Category Archives: D&D

ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt

The PlayCo toy store in Escondido, gone many years now.

The PlayCo toy store in Escondido, lost to the sands of time.

I recently acquired a copy of Night Below, a 1995 AD&D boxed set outlining a sprawling fantasy campaign set in the Underdark setting. I remember drooling over it at a toy store—I think it was the late, lamented PlayCo in Escondido, CA, if my memory has the year right.

The copy I acquired has been lovingly used. And by that, I mean the owner really liked highlighting text:


Every page looks like that. My reaction upon seeing it was twofold:

  1. When you reach a point when there’s more highlighted text on a page than non-highlighted text, have you defeated the purpose of highlighting?
  2. Why doesn’t every game book look this colorful?

I’ll be honest: I love this. (Here’s another example of the sort of awesome gaming artifacts you find in old boxed sets, if you’re lucky.) Back in the day, I was pretty neurotic about keeping my books and game material in pristine, mint condition. But a banged-up, highlighter-inundated, notes-scrawled-in-the-margins game book like this has been played, and that’s a lot more fun than a perfect-condition rulebook that looks like nobody’s ever so much as opened it.

The owner of this copy of Night Below didn’t just read through it and highlight interesting items; he/she and their game group played the heck out of it. You can tell they played through it in its entirety, because all the way to the end, the encounter descriptions are marked up with notes that must have originated from actual play. Here, for example, is a description of one of the final “boss battles;” you can see that the DM has jotted down ever-decreasing hit points in the margins, and has crossed out spells that have been cast:


There’s a thrill in holding—and, I hope, one day playing!—a game that was important to real, actual gamers before me. A campaign like this might have taken months or years to play through. The DM must have spent hours and hours pouring through this campaign planning each new game session, marking up important parts of the text with a color-coding system that made sense to them but not to me (the same color is used in some places to mark spells, in others to mark hit points—it’s madness, but a madness that meant something to somebody). Perhaps the players still recount stories and anecdotes from it to this day.

TSR1125_Night_Below_An_Underdark_CampaignAnd having provided hundreds of hours of collective entertainment, how did this boxed set wind up being sold on the internet for a few measly bucks? Surely there’s a story there too, of a hobby abandoned, a game group graduating and getting married and heading to different corners of the country, a family clearing out a garage storage bin after a death, or whatever else you might imagine.

There’s also a bit of a rebuke in a heavily-used game like this: why aren’t more of my games lovingly defaced like this? As I look through my collection and ponder trimming it down, I see too many books in great condition, and not enough books with cracked spines and falling-out pages caused by years of regular use at the gaming table.

So here’s to the anonymous Dungeon Master and their players, who adventurered their way through this campaign all the way to the end. And left behind lots of mile markers for me to follow.

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Anyone who can be trusted in little matters can also be trusted in important matters. But anyone who is dishonest in little matters will be dishonest in important matters.

This cautionary video clip, brought to you in 1993 by The 700 Club, has been making the rounds:

(More info here.)

Mocking Pat Robertson, and more specifically the anti-D&D hysteria of the 80s and early 90s, is a bit too easy at this point, so I won’t bother. But I do want to point out a few things about this video, which aims to scare people away from Dungeons and Dragons by suggesting that playing the game leads to child sacrifice and the wearing of terrible homemade wizard/KKK robes.

The most obvious thing is that nothing at all in this video remotely resembles anything that ever would be said, seen, done, or heard at a Dungeons and Dragons game. The “game” that they’re playing, which looks like a homebrew Candyland variant, bears no resemblance to D&D.

No big surprise there; few anti-D&D attacks like this showed signs that their creators had ever seen or read D&D, or talked to people who did. But look at the date this video was released: 1993, almost twenty years after D&D was first created! It’s even ten years later than Jack Chick’s infamous Dark Dungeons tract. In those two decades, nobody at The 700 Club had so much as flipped through a D&D rulebook at Toys ‘R’ Us. That graduates it well into “willful ignorance” territory.

And for somebody trying to warn of the dangers of pop culture trends, Pat Robertson has completely missed the boat here; by 1993 D&D’s heyday of popularity was well behind it. A little card game called Magic: the Gathering was just about to explode onto the scene, and as far as evil roleplaying games went, Vampire: The Masquerade and its sister games had decisively eclipsed D&D as the Shock Your Parents™ games of choice. In 1993, D&D was quaint.

