How to beat Gary Gygax

This post will likely be the first of a few post-mortem reflections on T1: The Village of Hommlet, as my local gaming group just completed our tenth and final session in this classic Gygax module.

As this is my first AD&D adventure, I’m struck by a number of things:

  1. I love AD&D.  Yes, it’s clunky fairly often.  Yes, we have to flip through the books to find rules fairly consistently.  And, yes, more modern systems tend to make a little more sense.  But you simply can’t say that AD&D is not fun, challenging, and exciting.
  2. AD&D really is advanced.  For less seasoned gamers, who had not already played RPGs, I could see this game being the death knell for their roleplaying.  There’s a bit of a learning curve here.
  3. The nostalgia is real.  You really do get a taste of a different era and a different kind of gaming when you go back and play AD&D.But my fourth observation is where I’d like to dwell in this post:
  4. To overcome this module, you really have to beat Gary Gygax.  You’re not simply solving a puzzle or overcoming a challenge.  You have to figure out Gygax’s gameplan, metagame a bit, and beat him!

The Gamers 2: Dorkness Rising

And to think, I would’ve known this already if I’d thought back to that modern classic gaming film, The Gamers 2: Dorkness RisingHaven’t seen it?  Read on…

Dorkness Rising is actually how my first GM introduced me to roleplaying.  We’d played our first session and then we sat down for a little YouTube movie action.  The movie basically follows a group of gamers as they are playing a Pathfinder campaign.  The movie cuts back and forth between the gamers and the characters they portray, showing (in remarkably accurate detail) how real life intersects with the gaming world.  Seriously, check out not only this movie, but all their work over at Dead Gentlemen Productions.

Anyway, the movie begins with the player characters getting to a portion in the adventure where the last PCs died.  There was a total party kill, leading to the players to roll up new characters and go at it again.  As a first time gamer, I found that odd.

Why would the players want to go back through the same adventure?  What benefit could it really grant them?  And isn’t that basically cheating, if you know what’s coming next.

After playing Hommlet, I now understand.

There come moments in Hommlet where you’re no longer playing your character or seeking to overcome a challenge.  You’re really trying to overcome a “gotcha” moment.  A few examples:

[Spoilers below, if you haven’t read/played the module]

Brutal “no save” effects

For those unacquainted with AD&D, some attacks require players to roll a saving throw to see how the attack affects them.  The Giant Spider on the ground floor of the moathouse is a classic example.  If it attacks successfully (which it does easily), the player must roll a saving throw vs. poison.  Basically, you need to roll anywhere from an 11-13 or higher on your d20.

What happens if you fail?  You die.

Yes, dead.  But that’s an effect with a saving throw.  That’s the easy one to deal with!  There are plenty others without a saving throw.  Two examples for you:

First is a spell that can be cast by Lareth the Beautiful (who is admittedly the final boss).  It’s Cause Blindness.  It takes half a turn for Lareth to cast the spell, which you would think makes it easy to interrupt.  Except he’s basically impossible to hit (thus interrupting the spell).  Once he has completed the spell, he touches a player character who is then immediately and permanently blinded.  Man.  It’s rough.

Second, is a tunnel leading off from the crypt of the ghouls.  There is a trail of gold leading away down the tunnel.  If your players go further than 30′ along that path of gold, they are simply lost…forever.  There’s no finding your way back–no passing Go–no collecting $200.  You’re just freaking screwed.  And lost.  Forever.

Looking for the fun factor

Is that fun?  Well, it can be, in this sense.  When a threat is that lethal and your character’s life is balancing on the edge of the knife, it certainly amps up the danger factor.  But when it happens over and over again…it just gets kind of frustrating.

Add to that frustration the reason that I strayed from d20 systems for quite some time: binary dice results.  You succeed or you fail, depending on the number that you roll.  Now you could argue that it’s at the GM’s discretion how that works.  You could take the precedent of a game like the Mouse Guard or Star Wars RPGs and spin a failure to have positive effects.

But let’s be honest: if you’re swinging a sword at a dude wearing plate armor and fail by a margin of 9…how can you possibly spin that?  It could be done, but perhaps at a violation of the rules system and the tone of the game.

