Oh DM boy, the dice, the dice are calling…

Buckle up kiddies, we’re going deep into the weeds here. There’s a summary waaaay at the bottom.

Intro

The dice are indeed calling again. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd ed is the first game I played and ran back in college. The grand old game captured my imagination back in the day. It’s maintained it over the years and is still the edition I look most fondly on.

I have the black boarder books that came out near the end of the line. The art was not as good as earlier releases (the thief… oh gods the thief…), but it still stirs the imagination when I flip back through and reread the book. It brings me to a special state of mind.

Personal history

My interest in D&D started with advertising in comics and the animated series. Cheese and all, I love it and still rewatch episodes. They’re great background when grading papers.

In junior high school, one of the kids I looked up to turned me onto the Dragonlance novels. I was hooked. It’s still my favorite setting. I loved that my wife and I got to play through the War of the Lance campaign (though it was D&D 3.5).

Next I found the Ravenloft novels. I loved the Gothic horror and the classic monsters. Strahd was a compelling nemesis.

Around that time, I finally got to start playing (though only a handful of sessions). I quickly too the DM chair afterwards. I had no idea what I was doing nor did I understand all of the rules, but that seems like a rite of passage for a lot of players and Dungeon Masters.

Those were exciting days. I learned to improvise and think on my feet. I learned how to create stories and engage players. I learned how to come up with interesting set pieces and make up NPCs.

A year or two later, when 3rd ed D&D came out, we jumped to that setting, and the learning continued. I quickly learned the limitations of creating characters with multiple classes and not trying to optimize the build. I also learned that I didn’t like feats and having to master the system in order to keep up.

My preferences

You see, I’m more interested in the story than I am with mechanics. I prefer to come up with characters that interest me and characters I can explore their motivations and desires. I’m less interested in building characters for power.

I’m definitely not trying to say you can’t do BOTH. Not by a long shot. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve done it. It just doesn’t interest me. I either had to play along with learning the right chains of feats or I’d risk falling behind. I was more interested in developing my character through play than through mechanics.

The thing I loved about AD&D is that it felt like I had more freedom while playing. Feats didn’t exist then, so I didn’t have to worry about what special ability I needed to do something. If I wanted to charge an opponent and attack, I just did it.

Some differences between editions

In 3rd edition, there were feats that allowed you to do these things. It wasn’t obvious if you needed a particular feat or if that just made you better at doing it. It felt more limiting. You didn’t have to worry about spending skill points every level.

The fact that there were skills was nice though. There were fewer saves, and they were for very specific things. If you needed to avoid a hit, you rolled a reflex safe. If you took a hit, you might have to roll fortitude. If you need to shake something off, you would roll a willpower save. Older editions of D&D had a multitude of saves. Not that those didn’t make sense, there were just a lot to keep track of.

We’ve started playing 5th edition D&D. I like it well enough. They did a good job of streamlining a lot of the game. There are times it feels almost like AD&D.

I’ve started teaching a couple of new players 5e as their first edition. There is a lot for them to keep track of. It’s not as easy as I’d hoped. There’s also a lot of talks about builds and worrying about what archetype to take. For some reason, the word “build” makes my skin crawl a little when I think about D&D, because that’s the part I least like. I want a character to form organically, through play, not planning out levels in advance.

AD&D didn’t have any of that. If you were a non-human character, you couldn’t change your class (or classes!) that you started with. Humans could change, but only if their stats were high enough.

I find it somewhat difficult to teach some of my new players 5e. There is a lot to take in. Some things are easier though. Almost everything (except damage) is dealt with by rolling a 20 sided die (d20 in the parlance) and hoping to roll high. Otherwise, there are a lot of new ideas that you have to instill into players. There are a lot of features to each class, and it can be confusing to remember them all. I think we’ve used second wind once, maybe twice, because we usually don’t remember fighters have it, for example.

Classes in AD&D didn’t have all of the neat powers you find in 5e. You don’t have all the feats you had in 3e. You had a relatively sparse box with a new toys.

But that’s fine. I do some of my best work within the confines of boxes like these. Once I know the limitations, I can figure out what I can do within the box.

However, new players coming from video games are used to more special abilities. Some of the powers available to classes are downright cool. They add mechanical complexity though, and that can make things more difficult for players new to the system.

Breakdown

For me, the mechanics can get in the way of the story. The less rules there are, the easier it is for me to get immersed into the setting. Complex fight scenes make me think more about rules than about strategy and picturing what my character is actually doing. Worrying too much about rules may make me miss an opportunity to do something cool over the easy use of a power or spell.

