module so memorable for me, every time you faced Strahd it would be in unexpected circumstances that no matter how hard you tried to prepare for you never could be quite ready.

Strahd makes a return in 5th edition, I’m not surprised. 5e was really trying hard to capture the old classic feel of D&D and nothing says D&D like a return trip to Castle Ravenloft.

While certainly Strahd took center stage in this module, really this entire module is filled with vivid and imaginative writing that really inspire and give you a sense of place and time.  The lands of Barovia, Castle Ravenloft and the rich history written into the main NPC’s of the story gave the entire thing almost a sense of proper literature. It inspired an entire setting that was created around it.  In my humble opinion this was among the best ever written for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, a part of D&D history that no fantasy fan should miss.  Its as valid and exciting today as it was way back then.

4) The Red Hand of Doom

In my humble opinion while the amount of material, in particular modules that where written for 3rd and 3.5 editions for D&D was enormous, there actually where very few that truly stood out from the crowd.  The Red Hand of Doom was definitely among them and comes in at number 4 of my top favorites.  There is no doubt my love for Richard Baker’s writing and style played a big part in my appreciation for this module, but it was in fact one of the most unique and challenging modules to come out of 3rd edition era.

Red Hand of Doom really put the players in the position of leadership, its about the equivalent to a D&D version of Star Wars: A New Hope. A rag tag group of rebels fighting against impossible odds.

The Red Hand of Doom was really much more then a module, it was really the basis for an entire campaign, one driven by concepts like mass combat, politics and open ended conflict.  It certainly had a structure going from A to Z, but really it gave the players an enormous amount of freedom.  It was one of those open play modules that really could and most likely did go just about anywhere for every group that ran it.  It was generic enough to fit into any fantasy setting world, yet specific and unique enough to really inspire the imagination and set a strong sense of time and place.

Of course this in itself would not have been enough to catapult it this high on the list, it also boasted some wonderfully written characters and places, memorable not only for their personalities, but for how they where designed mechanically.   Among my favorites was the Half-Dragon commander of the force that stood against you Azarr Kul, oh what a bastard he was.  This is one of those modules that really had a bit of everything in just the right proportions to keep it fresh, thinky and fun to both run and play.  More than any other module on this list, this is one that still very much begs to be played regardless of which D&D system you prefer.

3) Test of the Warlords

Ok into the top 3 now, this is definitely among the best of the best.  For me, Test of the Warlords was an absolute must add to this list, I knew the moment I decided to make it.  Test of the Warlords is a high level campaign adventure built around the concept of exploration and settling of a wild frontier.   Players take on the roles of kingdom builders, working their way from humble explorers to kings of country.  This is another end game module, one that will not only test the skills of the players but their ability to conceive and create a D&D empire of their own, one among a politically heated environment designed around some truly fantastic characters.

Its truly a rare D&D campaign I run that is not influenced by this module in some way even if I’m not directly running it. For such a slim product, its amazing how much you get out of it.

This was Game of Thrones before there was a Game of Thrones full of life and plenty of room for a GM to get creative.  I have run this module as a campaign more times then I can count, its an absolute masterpiece in my eyes.

2) Temple of Elemental Evil

This shows up on a lot of top 10 lists and its no surprise to me.  This classic master piece is without question the best module created during the TSR era.  It really is the foundation for everything that D&D stands for and aspires to be.  From the humble beginnings of would be adventure wet behind the ears to heroes of the realm facing gods themselves.

I have run this adventure/mini campaign at least a dozen times at this point, no group has ever succeeded to date. It’s a true role-playing challenge.

This is a module that covers the entire spectrum of fantasy adventure from mystery, horror, to dungeon crawls and politics.  Players can approach this campaign from a uncanny amount of angles with its open ended experience, with new tests of courage around every corner.

Sure at this point perhaps its a walking, talking cliche, but D&D cliches were invented somewhere and there is no doubt in my that this module defined many of them.  Absolutely love it, as valid today as the day it was written.

