Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Mentzer Basic Cover to Cover: Procedures and Rules 3

This post is the third of four covering the alphabetical rules reference section of the Frank Mentzer edited "red box" Basic D&D Dungeon Masters Rulebook. This post covers Hit Points to Morale.

Hit Points
What do you, as a novice DM with, it is assumed, novice players do when one of them roles low for hit points? Frank gives us three options to consider: keep the number rolled, reroll if the result was a 1 or 2 (although consider carefully allowing this for the MU and Thief), or don't roll and just take maximum HP at level 1 and start rolling from level 2.

Well, I always preferred #3, and so did my friends. It was our standard practice long before it became the default rule with the advent of 3E. I've played in games with option 1, and it was satisfying, too. Of course, one game I had a cleric with only 1 hit point, but never got into combat before the campaign quickly fell apart. So it didn't matter. But we've had plenty of casualties at low level even with automatic maximum hit points that it never seemed to be an issue in my games.

Being proficient in one second language (Japanese, although it's getting a bit rusty) and working on a third (Korean, slowly), but retaining a passing familiarity with some basic Spanish and French from my early years, and being a language teacher, this section plays right into my expertise. Yet, like many of you (and many SF/F books, TV and movies), this is an area that doesn't actually get used much in play.

Anyway, Frank's advice is to make a list of languages in the campaign (a list of 20 is given, convenient for random rolling) and let any human characters with high intelligence to select languages from that list, or else as the DM assign them languages. It's interesting that he only notes this is for human characters. Demi-humans of course have their lists of extra languages in their class description. Was the intention that they only get those languages, and don't get extra due to high intelligence? Do demi-humans get them all automatically, or are these just short-lists for them to choose from? And do halflings not get bonus languages at all? That would be odd, since Halfling is one of the 20 languages listed.

We always gave Dwarves and Elves the bonus languages listed automatically, and extra if they had high Int. Yet, as I mentioned above, we rarely had linguistic barriers in our early games. Sure, every now and then someone would remind me that they spoke such and such, but if they didn't, the monsters usually seemed to understand Common. Yes, lazy. And it's had a bad effect on my gaming to this day. It makes the parlay option harder, and Charm Person, and lots of other fun things can happen due to language barriers. Something I need to work on, anyway...

Looking at the list of languages, there are a few odd ones. Doppelganger, for instance, is a language choice. You'd think since doppelgangers mimic humans and demi-humans that they'd just speak Common (and maybe a demi-human language or two). Gargoyles also have their own language, which implies they're less magical constructs like in later editions (and maybe in AD&D?) and a living, if magical, being, like in that 90's Gargoyles cartoon show. Medusa is also a choice, and an interesting one. I have only rarely seen anyone talk to a medusa, unless the medusa was in disguise in order to surprise the party. And of course, the medusa then spoke Common. Number 20 on the list is "other human tongue" which of course there should be a multitude of, not to mention a multitude of dialects and branch languages. But then the rest of the list, aside from Minotaur and Dragon, are humanoid types, so you do get a bit of that. Are Orc, Gnoll, Kobold, Goblin, Hobgoblin, and Bugbear all related, like the Romance languages, coming from a common root language? Is Ogre or Giant that root language? Or is Goblin the root? Is Pixie related to Elf, Dwarf and Halfling? If you're a language nerd like Professor Tolkien or (to a lesser extent) myself, you could have all kinds of fun with this, and there are interesting implications for the implied setting of the "Known World" (although we won't get the "Known World" until the Expert Set and Isle of Dread).

The DM is encouraged to customize the list, and make up more languages that will fit the world (even suggesting that "Rock Baboon" language of hoots and growls might be learnable by a PC if they chose) the DM wants to run, and thinks will be useful in the campaign. And for the newbies, there's the "thank you Dr. Obvious" note that you don't actually need to create artificial languages for the game. Even as an 11 year old first reading the rules, I never thought I'd need to do that. So, a bit too much hand-holding in this section, but otherwise a lot of good stuff to think about a half column segment of the text.

The very first sentence of this section is explicit - ANY character can try to listen for noises. It's not a skill limited only to thieves and demi-humans (although they're better at it). There's an idea that common sense should trump game mechanics. I know, how could anyone think otherwise? Well, it happens. I may have mentioned this before, but once in a Pathfinder game, I told the DM I wanted to search the bed. DM asked me to roll. I rolled a 1 (and didn't have skill ranks, just a small Wis bonus to the roll). Even though the module states there was a bag of treasure hidden under the bed, the fact that I rolled poorly meant the DM decided my character failed to look under the bed while searching it. In that instance, common sense failed to trump game mechanics.

Unless a character is deaf, there's no reason why they shouldn't be able to listen for noises. Now, there's only a 1 in 6 chance to hear anything that would give a clue about what's beyond the door or down the corridor for Clerics, Fighters and Magic-Users. 2 in 6 for demi-humans and low level Thieves, better chances for higher level Thieves. But that's to detect a subtle clue or hint. If there's something loud going on behind the door (an orc thrash-party or lizardman orgy or whatever), you probably don't need to roll at all (although the rules don't say that...).

Getting back to what the rules do say, everyone needs to be as quiet as possible while doing it. No moving around. So if you want to listen, you can't be doing it while someone's casting a spell, or someone's searching for traps or secret doors or something like that. It doesn't give a time listed for the listening attempt, but since it's similar to the mechanic for searching for stuff (x in 6 chance), and it's for listening for subtle clues, I think a DM is within his or her rights to say it takes a Turn. In the "action economy" of classic D&D (to borrow the term from newer editions), that's a significant choice. Yes, listening may allow you to get the drop on what's ahead, but you run the risk of wandering monsters and use up resources like spell durations and torches/lanterns when doing it. For the game aspect of the game, it's really important. As Gary told us in the AD&D DMG, YOU CANNOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF ACCURATE TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT. More free-form play between monster encounters does make the game go faster, but there's something to playing it by the book, too. Not every important decision needs to be about how to kill the monsters. Making getting there and back again full of interesting choices also makes the game fun.

