Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Sense of Wonder

Last night I had the pleasure of helping a friend introduce his oldest son (8 years of age) to D&D. To do this I broke out my magenta (pink) D&D Basic Set (D&DB). We sat down around his dining room table - he and his son, me (DM) and my two boys along with two (adult) neighborhood friends, the latter two never having played D&D before - and proceeded to created characters for the upcoming adventure to the Haunted Keep.

The character creation process was such that it vexed my oldest son. He has been a player of AD&D3.5 for roughly four years now. He had a particular notion in his head about 'how things should be'. To help illustrate this let me breifly explain the character creation process for D&DB.

  1. Roll 3d6 6 times and assign the values in order to the abilities (Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution and Charisma)
  2. Look over the scores and see which is highest (this indicating suitable class choices) and deciding whether the character is eligible to be a demi-human (Dwarf, Elf, Halfling). Choose class/race (more on this in a moment).
  3. Adjust ability scores (lower non-essential abilities to raise a Prime Requisite)
  4. Roll 3d6X10 for starting gold and buy your equipment

What troubled my son was his rolls. Only a couple were in the double digits. While this did not disquilify him from any class he felt that fate had delt him a poor hand. Added to this was the fact that the demi-human races were each a Class (note the capital C) unto themselves, and he felt he was greatly wronged ("What do you mean there is no Halfling Thief?"). I did let him re-roll his stats and start over and he did get stats more to his liking. But this got me thinking about the wonder of character creation in D&D.

Creating characters in the manner described above lends itself to a process of discovery rather than one of sculpting a character to meet some predefined expectation. This is probably why point-buy systems are so popular: Want a super strong fighter? Pay your points and you got it! But when these random numbers are there staring you in the face, you have to ask yourself, "what can I do with this?"

In some cases it is obvious. One player had a fairly average set or rolls except for an 18 in Intelligence. His character seemed predestined to be a Magic-User, which is what he chose. However, there was absolutely nothing keeping him from playing a Fighter, Cleric or Thief (other than Experieince point bonuses there is no real drawback to playing a class with a low Prime Requisite ability score; no limits on spells due to low intelligence or wisdom). In this case he was playing to his strengths: high intelligence = Magic-User.

But what if his stats were more middle of the road? Really, he could be anything he wanted to be; it was all in what those numbers meant to him. This is where the wonder comes into to play. Let's look at the character with the high intelligence again. Sure, the logical choice is Magic-User, but what about the other classes?

  • An inquisitive Halfling traveling far from home to explore and catalogue the known world
  • A brilliant Fighter that relies on strategems rather than strength of arms
  • A knowledgable Cleric who had memorized the holy scriptures at a young age and wished to apply those teachings to the world
  • A quick-witted Thief seeking to pit his incredible intellect against all the puzzels and traps the world could throw at him
  • A cunning Elf that sought to perfect the combination of magic and arms into a formatable fighting style
  • A clever Dwarf out to use his exceptional intelligence to invest his earnings as an adventurer and turn it into a comfortable retirement

Being open to the possibilities, no predefined set of expectations - this is the beauty and magic of wonder: anything is possible. I did notice this to some degree with several of the newer players. They listened to the possibilities then chose a class that somehow spoke to them through those ability scores. For the more veteran players, especially schooled in the art of min/maxing, it can be more difficult.

Now, I don't think that players should ignore party balance and factors that would cause friction in the group (alignment and Barbarian/Magic-User coflicts leap to mind). I had one player wait until everyone else had picked their class before he decided what he was going to be. He has always been one to fill in the gaps in party balance. But I can't help but wonder how much more fun it would be if he played the first character that popped into his head after rolling the stats.

Try this yourself. No matter which version of D&D you are playing, use the character creation steps above (especially the first two steps) and see what those ability scores say to you. Feel free to post the outcome in the comments of this article; I'd love to hear what you discovered.

Follow Your Bliss,

PS. For those interested in the outcome of the adventure we played, I ran the sample dungeon out of the back of the D&DB book. The party fell into a pit trap, listened at lots of doors, avoided a water hazard, were surprised by a band of Hobgoblins, slayed all but one, made him reveal the location of the prisoners, defeated the Hobgoblins guarding the prisoners, and made it out of the Haunted Keep with only a few bumps and bruises. All had a great time and look forward to playing again soon.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Recommended Reading - Tales of the Dying Earth

One of the most beneficial outgrowths of my passion for RPGs has been my love of reading. Prior to my introduction to D&D I read comic books almost exclusively. Do not get me wrong; I LOVE comics. I also feel that reading comics is reading. Many of the superhero comic book stories I read growing up are still near and dear to my heart. I could not imagine anything better. That is until I started reading background material for playing D&D.

