The Seven-Sided Die

Actual Play: AD&D 1st Edition

Posted Tuesday July 22, 2008 at 04:20 PM

Last Sunday I had Rheall over for a solo game. Having recently acquired a nearly-complete set of 1st ed AD&D books, and knowing that it's simple (and familiar) to run and create characters for, I proposed running that. It wasn't a long session (three and a half hours, one and a half of that for character creation), but it was a great session and one that taught me a lot of things I'd forgotten about how to enjoy roleplaying.

Rolling up a druid, setting out on a mission, and a solution to the Encumbrance Problem

Rolling up a character took longer than I expected, mostly due to unfamiliarity with the race and class choices available. We ended up with Darondar, a 1st-level Druid of the Great Forest, with a whole 2 hit points. Clearly, combat was not going to be a desirable event.

Darondar was sent by his superiors to perform the harvest rites for the farming community of Sandell, located north-west of the Sacred Grove, on the road that passes between the Great Forest and the Lochamar Forest (aka The Crowwood, for its many blackbirds). The trip was expected to be a three-day walk and Darondar prepared well, carrying about 4-½ stone of gear.

Oh yes, encumbrance, that awful time-waster that has given so many D&D players such headaches. I'm using a suggestion from Delta's D&D Hotspot (actually the revised version in Delta's AD&D houserules, but that's a DOC file) and using stone (about 14 pounds) as a weight measure. A suit of leather armour is 1 stone, a bow and a quiver of arrows is together 1 stone, a sword is ½ stone, and smaller stuff like torches are only counted if carried in quantity. At 4-½ stone (more than the 3 stone limit for no encumbrance, not more than 6 stone limit for light encumbrance) Darondar is moving at 3/4 full movement. The numbers are small, easy to assign to things, and quick enough to compute that it was the quickest part of character creation! If you've ever faithfully tracked encumbrance in (A)D&D, you'll understand how incredible that is. Yeah, I'm happy with this system.

First events, and infravision is awesome.

Moving on, around evening Darondar finds a number of boot prints in the muddy bank of a stream, and a poorly-dug firepit that by all rights should have started a forest fire. The dim-witted birds flitting about aren't going to be much help, but as night falls a chance encounter with an owl gives Darondar the chance to ask about the booted intruders. Turns out they're also heading north-west, according to the owl. Darondar makes camp under the ground-sweeping branches of a fir, and is cozy and dry when it starts to rain later that night.

There's an interesting point about the system in that last scene. In 1e, only rangers can track. Having experience mostly with 3e and 4e in which footprints usually mean a skill check to track them, Rheall defaulted to solving the question of where the boots' owners went by looking for more tracks. Playing a 1e druid, this just didn't work. The druidic solution, to gather information from the forest itself, quickly worked though. In some ways these rule features seem very confining, but the very same rules do promote distinctions in how characters of different classes (and alignments, but more on that in a minute) work within and interact with the fiction. I like this effect, but I can't help chafing at the limits that make it happen. I'll have to run 1e more to see if I can reconcile that.

Tucked under the tree, a noise wakes Darondar around midnight. It's dark as pitch, but Darondar is a half-elf and so can see into the infra-red. This was interesting because, in 3e and later, infravision was removed from D&D. Being able to see in low light (what half-elves got instead) was never of much interest or impact, I found. Certainly, it didn't have the imaginary impact that seeing the body heat of creatures did. Rheall didn't even know about this ability of her character until I pointed it out. As an old-time player and GM, that was odd to me because it was always such an iconic ability of demi-humans. Her being exposed only to 3e and 4e meant that what I considered a pivotal part of a half-elf's relationship to his surroundings wasn't even on her radar.

Kobolds in the night, and a surprise alliance. Saying Yes is more fun than saying No.

So it turns out that it's a group of four kobolds. I didn't plan this encounter at all, I just rolled for wandering monsters and then rolled on a table for temperate forests to find out what sort of monster had come near. I set the number of kobolds arbitrarily at four. What are they doing in the forest at midnight? Bedding down for the night in the bushes, I figured. Rheall suggested a weeping birch for them to be sleeping under, which I thought was a great detail. With his mere 2 hp and (me rolling for surprise behind a screen) having noticed but not been noticed by the kobolds, the druid opts to wait for them to finish bedding down. When they do, out comes entangle to hold them fast. I completely forgot to roll saving throws for them, but in retrospect I think that it was a perfect place for me to Say Yes instead of Rolling Dice. What happened next only could have happened because they weren't busy killing each other, and I'm glad that I didn't force combat out of GMing habit.

With the kobolds at his mercy and hanging upside-down in the branches of the weeping birch, the first thing that Rheall has Darondar do is ask them who they are and what they're doing. Very in line with the druid's role as the guardian of the forest, and the Neutral alignment of druids, and yet it took me by surprise. I'm just not used to PCs parleying anymore, so there's another lesson I re-learned thanks to a new system and a new-ish player. Not sure what to do with the parley, I figure that leaning on the randomness of the 1e rules has worked well so far... a roll on the encounter reaction table gave me the highest result possible, Friendly and Helpful, but I adjusted it down to just Friendly because the kobolds were just (non-lethally) attacked in their sleep. What the heck do I do with friendly kobolds tied up in a tree? I let Rheall lead.

