Tuesday, October 13, 2015

exploring Basic D&D

A lot of my sensibilities as a D&D player are influenced by the OSR. Most of my favorite writers and thinkers about rpgs are somehow connected to the old school rennaisance.

The games I have played however, have mostly been 3rd edition, with a healthy smattering of the White Wolf  World of Darkness system. My only real experience playing an "Old school" style game was a brief flirtation with Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

I had some problems with LotFP though. Characters seemed to die too easily. Players didn't have time to get used to their characters. Those who had invented detailed backstories for these ill-fated characters found themselves shortchanged on their efforts. As a DM, I had been hoping for a certain threat of lethality, and the tension that comes from it. But the lethality lent more of a slasher-flick absurdity than actual drama. And whats worse, I found that the constant character deaths were holding up  the campaign. Characters were simply not living long enough to witness the wonders I had invented.

Part of the the problem was that I had designed the adventure with 3E sensibilities, with the power creep of 3E in mind. Flame Princess appears to run on a d20-like system as far as combat is concerned, so it seemed like an easy transfer. But rather than adjusting my style to the new system, I just changed the campaign back to 3rd. The increases survivability allowed us to play in the manner to which we had become accustomed.

I had basically given up on Basic D&D. But I still read OSR blogs. Including Monster&Manuals, which is where I found this:


These are play reports and commentary of a few trial B/X games, and then an extended campaign where some of the characters get as high as Second Level.
The odd thing is how genuinely interesting these reports are. They are exciting to read, and that's about the last thing you would expect.

I had been made to understand throughout my roleplaying career that Old School D&D didn't really allow for roleplaying. Supposedly, back in the day, D&D was basically played like a board game, and only later more nuanced systems really had the potential for drama and characterization.

Yet in these play logs, there are well-defined characters, ethical conundrums, drama, and lots of tension. It shows the value and potential of Old School play, and it is pretty inspiring.
The rules used were the Basic/Expert rules with very minimal houseruling. These rules were edited by Tom Moldvay and David Cook, and published in 1981. There are two books in the set, Basic and Expert. Basic has rules and tables for characters up through the third lever. Higher levels are described in the blue-covered Expert book. These are the rules usually taken as the basis of the OSR and the various "retro-clones" such as Lamentations.


Some of the key factors I noticed that are different from most D&D games I've played:

>Play began at the threshold of the dungeon. It is understood that the party members already know eachother and are going to cooperate. This saves a lot of bullshit. Shopping and resting are not played out, but simply announced.

>Overland travel was simply announced as a given. But B/X does have rules for it: It amounts to a possibility of a random encounter while moving from one hex to another. This basically extends the length of the gauntlet the party must run.

>Play moves very quickly. The group seems to get through a lot of encounters in a short amount of play time.

>XP is based on treasure acquired: counted when it leaves the dungeon. Monsters are also worth XP, but the risk of combat is not necessarily worth the meager reward.

>A single good hit from an enemy or a trap can mean certain death - especially at low levels. Teamwork and caution are a necessity. This DM gave experience not only for defeating enemies, but also for causing the enemy to flee or talking their way out of a fight.

> Morale and reaction checks are absent in recent editions. But they are key to encounters in basic.

>Resources are very limited. HP and spells evaporate quickly, and there's no telling what's in the next room. The party has to decide just how far to push their luck.

>Dungeons are not cleared; they are raided. The idea is to grab treasure and get out without anybody dying.

>This DM used dungeons made by an online random generators. One called Wizardawn, which seems to be defunct, and another called donjon. There are several tool like this online. While I am usually of the mind that a dungeon should have an underlying logic to it, the upshot of using randomly generated dungeons is that the DM doesn't have to worry about his creativity or ego being on the line and can simply focus on running game.

>There's no (intended) continuity or narrative at stake, so the campaign can be as log or as short as is convenient.

Consider my interest in Old School D&D rekindled. It comes at the right time, and the exploration offers plenty of fodder for armchair demiurge. more to come.

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