I’m not saying the game wasn’t fun.  But I could certainly sense frustration from the players, who are (again) very seasoned, thoughtful, mature gamers.  It became fairly common at the table for people to make comments like, “Man, Gary Gygax is a [insert derogatory word here]!”

When the metagame takes over

The ghouls were the first serious setback that our team confronted.  If they attacked you successfully and you failed your saving throw, you were paralyzed…for a long time.  The PCs escaped by the skin of their teeth!  But you know what they did when they came back?  They came back with lots of holy water.  They’d cracked the code!  They knew what was coming, did a little metagaming, and then slaughtered them.

When it came to the final battle with Lareth, it was a freaking bloodbath…and not in a good way.  All of our characters were grappled, blind and/or paralyzed, or dead by the conclusion of that battle.  The living characters dragged off the paralyzed ones, fleeing from Lareth’s wrath.  But what happened next?

Enter one potion of diminution and one potion of polymorph (self).  The party invited their closest treant friends from the forest to quaff these potions and then beat the ever-living hell out of Lareth.  That poor sucker lasted one and a half rounds.  Again, they cracked the code.

Now, the treants aren’t native to the module.  They were a random encounter that went very, very well.  But still, I don’t see how a party could actually beat Lareth in one attempt.  You basically have to get party wiped, roll new characters, and go back again.  It ends up being about the metagame.

Gygax vs. AD&D

It’s my understanding that these experiences are more descriptive of Gygax’s writing than of AD&D in general.  I look forward to delving into U1: The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh very soon so that we can compare.

For those who are more experienced with AD&D, would you say this is representative of AD&D?  Simply Gygax?  Maybe it’s just early modules?  And how have you mitigated the aspects that might interrupt the fun and promote meta-gaming?  I’m all ears!

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20 thoughts on “How to beat Gary Gygax

  1. JRCarney52 says:

    Great post. My group played through B1: Keep on the Borderlands. I think the gaming atmosphere, the game-like ambience, is important. The modules are not just scripts for fantasy fiction. They are games. In B1 that module there are different and distinct monters in each room (i.e. “cave”) and there isn’t much of a reson for why they are all together. I agree that for Gygax the meta-game element was always there. Mid-2000s gamers desired more immersion and verisimilitude.

    • MadCleric says:

      Yeah, the lack of a consistent ecology is something I’ve interacted with a few people about. Seems they’ve tightened that up a lot in fifth edition actually

    • I am running my gamers through B1: Keep on the Borderlands. To explain the various humanoids living in too close proximity to each other in the Caves of Chaos, I ran it so that the temple clerics are hiring humanoid mercenary troops to overwhelm the keep.

      • Artur says:

        This or you just must go to the alignment system from the Basic to see: Chaotic monsters fight side by side against Order.

  2. I never liked the Save vs. poison or die, so my house rules contained different types of poison. Most giant spider venom incapacitated the victim, so the spider could enjoy his warm meal in peace.
    I would agree, however, that there were many times that there was only one solution to an encounter. I think it’s incumbent on the DM to prevent metagaming by providing “critical need-to-know information” to the PCs: the innkeeper that’s heard there were ghouls in the ruins; the town cleric that provides party members with vials of holy water; the scroll of Cure Blindness.
    AD&D could be very lethal. It is up to the DM to mitigate that a bit. A PC that rolls poorly can be given a break. A PC that does foolish and reckless things deserves what he gets.

    • MadCleric says:

      Holy mackerel. This is priceless advice. Would you be willing to write a guest post on this? It would be so helpful for folks.

  3. I think your experience is more representative of pre-written modules, especially ones by Gygax. For many of us who have written our own campaigns and adventures, I put a lot of work into creating realistic backstories and ecologies to all my adventures. Thus, I seldom had save vs instadeath issues unless it truly fit the story I was telling, even then those were most often put in place to only occur if the players made horrible decisions and used inane tactics. If they players thought it through and developed good strategies, there would be Saves, but ones they could survive as a team.

