Better Than I Expected

Dungeons & Dragons has been around a long time. I started playing it in 1982, with Tom Moldvay’s Basic Set red box and Dave Cook’s Expert Set blue box. Introduced to the game by some friends at school, I was instantly hooked (and obsessed) with D&D. Over the next year, I picked up the AD&D hardbacks and spent long hours reading the Gygaxian prose and trying to figure out all the many intricacies and contradictions presented in the texts.

I have purchased and played every edition of D&D since then, and even gone back and played a short game using the original D&D rules. And that continued all the way up until the current (5th) edition was released.

D&D 5th edition had a long and public playtest period. This did wonders for Wizards of the Coast, the publisher of the game, as it got a very large number of players heavily invested in the next edition long before it was available for sale. Online surveys were conducted regularly throughout the playtest, letting fans feel that they might have some say on how the edition would eventually be designed. It was great marketing, and it was wildly successful.

And it drove me away from the game.

 

Now, I feel that every edition brought something new to the table, and the overall D&D game was stronger for it. And the two editions that were the biggest departures from what came before was 3rd edition and 4th edition.

Third edition brought a somewhat more simulationist slant to the game—monsters, for example, were created using the exact same rules as player characters. It also heavily relied on tactical combat, requiring grids and miniatures for any combat more complicated than a couple of guards in front of a door. (Previously, miniatures were purely optional—even Gary Gygax didn’t use miniatures the vast majority of the time when running D&D.) And the character-building mini-game became a thing for the first time.

4th edition brought in across-the-board class balance. It codified a lot of additional races as primary options that had only been minor options in previous editions (e.g. dragonborn, tieflings, goliaths, etc.). It also relied heavily on tactical combat, and got rid of minor battles—if you were going to get into a fight at all, it wouldn’t just be with a couple of guards in front of a door anymore. It introduced possibly the best and easiest way to present monsters, as discreet stat blocks that contained all the information needed to run the creature, with no need to reference other rules (like spell descriptions) in the midst of a game.

But both of those games were released in the age of the internet. Third edition had a pretty large backlash from players of previous editions. On the Dragonsfoot forums, dedicated to earlier editions of D&D, the 3rd edition was referred to as TETSNBN (The Edition That Shall Not Be Named), and detractors across the web often complained that it was “dumbed-down” and designed “for the video game crowd.”

4th edition had the misfortune to be released after social media had become pervasive, and those who didn’t like the game had even better tools to amplify their own personal dislikes. Not surprisingly, I guess, many of those who had loved 3rd edition then attacked 4th using the same stupid complaints that they had faced about their own favorite game a few years earlier—that the edition was “dumbed-down” and designed “for the video game crowd.”

I’ve made it no secret that I think edition wars are stupid, pointless, and ultimately harmful to our hobby as a whole. Our hobby is small enough that I cannot even fathom the mindset of those who need to separate us into ever smaller groups, such “true roleplayers,” “dirty storygamers,” “munchkins and min-maxers,” and other similar bullshit.

It amazes me that people can’t just enjoy the hobby without constantly trying to tell others that they are playing games wrong. There is such a sense of entitlement to these people, as if they feel every game, every company, and every roleplayer should cater to their personal likes and desires.

The need to tear down the current edition of a game (whether it was AD&D 2E, or D&D 3E, or D&D 4E) just because it made some changes a person doesn’t like is moronic and needs to die in a fire.

And I feel it’s even worse when a company engages those people, amplifies their ridiculous ideas, and caters to them.

Paizo Publishing did just that during the 4E era, which ultimately gave rise to their own Pathfinder game. Their willingness to encourage feelings of betrayal by WotC in gamers—as dumb as that idea really is—actually helped them define their initial core market for Pathfinder, and they enjoyed great success with it.

But I felt that when the WotC developers of 5th edition also engaged in edition warring, against an edition that some of them had previously worked on and designed material for, the hypocrisy was too much for me. The fact that they engaged some online “personalities” (i.e. people who scream their opinions the loudest) who are known for their divisive, narrow, and silly views on what makes a roleplaying game made the situation even worse.

