Posts Tagged “Dragon Magazine”
I spent most of today working on a project which will affect the future of Comma, Blank_. Once completed, I think it will be a huge improvement for this humble blog. Until that time, however, I’m afraid that working on it is consuming much of the time I would otherwise be using to play tabletop games, and write about them for your amusement. I’ve actually been working on it since early December, and only mention it now because I accidentally let it get far too late on a day which I’m supposed to post something. So my options are to stay up really late to finish today’s post, or cop-out. And with work in the morning, I’ve decided to cop-out. So I hope you liked Gary Gygax’s story of the Jeweled Man from last week, because it’s time for another post based on The All-Father’s column.
This time it’s a tale of self-destructing PCs from Dragon #314, first published in December of 2003. Gygax reminisces about an overconfident player with a high leveled character he didn’t earn, and gives advice on how to deal with such players. Advice I don’t entirely agree with, in matter of fact. But we’ll get to that later.
Once again, I will reprint Gygax’s original words here, but I do so without permission. I’m doing this because this is from a seven-year-old issue of a magazine which has been out of print for almost 5 years (by Vecna’s Eye, has it been that long? ;_;). To my knowledge, it’s not currently possible to read this column unless you somehow manage to physically acquire an original copy of the issue. And once again, I will happily remove it if contacted by anyone from Hasbro, Wizards of the Coast, or the Gygax Estate.
Self Destructing PCs
Unearned levels are the PC’s worst enemy
Many DMs have asked me how I handle characters that are obviously over-powered, “jumped-up” PCs that never really earned their high abilities and survive by massive hit-point total, super magic, and unearned ease in attacking with sword or spell. To such inquiries, I respond that in recognizing this sort of character I simply play the encounters a bit differently, mainly in the presentation of information, not in “fudging” of the dice rolls for monsters. Inept players will destroy their characters without having to resort to such methods. Allow me to illustrate this with the following account:
While at a regional convention in upstate New York, I was asked to run adventures in my campaign’s Castle Greyhawk Dungeons. An assembly of players gathered for what was billed a moderate-level excursion. One aggressive young chap came to the table with a 13th-level ranger, supposedly his least powerful character. Although the others in the group had PCs of about half that level and were chary about including the lad with the ranger, I assured them all would work just fine, even with experience division given by shares according to level.
There followed some initial exploration and minor encounters as the team worked its way down into the dungeon maze. The first real test came when the party came into a large chamber with many pillars and several doors. As the main group discussed what strategy they would follow in this locale, a bold dwarf broke off and opened a nearby door. Rather than telling the player what he saw, I told the players this:
“The dwarf slams the door. He reels back and comes staggering towards the rest of you, stammering something that sounds like. ‘G-ga-get back! W-wuh… Horrible! A bunch of them!’ He is obviously fearful and thus incoherent.
The 13th-level ranger hesitated not a moment. Without consulting with his fellows, the character ran to the door that the dwarf had slammed closed and opened it without concern. The four wights that were preparing to exit their lair confronted him, won initiative, and two succeeded in hitting. In the ensuing melee, these undead monsters managed to strike the ranger twice more, so at the end of the battle, the ranger was of a level more commensurate with the others, 9th as it were.
Much disturbed by that turn of events, but clearly not chagrined by his rash behavior and the results, the ranger insisted on leading the way. Soon thereafter, they discovered a staircase down, and beside it lay an alcove wherein a great clay pot rested, radiating heat and billowing smoke. The other PCs advised leaving the strange vessel alone, but the ranger determined to attack it. As he did so, all the other characters fled the area. With a single blow the ranger shattered the pot, and thus a really angry fire elemental was freed. It didn’t take long for that monster to finish off the ranger, and thereafter it departed.
I took the character sheet from the fellow, suggesting that he should be more careful with such potent characters in the future, for surely he had spent a long time gaining 13th level with his now dead ranger PC. He left the table without comment, and the rest of the group went on to several exciting hours of dungeon delving.
