gaming with one of the original D&D players

Friday, January 6th, 2012
This entry is part 1 of 12 in the series D&D with Mike Mornard

Yesterday, Tavis enticed my gaming group to the Soho Gallery for Digital Art for a D&D art/gaming event. The bait on the hook included Doritos, new art by Erol Otus and other cool people, and a game DMed by Mike Mornard. Mike played in Gary Gygax’s DND game in 1971 AND in Dave Arneson’s game and Phil Barker’s game. The guy had a talent for finding cool gaming groups.

Since I’ve appointed myself a minor curate in the Church of Preserving Cool D&D History, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to pepper Mike with questions. I also got to play a session in his game, and made a real hash of being the party mapper. (What else would you expected from a 4e player?)

Mike showed off some of his autographed books: his 1e Player’s Handbook was signed to “Lessnard the Wizard”, one of Mike’s characters. Apparently, when he was level 1, Lessnard had the distinction of surviving a solo trip to level 3 of the Greyhawk dungeon. Lessnard was alone because he couldn’t convince any hirelings to join him – he had lost too many hirelings in the dungeon already. Mike produced that story to demonstrate that, contrary to common belief, a lowly level 1 wizard had plenty of survivability!

It sounds like Lessnard adventured over several solo adventures with Gygax, which seems to have been pretty common in the old days. I’d heard that low-level characters often travelled in groups while high-level characters adventured solo, with just their henchmen to back them up, but from the Lessnard story, it appears that even ill-advised level-one characters sometimes attempted the feat. On the other hand, Lessnard’s survival was notable enough to be memorable for 40 years, so maybe it wasn’t a common practice.

Mike gave a fascinating account of a typical early D&D game, with a peculiar detail that I’d never heard before. Gary never used maps or minis: maps and minis were Dave Arneson’s thing. Gary ran games in his office, which was provided with chairs, a couch, and file cabinets. While playing, Gary would open the drawers of the file cabinet and sit behind them so that the players COULD NOT SEE HIM. They only experienced the Dungeon Master as a disembodied voice.

During games, cross-talk was discouraged: the party caller did most of the talking, and other players only talked if they had something to contribute. If the players chattered too much, they’d miss what the Disembodied Voice was saying, and that would be, as Mike put it, “suicide”. “You could feel the tension in the room,” he added.

It’s a very different style than the way I and my friends play. We do a lot of joking and chattering, the DM doesn’t kill you for not paying attention, and apart from a few suspenseful moments, tension at the table is often low. I honestly don’t think one way to play is necessarily worse than the other, any more than comedies are worse than suspense movies or vice versa. I’d be happy to play in either style of game – preferably both.

Mike said a lot more. I’ll try to write up the rest of my notes – including answers to questions about mapping, classes, weapons, and roleplaying in the early days – in the next post.

gaming with one of the original D&D players, part 2

Monday, January 9th, 2012
This entry is part 2 of 12 in the series D&D with Mike Mornard

Last week I played a D&D game DMed by Mike Mornard, a veteran of Gygax’s and Arneson’s gaming groups. A lot of the original assumptions of Gary’s and Dave’s game didn’t make it through the Little Brown Books into my brain, so as we played, I asked Mike a lot of questions.


At the beginning of our game, I made the mistake of asking the group, “Who wants to map?” Since I had asked first, I was elected to the position. I am a piss poor mapper, especially on non-graph paper. At the end of the game, Mike compared his map to my scrawl, and the contrast was disheartening. On the other hand, my inaccurate, twisted fun-house version of the dungeon was topographically the same as Mike’s map, in the same way that a donut is topographically identical to a coffee mug, and I had been able to accurately steer our group through the map’s twists and turns.

Mike’s map-describing style was approximately like this. “You go ten, twenty, thirty feet north, and hit a wall. You can go east and west along the wall.” He’d wait for input, like “We go east”, and then continue, “Ten, twenty feet east, and there is a ten-foot wide passageway in the north wall. The stonework here is rougher. The north passage goes straight as far as you can see.” As the party mapper, I would sometimes just say “North” or “East”. This presentation felt oddly like a text adventure: maybe Action Castle is closer to the original version of D&D than I thought.

One thing that actually made mapping easier: the fact that our light sources were important. We could only see twenty or thirty feet in any direction, which helped focus our decisions. Even in a big room with lots of details, we were only in the position to see a couple of our choices at the same time.