When I started playing D&DB, and later AD&D1, I really had no idea what it was all about. There were humans (ok, I can relate), elves (Santa's little helpers?), Dwarves (Grumpy? Sleepy?), and Halflings (huh?). All the primary classes were understandable enough except for the Cleric (which, ironically, was the first AD&D1 PC I played). I could relate to all the swords and sorcery in only the most general sense. I still enjoyed the game, but it still did not have a lot of depth.

I eventually came to learn that Halflings were modeled after Hobbits. Unlike most of my fellow freshmen, my English class did not read The Hobbit. It was not until my sophomore year that I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and even then, only as an extra credit assignment. I do have to thank Bro. Joseph (I went to a high school run by the Brothers of the Holy Cross) for pushing me to read those books; it plunged me into the sea of fantasy (and science fiction) literature that I so love to swim in.

Later (probably when I was a junior or senior in high school), as I explored the Deities & Demigods rule book, I chose to look into Elric as well as Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. I have the Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club to thank for most of the compiled editions of these books and others. And later still I discovered the Inspirational and Educational Reading list in the back of the AD&D1 Dungeon Masters Guide (DMG Appendix N: pg. 224, if anyone is interested). From here I read about the Paladin in Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions. My list continued to grow from there.

In an effort to embrace the concept of Back to Basics that this blog is about, I decided to go back to this reading list and start working on items I have not yet read and revisit the ones I have to plunge beneath the service of this rich and creative sea of source material. I'll be sharing my experiences as I read these classic works of fiction. To start things off I have selected Jack Vance's Tales of the Dying Earth. This tome is actually a compilation of four novels in the series.

This series of books is most significant because it provides the source for early D&D's approach to magic. Spell casters must memorize or imprint the spells they wish to cast into their mind. Once the spell is cast it is gone from memory and must be memorized again if the Wizard or Cleric wishes to cast that particular spell again. This process has become dubbed 'fire and forget'. In addition, each caster may only retain a certain number of spells in their mind; this number increases with the level of the spell caster, equating level with real-world experience and practice. It is also known that Venca (of lichdom fame) is an anagram for Vance.

I picked up the book yesterday from the library and started reading it immediately. I was hooked before I finished the first paragraph. I'm only two chapters into it at this point, but I am thoroughly enjoying this read. I'll be sure to post more as I delve deeper into it's copious pages. Look for updates and more recommended reading suggestions in future posts.

Follow Your Bliss,

Thursday, July 23, 2009

In The Beginning... (Part 2)

So, I had just discovered the most interesting game (D&D) I had ever heard of and had no way acquiring it. What was a fledgling gamer to do? The only recourse I had was to create a version of the game myself.

So I spent many long hours in my unfinished basement, a dark and solitary place (probably to help foster that dungeon atmosphere), working on my version of D&D. I created maps and made cut-out miniatures. I tried to imagine how to define the abilities of ghosts and other monsters. I had a lot of fun doing all this, but, ultimately, my efforts went nowhere (good thing the hobby wasn't depending on me to help get it off the ground). I eventually turned my attention elsewhere and forgot about D&D, but D&D didn't forget about me.

A short time later (exactly when I'll discuss shortly), as I remember it, I received a present from a neighborhood friend for my birthday. Low and behold it was a magenta (I always thought it more of a pink) box emblazoned with the title Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (D&DB). This box featured the wonderful Erol Otus painting featuring two adventurers about to encounter a green dragon (I love even more the fact that this painting appeared within the cloud of a clairvoyance spell cast by a wizard which was used for the cover of the D&DX box set of the same edition). I was thrilled. It was more of a surprise because I don't remember telling anybody about this game or my desire to play it.

It's important for me to know when this happened. This was one of those pivotal points in my life; I want to understand it to its fullest. This transpired during the time that I moved from junior high school into high school. So many other things were changing then as well - my friends and my father's health just to name a few. I sometimes feel that I stepped onto a path at that juncture in my life, a path that is leading somewhere I can't yet see. I'm trying to better remember and understand my past to chart a solid course for the future.

I always thought this event took place in the late 70's, but according to this edition of D&DB (the 8th) was not released until 1981. This would put me in the second half of my 8th grade year of junior high school (I just realized the synchronicity of this occurrence - 8th edition in my 8th year of school, in my house we would call that a 'magic number'). I remember playing it over the summer with friends that did not attend the same high school to which I was enrolled. If I had received it for my birthday that year I would have already been in high school and therefore would not have played it with my junior high friends. I must have received it as a late gift or some such event that I'm blocking out of memory. For now I'll go with the year being 1981 when my passion for role-playing games was born.

Some might call it an obsession. It was not long after I received D&DB that I purchased (from the Sears toy department) the D&DX (with the cool, aforementioned Erol Otus cover) released the same year (as a side note, the first edition of D&DB was released in 1977 and D&DX was not released until 1981; imagine waiting 4 years before you could rise above 3rd level!). During my freshman year of high school I was introduced to AD&D1 (which was in full swing by then) and never looked back. By the end of high school I had all the core AD&D1 books, many modules, and my library was growing still. In college I began exploring games outside of the TSR line, but that is a story for another time.