1) Morricks Mansion

Ok here we go, my top, favorite module of all time for D&D absolutely has to go to Morricks Mansion brought to you by the masters of darkness, White Wolf Publishing.  Without a doubt one of the most creative story’s ever put to paper into a D&D module, its creepy mystery, fantastic back story and awesome NPC characters make this adventure absolutely pure joy to run.  White Wolf really put their best foot forward with this one, yet oddly I rarely find it on anyone’s top 10 list.

Morricks Mansion is in that sweet-spot level wise (3-5) in which 3rd edition was at its best.

If you really want to surprise the hell out of your players with a true master piece, this is one of those movie moment adventures that will more then deliver.  Its certainly very different from your typical fantasy trope adventure and this definitely one of the core reasons why it sticks out in my mind, but more then that its about the fantastic back story that delivers on all pistons.

Pitch perfect must play module!

D&D: The GameMaster Theory

I rarely write either RPG articles or theory articles, but I think I should given that this blog was always intended to handle all forms of table top gaming and role-playing definitely falls into that category.  In particular however that I actually do love RPG’s and play them as often as I can.

I actually kicked off this blog with articles about D&D several years back,  so I thought why not get back into the spirit of things by continuing kind of where I left off.

One aspect I love to explore about D&D is its rich history as a game, fandom that is associated with it and the many different versions and variations of D&D that have been released since Gygax’s original work.   This goes far beyond simply editions of the game as we have seen offshoots, based on re-imaginings and even spoofs.  More than that though I love to muse about the theories and ideas behind being a great GM and this will be the topic of today.

Hackmaster is one of the more curious games to come out with the D&D premise, in this case it was originally a spoof of the game.

First I would like to say that I think Gygax, no matter what he ever said or thought about how his game was treated after he himself stopped working on it, he certainly should be proud of the legacy and fans he created.  His passing was a great loss to the RPG community, but really his creativity lives on and among gamers, having a story about how you played D&D in the past, is perhaps one of the most common things most table top gamers share.  Few of us will ever see the day where we create something that wonderful, it really is a lifetime achievement.

With Gygax’s passing, the RPG community lost one of the greats but it should never be forgotten how controversial many of his ideas about RPG’s are today.

Despite this however Gygax’s work is often seen in the light of what he started, rather then a body of work that is relevant in today’s gaming communities.  This irks me personally because I actually believe his original writing still trumps everything that has come out since.  He isn’t a classic original to me, he is a master who’s work is as relevant today as it was the day it was created.

For me personally their is a lot of nostalgia built into the 1st Advanced Dungeons & Dragons edition as its the first version of D&D and RPG I ever played.  That said, I do continue to use it, in particular my Gamemasters guide which I see as a platform for inspiration and as a backdrop for the creation of adventures in fantasy worlds even when using other rule systems.  I believe it to be as valid today as it was back then and in a lot of ways, it is behind almost all of the success I have ever had as a GM.  No other GM guide ever written since has provided me with the same level of input and conceptual ideas as this book.

While 1st edition Advanced D&D was not the first version of the game, to me, in these original works they were still trying to find the game. 1st edition AD&D really was the first complete vision for the game.

People (friends) often ask myself why I value this ancient and outdated tomb to modern books, a question I hate answering in person as it usually leads to conceptual arguments but… in my blog, I don’t have to entertain arguments so I will explain it.  I believe the answer is that Gygax spoke of the GM in a unique way, a way that modern RPG’s no longer do, perhaps my biggest beef with modern RPG’s in general.

In Gygax’s writings the GM is the creator of all things, the master of the game and perhaps most importantly the master of the rules.  This concept is often frowned upon in modern RPG gaming environments as it has a totalitarian, almost tyrannical feel to it.  It suggests that the GM is more important then the rules, the other players and their characters.  Its with this interpretation of Gygax’s original GM bible that I have issue with because I believe it to be both a very narrow interpretation and not at all in the spirit of the writing, yet it is a quite common interpretation and outlook on the book in modern RPG communities.  In fact its often reflected onto the man himself.

