Tag Archives: 2e

My RPG DNA, Part 2: The Early Memphis Years

Last time, I talked about my early gaming experiences in junior high/high school in Texas in the ’80s.  Star Frontiers, Red Box D&D, and AD&D, almost always DM, with some diceless, PvP, and single player action mixed in there.  College, nothing except about two nights of a Basic game (oh, and one visit to OwlCon, where I played in an extremely amusing Paranoia game – one of the other players was such a twerp that when the Computer asked us all who the traitor was, the entire rest of the table pointed at him without hesitation).

Part 2: The (Early) Memphis Years

After college, I moved to Memphis, Tennessee for a job with FedEx corporate IT.  At first, I didn’t know anyone at all (let alone gamers) and Memphis wasn’t exactly a happening gaming mecca.  In fact, it took me a little while to get used to Memphis in general – I came from the Houston area where there were all kinds of people, but in Memphis at the time there were pretty much two kinds, black and white, and to my horror there were seriously billboards up saying things like “say no to racial violence.”  I remember wanting a specific classical CD (this was the era of huge music stores, before Amazon, you whippersnappers) so I opened up the Yellow Pages and found the biggest ad for a music store, a Sound Warehouse.  I called them up, and I knew whatever clerk I got wouldn’t be able to tell me if they had what I wanted (Karl Orff’s De Temporum Fine Comedia, for the record; I was in a production of Carmina Burana in college and was looking for more stuff by the guy) so I just asked “Hey, do you have a separate classical music room?”  Many of the big music stores of the time had a separate little classical room where the whatever they were playing in the main store didn’t penetrate.  The clerk on the phone paused a moment, and finally said, “You’re not from here, are you?”  So suffice to say, “geek stuff”, along with most things associated with “book learnin’,” were in short supply.

Anyway, through work I met some geeks, and after about a year someone heard about this new card game, Magic: The Gathering.  We all got into it about Fallen Empires time and started to play and amass cards.  (I just found my big ol’ boxes of cards in my garage, actually, if anyone’s buying!)  Then, a British contractor we were hanging out with (“Mind if I kip on your floor?”  “Uh…  Will that leave a stain?”) decided he wanted to run some Runequest for us.  We all readily assented;  the Indian contractors kept making us play cricket and it was a welcome change. In true UK fashion the games were short and brutal.  But that planted the seed.  A little while later, while we were all playing Magic, I got fed up and said, “We’re spending enough time and money on this we might as well be doing REAL roleplaying and not this card game crap!  Who’s with me?” And they were.

Back Into Gaming

I had made a network of IT friends through work and a network of medical student friends through my roommate, a med student I had known from Rice.  A quick canvas revealed that a lot of these folks had either gamed before or were up for it.  Big Mike, Kevin, and Tim came from one side of the family and Robert, Suzanne, and Little Mike came from the other side.  They were the mainstays, but there were other visitors (Jason, Joy, “sweating out the mushrooms” guy…)  And we were off to the races.  I was still mostly the DM.  We played Second Edition AD&D, and we found it cool.  More coherent than the brilliant but fragmented “Here’s some harlots!” approach of AD&D 1e, and with more meat to it than Basic, we played the heck out of some 2e (although 1e adventures were often drafted into service with little or no conversion, since the 2e adventures kinda sucked).

We all played Second Edition for a while, mostly at my Midtown apartment, and it was good.  But the best was yet to come.  Memphis was getting better – I got more used to it, and it’s definitely a place that is much better if you know the scene, but also it was growing and becoming more diverse and advanced.  And also, I made a great new friend, Hal!  Hal knew Robert and had just moved to town; he needed a roommate and Robert, my previous roommate, married Suzanne, so we moved in together and fell in geek love.  We got into anime, Hong Kong movies, roleplaying, et cetera in spades.  We went to Gen Cons, Tenncons, and MidSouthCons.  Spending so much free time doing that stuff, we really began to branch out, and one of the first things we did was to escape the “D&D Ghetto.”