With more mechanical bits, I feel like the game is showing how to play. With fewer examples, fewer class powers, it felt more like imagination was king. There were no feats telling me that with this power I could do… X. I felt more creative for having to come up with whatever X was on my own. I didn’t need the game to tell me I could do X. Of course you could try X. You may never try X again, but if you did, there was a house rule or DM ruling created because of X.

In editions with feats and powers, I feel like the game tells you that you can do X. Of course you can do X. Now that you’ve got the ability to do X, you’re going to try and do it all the time, instead of looking for Y or Z. You’ll wait until you get Y and Z as class features.

Older editions seem less forgiving (although a lot of that was dependent on the person running the game). Low attributes didn’t mean the character was unplayable, it meant you had to be smart. Now there are so many bonuses associated with attributes that playing a character with a low attribute is mroe of a challenge. It’s all about the bonuses. In older editions, you didn’t even start getting penalties because of low attributes until 7 (out of 18). Now, a 9 or lower is bad.

Balance

5th edition attempts to maintain player balance at each level. Hit points are raised (which is cool by me!). Every class gets something relevant at every level, if memory serves. 4th edition D&D even more so!

3rd edition was closer to AD&D in that regard, however. You had the problem of fighters being higher powered at lower levels, and wizards became more powerful at higher levels. This was described as liner fighters and quadratic wizards. Fighters pretty much progressed at a steady pace, and needed to protect others until the point where wizards got powerful enough to do more damage. Then the wizards got to do cool stuff and warriors mopped up. This is very much how earlier D&D games did it. And I’m okay with that. It made fighters easier to play for new players and wizards were the challenging class.

AD&D had some other ways to balance classes that later editions got rid of. First off, not every class leveled up at the same rate. Thieves were relatively low powered compared to other classes. They could back stab (later sneak attack), but they were lucky if they got that once a fight. They had a lot of other out of combat abilities though, and they were really handy to have in a fight. They were just low hit point (d6 per level) and didn’t get great weapons or armor. They leveled quickly though, so it soon became less of an issue. Do thief-type things, get better at it quickly, survive longer.

Fighters leveled up more slowly, but got great access to weapons and armor, and could hit more frequently faster than other classes. They could also hit more lower-leveled enemies as they got better, so they could clean up a battlefield quickly. They had great hit points (the mighty d10) and possibly a constitution bonus, so they could give and take hits. They had to play smart though, because they could still die after some good hits.

Wizards leveled even more slowly. But, once they got high enough in level (and were smart enough), they got access to truly powerful spells. They just had to be protected until they got there. They only had d4 hit points, so they were very fragile. Power came later.

Another way AD&D maintained balance is by limiting what type of class you could be and how far you could advance, depending on your character’s race. Dwarves, for example, could never be wizards an could only advance so far in fighter, cleric, and thief classes. This was done because several races had special abilities to help them early on, be it night vision, the ability to move silently and sneak up on foes, or the ability to find secret doors, etc. Humans got none of that, so they could go farther in any class. The other races had the ability to take more than one class at a time (mage/thief or fighter/cleric, for example) which was called multi-classing. Humans could only take one class at a time, but they could dual-class. They could start as a figher, for example, and at a later date decide that thief was more appropriate. They’d lose their fighter abilities in exchange for new thief-related abilities. It was a little more complex than that, but it’s the basics.

In exchange for more power, characters leveled more slowly. Balance. Now, that balance doesn’t mean that everyone is the same power all the time, and I’m okay with that. It just means that when working together in a team, everyone would eventually have the chance to shine.

Intermission

This really got away from me in a hurry, and if you’re still reading, congratulations on making it this far. I did say at the top that I’d be getting deep into the weeds.

Mechanics

Newer editions did a better job of unifying die rolls. You rolled a d20 and wanted to get high results from 3rd edition on. Unlike AD&D, which had different rolls for different things. Attribute checks meant rolling low on a d20. Thief skills were percentages. Finding secret doors were d6 checks. Initiative was… I want to say low on a d10.

It was a bit of a mess, to say the least.

But it was our mess. And the chances of success weren’t that bad, when you looked at the actual probability. Thieves were pretty bad at thieving for quite a while though.