Consider what this video says about Robertson’s intended audience. Anybody who had actually played D&D would immediately dismiss it as being insulting, slanderous, and irrelevent; so it clearly wasn’t bothering to address people actually playing the game. This video is talking only to people who had no clue what D&D was about, and who could be relied upon to never try to find out. Despite either laughable ignorance or simple contempt for truth, Robertson was asking people to respect his judgment about a topic they knew little about.

Ah, well. If you want to know what really goes on in the dark basements of D&D players, this remains the best source.

(Bible quote is from the Contemporary English Version.)

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In D&D, the crew always goes down with the ship

On a whim, I dug out my old AD&D Spelljammer books this afternoon. Spelljammer is the woefully under-appreciated space fantasy setting for 2nd edition Dungeons and Dragons; instead of crawling through dungeons looking for goblins to murder, you captain a magic-powered sailing ship through Ptolemaic outer space looking for space goblins to murder. My high school game group really got into it; Spelljammer gave us one of our most memorable game campaigns.

While the general tone of Spelljammer is “swashbuckling adventures in space,” my gaming friends were not content to handwave away the everyday practicalities of space adventuring. When you own a magic space boat, you’ve suddenly got to worry about questions like “How little can we pay our crew without triggering a mutiny?” I found several type-written sheets going into the details:


At first I thought that the “expendables” listed here were consumable items like food and ammunition. But no, that’s the term my players used to describe the ship’s crew. Which is a pretty good summation of most of our Spelljammer adventures.

Looking through this material made me realize how much I miss Spelljammer; it took the inherently silly concept of “D&D… in spaaaaaace!” and wrapped it in just enough seriousness to make it playable, while proudly retaining its goofy side. It only appeared as an official setting during the 2nd edition era; bits and pieces of it turned up in 3rd and 4th editions, but never as a standalone campaign setting. Perhaps one day we’ll return to the stars.

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Why Are Gary Gygax’s D&D Modules Still Unavailable?

The cover of "Keep on the Borderlands," perhaps the most famous and influential roleplaying adventure ever published.

Next month, Wizards of the Coast is reprinting the 1st edition AD&D core rulebooks, with some of the proceeds to benefit the Gygax Memorial Fund. (And if you missed it, yesterday was the fourth anniversary of Gygax’s death.)

I’m really glad they’re bringing back, even if just for a limited print run, some vintage D&D books. But as cool as that is, it also reminds me how crazy it is that almost all of Gary Gygax’s most famous and influential work is out of print. Long out of print.

In addition to the assorted early edition D&D rulebooks, Gygax authored some of the most influential, fondly-remembered, imaginative adventures and campaigns: The Keep on the Borderlands, Tomb of Horrors, The Temple of Elemental Evil, the “Against the Giants” trilogy, and oh, about a bazillion others.

All of those are gathering figurative dust in Wizards of the Coast’s basement someplace, instead of being available to gamers or civilians who want to delve into the history of the roleplaying hobby. From a gaming perspective, the craziness of keeping the hobby’s greatest hits out of circulation for decades is obvious. And from a non-gaming perspective, it’s odd that, given Gygax’s influence on pop culture and the attention his death received by mainstream news outlets, none of his defining works are available. As anyone who’s read or played those old modules will tell you, Gygax’s voice and writing style are incredibly unique; it was in these adventures and campaign modules that his quirks as a creator and visionary were truly apparent. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that there’s real literary value in keeping his early D&D works available.

More Gygaxian awesomeness in "The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth."

Low-quality scans of most of these works were available as (legally purchasable) PDFs for a while, but were yanked offline by Wizards of the Coast a few years back for reasons that, uh, I suppose made sense to somebody. And you can grab a lot of them used from the usual suspects online, but prices for some of them have skyrocketed. (And I have to imagine that most Gygax modules still out there for sale are tattered, bescribbled, Mountain Dew-stained relics you’d be afraid to actually open, lest they crumble into Cheeto-flecked dust.)