Mike mentioned that he went to high school with Rob Kuntz, Gary’s eventual co-DM. Rob had an eidetic memory, and when he was playing in Gygax’s dungeon, he didn’t need to map and never got lost. Sometimes he would correct Gygax. Mike did his impression of Gary crying, “Curse you, Kuntz!”

I should add that, as the mapper, I got a lot of the DM’s attention. Mapping is a big slice of the OD&D pie. This meant I was always engaged, and so was the DM, but what did the other players do while I was asking for clarifications about the length of the east wall? Probably zoning out a little – especially since cross-table chatter was frowned upon. So far I’ve only experienced OD&D as the mapper and the DM, so I’ll have to try a different role next time.

character background

Someone asked Mike, “How much character background did you do in the old days?” Mike came back with a pretty quotable line: “The cool thing about your character was what you did in the game.” Characters had backgrounds like “fighter” or, at most, “the youngest son of a landless knight”.

Mike added that DM game pitches should be short as well: the opening crawl to Star Wars is only 92 words long (Mike went on to quote the crawl from memory: I’m a big Star Wars fan but I was outclassed.) Gary Gygax pitched D&D as, “Want to try this new game called Greyhawk where you kill monsters and get treasure?”

I was also interested in this quote because, from this and other quotes about the “Greyhawk campaign”, it sounds like players thought of the game as “Greyhawk”. Imagine if D&D had been published as “Greyhawk”: just that name change would cemented the setting right in the middle of the game, and really changed how a lot of people play, I bet.

Chainmail and game development

Mike commented that Chainmail was still his favorite minis game. He said that when they introduced new players to the game, they would just give the players a few units to keep track of (battles were often played with four or five players). New players could expect to get beaten for a couple of games too.

Mike credited Chainmail’s good rules to Gary’s maxim, “I’d rather have a good rule now than a perfect one in a year.” I’d never heard this ascribed to Gary before, but it makes a lot of sense, and when we’re wondering why this D&D class requires so many XP to level up or whatever, it’s good to remember that Gary, Dave, and the other D&D contributors were coming to the table with new rules all the time: those they like stayed, even if some pieces of them were arbitrary and not fully thought-out. It didn’t make sense to kill yourself perfecting every detail while there was still so much new game-design ground to cover.

This post is getting long, and I still have a lot of game notes to get through! I’ll do one more post, and try to cover Mike’s wisdom on monsters, treasure, character classes, and combat rules.

gaming with one of the original D&D players, part 3

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012
This entry is part 3 of 12 in the series D&D with Mike Mornard

Last week, I played D&D with Mike Mornard, a member of the original Greyhawk and Blackmoor campaigns. This is the last piece of my writeup of Mike’s wisdom.


Mike cried fie on the modern-era concept of PC-leveled encounters. (I don’t remember if he actually said “fie,” but he is the sort of person who would have said “fie” if he thought of it, so I’ll let it stand.) In Greyhawk, you might encounter trolls on level 1 of the dungeon. There would be warnings: skulls and gnawed bones, and the party dwarf might notice a trollish stench. I asked, “Would there also be skulls and gnawed bones in front of the kobold lair?” meaning to ask if the danger warning signs were applied to every monster, weak and strong alike. It turned out to be a bad question: despite their lousy hit points, the badassification of kobolds started on day 1 in D&D. Gygax’s kobolds were deadly. Mike said that they collected the magic items of the characters they killed, which meant that besides their fearsome tactics, they also had a scary magical arsenal.

When Mike started DMing, lo and behold, the first monsters we fought were… kobolds! The first signs we saw of them were stones whizzing from the darkness to hit our PCs. We chased the stone-throwers into passages, around corners, and past intersections, never sure if we were on the right track. We managed to corner two kobolds, killing one and Charming the other. We tried to interrogate the kobolds, but none of us spoke kobold (we should have thought of that before we wasted our wizard’s only spell, I guess.) We gave the Charmed kobold my map and tried to pantomime for him to complete it, which I thought was pretty clever, but he filled the paper with pornographic kobold scrawls. Couldn’t have been much less helpful than my map.

