A wave of cautious optimism, or perhaps cautious pessimism, swept through fantasy fandom yesterday as it was announced that several companies resolved some sort of dispute and now a new movie based on Dungeons & Dragons is in the works.
Having play tested the newest version of D&D Next aka 5th Edition, I can firmly say that I’m pretty excited to see where things are going in the game. Playing the newer version invoked a lot of nostalgia for the older versions for a lot of us in my gaming group, and luckily for us Wizards Of The Coast saw it fit to reprint premium editions of the old 1st Edition rulebooks. Being curious of how far things have changed from this edition to what we know now, I decided to pick up the 1st Edition Players Handbook and Monster Manual, and our resident GM picked up the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Since we were all mostly familiar with either 2nd, 3rd, or 4th edition, this was almost an entirely different game for all of us, and it was readily apparent the moment we cracked open the players guide.
What we encountered was a trip back into a far more difficult, older mechanics we weren’t used too, and definitely not familiar with. Sure, everything we knew was there, but it was in a rawer, more rudimentary form. Some things like hit dice, character requirements, or especially Armor Class worked entirely differently from how we were used to them. I’ll still have difficulty trying to understand THAC0 in it’s entirety, but on a turn to turn basis I got it eventually. The books themselves were filled with lots of tables, charts, and long descriptive bunches of text for differing rules systems. It’s the sort of game that is definitely not meant for novice Tabletop RPGers. When I think about people in the 70’s having to learn this game from scratch, with no prior knowledge or conceptualization of what this game is supposed to be, I’m very impressed that it ever even took off. It’s a testament to the game itself though, that it held onto public interest despite such a daunting and intimidating ruleset.
However, after a few hours of brushing up, group clarification, and basic training on the way combat works, we decided to go for it, and started the first step of every tabletop RPG: Character Building.
Now, normally I’m the kind of player who plays the tank. Need a Dwarven Fighter in your party? I’m your guy. I like to swing a big axe, do lots of damage, break things, and eat and drink everything I can in the vicinity. In fact, in my gaming circle I’m a bit notorious for doing this, as I once played a Barbarian Half-Orc named Grakk Hornsblood who violently tortured a Kobold for information, boiled a big pot of water, dunked him into it, then let him brew in there until I had made a giant pot of Kobold tea. After drinking it my character became violently ill, and known locally as a psychopath, but I digress. The point is that I like playing the heavy hitter. So to buck trends and try something different, I decided to try building a new type of character I’ve never really tried before. So I decided to make a wizard,which any D&D player will be familiar with, is almost the complete opposite of a heavy hitting rabble rouser. In fact, they’re traditionally pretty squishy, and have to stay in the sidelines, or preferably in the back, casting spells from a safe distance.
So it was with great shock that I realized I only would start with 1d4 of health points. For the uninitiated, this means I would roll a 4 sided die, and whatever came up was the amount of health points my character would start with. When most level 1 monsters in the game do 1d4 of damage, this means you’re particularly vulnerable. Furthermore, when I was making my character, due to some technical reason that I’m now fuzzy on, my 1d4 HP role was actually subject to a -1 penalty. At best I could roll a character with 3 HP max. I gave it my best try, which is to say of course it ended up terribly, and I rolled a 1.
1-1= 0. Zero health points. I had rolled a dead character.
After laughing about this for a solid 5 minutes, we found a rule that clarified that you cannot start with less than 1 HP no matter how badly you roll. It set the tone for the bizarre and terrible adventure my wizard would have, with his near instantly killable status in the game. My group and I decided that our characters would all already know each other, and were a band of traveling male strippers who went from town to town entertaining the local womenfolk for coin. Dutifully, I named my character Magic Mike, and set about queuing up “My Pony” By Ginuwine on my phone for every role playing segment in which we had to perform.