It's beautiful when players take the game in unexpected and interesting directions. Rheall wanted to know what they're doing, and I was ad-libbing. I figure, let's tie it into the tracks, so they say they're following the "biggers". Why? Um... because they stole our tribe's most sacred totem, and the shaman sent us to get it back! Darondar, also wanting to find these "biggers", offers to help in exchange for a truce and following his orders. The kobolds (and here I checked their alignment of Lawful Evil) are cagey, and counter that if Darondar is helping them, he's not giving the orders. It's a bit tense, and Darondar accepts this modified deal. The Lawful kobolds are good on their word, but (being Evil) are ready to exploit any perception that the druid is reneging on the deal or trying to order them. I'd forgotten how useful the ninefold alignment system was. Darondar arranges to meet them a half-hour after dawn and leaves, covering his trail, to get some more sleep.

So I had a druid and four kobolds, heading toward a farming settlement and following the trail of totem-stealing orcs. We were a single encounter into the game and already awesome and unexpected things were happening! Did I mention that I'd had no adventure, map, or plans at all until Rheall had decided on a druid?

More wandering monster–table goodness. Saving a griffon and not letting the kobolds eat it. AD&D is ironically rules-light for non-combat.

When I rolled that wandering monster, I'd also rolled an encounter for the morning. Rolling for a specific monster gave me a griffon. Fuck, those things have 7 hit dice! Okay... well, not every wandering monster is a combat encounter, so I don't reroll. The unlikely quintet hears struggles and eagle-like cries, quickly sourced to a maple tree. The griffon is suspended 40 feet up in vines with blood-sucking thorns, which are growing up the maple and hanging from its branches.

Rheall drew a blank on what to do about this, which turned out to be in part because she'd assumed her character couldn't climb the tree. The difference between 1e and 3e/4e struck me here again. The elaborate skill system of later editions really shapes players' ideas of how to approach challenges in the fiction. In 1e it's just assumed that you can do common things and anything that would be normal for your class and race. In 3e/4e, the Climb skill is used by everyone to climb anything steeper than stairs. In 1e the only climbing skill is the exclusive domain of Thieves, but it's only for extraordinary feats "that would normally be impossible", such as scaling sheer walls or clinging to ceilings. (Yeah, a 1e 1st-level thief has an 80% to cling to the ceiling. Sweetness.) I figured a half-elf, and a druid to boot, would be able to climb a good sturdy maple. I say Yes, and we get on with having fun.

Darondar gets up on a level with the griffon, and it's struggling and bleeding and eyeing him with the resignation that comes from knowing your death is near. He climbs up another ten feet and hacks at the vines where they drape over the maple branches. Out of habit I call for a to-hit roll, and Rheall gets a natural 20! I thought that was very auspicious for the first roll of a new campaign. So whack goes the scimitar and the vines fall. A few more rolls and the vines that still hold the griffon break under the weight. The griffon plummets to the ground at the feet of the whooping kobolds who have decided that this is breakfast. Conflict!

AD&D doesn't have any rules for non-combat conflict. As a GM I'd decided that the kobolds are hungry and opportunistic. It's also a great chance to explore the strain on the armistice between the druid and the kobolds. There's some tense moments as the kobolds remind Darondar that the agreement was for him to aid them. Actually, I don't quite remember how it worked out, but the kobolds did back down. Darondar approaches the wounded beast, who is too exhausted to do more than squawk a bit and stare with a dinner plate–sized eye at the half-elf. Darondar has no magical healing to offer, and there's no single significant wound to be treated, but the gesture is made and the griffon permits the proximity. The party leaves the creature lying in the forest. I figured nature will take its course one way or the other, which is appropriate for a druid-centric game. It was a good scene.

Dénouement and musings

And that's where we finished up. I briefly noted that they stopped at midday, since that's a nice neutral place to park the game. Two encounters, three if the boot prints are counted, and no combat at all. We had a blast, and we're keen to keep playing.

I was particularly pleased with how interesting play emerged from creatively interpreting a few mechanics (i.e., wandering monsters) and relying on the fiction for the resolution of non-combat actions. AD&D 1e relies on adjudication of actions on-the-fly based on the fiction, which is opposed to later editions that appeals to the fiction to establish how to handle such actions from the outset. That is, in 1e you look to the fiction (a character's class, race, and background) to decide what makes sense at the time, while in later editions the fiction is written up as a set of skills that it makes sense for the character to have. The skills system of 3e, and especially 4e, are vast mechanical improvements on Nonweapon Proficiencies, but it does have some undesirable effects on player expectations and unnecessarily mechanises parts of the game that are more fun roleplayed without mechanical resolution. (For me, at least; I know everyone enjoys different aspects of the game.)

Earlier this year Mike Mearls (designer of the 4e Monster Manual, among other things; also at ) wrote about the difference between old-school and new D&D after running some white-box original D&D. In particular, he noted that "The players reacted more by thinking 'What's the logical thing for an adventurer to do?' rather than 'What's the logical thing to do according to the rules?'" As a GM and roleplayer I get a lot of enjoyment from engaging with the fiction (which is apparently called kenosis), so how 1st edition AD&D promotes thinking in terms of what makes sense for the character to do is a huge part of its growing appeal for me.

Comments (1)

Tony Diana

Thursday May 23, 2013 at 04:50 PM

Great read. I play 1ed AD&D and love it a great deal. The way as a DM you can craft a story over several modules and not have to worry about constant combat is what I like. The imagination of the tale.