The limited reprint of the AD&D rulebooks is a promising sign, as are the promises that the upcoming 5th edition of D&D will somehow bridge gaps between the various editions of the game. And maybe if the AD&D reprints sell well, we’ll see an anthology of Gygax’s greatest adventure modules follow. With the rising popularity of ebooks and the maturation of print-on-demand technology, there are many ways a creative publisher (I’m assuming it’s Wizards of the Coast, but Gygax Games might or might not have some say in the matter) could make Gygax’s work available to modern readers without a massive financial commitment. Here’s hoping.

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The voice behind the filing cabinet

Here’s a fascinating series of posts documenting the experience of playing D&D with Mike Mornard, AKA “Old Geezer,” who himself once played at Gary Gygax’s game table in the earliest days of D&D. There are all sorts of interesting anecdotes about how Gygax played D&D. For example, here’s a story that sounds almost too awesome to be true:

Mike gave a fascinating account of a typical early D&D game, with a peculiar detail that I’d never heard before. Gary never used maps or minis: maps and minis were Dave Arneson’s thing. Gary ran games in his office, which was provided with chairs, a couch, and file cabinets. While playing, Gary would open the drawers of the file cabinet and sit behind them so that the players COULD NOT SEE HIM. They only experienced the Dungeon Master as a disembodied voice.

It’s too perfect—the idea of playing D&D while the gamemaster hunches unseen behind a filing cabinet making his pronouncements like a low-budget Wizard of Oz. The account goes on to describe such experiences as tense and almost fearful for the players:

During games, cross-talk was discouraged: the party caller did most of the talking, and other players only talked if they had something to contribute. If the players chattered too much, they’d miss what the Disembodied Voice was saying, and that would be, as Mike put it, “suicide”. “You could feel the tension in the room,” he added.

When Wizards of the Coast reprints the original AD&D rulebooks this April, I’m hoping to run an old-school game or two to celebrate. But I don’t think I’m willing to haul the filing cabinet into the gameroom just so I can hide behind it while GMing, as tempting as it is.

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XP for death and failure; and other interesting uses for Experience Points

I recently came across an interesting post at Gothridge Manor about one of AD&D’s weirder rules: experience for death. The 1st edition Dungeon Master’s Guide rules that a character who dies and is subsequently brought back to life earns 1000 experience points (XP).

In old-school D&D, you generally got XP for defeating monsters and gaining treasure, with a few interesting exceptions like the above. These days, many games use a fairly abstract system of awarding XP wherein characters are awarded a set amount of XP for a combination of in-game success and good roleplaying.

The cover of the 1989 Rolemaster boxed set.

That’s a fine way to do it. But the “experience for death” rule reminds me of the quirkier and much more ambitious method of awarding XP found in the pages of the Rolemaster RPG. Rolemaster, itself pitched as a more “realistic” take on fantasy adventuring than its contemporary AD&D, awards XP for extremely specific individual in-game actions.

For instance, in classic Rolemaster (2nd edition, and perhaps in other editions too), your character gains experience not just for defeating an enemy, but for each point of damage dealt to an enemy. And going beyond that, you gain experience for each critical hit (i.e., severe wound) you inflict. In fact, you get XP for each wound inflicted on you. (And yes, you get experience for dying and then coming back to life.) Outside of combat, you get XP for every mile your character travels and for every impressive physical maneuver your character pulls off. There are specific XP awards for casting spells and even for coming up with good ideas.

The paperwork is oppressive; even my nerdy junior-high gaming group, always eager to squeeze as much XP out of a gaming session as possible, usually failed to diligently record every single blow landed in combat for later XP calculation. These days I’m lucky if I remember approximately how many orcs the characters beat down in the course of an evening’s game; I can’t imagine filling out Rolemaster’s intimidating experience tracking chart, faithfully marking down the severity of each critical wound delivered in the course of a routine fight.

