Dungeons and Dragons eludes complete understanding. Secrets of Blackmoor offers one step on your way to enlightenment.
Despite re-reading the 239 pages of the 1st Edition Dungeon Masters Guide as a kid, the game remained inscrutable. Despite this, I recall my first encounter with the game as effortlessly joyful. Though it was easy to catch on to the varied and vigorous opinions about proper play in The Dragon magazine, some force drove me onward, compelling me to re-read pages. Somehow, I aimed to solve the disconnect between the game as played by my friends versus the outlandish ideas in the books.
The written word, however erudite or evocative, can only suggest the experience of artwork. It cannot reproduce the feeling of gazing meditatively at The Starry Night. I thought if I could just decipher the jumble of thoughts in the rule books, I’d reach some nirvana of RPG mastery. Eventually I concluded, playing is a craft you learn by doing, hopefully with the guiding hand of a master, in the same way you learn to build a fence with your dad.
I have read Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World. It’s deep. It’s essential. And it illuminates a thousand other paths to explore. I’ve read Jeffro Johnson’s APPENDIX N: The Literary History of Dungeons & Dragons. It inspires, offering additional twisting trails to follow. Two aspects of Secrets of Blackmoor make it uniquely compelling: the focus on Dave Arneson and the experience of first hand accounts.
The confident voice of Gary Gygax echoes across the years. Though sharing equal billing with Arneson on the original little brown books, the misconception that the D&D was his invention is easy to understand. By the time AD&D arrived, it was the Gygax name alone on the front cover. By the end of the 1980s, it’s as if he gave birth to the genre and all other games descended from his wisdom. Fortunately, historians are uncovering the complete story.
The more we learn from the originators, the better our play today. I am completely happy to spend weeks pouring over 720 pages of thick, comprehensive history. At the same time, I’m grateful for a 2 hour documentary I can share with my sons. It offers a concentrated impact to receive the legends related by the heroes themselves. It communicates an infectious passion for the hobby.
As this film is labeled as the first volume, I do look forward to a continuation of the series. The more we all enjoy this work, the more it will encourage and enable the creation of additional volumes in the series. As I write this, physical copies are still available from the Secrets of Blackmoor store. You can also stream the film from Vimeo or Amazon.
From the beginning, my aim was to replicate the Swords & Sorcery experience as portrayed in the literature of Appendix N of the 1E DMG. I recommend Jeffro Johnson’s passionate writing on the topic as the most compelling argument for enjoying more of this genre. Furthermore, I aimed to expose my sons and the children of my friends to the wonder of D&D in the way it was originally conceived.
I knew most of my players experienced the genre secondhand at best. As a kid growing up in the 70s and 80s, I read little of the masters, and I count it as a blessing to enjoy many of these works for the first time as an adult. I wanted my sons to think of Gygax ahead of Skyrim, Anderson before Halo. We enjoy these modern works even more when we acknowledge from whence they came.
I also considered how the kids experienced infinite lives in the video games they play. I saw them using Minecraft creative mode often, hardcore mode never. We adults had some expectation that the low survivability of 1st level characters might prove traumatic to 9-year-olds. Despite the sheading of a few tears early on, the kids mostly took our coaching: roll up another guy and jump back in.
As in life generally, my approach is non-coercive. I never threatened my sons with spankings. I never threaten my players with a trip down a plot railroad. I tend towards an economic mindset where the system itself offers incentives and disincentives. If it’s gold you want, as a player you are advised to sneak it out of the dungeon when you can and avoid fights.
Being efficacious in the game world is the primary value. That is, being able to make the changes you want with relatively low effort. It’s hard building a castle when you’re 1st level, so you go out adventuring. Experience points (XP) are the currency traded in for the power to make a difference. I leverage that when adding rules so that I get a system that produces the experiences I estimate will be most enjoyable.
This was the direction from where I came as I built house rules recently to encourage more genre-compatible play. I noticed our primary party, Tienarth’s Raiders, were all playing against the stereotypes. The beefy dwarf fighter runs away if his hit points get low or he’s afraid his backpack will get wet. The ancient elf mage sometimes jumps into melee even though his AC is bad and he can only do 1 or 2 damage with his 4 strength. The thief refuses to steal or otherwise behave dishonestly.
I don’t want to dictate proper play. Occasional atypical behavior is one of the best spices in the hearty stew of roleplaying. I love that we have a name for the feeble dagger attacks from the mage: The Tienarth Tickle. I do want it to be unusual and a considered choice from the player.
I started by reading through the descriptions of races and classes in all editions through 2E: OD&D, Holmes, Moldvay, Mentzer, 1E. I also looked at splat books and what’s in Basic Fantasy. It was not surprised to find the earliest work to be sparse and the later work to be quite generic. I found enough concepts from the rest to produce lists of stereotypical aspects. For example, elves like to be in the wilderness, not the city.
I also thought about actions all adventurers take. We already have rewards for fighting and finding treasure. I like the idea of rewarding discovery itself. I want to encourage the players to head off into the forest because just finding a ruined fortress is interesting on its own, even better if there’s a skull carved out of diamond several levels underground.
For all players, I outlined ways to earn experience as follows.
Defeating monsters in battle, per the standard rules.
Trading 1 GP for 1 XP. I make them spend the GP. Just getting it out of the dungeon isn’t enough.
20 XP for each 1 HP of damage taken during combat. 10 XP per 1 HP of damage dealt by spell. I’m sure I first saw that idea when reading The Tao of D&D. I like that it make the most difference for low level characters. [See Note #1]
Discovery of wonders or artifacts can earn variable, predetermined bonuses. If the players wander around the jungle and find an ancient pyramid, that’s great, so long as they survive to bring that story back to civilization. The same would apply to finding the thigh bone of a saint.
