playing D&D with mike mornard: player skill

This entry is part 7 of 12 in the series D&D with Mike Mornard

Running from goblins, we barricaded ourselves in a dead-end room. Tavis’s fighter spiked the door closed, and then prepared a surprise for the goblins: holding his torch ready, he poured a flask of oil in front of the door.

Unfortunately for us, we had already played these tricks on this band of goblins, and they had learned. The next thing we heard was hammering around the perimeter of the door: the goblins were spiking US in. And then we saw more oil trickle into the room from under the doorframe.

And that’s how we ended up locked and barricaded in a room that was on fire, huddled in the corner and dying of asphyxiation.

Old-school players talk a lot about player skill. As a new-school player, I’ve never really grasped what they meant. It it tactical skill? A set of procedures for dealing with common dungeon hazards, like tapping floors with ten-foot poles? The ability to read the DM and tell when he was planning something devious? What does it mean to be good at D&D?

As Mike Mornard DMed us through a brown-book OD&D dungeon crawl, he told us a little about player skill. Apparently, among the original Greyhawk players, Rob Kuntz was good at D&D. He was good enough to adventure solo, not even bringing henchmen, and survive threats that would threaten whole parties of less skilled players. Once Kuntz started going on solo dungeon delves, it became the thing to do, even among other players who didn’t have Kuntz’s player skill.

Mike told us the story of one of Gary’s lesser players who decided to go adventuring alone. He encountered a room filled with gems. Apparently, he didn’t suspect that Gary was trying anything devious: he ran into the room and started reveling in his treasure. “It’s great!” said Gary (from behind his file cabinet, presumably). “You’re in gems up to your ankles!”

The player showered himself with gems like Daffy Duck. “I’m independently wealthy!” (As a one-time recipient of a cache of random gems, I can relate to the player’s joy.) “It’s great!” said Gary. “You’re in gems up to your knees!” The player shoveled gems into his pack. “It’s great!” said Gary. “You’re in gems up to your waist!” I’m sure you can see where this story is going. When the player tried to leave, he found out that he was sinking in quicksand covered with three inches of gems.

So what does a skilled player do when presented with an unfamiliar dungeon situation?

Earlier in our adventure, before we were trapped in a burning room, we encountered a glowing dagger, floating in the air, blade pointed downwards. I’m new to OD&D. My instinct was that this was similar to all the “trips and tracks” listed in the first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, like altars that might increase your Strength by 1d4 points or make you save vs. poison or die, with no way to determine between them. If it was either a treasure or a “gotcha” trap, I decided that I would take a risk and grab the dagger, fully aware that I might be arbitrarily zapped for my trouble.

One of the players, wiser than I, probed around the floating dagger with a 10′ pole and met resistance. And then the dagger lurched forward and attacked. As you probably figured out, it was a gelatinous cube.

We defeated the cube: I think the wizard delivered the killing blow, and we got a +1 dagger for our troubles. I realized that I had played the situation wrong. I know about gelatinous cubes, and I should have expected to find one in an old-school dungeon. The floating dagger was a mystery to which I held the clues, and I assumed that it was a logic-defying crapshoot.

Lesson two was this: when Mike Mornard is DMing, assume that you’re speaking in character. We entered the dungeon with a lot of hirelings: we had hired a dozen bandits last session, and this session we hired half a dozen heavy footmen. At three people per rank, our expedition filled about twenty feet of 10-foot-wide corridor.

Our party was so unwieldy that the wizard joked about letting the dangers of the dungeon doing our downsizing for us. The hirelings heard him, and they were not happy. A few bad reaction rolls later, and my bandit followers abandoned us in the dungeon.

We should have foreseen this, because Mike’s NPCs tended to join into our out-of-character strategy conversations. When we lost a heavy footman, and we were discussing whether it was worth it to get him resurrected, the other heavy footmen weighed in strongly on the “pro” column.

This isn’t the way I’m used to playing. Our 4e characters must have instantaneous telepathy, because we routinely spend minutes deliberating about each six-second combat round. And we often reach an out-of-character group consensus before we talk in-character to any NPCs.