But this hyper-detailed system has its charms, and there are some neat ideas to be extracted from it even if you recoil from the detail:

  • Experience for failure. It might seem odd at first that your character would earn experience for being struck or seriously wounded in combat. If your character is getting slapped around in a fight, isn’t he “losing”? Perhaps, but consider the educational power of failure in life. In a combat situation, you might fall for a feint or sneaky manuver once, but assuming you survive said failure, you’re highly unlikely to fall for it again. You’ve learned a lesson you’ll carry with you into future combat situations.
  • Decreased experience for familiar accomplishments. Another neat little twist in Rolemaster is that your XP earned for accomplishing something—say, defeating a goblin—is multiplied by a different value depending on how many times you’ve accomplished the task in the past. If this is your first goblin kill, you get five times the normal XP for pulling it off. After you’ve taken out a few of the green nuisances, that multiplier value goes down; you’ve done this enough that you’re not learning as much from it. And when you reach the point where you can singlehandedly plow through an ocean of the luckless beasts, you’ve probably got the goblin-whomping down to a science and are getting 1/2 of its normal XP value.

All in all, I’m fine with the more abstracted system of awarding XP. D&D 4e’s method of assigning experience points to the entire group based on the difficulty of a particular challenge is probably close to my ideal. But I do sometimes miss the very detailed method, and the slightly unconventional uses of XP it allows.

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Behind the scenes of Planescape: Torment

Via Gnome’s Lair, a great interview with Chris Avellone on Planescape: Torment. Lots of interesting tidbits here, although if you haven’t yet played through the game, there are some spoilers:


Well worth reading in conjunction with this interview is Avellone’s original vision document for PS:T (massive spoiler warning this time). It’s interesting to compare the vision document to the finished game.

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The walls of this 10×10 chamber are adorned with…

When my wife and I finally made the choice to became real Americans (i.e. go tens of thousands of dollars into debt to buy a house), one of my requirements was that said house have some sort of subterranean chamber which I could convert into a basement game room. One year later, my game lair is finally ready.

Of course, no game room is complete without cheesy posters adorning the walls. No longer being 13, I can’t get away with supermodel pinups or Megadeth posters. But this is a perfect excuse to dig out those vintage game posters I’ve been hauling with me around the country for the last two decades. After a few trips to Hobby Lobby to pick up some cheap poster frames, here’s what’s hanging on the walls of my game room. (I apologize for the flash glare in some of these… if my game room had adequate lighting, it would not be authentic.)

First up is a pair of (unfortunately fairly weathered) Battletech Mech schematics, bought way back in the early days of FASA:


The 85-ton BLG-1G Battlemaster. Awww yeah.


The infamous Warhammer, complete with two PPCs and a cheesecake illustration of Natasha 'Black Widow' Kerensky in the bottom right (for scale purposes, of course).

On the opposite wall, d├ęcoupaged to an oh-so-classy piece of wood, is the map that came with one of my favorite Infocom games, Beyond Zork:

Quendor map

I love this map, although I could do without the dozen compass roses pasted across it.

And now back to Battletech. The only Commodore 64 game I played as much as Wasteland was Battletech: The Crescent Hawk’s Inception. It was my introduction to Battletech, and ever since, the poster that came with it remains the iconic Battletech image in my mind:

Crescent Hawk

A tiny Locust mech faces off against... what is that, a Marauder? That's not very fair, but it looks awesome.

Moving along, we have (surprise) another Infocom poster, this one of one of their least-known games: Quarterstaff: The Tomb of Setmoth. It was a quirky RPG/text-adventure hybrid (and only available on the Mac, strangely); but I really enjoyed it back in high school.


Am I the only person who played and enjoyed this game?

No game collection in the late 80s/early 90s was complete without at least one SSI Gold Box AD&D game. Here was mine:

Champions of Krynn

Champions of Krynn, one of many SSI Gold Box classics.

The next item is a change of pace: a poster that came with one of my favorite NES games, Dragon Warrior. This game was surpassed not long after its release by Final Fantasy I, but was a great deal of fun. And it has one of the most annoying/awesome catchy soundtracks of any NES-era game.

Dragon Warrior

One of the first great JRPGs on the NES.

And last but not least, I devoted most of an entire wall to one of the most iconic locations in D&D: Undermountain, the megadungeon. I framed three of the four maps that came in the 2e Undermountain boxed set:

Undermountain maps

There are a LOT of places to die in Undermountain.

So that’s what’s hanging on the walls of my basement game lair. I like to think of it as inspirational artwork. And believe it or not, there’s a stack of maps and posters that I’ll have to put back in storage because there wasn’t room to frame them too….

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