NTRPGCon: A Tale of Three DMs

This is not a full con report, and I don’t know if I’ll have time to give one, but I’d like to share my experience of the games I signed up for. I won’t use any names, but suffice it to say that these are all well-known and famous DMs.

DM the First –

This DM was running OD&D, 3 volumes only. We were all pre-gen 2nd level characters, Fighters, Clerics, and MUs. The party had a list of general adventuring equipment that we were assumed to have, and before we went to the dungeon, we were told we could get one or two reasonable miscellaneous items. The dungeon was a simple and straight-forward (though non-linear) old school dungeon, with each room as a set-piece puzzle or encounter. The encounters/puzzles were well hinted at, and while not particularly inspired, enjoyable and not unfair. Obvious ogre lair was obvious enough to not mess with, for instance. Fake vampire room was an easy enough puzzle and someone only died because we couldn’t leave well enough alone. The fights we had, we both got lucky AND made correct tactical choices, so we won them. The final set-piece encounter was a cheesy Fleetwood Mac joke. It was not a mind-blowing experience, but the DM was a nice guy, fun to be around, friendly, and I had a pretty good time. I would not mind gaming with him again, though I’d prefer more of an experience of ‘this is what it’s like to game at my table’ than ‘this is a simulation of what it’s like to game at my table’.

DM the Second –

This DM was running OD&D + Greyhawk. We were playing 9th level pre-gen characters with some pretty tough and high level equipment. This DM was an asshole. He would berate players and treat them like they were stupid for not asking enough questions and would berate players and treat them like they were stupid for asking too many questions. One door that sealed in a couple of undead trolls was apparently covered with sigils and warnings about the trolls, but, oh, we didn’t see the sigils and warnings because we didn’t specifically look at the door for them. I got yelled at for overthinking when I asked if a pair of silver manacles in a dungeon cell included both pieces for hands and for legs and was told to use it as hack-silver and divide it among the party because ‘old school’. An AOE sleep hit my character at one point, and the lady next to me said “I try to wake him up” – DM says “okay, you hit him to wake him up, and he punches you in the face”; she did one damage to me and I apparently punched her for 8. At one point, he berated the party for not mapping, the whole “mapping is a dying art” bit, despite the fact that one player HAD been mapping for the first half of the session before giving up. Turns out, the entire “adventure” was a playtest of a series of TPK monsters famous DM had been hired to design based on an early monster he’d designed. He was very proud of the fact that even the friendly-ish neutral good variant managed to kill and eat us. I was scheduled for another game with this DM on Sunday, but he was such an abrasive dick that I skipped out and we left the con a few hours early.

DM the Third –

This DM was running BECMI with 5th level pre-gen characters that also had some pretty cool equipment and unique abilities. The setting was awesome and I was really excited about it at first, especially playing a mid-level magic user with a couple really sweet scrying abilities on top of my base spells. The flying circus was in town and we were hired by the ringmaster to investigate a murder and by an asshole mayor to retrieve his hot daughter who’d run away to join the circus. Things started to unravel for me a couple hours in when it became clear that it was going to be a purely investigative game with almost nothing but talking to NPCs and asking them questions. The DM was actually VERY good at running an investigation game, and I feel bad about being so bored, but investigation games, in my experience, work best with 4 players, 6 max, and we had 9. Also, the setting was so neat that it seemed like a damned waste to be spending all of our time asking questions about the murder. I’m like “I don’t care about who murdered the dwarf bearded lady; there is a haunted train ride on an airship! Why aren’t we riding it?!” The carnie games, the roller coasters, the Ferris wheel, the menagerie of monsters were all things I desperately wanted to be able to interact with in some way, meaningfully or not, but I couldn’t. So, about 3 and a half hours in, I lost my ability to functionally interact with the rest of the group. 5 hours in, some carnie finally threw a punch at a fighter. 45 minutes after that, by the time the one encounter the game had been building towards, I had no idea what was going on, who we were fighting or why, because I’d zoned out so bad. Half-way through the encounter, several folks begged out because their next game was starting. I didn’t have another game, but used the excuse to leave the table as well.

2nd Ed is back!

For what it’s worth…

I actually got started playing with 2e, though the group I first played with used a hodgepodge of 1e and 2e (I think they’re pretty compatible, but not being particularly familiar with 1e, I don’t really know) with some Arcanum thrown in.

So, with 2e coming back into print, the debate resumes on the merits and flaws in 2e.

THACO:

People who prefer addition to subtraction don’t like THACO.  Still, it’s easy to convert descending to ascending AC and just note your Attack value based on 20 – your THACO. (Oh, crap, that involves subtraction!)  I’ve heard that there are people who dislike THACO for other reasons.  I don’t know what those reasons are.  THACO was simply introduced to eliminate the need for an entire combat chart when really you could extrapolate all the information you actually needed from a single column.

Rules Bloat?

I don’t remember if 2e got rid of 18/xx or not.  If it did, go it!  I don’t remember seeing anything in 2e’s core that was particularly annoying that wasn’t already in 1e.  Proficiencies were basically the same as feats, and I guess if you really hated them, you didn’t have to use them.  Proficiencies never came up in the games I played.  3e had all of its skills and skill points, but  that always felt to me like taking all of those % tables, giving them a bit of flexibility and going around and making them mandatory (fun fact: they’re not!). Then, there are splatbooks.  If you can’t concoct your own specialty class on your own spare time and get your DM to sign off on it, you don’t need to be playing it.

I think a big issue people have with 2e is cosmetic.  The books are ugly and the art is bland.  The books have the binding, paper, and overall feel of Houghton-Mifflin textbooks.  Most of the art felt cold and scientific; a fighter and his gear laid out much like a diagram of a dissected frog.  If the rules for 2e had ever been repackaged in a more visually appealing format, I don’t think that it would suffer the disdain that has become so attached to it.

2e has a sterile feel to it, which in part was a reaction to the satanic panic and the overall image problem that D&D was gaining due to journalistic malpractice, but in many ways, it was still the same game mechanically.  1e was Snakes & Ladders.  2e was Chutes & Ladders. 3e was Mousetrap.

In the meantime, I think this is a good time to point out that WotC has still avoided publishing BECMI or the Rules Cyclopedia.  I’m not saying this is a bad thing.  So much of the edition warring and debate focuses on 3e vs older e, or anything vs 2e, oft forgotten is the old Basic Edition.  The beauty of Basic was that the entire game was self-contained in a single (or two, with B/X) booklet, without the need for multiple core books.  However the eventual release of the long promised Companion (which didn’t cover what Expert said it would cover), Master (oh, god, who would enjoy playing at this level?), and Immortals (has anyone actually successfully played the Polymath ascension path to its conclusion?  If so, I think I’d like to punch them) took what was a pretty well balanced, functional system and threw sense out the window with its massive scaling problems and absurd cosmology.  I mean, if you’re going to have to come up with a new table of demi-human related attack classes based on tiered XP, just take the damn level caps off.