Out of the D&D Ghetto

Second Edition was getting long in the tooth and the stuff coming out for it was increasingly bizarre.  And it’s not like I hadn’t played other games before, but of course D&D was always the common denominator that you could find people to play.  But with two of us, we went nuts, and luckily there was a whole wave of stuff coming out at the same time.  Fading Suns, Feng Shui, Alternity, Call of Cthulhu (5e), and dozens more.  We hit Half Price Books, game auctions, etc. and my bookcase swelled with different games in every genre.  I was positively indiscriminate.  It was great, being exposed to all kinds of different games, modes of play, etc.  Somehow I didn’t ever get into the other “big” second string games like GURPS, Palladium, or World of Darkness (well, a little; I have a playtester credit in Wraith: The Great War in the strength of playing it at a Tenncon), which was probably best because it meant we moved from game to game a lot.

But the best was yet to come.  So we had a bunch of gamers, a lot of games (and a lot of spare money and free time).  All the raw materials were together, and the spark was lit.  Next time, Night Below, the FORGE, and Living Greyhawk, Freeport, and 3e!

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PC on PC Violence

There is always a lot of advice about how you never want PCs to actually come into physical conflict with other PCs, how that will ruin your game and you should take any meta-game action necessary to prevent it.

Well, that’s complete and utter crap. Here’s a gaming anecdote about some awesome PC-on-PC violence from an old AD&D 2e Forgotten Realms game I ran.

Bad Neighbors

SPOILER WARNING – this is full of spoilers for the 2e Forgotten Realms adventure “Bad Neighbor Policy” from “Four From Cormyr.”

In general I prefer gritty, low magic campaigns like Greyhawk or even Warhammer Fantasy. But for a change, our group said “Let’s play a high level high magic game!”  This clearly meant the Forgotten Realms, and since I was a crazed D&D DM I had every product put out in the 1e/2e days, so the PCs munchkinned themselves out with high level (10 or 12 or something) powerz and magic items and everything and I prepped a Realms game, which though it went off track, ended up a thing of beauty.

We ran something else forgettable first, but soon began “Bad Neighbor Policy,” in which the PCs are travelling to the Orvaskyte Ruins out in the swamp for one reason or another.  But first, there’s a random interesting location on the way – the “Inn of the Undead,” an inn run by two hot women.  The first, the scenario claims, is “a voluptuous blonde” and the other is a “tall, attractive woman with a luxurious, tousled mane of fiery red hair.”  They are also vampires, as it turns out, and there’s a 12th level necromancer who hangs out with them.

One of the PCs decides, true to form, that he’d “seduce that hot blonde chick who owns the place!”  She says, “Okay…  Come upstairs after closing  and we’ll take a bath together.”  “Well that was easy,” he thinks.  The PC comes upstairs with her, doffs all his armor and weapons and gear and gets in the bath.  Then the other woman, the redhead, comes in too, and the blonde says “I thought I’d ask my sister to join us, if that’s all right.”  The player, nursing a woody by this point no doubt, is all like “Woo, threesome, I win!!!”  They disrobe, get into the bath with him, and and then the fangs come out and ENERGY DRAIN ENERGY DRAIN ENERGY DRAIN ENERGY DRAIN the poor bastard is a vampire himself.  I laughed and laughed and laughed.  It’s scenes like that which make all the BS you have to deal with for being a DM worthwhile.

But it gets better. The necromancer’s there for no stated reason except an “alliance” with the vampires.  So I decide they’re doing some experimentation trying to make the ever-popular vampire that can walk during the day.  There was some spell they published around that time, I think it might have been in the Spell Compendium, where if cast on a vampire, their powers wax and wane over the course of the day but the sun doesn’t kill them.  So the dead PC gets that spell permanenced on them by the necromancer as part of his undead rebirth.  I also decide that the PC has to rest in water not in earth because of the circumstances of his death.  Success, a new weird variety of vampire!

Anyway, the PC wake up as a daywalking water-sleeping vampire and doesn’t let on that anything’s wrong.  “I’m evil now right?  I’m gonna turn them all into vampires!”   The party, upon hearing that he looks “pale and drained” the next morning, just responds “Yeah, I bet.  Let’s get going.”  The PCs travel out through a day or two of swampland to the Orvaskyte Ruins, where they really have a hard time of it what with dragons and cornugons and whatnot.  Half of the PCs are unconscious or otherwise disabled after the final fight – so of course the vampire PC picks that time to strike, paralyzes one PC and drags another off into the swamp for vampirification. The frozen PC gets free and drags the other PCs into the convenient shrine that undead can’t enter in the ruined keep.  (That shrine is actually in the adventure; I didn’t plan any of this.)

