Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Big Game Wednesday - Monty Haul

Last week, I mentioned that I got the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons rulebooks for either Christmas or my birthday. I should mention that my good Christian parents weren't thrilled to be getting me the Dungeon Masters Guide with the big demon on the front cover, but they didn't say no, so it was cool (and okay, if you want to be pedantic, the cover illustration is not, strictly speaking, a demon, but "an efreet on the Elemental Plane of Fire" according to a note on the foreword page--I wonder if they added that note specifically to deflect Christian attacks--whatever, it didn't work).

In fact, at that time, I think I got more objections from some other players of the game than from my parents. Because there was a sense on the part of some gamers at the time, and encouraged, I think, by TSR, that players shouldn't look behind the curtain too much. Players should only have the Players Handbook and limit their knowledge to playerly subjects while leaving the nitty-gritty system knowledge to the DM.

And having sat in on some games in which the players knew the rules better than the DM and were able to rules-lawyer him up one side and down the other, I can see their point. But in the end, I think it's better for everyone to know the rules. What you lose in mystique, you make up in fairness and ease of play.

ROLE-PLAYING RULE #3: It's good for everyone to know the rules.

When I was reading through my old Elementals comics in preparation for the Vault a few weeks ago (remember, Bill Willingham was a gamer and game artist before he became known as a comics artist and writer), I ran across this jab right in the old memory banks:

Wow, does that bring back memories.

Remember, I said last week that Dungeons and Dragons had evolved from miniatures gaming, so we played with painted lead miniatures. And before the introduction of Battlemats to the market, the way we handled issues of scale was to use dominoes. Dungeons and Dragons handled movement on a grid of 1" squares, with each inch representing 10 feet of length.

Well, dominoes were basically made up of two 1" squares stuck together. So you could line up dominoes to form corridors, with each domino representing 20' of real space (the miniatures were therefore not to scale, but given the degree to which everything in the rules was abstracted, this was not a big deal).

This was the way we played Scott's game, and the way we played Paul's. So my standard game backpack load for a while there was Players Handbook, DM Guide, character sheets and other random papers, box of dominoes, box of miniatures (I used the box my checks had come in when I opened my checking account at Bank of America and stuffed it with cotton), and almond jar half-full of dice (which would eventually give way to a proper velour dice bag).

And though (as I mentioned last week) I didn't like Paul much when I first met him, I soon came to really enjoy his game, and eventually considered him one of my best friends.

Paul's game was incredibly different from Scott's. Where Scott's game ran pretty much according to the standard rules, Paul added lots of custom elements that he and his friends had developed over years of gaming in Nebraska. He used the infamous critical hit and fumble tables from the Arduin Trilogy. He had extensive custom tables of monsters and magic items, and seemed to create new ones almost every week.

And his adventures had a really huge scale to them. My first character in his campaign was a bard. I don't remember how our characters got together, and it didn't matter, because the campaign was about 30% dungeon exploration, 70% combat, and 0% roleplaying at the tavern or whatever. We ended up on this massive adventure exploring the Rainbow Road, a solid rainbow that arched into the sky, then split into separate paths for each color. Each path led to a different destination where we had a different HUGE combat encounter: vs. demons and dragons and demons riding dragons. At one point, we had a massive rooftop battle against the player characters from Paul's Nebraska game, which was so incredibly memorable that we could recount it turn-by-turn years later (my only real memory of the battle now, other than how narrowly we won, is that Ian's character got hit with a "quivering palm" attack by a high-level monk and spent the next few rounds just sort of sitting out the fight, saying, "Guys? I'm going to die pretty soon here. Guys?").

So Paul's game was pretty high-power oriented. And because of that, some folks described it as a "Monty Haul" campaign. If you don't know who Monty Hall was, he hosted Let's Make a Deal, a game show which didn't require you to do anything special to win a big prize. You didn't have to answer trivia questions or beat out other players. He would just give you something, then try to tempt you with something else.

So the term "Monty Haul" arose in gaming to describe D&D games in which players got loads of unearned experience points, treasure and magic items. And in one sense, you could say Paul's games were very Monty Haul--you got tons of treasure and experience points, and huge amounts of magic items. And because Paul wanted us to play very powerful characters at high levels, we leveled really fast, and death was rare. Which is to say, somebody died virtually every game, but we always got brought back, thanks to large number of wishes and other resurrection-enabled items. Because it would suck for everyone--you, your fellow players, and the DM--if a 16th level character died off permanently and you had to try to bring a first-level character into this maelstrom.

But I don't think I'd say our loot was unearned. We had to fight hard for the stuff we got, and if we thought we got really cool stuff that made us uber-tough, that feeling only lasted until the next week, when we met the really nasty stuff waiting for us. We played in Paul's campaigns for almost two years, until he faced a player revolt over items that made us "critical-proof," after which we began facing enemies with the special ability to "critical critical-proof." That stretched some players' ridiculosity tolerance a bit too far, so the game kind of dissolved a few months before Paul graduated and another game-master took over.

But damn, there were some good times in there.

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