On the edge of a die

I love roleplaying games, but one of my longstanding pet peeves has been the randomness inherent in the game. Whether I’m running the game, or playing in it, it drives me nuts to have my plans changed on the roll of a die. I understand how the uncertainty adds tension to a game, but when a character is randomly killed by a runaway pig, or mildly challenging tasks are randomly failed, it becomes maddening.

Of all the random things across all roleplaying games, however, what bothers me most is the traditional Random Encounter of Dungeons & Dragons.

It always seemed to hold no purpose to me — it would take a fun game, and transform it into a string of unrelated combats with no narrative. It’s confusing how it ever became part of the game. And yet, just a week ago, I ran a game completely dependent on it … and it was wonderful.

Embracing the random

So how does it come to this? How does a Dungeon Master with a dislike of random encounters find himself constantly rolling dice and looking at tables?

A sandbox, that’s how.

I had left my players in a situation where I simply had no idea which way they would go. As always, everything is on the table as a possibility. But that’s usually a lie — they have goals and obstacles, and as the DM I almost always know the general direction of things.

But not this time.

With every option a real possibility, light plans were needed in every direction. To the north – an unlikely direction – is a forest. I jot a few quick notes about the forest: It contains the Temple of the Snake. The two high priestesses of the Snake God (note to self, the Snake God now needs a name), are known as The Guardian and The Spirit, and are set to battle over control of the temple and are mustering their troops.

And that’s it. I have a whole wilderness, which contains:

a) A temple.
b) Two high priestesses.

And, apparently, ‘troops’ that are mustering. I don’t really know what those are.

What do the players do? They head north.

Goodbye plans, hello dice. Let’s find out what’s really in these woods.

Things come together

The stage for a randomly generated adventure actually began prior to the decision to head north. Before they put themselves between a rock and a hard place and fled into the forest, one of the players failed a check.

They failed a check to do with magic, to be more specific.
They critically failed a check to do with magic, to be completely accurate.

And I believe that critical failures should be interesting.

To that end, I have created a random table based upon this one here, although without some of the most horrific entries. Rolled on my table was this:

Nearest companion stabs PC with whatever is handy. Turns into serpent that fills PC with arcane knowledge.

Which is, well, awesome.

To recap: Before running off in an unexpected direction to a wilderness whose only characteristic is “Temple of the Snake”, one of the PCs had a sequence of random dice rolls on pre-determined tables which resulted in a serpent of arcane knowledge growing out of his back.

Apparently, the dice sometimes plan better than I do.

Incorporating the random

The key to all these random encounters working so well, however, was the lack of randomness. Sure, the encounters were all driven from the tables at the back of the Fiend Folio – a book which was not designed around this particular adventure in the forest – but every encounter with anything of greater than animal intelligence is shaped by the situation at hand.

Is the thing being encountered allied with the Guardian, the Spirit, or attempting to remain neutral? And where do they think the PC’s allegiance lies?

And luckily I lied earlier. I did know something about the mustered troops. I knew which kind of creatures allied themselves with the Guardian and which with the Spirit. And these creatures know those lines, and know on which side the PCs lie.

So when they were ambushed by bugbears, the bugbears thought the PCs were on their side. (Until they lied badly.) And everything was a bit topsy turvy while running through the woods and trying to give the randomly rolled basilisk a wide berth.

Next time, everybody starts as prisoners to elves who aren’t sure if the PCs are what they claim to be, or actually the type of people who would be allied with bugbears (which is what they seem to be, to forest dwellers). And I might have come around a bit on the principle of controlled randomness.

Image is Bone Die by Kolby

Forget the new stuff: go old school

I like to play Dungeons & Dragons.

But I was bored of playing the 4th edition of the game, which is too little like the older versions I grew up playing.

And I was also inspired by Zak Smith’s blog and enthused by the re-publishing of the old Advanced Dungeons & Dragons manuals. So, for the past few months, I’ve been running an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons campaign.

It’s early, but so far it has been everything I hoped for.

We have had characters’ lives balanced on the roll of a single die. Quick battles. Running away. Capture. Escape. And the sort of best-plan-busting creativity I remember. And – despite my familiarity with the ruleset – plenty of winging it. The things I truly dislike about the more recent version of the game are out of sight and out of mind, and the game has been fantastic fun.

Beyond simply returning to the older versions of the game, I’m making a conscious effort to be slightly “old school” with my approach. I’m not entirely sure what that is, mind you, but there’s a certain type of randomness I associate with older roleplaying games — the rolling of 3d6 to determine an ability score, random encounter tables, Decks of Many Things, the risk of rolling up a 1st level fighter with 1 hit point.

Once upon a time, house rules were furiously added in an attempt to control this randomness; an approach that must have been popular, as each iteration of the game has further reduced the frailty of low level characters, and the randomness and cruelty of the fantasy world in which the game is played.