The Summary

TLDR; I like AD&D because it had less mechanical rules for everything (though there are A LOT of rules!). I liked that the books didn’t have a power for everything and that it made me feel like I had to be more creative. I’m okay with the race and class restrictions. It takes me back to my early days gaming. I miss that feel.

Edition wars… Edition wars never change

I’m not interested in starting another edition war. You’ll see them all over if you start reading up on D&D. I play and like several editions. I’m even looking to try 4th edition D&D at some point. I like what I’ve read.

This is all about my preferences. I will happily discuss D&D all day long. I didn’t say argue. You love 3e? Ditto. I have some issues with later levels, but I’ve played it the most and would play it again. 5e? It’s fun and has a lot of positives. 4e? Cool! What do you enjoy? BECMI or AD&D or Basic or Rulecyclopedia? Kick ass!

Gaming is gaming. If you’re rolling dice and have fun, that’s what’s important. Not how someone else plays. You want to compare notes? Let’s talk!

My gaming habit, part 2

I miss playing West End Game’s classic d6 Star Wars. Back when there was an expanded universe but fewer movies, we were left wondering what the Clone Wars actually were, before Knights of the Old Republic, hell, before Shadows of the Empire, we had a lot more empty space to fill. I only got to play a few sessions here and there, but I enjoyed making characters and rolling fistfuls of dice. I’d like to play that again, or possibly run a campaign myself. It would be good for doing something like Firefly.

I think what I miss most is the feeling of the early sessions. I only played a session or two before I agreed to run my own game. I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t really know the system all that well, but I could tell a yarn and I played off of the players well. I’m good at thinking on my feet and rolling with things.

Growing up means I have the ability to afford books and supplies I didn’t used to be able to get (though the majority of my collection I bought back in college, used).

I miss the adventure of exploring something new. I think that’s why I’m constantly reading through RPG books. I get sparks of ideas as I read through the texts, inspirations and thoughts of what I’d like to do with a game.

My problem is I lack focus. I dive deep into something over a short period of time, until I feel that I know it so well… then it becomes old hat, and I start looking for that next hit of creativity.

That’s why I keep leaping to new experiences. I distro hop in Linux, trying out new programs and systems. I keep looking for the next big thing in web browsers. I read everything I can over gaming systems, trying to find the one that fits perfectly, right now.

But my tastes invariably change after a few weeks. A few things have kept my interest. White Wolf books are entertaining reads, as they’re less reference book and more purple prose. GURPS lets me model the real world and has tons (probably literally) of material available. D&D has become a cultural experience as it becomes more popular and wide spread. I like sharing war stories with other players and DMs.

I know what I crave too. I like things that are not too rules heavy (crunchy). I like having the freedom to play off of my players’ crazy ideas and say, “That sounds cool! Let’s see what happens,” and letting the dice fall where they may. I like lighter, story-driven systems. I like letting my imagination fly. I like it when players talk after the campaign about what happened during the game. I like building memories.

I just wish my mind was built for the long haul, instead of looking for the next hit of something new.

My gaming habit, part 1

I’m going to switch gears a little bit this time, and focus on rambling about tabletop gaming, mostly the noble RPG.

I won’t be diving into mechanics or resources. This is a 1000 ft overview (about 305 m for the rest of the world) of how the games make me feel. If you want to discuss mechanics or the like, leave a comment! I do enjoy getting into that kind of thing too.

Though I’ve had some dry spells, I’ve been gaming for a couple of decades now. I started with the second edition of AD&D. Looking back on it, it’s got a number of different die rolling mechanics all mixed together. Sometimes you want to roll high, some you want to roll low. Sometimes you roll a d6, a d10, a d20, or d%. Balance is done by making some classes advance more slowly or by limiting what some fantasy races can become. No dwarven mages or half-orc paladins in this game.

It’s weird, it’s not as streamlined as I remember, it can be a little punishing. …but I love it. It’s still one of my favorite games, because I didn’t know it all when I ran. I just ran it and made up rules on the fly.

Castles & Crusades is close to how that game played, but a little more streamlined. You want to roll high most of (all of? I can’t remember initiative rules) the time. They tried to unify how things work. Any fantasy race can be any class, but classes still advance at different speeds. Wizards require more experience to level up than rogues (or is it thieves?). It still has the old school feel, from what I understand anyway. I’ve never been able to get a group together to play.

I want to remedy that. I’d love to play, but I’d be happy to run.

