Blog Archives

stories from Mike Mornard’s game table

Monday, July 2nd, 2012
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.

dnd with mike mornard: next level

Monday, July 23rd, 2012
This entry is part 12 of 12 in the series D&D with Mike Mornard

With my DM Mike Mornard moving from New York (he finished school and got a job! congratulations!) my OD&D game will end. I’ve enjoyed the high-mortality dungeoncrawl during the six months or so I had Mike as my DM. It’s been a great complement to my 4e game.

We got together for one last OD&D game: we all met up in the afternoon and played till 1 AM, ordering pizza at the game table. It felt like an archetypical game session to me, and Mike compared it to the games he used to play when he DMed for Phil Barker. Those games, which also typically wrapped up around 1 AM, were played at a time when the iron of D&D was still white hot off the forge. Sparks kindled. As Mike told us, “Whenever we introduced someone to D&D, they’d come back in a week or two with a dungeon they wanted to run.” Phil Barker, of course, came back to Mike’s group, after considerably more than two weeks, with Empire of the Petal Throne.

our dungeon map

One of the reasons we played so late (on a work night!) was that we wanted to finish our maps of level 1 of the dungeon. Tavis Allison and I were both mapping (his maps look nicer than mine do), and we both wanted to fill in the last dead-end corridors to complete the unbroken line bounding the borders of the dungeon. Like summoning circles, dungeon maps with gaps in the borders can be very dangerous.

I’d like to give you a scan of the map, but I can’t find it at the moment. Anyway, it’s not necessary. If you saw it, you’d recognize it, in its general outlines, as the sample dungeon in the 1e Dungeon Master’s Guide, as it would appear if it were mapped by a somewhat inexpert cartographer.

In session 1, a player realized that we were in the 1e dungeon. During the campaign, I made sure not to look at that dungeon: I wanted no refreshers about dungeon layout or contents.

As it turns out, it wouldn’t have mattered much. There are only a handful of encounters in the DMG, and Mike changed several of them anyway. In the large central chamber, instead of a puzzle leading to a secret door, Mike put one of his NPC characters, Necross the Mad. Every interaction with Necross was a negotiation, where we traded something (usually not treasure) for passage through the room. By the end of the campaign, we were quite chummy with Necross, despite the fact that he claimed to have plans to destroy the universe.

Actually, come to think of it, we didn’t map ALL of level one. Somewhere in the dungeon, we Charmed an evil cleric. He complained endlessly about how his superiors didn’t appreciate him (ah, the banality of evil). Between complaints, he warned us of a troll nest to the north. Later, when our dwarven fighter announced that he smelled a terrible trollish stench, we turned around. Sure, we wanted to complete our map, but low-level OD&D characters don’t become high-level by being stupid.

arise sir roger

My thief character, Roger de Coverley, was named, somewhat randomly, after an 18th century dance, the Sir Roger de Coverley, that appears in a lot of old novels. Having given my character this name, I decided that his destiny was to be knighted and then to invent the dance. Most of my character’s decisions were made with my knightly ambitions in mind. Figuring that every knight needed property and followers, I tried to gather money, hire troops, and have other PCs swear fealty to me.

The gathering-money goal turned out to directly conflict with the gain-followers goal. In my attempt to keep everyone alive, I bought plate mail for everyone I hired. Furthermore, when NPCs died (and they died a lot, even with the plate mail), we felt duty-bound to get them Resurrected. It wasn’t good business to spend thousands of GP to resurrect a guy who earned a gold piece a day, but it kept the NPCs happy. In Mike’s game, it’s hard to keep NPC hirelings happy. (As he says, “Loyalty is a luxury the poor cannot afford.”) Our health care plan seemed to do the trick. It left me poor, though. By our last few sessions, we were starting each adventure trying to raise money to resurrect a dead henchman. In the dungeon, we’d raise the money we needed – but lose another henchman along the way. It was like a resurrection Ponzi scheme.

Besides Necross the Mad, the other main NPC of Mike’s campaign was Lord Gronan. The dungeon was below his throne room: apparently he used the dungeon as a sort of Darwinian training ground for high-level heroes. When, at level 1, I offered to join his service as a knight, he told me, “Perhaps one day, if you prove yourself.”

Before our last trek into the dungeon, a level-five Roger de Coverley was summoned to Lord Gronan’s audience chamber. “I’ve watched you over the last months,” he said. “You have displayed the knightly virtues: you’ve been honest and you have guarded and served your followers. Too few remember that knighthood is about service.” Lord Gronan asked for Roger’s oath of fealty and dubbed him knight.

No sooner had Roger reached the summit of his ambitions than a new hireling joined the party: a female thief, a gold-digger who had clear designs on becoming Lady de Coverley. With Roger’s 7 Wisdom, I don’t expect he’ll be able to escape her toils.

off the edge of the map

The last time we passed through the dungeon, I told that unpredictable dungeon denizen, Necross the Mad, “It has been an honor and a pleasure exploring your dungeon.” I could have said that to Lord Gronan as well, since he sent us into the dungeon in the first place. And I could have told it to DM Mike Mornard as well. It’s true in all three cases.

Our characters have survived the dungeon. We’ve finished the map (except for the troll den). Mike is off to re-explore the Midwest; Ben (the dwarf fighter) got a job in Virginia; Tavis (the pyromaniac fighter) will return with new OD&D tricks to his Red Box game; and, in our weekly new-school game, Andrew (the wizard) and I will explore the wilds of 5e. Time to start a new sheet of graph paper.