We spent the entire session chasing down four more kobolds. They dropped two of us to 0 HP, and it was touch and go whether the rest of us would make it out of the dungeon. Here, again, light was an important factor: since we had torches, we were great targets for stone-throwing creatures in the darkness. Eventually, we started setting ambushes in the dark; surrounding our position with torches so that the kobolds would have to show themselves to attack; and, most importantly, planning fast. Every time we spent too much time in deliberation, another sling stone would come flying out of the darkness.

Mike later mentioned that he’d given kobolds an affinity for stones because, in Chainmail, kobolds were sort of the monster equivalent of halflings, and halflings also had bonuses with stones. Also, kobolds are traditionally mining spirits: the element cobalt is derived from the name kobold.

After the game, Mike told us that he’d run this adventure before, and we’d done better than a lot of groups, because we were fairly focused and we played with a minimum of “cross-chat”. We did a little out-of-character and in-character joking around, but less than most groups I’ve been in: both because delays tended to get us attacked, and because we were in a noisy art gallery where we had to strain to hear the DM.

That’s not to say that there was no joking among the players, and the DM wasn’t entirely serious either. In choosing the kobold mine, we passed up several adventure hooks, including one involving getting back a sacred bra or something – I wasn’t interested in that because it didn’t seem serious enough. I guess I’ve come to expect relative seriousness from the DM and silliness from the players, while Mornard-style OD&D seems to involve seriousness from the players and silliness from the DM. Mornard has said elsewhere that D&D is a “piss-take” – a send-up of the fantasy and wargames of the 60s and 70s. If that’s the case, it’s especially funny that D&D has outlived the things it was parodying. It’s as if the audiophiles of the future had to piece together the music of the 80’s and 90’s entirely from Weird Al albums.

Speaking of humor: Mike recommended the Book of Weird, a “humorous dictionary of fantasy” that he said was great reading for a DM.


When we finally found a part of the mine that was studded with gems, we grabbed the gems and ran – we didn’t care what else was in the dungeon. We ended up with 27 gems: Mike gave our fighter bonus XP for being cautious enough to pry the first one out with a ten-foot pole.

When we got back from town, Mike rolled up the values of all the gems, announcing the value of each to the party record-keeper (me, again my default). If I were the DM, I probably would have announced an average value of the gems or something: I wouldn’t have thought the players wanted to sit through a list of 27 numbers. But it’s funny: people’s attention spans get longer when it comes to profits.

The random rolling paid off for us when, among the other gems, we found a 10,000 GP-value gem. That pushed us all up to level 2. Mike commented that that’s why he likes random charts: they help tell a story that neither the DM nor the players can anticipate.

character classes

As we were making our characters, and the cleric was exclaiming over the lack of level spells, Mike told us a little bit about the evolution of the classes. A low-level OD&D cleric, he reminded us, was a capable front-line fighter – kind of an undead specialist warrior – especially in the early days of D&D, when every weapon did 1d6 damage.

One of the effects of variable weapon damage, he said, was to make weapon choice more plausible and meaningful. Before variable weapon damage, everyone was using the cheapest weapon possible – iron spikes! After variable weapon damage, fighters started using swords, which did 1d8 damage, or 1d12 against large monsters. Fighters with swords was a better mirror of history and heroic fantasy than fighters with daggers or iron spikes.

combat rules

Mike played with pretty straight OD&D rules with the Greyhawk supplement. He says that Gary’s group played with variable weapon damage, including different damage for medium and large opponents, but not the AD&D weapon speed rules.

In our game, when Mike called for initiative, each player rolled a d6 at the beginning of each round. Mike would call out: “Any sixes? Fives?” etc, so a high roll was good. I don’t know if that’s what they did in Gary’s game, but it worked for us in 2012.

Mike told us that, while he was in Dave Arneson’s game, they mostly played straight OD&D. They didn’t use the hit-location rules from the Blackmoor supplement: Mike doubts that anyone ever played with those. But who knows: “people were bringing in new rules all the time,” he reminded me, “and not everything stuck.” Mike also didn’t remember anyone using the assassin. Too bad: I’m pretty curious about how that class actually worked in play.

One last comment about Gary Gygax: When Mike joinde Gary’s game, Mike was 17 years old. “Gary was the first person who ever treated me like an adult,” he said. Not a bad legacy, even apart from the cool game.

playing D&D with Mike Mornard: it’s all about context

Friday, January 27th, 2012
This entry is part 4 of 12 in the series D&D with Mike Mornard

This is Karl Marx, not Mike Mornard. Mike's beard is shorter.

