Must It Always Be Violence?

Updated: Nov 30, 2019

Way out west there was this fella. Fella I want to tell you about. Fella by the name o' Anthony Huso. He knew folks that played modern RPG systems, but he never had much use for them himself. This Huso, he played AD&D. Now, AD&D, that's a game no one would play where I come from. But...then there was a lot about this Huso that didn't make a whole lotta sense to me...and a lot about his system choice likewise.


But then again, maybe that's why I find his blog so dern interesting...


This Huso calls AD&D the greatest system of all time. I didn't find it to be that exactly...but I'll allow there are some good ideas there. Course I can't say I've ever played it BTB. And I never used weapon speed factor. And I ain't never gotten segments to work, as a fella says.


But I'll tell ya what. After reading this blog here, and the way Huso's campaign unfolds...well, I guess his game is no more stupefying than a game played using 4th edition...and his explanation of segments almost makes sense too. So I can die with a smile on my face...without feeling like the good lord gypped me.


Now the only reason for you to be here is on account of a game that was played back in the early 80's. Just about the time we all had jean jackets and mullet hair. I only mention it cuz sometimes there's a man. I won't say a hero. Cuz what's a hero. But sometimes there's a man. And I'm talkin about Huso here. Sometimes there's a man, well, he's the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that's Huso. In the 80's. Playing AD&D. And even if he is a stubborn man. And Huso was most certainly that. And backward-gazing. And overly self-assured. But sometimes there's a man. Sometimes there's a man.


Wow. Lost my train of thought here. But ah, hell, I done introduced his blog enough.


I don't know who that was. Some stranger, I guess. But here's a thing that happened the other night. The party was in Geir Loe Cyn-crul (an enormous place); they have a lot of reasons for being there. One is that the Lyan (see Dragon #106) lost his armor some time ago to a Crushing Blow and his deity has been pointing him toward this incredible armor called Timeless Kingdom in order to replace it ever since.


At some point, the party got some respite and I decided the deity (Tantrut) would send the Lyan (named Ibram) another vision to reinforce that he's on the right track.

So Ibram got to see the grotto of Zaejin Jojin, the 4-headed troll king, his throne and fungal garden, his walls smeared w/ multi-colored fecal frescoes, and the treasure and victims strung up throughout. Yep. It was a hideous cave.

Now, the magic-user has, in his possession, two scrolls of Teleport Without Error---both scribed at 20th level. And I know that the Lyan prays for magic user spells the same way he prays for clerical spells and doesn't use a spellbook. Buuuut, the player inquired whether Ibram would be able to read one of those scrolls the magic user had on hand.


I understood immediately where this was going.


Rather than say no, I considered. It's true I offered the Lyan many details about the grotto in the visions and Tantrut was certainly desirous that Ibram acquire the armor since Ibram was (and is) very nearly Tantrut's only follower on the planet. So I'm like, "Kay...you know spell failure is pretty likely per DMG p128? Right?" (He did not know this. I apprised him straight away).


Still, he was enthusiastic about his odds.


Internally I rolled my eyes but then thought, "Why not?" Why not let him try, and fail. It would rid the party of one of the scrolls. So I said yes.


Of course he succeeded. Because that's what players (and dice) do when you don't expect them to. This planted him and his compatriots in the middle of Zaejin Jojin's hideous court. I allotted the party the benefit of 1 segment of surprise (in the party's favor).


They had buffed just prior to the teleport and remained unjustifiably optimistic until I started putting figures on the board. So many figures. Now the party was hasted, protected from evil and so on. But still...the number of trolls was off the charts.


The party put up a wall of fire immediately to block most of the trolls from gaining access to the inner sanctum where the party had arrived and was now thrashing with speed (and bravery born of desperation). They had not anticipated the number of foes now confronting them.


Symbols of Death, rending claws and gnashing teeth became their universe.

I was surprised when the toll king went down before getting to attack. But in hindsight it makes sense since he was not hasted. His enraged 2-headed praetor guards and witch concubines fought to the bitter end, but the whole affair resolved itself in 3 rounds.


A second wall of fire was thrown up to win additional time in looting the king's vault. Then the party absconded, extra-dimensional bags stuffed, back to their stronghold a thousand miles away using a pair of sinister planes-walking boots.


What's the point, Anthony?


I'm getting there. The Lyan had taken my whimsical and benevolent hint re. his quest and turned it into actionable intelligence. Then he beat the odds, bypassed hundreds of troll guardians and won the treasure with only one pitched albeit nail-biting combat.


