Learning the Hard Way

Was listening to an episode of the Wandering DMs while doing some housework after failing my save vs. Dirty House. It was their episode on Learning D&D and they discussed their own experiences, learning from the books vs. learning from an experienced player, and how kids these days have it all so easy what with the interwebs and all.

It was a great episode, and I was reminding of my own trial by fire.

I actually learned D&D by learning Traveller first. I discovered Traveller on my own in a game store in 1982 and convinced my dad to allow me to give it shot. I grew up on a farm in rural Minnesota, and let me tell you that there were not a lot of nerds out and about in the corn fields back in the early 80s. I knew exaclty ZERO people who had played Traveller, Dungeons & Dragons, or any other game like that. But my birthday brought me Deluxe Traveller, and Book 0: An Introduction to Traveller was exactly what seventh-grade Kilgore needed.

Several months later, a neighbor back from college came to visit and I told him about this amazing game called Traveller I’d been playing with my brother and a couple of friends for a few months. And the neighbor told me about this amazing game called Dungeons & Dragons that he’d been playing up in college.

Of course, I’d heard about Dungeons & Dragons. Everybody had. It was that evil game where people couldn’t tell fantasy from reality, that evil game that had caused that poor college kid to disappear in the tunnels, and that evil game that had REAL MAGIC SPELLS in it that risked summoning a demon if you said the evil words just right.

So, of course, we played. We had the neighbor’s AD&D Players Handbook, his set of dice, and a box of lead miniatures. I played a cleric, my brother played a fighter, and we killed a vampire in the basement of a terrifying Tower of the Undead. My neighbor was correct. It WAS amazing.

A couple of days later, we played again. But the neighbor didn’t want to DM. He wanted to play. So in my second session, with no DMG, no Monster Manual, and no real clue about how to be a Dungeon Master, I was running the show.

It was glorious. A mess. But glorious.

Though we never stopped playing Traveller, and in fact I just introduced my nephew to Science-Fiction Adventure in the Far Future just this past July, D&D definitely became one of our main pastimes.

Looking back, I wonder if the only way it could have been better would have been for our introduction to have been via 1981’s Basic Set. If I’d had that book instead of only one of three AD&D manuals, our game would not have been nearly so messy.

But I suspect that it might not have been quite so glorious, either.

Though I’m 100% convinced that B/X is the best version of the game ever published, I would not give back any of those adventures when I had to make monsters up from my head and just guestimate reasonable to-hit numbers because the combat tables weren’t in the PHB.

Learning from someone might be the best way to LEARN, but teaching yourself might be the best way to EXPERIENCE IT.

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4d6 Drop Lowest

The more I read, play, and think about the B/X rules, the more I find myself undoing the various houserules and “fixes” I’ve implemented over the years. The more I work out what the rules really say and the more I’m able to let go of assumptions brought into B/X from other editions, the better I think the best version of the game keeps getting.

One houserule that I think I’d like to drop but won’t, though, is the ability score generation. Rather than 3d6 in order with a limited 2-for-1 point swap, we go with 4d6 drop lowest and arrange as desired.

Personally, I think 3d6 gives perfectly playable results, and perhaps even BETTER results, in game terms. However, players seem to be universally opposed to in-order rolling and the dejection of players over a few bad rolls really can sour the session.

So 4d6 drop lowest, arrange as desired is it for us. While I may have no issues deciding to go with a fighter instead of a thief because I rolled crappy Dexterity–or I may be perfectly willing to play a thief with crappy Dexterity–many players are not so inclined. I can explain to them all night long that the randomness of the rolls can bring out fun that was not expected, but they’re still going to be pouting because they really wanted to play a thief this time. So arrange as desired and play your thief, gosh darnit.

Same goes for 4d6 drop lowest vs. 3d6. Sure, we all know that 3d6–on average–gives perfectly playable ability scores for a game with power levels like B/X. But telling that to the player who just rolled a 4 and will be suffering a significant mechanical penalty forever just doesn’t work. “But your weak Constitution and reduced hit points will make this a FUN character to roleplay and you can make his fragility a memorable experience!” just isn’t going to cut it with most players most of the time.

So 4d6 drop lowest and arrange as desired might be a sop to the players, but it’s a reasonable one that I’m happy to make. I want my players to want to play B/X.