I played another game of D&D with Gygax and Arneson player Mike Mornard, who, always quotable, said, “Understanding history is all about context. When Karl Marx was writing his first essays, Germany was a feudal state. In some ways, he was closer to the 11th century German peasants than he was to us in 2011.”

I love D&D, and it’s that love that makes me, a fourth edition player, so delighted to delve into the secrets of OD&D and Dave and Gary’s campaigns. As Mike said, understanding history is all about context. There are so many charming, inexplicable mysteries in D&D, from the baffling stone head in Greyhawk to the puzzle of what the heck hit points represent. I can bring my own context to them, but I think I need to have some understanding of those first games in order to know just what the heck my D&D is about.

It’s hard to get that context just from reading the original Dungeons and Dragons books. If nine groups learned D&D from the books, they’d end up playing nine different games.

Mornard told us about an early D&D tournament game – possibly in the first Gen Con in Parkside in 1978? Gary Gygax was DMing nine tournament teams successively through the same module, and whoever got the furthest in the dungeon would win. You’d expect this to take all day, and so Mike was surprised to see Gary, looking shaken, wandering through the hallways at about 2 PM. Mike bought Gary a beer and asked him what had happened – wasn’t he supposed to be DMing right now?

“It’s over!” replied a stunned Gary Gygax.

Gary described how the first group had fared. Walking down the first staircase into the dungeon, the first rank of fighters suddenly disappeared through a black wall. There was a quiet whoosh, and a quiet thud. The players conferred, and then they sent the second rank forward, who disappeared too. The rest of the players followed.

The same thing happened to the next tournament team, and the next. Players filed into the unknown, one after another. And they were all killed. The wall was an illusion, and behind it was a pit. Eight out of the nine groups had thrown themselves like lemmings over a cliff; only one group had thought to tap around with a ten foot pole. That group passed the first obstacle, so they won the tournament.

Gary and his players couldn’t believe that the tournament players had been so incautious. But, to be fair, none of those tournament groups had played in Gary Gygax’s game. They had learned the rules of D&D, but they had no experience of the milieu in which the book was written. Of those nine groups that had learned D&D from a book, only one played sufficiently like Gary’s group to survive thirty seconds in his dungeon.

In OD&D, there’s no guarantee that things are fair. One of Gary’s and Rob Kuntz’s favorite stories, says Mornard, was Clark Ashton Smith’s The Seven Geases, in which (spoilers ahead) the hero survives a horrible death at the hands of seven different monsters only to die meaninglessly slipping from a ledge. That was one of the seminal texts of D&D, said Mornard, and one of the stories it was designed to model. “The story that D&D tells,” said Mike, “is the story of the world. Heroes aren’t invincible.”

That’s a long way from the Fourth Edition ethos. In 4e, it takes a long time to make a character, and so you’re invested in him before he’s downed his first kobold. If your 4e character is killed, you can be sure he’ll get a chance to put up a good fight first.

Not in 0e. Characters died all the time. That’s why Gary Gygax’s characters got names like Xagyg the wizard and Yrag the fighter, and other players contributed Melf the Elf, or (if I remember Mike’s anecdote correctly) Bellus of Telefono. It was the sixties and seventies. Life was cheap, and heroes died.

That’s all scary stuff to hear from your DM right before he runs your thief through a dungeon.

Next blog post: My thief explores one of the classic D&D dungeons.

playing D&D with mike mornard: henchmen and hirelings

Monday, January 30th, 2012
This entry is part 5 of 12 in the series D&D with Mike Mornard

When a spider dropped on my loyal teamster, Pedro, I was on the other side of my mule and too far away to rush to his aid. But, hey, at least the spider hadn’t dropped on me. That seems to be the main reason why people have hirelings and henchmen, and mules for that matter. They provide tasty alternatives for hungry spiders.

I started this D&D session wealthy. The last time I had played with Mike Mornard, we had found a giant cache of gems, and my thief, Roger de Coverley, had earned enough gold and XP to level up almost to level 3. In this game session, I was joined by all-new level 1 PCs, with 30-180 GP each. Some of them were smart enough to suck up to me. I sprang for new suits of armor for the fighting men played by Andrew and Tavis, each of whom swore fealty to me and wore one of my garters as a favor.

