Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Ultimate Sandbox: Men & Magic Part 1

Now that the preliminary pre-D&D material is out of the way, we really get things moving with the very first D&D product ever - the three booklets of original D&D. There are a lot of problems with these rules, especially viewed through modern eyes - they're vague, full of important areas that aren't covered, and the art is adequate at best. But taken in context, as the work of a few eager gamers producing something they are obviously passionate about - it's brilliant. The whole product just oozes with an infectious enthusiasm, and I find that every time I read some I'm just itching to play. There may be things missing, but it doesn't matter, because what is included is top-notch.

We start with the "Forward", and from the first paragraph we are getting setting info about the World of Greyhawk (in its original existence as the land used for wargaming by the Castle and Crusade Society) - there is a "Great Kingdom", and nearby in a nice bog is located the weird enclave of Blackmoor. Blackmoor lies between the Great Kingdom and the fearsome Egg of Coot. None of this is explained yet, but as I understand things it's still valid in a general sense (although the Great Kingdom is a tad far away from Blackmoor on the official Greyhawk map - was it once bigger?).

The Introduction and Scope sections follow, and very briefly outline what's in the books and what the game covers. There's a pretty conservative Age Recommendation (12 and up?), but I guess these rules are a bit more arcane than the Mentzer Basic Set I learned to play with. The Number of Players recommended is one referee and from 4 to 50 players, but I doubt that's for a single session - in an entire campaign with rotating players based on whoever shows up, that seems workable.

Recommended Equipment is the usual stuff - the D&D booklets, polyhedral dice, CHAINMAIL, various bits of stationary, imagination, and 1 Patient Referee (heh). The only thing recommended that I don't have is the game Outdoor Survival - but thankfully all you need is the game map, and that's simple to find on the Interwebz - lookie here.

Preparation for the Campaign talks about the work required by the referee (who is not yet referred to as a Dungeon Master). Mostly this refers to creating the "underworld", and gives us a description that sums up Castle Greyhawk: "a huge ruined pile, a vast castle built by generations of mad wizards and insane genuises". As I understand it Castle Greyhawk was the sole work of Zagyg, but it was only an example, so I don't feel beholden to include those generations if they're not mentioned elsewhere.

And finally we get to the meat - Classes. In OD&D there are three - Fighting Men (sporadically referred to as Fighters), Magic-Users and Clerics. That's it, and I'm a firm subscriber in the belief that it's all you need. Want to play a guy that fights? Fighting Man. Want a spellcaster? Magic-User. Want a combination of the two? Cleric. As much as i love Thieves and Rangers and the rest, the three beginning D&D classes cover everything the game really needs, so long as you have a good DM.

The section begins with the race restrictions per class - Fighting Men can be elves, dwarves, hobbits, or men; Magic-Users can be Men or Elves; and Clerics can only be Men. This is done for purposes of game balance, presumably. I wouldn't feel the need to explain it outside of inherent limitations of non-humans, except that those restrictions all get lifted as time and editions pass. I've mentioned before that the Adventurer's Guild that runs everything is very human-centric, even discriminatory in some areas, and that's where the racial class restrictions stem from. Eventually more enlightened folk will be in charge, and those restrictions will drop.

Fighting-Men: You've got to love a game in which the class descriptions take up a paragraph each. The Fighting Man has a number of abilities to set him apart: he can use all the magical weapons (and armor according to the Magic-User section) and gets more hit points than everyone else, but he is limited in choice with other magical items and can't cast spells. Once Fighting Men hit 9th level (becoming Lords) and build a castle, they are considered Barons and get a yearly income from taxes. It's pretty basic stuff, but I'm getting a bit weary of games where the PCs have a hundred abilities and modifiers to remember - this level of complexity seems about right to me. Plus, I'm itching to DM a game for PCs that have their own baronies. The baron thing also implies that there is plenty of unclaimed wilderness near Greyhawk for PCs to set up shop.

It's not stated that Fighting Men can use any weapons and armor, but if you extrapolate from allowable magic items that's what you get.

Magic-Users: Right up front, the book lays out what playing a magic-user will mean for you - you'll be ultra-powerful at high level, and weak at low levels. Many a gamer has complained about this over the years, but anyone doing so with the original booklets in hand should have already known what was in store. In terms of abilities, Magic-Users can use basically every item except for magic armor and weapons, but they can only arm themselves with daggers. Once 11th level (wizard) has been reached, they can make their own items - the costs aren't so prohibitive, but time requirements would mean either a lot of waiting for other characters, or the Magic-User sitting out of the campaign for a while. I don't mind this - there needs to be a mechanic for PCs to create items, but I prefer it when adventuring is the preferable way of acquiring them. Lastly, they can research new spells, but that gets properly dealt with later.