Our adventure started out at a local club we had been hired to perform, where a bunch of elven, human, and orcish women were cheering us on. We took different checks to determine how effective our dance routines were, with one player doing particularly well and getting nearly 6 gold in tips alone. If it wasn’t apparent already, I’ll remind you that the games of D&D I play, are almost never typical games of D&D in any way, shape or form. From here on out, things only got stranger. The Dwarven bouncer had to kick out a rowdy male Half-Orc, who seemed a little too interested in my character, and shortly after wrapping up our dance routine we were called in the back room by our boss for payment.
Our boss then old us that along with payment, we were sent a scroll from somebody, and it seemed to address us all. I read it aloud to our group, and it was more or less a summons for known adventurers, travelers, merchants, and minsters to a distant town, to locate an old artifact. The scroll itself wasn’t signed by whoever sent it, but it did sound promising. Our boss then paid us half of what were we promised for our performance that night, and told us that was all we had. Since we were all lawful good players, we accepted his word. The scroll mentioned that anyone who successfully retrieved the artifact, would be paid handsomely, and being that our party was currently dead broke, this venture seemed opportune.
It was then, that suddenly a portion of the wall started to collapse, and a hole cracked open. From it a giant badger appeared, snarling it’s teeth, ready to kill us all. After laughing about a giant badger appearing out of nowhere, we proceeded to attempt to kill it in combat. Unfortunately this is where I forgot what kind of character I was playing, and ran up to it, and attempted to cast my spell of the day on it. Earlier that morning, my character had taken the time to recite and memorize a spell from my spell book. In 1st Edition, you get to memorize one spell each day, and once you use it, that’s it. That morning I had memorized “Enlarge” because I figured it would be useful for our show that night. However, I had forgotten to use it, and perhaps that’s why my character wasn’t tipped very well. Thinking quickly I thought I could simply enlarge the already giant badger, and his girth would fill the hole, blocking it and keeping him from escaping whilst simultaneously keeping any other badgers from entering to attack us further. I began casting my spell, which takes 3 turns. After I began, it was the badgers turn, and he attacked me, doing 4 points of damage, which was of course, 4x the amount of damage I could take, and thusly my spell was interrupted and I fell unconscious.
If It wasn’t for the Dwarven bouncer, we would have all died, as he was the only one who could take more than 2 hits before dying a horrible death by badger claws. After slaying it, the rest of the characters took notice that I had somehow been poisoned, and was now either dead, or in a coma. Having no knowledge of healing, nor money to pay a local cleric, they left me to stay in my death/coma, vowing to retrieve the artifact, gather the money themselves, and come back with a healer who could fix me up. At least, that’s what I’d like to think.
After spending a few weeks in a coma, my character awoke to a strange woman performing a healing ritual on me. After asking her about who she was, where I was, and where my friends were, she informed me that they had left without me. She dodged most of the questions about who she was, or why she had healed me, but gained my trust simply by virtue of saving my life. After telling me where my friends went, she gave me a magical scroll, that could teach me a new spell. The spell was Magic Missile, a old standard for wizards, and one I had not yet learned. I took it thankfully, and headed off to find my friends, ending the first session of our 1st Edition game of D&D.
If there was anything we all took notice of immediately, it was just how VERY HARD this game was. Nearly everything can and will kill you, and healing, resurrection, and day to day maintenance was either extremely difficult, expensive, or both. While we all had fun playing the game, the fight mechanics seemed a bit more extensive and difficult for our DM to keep track of, in relation to newer versions. He did a great job at it, but I could see myself getting a big headache trying to calculate all the damage being taken and done by and for each character in the game. It’s the kind of game where you’d need an experienced, knowledgeable, and most of all patient DM in order to make things fun. Thankfully ours was all of those things.
While our adventure certainly didn’t end there, we eventually stopped playing and went back to other tabletop games instead. The novelty of trying 1st Edition had worn off a bit, and its clunkier, harder, and overall less fluid mechanics slowed down our games, and seemed to wear down the will of our GM to keep going from week to week. It was fun to try out however, and the games we played ended up having many memorable moments, including a character’s hand getting injected with poison after testing a trap, and my immediate gut reaction was to command our Dwarven player to chop his hand off, so the poison wouldn’t spread and kill his character. It turned out to not actually be poison, and his hand was needlessly chopped off, but how was I supposed to know that? Regardless of life or loss of limb, we enjoyed it for what it was. After playing it was easy to see how the game could capture the imagination of all those who first started playing back in the 70’s, and made it a bit easier to imagine how it was truly different from everything else at the time.