We’ve been playing a lot more 5th edition D&D lately. It…. is okay. I like how simple it is to make up rulings as we go, and there are some interesting character options for classes and races. But it doesn’t excite me as much as older editions. I got to really dislike the complexity of 3.5 D&D. There was too much focus on character builds (even bringing up the world “build” in 5e gives me the shivers) and mastery of system mechanics in 3.5. I personally prefer characters to form more organically than worrying about what I can or will do 3, 4, 5 levels down the road.

It’s a fine game, it runs well, and it’s fun. It just doesn’t feel quite right to me. It’s probably my second favorite edition, but considering I’ve only played three different editions…

I’d like to give 4th edition D&D a shot. I listened to a lot of the complaints gamers had when it came out and worried it “wasn’t D&D” enough. I started to get into it more after reading 13th Age. I like the strategy involved with combat (I’ve considered getting into war gaming), I like the changes to lore, and I like the ease of building balanced encounters. I just haven’t tried it yet. Again, most folk aren’t super enthusiastic about it. Still, I collect some of the books. I love the artistic choices in the books I have.

Speaking of 13th Age, I love what they’re trying to do with the game. It’s made by former D&D designers (from both 3rd and 4th editions of D&D) and it’s the game that they play, using mechanics from their creations. But they made it into something lighter than either version of D&D and focus more on story.

Damage and hit points do get amazingly high, but they increased damage as well, to balance things. Characters only go up to 10th level in the core book, but the players have much more say in the setting, with the One Unique Thing that makes their character different and the creation of backgrounds instead of skills.

There is a free System Reference Document if you’re interested. The core book is one of the easiest reads I’ve ever had with an RPG product. It’s more conversational tone with the creators even bouncing ideas back and forth and at the readers.

GURPS holds a special place in my cold, black heart. We even named our dog Gurps. I have a slight preference for the 3rd edition over the newer 4th edition, but that’s partly because I have a LOT of books for the older edition. They’re nearly the same, with a few tweaks for playability sake in the 4e book.

GURPS lets you design characters at a much more granular level than D&D. You spent points on attributes instead of rolling for them (by default! I know there are other ways of making characters in D&D). There are no classes (though you can add templates!), so you can pick and choose skills as you want (with GM oversight into what is an isn’t allowed in that particular game). You can get a good feel for who you are playing with Advantages (which cost points) and Disadvantages (which give you points), though a clever player can attempt to game the system. There is one primary mechanic for the game, which is nice.

GURPS is, however, more of a toolkit for making your own game than a complete game. This means that there is no defined world, lore, or the like. The Game Master (that GM again) is expected to decide what extra books they’re using (if any), which skills are relevant, which Ads and Disads are okay, etc. It’s work on the front end, but easier on the back end.

Character creation can be more complex, but once you’re done, the character sheet has most of the info you need. Combat can be complex or simple, depending on what rules the GM is allowing and which they’re ignoring.

It definitely isn’t a game for everyone, but it does try to be any game for those who enjoy it. It also lets you organically grow your characters. The books are dense and read more like a textbook, but the splat books (extra books with additional material) are great for just about any game, if you ignore the GURPS-specific material. They’re well researched.

That leaves White Wolf and their catalog of games. My personal favorite is Vampire: the Masquerade. I love the lore. I’ve been reading the books for fun, because they’re written more like fiction with some mechanics hidden inside. Like GURPS, it’s a point buy system with an easy (though different) mechanic.

There are less options than in GURPS (which can be a good thing). It doesn’t try to model everything (like GURPS does). I think I prefer the tone of earlier editions of the book, where you focus on taking a human, turning them into a monster, then watching them try to deal with the downward spiral as they fight their nature (with nature almost ALWAYS winning in the end!) than the world-spanning plots in later editions. Not that those can’t be fun!

I find myself reading White Wolf game books more frequently because they’re meant to be read, not necessarily studied. All of the games use the same basic mechanics, though the themes, powers, abilities, etc. can vary from game-to-game.

I’m pushing over 1,200 words already and there are other games I’d like to talk about (I’m looking at you, West End’s D6 system!). I’ll save those for later.

If you’ve gotten this far and aren’t completely board off your chair, you’re a personal hero of mine!

So much for stagecraft…

Yesterday, I ran my 5e D&D game through a few side quests in the Lost Mines of Phandelver module in the Dungeons & Dragons starter set. I was running them through the scene with the banshee.

It was fun, watching the players get worked up as they realized how badly this encounter could go for them if the creature attacked. I had to go back through the description of the quest they got back in Phandelvin, since it’s been months since they played through that. We’re supposed to play every other week, but with weather and schedules… We’re averaging about once a month.