This shows that unearned levels don’t translate to playing ability. To the contrary, the power gained often makes the player overconfident. Any able DM can craft adventures that weed out unwise and inept players who think to bulldoze their way through problems by use of undeserved power. That’s possible only in computer games where saved games and cheat codes serve to reward such play.
Clearly, the culture surrounding the game in those days was significantly different than it is today. I can’t imagine a GM taking a player’s character sheet like that. But, then, neither can I really imagine arguing with Gary Gygax if he was my Dungeon Master.
This column struck a cord with me because my own character, Zalekios Gromar, is bursting with unearned power. Not only is he a Gestalt character with levels in both Warlock and Rogue, but a few years back my GM facetiously gave him a Ring of 100 Wishes, which rocketed his undeserved power level into the stratosphere. Of course, Zalekios is a very special case. He has no party–no companions to excel in the areas where he is weak. He’s got to be able to handle everything by himself. That being said, though, he could still probably out-perform four characters of equivalent level. The character is overpowered. I won’t argue that.
The way my GM and I have always handled it is simply to raise the difficulty of the challenges Zalekios must face. And, when we get it right, it works very well. A few sessions ago, Zalekios was very nearly killed when he was attacked by a level 16 gestalt Paladin/Barbarian character. My GM overruled the fact that Paladins must be lawful, and Barbarians must be Chaotic, because he’s evil like that. The combination of rage and smite evil very nearly ended Zalekios career. If not for some clever tactics on my part, using Dimensional Door and Eldritch Blast to keep my foe at range, I would not have survived.
And if all the players are overpowered, that’s a fine solution. But most often, that’s not the case. Players being different levels than one another is not often a problem in modern games, but power disparity will always exist. Sometimes players pull min-maxed builds off of the Internet. Other times, you underestimate just how effective a certain magic item will be in the hands of your players. Or, occasionally, a player just gets really stupidly lucky with a Deck of Many Things. And in this, I think Gary’s advice is eternal.
Let player skill determine whether your player deserves what he or she has. Give them opportunities to be overconfident, and pay for it. A player who has easily cut through challenges which the other players would have struggled with is going to come to expect it. So throw them a curve-ball. Drop a high leveled monster on them, and watch as they refuse to run away from a fight. Don’t take their power from them, just put them into a position where foolish action will cause them to lose it.
Of course, this may not always work. If your player is just as skilled as they are powerful, then you may need to reassess. You don’t want them to ruin the game for the other PCs who are left to stroll in their companion’s wake. But neither do you want to punish the player if they’ve made no mistakes. At this point you might consider making a loss of their power part of an important quest. Perhaps the artifact they acquired is evil and needs to be destroyed, or perhaps it is the lost blade of a celestial general who needs it to continue the battle against evil. If the deck of many things granted the player millions of gold, let him learn that an equivalent amount of gold disappeared from the coffers of a small nation, which is now unable to feed its people during a famine. If all else fails, you can just buff up the rest of the party, and the encounter level along with it.
As a side note, is it just me, or does it seem really uncool to take control of a player’s character? I know role playing games were different in those days, and the particular instance here is pretty mundane, but I can’t imagine ever doing that. The control a player has over their character is sacrosanct in my mind. I would have at least allowed him a saving throw versus fear.
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Posted by LS on Sunday, January 22nd, 2012 at 10:48 pm
Categories: Old School Dungeons and Dragons
Tags: Dragon Magazine, GM Tips, OSR
I’ve always had a love for magazines. During my youth, one of the most exciting days of the month was when my issue of Star Wars Insider would arrive. Magazines are like proto-websites. Which perhaps explains why many magazines have made the successful transition out of print, and onto the web. Still, there’s something about holding the monthly publication in your hand which feels a great deal more substantial than bookmarking a website does. It makes me sad that magazines are slowly dying off. Which might explain why I’ve occasionally been called a Luddite.