I also decided that I should get into the spirit of OD&D and get a few NPC hirelings. It ended up costing less than 100 GP to get a level 0 man at arms named Baldric, a teamster named Pedro, and a mule. The mule’s main job was to carry the rest of my wealth (which, at 1/10# per GP, weighed more than 300 pounds).

I never ordered my man at arms, Baldric, to do much, and he never volunteered to jump into combat. The mule was more useful. I used him several times as a shield, or skulked behind him when I was in danger. Pedro the teamster was in the thick of things. He was the first target of the first spider who attacked us.

One of the other PCs recognized our dungeon as the sample dungeon from the 1e DMG, which has a few filled-out rooms and a bunch of uncharted areas for the DM to fill in himself. I don’t know if Mike was winging it or if he was using a premade adventure key, but we quickly fought our way through the initial spider attack, survived an ambush by giant camel spiders, avoided the deadly save-or-die yellow mold spores on the grain sacks, and made it into unfamiliar territory. Terrifying unfamiliar territory.

Tavis at The Mule Abides describes our antics pretty fully, but I’d like to spend some time on my first interaction with henchmen and hirelings.

First of all, Charm Person is a pretty cool spell, as it unlocks a new sort of pokémon-collecting henchmen acquisition system at level 1. You might not get a castle and followers until level 10 or so, but you can, like Mike’s level 1 magic-user Lessnard in Gygax’s game, pick up a fifth-level fighting man as a bodyguard if he happens to fail his saving throw. In OD&D, Charm Person can be long-lasting or permanent, but Mike emphasized that it didn’t do more than the name implied: it made someone your buddy, not your slave. If you didn’t treat your new friend fairly, they might not be your willing ally forever.

playing D&D with Mike Mornard: how did this get in the manual

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012
This entry is part 6 of 12 in the series D&D with Mike Mornard

When I last gamed with Mike Mornard, I also him a few miscellaneous questions about OD&D: largely about where various game elements came from. Here are his equally miscellaneous answers:

  • Mike is thanked prominently on the Greyhawk supplement. What were his contributions? Mike and Rob Kuntz were big proponents of variable weapon damage, so that every weapon doesn’t do 1d6 damage. (They weren’t involved, though, in the change in PC hit dice from 1d6). Mike also suggested the acid-spitting giant slug, which is cribbed from a Conan story.
  • When we were splitting our loot, which included a +1 shield and a couple of hundred gold, Mike said, “The process we often used for splitting treasure was this: everyone rolls percentile dice. The highest roller earns first choice of treasure.” This actually reminded me of the Need or Greed loot-rolling system which was reinvented for World of Warcraft.
  • The early books suggest that campaigns might have 50 people in the same world, but they wouldn’t all show up on the same night. Different groups would play on different nights. The cleric at our table was played by Alex of Bad Wrong Fun, who is setting up a similarly ambitious campaign in New York today.
  • Mike had a couple of tactical tips, which reminded me of this fact: OD&D “marching order” suggests that D&D parties march in formation, not the free-wheeling skirmish squads I’m used to from 3e/4e battlemats. OD&D parties march in squares, and it matters what rank you’re in. The second rank of fighters can use spears or other polearms. Handaxes are useful because you can use them in melee, but also throw them if the monsters are threatening a different part of your formation.
  • Also, said Mike, the OD&D thief is not a “rogue”, or lightly-armored damage specialist. As a thief, I was better off staying in the middle of the formation, or lurking in the shadows, and not gallivanting around the battlefield looking for opportunities to backstab. A thief could backstab in a pinch, but it wasn’t his bread and butter.
  • Finally, Mike says he doesn’t know why Gary didn’t record this fact in a book somewhere: when he modified the combat system he got from Dave, he was consciously imitating the battle in the Errol Flynn Robin Hood movie. A movie hero never goes down early with a lucky critical, but low-level guys can be dropped with one hit.

    Watch the fight on youtube!

    It strikes me that the designers of 4e recognized this goal and made it explicit with their rules for minions and boss monsters.

  • playing D&D with mike mornard: player skill

    Wednesday, February 15th, 2012
    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.