I believe Gygax’s GM guide, the bible as I like to call it, made clear that the GM was the author of the world, the story and the adventure.  He is the creator and that does have certain privileges in the participation of mutually experienced, interactive storytelling game that is role-playing. But, and this is the most important message of the book, everything, the writing, the creativity, the adventure, the game session, all of it is created solely for the benefit of his audience, the players.  Unlike is often suggested about Gygax and his writings, he valued players most of all.  With the caveat of course that the players represent characters in a story that may not necessarily, in fact should not according to the bible, turn out how the players expect or even hoped it does.  In fact, like all good story’s it should be filled with trials and tribulations and often end in sadness and tragedy as so often the best story’s do.

I always liked this second cover for Dungeon Masters Guide much more then the original.

In essence Gygax’s was a purist and something of a historian, clearly well read,  he understood that happy endings generally don’t make for a good story, an aspect of the art of creative writing and storytelling that has been lost in the 21st century.  I think the reason people believe that Gygax and his 1st edition were tyrannical and negative is because people have grown accustomed to a guaranteed happy ending, one that is expected, one that is in line with their hopes and most important one they feel control over.

A good example is the story of Romeo and Juliet.  Today, such a story would be rejected, seen as a poor ending, but Shakespeare, quite possibly one of the greatest masters of storytelling understood how powerful a tragic and unexpected ending could be and his writings are full of them.  Imagine if that story ended with Romeo and Juliet living happily ever after, would it have been as powerful, as popular and as memorable?  I’m certain that it would not.

This is what Gygax was driving at with the GM Guides approach to adventure writing and author control.  He understood that it was more important to tell a powerful story, one which surprised, or even better shocked their audience, rather then one that was predictable and concluded in an expected way.  The only way to ensure that is to allow the GM license to author, to create adventures that were quite obviously rigged to favor the direction the GM wants the story to go as opposed to where the players are trying to will it to go, which in modern games is done through the manipulation of the mechanics.

In modern RPG’s what we have is two key presumptions that always ring true.  The players are the heroes of the story and they will always succeed in the end.  A tragedy or surprise in a modern RPG session is that a character dies, a concept in itself often considered controversial, one that should be left to the rules to resolve as opposed to a GM’s interventions and in fact, its expected that the intervention of a GM will come in a form of saving a character, not ending one.  Its considered wrong for a GM to rig the death of a character, often its considered wrong to let the rules of the game end a character,  all signs of a bad GM in the eyes of modern gaming “think”.

While I actually thought the 4th edition DM guide was well written and spoke to the modern RPG gamer, 4th edition itself was almost completely empty of Gygax’s magic touch.

Now what is the cause of this turn from darkness and tragedy to light hearted happy endings?  The game.  Yes, RPG’s have become more game and less story.  We now want the rules of the game to govern when, where and how a character meets his end and when an adventure succeeds or fails with a clear expectation that the GM will drive them to success and prevent tragedy.  In my eyes, this is terrible.  One of the most powerful pieces of storytelling has been lost, the ability for the author of the story to steer it into the surprises and tragedies for the benefit of creativity and memorable moments.

Now I will argue as devils advocate and say that sometimes the rules do come through and create wonderful moments as well, but we are literally rolling the dice to see if that happens and in my experience these memorable moments are few and far in-between by comparison to the old days of a well scripted and planned tragedy or an unexpected twists.   More importantly, they feel more forced then the manipulations of a GM as the mechanics of the game and of the characters can be designed for success.  Often it’s something simple like “the door is locked and no you can’t pick it and you don’t know why”.  Oh you have lock picking at +1000 and can pick all locks with 100% efficiency so you want a roll to see if your successful?  Sure as a GM I can let you roll the dice and lie to you about how you failed anyway, but what is the point of that?  In my eyes, obvious manipulation of the rules as defined by modern games, puts to question the reason to have them.  Is it not the same thing that Gygax is saying anyway, that, the GM is the master of the game and embodies the powers that govern the laws of the universe?  Its called The GameMaster for a reason, these words were not chosen frivolously, there is power in them with a purpose.