So then what unfolds is pure beauty. No hold barred combat between the vampire PCs and the living PCs. For three weeks the players come over and eagerly take seats in separate rooms, and I scuttle back and forth as they try to outsmart and overcome each other.

The living PCs didn’t understand how things were working exactly with the vampires being active in the day – even without their vampire powers, they were still 10+th level Forgotten Realms characters and put down quite a whupping!  The PCs try to hole up in the shrine, but the vampires snipe at them and summon critters to go in and disrupt their sleep, so they’re not getting spells back.  They try to escape through the swamp, but the vampires catch up and attack and they have to retreat back into the shrine.

My favorite part was when the living PCs ventured out during the day and used spells to track down the dead PC the vampires had carted off and stuck under some roots in an icky swamp pond to turn.  One of the vampires is lurking nearby in a tree and summons a bunch of giant crocodiles into the pond.  The PCs come up and one, thinking for some reason that they’re safe during the day, dives right into the muck without a second glance.  All those crocs latched right on and started spinnin’.  “OH JESUS NO!!!” he was screaming as his hit points disappeared.  I had to devise a quick hit location chart to determine what part of him a given croc was attached to.  The rest of the PCs panicked and Lightning Bolted the entire pond killing everything; all the crocs and the PC floated to the top and they pulled him out to see if they were in time to heal him but he was gone below the torso.   Everyone screams.  Retreat to shrine, cast Raise Dead.  The living PCs had one Raise Dead a day which was very helpful.  Sometimes the vampires would catch a living guy and turn them; sometimes the living guys would catch a vampire and Raise Dead them.   They kept this up for hour after hour, session after session.

Finally after a couple sessions of this the remaining living PCs made a successful break for it, but the vampires were faster and got back to that inn first.  One of the PCs, a monk, was suspicious of the inn as “That’s where all the trouble started!” and stayed outside, clinging to the roof to peer into windows.  Another was disgusted by the whole thing and just marched in to get a room.  When he went upstairs and closed the door to his room, the initial vampire PC was standing behind it with bared broadsword.  The monk peeped down just in time to see the inside of the room’s window suddenly become completely coated with blood.  More screams.  In the end, a couple living PCs retreated under cover of magically created fog while the vampires plotted a daywalking vampire apocalypse to take over Sembia.

The campaign ended there (it was supposed to be short anyway), but everyone had a grand time.  People fight hard against DM-run monsters.  But they fight HARD against other PCs.  It was a very meaningful test of abilities for everyone – the DM couldn’t pull a punch if he wanted to, and each opponent wasn’t one of many faceless critters being multitasked by the DM, each one was backed by a clever and bloodthirsty player’s undivided attention.  Each session, I kept asking “Do ya’ll want me to wrap this up?”  But each time, they were excited to get there and continue one of the most exhilarating fights for their lives they had seen in a game.  I was surprised with how long it went, I would have expected one side to get a numerical advantage and then just roll over the other.  But each side could safely retreat and when things started getting bad they fought harder – using one-use magic items, desperate tactics, and more to avoid being wiped out.  I was really proud at some of the stuff “my players” came up with when the chips were down, I saw balls to the wall crazy kickass things happen I hadn’t seen before or since.  It was really a memorable experience for everyone.

Lesson Learned

After that, I would often bring in a “guest star” – some other gamer not in a given campaign – to run a major villain at the climax of an adventure.  “Here, you’re this guy, here’s what you know, you have free rein to defeat them any way you can.”   You could tell by the “Oh, shit” looks on the PCs’ faces that they realized they needed to step their game way up when that happened.  The villains were always extra clever and brutal and self-preserving (and therefore realistic) when they had a dedicated brain behind them.

And sure, the simple “PCs shouldn’t hit each other” advice is all well and good for the 13-year-olds and emotionally maladjusted out there, where people are just acting disruptively or whatnot.  But in a game for grownups, it has its place.

