Darlene, Greyhawk, and the Rabbit Hole

Who knew that a map could stir the imagination so much?  And yet the map released in the Greyhawk setting box has been the fundamental basis for my ongoing AD&D campaign.  Sure, I’m taking my players through published modules–but my starting point with every game has been this map.

At first glimpse, this map by Darlene might not seem all that impressive.  But then you start to look at the details.  For example, what’s going on with these Bandit Kingdoms just north of the Nyr Dyv?  Seems like an interesting place to visit!  And what about the lands of the Snow, Frost, and Ice Barbarians in the Northeast?  I mean, why can’t they just all live together?  And the Sea of Dust in the Southwest is just begging for some kind of nomadic warlord!

What’s neat about the Greyhawk Fantasy Setting box is that there’s just enough details to get the creative juices flowing.  Almost no areas are spelled out beyond a few simple details.  It’s up to the DM and the players to evolve and create each area.  In fact, that’s how I ended up making my own brief homebrew adventure for my players!

Here’s my point: I think you would benefit by choosing (or creating) a map such as this one for your starting point.  There are piles of maps available out there for free and for a minimal fee.  Just Google maps of the Sword Coast, the Forgotten Realms, or simply “D&D map.”  You’ll be astonished how many awesome maps are out there for your use!  Here’s how it’s impacting my DMing:

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The challenge and beauty of AD&D modules

After over a year of playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (first edition), I’ve had some really great gaming moments.  But I’ve also had to deal with reality.  Eventually nostalgia wears off and you realize why there were later editions of D&D.  Now don’t get me wrong!  AD&D is proving to be my favorite RPG!  But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some challenges along the way.

When it comes to AD&D modules, I’ve realized one distinct challenge paralleled by a remarkable beauty.  The challenge is this: AD&D modules are very dense.  They are (by and large) not easy to read.  Meanwhile I picked up Storm King’s Thunder for fifth edition and it was like reading a novel!  Not so with AD&D modules.  I’ve tried to read them “for fun” and it’s often not fun.  I read them, because I want to play the game.  As a DM, it’s the work I put in to have a successful, enjoyable gaming experience.  But I won’t call reading them fun.  That said, I did cackle with evil glee while reading Tomb of Horrors.  More on that next week…

That’s the challenge.  Just getting through them takes time and real focus.  But!  There’s one thing that I find consistently effective and beautiful in these modules–and it flows from their density!  It’s this: AD&D modules cultivate “living” settings that players can expand and own.  Many modern modules do the same thing, but I think we can learn a lot from these OSR modules and how they create living settings that allow players to shape them and make them their own.

As a GM, I know that you want to have a vibrant, engaging setting for your players to enjoy.  But where to start?  Creating a compelling setting is hard.  Trust me, I know!  My players have visited plenty of non-descript vanilla villages throughout their years of adventure.  But things have changed in my AD&D experience.  My players are now wanting their characters to take up residence in a local village, shaping it into their own place.  Where did that come from?  I’m convinced it’s one of the strengths of these AD&D modules.

Thus, regardless of what game system you’re playing, I think you can benefit from picking up one of these OSR modules and giving it a read.  Here’s how you can get the benefit out of them:

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Review: N1 – Against the Cult of the Reptile God

I thought my readers might be interested in more direct reviews of published modules, since I’m running those almost exclusively in my home AD&D game.  Since I stopped blogging just as I was wrapping up this module, I thought it would be an excellent one to start with: Dungeon Module N1 – Against the Cult of the Reptile God.

So why did I decide to run this module as my second adventure in Chasing the Dragon, especially when I’ve been so hot to trot for Gygax?

Well, for starters, you recommended it!  That is, my Twitter followers took a poll and this was the winner for the classic adventure to run.  Second, I really liked that the N-series was aimed at novice players and DMs (more on that later).  Third, it felt similar enough to The Village of Hommlet, which I ran last year, to not feel totally overwhelming to a new AD&D DM.

I read some reviews online, sneaked a peak at a bootleg pdf online, then took the plunge on eBay and DriveThruRPG.  It’s true…I like a hard copy and a pdf on hand.  So how did it fare when it came to actual gameplay?

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Should you reconsider D&D alignments?

You’ve heard it said–maybe you yourself have said it:

“There’s no point to character alignments in D&D or any other roleplaying game.  It’s an unnecessary hindrance to players!”

Or if you’re a proponent of alignments, you’ve seen the eye-rolls from players and other GMs.  I mean, who really takes those kinds of rules seriously?  Should alignments even exist in roleplaying games?