Rules heavy games like GURPS are also fun, there is a lot to be said about a rules driven RPG, but the experience is very different.

I digress, my point here is that Gygax understood how to create a great story and he understood that the GM would need to take a lot of liberties to ensure those powerful moments, those twists, all those surprises materialize.  His Gamemasters guide defines these aspects in great detail, even going so far as Gygax arguing with his own words to make the point, a style of writing I often use myself.

The point is that the GM effectively has to cheat and Gygax was ok with it and so am I, but I think its important to note that it was underlined that its not really cheating because the rules are not that well defined very intentionally, hence left for interpretation.  Its why I call it a bible as it means something different to each person that reads it, much of what is in the GM guide is, is up for interpretation but its made clear that the authority on how it should be interpreted is the GM.  Unfortunately because of this interpretive aspect of the book, people often missed his point of why its setup this way.

The question we must then ask is,  is if this is fair?  Is it fair that one player in the game gets to decide what happens, rigs the mechanical portions of the game to create the experience he wants everyone else to have and to ensure events transpire as written and planned?  No of course its not fair, but the GM is not a player, he is your narrator, the person bringing you the adventure, he is not governed by mechanical rules and its this key aspect of the original GM guide for 1st edition D&D that is at the center of the theory behind how the GM should conduct himself.  It a responsibility to create an experience that feels fair, but clearly behind the screen is not.

His story is there for you to experience and since you have no idea how it will turn out, whether its the dice that lead you to that end, or the manipulation of events by the GM is completely irrelevant and would be indistinguishable to you if you were not aware of the rules of the game.  The dice are a meaningless component in the story and play a small role at best.  You don’t know what will happen either way and it will be surprise dice or no dice, the difference is that the dice will make it random, often anti-climatic, while a storyteller, a good GM that is, will always make it an amazing one or at least that is the aspiration.

Modules are a big part of D&D and may seem contrary to Gygax’s theories since they are usually very mechanical, but if you really read some of the original works you’ll find that the spirit of creating atmosphere is always at the center of every module written for D&D in the early days.

This is not to say that players should not have any influence over the story, again the GM guide speaks to this as well.  The players should most definitely contribute to the moments in the story in their control.  Its their dialogue, their choices, their responses to what is happening that are most important.  This however is always an illusion of control, one players insists on having rules dictated in some vein effort to grasp the reigns of control, but the dice are as much an illusion of control as the players involvement in shaping the story.  They certainly will experience the story from their own perspective, its why dialogue and the common question from the GM is “what do you want to do”, but at the highest level of storytelling is this simple fact.  You will experience the GM’s creation as he has written it, attempting to manipulate it with dice will not change this aspect, or perhaps better to say it should not.  Its more likely that using dice to determine the story will derail the planned twists and create a lesser experience, but its not going to give you any additional control.

And so this is the point.  The GM is the master of the game, let him do his thing, this is what the 1st edition GM Guide, Gygax’s greatest contribution to role-playing tells us.  Its the GM’s job to create the illusion, its the players place to sit back and enjoy it from the perspective of an interactive character.  This is what role-playing is to me and while I know countless players would argue the opposite, to me, much of the art and creativity of the game has been lost as a result of this awkward shift to letting rules govern the game.  Its also why I consider Gygax’s Dungeon Masters Guide for 1st Edition D&D the single and quite possibly only worthy source for becoming a great GM.