I watched the development of 5E—I’m still a D&D gamer, after all—but I found that their marketing of the new game was insulting to those who actually enjoyed the previous edition. They parroted back the words of the loudest complainers, rather than addressing the specific, and real, issues with the 4E rules.

Ultimately, it appeared that D&D 5E was heading back in the directly of the second edition of A&D, and trying to pretend that all of 4E was some kind of mistake, despite some great innovations and additions to the game that had been introduced in that set of rules.

And so, I gave the playtest version of the game a few tries, but I came to the conclusion that this edition wouldn’t do anything that AD&D didn’t already do. And so there was no real value in me investing in and learning a new set of rules when I was already highly familiar with a set of rules that would produce the same outcome at the table.

And I certainly didn’t feel like giving WotC any of my money.

So when I launched a D&D campaign with my son and his friends last year, it was the first edition of AD&D that we played.

But 5E is the current edition. It’s the edition that is in game stores and on Amazon. It’s the edition that is getting promoted in marketing by WotC. And, inevitably, other kids at my son’s school started playing it. And so he joined a new 5E campaign, and started asking me questions about it (as I’m the RPG expert in my house). And then one of my son’s friends got the D&D 5E Starter Set box and the Player’s Handbook for Christmas, and asked me if I would help him learn the game.

So I downloaded the basic rules and read them through, and then I grabbed an old 3E adventure, The Sunless Citadel—I had no idea it had been reprinted as a converted 5E adventure in Tales from the Yawning Portal—and I showed them how to create characters and ran them through part of the adventure.

And despite my earlier experience with the playtest rules, it was actually good.

I found the rules were quite simple, and we didn’t run into any edge cases in our session, so I ended up running the game without ever needing to actually check the rulebook (other than using the 5E monster stats). Now, I’ve been gaming for a lot of years, and I’m familiar with a large number of different systems, so I have an advantage in that I can pick up a new RPG and get playing faster than someone without that level of experience, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the game provided an enjoyable play experience, and the whole thing hung together really well.

In fact, it’s far better than I expected considering the mess that was that public playtest, the dumb statements by some of the developers, the poorly-designed surveys, etc.

And so, I picked up the three core rulebooks from Amazon, and I’ve run the game a couple more times now. And I have to admit that the end result is a decent game that does provide that feeling of earlier editions. And the rules are simple enough that the learning curve was pretty much non-existent.

I have to acknowledge, though, that this has been a bit of a moral conflict for me. I believe in voting with your wallet. And so I was conflicted over WotC’s handling of the switch between editions—I didn’t want to reward their ridiculous behavior during the playtest and early promotion of the game. Paizo’s participation in and encouragement of edition wars is one of the first reasons why I don’t give them any money—their ongoing behavior in various other ways has only reinforced that decision (but that’s a separate discussion).

Ultimately, though, I feel that I’m in a position to encourage and coach new roleplayers. And the big game, the one that everyone is currently playing, and the one that is available in all gaming stores, is D&D 5E. I can certainly introduce them to other games, and I most definitely will at some point, but I feel this is the best way to get them into the hobby and cement their love of roleplaying games.

There will be time to show them all kinds of other games from other companies. I can’t wait to show them some great sword & sorcery action with Khepera Publishing’s Atlantis, the Second Age. Or troup-style play with Atlas Games’ Ars Magica. Or introduce them to urban fantasy with Onyx Path Publishing’s Mage: The Ascension (my favorite of the World of Darkness games). Or horror investigative gaming with Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu or Pelgrane Press’ Night’s Black Agents. Or science fiction gaming with Far Future Enterprise’s Classic Traveller or Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars.

But for now it’s D&D. And I’m happy that the game is fun, easy to play, and provides an experience that they just can’t get from video games. And I’m also happy that I get to help introduce a new generation of gamers to my favorite hobby.

Combining the Best of Old and New School

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’ve been running a first-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game for my son and his friends. Scheduling issues for 6 people, four of whom are kids, has been a bit difficult, so we haven’t played as often as we’d like. We’re working on establishing a regular routine, though, so things should smooth out over the summer.