Armor restrictions aren't mentioned at all, though - is it possible that Magic-Users can cast in plate mail by-the-book? We'll find out later!

Clerics: Clerics combine some advantages of the previous two classes - they can use all magic armor and non-edged magic weapons, and can cast from their own list of spells. They also get the use of more magic items than Fighting Men. When building their strongholds they get help from "above" (which confirms the existence of at least one god) which means they pay half price. In addition to that a whole bunch of fanatically loyal soldiers will man the stronghold for free. As if that wasn't enough, the Cleric gets a barony and can collect tithes at double the rate of a Fighting Man - it's good to have god on your side.

There aren't any specific gods or pantheons mentioned, but high level Clerics must serve either Law or Chaos. I figure that the various gods that come in later still exist, but worship of a singular entity is at this point less important than what side of the Law vs. Chaos war you are on.

Again, weapon and armor restrictions have to be extrapolated from the allowable magic items. For Clerics that's easy - all armor and weapons that don't have blades (maces, hammers, etc.).

Races: Yeah, in the OD&D booklets race comes after class. It's a topsy-turvy madhouse! There are four races - Men, Elves, Dwarves, and Hobbits. And to put my biases up front - I love dwarves and hobbits, and I despise Elves.

Even moreso than the OD&D classes, these four races are the only essential ones in the game. Gnomes and Half-Elves and Half-Orcs are all cool in their own ways, but in the end disposable. Try chucking Elves out of the Player's Handbook and into the Monster Manual and see the riot build...

Once again, as in Chainmail, the races aren't described outside of their mechanical attributes. A working knowledge of Tolkien is pretty much assumed.

Dwarves: They can only be Fighters, and even then can only advance to 6th level. This is a respectable level in OD&D, so it's not a major problem game-wise. And again, it's those pesky racists running the Adventurer's Guild that are to blame.

In addition they get higher saving throws vs. magic; are the only characters able to fully use the +3 War Hammer; they can note slanting passages, traps, shifting walls and new constructions underground; and they can speak Gnome, Kobold and Goblin. It's a pretty meagre set of abilities when you stack it up against the level restrictions. Note also that there are as yet no Ability Score modifiers - those scores aren't as important to a character as they will later become.

Elves: Ah elves - the great conundrum of OD&D. If a person has questions about OD&D, "How do Elves work" is generally the first that crops up.

What the book says is that an Elf starts as either a Fighting Man or a Magic-User, and chooses which they want to be at the beginning of every game session. How this is applied is a mystery. Some DMs do it just like AD&D multi-classing, with the Elf having all the abilities at once, but splitting XP between each class. Others have the Elf choose which class they want at the start of each session, operating for that game as a character of that class only.

I'm going with the second option - whichever class the player chooses, that's what he plays as for that session. Hit points, saving throws, attack progression, spellcasting, magic item use - everything.

Elves can cast spells in Magic Armor. This implies that Magic-Users can't cast in armor, so that possibility is put to bed. If memory serves, AD&D Elven Fighter/Magic-Users can cast in regular armor as well - I guess it's a technique they develop along the way.

Elves are limited to 4th level as Fighting Men and 8th as Magic-Users. Damned elfophobes!

Elves can spot secret doors a bit easier, and can speak Orc, Hobgoblin, and Gnoll. They also get advantages noted in Chainmail when fighting certain creatures - as far as I can gather this applies to Elves wielding magic swords, and as far as I can tell it amounts to a small bonus against Orcs and goblins.

Hobbits: "Should anyone wish to be one..." Ahahaha, Gary sure hates 'em. Anyway, Hobbits are pretty weak - limited to 4th level Fighting Men, magic resistance like Dwarves, and "deadly accuracy" with missiles as detailed in Chainmail. This means that they get the range of a bow when firing stones (from a sling?), and for every two hobbits firing they count as three. I'm translating the last ability to give Hobbits an increased rate of fire when using a sling.

In addition the abilities from Chainmail ought to count, which makes these races a bit more powerful. Dwarves get to see in the dark, hate goblins, and get combat bonuses against giant-types. Elves can see in the dark, and can split-move and fire. Technically they should be able to turn invisible, but I'm attributing that to items or spells, not a natural ability. Hobbits can hide in forests, becoming virtually invisible, and this one I'm keeping - the little beggars need every advantage they can get.

Other Character Types: A short snippet that says it should be allowable for PCs to play as anything they want, provided they start weak. The example given is to start as a young dragon and progress upwards as worked out by the ref (I've heard the original example, before the Tolkien Estate got their knickers in a twist, was of a PC Balrog. Awesome.). I'll definitely be allowing such play. If any paragraph sums up the freewheeling spirit of OD&D, this is the one.

Tomorrow I'll be looking at the alignment chart, ability scores, languages and NPCs.

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