One final aspect of GMing I think the Gygax touched on is the concept of adaptive play, something I think a lot of GM miss the point of.  The idea is simple, you create story’s for your players, hence you must know what kind of story’s your players love and give those story’s to them with a twist.  Another words, this idea that the GM is a Tyrant and runs the story he wants to run, is wrong and not supported by Gygax’s writing though for some reason its an idea always attributed to him.  This is not at all what he is talking about when he talks about the GM’s powers and how to apply them.  In his and my eyes, its vital that you create story’s that are built around the characters, around the players preferences and always for their benefit.  Hence in a lot of ways, the act of a GM is creating a story that the players requested and often this meta conversation is what doesn’t take place between GM and players.  It must.

Gygax’s modules were always rich with story but some were very fighty. This is because he understood the concept of adaptive play, that, sometimes players just want to fight their way out of problems and that’s fine too.

If your players want a political thriller and you give them a dungeon crawl, you are not going to be successful no matter how well written, planned and executed the story is.  More importantly, you will still be a shit GM, because the core, fundamental rule for a GM is that you are a host, the entertainment and your audience is the single most important and only reason you are creating and telling a story.  If you miss that, everything else you do right will be in vein.

So that is my interpretation and theory on being a good GM.  In short, listen to Gygax, but really listen to him, not to the presumptions and discussions about his work, read the book, absorb the book and understand what ideas about the GM he is presenting.  If you can manage to do that and take his advice, you will be a great GM.

 

 

The Mystery Of A Classic

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1st edition AD&D, love it or hate it, is the definitive root from which the entire D&D franchise and quite possibly role-playing itself has sprouted. It sits on a pedestal of nostalgia, immortalized for all time more often by those who have barely played it or opened the dusty tome of secrets that is the core system than those that actually did.

Today we are going to explore the myth that is AD&D, in particular where this myth comes from and how it has affected our nostalgic sense of Gygax’s original work.

Before we get started however let’s speak frankly for a second first. For all its nostalgic qualities and happy memories it has provided over the years, when you actually read the rules of the game and hold them up against the 40 years of design experience AD&D is a really shitty game. Release AD&D today under a different name and it would be unlikely that anyone would ever publish it, let alone buy it or play it. Even for a nostalgic throwback game, there are better options available today. Even Gygax himself played Castles and Crusades over his own invention. AD&D’s claim to fame is based more on the timing of its release rather than the quality of its design. Gygax was a genius, but it wasn’t because he was a great designer or even a particularly good writer, he is a genius because he had a brilliant, original idea and the understanding that D&D’s appeal is its mystery, the great vale of fantasy. In another words he was a visionary and like all visionaries, it wasn’t that they were experts in their particular field but they created or discovered something original.

For years designers have been working on a way to live up to the nostalgic sense that AD&D induces in people but have been met with picket signs at every step by holistic purists who hold their 1st edition AD&D DMG up like the word of god. An odd sentiment given that from a design perspective the game is inferior to modern versions of the game. It’s been a difficult journey and it’s doubtful there is any circle among the D&D hobby where purists aren’t constantly holding back the franchises efforts for modern design, hell I count myself among them. Even in my previous article I set the standard of what to me qualifies as a great version of D&D and holding up tradition was among the short list of requirements. Every edition and sub edition over the years has tried to rise out of AD&D’s shadow in some way, but the truth is that we have made the shadow so big that the franchise is doomed to spend eternity in a time loop. No greater evidence can be presented than the rejection of 4th edition, a modern design and the creation of 5th edition, the latest edition, a clear throwback to old school thinking.

4th edition represents in every way that matters a rebellion against Gygaxian philosophy and design, a look into what the future of D&D could have been while 5th edition represents the apology and admission of a humble defeat postmortem, forever bowing to its master. In the end the purists won, 5th edition is nothing short of a throwback, an attempt to appease its fan base and bring the game back to familiar traditions. It’s an apology for 4th edition and in many ways an apology for not listening to its disgruntled fan base. The question is why? What is this holy fanaticism that is permanently etched into D&D player’s minds that has us constantly looking back? Is it really the design? Am I wrong here, was 1st edition AD&D really an ingenious game not just because it was an original but because THAC0 was in fact a better design?

