stories from Mike Mornard’s game table

This entry is part 11 of 12 in the series D&D with Mike Mornard

In my OD&D campaign DMed by Mike Mornard, I’m sort of the Chief Inquisitor – the guy who’s most likely to bog down the game with questions about Gary Gygax’s and Dave Arneson’s games.

Usually 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 one with a list of random stories.

Monster PCs: Could you play monsters in OD&D? Sure! Mike played an 8th level balrog at one point. Mike related a story of a roleplaying session in which the party had to distract a wizard. Mike’s balrog came to the door wearing an asbestos press hat, claiming to be from the Balrog Times. He made fire flash from his thumb to simulate camera flashes. He not only distracted the fame-hungry wizard but got a guided tour of his mansion. Mike finished the story with the a refrain common to participants in an immersive role-playing session: “and we didn’t roll dice once.”

Setting your Friends on Fire: Our (well, mostly Tavis’s) frequent misadventures with flaming oil prompted this story: Once in Greyhawk, Mike and the gang were fighting mummies. Mike and another player planned to coordinate their actions: one would throw oil on the mummy, and the other would torch him. Before their turns came up, Mike was jostled. A bad die roll later, and Mike spilled his oil on Ernie. A moment later, the other player was jostled, and he accidentally hit an oil-soaked Ernie with his torch. (I’d like to know: what were the mechanics behind this? Natural 1s?)

Undead level drain: A lot of people hate the fact that undead permanently drain levels: in fact, that’s been removed from D&D’s recent editions. Mike told us that, at first, undead level drain was impermanent. Unless you died of level drain, you’d regain your levels through healing. During playtesting, Gary decided that undead were insufficiently frightening, and made the level drain permanent.

In fact, Gary and the others were surprised when so many people hated the undead level drain. People didn’t like that it made you a level behind the rest of your party. In Gary’s game, because of the Greyhawk campaign’s intense schedule and huge player base, that was not as big a deal as it was for most gaming groups. In Greyhawk, players and characters were always leaving and joining the party, a different mix in every session, and they’d typically be anywhere from 3 to 5 levels apart.

If a 5th level party had some level 1 characters in it, they’d stop on level 1, find some goblins, and let the level 1 characters fight them. Once they’d faced some danger – earning their XP – the group would go down to level 3, and the level 1 characters would stand on the inside of the party holding torches. They’d get to share the XP from the mission because they’d faced some combat earlier. Mike doesn’t know how this practice evolved: it was already in place when he joined the game.

Fast-leveling PCS: Since you got XP from money, the Greyhawk players would fast-level characters by giving them all the loot from the adventure. When Mike suggested we give all the loot to the first-level cleric to level him to 2, it blew my mind.

Although this is possible under the XP rules, I’ve never seen this practiced, or suggested, in 1e games. In Greyhawk, they did this all the time.

Subsystems: When D&D was being invented, people didn’t mind the fact that every piece of the game had its own subsystem. As Mike says, “We liked rolling dice.” They also didn’t mind consulting charts. Charts and unique subsystems were respected pieces of wargaming tradition. Some of the D&D mechanics, in fact, are direct evolutions from war games.

The use of 1d6 for a morale roll was used in some 60s war games. The problem was that such a roll was very granular, and made for a steep curve. Gary switched to 2d6 to allow for finer gradations.

Gary’s experimentations with multiple dice to produce bell curves are, in many ways, central to D&D. He must have been extra frustrated one day when he saw that Mornard and someone else were playing a game where one was using 2d6 and one was using 1d12 for morale. Gary just shook his head (and presumably gave a lecture on probability).

Character death: As a new-school player, one of the speed bumps I hit when trying to understand OD&D was the attitude towards character death. Perhaps because the Greyhawk players were coming from war games, they didn’t mind the occasional arbitrary death, even if it was inflicted by another player.

Mike told a story of a wizard played by Ernie Gygax. Mike doesn’t know the character’s name because people usually called the character “Ernie’s Wizard”. He found a powerful magic item, possibly called “the Orb of Cleric” (not an item I’ve heard of, but maybe Mike can clarify). Tom Champeny’s character was a cleric and wanted it. He offered to buy it, gave Ernie presents, etc. Finally, out in the wilderness one day, he cast Finger of Death on Ernie and took it. No one got upset: 13-year-old Ernie was like, “oh well, guess i should have given it to you.” (Ernie’s Wizard’s henchmen got him resurrected.)

Nevertheless, screwing each other over was only a sometimes activity. In Greyhawk, players tended towards neutrality. If your high-level character died, they’d usually get you resurrected. In Blackmoor, on the other hand, your body would be looted before it hit the ground.

What do hit points represent? Over the years, there have been a lot of ex post facto justifications for hit points, some by Gygax himself. In the end, as Mike says, “hit points are something to make combat go the way Gary wanted.” That’s a good thing to remember next time you find yourself tempted to jump in an internet argument about the subject.

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4 Responses to “stories from Mike Mornard’s game table”

  1. i love those stories!

    paul, would you mind if i translate them (or some of them) to portuguese and post in my blog (giving to you credits and link to you blog)?

    best wishes

  2. paul says:

    Of course, feel free!

  3. Michael (Gronan) Mornard says:

    Actually, when Gary heard about us using 12-siders for CHAINMAIL his reaction was more like “YOU CAN’T DO THAT! It screws up the odds.” (quick lecture on 2d6 vs 1d12)

  4. Baf says:

    I remember an article in Dragon back in the day detailing an alternate list of familiars, including many exotic animals. It ended by putting them all in a big alphabetical list numbered from 2 to 40, so you could roll 2d20 to pick one at random. The classical black cat actually occupied something like four slots in an attempt to make it come up more often than the exotic ones, but it still wound up being less likely than the kinkajou at slot 21. I get the impression that they got a lot of mail about that.

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