Now, all those things are embraced with only minimal nods in character creation towards allowing the players to create a character they will want to play. A random encounter with zombies might kill the entire party — but it was rolled; it happens.

The whole thing is such fun that I’m going to go out a limb and say you should do it too. Not only should you do it, but you can do it. All old books are now published for sale in PDF form.

So go forth, young (or old) gamers! And play like we did in the ’80s. (Or ’70s or ’90s, if that’s your thing.)

bad doggy

On picking pockets

So I’ve been playing roleplaying games for a long time. And it’s fair to say that my favourite game of all time is Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (in either the 1st or 2nd edition varities). I don’t think it’s the best game ever made, or anything along those lines, but there’s a combination of things that put it at the top and kept it there.

  • It’s a fantasy game, and I spent most of my childhood glued to fantasy novels.
  • Dungeons and Dragons was the only roleplaying game I was aware that existed for many years.
  • I like games that involve characters going on adventures.
  • Everybody who roleplays knows it.
  • It’s pretty flexible.

So you’ve got nostalgia, people to play with, and an approximation of my cup of tea. Which is pretty much all you can really ask for in a game.

Within the AD&D system, my favourite character class has long been the Thief (or Rogue, after it’s renaming and rehabilitation).

I see combat in the game as secondary, so rarely choose Fighter types (including Rangers and Paladins, who are a bit more interesting). And I was never a fan of managing the long spell lists that Clerics, Druids and Magic-Users build up through a campaign.

The Thief character is my ideal — a character type that thrives in the non-combat portion of the game, who has a well-defined but limited skill set that improves as the game goes along (rather than expands, as a spellcaster’s would). I think I like that the skills are based on real world skills as well. Scaling walls, picking locks, and creeping quietly through the shadows are real-world things that can be done.

But one of the traditional D&D thief skills has always bothered me: picking pockets.

While real world pick pockets exist, and it is a real skill, the application in Dungeons & Dragons has always felt more magical. Like a wallet sewn into someone’s underpants could be removed by someone being watched like a hawk in a huge crowd. I disliked it. In 2nd Edition, where the player can choose where to apply their points, picking pockets was the poor thief skill that I would neglect.

But today, I need to re-evaluate that belief. Because that magical application that I so disliked for its lack of realism? It’s correct.

The New Yorker has run an article on professional pickpocket Apollo Robbins. It’s absolutely unbelievable. Take the following story of him meeting Penn Jilette, of Penn & Teller:

Jillette, who ranks pickpockets, he says, “a few notches below hypnotists on the show-biz totem pole,” was holding court at a table of colleagues, and he asked Robbins for a demonstration, ready to be unimpressed. Robbins demurred, claiming that he felt uncomfortable working in front of other magicians. He pointed out that, since Jillette was wearing only shorts and a sports shirt, he wouldn’t have much to work with.

“Come on,” Jillette said. “Steal something from me.”

Again, Robbins begged off, but he offered to do a trick instead. He instructed Jillette to place a ring that he was wearing on a piece of paper and trace its outline with a pen. By now, a small crowd had gathered. Jillette removed his ring, put it down on the paper, unclipped a pen from his shirt, and leaned forward, preparing to draw. After a moment, he froze and looked up. His face was pale.

“Fuck. You,” he said, and slumped into a chair.

Robbins held up a thin, cylindrical object: the cartridge from Jillette’s pen.

The descriptions of his feats are ridiculous, and night unbelievable. So I went to YouTube to find him:

And it looks like he really can take a pen out of a person’s pocket, remove the inside of the pen, and then slip it back — all without that person noticing, even as they are aware he is a pickpocket, and talking to them about pickpocketing.

So, um … yeah. Next game? I’m playing a pickpocket.

Throwback blowback

There’s some trouble in retro roleplaying land.

I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons in various forms for about 25 years now. It started with a Red Box, an elf, and Ryan Tunnecliffe behind a DM’s screen. This was followed by years of AD&D, in the form of 1st and 2nd editions.

There have been other games, but it always comes back to Dungeons & Dragons for me. There’s something about it, I guess.

Most recently, I have been playing a lot of 4th edition. It’s still fun, but it’s a very different game, that leaves me wanting to re-experience the versions that have nostalgia attached.

Enter Wizards of the Coast, or so it seemed. This week, the core books for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons were re-released. In theory.

In practice, I’ve tried to find them in two different stores that peddle fantasy roleplaying wares, only to find not a sniff of them. I’ve looked on Amazon, and found this, which looks like my old 1st Edition Player’s Handbook from back in the day:

Except that to buy it from Amazon new costs four hundred and forty three pounds. I wrote that out as a sentence, so you wouldn’t think there was a typo or anything.

There’s one more shop to try in London, but I don’t expect to find it here. Guess I’ll have to fly to America to buy these things.