With boxed set under my arm I set off on a journey that continues today, seeking high adventure in its many forms. And all is right in the realm.

Follow Your Bliss,

PS. I did eventually find a hobby store that carried role-playing games products. It was a store out in the suburbs of Cleveland, not far from my high school, that carried all the usual hobby supplies - models trains, planes and automobiles. It also had two book cases devoted to RPGs, right next to the war games. It was a small slice of Nirvana.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

In The Beginning... (Part 1)

...Gygax & Arneson created Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). And all was right in the realm. Like many gamers of my generation, D&D is where it all started. Although I was not there at the groundbreaking I did arrive soon afterward.

D&D was well established as a cultural phenomenon by the late 1970's, which is when it first showed up on my radar. I have a clear memory of watching a local television program during the mid morning (probably during summer vactation). Featured on the program was a segment about a new game called Dungeons & Dragons. With a state-of-the-art flip-board drawing of a sample dungeon, the presenter discussed the basics of characters, monsters and dungeons.

Amazing, I thought, a game where the 'board' is different everytime you play! In fact, the board is only revealed as you play and each player has a unique character with which to explore this dungeon. Mind blowing. I had to have this game.

Even as a kid I loved games, all kinds of games. I loved games with lots of pieces, or as some have called them, fiddly-bits. The more fiddly-bits, the better the game. Games like Monopoly were ok, but I liked unusual games: Eacape from the Death Star, Happy Days, and the ever chic Welcome Back Kotter - Up Your Nose With A Rubber Hose game (if you don't believe me on the last two, check out the links to and see for yourself). Only a couple of things stood between me and possessing this game: access to a hobby store and money.

As a pre-teen in the late 70's I had two ways of getting arround: my bicycle and the city buses. Growing up in Cleveland there were not many places to safely ride your bike outside of the Metroparks, which were nowhere near me. Not that that stopped me from riding unsafely (like on the I-90 freeway, for example - a story for another time). Though not as economical as my bike, the city buses were by far the safer and farther reaching option. That is, if you knew where you wanted to go.

This may be obvious to most, but there was no Google back then, let alone the Internet. You had to let your fingers do the walking if you were looking for a store you hadnever been to, and the Yellow Pages were not the most well-indexed tomes. That's really beside the point; had I truely wanted to find such a store I would have. The more problematic hurddle was money.

My father was a cobbler (the kind that worked with shoes, not desserts) and my mother a seamstress. They had worked out of a storefront a few miles from our home for a number of years before my father's health started failing. By this time, we were living on the disability checks, my dad's pension from Italy and whatever money my mom could make doing dress and clothing alterations from our home. We lived in a working class neighborhood and it is a testament to my mom's budgeting skills that we were as comforable as we were (somehow that budgeting gene missed me). Needless to say, I couldn't really afford such "frivaless things like games", as my mom would say (translated from Italian). Without money, what is a kid to do?

End Of Part 1

[Note: I will be typing a lot about my various experiences with all the editions of Dungeons & Dragons. To make thinks a little easier on my fingers and hopefully clarify which of the various editions I'm writing about, I plan to use the following abreviations within a post (for the Topic lables I'll replace the '&' with an 'n' since the ampersand won't work in a link):

  • D&D - The Dungeons & Dragons RPG phenomenon as a whole
  • D&DB - The Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rules Set
  • D&DX - The Dungeons & Dragons Expert Rules Set
  • D&DC - The Dungeons & Dragons Companion Rules Set
  • D&DM - The Dungeons & Dragons Master Rules Set
  • D&DI - The Dungeons & Dragons Immortals Rules Set
  • D&DRC - The Dungeons & Dragons Rules Compendium
  • AD&D - The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons line as a whole
  • AD&D1 - The first edition of Advenced Dungeons & Dragons; subsequent editions will be labeled with the appropriate number; i.e., AD&D2 for second edition, AD&D3, etc.
  • OD&D - The original Dungeons & Dragons game release and all of its supplements (Greyhawk, Blackmoor, etc.)

I hope this will help clarify things without making the situation too overly complex. Feedback is always welcome.]

Follow Your Bliss,

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

About Me

I'm a 40-something, father of two, happily married gamer. I enjoy most things in the realm of geekdom from sci-fi/fantasy literature to film and animation. A long-time comic book collector, I have fondness in my heart for all heroes in tights, especially those that have worn the lightning bolt of the Flash. During my short stint as a podcaster I have had the pleasure to meet and converse with many luminaries from the fields of both RPGs and comic books.

I have played many of the myriad RPGs that have been published over the years and read through many more than I care to count. I look forward to sharing this world of imagination with my boys as they mature and strive to make the time to play many of the games I said I would get to "one day".

Throughout the course of this blog you will learn much more about me as I (hopefully) learn more about myself. Comments and discourse are always welcome from Followers of this blog.

Follow Your Bliss,

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