    • MadCleric says:

      Man, I hadn’t even considered how different AD&D would work if it was a homebrewed campaign…

      There’s not enough time to play all the campaigns I want to play, pre-written and homemade!!! ARGHHHH

  4. Jennifer Leckie says:

    That’s the issue for me, yeah. When I started playing, years ago, it was a homemade system. We didn’t have access to DnD lore or maps or character systems. We had heard about a game you play with your imagination rather than investing in someone else’s story. So we played like that. After such an investment, pages and pages of detailed backstory and even more of adventure, we just couldn’t die. Not really. The loss of a familiar was bad enough.

    • MadCleric says:

      I’m beginning to wonder how many people DIDN’T actually play the adventure modules. Especially with any eye toward playing them exactly as written….

  5. Beoric says:

    I don’t think of it so much as metagaming, as much as I think of it as becoming an experienced player. Once you are an experienced player, character mortality is greatly reduced.

    For example, experienced players never go anywhere without holy water in their backpacks. Clerics pick slow poison and neutralize poison, etc. And you learn to not overcommit to a fight, so that retreat is possible. Or to avoid the fight in the first place.

    And poke everything with that 10 foot pole, that’s what it’s there for. With no perception mechanic in place, players need to be smart about detecting, well, everything.

    The other thing is, the party should always recruit help, and you will have noticed that many of the NPCs are expressly willing to join the party. There was an expectation that parties would be quite large (grabbing one at random, S3 had an expectation of 10-15 characters of 5-10th level – smaller parties should average 12th level).

    Players should draw on the resources of the NPCs in the village. Note the cleric Terjon is high enough level to cast “cure blindness”, so Lareth’s spell needn’t permanently disable the character.

    As a GM, you mitigate gotchas by telegraphing them so they are no longer gotchas. Rooms should have clues if players look carefully, there can be relevant potions found on the corpses of failed adventurers, and the patrons of the inn may know a few rumors (rumor tables are big in some modules).

    Plus, players can research dungeons by hunting down old adventurers or paying sages to do research for them.

    • MadCleric says:

      The AD&D GM has to be about 80% more prepared than for later games…I think that’s what I’m learning here. That’s not a bad thing–just different!

      • Beoric says:

        I don’t think I agree with that, or at least the prep takes less time. You are freed from having to care about balance, and since 90% of what you prep will not have any mechanics attached to it, you don’t have to worry about remembering or balancing rules. And outside of the dungeon, your maps can be sketched on a napkin.

        Because you don’t have to care about mechanics, you are free to make up whatever you need on the fly. Planned encounters can be limited to a descriptive title; a couple of lines to jog your memory as to who to run the encounter (monster activities or objectives, or NPC personality); the number and type of monsters, if any; a brief description of any trick or trap; and treasure, if any. Schedule A of the DMG has plenty of tools for mixing up tricks, traps, and treasures.

        From there, you wing it.

        • MadCleric says:

          Fair enough. I just have to remember where to find all the tables and stats! I imagine that will come with experience.

          • Beoric says:

            Heh. That or ignore the tables and stats. I don’t think it was long before, if it came up during play and it wasn’t on the DM screen, it didn’t exist.

            Encounter distance, weapon speed, spellcasting time, morale and AC adjustments for weapons were early casualties. Time outside of combat was just sort of eyeballed, and XPs were never calculated at the table (leveling up is so easy it doesn’t really disrupt things if you do it at the beginning of a session). I think we also ignored the initiative rules for creatures with multiple attacks. Everyone just rolled a 1d6, unadjusted.

            I think it ran a fair bit like OD&D, but with more character options.

            The funny thing is, when I joined a different group in high school, which was an amalgam of about three other groups, we had all independently nixed the same rules.

    • Beoric says:

      I know, right? And my original group was entirely self-taught, so its not like we picked up some sort of regional practice. Most of us also used the same crit mechanic (double damage), notwithstanding EGG’s rants against it.

      There was no internet then, but in recent years I have kept an eye out on-line as to how various groups played. I get the impression that most groups played a heavily houseruled version. Most seemed to use crits, and dumping weapon speed and AC adjustments seems to be quite common. Those who use AC adjustments seem to write out the charts for their weapons ahead of time so they don’t have to cross-index. But that’s just an impression.

      • Beoric says:

        Its worth noting that Gygax purportedly did not use either weapon speed or AC adjustments. I myself have seen him write that he thinks he flubbed psionics, which was a last minute add-on.

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