Understanding why is the key to understanding both the present and the future of D&D and naturally, since it’s my blog, I have a theory.

I believe the secret sauce is that AD&D always has and continues to have a lot of mystery surrounding it. A sort of shadow that looms over the books, the rules themselves and the themes it presents and how it presents them. There is an intangible quality to its imperfections and indeed it’s the imperfections, the messiness of it that make it work. There is a sort of naïveté to the writing and to the design and a handing of the torch of creativity to the DM by an inexperienced creator and predecessor. It’s a game that’s up for interpretation, but that interpretation is assumed to be in the hands of the games Dungeon Master, god for all intense and purposes, which in turn creates mystery for both the narrative of the game, as well as what the rules of the game really are for the players. From a player’s perspective, role-playing under 1st edition AD&D was not just a discovery of the game world and the DM’s imaginative creations, but of the very boundaries and physical nature of how the game works. There is a built in social order to the work too, its presumptuous in its tone, written less as an instruction manual on how the mechanics of the game work and more a philosophy, a bible if you will, about how the mysterious art of role-playing works, which itself is filled with grey areas and omissions to be filled in by its god. Only the most basic outline of the game is provided to the players in the Players Handbook, the Dungeon Master Guide however is where the heart of the system exists, the bible of the game and one intended for DM eyes only.

This looming mystery creates mental pictures for the participants because there is little physical material to look at or hang your hat on. There are grey areas everywhere and without clarity we evolved a sense of imagination, the driving force of mystery and fantasy.

Perhaps I’m wrong, but for me, in a nutshell, 1st edition AD&D’s greatest asset as a game is that the rules of the game were largely unknown to the players. There is flexibility in this approach, in that, as players you aren’t expected to know how things work but rather expected to try things to see how they work. A process of discovery to which there was no conclusion thanks to the nearly infinite possibilities of a fantastically magical setting and the fact that the DMG was frankly very unclear about what the rules actually are.

Mysteries however are only mysteries until they are unveiled and in that is the hidden differentiation between 1st edition AD&D and everything that came afterwards. 1st edition AD&D was empowering because it did not define the rules clearly, it presumed the dungeon master would invent a great deal of it himself, forcing players to discover what those rules are during play. That’s the secret sauce of the mystery.

Once the mystery of D&D was solved, once the rules are known, made clear and once we understand what the rules are, the game is unmasked, its weaknesses exposed. This is the case in modern versions of the game where there are no mysteries to begin with, the rules are hard coded there is nothing left for interpretation, they are very clear. This is what modernization has done to D&D. It has unmasked the game, exposed it to scrutiny, we have handed over the DMG, the bible of the god who runs the game and asked for the player participant’s opinion, than outlined the process in a step by step instructional manual. It’s akin to revealing the odds of a slot machine, you might be better informed by knowing them, but the wonder of pulling the lever and hoping to win millions is broken by the reality of knowing you stand virtually no chance to do so.

You might argue (and you would be right) that AD&D’s mask was a thin veil at best to begin with. Clearly plenty of people read the DMG cover to cover even back then, but the reality was that the book was about empowerment of the DM because it understood that the DM is the storyteller, it understood that D&D wasn’t a game, but an experience. It understood that the game wasn’t about rules.

It must have been a disappointing experience to read the 1st edition AD&D DMG for players only to find out that the book really was nothing more than vague suggestions for the DM on how to run his games. What was really revealed is the fact that the Dungeon Master himself is the Wizard of Oz and his only power was the very thin veil he kept over your eyes, the one you just tore off by reading the book. There really where no secret rules, or unsolved mysteries revealed. The exploration of the rules through play was a fictitious game made up just like the story’s of the alter ego’s the players would go on in the game. The revelation was meaningless except for one thing, there was nothing left to reveal to you about the game afterwards. Simply reading and understanding how the magic trick was done, broke the spell.

