Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Big Game Wednesday - By the Book

As I mentioned last week, our Champions campaign was put on hold because Gary wanted to run Dungeons and Dragons, which didn't much appeal to me. Of all the systems we played, D&D had become one of my least favorites.

But Gary wouldn't be dissuaded, and we had to play something, so D&D it was. But Gary had more in mind than just running a game. He intended to run nothing but by-the-book D&D, and to pull all the adventures from TSR modules. No more mutant homebrew rules and homegrown worlds; this was going to be real D&D, baby.

The campaign didn't last very long. The party never came together very well. There were a lot of problem players, and I'm sorry to say I was probably one of them. But let me complain about other stuff first.

What I mainly learned from the experience was that TSR's modules may have had cool promo copy on the back covers, but they weren't great adventures. A lot of situations were very obvious to experienced gamers (or at least to me), and there was a lot of railroading (I'll give the perfect example later).

My first character was a paladin, for whom Lawful Good did indeed mean Lawful Asshole. In our first adventure (which was probably The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh), the first chapter of a lizard man trilogy of adventures, the party was exploring an abandoned house. And as we came across stuff in the house that was obviously only there to fuck with us (abandoned clothes in the closets, a dead body on the floor), the paladin pronounced that we were not there to rob the house, nor to loot from the dead.

Some of this was simply principled Lawful Good roleplaying. But another part of it was based on the fact that I'd been looking at the Monster Manual fairly recently and been struck by the monsters that only existed as a means to dick with players for being players.

See, aside from the mythological monsters like the dragons and demons and hydras, or the monsterized versions of real animals like giant rats or giant spiders or even dinosaurs, there was a class of monsters specifically designed to fuck with players' tactics and players' stuff. There were monsters designed to look like normal floors and ceilings. There was a monster that looked like a treasure chest, that would bite your hand off if you tried to open it. There were Disenchanters and Rust Monsters, who would target your weapons and ruin them.

And in the case of our adventure, there was something in the closet where the clothes were--maybe some kind of worms in the fabric, or maybe a slime in the shadows, I don't remember--whatever it was, the clothes weren't tempting enough to go near them and risk attack by whatever. So the paladin said, "Leave the clothes alone."

Our greedy thief, though, played by club president Janice (an annoying woman who always played a greedy thief and insisted on holding all party treasure until it was divvied up), grabbed the clothes and got attacked. My paladin then refused to heal her, on the grounds that she was paying the consequences for her own greedy actions.

When, a couple of rooms later, the same thing happened with a corpse on the floor and rot grubs (another pretty obvious trap), the paladin was quickly wearing out his welcome. Overall, the adventure seemed pretty obvious and dull.

The next week, we went on to the next module in the series (I'm guessing it was Danger at Dunwater), a visit to a half-submerged lair of lizard men. And this was where things started to turn sour. We found out the location of the lair and went there. And then, the group spent over an hour debating how to go in. Not how to open the door; it was unlocked. Fearful of ambush, they spent an hour debating in what order to enter, what spells to cast, which way to face once inside.

Finally, I'd had enough and declared, Wang Chi-style, that I was going in, alone if I had to. Denise, a new player who was also losing patience, had my back and followed me in. The rest of the party trailed along, feebly protesting that we couldn't just go barging through without checking for traps and shit first.

But I was sick of the whole lot of them. So we walked in the front door and were attacked by... absolutely nothing. We explored a few rooms, got hit by a couple of minor traps, and found a guy dying on the floor who managed to say, "Metamorph," before breathing his last. When Chuck asked me what I thought that meant, I said without hesitation, "Activation word for a magic wand." I had never played nor read the adventure, but that was just so freaking obvious...

This goes right to the heart of one of the problems with D&D in its traditional form. On the one hand, D&D was a game with a high mortality rate, in which you were expected to play your best game, using all your knowledge and resources, to survive the obstacles set in your way by the DM. And this is still the philosophy of the "Old-School Revival" players, who never cease to bleat about how character death is a necessary component of good gaming, because without the imminence of death, success is meaningless and all that twaddle. So using your wits to spot patterns in adventure design, spot potential traps, remember details about monsters and items, those are just necessary components of good play that will keep your characters alive.

On the other hand, as a player, you had lots of knowledge of the game that your character would not have. So, for instance, my paladin would not necessarily be an expert on wands, so he should not have known about activation words, in the same way that he should not have seen the dead body on the floor and thought, "Obvious trap" due to the existence in the Monster Manual of creatures like rot grubs. In modern gaming circles, like the "Happy Jack's" podcast, this is called "metagaming" and frowned upon. But of course, if you don't do it, you die. It makes as much sense as the Democrats' continual insistence that they are pro-jobs while simultaneously being anti-business, which is to say, none.

Anyway, we found the wand, which came in handy, because we had to go underwater to get to the final encounter area and the wand was what enabled us to get there. It was a good final battle, although we probably missed a lot of stuff, because I rarely lingered long in a room before moving on, and the other players didn't dare leave me to my fate, since I was one of the only strong fighters.

At some point, the paladin ran into trouble, and Janice's cowardly thief abandoned him to his fate (as revenge for all the humiliations he'd visited upon her, I'm sure). So I created a cleric called Akbar and ran him, but Akbar was soon just as impatient and even more metagamey than the paladin had been.

We went to this town where there had been a murder of a theater owner or something (checking Wikipedia, it appears to be the murder of a baron in an adventure called The Assassin's Knot. There were rumors of an assassin's guild, and clues pointed to a local temple. So we did some investigating, and at one point, a witness asked to meet us at a certain place and time to tell us all about it.

Well, of course, my spider-senses started screaming, "Plot device," because it was obvious to me that our witness would never make it to the meeting. So I convinced the party that we had to covertly observe/guard him all the way from his home to the meeting place, so we could actually learn what he had to tell us. And of course, because the module demanded that he die without telling us what he knew, Gary contrived to have him disappear from view behind an obstacle for just an instant, and be killed in precisely that spot. One dead witness, no suspects.

At that point, I was pretty much disgusted with the entire adventure, since there was no way we could take it off its rails for even an instant. So I went into the temple, forced a confrontation with the head priest in which I got him to show his hand, then agreed to leave town for the duration of the adventure. Then I sat things out while waiting for everyone else to actually clean things up.

The campaign didn't last very long after that. The TSR modules just weren't much fun, though we were a little excited to see what was going to happen with a new series of modules that had just started coming out, called Dragonlance. It was going to be a series of 12 modules, but only one or two had come out by then. So Gary's campaign went by the wayside.

It did have two significant outcomes, though, at least for me. Number one, it resulted in me eventually running my own D&D campaign for a brief while. And number two, it got me laid. So I will never complain too much about it.

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