Of course, if we didn’t have the Internet, then I’d be trying to get these blog posts into a magazine, and probably having most of them rejected. So you don’t hear me complaining.
Given my love of magazines, I doubt anybody will be surprised to learn that I’ve gathered a decent collection of Dragon magazines over the years. (Funny Story: most of them are from the personal collection of Jeff Grub). They’re all piled into a cardboard box underneath my sourcebook shelves. I haven’t had the time to read even a tenth of the issues I already have, which is kinda nice, because I can always just pull a random issue from the pile and flip through the pages to find something new.
One of my favorite features of many of the issues of Dragon is a regular article called “Up on a Soapbox, All I Need to Know I Learned from D&D.” These articles were written by the Gary Gygax himself, and were often retellings of his earliest campaigns. It’s always fun to read about what he was thinking, and what he experienced, which shaped Dungeons and Dragons in those early years.
Today I opened up Dragon issue 290, from December 2001. In it is a story by Gygax entitled “Lesson #4: The One That Got Away. It tells the story of a golden man, encrusted with jewels and gems, which his players encountered in Castle Greyhawk. Back in those days, experience points were primarily earned through the acquisition of treasure, so a man made of gold was quite a find. Unfortunately for Gygax’s players, the man always ran away, and they were never able to catch him, though many attempts were made over the years.
I have some things to say about this story, but first, I think it would be nice if people had an opportunity to actually read it. Unfortunately, I can’t find it replicated anywhere online. And, unfortunately, issues of defunct magazines from over a decade ago aren’t something most people can easily find. So, after some consideration, I’ve decided to type up the article and include it in this post. I will happily remove it on request from anyone at Hasbro, or Wizards of the Coast. Hell, if the Gygax estate wants me to take it down, I will.
The Jeweled Man
When reminiscing about the “old days,” players in the original Greyhawk campaign still bring up the Jeweled Man. Although there were victories aplenty for those who adventured through the ruins of Castle Greyhawk, those veterans are still trying to discover who and what this figure was. That’s because nary a PC managed to catch this incredible thing, the Jeweled Man. All such speculation is to no avail, of course. Until some player’s character manages to discover the truth about him, the mystery will never be revealed. That’s a secret, and mystery is part and parcel of a good campaign.
Once the teams of PCs delving into the dungeons of Castle Greyhawk had made their way down to a moderate depth, all were after greater treasures. That was the natural way of things; in the original D&D and AD&D games, experience point awards were primarily based on the value of a defeated monster’s treasure hoard, not on the power of the monster. Of course, XPs were given for slaying foul creatures, successful use of spells, and other heroic acts. Even the most rigorous use of sword and spell, however, was insufficient to gain the large amounts of experience points needed to gain a level. In short order, the players learned that copper was dross, silver meaningless, and even gold a middling reward at best. Platinum? A bare cut above gold. Gems, jewelry, and magic items, those were the goal of every party’s explorations, the wherewithal to become more than one’s class.
It was around the dungeon’s 8th level that the first bold adventurers came upon something they had theretofore only dreamed of. Tenser, Robilar, and Terik were delighted when, upon entering a large chamber, they saw a figure apparently made entirely of gold. This sight was all the more wondrous not because the man-like thing was animate, but rather because the glitteringt yellow metal of the figure’s body was encrusted with faceted gems of all sizes and shapes. Even from a distance, it was plain that thousands of carats of diamonds, emerals, sapphires, and rubies–the whole spectrum of precious stones–were embedded in the thing’s golden body. Surely, the strange golden automaton represented millions and millions of gold pieces worth of wealth–and enough experience points to advance a large, high-level party to the next level of power.
Even as a spell was cast to keep the Jeweled Man from acting, warriors were rushing to come to grips with this marvel. Alas for the adventurers, the spell had no effect, and before the eager fighters were near, the figure was off and away, running so quickly that even boots of speed could not keep pace. Down a passageway went the glittering form, the party in pursuit. In all too brief a time, however, the Jeweled Man was lost, vanished into the labyrinth of the surrounding passages. Swearing to return, the adventurers went away empty handed, settling eventually for far less precious items taken from likely more fearsome opponents.