Lesson three: sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. I mentioned that we ended up trapped in a burning room, a round or two away from asphyxiation. After we’d failed our attempts to bash through the door, the dwarf’s player decided to charge through the fire and attack the door with his axe. He rolled a critical hit, which, in Mike’s game, means you get to roll two damage dice. The dwarf rolled thirteen points of damage. He burst through the door and scattered the goblins, and soon we were chasing them.

When the session ended, we put away the snacks and the players headed out towards the subway, discussing what we learned. Don’t taunt the hirelings. Don’t expect to get something for nothing. Keep the offensive: don’t spend a lot of time in deliberation, and don’t wait for the monsters to get organized.

I’m still not sure what player skill is in OD&D, and I still think it has something to do with battle tactics, trapfinding procedures, and gaming the DM. But I’m also starting to think it has something to do with respecting the gameworld as a world. Monsters learn. Henchmen want riches and safety. PCs can’t communicate telepathically. And if you’re a dwarf fighter, sometimes your best course of action is to hit something with an axe.

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24 Responses to “playing D&D with mike mornard: player skill”

  1. Matthew says:

    Just have to say…I love reading these posts. The mix of gaming history and actual play is perfect.

  2. Mike says:

    Gotta agree with Matthew. You can learn as much about reffing an old school game from these posts as any DM guide on the market. Great stuff!

  3. Michael (Gronan) Mornard says:

    It’s always interesting to see these writeups.

    I will admit to a moment of deep and abiding glee upon, after the pool of oil burst into flame, seeing the “We are SO screwed!” look on the players’ faces.

    But as an old Conan comic from the 70s said, “Desperation can make heroes of us all.” The dwarf’s player was plainly desperate, hacking at the door as a last ditch effort to die swinging a weapon. When he rolled a natural 20 I decided to give him a chance to be awesome.

    Note that I said “a CHANCE.” I told him he had to roll 12 damage or more to break the lock… using 2d8. The odds were NOT in his favor.

    Sometimes mortals simply refuse to quit fighting despite the hopelessness of the situation, and at those times Crom sits on his mountain and faintly smiles.

  4. Michael (Gronan) Mornard says:

    Also, fair play for Paul for admitting when the players overlooked something:

    “I know about gelatinous cubes, and I should have expected to find one”

    “We should have foreseen this, because Mike’s NPCs tended to join into our out-of-character strategy conversations.”

    After ten years of reading about rules to “protect my PC from bad GMs,” it’s nice to see players talking about “respecting the game world as a world.”

    Also, if you’re a dwarf and you decide it’s time to just hit something with your axe, hit it REALLY HARD.

  5. paul paul says:

    I still don’t understand how Kuntz survived solo. Did he avoid all fights? When he saw something creepy and unusual, did he interact with it?

  6. Michael (Gronan) Mornard says:

    He was smart, cautious, and weighed his chances. He had boots of flying, a ring of invisibility, and a ring of X ray vision, and a lot of other magic. He scouted extensively and tried to attack by surprise if at all possible. He was the highest level PC so he fought a lot… he just did everything he could to skew the odds in his favor.

    He was also suspicious as hell. He survivied Tomb of Horrors. When he saw the infamous statue with the Sphere of Annihilation in its mouth, he tossed an iron spike at it rather than prodding at it.

  7. Michael (Gronan) Mornard says:

    Actually, I should say “is,” not “was.”

  8. Michael (Gronan) Mornard says:

    Also, in case there is ANYBODY in the world that doesn’t know this… Gary wrote what later became Tomb of Horrors specifically to kill Robilar and Tenser.

    It failed. Ernie and Rob went through ToH and came out unscathed.

    So, to all those people on ENWORLD and elsewhere complaining about Tomb of Horrors being the “worst module ever….”

    Waah, waah, waah, waah, waah. Your tears are sweet nectar upon Crom’s tongue, little man.

  9. justaguy says:

    It’s weird to read these… I feel absolutely no nostalgia for “old school” games, despite having started gaming in the 80s with the red box. All these things that old school seems to laud and take pride in just strike me as meh. I guess it’s just not my style, but I often feel like I’d have just been annoyed if I played in these games…

  10. Michael (Gronan) Mornard says:

    And reading most descriptions of play under later editions bores me shitless, so we’re even.