I felt a little sad but also proud of the players. These were people who had learned how to think tactically, take risks and capitalize on AD&D's affinity for improvisation. They knew the treasure was what mattered and that combat was to be avoided if possible.


Moreover, despite the Troll King's inability to land a blow, the battle was still a nail-biter. Two Symbols of Death were used, one against the Ranger (who had 86 hp) and one against the Lyan (who avoided the symbol via the gaze attack rules in MM2).


We had played late, nearly to 1 AM, in order to achieve victory. I was tired and went directly to bed. The following day, one of the players approached me and said, "The reason you are awesome [as a DM] is because you had no idea we were going to do what we did and in other games I've played, the DM would have just said no. But you were prepared. You were ready for anything and that's insane."


For a moment I felt confused, as if a person had walked up to me in the rain and told me I was a genius for having an umbrella. But this got me thinking, not just about preparedness in general but in the WAY you prepare.


You see, while it's true that the encounter above unfolded as COMBAT, it did not unfold even remotely in the way I anticipated when I designed the space and keyed the monsters. MOST of the monsters were BYPASSED...and the "boss" monster never really came into play beyond draining two minutes of battery power from an energy mace.


This is the sort of thing that frustrates novice DMs who don't yet understand that THIS is how D&D is SUPPOSED to be played: with the Players using their brains to avoid as much combat as possible while gaining as much loot as possible. Don't misunderstand, our sessions often have a lot of combat. That's what AD&D is designed for and why we play it: FOR TACTICAL COMBAT. But if for every battle they roll initiative for, the party avoids four others, the game is proceeding as it should.


This is another reason why high level adventures should be throwing the kitchen sink at the party----because if they're smart, they're going to avoid the bulk of what comes before. Truth is, however, that the novice DM often undermines Player creativity by fudging the logic of the encounter, saying "no" and generally railroading the experience toward what he/she "feels" the module is saying MUST happen.


Let's take a look:

14. Large, Irregular Cavern

This place is obviously the lair of some monster, for there is a litter of bones and refuse in the northwestern portion of the cavern. A large black rock rests in the middle of the area.


The rock is actually a rhinoceros beetle (AC 2; MV 6"; HD 12; hp 68; #AT 2; D 3d6/2d8). This monster is held in place by a thick iron chain which allows it about 15' of movement in any direction: It is the guard of the cavern's inhabitant.


A mighty hill giant (AC 3 due to the heavy pelt he wears; MV 12"; HD 8; hp 57, #AT 1; D 2d8+1 points of damage) is the beetle's master. The shambling mounds nearby will not attack the giant----the giant's beetle would quickly devour them. If intruders come, the hill giant will immediately release the beetle, scoop up a boulder, step into an alcove, and attack the intruders when they arrive. The insect will not attack him, but it will attack any other creatures entering the cavern, for it has been carefully trained to do so. The giant will hurl 1-4 boulders and then attack with his huge club. Noise from the shriekers in area 15 will alert the giant to the presence of intruders. The hill giant has a large leather sack containing 1,276 gp. He wears an ivory necklace of 500 gp weight (value 200 gp), and the belt he wears is fashioned from a giant weasel pelt (value 875 gp).

I love S4. It was one of the first modules with "read-aloud", which I appreciate because it helps novice DMs understand how to set a mood; how much and what sort of information to disseminate; all while making it clear that it's OK to lead players a little bit astray. Some people on the internet poo-poo "read-aloud" b/c of reasons. But in the early days of the game, without access to the internet, we were constantly poring over articles and modules, using them to benchmark whether we were DOING THIS RIGHT.


How many times did I read DMG p97--100?


Answer is too many times.


Ironically, there's now so much information out there and so many authors that you can't tell who's right and what works. My suspicion is that most DMs read the above entry and find it fairly uninteresting. It's a combat encounter, right? And it's straightforward. It tells you exactly what IS going to happen.


But nope. It actually doesn't. And, if you think it does, I'd argue that you could be reading old school modules in a better way, a way that prepares your mind to accept and roll with radical player ideas and actions in a creative, improvisational way that players find rewarding.


Let's dissect the entry above. But first I'm going to tell you a thing. Then I'm going to tell you another thing.


The first thing I'm going to tell you is that every old school module has its own layout, style, voice, and idiosyncrasies. What matters most is whether the adventure speaks to you. If you hear the muse when you read the thing, you will know it. The rest is just details.


Why?


Because if you love and understand the adventure, you will probably run it well.