The players of course, embarked on a series of expeditions comprised of both the original team and other characters–even lone PCs. Most of the groups managed to make their way to the location, and of those finding the great chamber, the majority encountered the Jeweled Man therein. Each successive encounter saw the would-be captors become more and more frustrated, more aggressive, and more mystified at their lack of success. Their reason for failing to capture the prize might well have been the close-lipped nature of the would-be plunderers.
Almost everyone knew that it seemed impossible to take the creature by surprise, but teams and individual characters kept their own counsel concerning the success of other actions. Clearly the incalculable worth of the treasure and the repute to be had from gaining it worked to diminish cooperation, the one thing that makes success in adventuring most likely.
This effect was not foreseen, but the actions of the players made it easily recognizable. To reflect the attitudes of the PCs, it was natural to use innuendo to suggest one or another character was planning to capture the Jeweled Man alone. Solo adventures among the most able players were rare thereafter, as their peers were loathe to allow one of their number a chance to catch the Jeweled man alone.
To this day the begemmed thing–and I use that term advisedly, as no one has discovered exactly what it is–haunts the great chamber in the mid-levels of the dungeons of Castle Greyhawk. it has been years since any determined effort to capture the creature has been made, but the veterans of the storied times when exploration and derring-do were meat and drink to a large company still speak of it. Suggestions that it was an illusion fall flat because several different groups launched failed attempts to prove it unreal. there are growls about “DM cheating” too, but these complaints are half-hearted. Simply put, the players concerned know deep down that they never made a truly concerted effort, and each suspects they just might one day succeed.
Perhaps they will, and then the tale of that triumph will be told and retold. As it is, however, only sad stories of the one that got away are related.
Of course, I now realize that this was a terrible idea. Juxtaposing Gary Gygax’s thoughts on role playing with my own is not likely to create a favorable comparison. But what’s done is done. I can only hope Wizards of the Coast demands I take the post down.
Among the number of lessons to be learned here, I think the most important and the most clear is that it’s important for players to be able to fail. Gary certainly thought so, because as best as I can determine, he took the secrets of The Jeweled Man to his grave. I managed to find a forum post, apparently written by Gygax, which was written just about two years before his untimely death. In the post, he says he’ll discuss the concept in general terms in some then-upcoming modules, but that he does not intend to reveal how the encounter operated in his original campaign.
That’s dedication to the craft.
Personally, I don’t know how he did it. When I GM, and I make something cool, I want to tell people about it. Of course I want my players to figure it out on their own, so I don’t drop any undue hints. And if they fail to solve a mystery I’ve crafted, I have to bite my tongue to stop myself from giving it away to them right then and there. Then I have to bite my tongue again at the end of the adventure to avoid letting it slip during the post-adventure chatting. It’s difficult. I think I’m missing a few pieces of tongue at this point.
The best solution I’ve come up with is to tell people not involved in the game in question all about my brilliant game mastering. That’s not always advisable, though, because sometimes those people later want to join the games I’ve told them the secrets for. That has happened to me, and it’s a pain in the ass. But I’ve meandered off topic.
I feel that the importance of player failure is undersold by most of the modern sourcebooks I’ve read. Many people will agree that one of the best parts of role playing games are the stories you get to tell about your adventures. And the best stories always contain an element of failure or sacrifice. Like the time you were ambushed on the way to the dungeon, and killed in a single blow. Or the time your paladin died to foil the villain. Or, in this case, the way the Jeweled Man always managed to get away.
Players can always roll new characters. And if you let your players fail, then they’ll know that their successes are their own. Not just fudged dice.
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Posted by LS on Sunday, January 15th, 2012 at 9:00 pm
Categories: Old School Dungeons and Dragons
Tags: Dragon Magazine, GM Tips, OSR