    Playing D&D with Mike Mornard: D&D as a loving pastiche

    Friday, March 9th, 2012
    This entry is part 8 of 12 in the series D&D with Mike Mornard

    During last night’s D&D game, DMed by original Greyhawk player Mike Mornard, we talked about a story I’d recently heard on an old episode of RadioLab, about a composer named Jonathan Cope. Cope wrote a computer program that could analyze the works of a classical composer – their musical intervals, chord progressions, and other patterns – and instantly generate new music in the same style: pastiche Bach, or pastiche Mozart. To my untrained ear, some of the music sounded pretty plausible. One faux-Beethoven piece sounded a lot like an alternate-history version of the Moonlight Sonata. (As Mornard noted when I told him the anecdote, Bach would be especially easy to analyze, since he was consciously playing number games in his music.) Other composers resist the idea of Cope’s computer-generated music, but Cope, I think, was acting on a respectful, loving desire to have more of the music he loved. I think that’s what gaming, fan fiction, and other forms of fandom are all about, at some level: the desire to understand the rules of the world you love, so that, for a little while, you can live there.

    During our D&D game, we also talked about something seemingly unrelated: the upcoming John Carter movie. I’ve been a huge fan of Edgar Rice Burrough’s Martian books since I was a little kid, and I waver between a hesitant optimism and a fear that Hollywood’s Mars won’t live up to twenty-five years of memories. That’s a look into the soul of a pessimistic fan, the kind who just isn’t prepared to be happy.

    Mike has a different attitude. “If I can see some Tharks tearing it up, I’ll be happy,” he says. That’s a look into the soul of a happy fan.

    The Martian books are very influential on D&D and TSR, Mike reminded me. The original D&D books are rich with Martian references. The wandering monster tables contain references to the following monsters, all natives of Burroughs’ Barsoom: Thark, Thoat, Calot, White Ape, Orluk, Sith, Darseen, Apt, Banth, Red Martian, Black Martian, White Martian, and Yellow Martian.

    in search of the unknown

    Friday, May 4th, 2012
    This entry is part 9 of 12 in the series D&D with Mike Mornard

    I’ve heard a lot of references to the 1981 module “In Search of the Unknown:” it came with the first edition of Basic D&D, and a lot of people have fond memories of it. I’ve never read it. When I got a heavy box of D&D books in the mail, it was the first module I grabbed.

    I’ve been on a search of my own lately, exploring the D&D I missed before I entered the hobby. As a kid, I played in bizarre junior high versions of Red Box Basic and AD&D, and as an adult I’ve mostly played third and fourth edition. It’s been fun playing OD&D: I’m slowly getting a handle on a different style of D&D than one I’ve ever played.

    I was delighted to find Mike Carr’s lengthy “how to play D&D” essay at the beginning of the module. It’s pretty similar to advice in the OD&D and Dungeon Master’s Guide books, but since I’ve never read it before, it’s fresh. I have two other fresh experiences with which to compare the advice: my OD&D games with Mike Mornard and my extremely close study of Gary Gygax’s Random Dungeon Generation tables from the Dungeon Master’s Guide. There are a lot of parallels to draw here.


    Here’s what Mike Carr says about the dungeon in In Search of the Unknown:

    The dungeon is designed to be instructive for new players. Most of it should be relatively easy to map, although there are difficult sections – especially on the lower level where irregular rock caverns and passageways will provide a real challenge.

    I didn’t realize until Mike Mornard spelled it out for us that mapping was intended to be one of the big challenges of D&D. The labyrinth is as dangerous as the minotaur. In Search of the Unknown is explicitly teaching mapping skills. The assumption is that more advanced modules will be bigger mapping challenges.

    It is quite possible that adventurers (especially if wounded or reduced in number) may want to pull out of the stronghold and prepare for a return visit when refreshed or reinforced. If this is done, they must work their way to an exit.

    When we play in Mike Mornard’s D&D game, he makes us use our maps. We can’t say “We leave the dungeon.” Every time, we have to specify our twists and turns back to the entrance. This still feels foreign to me. I think I’ve quoted Baf of The Stack before: a game is about what you spend your time doing. OD&D is a game about mapping. Exploration takes more game time than combat. Coming from 3e and 4e, I feel like I’ve been playing a different game.