Each race and class has a list of stereotypical behaviors. If the player can work those behaviors into play, I award a 1% XP bonus up to a maximum of 5%. As is standard in BFRPG, humans earn an automatic 10% bonus. Humans just have to be generally accepting of a wide variety of experiences.
Here’s my list for dwarves.
Rugged, resilient, courageous. Endures hardship with no complaining or being afraid.
Enjoy a hearty meal and/or a strong drink.
Dour. Taciturn. Humorless, except black humor.
Discovers something important based on knowledge of stonework.
Adventures underground and not on water.
Drives a hard bargain.
Respects law or tradition.
Acquires a double share of gold or gems measured by value.
Note how I’ve set up rule #10 to encourage greediness without leaving it abstract. If the dwarf can work it out so that he gets more than his fair share of the treasure, he gets a slight XP boost. I’d like to structure the rest in that way. It’s a work in progress.
Here’s my list for thieves.
Steals. Also, the value of anything stolen awards 1 XP / 1 GP in value immediately. Can still be spent later on training.
Uses dexterity to good effect, including thief skills.
Successfully deciphers an unknown language or reads an arcane scroll.
Attacks by surprise or behind and never in frontal assault.
Avoids honest work. Runs a racket. Plays a trick for monetary gain.
As above with the dwarf, a thief is encouraged to steal if he can get away with it. A character who manages to play a trick that allows him to steal money from a sorry rube will end up with XP equal to the value stolen plus a bonus of 2% on the entire session’s share due to hitting points 1 and 5.
I must confess, none of this is playtested. It’s a work in progress as the game is always so. The complete rules are documented at Empty Z’s XP Bonuses. I’m sure I’ll updated them over the coming weeks.
May 14th, 2020: I dropped the XP for damage taken. It was too much bookkeeping
May 30th, 2020: The incentives have had an immediate, positive effect. Both thief and mage quit rushing in to fight side by side with the fighters. The halfling consistently pursues trouble-inducing curiosity. And one of the players gave me a dungeon map followed by a sonnet.
After reading It’s a Trap! To Roll or Not To Roll? and The Perception Check of OD&D, both popping up in my feed yesterday, I considered my own use of perception checks. I tend to give anything from 0e attention with the assumption there was purpose and proven utility, I don’t tend to shoot for doing things the old school way as an end to themselves. The various, overlapping rules about detection are too numerous and complex for my aims.
I’m inclined to respond to actions about specific perceptive activity with an automatic success, especially if clues were followed. I always want that moment when the player offers a theory and moves directly to a discovery. The reward for this clever play is immediate satisfaction.
For hidden items that might be noticed passively, the difficulty ought to be figured during preparation. It’s easy to rate the challenge with a target at the same time it’s being written into the room notes. It’s also easy to note the intent that a passive check be made.
Non-obvious features of an area can be built into a table similar to a set of rumors that appears at the beginning of modules. These can be delivered in order or randomly. They can be granted by passive checks, or 10-minute searches. Contrary to rumors, hidden information about a room organized this way should be true, but it can be trivial and therefore valuable only in mood-setting.
I like the idea of combining both INT and WIS bonuses to represent how intelligence and intuition might work together or against each other in stumbling into noticing something. That leads me towards setting a DC rather than using a d6 mechanic. To factor in certain racial bonuses, such as a dwarf noticing a sloping passage, a 1 in 6 bonus can easily transfer to +3 on a d20.
I can appreciate the idea about letting players roll as a way to deflect disappointment towards the roll of the dice. It’s also necessary to roll behind the screen even when there’s no chance of success so as to leave some doubt, and therefore the option to spend another 10 minutes searching. The proposition of a wandering monster is enough to make the decision interesting.
It’s common for role-playing rules to include tables for generating complex results, similar to the image to the right from the first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide for generating dungeon maps. The user is meant to roll a twenty-sided dice and find a matching row from the first column. A roll of 4 matches the range of 3-5, indicates a door in the random dungeon and directs the user to Table II.
Automating the results with code provides two advantages over manually rolling. In the moment, at the table, it can be quite dramatic to click once and see a result. The other advantage is being able to rapidly re-roll and pick suitable results, such as when working on a new adventure and riffing on random results.
While exploring elven catacombs, the characters in my game found a diary in a magic box they pulled from a sarcophagus. The box was 12-sided with no obvious hinges, only a finger-sized hole. Fortunately, they did not try bashing it open–it would have delivered a lightning bolt. Instead, one of the elves stuck his finger in the hole and it opened.
Inside, they found the diary, which will dribble out lore about how the ancient elves worshiped demons and buried their dead in caves. Two of the party are elves and will have no trouble reading the diary. The humans, the dwarf or the halfling will find reading the diary produces subtle, unwanted results.
Age one year. This will be particularly inconvenient for humans who might read through all the pages and die of old age.
Ears grow into points. Acquire the elven resistance to surprise.
Shed 10lbs and generally become slimmer and elven of build. Return to normal over the course of a year.
All facial hair falls out, particularly odious for the dwarf.
Crave leaves. Suffer 1d4 damage each day for a week until leaves are eaten. During this time, no other food is necessary.
An intense feeling of heat compels the removal of clothes for a week. A fighter will find himself undefended while wearing only a loincloth. +1 for any temperature-related saving throw.
While reading the first few passages of the diary, a non-elf will experience the ideas as attempting to squeeze into a too-small garment or swinging an ogre-sized club.