Gygax persuaded players to avoid revealing the secrets of the DMG to themselves and those that adhered where treated to the wonders of it. Reading the DMG back than was the equivalent of reading the adventure before you joined it as a player.

This is at the heart of the problem of trying to re-invent the nostalgia of AD&D in modern versions of D&D and why the nostalgia exists in the first place. As a player who experienced that mystery and then became a god and watched others experience it, I know the desire of wishing there was a way to go back. There simply isn’t. For one modern gamers expect the rules to be clear, the game has evolved and a lack of clarity is seen as an obstacle rather than a mystery to be unveiled during play by the DM. Secondly, modern DMG’s have important rules that are clearly for the players, for example in 3rd edition you had prestige classes which clearly are player material infused into the DMG. In a sense, players had to read them.

I believe that modern role-playing hobbyist who did not experience the wonder and mystery of playing a game whose rules they did not know missed the golden age of the hobby. Their understanding of what D&D could be, or perhaps dare I say should be, can never be properly conveyed. I know that Gygax for years tried to break through to modern gamers and designers by example and I often wonder how many people got the message.

There is still mystery to be had in D&D, naturally the story the DM has prepared for you can have plenty of unexpected twists and turns which can result in plenty of fuel for the imagination, but there is a big distinction between the mystery of a story and the mystery of the game. 1st edition AD&D had both and it was thanks to the fact that the game was less defined, less refined and empowering. It gave the powers of creativity to the DM not just over the story, but the rules that governed it. The DMG was truly a guide, it lived up to its name, a place where modern versions of the same book do little more than provide clear and coherent rules with the expectation that both the DM and the players will read them.

I mourn the loss of this mystery, I think a piece of the game was lost when we set our focus on concepts like streamlining, clarity and transparency. The position of the DM in modern versions of D&D is more as an arbitrator of the rules and every DM today knows the feeling of having the rules quoted to them from a book that once was intended for his eyes only. In the end, this was the genius behind Gygax’s work, he understood that the draw, the thing that made his work special was that he empowered DM’s to keep that thin veil over the eyes of his audience and like a good magician, he expected a good DM would never reveal the secrets.

D&D 5e: The Advantage System

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When I first read 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons I didn’t pay much attention to new Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic, I thought it was interesting but really didn’t consider its implications to the game. After having played about 100 hours of 5th edition D&D I have discovered that not only is this a foundation mechanic for the system, but when used to its full effect creates one of the best role-playing experiences I have ever had D&D or otherwise. How does such a small, seemingly simple mechanic make such a huge difference? Well, its all about application and understanding its purpose as a narrative tool.

To really understand why the advantage system is such a piece of genius in D&D you have to understand the core problem with all editions of Dungeons and Dragons, one that each edition has tried and failed to fix. That problem is that as long as D&D has been around, the line between the story of the game (the narrative) and combat has always been very thick. It’s a massive gap really. The moment combat starts there is a subtle but noticeable shift from seeing the game as a role-playing game and seeing it as a tactical combat game.

Each edition has handled this differently. In AD&D, combat was very fast and swingy. One way or the other it would end in a short few rounds so in essence AD&D didn’t do anything about it other than just keep combat fast so the temporary lull in the narrative is, well very temporary. It worked well enough but combat wasn’t particularly narrative, in particular if you brought out miniatures.

3rd edition tried to make combat more simulationist and as such, the mechanic defined a lot of the narrative for us as players were able to perform a large amount of actions during their turn covered by a very detailed rule system. Combat was extended a great deal in 3rd edition, but it depicted the action in greater detail. Still it wasn’t narrative, it was mechanical and it was easy to lose yourself in the nuances of the rules rather than maintain the nuances of the story.

