Sunday, August 2, 2020

Race & Alignment in D&D - The Case for Removing Alignment

There are many hold-overs from older editions of Dungeons & Dragons. Many clunky features and mechanics have fallen by the wayside to rust and wither, and that’s for the best. I can’t say D&D would be the phenomenon it currently is without changes. Sometimes you need to lop off the broken bits and forge something new—that’s exactly what 5e has done. But, as our society shifts and grows more inclusive, changes are a must. One of the longest-lasting hold-overs from classic D&D is alignment. It has gone vastly unchanged since the inception of the game. 

I think it’s time for a change. We are no longer playing stereotypes meant to fill a roll in a war game. I’ll come out and say it—alignment sucks. What does it even mean? Everyone is the hero of their own story, and alignment makes it so every individual must fit into a peg or role that doesn’t quite fit. In addition, alignment is the main focal point for discrimination in D&D. The fact that good & evil is tied to a race is an issue. Doing away with the alignment system would open up the interpretation of the other “evil” races. 

Anyone who has read the Drizzt novels knows that drow aren’t evil beings. Hell, you could put any race in the same environment as they are and come out with the same society. Races aren’t evil. They don’t “lean towards evil” as the PHB states. Situations, society, pressures, and discrimination bring out different goals in people. I hear the complaint that removing these notions and stereotypes will “ruin the lore.” I don’t think so. We can all have our cake and eat it too, so to speak. 

Do away with perceptions of evil. Don’t even mention it. Instead, describe societies. Describe cultures. Tell of the houses of the drow and their desires for greatness in the eye of their goddess. Speak of the orcs and how violence leads to social status. It’s as easy as not placing these labels on societies and people as a whole. While many players may break the molds set in the PHB, just as many fall into the trap of exacerbating racial issues in their game with these labels. 

But what do we do instead? Well, I think a game can play fine without alignment at all. Roleplay takes the place of these figurative training wheels. We already have the toolsets needed to make dynamic characters without it: flaws, ideals, desires, etc. There’s already a spot for all of that on the character sheet.

 If one must hold onto any remnants of alignment, perhaps consider whether your character falls more towards law, neutrality, or chaos. It doesn’t have to be a box you build around your character, rather it can be a flexible membrane that melds elements of the world around them through experiences and hardship. 

Let me know your thoughts on alignment and the changes proposed here. I’m very interested to hear any other ideas and/or solutions.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

"T1 - The Village of Hommlet" Review Part 2

Into the Dark Depths of the Moathouse Dungeon 
In case you didn’t read the first bit of this review, I’ll be diving into my thoughts on “T1 The Village of Hommlet” by Gary Gygax. Check out the first part of this for, well, the first half of the adventure! But you can expect my conclusions at the end of this one. 

We left off with our dear wizard Merlot alone with the shady fighter Koport. As soon as he had the chance, Koport left with the dosh that the party had gathered thus far. The wizard was powerless to stop him, so he didn’t. After a long day of back and forth travel, the party returned to find that all of their stuff was gone. They sought revenge against the Koport. A pretty reasonable idea, being that they all nearly died for that meager treasure. 

An Impressive Show of Strategy
Through a very tense series of encounters, the party managed to track Koport and his cohort down before they could leave town. Long story short, they forced them back into their service in exchange for sparing their lives. I’m speeding ahead here because I don’t think you all need a play by play of the dungeon crawl. And I don’t want to give away any spoilers if any of you nefarious DM’s want to run your party through this particular grinder. 

They fought their way through the long slog of enemies and they did so skillfully. Undead, bandits, crawfish (yes really), and ghouls fell at their hands. They scouted for traps, funneled enemies to key positions, and were generally pretty impressive. I was happy to see my friends embrace their inner wargamer, for you need that kind of attitude to even stand a chance in any Gygax module. 

Ending spoilers ahead: Expertly, the party made their way to the final encounter. What do they face-off against? A dragon? A beholder? Oh, no. They face off against something far more deadly: a cleric. The final battle pits the party against over a dozen cultists and their fanatic leader Lareth the Beautiful. They fought tooth and nail for every inch of progress. The wizard burned over half of the low-level cultists alive. The fighter cut through the commanders. The rouge pinged away at the HP of larger opponents while the cleric rushed to keep everyone on their feet. 

The Final Push for...Victory?
Battered, broken, and bleeding the party gathered around to face Lareth as he strode down through the dead. He was unfazed by the bloodshed. He carved through Koport and his companion. He struck down Rhyne the gnome cleric. They were whittling his HP down, but it was getting dicey. Only Erric the rogue and Kallum the fighter remained. They held their ground for three turns, getting a crit in the process. With 8HP left, Lareth seemed beatable...but the dice were not on the party’s side. Lareth struck them down. It was over. They had lost. 