Well, I am taking those rules seriously, as I play my way through First Edition AD&D.  And I’m not simply finding them tolerable, I’m actually really enjoying the rules on alignment.

As someone who played 4th Edition D&D consistently for about four years (and has even dabbled a bit in the last year, believe it or not), I’ve experienced the other side of alignments.  In the 4e Essentials book, Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms, alignment is discussed in this way:

“A character’s alignment describes his or her moral stance.  Many adventurers…are unaligned, which means they have no overriding moral stance. … Most people in the world, and plenty of adventurers, haven’t signed up to play on any team–they’re unaligned.  Picking and adhering to an alignment represents a distinct choice.

If you choose an alignment for your character, you should pick either good or lawful good” (Mearls, Slavicsek, and Thompson, pg. 43).

As I’ve played 4th Edition, my experience has been that 4e alignment rules functionally led to no alignments at all.  Which is fine!  I just think it’s an unfortunate drift from their original function.  So why were alignments originally written into D&D?  And how can their rigorous use  actually benefit our games?

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Is it possible to lose at Dungeons & Dragons?

There was only so much that could be done about the slime.  We did what we could to scrape it off our barbarian and thief.  The barbarian himself smashed a lantern over his head to burn it off.  But alas, within mere moments, they were gone.  Dead.  Transformed into slime themselves.

And so, the druid, cleric, and fighter–our lieutenant–made the long walk back to the inn in Saltmarsh.  And that was the end of the story.  Period.  The module was over, the enemy undefeated.  We had failed.

Seriously. ALWAYS LOOK UP.

We’ve probably all heard the anecdote about a parent walking in on a D&D game and asking, “Who’s winning?”  The players all groan with the son or daughter responding, “Nobody wins, Mom!”  The parent then leaves the room confused, but glad their child isn’t out doing worse things with worse friends.

But the other night, when we completed The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, I busted out laughing and said, “We just lost D&D!”  So what exactly happened last Friday?  How did we lose in the game of D&D?

A problem for DMs to deal with

I’m learning that some AD&D modules (The Village of Hommlet and Saltmarsh, in particular) have points at which players can make the wrong decision.  And if they make that wrong decision, the module concludes.  The players have failed to achieve their goal.  In Hommlet, the players all perish.  That’s easy to deal with, because you can simply roll up new characters and pick up where you left off.

It’s not so simple in Saltmarsh.  If the players make the wrong choice, the bad guys leave town.  And it’s hard to beat the bad guys, when they’re gone!  The module is over.  Do not pass go–do not collect $200–do not move on to module U2!  And we made the wrong decision.

When players make poor decisions like this, it puts the Game Master in a difficult spot.  Does she stay true to the module?  Does he let the players fail?  Or maybe retcon the decision and give them a second chance?  Beyond these questions, should modules even be written this way, where a binary choice can be so damning to the characters and the story?

As someone who “lost” The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh–as someone who went away disappointed not to experience the end of the module–yet as someone who was happy with how the story ended, let me share my thoughts on what you as a DM can do to prepare for these moments if and when they come:

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Tips for a first-time AD&D DM

So you’re interested in the way things began?  You find yourself wondering with nostalgia and curiosity, “What was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons like when it was first released?  What did those first players think, feel, and experience?”

These are the thoughts that make you a first-time AD&D Dungeon Master in 2017.  These are the thoughts that brought me to that place.  And so here I am, preparing for my second campaign as DM.

Even though I had GMed many other RPGs–at least fifty games of D&D 4e, maybe more of FFG’s Star Wars RPG, with a smattering of others–I felt like it was best to start by going through some published AD&D modules.  If you’re a first-time AD&D DM, I’d encourage you to do the same: pick a good published module for beginning characters and start from there.

But if you are indeed going to take that route, let me give you a few words of advice that will put you light years ahead of where I was when I first started this journey:

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Why and how I’m playing First Edition AD&D

You might be wondering why a guy like me would be playing First Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.  And yet, here I am in 2017 playing AD&D more than any other tabletop RPG.

It’s strange especially now!  In my opinion, tabletop roleplaying is going through a bit of a renaissance.  5th Edition D&D is drawing new players in and old players back.  The success of sites such as DriveThruRPG makes independent games readily available.  And beyond that, the vast variety of games available simply makes it a very fun and fertile time for tabletop roleplaying.  So, yes, it is odd that I would go back and play AD&D 1e.

Since MadCleric.com has recently seen an upward spike in new readers, I thought I’d give you a more clear and comprehensive on the when, why, and how of my current AD&D project entitled, Chasing the Dragon:

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