4e very aware of this effect if you consider how it was designed, tried to simplify the rules, but elaborate a great deal on depicting the action. It worked wonders, the tactical game really told us a story. The drawback of this system though was that your actions where narrow, defined by what was on your character sheet and combat was extended even more, taking so long in fact that it could swallow up entire sessions. One of the longest standing criticisms of 4e is “not enough role-playing”, but that isn’t a stab at the combat systems depiction of the action, but rather the fact that it took so long you never got to the role-playing part of the game.

It’s clear that since Gygax’s original vision, the designers of the game have been aware of this problem on some level. How do you maintain the narrative element of the game and still have an interesting, tactical combat system that D&D deserves? Their answer is the Advantage and Disadvantage system. In an amazingly simple way they have not only merged mechanics and narrative flawlessly, but created the motivation for players and DM’s alike to be more descriptive and involve themselves deeper in the narration of the story.

Now I can’t be certain if it was the designer’s intention to make the advantage system the solution to this issue, but whether intentional or not they have done it. The thing is that when we are not in combat, we are doing collaborative storytelling, acting and speaking on the behalf of our characters, describing their actions and rolling the dice to see how our intended actions fared. So why is this approach not used in combat? In a sense that’s what 5e asked and the 5e combat system in particular the advantage system answered with.

See D&D has a tactical element, it always had, but no edition in the past has ever really tried to infuse the same narrative approach we have to the rest of the game into combat, into this tactical element. Another words, combat was always about working out the math, rather than working out what happens narratively (as is the case at every other moment when playing the game.).

The advantage system represents a non-mathematical way to maintain a tactical element in the game and encourage players to think about combat in a narrative way. Players describe their actions and can gain advantages and disadvantages based on what it is they actually attempt in combat. Do you rush a guy and grab for his weapon? Do you try to use your sword to reflect the sun into the eyes of the archer in the tree? Do you slide under the Ogres feet and attempt to cut him where the sun don’t shine? It’s difficult to come up with mathematical formula for those things. You can guess or you could create a complex series of rules that attempt to account for every conceivable situation but really, for a DM the “pick a value that represents this action” game is a burden. The advantage and disadvantage system however makes this easy by allowing you to simply respond with a positive or negative effect on any given action when considering its impact and like a roll at any time, create a narrative resolution which notably is backed by a rather traditional D&D combat mechanic (HP, AC, To Hit etc..).

EXAMPLE: Player: “Ok I position my sword to reflect the sun, shining the sun into the eyes of the archer in the tree”. DM: Make an deception roll, if you succeed the archer gets a disadvantage on his next attack roll, if you fail, you are unfocused and the next attack against you gains an advantage”. Done. No math, no fuss, great narrative, the players are imbued with endless possibilities for tactical action limited only by their imagination and the game doesn’t skip a beat.. next player!

What’s great is that you can utilize other parts of the system to help ensure the actions are driven by character abilities. Skill check, attribute checks, saving throws etc. In this case I chose a deception check but it could have as well been a dexterity check, an intelligence check. The idea being, that you and the player can work together to come to a conclusion about what makes the most sense.

The advantage system is so much more than just a narrative level to pull on however. Its built into the system, so gaining advantages and disadvantages creates opportunities to use different abilities and make decisions about your actions. For example in the above example if the character failed, he might decide that he is going to use the dodge action this turn since he is at a disadvantage, or if he succeeds in gaining the advantage he might decide to climb the tree and assault the archer knowing he has a good chance of being missed as he makes his ascend and a better chance of hitting him.

These opportunities for interesting narratives unfold very naturally, once players get into the mind set of using them, the game becomes about them and in turn becomes about narrative play. Yet the tactical element, the core rules of combat are maintained.

It’s a wonderful system but it does take practice and naturally like any mechanic it can be abused, maturity and understanding of its purpose and the larger purpose of the game as a whole as always is required for it to work well. None the less, it’s a wonderful system when you get it working and it really breathes new life into dungeons and dragons.

Yet another wonderful element of Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition!