Monday, May 2, 2016

Mentzer Basic Cover to Cover: Procedures and Rules 1

Time to cast Resurrect Topic! Yes, it's been almost a year since I last posted in this Cover to Cover series, but if you've bothered to look, you'll see I just haven't done a whole heck of a lot of posting period over the past year. I'm not saying I'm back to regular posting, but I am going to give this series another shot and see if I can finish up the DM's book.

Procedures and Rules is a grab-bag section of various topics that DMs should be ready for, arranged in alphabetical order. The section is 8 pages long, and I'll try to cover two pages or so each post. Then we'll be moving on to monsters! But before I get ahead of myself, let's get down to this post, which covers the sections of Alignment Changes through Demi-Humans (special abilities).

Alignment Changes
Well, this section starts off right - alignment is how the player wants to play the character. And if you see that they are playing their character in a different way, take them aside or talk to them after the game, in private about it. Sounds reasonable, doesn't it? Then, however, we're told that if the player keeps playing "incorrectly" that the DM should tell them their alignment has changed, and penalize them in some way. And of course, to be fair, reward good alignment play by giving more XP, treasure, or making monsters easier to defeat. But of course if it's a curse or magic item like the Helm of Alignment Changing, don't penalize them.

Alignment's always tricky, especially these days after we've had over a decade of arguments ad nauseum about it on the internet. Now, I think if the player is playing a character differently than their alignment indicates, they probably should either rethink how they play or else change their alignment. And as a player, if the DM were going for a certain mood or style of game where his or her vision of alignment was different than mine, I'd be willing to change to the suggestion of the DM, after talking it over, if the DM didn't accept my reasoning for my alignment play.

I think level reduction or arbitrarily taking away magic items, as Frank suggests, aren't really the way to go, though. An in-game penalty, like a curse, that could be removed by "correct" alignment play or by a decision by the player to accept the new alignment might seem more fun and acceptable to me.

Sound advice. If there's an argument, try to resolve it quickly and get back to the game. If it can't be resolved, make a ruling for now, and get back to the game. Then hash it out later, after the game is over.

Charm Person Spells
We get some advice on this spell, but it all relates to the duration and what creatures can and can't be effected by it. And it's fairly cut and dry. Most problems I've seen with the spell over the years tend to deal with just how much or how little a charmed creature will do for the charmer.

The duration advice is something I've found useful, and used as a benchmark for other types of spells. If the target is highly intelligent the saving throw is repeated every day. If normal intelligence, every week. If low intelligence, every month. This is a useful benchmark for other lingering effects, with the ability score changed to fit the situation. A disease might weaken a character, but they get a saving throw every time period depending on whether their Constitution is high/average/low.

Frank lists the monsters in the Basic set that the spell should affect (and a note that the Expert and Companion sets will add to the list), but before that he explicitly states that it's up to the DM to decide, along with a few guidelines. It's implicit rather than explicit, but he's giving the starting DM permission to change things to suit the DM's campaign.

This section is something that I've read a lot about on various blogs and forums over the years. For beginning players, who don't yet know all of the tropes and expectations of the game, it pays to help them out with some suggestions like, "Do you want to search for secret doors?" Also, give them some automatic successes early on to encourage them to try things. As they get more experienced, stop helping them out this way. I know some DMs would just throw players out there and let them fail, but I've seen first-hand how this can sour new players to the game. I like to think I've learned from my mistakes. Honestly, this was one section of the book I should have paid more attention to when I was younger.

After the above, Frank mentions how on higher levels of the dungeon especially, deadly traps or monster encounters should be telegraphed by obvious clues. As you go deeper into the dungeon, the clues can become less obvious, and deeper still there may be places where there are no clues at all. As the players get more experienced, they will tend to ask for more details about the areas, trying to look for clues, so be ready to provide them (as Frank says, put them in the dungeon key).

Similar to the Arguments section above, this is really more about how to handle the players than how to run any aspect of the game. If the players complain, don't shut them out, hear them out then try to compromise if possible. Frank suggests modifying the rules or using optional rules.

We get an admonition about "game balance" here, though. Be careful what you tinker with, don't make the game too easy or the players will get lazy and/or bored. While I think the recent efforts of the OSR have shown how robust the classic D&D engine really is to handle all sorts of crazy variant rules, he does have a point about the "giveaway game" as he calls it, or the Monty Haul game as it's come to be known online (or did Gary use that term in some AD&D books?).