I had started setting the mood last week. The weather was rainy, foggy, just miserable. The atmosphere was getting to them. Sound was dampened by the fog and trees. Rain dripped onto the leaves. The banshee talked in a hoarse whisper.

…and they kept talking and laughing. Can’t win them all, I guess. At least the orcs at Wyvern Tor gave them a run for their money.

If it ain’t broke, why fix it?…

I’m getting that twitchy feeling again. The feeling to make changes.

I can’t quite make up my mind on browsers. I’ve been spending time lately with Brave on PC (don’t be jealous Vivaldi, I’m only seeing them on the side…) and Opera and Brave on Android (that phone layout on Opera… so easy to navigate). I’m getting itchy for change.

I like Mozilla’s overall message of privacy on the net, and I appreciate Vivaldi agrees. I’m just getting impatient for a mobile browser. Makes me search out new experiences despite the fact I have perfectly good programs at my disposal. Always looking for *the* perfect browser for my needs. I feel I’m getting close.

On the RPG front (Role Playing Game for the uninitiated), we’ve been playing mostly 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons. It’s… fine. No major gripes. I appreciate some of the changes made to improve speed during play and making magic users feel more useful. Some things rub me slightly the wrong way, but I can live with it because that’s where the game is and most aren’t interested in changing (again, in one game we’re playing).

But I miss older editions. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd edition was a beautiful mess, but I loved it when I started. So many different rules for different subsystems. So many weird restrictions (dwarves can’t be magic users, can only get so far in some classes but further in others…). It was the first system I truly loved though, and I have the books to prove it.

I want that original feeling back.

Playing with Linux is another hobby. I’m trying to see if I can make it work for me without a lot of problems. I spent a lot of time, originally, with the Debian-based distributions. I visited with the Ubuntu family, tried out Linux Mint, Zorin, and I’m currently happy with Manjaro’s Xfce flagship edition.

It works fine (though Firefox freezes up like Chicago in -40 F weather). It’s a rolling release, which means you never have to reinstall it. Updates keep coming out, making it up-to-date. There’s some risk in doing it this way, but it works fairly well. I’m just not sure how interested I am in reading update documentation before I update the computer.

I miss that Debian-based feeling, when I could just update and not worry so much.

So, I’ll pick up the old books (again), I’ll try other browsers again (it doesn’t mean anything, baby…), and I’ll probably change up the installation on the Linux Laptop (and probably go back in a few weeks), because the need for change gnaws at me, like my cat, when we try and show him too much affection.

I keep trying to optimize things, but I look backwards and what I used, because I know it. It can be hard to look forward or enjoy where I am, at times.

Of Dice and Men

I’m thrilled to death (pun totally intended) to be playing through Dungeons & Dragons 5e’s Curse of Strahd campaign with my wife and friends.

I’ve been wanting to play Ravenloft for a long time, since I learned about the setting in college, when AD&D 2nd ed. was the current edition (we’d ride our mammoth to campus and hunted/gathered for lunch).

Vampires used to terrify me, when I was little (shortly after the earth cooled and life first started appearing…). In elementary school, I discovered that our school library had several non-fiction books about vampires and other folklore. Knowledge conquered my fears, and I became fascinated instead of frightened.

Flash forward back to my college years (but still in the dark ages), when I finally learned what D&D was and I started to play. I’d read some of the novels in high school (pre-industrial period and us serfs weren’t allowed to travel far from home), watched the animate series (Atlantis had yet to fall beneath the seas), and even tried one of the legendary gold box games (insert yet another old joke here). I wanted to know more. When the chance to actually put pencil to paper (both newly discovered) and roll dice (hand carved from bone or rock), I leapt at the chance.

This campaign started with my wife running AD&D 2e for me along with a few friends, though we moved on up to 3.5e after the first session. A few more sessions in and a friend offered to take over and run the published campaign, so we bumped up two more editions to 5e (I still need to try 4th edition D&D… alas).

Three sessions in and we’ve talked a lot, yet still haven’t fought a single foe. Apparently we’re chattier than anticipated and clever enough to talk our way out of a scrap.

Still, Strahd awaits. We’re all thrilled to be spending afternoons together, rolling dice, living future stories (remember when we talked down those Vistani from rolling us on the road? How about those wolves we convinced not to attack us?), and having one heck of a time!