Gaming Diary – Bestiaries and Monster Manuals

Many Dungeon Masters have a never ending need to collect monster collections because lets face it – monsters and monster lore are fun to look at and read about! We get to be children again. But more than that, we get to use them to scare and challenge our players, and players love to see brand new monsters, as well as old monsters in a new light.

I have collected a good number of the lavishly colorized and “realistic” modern style monster manuals (I have at least a half dozen from 3E and 5E, and the artwork in them is indeed attractive). But I am now running traditional-style D&D, my tastes have changed, and I have lost a lot of interest in the uber colorized, flashy, post-3E monster art style. I have gone back to appreciating and wanting more of the classic black & white line art. This style allows the players to color it in the way *they* want. *They* get to use their imagination to fill out and expand the piece of art provided. I want to move away from the video game style of art where everything is put in your face. I want my players to hear my descriptions and visualize it for themselves, ask questions, and fill in the details themselves. This is what tabletop roleplaying gaming is supposed to be – collaborative and immersive. I think this black & white art style supports that.

So, with that in mind, I have been looking far and wide for some old school bestiaries and I have been fortunate to find some. Many of these are inspired by – or based on – the classic Basic D&D Creature Catalog, the AD&D Monster Manuals I and II, and the Fiend Folio, with slight stat differences and new black & white line art. I really love them! Sadly, though, this is a niche market and you have to really dig around to find the small publishers and independent game designers who cherish these alternate ways of doing things.

Just as OSR rules are light and allow for more options and imagination, the black & white art also allows people to open their imaginations to the strange realm of fantasy.

Imagination. Wonderment. Mystery. That is what I am focusing on in my game. It is my hope that I am moving in that direction.

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Gaming Diary – AD&D Character Death.

Gaming Diary – AD&D Character Death.

Last night was pretty crazy. We gamed at Fantasy Flight Games from 4PM till almost closing time at midnight (nearly 8 hours).

We nearly had two Total Party Kills (TPK’s) even though we had 6 players in our group managing 10 characters (old school games are tough and you need to have as many capable bodies as possible!). In the end two characters did die – a player lost their paladin, and I lost my 1st level, half-elf, cleric/fighter/magic-user.

I still have a human 2nd level magic-user, but now I need to create a second character again. In fact, I’ll be creating a third and possibly a fourth character just as a backup(s) to the other two!

I love these challenging games! I suppose for those who make modern D&D characters where they never expect the characters to die because all encounters are supposed to be “balanced,” this old school game style can be a bit jarring. But I have to say it is a real rush when you see your DM rolling on the encounter chart for the monsters as well as the number of monsters and not know what might come up! So many modern games feel like a video game where the random encounters are just “trash mobs” that you are meant to wipe away with no real threat, and if you have to worry at all it will be during the “boss fight” at the end. This makes the game too predictable, in my view, and I think it can get a bit boring. In old school games your random encounter in the woods could be a wandering dear, or ten hungry trolls – you might have a simple encounter with nature, or a total fight for your lives using everything in your backpack, saddle bags, and wagon, to desperately stay alive!

When you succeed at an encounter you feel a much stronger sense of satisfaction, and if you lose a character like I did last night, you still feel a genuine sense as if something was still accomplished. In nearly 40 years of gaming I’ve lost plenty of characters before and I can say when it was happening during the 3E era I got upset and sometimes, I think, felt a bit entitled and would think “you can’t kill my character (again!), I wrote a backstory for him and that story is unfinished!” But as I said above, the feelings are different in old school. Just hours before the game I had written up backstories for both my characters and shared them with my DM – I finally knew more about where they had come from and what they wanted to do – and hours later one of them died. But I didn’t feel that it was a waste, it was simply how life goes in a world that is filled with constant danger. Any sense of entitlement in old school games gets dispensed with quickly, for you are not a hero and not that special unless you actually manage to survive a few levels, before that you are simply a nobody with a dream and the world doesn’t bow to your will. It is a humbling but worthwhile experience.