Final good advice of this section - don't be afraid to tell the players that you made a mistake, and that you're also just learning the game. For a new DM, there can be a lot of pressure to get things right. Performance anxiety can be tough. For my friends and I back in the day, though, we were so free-wheeling and loose with the rules that it never really became an issue. Surely we made a lot of mistakes, but we were still having fun. And when we did stop making the mistakes, and started using the rules as intended, we were still having fun so it was no big deal.

Creating Characters
Here we get the standard advice about "hopeless characters" as they're known in Gamma World. If a character has all low stats, nothing above a 9 or two scores below 6, roll up a new one. The dice can be finicky when you're only rolling 3d6 in order. However, it's still the DM's call whether a character would be viable or not. It's also explicitly stated that this is for beginning players, as more experienced players should be able to handle the challenge.

If a player wants to play a certain class but rolls stats for another, the DM can allow them to switch the prime requisite of the class rolled for the prime requisite of the class desired, but only one switch allowed. This became such standard practice with my old group back in the day that it was just to be expected that you'd get to make one switch if you wanted to. I allowed it, and so did my friends who also DMed sometimes. In these days of rolling 4d6 drop lowest, arrange to taste, or point buy, or standard arrays, this must seem archaic and as a straight jacket to playing the character you want (which Frank says earlier in the section we should allow). I still like it, as it tends to give more organic characters, and can be surprising and fun. Point buy/array just ends up being a utilitarian min/max analysis most of the time.

These were the heyday of the Satanic Panic, so this section is very explicit about using, if you wish - totally not required! - MYTHOLOGICAL deities for the characters to worship. But that all takes place off stage, never changes the game rules, and the deities NEVER interfere with mortal matters (except, if you wish, to explain how Clerics get their spells). But NEVER use real world religions that might offend a player.

This section did make me resist defining any sort of religious systems for my campaign worlds for a long time. Well, that, plus a very devout Catholic father (he never had issues with me playing D&D though) and a conservative, religious Midwest small town to grow up in. I did eventually add in a half-assed Zodiac based system that I took from some Atari game (Sword Quest maybe, the one with real prizes people could win and tie in comic books and stuff). I've actually been thinking of revising the Zodiac system, since I could easily key it to the Four Classical Elements and the three alignments. But that's a post for another day.

We get some advice for how to adjudicate each demi-human class's special abilities. One thing I took to heart from this section was to always roll the dice, even if there's nothing to find. Just to keep the players guessing. And it's good advice, unless you always roll in the open. But the reason for always rolling necessitates a secret roll, so if you always roll in the open (as some people suggest should be done) then you'll have to deal with losing some suspense when you roll a success in the open but have to announce that they find nothing.

Dwarves: They can detect various architectural features, and searching a roughly 30' x 30' area takes one turn per feature searched for. And the traps they can find are "room traps" like pits, falling ceilings, etc. I like the bit at the end, where if a player just says, "I'll check for all the dwarf stuff" you should remind them that it will take 4 turns (unless the area is small). That's at least two wandering monster checks...

Elves: We only get advice about searching for secret doors, but unlike the dwarf, the elf needs 1 turn to search a 10' square area of wall, floor, or ceiling. That's quite the investment of time just for a 2 in 6 chance to find a secret door. In practice, I always ended up just making one check per area (like with Dwarves, one roll per normal sized dungeon room). I found that requiring one roll per 10' searched discouraged searching for secret doors at all. Of course, back then I could have given better clues that there may be a secret door (see the Clues section, above).

Halflings: Halflings get two special abilities described, their hiding and their dodging ability. For hiding, we're told that they need to have something to hide behind. While it's implicit rather than explicit, I think the intention may have been to show that it's different from a Thief's Hide in Shadows ability, although it may be years of Robert Fisher interpretation of Thief skills clouding my memory of how we ran it back in the day. As for dodging, we're reminded that big monsters suffer a -1 penalty to hit a Halfling, but that the onus should be on the player of the Halfling character to remind the DM when facing big creatures. I know it's something we often forgot. 3E's simple +1 to all small characters' AC is much more elegant, since you never have to worry about remembering it as a DM, or remembering to remind your DM about it as a player.

Anyway, that's just slightly more than two pages of this section. Next time, I'll try to cover Dice through Higher Level Spells.

1 comment:

  1. I don't know if Gary used it, but the AD&D 2nd Edition DMG definitely uses the term "Monty Haul" to describe campaigns where too much treasure is given away.