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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Thieves in D&D

****Note this is a slightly edited version of a rant I went on about Thieves back in 2012, at the end of a longer post about other things. I figured it never got as much of an audience because it wasn't it's own post, kind of lost in the noise, and I've been considering going through and editing for re-blogging some of my older stuff- consider this a test****

The Thief, D&D's biggest jerk class. 

I think I have finally figured out why though. The name of the class says "If you are a player that wants to screw over the rest of the party, play a Thief!". I know Conan was a Thief for a good portion of his career, but a lot of D&D players have never read Conan, or Fafhrd and The Gray Mouser*, or even Thieves World with Shadowspawn, so, even though AD&D doesn't come out and say "Steal from your party", it does mention that most Thieves tend to be Evil and they see things like the drawing of the shirtless Thief robbing somebody at knife point in the 1st edition Players Handbook right under Thieves XP table, or the "There is no honor among Thieves" drawing in the alignment description section of the Dungeon Masters Guide and they assume that's the code of conduct for Thief characters. The Moldvay Basic book comes right out and says it " their name indicates, however, they do steal- sometimes from members of their own party". Dr. Holmes states a little more bluntly in their class description "Thieves are never truly Good and are usually referred to as Neutral or Evil, so that other members of an expedition should never completely trust them and they are quite as likely to steal from their own party as from the Dungeon Master's Monsters.". When you couple this with the fact that they have that Pick Pockets skill, what are they going to do? Screw the party, that's what they're going to do. They don't have to, they level faster than every other party member, so stealing the gems or some extra gold so the get bonus XP they don't have to share is just damned greedy, but they do it because they can, the system encourages them to.

Kind of a dick, eh?

So I got to thinking about this, if D&D is fantasy F-ing Vietnam, then Thieves are like the Tunnel Rats, or SF or some kind of specialized warrior minus the name-tag and the Pick Pockets ability; because when you think about it, what else have they got? Find and Remove Traps? That's a pretty awesome and helpful ability to have in a party, very Tunnel Rat-esque too. Move Silently? Also damned handy and kind of militarily helpful, in a stealthy commando style. Hide in Shadows, same thing. Hear Noise, again, same thing. Climb Walls, again, same thing. Open Locks is the only iffy one there, and I can see an argument for it being a militarily useful skill, or at worst, an espionage type skill**. Even their Backstab ability is a pretty bad-ass commando type ability, so these guys could have been called something else (like, say- "Sneak Attack") and saved us all years of intra-party conflict and douchebaggery. 

I guess not every D&D Thief needed to be played like a raging douche, they could have been played as though they were modeled on Indiana Jones, he displays pretty much every single Thief skill (including Read Languages that I didn't mention because I was reading them out of the Moldvay Basic book and the Holmes Basic book when I listed them), but sadly, no, he's an Archaeologist, not a Thief (although that's a subtle distinction depending on when and where you are and who you ask); all I know is I'd rather have Indy in my party or a Tunnel Rat from 'Nam than any damned Thief, even if it is Conan. Conan occasionally screwed over his party***.

*I haven't for instance.

**Which brings me to the sad slippery slope argument that Pick Pockets makes for a great espionage type skill too. Maybe it would work if the Class wasn't called Thief and didn't have all of those references towards stealing from your own party and tending toward Evil.

***To be fair, if memory serves, they were usually Thieves that were planning on screwing him over, but you have to be careful about the company you keep. 

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Not Gaming Today

It always seems like I think and write more about gaming when I am actually gaming less. I guess that makes sense, if I were actually gaming I’d have less time to think about gaming in general. Today I was supposed to GM the new Mophidius Star Trek RPG, but both my wife Mona and my daughter Ember are sick. This should have been the “good” week for Mona, the last weekend before more chemo, we even had an “extra” weekend here because of Thanksgiving delaying a treatment for her. Until her treatments are done it’s looking like we are going to be two weeks off, one week on for gaming, with a pretty good chance of losing the third week too.

Star Trek came as a bit of a surprise this week anyway, we were scheduled to start a new Savage Worlds Fantasy campaign set in my own Garnia setting, but they released the playtest into the wild and they would appreciate getting the results back within a few weeks. It’s not a long adventure, and it seems like it hits all the right rules to test, and teach, the game. In that respect it brings to mind the adventure in the Legend of the Five Rings RPG first edition book.

Working on a new campaign is always handy to distract me from my wife’s illness, so I welcome it. Writing up stuff for Garnia for Savage Worlds is a little weird for me, I easily fall into my AD&D mode there, which makes me want to check out OSR related blogs and such, then lose myself for a while reading about things like the implied setting of OD&D, or Vancian magic, or a myriad of other details about TSR era D&D, especially the early, Gygax era.

I engaged more than usual with the D&D groups on Facebook this week, which made me realize that I have DMed way more than I have played over the years. Made me think about whether Holmes Basic should be counted as OD&D or part of the later Basic line, or should each iteration of Basic D&D be considered it’s own thing? I only recall having two characters of my own for Holmes, an elf I named Elrond- I was a big fan of the Hobbit at the time, and working my way through Lord of the Rings, and a Halfling named Garn- who my campaign world would be named after. Both of those characters were played in my friend Chris’s campaign, which eventually collapsed because of his killer DM/Monty Haul tendencies. Elrond died on his first adventure, killed by a Vampire he encountered on the second level of the dungeon. Garn became a god, after his first successful adventure.