Of course, this all leads to the “dump stat Charisma” problem. But that’s a post for another day.

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Encumbrance (Optional)

Encumbrance fighter from Basic Dungeons and Dragons

A post on Facebook brought up a question about encumbrance in B/X D&D. The poster was confused about how the optional system on page B20 worked. His confusion stemmed from the fact that, though it isn’t really very clear, B/X has two separate optional encumbrance systems. The first (simpler) system merely uses the armor a character wears to determine movement rate, with leather reducing movement to 90′ from an unarmored person’s 120′ and metal armor reducing it to 60′. An added restriction is that carrying treasure reduces movement one more step.

While this system is very easy to use in play and is better than no encumbrance system at all, it leaves a lot to be desired. Because of this, I would guess that most games which use encumbrance use the second (more complex) system.

This is the add-up-everything’s-weight-in-coins that we are all familiar with. It weighs only armor, weapons, and treasure, with an additional 80 coins used to represent miscellaneous equipment and provisions. This is a good simplification to avoid the tedious math adding up every last piece of gear that probably eventually convinces a lot of games to hand-wave encumbrance.

I do tweak the system slightly, adding in an adjustment for high or low strength scores. Each plus or minus 1 due to strength provides an adjustment of 100 coins to the weight allowance of that character. For example, a dwarf with a strength score of 15 has a +2 modifier and can carry an extra 200cn. This adjustment is relatively small, but consider that 400 coins is the most a character can carry without a movement reduction. A character with a strength score of 13 can carry 500 coins while maintaining his or her 120′ movement, a 25% increase.

In play, I have players do an “encumbrance check” each time the PCs are leaving town. It takes just a few seconds to add up armor, weapons, treasure, and the 80cn miscellaneous, then adjust for strength if necessary. Note the new movement rate AND note the number of coins the character can add before hitting the limit for the current move rate. As they adventure, they add or subtract from this number–usually on some scratch paper–to see if their move rate changes.

The example character Morgan Irownwolf carries 670 coins weight. If she was in my game, this would be reduced by 200 to 470 coins due to her 16 strength, giving her movement of 90′ instead of 60′. Her player would note 130 more coins until Morgan’s move was reduced to 60′.

Morgan Ironwolf from Basic Dungeons and Dragons
Morgan Ironwolf
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1d100 Normal Humans

I’m working out the details of the latest version of my retainers system, and as part of that project I want a list of ready-to-go NPCs to fill the slots. Since normal humans can be employed as retainers (B21), low-level player characters will often be approached by normal humans (no class or level) interested in becoming adventurers. Here is a sample of the sort of list I will work from.

All ability scores are 3d6 in order and hit points are 1d4. We use the “re-roll 1s and 2s on hit dice” optional rule (B6) for ALL levels if the character is an adventurer, and I have elected to permit these apprentice adventurers to benefit from this policy with the idea that only the tougher normal humans would get to the point of actually being considered for a retainer position. Note that CON bonuses and penalties apply. (#49, in particular, does not appear to be long for this world.)

As per B40’s “As soon a normal human gets experience points through an adventure, that person must choose a character class“, any normal humans that earn XP will become a 1st-level character at the end of the adventure. All of these bloody adventurers have to start somewhere.

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Turning the Undead

It is difficult to exaggerate my longtime frustration with the cleric class. Though my first D&D character was a cleric, I have long felt that there are numerous issues with the class, both in the rules and in the way it’s played and viewed.

Though I have tried many adjustments to the cleric over the years, my recent return to pretty strict BTB play using the 1981 B/X D&D rules means that my so-called “fixes” are–for the most part–off the table. So I’m sticking with what I see as insufficient XP requirements which are significantly easier than the fighter’s despite being a more-capable class. I’m sticking with the wonky spell advancement table which grants both third and fourth level spells at sixth level and a fifth-level spell one level later. I’m sticking with the very low turning numbers which render what I see as a fearsome undead relatively impotent relatively quickly.

One change I am making though, is to interpret the turning undead rules to be what is quite possibly more in line with the original implementation. Using Turn Undead – are we getting it wrong? as a starting point, I am decreasing the effect of a successful turn from “the monster will not touch the cleric and will flee from the area if it can”–essentially a failed morale check–into more of a “repel” effect which protects the cleric while not driving off the undead and allowing them to still attack others.