Some Thoughts On 2e and 3e’s Legacy

I was following the thread on SOB about the various editions of D&D over the years, and my white-hot hatred of 4e has caused me to reflect some on the good and bad things about 3e.

I played and enjoyed a lot of 2e.  When 3e came out, I was really impressed at the improvements and uptook it.  Improved and streamlined basic mechanics, better multiclassing, more interesting monster builds, more flexibility.  With many years of retrospective, however, I do think that there are some directions it took the game that ended up with (to me) undesired and probably unintended results.  So here’s some bad things that 3e introduced or exacerbated.

Rules vs Rulings

I think there were and are two kinds of players/GMs/groups. Those who felt limited by the rules and those that didn’t.  This was true in every edition back to 1e – the “old school D&D is about rulings, not rules” statement is revisionist.  I played in plenty of “the rules as written are sacred” 1e games.  Anyway, let’s say a fighter decides he needs to throw his two-handed sword at someone.  There were definitely people in earlier eds. that would say “no, there’s no rules for that” and also people that would say “Uhhh…  -4 to hit and don’t try doing this all the time.  Roll!”  3e codified a lot of that, which for some folks was helpful.  Here’s a feat allowing you to throw a melee weapon and a standard rule for if you do it without any special ability to do so.  Which is nice.  But with all the huge amount of rules, though, they varied from this optimal formula, and you got a lot of “you can’t do this without the feat” stuff.  Or with things like skills, at higher levels (and DCs) you suck *so* bad at doing things untrained that it’s about the same thing.  So it helped the “I need rules” crowd while limiting the “I am comfortable making it up and my players don’t spend all night arguing about my calls” crowd.

Scaling

In general I don’t believe that “having rules for something is bad,” which old schoolers sometimes use to say any skill system etc. is bad (with no answer for why combat rules should not be similarly abstract – they certainly are in some games and it works there).    But the implementation has implications.  The problem with 3e skills is the same as with 3e combat – the scaling.  With the raw numbers and also the various feats and whatnot, levels mean a lot more.  It used to be that a fifth level versus a tenth level fighter wasn’t that huge of a functional gap.  You hit more, and maybe did a couple more points of damage.  Now, damage scaling is to the point where our 13th level 3.5e fighters easily dump out 100 points of damage a round.  In 1e or 2e, you’d expect more like 30.  That degree of scaling ends up requiring min-maxing so that you are competitive at a given level.

The corollary to this is the difficulty/prep in creating high level PCs or opponents, but it’s more wide reaching than that.  A small amount of randomness has huge effects. Some randomness is desirable – the people who wanted all save-or-dies removed are clearly pussies – but too much them makes people force standardization (and 4e’s the epitome of this) in order to compensate.  Hence the new slavish adherence to “appropriate CR/ELs”.  A necessary obsession with balance also spawned more focus on game-breaking and the rules as a good unto themselves in general.

Magic Items

The new approach to magic item crafting was also problematic.  It was nice to have one; the “it’s pretty much impossible – but they’re everywhere!” approach of 1e/2e damaged immersion.  The ability to fine tune your loadout instead of largely being constrained to a couple things you’ve found was a huge game changer.  This leads to the “Christmas tree syndrome” and the virtual elimination of many non-boost items from the game.

Tactical Combat

Then, of course, the minis focus was harmful.  With the maneuver/AoO rules they are pretty much necessary, and you can’t help but spend more and more time on that part of the game than the others.  I can’t help but recall the GM advice in the cinematic game Feng Shui  by Robin Laws – “Don’t use a map!  At most do a rough sketch of an area if it’s unclear but for God’s sake don’t use a tactical setup.”  And the game was mainly all about combat, not an Amber-esque RP-fest, its’ just that Laws saw correctly the effects that tactical combat have on an RPG.

2e Today

I recently had a friend want me to run her on an adventure with her old 2e character she loved.  I had done that before with a 3e-updated version, but I couldn’t find it and so just pulled the 2e stuff and ran with it.  And it was refreshing.  The lack of minis promoted face-to-face interaction.  Less rule complexity made things run faster. She innovated more in combat.