I didn’t know what to do. I had played and DMed for my friends for nearly six years now. This was my first TPK as a DM and it did not feel good. I closed up the game with some awkward apologies and sat back to think about what had just happened. Thankfully, my players are great friends who claimed to have a blast despite the whole, you know, losing bit. 

I thought perhaps it was my ineptitude with the system. I’m sure there were rules I forgot or skewed at the moment. Now, I’m sure that had its place, but I don’t think that was the nail in the coffin. 

The Deck is Stacked
Looking at other AD&D modules to compare, I’ve come to think that the deck is stacked. The DM has much more up their sleeve than the players do in this edition, particularly when you compare it to 5e. Now, these aren’t any earth-shattering or unique conclusions. AD&D difficulty is mythic at this point. They go hand in hand. I’d also hazard a guess that this is where the player vs DM mindset originates for some people. 

This was a game where the DM always had an ace up the sleeve that could guarantee a win. It could be an instant kill trap, a hidden item, or anything else. This time it was Lareth’s -1 AC. Unless the party went and started uprooting floorboards in barns, then they weren’t going to have the weapons necessary to hit consistently. In fact, most of my players couldn’t hit unless they scored a 19-20 on die. That’s insane for a level 3 dungeon where they’d already been weakened by the scores of enemies within. 

The way that T1 is written makes it seem like players fail if they don’t go and do things that likely wouldn’t naturally occur to their characters. They need more allies. They need to steal. They need to play the system in a meta way, which is something I generally discourage in all of my regular games. 

Final Thoughts

None of the above has stopped me from wanting to play AD&D, but I feel like I’m looking at the system with fresh, more objective eyes. It’s brutal. It’s unfair. You certainly need the right group of players to have an enjoyable experience. D&D has evolved as a game, especially during these last few years. It shouldn’t come as a shock that the idea of fun and challenge doesn’t quite line up with the current attitudes. 

Look at it as an old-school arcade cabinet: you’re going to throw a lot of lives and time at the game before you get decent enough to “win.” There’s a lot to love about the AD&D system. Hell, there are some features that I wish they’d carry over in the future like secondary positions, rear-attacks, exceptional strength, THAC0(yes I’m serious), and weapon specializations. But, overall, I think most AD&D modules should be approached with caution. But, who knows, perhaps I’ll run into one that blends difficulty, cohesiveness, and role-play in a seamless way—T1 was not that module.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

"T1 - The Village of Hommlet" Review Part 1

My first DM was old-school despite being a teenager during the rise of 3.5 and Pathfinder. My first foray into the tabletop game of Dungeons & Dragons didn't come in the fashion of a pre-written 3.5 or, gods forbid, a fresh 4th edition module. I didn't even know there were multiple editions at the time. I was thrown into the midst of the Gygaxian chaos known as AD&D 2nd edition. Well, we called it the second edition since we used those lovely weapon/non-weapon proficiencies. Truth be told, we only had access to the original red book as well as some online supplements and made the rest up from there. 

15-year-old me was told to make up a character on the spot. I came up with Todlich Mund the rogue. I was really into German at the time and thought that name was the coolest thing ever. What can I say? He quickly became known as Tod Tod, and I cherished all 3-4 sessions of his brief life. My skepticism at sitting around a table and playing an imagination game for 10-12 hours went away during that very first hour of gameplay. Being nearly a decade older, I still look back fondly on AD&D and those games in particular. 

But that got me thinking. Was I looking at AD&D with rose-tinted glasses? Was it really as wacky, wild, and unforgiving as I remembered? Well, I think we all know that the latter is certainly true. What about the system? Did it still hold up? I decided to take a dive back into the world of AD&D after all of these years. Plus, the 100+ books/modules I've collected over the years needed a justification to stay on my shelf. If I'm to keep spending on them, then I should very well be playing them. 

I sifted through my modules and found one that I thought would make a suitable re-entry: "T1 The Village of Hommlet" by none other than Gary Gygax. Now, this is technically a base-edition module, but it only took some very minor tweaks to get it ready and rolling for an AD&D 2E session. I excitedly told all of my trepidatious friends whom I had just finished DMing a two-year-long 5th edition game for that I wanted to do a couple sessions of AD&D. Plus, if they liked it, I could rope them into T2 & T3 of "The Temple of Elemental Evil." The messy contents of those are a discussion for another day. Due to them likely not knowing the extend of Gygaxian evils, I got the yes I was hoping for. 

This particular module calls for six-level one characters. I had three intrepid souls. Instead of making them go through the AD&D gauntlet of character creation twice, I had them roll up three level three characters while one of the slightly more experienced players ran two-level three characters. With four level three members, I felt they had a reasonable chance at not instantly dying to some of the infamous parts of this module. After all, I couldn't kill them right awayThey wouldn't want to come back for more if I did. 

Gygax puts a lot of effort into making the Village of Hommlet appear full of interesting characters. After all, well over half of the text is dedicated to the occupants and their backgrounds. Only six or so pages make up the actual dungeon. I loved thinking up personalities and goals for many of these NPCs; however, I didn't feel the party had much reason to go knocking door to door like the module seems to imply they should. Reasonably, they had the idea to go straight to the Inn of the Welcome Wench instead of piddling around with the farmers on the way there. 