There are folks out there that absolutely LOVE the Desert of Desolation series but it doesn't speak to me. S4 speaks to me. And that's why I've selected it for this exercise. So let me be clear. S4 is, for me, one of the greatest modules ever written. Also S4 is not a paragon of organization, editing, ambiance or story. But if it speaks to you, you will find everything in it that you need to run it spectacularly.


So that's the first thing.


The other thing I'm going to tell you is that the way an Old School DM reads a module's keyed entries is, I suspect...what's the word? More Meta? More like a general on the field turning a scenario over and over in his mind? When I was running Pathfinder, I was down in the trenches like a soldier, trying to sort out what feat was triggered by what action. I couldn't see the forest for the trees and my responsibility as arbiter was therefore compromised.


As complicated as AD&D is, once you finally wrap your head around it, it's simpler than other systems I've played and read.


That simplicity allows you to hold the bulk of the rules as a whole, in RAM space. Now I don't have as much RAM as other people, so I need a screen with charts. But even so, I can mostly keep the entire system at the ready and this allows me to read a module's keyed entry and assess it as I should.


Put another way, this is a blatant plug for old school RPGs. Because, unless you're a weirdo, you want your operating system to be powerful but streamlined...because what you're really interested in is NOT the operating system but the applications/experiences it allows you.


So let's read the entry for keyed area 14 from the Greater Caverns of module S4 and I'll tell you what I'm thinking (stream of consciousness) as I read it.


Here it is again:


14. Large, Irregular Cavern

This place is obviously the lair of some monster, for there is a litter of bones and refuse in the northwestern portion of the cavern. A large black rock rests in the middle of the area.


The rock is actually a rhinoceros beetle (AC 2; MV 6"; HD 12; hp 68; #AT 2; D 3d6/2d8). This monster is held in place by a thick iron chain which allows it about 15' of movement in any direction: It is the guard of the cavern's inhabitant.


A mighty hill giant (AC 3 due to the heavy pelt he wears; MV 12"; HD 8; hp 57, #AT 1; D 2d8+1 points of damage) is the beetle's master. The shambling mounds nearby will not attack the giant----the giant's beetle would quickly devour them. If intruders come, the hill giant will immediately release the beetle, scoop up a boulder, step into an alcove, and attack the intruders when they arrive. The insect will not attack him, but it will attack any other creatures entering the cavern, for it has been carefully trained to do so. The giant will hurl 1-4 boulders and then attack with his huge club. Noise from the shriekers in area 15 will alert the giant to the presence of intruders. The hill giant has a large leather sack containing 1,276 gp. He wears an ivory necklace of 500 gp weight (value 200 gp), and the belt he wears is fashioned from a giant weasel pelt (value 875 gp).

Right, so...obvious lair...but danger is hidden in plain sight. The ruse of boulder-for-beetle won't last long. In order to pass for a rock, the beetle probably has its tail end toward the party. There will be smells of course, dung and so on; possibly the sound of the chain dragging if the beetle shifts. Based on the INT of these monsters I judge that tactics will be sound but simple. Given warning, the beetle will charge, so I'll give it +2 on its initial attack. If the party is bunched up, I might do some trample damage to those nearby using fiat or basic house rules. The giant has hard cover in the alcove...maybe even 50%...so I'll bump his AC by +4 while he's whipping stones. If the shriekers are still shrieking, the sound will likely mask any noise the giant and beetle make; in that case the dragging chain would be impossible to hear and I'd increase the odds of surprise to 3in6 or maybe even 4in6. When the giant becomes visible I need to remember to mention the gleaming ivory necklace swinging around his neck, and later, after inspection, the fine quality of his belt. This is clearly set up as a combat encounter, but I happen to know the party possesses a pair of shields painted with clan signs that I've decided might be known to the giant. And if the Paladin leads the way into the room and boasts loudly in the hill giant tongue, even after the first stone is thrown, I'm going to roll for reaction adjusted by CHR, assuming that a friendly result is actually fearful or submissive. On top of that, the ranger in the group has a thing for giants. His first swing would probably do enough damage to force a morale check. And if the giant surrenders what will he offer? His treasure for sure...but maybe info about the shambling mounds? Or he might lie and say he keeps treasure in area 13 and not mention the shambling mounds at all. Or, maybe he's even clever enough to follow them to the cave and whip more stones at them when the shambling mounds attack...