It’s funny – when we played 3e initially, with our older ed assumptions firmly in place, and before the many splatbooks offered all the abusive choices, it *was* a better system.  Our first 3e campaigns were some of the most fun we’d had.  But over time, as these effects started to manipulate our default expectation, it got worse.  I’ve noticed a tendency in our groups now to play other games “like we play 3.5e”.  Mini-heavy combat in particular, which naturally tends to damage RP (the more time you spend on one part of the game, the less you spend on others).   I’ve noticed that when our gaming group runs other games, we seem to add a lot more lame ass minis combat in than they necessarily prescribe.

Responses – 4e, Pathfinder, Old School

Ironically, 4e, which I hate, tries to address these issues while Pathfinder, which I strongly prefer, ignores them.

4e addresses the scaling with the huge hit point boost and class standardization.   Unfortunately this is the lamer “balance solution” to the problem and turns combat into slogs.  It addresses magic items semi-successfully by removing the usual boost items, but is left with really lame and underpowered items.   On the tactical combat issue – no, it embraces tactical combat and gives it tongue kisses.  And on rulings vs rules, it’s still clearly rules based.  Confused people count removing a meaningful skill system as “more ruling based because then you can make it up.”  But with the overall rules-are-God emphasis, it’ll just end up promoting the “you can’t do that” camp.  There’s other things I dislike about 4e, but on this topic at least, it makes an effort to address some of these issues.

Pathfinder pretty much ignores these four problems, which is a shame.  I’ve already played one Pathfinder campaign, and though it’s definitely a better, more fun version of 3.5, and IMO better than 4e, it does nothing about these, which are at the core of the problems with 3.5e play.

I’m not ready to go back to 2e either, 3e definitely on the balance had great innovations.  But the real Holy Grail is to keep those while fixing these four issues.  Maybe with a second version of Pathfinder they’ll feel more comfortable in deviating from the 3.5e core enough to address them.  So for my D&D fix I’m going with Pathfinder – but it’s definitely an “in the meantime” kind of thing.

I’ve played some of the old school games – like Castles & Crusades, which makes the wise decision to update the core mechanics to be more civilized than 1e’s.  But they just aren’t enough for me.  I do want some character flexibility and cool powers – sure, I can write all the backstory I want with a 1e/Basic/OD&D character but the “they’re all so damn the same” factor is still there for me.  If I want totally rules light, then I want something like Spirit of th Century where I can define my own abilities without as much constraint.  But if I’m going to hassle with classes and levels, I want some “zazz” to them.

I haven’t done much houseruling in a while – something 3.5e,. with its huge rules setup, kinda works against – but maybe I’ll take a cut at what a new ed should look like.  I like feats and skills and multiclassing and prestige classes, so this wouldn’t be a retro-clone, but there are things that if cut or significantly changed from 3e would make a big different while still retaining that “D&D feel” 4e lost for me.

My Second Edition Monk

Back “in the day,” I built a more dynamic, chi-power fueled monk class using AD&D 2e (the current edition at the time, this was a little more than 10 years ago).  I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say that it largely predicted what the much-later Book of Nine Swords and other attempts at making martial classes more interesting would look like.  The powers were granted pretty much just like spells, using the standard spell progression chart and being used up for the day when you use them (which made balancing the class easy).  Many of the powers use “swift” or “immediate” actions, at least my early conception of them.  I’m pretty proud of it – my gaming group playtested it and it was fun but balanced.  Being a long time Greyhawk wonk I also put together “Monastic Orders of the Flanaess” to incorporate monkiness into Greyhawk better, which drew from Erik Mona’s Baklunish Delights articles from the Oerth Journal.

Cool but retro, why are you mentioning this, you ask?  Well, suddenly (starting in about April), I’m seeing an incredible surge in traffic to that Monk class.  It’s hosted on my old Mindspring Geek Related site that has Web stats for shit and I can’t see referrers so I don’t know where the traffic’s coming from.  But it’s leapt way, way past the perennial favorites I host there, the Death to Jar Jar Binks Homepage and the Scooby Doo Cthulhu site (all the Scooby gang in CoC BRP stats).  Like thousands of hits a month.  So I thought I’d ask – anyone know where I got linked from?  I’m interested to know if anyone’s using/interested in my old Monk class…

(And yes, I know how to do Google link: searches, and those never work…)