For the first adventure, I wanted to showcase one of the most famous adventure modules ever written for D&D. Yes, I’m using B2: The Keep on the Borderlands. This adventure was packaged with Tom Moldvay’s “Basic D&D” boxed set in 1981, and it was the first adventure ever played by a whole generation of gamers.

However, while B2 is a classic, it’s not perfect. Many people have found that the adventure tends to be pretty deadly and completely unforgiving of mistakes by new players. The tight cluster of beginner dungeons with much deadlier areas means that going in the wrong cave entrance can result in a complete wipe out of a whole party.

In addition, as the adventure proceeds, it can become a bit of a grind. By the time the players are ready to tackle the evil cultists, they may have already lost interest in the caves and moved on to other adventures.

So when I selected B2, I knew I wanted to make some changes, but I also didn’t want to put in a ton of work on this campaign. One of the reasons I chose AD&D as the game to run was that I know it really well and I would be able to run it with a minimum of prep, especially as I don’t get that much free time and I try to spend most of that writing my novels!

That’s where a more modern adventure came to my rescue.

Rescue at Rivenroar (Wizards of the Coast has made a free PDF of the adventure available for download here) was an adventure published in issue #156 of Dungeon Magazine for D&D 4E. In that adventure, a bunch of goblinoids attack a town, steal a bunch of treasured historical items, and kidnap some villagers. The PCs are hired to go rescue the townspeople and retrieve the items.

I think this is a great adventure, and it worked wonderfully when I ran it using D&D 4E. But one of the elements that I didn’t want to push in the kids’ first adventure was a time limit. So I removed the kidnapped villagers and left in the recovery of the historical items. But I also kept the background of the Rescue at Rivenroar adventure—a powerful hobgoblin named Sinruth is trying to build a new hobgoblin army and the raid on the town was just the first step.

So now I had a starting premise and some background for the villains. In my campaign, the goblinoids raided the town, the PCs helped fight them off, and then the town council hired them to track the remaining goblinoids back to their lair and recover the stolen items.

But now, returning to B2, I decided that the module might work better if it was spread out a bit. So instead of having all those lairs within shouting distance of each other, I decided that the hills in that area were riddled with ancient—and abandoned—Dwarven ruins that are now inhabited by these goblinoids. As various tunnels have collapsed or been damaged over time, it has created separate clusters of rooms that could be used as individual lairs.

So I started off in B2 with the cluster of dungeons D, E, and F. Dungeon D is a series of rooms filled with goblins, Dungeon E is just one large room with an ogre, and Dungeon F is filled with hobgoblins. Further on in the hills, I placed Dungeons B and C, which is the main orc lair. Dungon H—the bugbear lair—is in another location in the hills. And Dungeon K is where the main hobgoblin Sinruth and the evil cult that he serves resides, and this is located deep among the hills and is the hardest one to find.

The historical items stolen from the town have been separated out and given to the various tribes of evil humanoids, so that the PCs will need to visit each dungeon in order to recover all the treasures. This will most likely lead them into a final confrontation with Sinruth and the evil cult.

And among the treasure in the final dungeon, the players will find links to a local evil druid who lives in the area (thus giving them a hook to The Sunless Citadel adventure that was published for D&D third edition). Further, since I’ve placed the Temple of Elemental Evil in the region and there is starting to be activity around there, the PCs will find some evidence among the treasure in the final dungeon that the evil cult is also allied to a greater evil temple somewhere in the area. This way, I’m foreshadowing the eventual activity the elemental temples will take, and it gives the players a sense that there’s something bigger going on out there.

So the first adventure is a combination of module B2 (Basic D&D) with Rescue at Rivenroar (D&D 4E) leading to ties with the Temple of Elemental Evil (AD&D 1E) and a hook relating to The Sunless Citadel (D&D 3E).

There are so many good adventures available for the Dungeons & Dragons game, from every edition since the beginning right up until the most recent, that a DM has an immense amount of resources he or she can use to put together the ideal campaign for his or her players.

In this case, the first adventure in my campaign is a great combination of both old and new school, and the kids are having a blast.

Have you used adventures from earlier or later editions in your D&D campaigns? Did you hack them apart and combine elements from different adventures into a new creation? Did you use them whole-cloth and just convert the monster and treasure stats? Tell us about it in the comments.