I can only think of four 1st edition AD&D characters I played over the years. Mandark, a Human Fighter that I played in my friend Tim’s campaign from the time I was in 5th or 6th grade until he went in the army when I was a junior in high school. He made 8th level in those years of heavy play. Second, concurrently, was Lodor, and Elf Fighter/Magic-User that I played in non-Tim run campaigns (except for once, and I’m still bitter about that), he maxxed his levels out, 5th/8th I think. The third guy, whose name I don’t remember, I think it was something like “Fredigar”, lost his right hand after his first adventure and I retired him. Lastly, there was another Fighter, named Brennos, who I played in the 2nd edition era in a campaign run by my buddy Steve, who was the OG of old school. Brennos made it to 6th level, then got killed at the end of the last session we played by a critical hit from a goblin’s arrow, when he was at full HP. Still a little bitter about that too, but that campaign my well have been the most sand-box, old school game I ever played in.

2nd edition AD&D had me DMing less often, adult responsibilities and all, but I played in a pretty long-lasting (for the grown-up world anyway) game where I had two different characters, an Elf Magic-User (generalist, no kit) named Celenor, who made it to 6th level before a Drow’s sleep dart killed him with a crit, while at full HP- seeing a pattern here, still bitter about it too; and a Human Fighter whose name I forget. He was a swashbuckler, I made him so he wouldn’t compete with the Dwarf Fighter

Sunday, November 6, 2016

What's on my mind lately...

So, I’ve been thinking about games a lot lately, probably because I haven’t been playing a lot lately. My wife Mona’s cancer has recurred, in her lungs this time, and she’s started chemo and not been up to doing much gaming. We may be looking at one game per month roughly until she’s done with this course of treatment, she goes once every three weeks and it seems to take two to recover enough to do anything. I have, along with my daughter Ember, been busy picking up Mona’s slack, making meals and cleaning and such, more work than I’d expected I guess, and taking care of Mona where and when she needs it, so I don’t really have too much extra time to miss the games themselves, with the extra work involved in prepping the house for a bunch of people to come over, but I have the time to miss gaming.

Months ago my group grew from just myself, Mike and Mona to include Mike’s son Mason, my daughter Ember- who just turned nineteen, and Mike’s adult daughter Marie and her BFF Rebecca, although the latter two have only shown up when Mike was GMing Savage Worlds. Oh, and our occasional guest star Darryl, my oldest friend.

Mike has been running Savage Worlds in a couple of settings- Weird War 2 and a stand alone adventure CRT, but mainly Thrilling Tales. Our latest Thrilling Tales adventure started before we realized Mona was sick again, when we found out we tried to rush to the end before her chemo started, but that didn’t work out. I halted my B/X-AD&D campaign I started with the “Isle of Dread” when I thought we were going to have two more D&D newbies and started running “Keep on the Borderlands”, which turned out to be unnecessary because Marie and Rebecca didn’t show for it, but I figured it would be nice for Mason to have the same shared experience there that I had when I was roughly his age. That turned out to be a blood bath, with multiple near TPKs. Mona missed about half of each session because she was working, and the game ran better after she returned from work. I guess having her there was the party’s good luck charm. Bad luck, poor intra-party communication, planning, preparation and tactical coordination were killing them while she was gone. I think Mason was on his fifth character before we went on hiatus to play the Thrilling Tales game after two sessions. I haven’t seen slaughter like that since that Oriental Adventures game I ran when Ashli was a senior in high school and we had two or three weeks in a row of TPKs.

I did play a board game with Darryl and Mona a month or so back, Supremacy. It didn’t go well. We butted heads over which expansions to use. We had agreed before hand to play with none the first time, but we wasted so much time that we only had time for one game before he had to leave, so he wanted to add a bunch. I did not, as I hadn’t ever played with most of the expansions the last time I played, which was in the 1980s. My thought was that I’d have to essentially relearn the game, and so would he, and we’d have to teach Mona and Ember to play (although Em bowed out before we started), so it made sense to me to take it slow and easy. Also, Darryl and I have a history with this game that has led to acrimony in the past. I once really screwed him over in an alliance against his dad and he took it out on me by making sure that he screwed me over, as hard as he could, in every game we played for the next couple of years. Ultimately the problem was more or less solved only, I think, by us playing Axis & Allies more or less exclusively for several years. The alliances there are concrete, there is no changing sides, we usually ended up on opposite sides, but eventually learned to work together again. The game of Supremacy we played a month or so ago really brought the worst in both of us out again, and we ended up destroying the world on the third or fourth turn. Not the best way to play a game we started as a memorial tribute to his dad.