Even if the game wasn’t fun and challenging, the reprinted versions of these 1st Edition D&D books are quite beautiful, and flipping through them casually is a hoot. It’s fun to look at the older drawings of monsters in the Monster Manual, and see how the progression of a classic monster like The Beholder, or even a skeleton, has advanced through the years. D&D has been around for a long time, and playing the 1st Edition was a good reminder that no matter how complex a game can be, it’s the magic of storytelling, roleplaying, imagination and creativity that make a game fun. While 1st Edition may not be everyone’s cup of tea, the newer editions are far more accessible to the average gamer. If reading this has made you at all curious to play a tabletop RPG, go out there and try one with a group of friends. You may be surprised at how much fun you’ll have.
As some of you out there might know, Wizards Of The Coast has been asking its fans to help with the playtesting of their new version of Dungeons and Dragons, tentatively codenamed, D&D Next. Aside from that terrible codename, this is a novel, and ultimately beneficial idea, since every D&D fan will at best have a new version that unites us all back together, and prevents further “edition wars”, and at worst will leave only ourselves to blame for this new edition being weird and broken. So it was with glee I looked forward to printing out the playtest packet, and giving it a go with my gaming group, to see how it works.
Half of us were D&D 3.0 veterans, and myself, although having played 3.0 before, was mostly familiar with 4.0. I often play as a DM (or Dungeon Master), as I find the amount of roles, people, and monsters to play lacking when playing as a Player Character. I enjoy hamming it up, making voices, reading flavor text, and surprising players with interesting twists, monsters and brutal, brutal death descriptions. I am not a power DM, as some are. I see no point in effortlessly dispatching PCs left and right, since I control the flow of the game, and killing them to me grants no rewards and feels hollow. The reward is seeing my players have fun, not watching them die horrible deaths I railroaded them into.
As funny as it is, this is not what I like to see as a DM.
So legally, I cannot discuss specifics, however I can describe the basic things I liked and disliked. Now that you know what kind of DM I am, it’ll help you understand when I say that so far, this version seems far more focused on enhancing story elements, blending flavor text and hard statistical information more fluidly, rather than simply having long, intimidating charts, tables and lists of numbers. The information presented in the monster manual, spellbook, character sheets and nearly everything else all make great efforts to give all flavor text actual meaning in terms of gameplay, and interaction. You can ignore it if you want, but that’d be counterproductive in my opinion, as this is one of the better blends I’ve seen in a rulebook for D&D, and nearly any RPG I’ve seen. After reading through the rules, adjusting to the newer combat systems, reading the new character builds, and quickly skimming through some classic monster archetypes, I gave it a shot, and had my group run through the sample dungeon they provided. The game packet said you could play it one of two ways, in the classic “Theater of the mind” style, and the newer, now standard, gridded mat & miniature style of gaming. Since the feel of the game seems much more old school, I decided it’d be appropriate to try it the old-fashioned way, entirely with pen and paper, dice, and imagination only.
The way it was meant to be.
My players chose their characters, a fighter, a cleric, and a wizard, all classic D&D roles that have been in the game since the very first version. We opened up with the three of them arriving in an Adventurers Guild, where many adventurers were waiting in line to acquire and/or renew their Adventuring License, ( I enjoy throwing weird anachronistic concepts in my games), where they met one of the Quest Masters of the Guild, named Master Debatoor, who took their formal request for an adventure. He pointed them in the direction of the line for License renewal, and they began to wait in line. I know some of you are thinking, how could this possibly be fun, but things like this CAN be fun in D&D and any RPG, it’s all in how you play it. For example, Master Debatoor (yes, that was his name), was an old british sounding man who tended to ramble and was rather dumb, and my players had a fun time playing tricks on him, and exploiting him horribly, which we’ll get to in a moment.