  11. Guest says:


    This is shit is fascinating; you should have a blog or something. Have you ever published a module or supplement?

  12. Jean says:

    Re: Tomb of Horrors,

    “Heh heh, oh man, Sphere of Annihilation in the statues mouth. That never got old.”

    Thank you Order of the Stick!

  13. m.s. jackson says:

    I love reading these, pure gaming gold. Honestly I do not know that much about the history of gaming so reading these is like discovering a past I was unknowingly part of since the 1980s. The fact that Michael joins in the discussions is even better.

  14. Macrochelys says:

    “I’m still not sure what player skill is in OD&D, and I still think it has something to do with … gaming the DM”

    Sadly this is the whole of my experience with old-school D&D. It is fun for a time, but unless you have a very clever DM the gotcha tricks will get stale quickly.

  15. Runeslinger says:

    Any game is better when there are clever players and a clever GM, that’s a given – but I would have to say that the sentiment, “…I’m also starting to think it has something to do with respecting the gameworld as a world.” is where satisfaction lies in my experience – whether in D&D of any stripe or any other RPG.

    For me, and the people I have enjoyed gaming with most, “gaming the GM” has been much more about trying to connect with the foundation (or underlying reality) of the scenario and setting. If the GM doesn’t “game the players back” then of course things will get stale.

    If everything devolves into the GM trying to beat the players and the players trying to beat the GM then escalation over time will breed conflict. If it remains a game wherein the GM challenges the players, and each side of the screen does their best to be in tune with the growing skill of the other…? Pure magic.

  16. Michael (Gronan) Mornard says:

    “Gotcha tricks” are the mark of a poor referee, and any game sucks with a poor referee.

    The idea is to be challenging. The notion of “players versus referee” or “killer referee” is nonsense. The referee has an infinite supply of orcs; if I were trying to simply kill the PCs, they would not have run into twelve goblins, they would have run into a twelve headed hydra. Nothing simpler.

    I built a world that exists. It has dangers and rewards in it. “Fair Play” as referee consists of sticking with the world I’ve built. If there’s a nest of trolls on the first level, and the players are foolish enough to ignore the piles of bones, the charnel-house stench, and the overwhelming reek and blunder into the nest at first level, that’s their problem. To “tone down” an encounter is cheating, just like “ramping up” an encounter once the players are tenth level is cheating. If there are six trolls there, there are six trolls there. The referee presents the world, the players respond, and let the dice fall where they may.

  17. See, I don’t think ‘respecting the game world’ is exclusive to editions of the game that focus on player skill over character skill – it is an extremely important lesson for all forms of D&D. That’s what makes these articles so great and fun to read. They are more than just a history lesson (although learning about the origins of some of my favorite things is nice – I had no idea about the intent of the Tomb of Horrors), things like the gelatinous cube encounter and the orcs learning from the party’s tactics are examples of good DMing – examples that can be applied to any of the editions of D&D that I’ve played.

  18. Rory Rory says:

    I agree with Victor: same goes for basically all the points here.

    In 4e, player skill obviously also encompasses a significant tactical component, where choosing the right power and right move is crucial, but depending on the campaign and nature of the DM, there’s tons of room to deal with puzzles, notice traps, skillfully engage with social encounters, know when things aren’t going your way, etc. Even in a game that relies heavily on skill rolls, intention, perception, and cleverness still matter quite a bit (at least in any game I have played).

    And speaking in character is another thing that can transcend any edition. Stuff like this heavily depends on DM style and player dynamics.

  19. […] of Holding wrapped up its series “Playing D&D With Mike Mornard.” Check out all seven parts, they’re all good. […]

  20. Michael (Gronan) Mornard says:

    Wrapped up?

  21. paul paul says:

    Not unless your campaign is wrapped up… :-)

  22. […] a post on Blog of Holding, I’ve had a small epiphany: respect for the game-world, and by extension for myself as a GM, […]

  23. […] I try to organize such reminiscences into coherent articles, like "this is the one about player skill" or "this is the one about henchmen". Sometimes pieces don't fit into a narrative. So: this is the […]

  24. […] vielä vähän syventävää luettavaa player skillistä, eli Blog of Holding kertoo Mike Mornardin […]

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