    I love the 1e Player’s Handbook illustration of the troll re-winding the twine trailed by the fighter. (I referenced it in my poster.) Mornard related this story: Once in Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor game, some guys decided to leave string behind them instead of mapping. Eventually, the rope jerked out of their hands and started unrolling, and then they heard a slurping, like someone eating spaghetti. Mapping is a necessary skill: don’t try cheat your way out of it.


    One player in the group should be designated as the leader, or “caller” for the party… once the caller (or any player) speaks and indicates an action is being taken, it is begun – even if the player quickly changes his or her mind (especially if the player realizes he or she has made a mistake or error in judgment).

    Before playing in Mike Mornard’s game, my eye would have skipped over this classic bit of old-school advice as irrelevant to me. Now I’ve seen it in action:

    DM: There are passages north and west.
    US: We go south.
    DM: Bump… bump… you bump into the wall.

    More ridiculously, I recently had my thief start down the magic staircase into the chamber of Necross the Mad, even though I knew that the stairway hadn’t been summoned yet. A merciful DM would have reminded me of that fact – what adventurer would step off a ledge? – but Mike Mornard took me at my word, and I fell. Mike only gave me one point of damage, where perhaps Gary Gygax or Dave Arneson would have assigned more.

    Mike says that his game is pretty close to the Gary and Dave game in rules and in content, but where their influences ran more to swords and sorcery, Mike brings more Warner Brothers to the table. There is a lot of laughing in Mike’s game, where Gary and Dave’s were grimmer. But in all three games – and in Mike Carr’s game as well – you need to listen to the DM, and visualize what you hear – and think. As Mike Carr’s introduction says elsewhere, “Careless adventurers will pay the penalty for a lack of caution – only one of the many lessons to be learned within the dungeon!”


    Every third turn of adventuring, the DM should take a die roll for the possible appearance of wandering monsters at the indicated chances (which are normally 1 in 6)… Some occurrences (such as noise and commotion caused by adventurers) may necessitate additional checks… Wasted time is also a factor which should be noted, as players may waste time arguing or needlessly discussing unimportant matters or by simply blundering around aimlessly. … You set the tempo of the game and are responsible for keeping it moving. If players are unusually slow… allow additional chances for wandering monsters to appear.

    This passage will feel very familiar to the players in Mike Mornard’s game. We’ve all grown to fear the d6, which comes rolling out at us whenever we’re “needlessly discussing unimportant matters or simply blundering around aimlessly” – which is often. Wandering monsters disappeared from 4e (and from many 3e games) because they slowed down the game pointlessly. What Mike Carr is suggesting here, and what we’ve learned from Mike Mornard, is that wandering monster checks are actually a way to preserve pacing. Once you’re in the dungeon, you can’t afford to get bogged down in bickering over minutiae. How I wish that work meetings came with wandering monster checks.

    mysterious containers

    The dungeon includes a good assortment of typical features which players can learn to expect, including… mysterious containers with a variety of contents for examination.

    The typical D&D treasure announcement isn’t “You find 1000 GP in a chest:” it’s “You find an old wooden chest. What do you do?” Containers are important. The Appendix A random generator has three separate tables for rolling up characteristics of treasure containers. Here are a couple of the ones I’ve encountered in OD&D:

    Contact poison on trap: One of the cardinal OD&D rules is “check the chest for traps.” As the party thief, I make sure to incant this formula. I think that the Greyhawk supplement has rules for finding traps, and I imagine that my odds of success are quite low, but in the last game, Mike told me, without requiring a roll, that the lock was covered with a brownish paste. Good enough warning for me to wear gloves. This transforms a 50/50 chance at arbitrary death into a game element that rewards a methodical, cautious play-style: quite in keeping with the mysterious OD&D “player skill.”

    We considered taking the chest with us so we could brush it against opponents, but Mike’s beatific expression – that of a DM who’s thought of flaws in PCs’ plans – warned us to leave it where it was.

    Invisible chests: Invisible chests are are oddly common in dungeons made with the Appendix A random generator – and hard to illustrate. They always seemed to me oddly pointless. Why include a treasure you can’t possibly find?

    In our case, we passed the invisible chest on the way into a room, but tripped over it on the way out. I can imagine it working like OD&D’s 3 in 6 chance to fall in a pit: there are rewards, as well as dangers, you might never know you passed.