One of my players started a mild uprising of all the Holy Knights waiting in line, who began chanting “KNIGHTS! KNIGHTS! KNIGHTS!”, which led to guards approaching and the whole Guild being distracted, allowing the leader of the party, Skar Ballbreaker, Slayer of Giants, to pay off the attendant Licenser, who stamped out their new Licenses immediately onto metal plates, letting them skip the wait in line. They then took the quest from Master Debatoor, and haggled over the pay amount. In a particularly clever and probably lawful evil move, one of my players forced the Master to give him more pay, by offering a wager, that the poor, dumb Master accepted before hearing the full conditions. After accepting my player declared the wager to be a poison drinking contest, wherein the first one to die, loses. The player, being Skar Ballbreaker, Slayer of Giants, and a dwarf, had quite a resistance to poison, and this revelation of the nature of the contest, sealed the Masters’ fate, and he was forced to forfeit, giving up triple what the original pay of the quest was, being supplemented from his personal income. Not being able to afford this, the Master begged for some sort of debt, or payment plan. The player of Skar, being a car salesman in real life, used a strong charisma check to get the master to agree to a horrible payment plan, that would effectively make him pay 200 gold pieces a month for the rest of his life, with interest. The Master, accepting defeat and almost eternal debt, left the Guild hall weeping openly.
So on my players went, foraging through a forest until they found the dungeon. Upon entering they had three encounters with three different staples of the D&D monster canon, Kobolds, Orcs and Goblins. They managed to fairly easily cut through all of them, avoid most of the traps, and successfully find the magical artifact they were sent to retrieve. Along with some of the treasure and loot that the goblins had gathered, they found a pile of treasure that included a burlap sack of testicles, taken from their many victims. Being Skar Ballbreaker, he claimed this “ballsack” was his, and the other two players “Larry”, and “David” (I know.), scrounged the dead for weapons and more cash. They returned to the Guild, found Master Debatoor, and demanded payment. The poor Master, not having the full amount, begged for some kind of mercy, or a decrease in the wages he was in debt for. My players thought, and promptly decided to force the Master to consume the bag of testicles, bag and all, to reduce the debt by 50%. The Master did this, the entire time, weeping, retching, vomiting, and then being forced to eat that same vomit to “finish the deal.” Afterward, the players took all of The Masters money, as well as the allotted money allowed by the Guild Council given for the quest initially, and left him be.
Horrible story aside, the combat was fast, and moved along briskly, with no players spending a long amount of time mulling over possible decisions, or spending time thinking about what their best possible attack could be, or what power to use to boost other people’s attacks. In short, it was a refreshing breath of air from 4th edition, which works fine at lower levels, but anything higher than 10 and you literally start accumulating powers in the 10’s, all with myriad effects, and all with lots of stats to micromanage. Each player quickly knew what to do, how to do it, and rolled accordingly. Some of the new additions to combat, including the new rules for determining surprise, and damage/attack bonuses were very neat additions that I liked a lot. The main issues were not that the monsters seemed underpowered or weak, but that the melee character, seemed far more overpowered than the ranged, magical characters. Through 3 encounters, back to back, Skar (the fighter), took only 5 damage, and only got hit once. The other two players took a reasonable amount, and used the new healing mechanic after taking a short rest between leaving the dungeon and returning to the Guild. The healing mechanic itself seems fine, and works as well or better than the “healing surges” mechanic 4th had.
All in all, we had fun, the system was quick to learn, and despite some balance issues with character classes, the game seems to be heading into a positive direction. It feels a lot more like classic D&D, and avoids the thick stack of papers and stats your old 3.0 ed characters would turn into, and simultaneously avoids the “WoW board game lite” feel, that 4th ed can be like if not DMed properly. I got a kick out of managing everything in our imaginations entirely, and dug the new, but familiar combat system. D&D Next/5th edition/ whatever, still needs some major tweaks, but this is a great step forward.