Gaming Diary – Getting back to the “Basics”

Gaming Diary – Getting back to the “Basics”! 

My first purchased D&D product is a toss up between the AD&D Player’s Handbook and the 1983 Basic D&D red box. Sadly, in 2007, believing at the time that D&D was now forever stuck in the d20 system of 3E, I sold a lot of my classic D&D books like the red box (although I kept my AD&D PHB).

However, the Old School Renaissance is alive and well, people are going back to playing the old, classic, games, and I’ve been spending most of this year reacquiring those books – and more! – that I stupidly sold off 11 years ago.

The 1977 Basic ‘Holmes’ box (the box with the dragon sitting on a pile of gold) has clearly been in someone’s musty basment for the last 40 years. It has everything in it but the dice. On the other hand, the person included a couple Basic D&D adventures they had, as well as their 40 year-old campaign notes and characters!

The 1981 Basic ‘Moldvay’ box (the purple one with the green beast), is virtually brand new. Everything is pristine. Really nice.

The 1983 Basic ‘Mentzer’ set (the red box with the red dragon) is also in really good shape. It’s missing the original dice that came with it (blank numbers that you colored in with a crayon that was included!), however, they were nice enough to include a larger number of old-style dice as replacement (good old fashioned polyhedral dice that you could get in the 80’s and 90’s).

Finally, I have a 1994 Basic Set. This one includes cardboard cutouts, a set of dice, plastic minatures, DM screen, guidebook, plus some extra adventures, maps, handouts, and the previous owner’s campaign notes and character sheets written on graph paper.

I really did well with this! Now I can play any of the versions of Basic D&D whenever I want. Also, I plan to draw on the wonderful artwork from these books and the monsters within them for my Castles & Crusades game!

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Gaming Diary – AD&D 1st edition

30 September, 2018

Traps/Exploration.
Had another fantastic game tonight! A classic AD&D dungeon crawl. I love the uncertainty in these old style games, for even if you discover a trap, you have to examine and experiment with it in detail to discover how it should be picked if is locked, or if it is trapped how it is trapped. I love the interactive aspect. This was how I gamed in the ’80’s and ’90’s, but this has been largely lost since the ’00’s when people just roll an “investigation” check and expect to be told everything about it. No fun in that.

Magic is rare, limited, and special; equipment.
The limited availability of magic in a low-magic game also ensures you save your magic for just the right moment, which means you have to rely much more on mundane, every-day materials to solve problems (we all become MacGyver in our attempts to come up with solutions to overcome obstacles).

When we finished our dungeon crawl and made it back to a town, we took our new loot and spent a good amount of time visiting shops and re-purchasing equipment (pack animals, mounts, carts, wagons, upgrading weapon/armor, replenishing backpacks and pouches, and filling up saddle bags).

Combat, tactics, and the random roll and fate of the dice.
Combat is quick, and there is always danger, for it is so easy to die (remember, encounters are not guaranteed to be “balanced”), so tactics and planning are essential. Trying to come up with innovative approaches to overcome a foe is necessary to survive. In one randomly rolled encounter, our 1st-3rd level characters had to take on over 20 bugbears on a narrow, steep, mountain pass with a several hundred foot drop on either side. A couple carefully placed ‘entangle’ and ‘grease’ spells ensured that they didn’t massacre us, and indeed it forced them to retreat, which allowed an elfin thief to use archery and carefully timed rock falls over a ledge to weaken them further, and we then picked them off one by one. Cooperation and strategy was essential, simply relying on full-on charge into melee combat would have been assured deaths for us all.

This was followed up by a randomly rolled encounter of…two stone giants! Again, this would have been immediate death in a single round of combat for 1st-3rd level characters under normal circumstances, but a few more random rolls resulted in them being asleep in their lair, so we had the opportunity of avoiding the encounter altogether, but then we decided to take a big chance and try to kill these particularly evil creatures in their sleep. So a single die roll was made by each of us to see if we could pull off a coup de grace – and it worked…barely! A chance roll of the dice presented us with a combat we couldn’t win, another random roll presented us with the opportunity to walk away, and we relied on the fate of the dice again to take another deadly chance that ended up resulting in the instant death of deadly foes.

