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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My first time playing AD&D

Last Friday, I played AD&D for the first time.

Well, kind of.  You know I’ve been the DM before.  But this time, I was a player…you know, controlling a player character.  One of the players from Hommlet offered to run us through U1: The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, which is proving to be a mysterious and very fun module after only a first session.


It can be hard for a GM to slip into the player’s seat and allow someone else to take over.  So what did I learn from this experience, which I’ve had a few times before?  How can a GM become a player with ease?

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Mediating conflict at the gaming table

On Tuesday, we explored the four different kinds of conflict that can arise between players at the gaming table.  But that’s the easy part!  Any Tom, Dick, or Tenser can start a fight.  The hard thing is knowing (a) how to fight fairly and (b) how to mediate when fighting doesn’t go so well.

Our gaming groups are ideally groups of friends, sitting around the table (digital or physical).  And because of the nature of friendship, we all have a responsibility.  For the player, it is their responsibility to fight fair and to seek reconciliation.  For the GM, it is their responsibility to facilitate that process when necessary.

Here’s how you can do your part: Continue reading

When fights break out at the game table

You may have thought (like I did) that my last article was the final volume in my series on online gaming.  Clearly, you and I were both wrong, for it appears that this comment of mine stirred some questions:

I’ve found it hard for players and GMs to fight fairly online.  I’m not sure what it is about the medium, but it tends to go poorly. … Reconciliation — fighting well — makes a game group better, but it’s hard work.  And if we want our groups to last, we need to be able to fight well.

In response to this sentiment, a thoughtful reader asked some challenging questions that made me think more deeply about this idea.  It will take at least two articles to respond, so I’ll only deal with his first question today: “In what circumstance would players actually fight at the gaming table?”  I can identify four types of fights that can (and frequently do) emerge at the gaming table.  If you haven’t seen these before, I can almost guarantee you will: Continue reading

Should you game online or in person?

All good things come to an end.  Campaigns end.  Gaming groups disband.  Even online gaming groups come to a close.  After two and a half years of GMing my online 4e group, our campaign ended.  We disbanded for several reasons.

First, the story had come to a close.  It had many twists and turns.  It had a deeper and more complicated mythology than any campaign should have.  But most importantly, the characters reached a point of resolution and redemption.  And that really was the goal of our story.

Second but more primarily, we disbanded the group because online GMing was beginning to wear on me.  While online GMing has its pros, it also has its cons.  I’m not referring to limitations that can be overcome or the simple temptations that come with the territory.  I’m talking about unavoidable characteristics of online GMing from which I needed a break.  I could handle it for two and a half years, but then I needed a hiatus for these reasons.  I needed to bring my game back home. Continue reading