    Our invisible chest contained 1000 or so gold, but we were all struck by the advantages of owning our own invisible chest. My character in particular, who frequently leaves his bandit hirelings unsupervised at home, has every need of a way to hide his treasure.

    There’s probably a lot more of interest in In Search of the Unknown, but I’ll leave the rest unread – just in case I can get someone to run it for me. After all (says Mike Carr,) “this element of the unknown and the resultant exploration in search of the unknown treasures (with hostile monsters and unexpected dangers to outwit and overcome) is precisely what a DUNGEONS & DRAGONS adventure is all about.”

    art by gygax and arneson

    Monday, June 25th, 2012
    This entry is part 10 of 12 in the series D&D with Mike Mornard

    (Today I’m talking about the art of OD&D, so this post is NSFW inasmuch as you think the OD&D art is NSFW.)

    During a D&D game with Mike Mornard, we got to talking about the art in the original Little Brown Books and the Greyhawk supplement.

    Greg Bell is listed as one of the illustrators in the original books. You can recognize Greg Bell pics by the blocky outlines.

    It seems that Greg copied the compositions of a lot of his pieces from comics of the time: for instance, I bet this picture started its life as a Conan the Barbarian splash page.

    But hey – Greg was a teenager drawing pictures for a friend’s semi-amateur zine. I don’t think we need to hold him to super high standards here.

    Mike Mornard says that, at the time, he hated Greg Bell’s pictures and asked Gary why he was using so many of the illustrations. “Because Greg works for $2 a picture,” said Gary.

    Mike disliked the Bell artwork so much that he went off and recruited an artist who, he believed, could do better: David Sutherland. Mike met David at a Society for Creative Anachronism meeting, saw his drawings, and told him to get in touch with Gary Gygax.

    Sutherland’s art, of course, became a staple of early TSR work. He drew the adventurers that inspired my dungeon map poster. He also drew a lot of naked ladies. Here are two David Sutherland succubi.

    Mornard told us that the body of one of these original succubi was copied from a Playboy centerfold. If I were truly dedicated to D&D history, I would no doubt look through early 70s centerfolds to find the original. I will leave that research project up for grabs.

    Speaking of nudity, there were a lot of naked-lady monsters in Oe and 1e. They’re often recalled fondly (and only barely creepily) by guys I know who played D&D as kids. A lot of these pieces are by Darlene. Here’s Darlene’s succubus, this time in a sort of Baroque odalisque pose instead of a Playboy pose:

    Mike Mornard mentioned that another of the naked-lady pieces from the original book was by a female artist, and that it arrived unsolicited in the mail:

    It’s interesting that more than half of the nude women of OD&D are by female artists. I have no conclusions I can draw from this, except that it seems that the indie geek scene of the 70s is different from the one I’m familiar with.

    Another artist whose OD&D work has always fascinated me is Keenan Powell:

    Keenan Powell’s amateur, almost outsider-art pictures set the tone, for me, for the OD&D aesthetic. The whole book gives the feeling of being illustrated by gamers who draw pictures, not by artists who play games.

    Is Keenan Powell (who’s also a female artist, apparently) the same person who drew the Beautiful Witch and Amazon? I can’t read the signature on the witch illustration.

    While we were on the subject of OD&D art, I asked Mike something which had puzzled me for a long time. “Who drew that stone head in the Greyhawk book? And what was that about?”

    “I think that was by Gary,” said Mike. And he didn’t know what it was about: it wasn’t one of the things he encountered on his trips through the Greyhawk dungeon. As far as Mike knew, the Enigmatic Stone Head might have been something that Rob Kuntz discovered on one of his solo dungeon escavations.

    Furthermore, Mike told us, the Carrion Crawler picture from Greyhawk was by Dave Arneson.

    Without hearing it from Mike, I would never have known that these pictures, by the inventors of the game, weren’t by the same hand. I might have attributed them to Keenan Powell. I find it somehow touching that these guys, out of their exubrance and their love of the game (and maybe in an effort to save $2) were inspired to draw and share these pictures.

    I’m not a professional artist. When I draw a picture and put it up on the Internet, I sometimes feel like it’s an act of hubris. Maybe it is, but it’s also an act of faith that the world will cut me a break and accept what I can offer. I think that all of these OD&D artists need to be approached on those terms.