The party of four consisted of Rhyne the eager Death Cleric, Erric the anxious Rogue, Kallum the quiet Fighter, and Merlot the extravagant Wizard. They mingled with Ostler Gundigoot and got a gauge for the goings-on in town. Curious of some of the individuals mentioned, the party went out and spoke with some of the shop keeps and craftsmen. Adventure seemed to lurk right on their periphery, but nobody happened to have any quests for them to go on. In fact, this module only has a handful of individuals in the village that even have an idea of where the central dungeon is. While this makes thematic sense, I felt that it could lead to some confusion for players. It ends up making some parts of the module feel like busywork that is meant to kill time more than provide actual information for the players to get engaged in. 

Thankfully, we run a roleplay focused table during our regular sessions. So, the players worked out that they'd have to get to the bottom of what exactly was going on here. They learned of the slight, if civil, disagreements between some of the populace about those of druidic faith and those who follow St. Cuthbert's teachings. I wish that the module laid things out more in regards to the militia, church, and druidism. It's largely left to the DM with no further explanations being offered as to what the tenets behind either faith are, nor does the module offer much about the inner workings of the militia. 

Due to the above, my party didn't find much interest in these groups. We'll have to see if that changes when T2/T3 comes around. Perhaps there are more hooks integrated into the module for those groups. Instead, my group eventually met a wizard NPC by the name of...Spugnoir. You know, I can get behind wacky names. But, man, this one took the cake. I couldn't keep a straight face whenever that NPC was brought into the action. He was the one to lead them to the abandoned moat-house to the North East that functions as the central dungeon to the campaign. They also managed to bring Kobort the evil fighter along with them on their initial journey. 

The party survived the infamous frog encounter: Six giant frogs leap out from the mud (almost guaranteeing a surprise round) and eat a bunch of low-level members. I don't see how a 1st level party is supposed to make it through this without major losses. Our party somehow survived without losing a soul. Poor Spungnoir was limping along with 1HP, and quite a few party members had suffered some decent damage. 

They proceed across the drawbridge on foot, which avoids the chance of it breaking due to being on mounts, and find themselves on the ruins of the first floor. Despite Ryne (our gnome cleric) pointing out a heat signature on the ceiling of a nearby tower with her infravision, the rogue runs in after an ivory box on the floor. This triggers the giant spider to fall down and very nearly kill Erric in one shot. The party organizes and kills the beast while Erric licks his wounds. Deciding that was quite enough adventure for one day, the party holes up in the tower after placing some wood in front of the doorway to block any other nasties from crawling in. 

After a close encounter with some stray brigands from the group hiding on the second floor, the party manages to complete their long rest unhindered. They do the smart thing here and split the party. Ryne and Koport scout out the right path while Erric, Merlot, Kallum, and Spungnoir head down the left path. 

They both run into trouble simultaneously. Ryne awakens a giant snake hidden in the rubble while Erric runs into over a dozen giant rats that come pouring out of the walls. All might have been lost if it hadn't been for a successful cast of sleep by Spungnoir that puts every rat to sleep before they could kill Erric. Rhyne barely escapes the serpent with her new jeweled dagger in tow. The rats are exterminated as they sleep with minimal effort.

Another room holds a giant tick that, again, nearly kills Erric before he can escape. It runs out and proceeds to suck the blood from Rhyne. They manage to kill it before it can deal fatal damage to the cleric. The next room holds a lizard that swallowed a shield. The book says nothing about the consequences of the lizard doing this, nor does it mention how the party is supposed to know it swallowed a full kite shield. I flavored it to be a starving creature with the shape of the shield jutting out from its gut. Sneaking up on it, the rogue initiates a surprise round that quickly kills the starving beast. 

That left the barred iron door to the north. They hear chatter behind it from what sounds like nearly a dozen voices. The party attempts to lure them out with taunts and promises of sparing their lives. The bandits tell them to "f*ck off " and said that they should leave if they'd didn't want to die. A fair bit of banter later leads to them having Koport try to break the door down. Now, this is meant to fail. Once the door starts getting battered, the bandits are supposed to flee out through a hole in the rubble and run away. I roll the bend bars/lift gates percentile since this is a big metal door...12 percent. I needed it to be below 20. The bar on the back snaps and the door flies off of its hinges into the unsuspecting crown of bandits, which initiates a surprise round.

The party slaughters the bandits in nearly two turns, which leads the leader to surrender and flee after dropping his weapons. They were left with the issue of how to transport some of this newly found wealth back home. Everyone except Merlot the wizard and Koport decided to go back and secure mounts. The pair decided to stay put and guard the treasure. After a few hours of sitting around, Koport looks to Merlot and, well, I'll save that for part two.