Here is the rule as I’ve currently got it written:

A cleric may attempt to “turn” (repel) 2d6 undead monsters using his or her holy symbol. (Certain bane objects may also be used, such as garlic against vampires.) The cleric must present the symbol or object firmly and the undead must be able to see the cleric. Consult the Clerics vs. Undead table and cross-index the cleric’s level with the type of undead encountered:

“–“ means the cleric cannot turn that type of undead monster.

A number means that the player must roll that number or higher on 2d6 in order to turn the undead.

“T” means that the cleric automatically turns this type of undead monster.

“D” means that the cleric automatically dispels (destroys or disintegrates) this type of undead monster.

A cleric may turn or dispel 2d6 undead monsters at a time. If multiple types of undead are encountered simultaneously, the least-powerful are affected first.

If the turn attempt succeeds, the affected undead must remain beyond striking distance (5′) and may not attack the cleric in any way that round. Other characters may be attacked as normal.

Undead which have been turned for three consecutive rounds will be driven off, attempting to flee from the area as fast as possible. Those unable to flee will be dispelled as per a result of “D” on the table.

Beginning at 7th level, clerics are able to extend protection to others, with turned undead repelled 5′ for every experience level in a radius centered on the cleric. Those within this circle cannot be attacked by turned undead in any way.

Undead of unusual strength may be allowed a saving throw (vs. spells) to overcome a successful turn, as may those affected by a “D” result. Use of inferior holy symbols (wooden or improvised) may also allow a saving throw.

This will make turning the undead more like the “holding off the monster with a crucifix” effect in the old movies, dialing the power level down while still allowing clerics to drive them off as the ability became to be used. Also, I feel better about the low turning numbers (which allow skeletons to be turned automatically at second level) if the effect of success isn’t so dramatic. Finally, I actually INCREASED the results to affect 2d6 monsters rather than 2d6 hit dice.

We will have to see how this ends up playing out, possibly adjusting it further based on play. But I’m fairly happy with it and looking forward to extended testing in use.

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Kilgore’s B/X

For the past couple of years, I’ve been running a small on-again/off-again B/X game. Until recently, this was your typical houseruled game, with a number of small tweaks and a few larger ones. The cleric, in particular, was changed up quite a bit to bring the class more into line with the mystical crusader that I’ve always envisioned them and less as the holy priest/party healer that clerics usually end up being.

The issue I have with houserules, though, is that once I start tinkering with something I have trouble stopping. I was constantly making “fixes” and “improvements” and I was finding myself frustrated by the whole thing even as I made the game “better” by, say, making the spear a much more versatile weapon or by adjusting the cleric’s turning ability for the seventeenth time.

So I decided to go By The Book.

Now–to be honest–there are still a few little tweaks in our game. 4d6, drop lowest and arrange to taste rather than 3d6 in order with point swapping, for instance. Maximum HP at first level. But there are only a few minor changes and most of them produce results consistent with BTB play. I am biting my tongue and pretty much “just going with the flow” even when I run into things that have alwasy bugged me. (The cleric’s turning numbers, for instance.)

I have created my own “KBX Manual,” with a lot of the text based on the work of B/X Essentials from Necrotic Gnome by Gavin Norman. If you haven’t taken a glance at B/X Essentials, you really should. It is a great restatement of the original B/X ruleset, with 100% compatibility. My goal is to play a game that works perfeclty well whether the player has a copy of my KBX Manual, B/X Essentials, or the 1981 Basic and Expert books.

I am having personal use copies of this KBX Manual printed up (complete with cover and artwork that I have NO PERMISSION WHATSOEVER to use) and they should arrive tomorrow. Even though I’ve been running with home-printed copies for a while now, I’m excited to see what my Beta version looks and feels like.

Anyway, I will write more about my KBX game soon. But right now I’ve got a dungeon to stock.

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Modular City Sewer Pack

Kilgore doesn’t generally use miniatures, but he’s been thinking about it lately because of all the great stuff available these days. Like this.

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System Shock Survival

Happy New Year!

In the spirit of a fresh start, I’m dusting off the Lord Kilgore blog. I plan to post here regularly about my B/X D&D game, my classic Traveller game, and other game-related stuff.

It’s entirely possible that someone may end up reading some of the posts, so I will strive to produce quality content at everyday prices.

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