What happens if the thief goes forward, cloaked in invisibility? The boulder ruse will certainly be over. I'll tell her it's a giant beetle and, if she penetrates deep enough (known by her mini's position on the map) that the giant is lurking in an alcove, palming a rock and looking toward the party's light source with gruesome anticipation. Free backstab if she wants to run the risk.


In the grander scheme, I MIGHT connect the giant to the previously mentioned clans in my larger campaign, maybe insert some informational link or object that connects to meta stuff that will resonate with the players who've been coming to every session for years.


Finally, the cleric has a phobia of bugs that he's diligently role played since second level when he had that close call. So I'm going to include that fear when I describe the encounter.


Overall, I think the old school DM understands that a monster stat block isn't a queue for an initiative roll. Rather, it depends on what the players do and how they do it. Some DMs avoid combat whenever possible. In AD&D combat is swift and relatively painless so the DM should never swerve from it when warranted. Combat is also a consequence for recklessness. Surprise should be checked as often as possible, further increasing the likelihood of the party sustaining at least some damage. In other words, yes, be trigger happy with your monsters because AD&D is tactical and we play it to have enjoyable fights. But combat should not run its course blindly until all the monsters are dead. DMs that run encounters thus are not following the spirit of the game. Check morale. Check reactions. Account for actions taken by players and consider actions that intelligent monsters might also take----even during combat----that might transition the fight to something that isn't a fight.


Pay special attention to monster weaknesses. If the party fireballs a snowman, and you ARE the snowman, it is your job to put yourself in those shoes. What do you do? Why are you still fighting instead of running? Etc.


Lastly, I thought I'd drop my house rules for actions Players love to attempt, but for which rules in the core books are scattered or clumsy. These rules offer just enough options that the party's fighter could be overwhelmed and held by a gang of grimlocks, so that he can be more easily disemboweled by their leader's ax. Or so that PCs trapped in a corner can escape. Or so that the ogre can try to push the party's cleric off the ledge. Lastly, subdual usually only comes to mind when dealing with dragons, but I use it whenever it suits me. Subdual damage CAN be used on PCs for example to beat them unconscious and take them prisoner and is general purpose for ANY combat that you don't want to be lethal.


GRAPPLING

  • Only on creatures of similar or smaller size

  • A small defender can be grappled by up to 3 size small, 2 size medium (or) 1 size L opponent. A medium size defender can be grappled by up to 3 size medium or 2 size large opponents. Etc.

  • A grapple attempt is -2 to hit. If it succeeds, the defender can do nothing for the rest of the round.

  • A grappled character can be attacked at +2 for each opponent that is grappling him. A grappled character attacks at -2 to hit for each opponent that is grappling him on all rounds after the first. If a grappled character succeeds in hitting, the grapple is broken.

FISTICUFFS

  • Punching people in armor is hard:

  • Fighters may punch as many times per round as they have attacks.

  • All punches deal 1-3 dmg + STR bonus but only 25% of the damage is real. The remainder vanishes after 1 full night of rest. Note however that until rest, the damage is real and a defender can be punched to death in this manner.

MANEUVERING

  • Trying to move an opponent can only be attempted ONCE PER ROUND. The attacker cannot both attack and maneuver during the same segments. Maneuvering is defended against with either STR or DEX: DEFENDER'S CHOICE.

  • 1d6 is added to the chosen ability: HIGH score wins. DEFENDER WINS TIES.

  • Attacker Win: allows attacker to move defender at one half the slowest participant's normal movement rate (rounded up) in any direction, and further allows the attacker to follow.

PASSING THROUGH

  • Trying to pass through space occupied by an enemy can only be attempted ONCE PER ROUND and is defended against with either STR or DEX: ATTACKER’S CHOICE.

  • 1d6 is added to the chosen ability: HIGH score wins. ATTACKER WINS TIES.

  • If the attempt fails, the attacker expends the same amount of time & movement as if he had succeeded but does not move.

SUBDUAL

  • Only possible against creatures of 3 intelligence or higher. Subdual uses pommels, the broad side of blades etc. Any real damage struck with a weapon or spell negates the attempt. This can be thought of as pistol whipping. Subdual damage, like fisticuffs is only 25% real. However, unlike fisticuffs, Subdual damage vanishes the moment that the subdued creature surrenders. When subdual damage exceeds the defenders HP, it is subdued and surrenders. Whether a monster or NPC can be subdued is up to the referee. Player Characters cannot be subdued unless their player agrees to surrender.


Well, that's it for November. I hope your Thanksgiving was great if you live in the US.

And as always,

Peace and happy gaming.


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