I’d say it was the stress of me having to deal with my wife’s cancer and all that entails, combined with the fact that we were pressed for time by the time we got around to playing, and the fact that we actually bickered over which exact version of the game to play before we started, but I think it may just be that the two of us can’t play that particular game together anymore, which is too bad because I have fond memories of playing it as a teenager. It bums me out because Darryl doesn’t play D&D anymore either. He’s been drawn into a more character driven, story focused, role playing intensive kind of gaming, since he started playing with another group in Syracuse maybe fifteen years ago. He associates D&D with D20 era D&D on the one hand, with it’s multitude of skill checks, it’s broken challenge rating system and it’s deep focus on miniatures and tactics on the one hand and the lack of any real, deep role playing we played it with when were were kids on the other; and his mind set goes back to the “chess-master” when he tries to play. He hates Vancian magic, and magic was his thing back in the day, he hates rules too. He’s become a champion of rules-lite games, Mike is big on rules-lite too, but neither of them seems to grok the idea that pre-D20 D&D is pretty rules-lite, especially the pre-1985 variants. The 1981 Moldvay Basic book is 64 pages, Savage Worlds Deluxe Explorer’s edition (the edition I have, and the edition Mike runs) is 188 pages. You might say “But that’s not a fair comparison, it’s not the complete rules”, OK, the Cook/Marsh Expert rules are another 64 pages, an arguably complete game, still much shorter than the 188 pages of Savage Worlds, but, when I suggested that I may run a Savage Worlds fantasy game instead of D&D (mostly so Marie and Rebecca would show for it too), it was immediately suggested that I should use the Savage Worlds Fantasy Companion another 160 pages. Now I (mostly) run 1st edition AD&D, so the page count is higher, but I think that my point that Savage Worlds isn’t really rules-lite is made. There are versions of D&D out there that come in at as little as 2 pages- I am looking at you Swords & Wizardry light- so you can trim a lot of fat there.

Some complain that D&D combat is too slow, I haven’t seen Savage Worlds run any faster really, although there does seem to be less bean counting for most NPCs, they are either good to go, shaken or gone, so there is that. The inevitability of using miniatures, rather than the choice, is reminiscent of 3e era D&D to me though, and I have to count that as a minus for the system. I only use minis for D&D combat maybe half of the time, usually when the group has gotten bigger and it’s harder to describe or conceptualize the space and the participants or when kids are playing*.

Skill based systems bug me. This isn’t news to anyone reading this probably, but I really hate making a skill check instead of telling me, the DM, what your character is doing. It makes sense that the kids have a hard time with this, in a video game, if you have the proper skills, things get highlighted or extra options appear in dialogue, or whatever; it bothers me when people my own age or older can’t deal with these things though. I know the argument for the other side- Marlon the Mighty knows how to do tons of stuff that I as a player have no clue about- casting magic spells, picking locks, heraldry, herbs, diplomacy, chatting up wenches, etc., so it only makes sense that I should get a die roll on these, right? Maybe, but it makes the players lazy to be able to JUST make a die roll. Maybe you are bad at thinking on your feet, embarrassed at having to improv on the spot etc., but you should have something in mind when you try to bluff your way past the guard. Not having this idea is the opposite of role playing, it doesn’t help with the immersive story experience that was a stated aim in RPGs.

I keep saying to people, Darryl, Mike, Ember, even Mona (who has heard it all before a thousand times), that the system (or engine) that you are using doesn’t matter. All RPGs are pretty much the same, and universal, you can tell a great interactive story with D&D as your engine if you try. You can have a bogged down, slow moving roll for everything fest with it too. DM skill matter way more than the system you are using. I have tried many RPGs, not as many as a lot of people, but more than most I’d say, and I keep coming back to the one I spent the bulk of my youth playing- D&D, usually with the “A” out front; it’s home to me. I find it simple to modify to whatever my campaign needs are at the moment. I can add and subtract from the rules, and I have a solid idea of what effect each change will have. I know what to modify, and what to leave be. I think in D&D when I design stuff, I have to convert it to other systems when I play them and that’s kind of an annoying waste of my time. AD&D is just OD&D with a bunch of accretions, bits of house rules added on, ideas from people other than Gary and Dave and the TSR band. Everybody started somewhere in the D&D timeline, I started with Holmes Basic just prior to the release of Moldvay Basic- I was actually confused and annoyed that a “new” edition was released so soon after I bought mine- I have never met an RPG player that had not played D&D. A lot of people didn’t play a lot of D&D, having quickly moved to different or more exotic systems, RuneQuest and DragonQuest were apparently popular alternatives at one point, GURPS was big later. Maybe Vampire the Masquerade drew in a different crowd to RPGs that never played D&D, but I never met a White Wolf/World of Darkness fan that had never played D&D. 5th edition D&D seems pretty popular, but it’s not really my cup of tea; I’d probably play, but I don’t want to DM. It has too many leftover rules from the 3e D&D era for me. Also, I hate Dragonborn as a PC race, but I was never a fan of Gnomes either, so your personal mileage may vary.

*This generation raised on video games seems to start at a real deficit when it comes to describing encounters versus showing them on a map/battle board. I should also note that “kids” seems to refer to everyone under thirty. Get off my lawn!