The experience of a game that is constantly this dangerous and potentially deadly really makes your successes and ability to walk away that much more meaningful.

Played first AD&D game in 30 years

16 September, 2018

Last night I went to my FLGS and played my first Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st edition game in 30 years. It was a genuine joy! I was reminded very vividly why the older way of gaming is so much more satisfying and fun.

There were several hundred people at this game store (I believe there was some big Pathfinder 2.0 Playtest event going on) and when people walked by and saw the sign saying ‘AD&D 1st edition Greyhawk’, with players like myself with a roughly 40 year old original Player’s Handbook, they frequently paused, said “wow!” and watched with curiosity. Although some of the mature people I gamed with had books that were clearly worn to the bone after 40 years of play, they were still in better shape than many of the 5E books that are being produced by Wizards of the Coast with their bad bindings and wavy pages.

Character Creation and Death.
I began by rolling up a character. Based on the stats I rolled, I didn’t qualify for some of the classes I wanted so I ended up choosing Magic-User. Magic-Users at first level have one spell. ONE. So you have to choose your equipment carefully, since that is what you’ll be using most of the time. It forces you to be creative and carefully consider what you want to do and how you want to do it.

Old school is also tough. One player lost a character tonight, and I understood they lost a character the previous adventure as well. In these games you always have to have a backup character ready, since you might very well witness one character death per game session. We are also not superhero characters, sometimes we have to turn back. We encountered a trap last night, and we couldn’t figure out everything out about it, so we decided it was best to turn around and try and find another route through the crypt. It is refreshing not being invincible, it makes you a better player when you have to come up with alternatives to solve problems.

Large Group and Swift Combat.
We had 8 players using 9 characters. That may seem like a lot to manage, but in old school games like this you don’t have mind-numbing amounts of actions to keep track of each round (e.g. attack action, move action, bonus action, reaction). Watch any modern Pathfinder or D&D 5E game, and try to find one that is able to keep track of their character’s actions for a round; they’re always looking things up and hemming and hawing as they try to decide what they can do. Combat takes f o r e v e r. In old games like this you do your one thing and move on, with only having to worry about doing one thing, you go around the table significantly faster. I think we managed to cover 3 rounds of 1st edition combat in the time it takes to do 1 round of combat in Pathfinder or D&D 5E. You can get so much more done in an old school game.

I know some of my modern gaming friends may be wary of rolling initiative every single round, but again, this keeps combat VERY dynamic and unpredictable, and it doesn’t slow down combat at all in an old school game. We spent the first 4 hours of the night doing an old-fashioned hex crawl (each hex was 5 miles) and we were fighting all the time, but it was swift and effortless. Managing 9 characters was easy, indeed, I will be adding a second character of my own next time, moving us up to 10 characters.

Creativity and Player Skills over Character Abilities.
Modern D&D since 3E is all about what is on your character sheet, it tells you what you can and what you can’t do. And the more rules you have, the more bogged down you get with looking things up or arguing over rules minutiae. More rules give you less options in my view, since one ability you have tells you the thing you can do as well as revealing all the things you can’t do with it. In a game with no feats and no skills (except for some broadly defined ‘secondary skills’), you can try anything and it relies on the creativity of the player. You want to try something? Bring it up and the DM makes a ruling. All the never ending feats people struggle to acquire in modern games you can simply try on your own in an old school game. You don’t need a rule telling you what you can/can’t do – just try it!

It was so refreshing to be a part of this. I’ll be gaming with this group twice a month. I also have a gaming group where I play 5E once or twice a month, and then I have my own Castles & Crusades campaign that I will be running. I can’t wait to bring in this open and creative old school element into my C&C game. People raised on D&D since 3E – and computer games – have a restricted view of what they think they can or should be able to do. Liberate yourself! Let your imagination and creativity reign! Go old school!