Giving Magic-Users Spells
This section is obviously out of alphabetical order, and it's also using a subheading (bold typeface the same size as the text). The Table of Contents (I checked) lists this section as "Magic-User Spells" and deals with giving initial spells and the other subheading, "lost spell books" is below. Looks like either an editorial mistake or someone intentionally removed the main heading for layout reasons.
The only illustration in this section
This section gives us advice on dishing out spells to starting players of Magic-Users or Elves. It's assumed they have an NPC teacher, who gives them spells, although it's stated as up to the DM whether or not to play out this master as a character or not. We didn't bother early on to do so, but these days I like the ability to have an older, more experienced NPC for low level characters to get advice, spell casting, or quests from. Anyway, more implied setting. You don't just know magic, you're a student of magic learning from a master.

We're given some sound advice here. By giving starting spells out this way, the DM can control what magic is allowed in the game. It gives the example of Charm Person. If you don't want to deal with this spell, don't give it out to the players as a starting spell (and by implication to NPC spell casters or on scrolls). That flies in the face of modern gaming sensibilities, where players expect carte blanche access to anything and everything in the rules at all times. But it's an important tool for a DM to build their campaign their way.

All beginning MU/Elf characters get Read Magic as their first spell. It's important, as it is the key to getting more spells (by finding scrolls or other spell books). In recent years - since I began my megadungeon project -  I've started adding spells hidden here and there throughout dungeons. They may be carved into walls, in arcane patterns in a tapestry, etc. Trying to reward the players who bother to memorize Read Magic. The search for more spells can be a great incentive to adventure!

For magic-users, the second spell (and you start with two) should be one of the powerful ones: Charm Person, Magic Missile, Shield, or Sleep. This way, the player will feel they have something to contribute. Elves, on the other hand, can get any old spell, since they can also function as Fighters, and have their special abilities. Makes sense, but it seems like most players of Elves also want Sleep or Magic Missile as their first spell. Most players seem to be given their choice of spells these days. One of these days I'd like to run the game by the rules, with me as DM deciding what spells they get to start.

The next paragraph tells us that utility spells (Frank calls them miscellaneous spells) like Floating Disc and Hold Portal make good "third spells" for when the MU reaches 2nd level.

Finally, it's mentioned that if there are more than one MU in the group, they should have different starting spells. They're both going to want Sleep, I'm sure, if they're experienced players. Newbies given a choice often go for Magic Missile, in my experience. Good advice, of course, as it adds variety and gives the group more options.

Lost Spell Books
I was just going on about this the other day. Anyway, we have a brief section saying that basically, if this happens (and it might, nothing implying it should, in reference to my previous post) the player is severely penalized and likely won't be having fun until they get a new book. But if it happens, make it a reason to get out there and adventure! The master (or whoever is replacing it) will require a quest or service! Or it will cost money (that you maybe don't have) so go adventure and get some! Or you can borrow the money, but will have to adventure to pay it back!

More implied setting - no one will lend you a spell book if you don't have your own.
The message to the inexperienced DM, while subtle, is strongly there. This setback for the player is an opportunity for you, the DM, to make the game more fun for everyone. Yes, it's a challenge for the player to not have their book, or to have only the beginnings of a new book with limited (or different from their normal) spells. But it's a chance to make things interesting. Just don't drag it out too long or it will lose its fun.

This section gives some general advice on mapping, as it's hard for players, especially new players. Frank gives us four pieces of advice:
1. Describe things as accurately as you can, and let the players know if you've made a mistake.
2. Be consistent in the order of your descriptions, and be sure to hit the major points (room dimensions, exits, creatures, other contents). He gives a few terms useful for mapping corridors.
3. Have a "standard description" of hallways and typical features. It saves time, and when something isn't "standard" it alerts the party that things are different.
4. At first, keep the dungeon layouts simple. Even for experienced gamers, twisty passages and unusual shapes slow down the game.

Pretty solid advice, really. These days, since I mostly play online via Google+ Hangouts, we use the online white board Twiddla for maps and images, and as DM I usually just draw the map to speed up play. And of course, for small encounter dungeons or quest dungeons, a map may not be so necessary. Mapping is most useful for megadungeon style play, when you may be returning over and over again to the same location. But that was the expected norm in the early days, rather than what's come to be the norm today.

Morale (optional)
The classic D&D morale rules are simpler than those found in AD&D, and a bit more elegant IMO. Of course, here they're listed as optional for the beginning DM. Personally, I think that may be a mistake making them optional. It's a bit complicated seeming at first, but it's not really so bad. And because we didn't use it in our earliest games, and we had bad influences from video games (where the bad guys never run away), every monster encounter that turned into a fight became a fight to the death. And that's not the best way to play the game.

Morale is easy in this game. Every monster has a morale score between 2 and 12 (while there are a few 12s, I don't remember any monsters with morale below maybe 5 or 6). Roll 2d6. If the score is equal to or lower than the morale score, the monster continues to fight. If over, it breaks and runs or tries to surrender. Monsters with a morale of 2 never fight, those with a morale of 12 always fight to the death once combat starts.

For single monsters, check morale twice. When it first takes a hit, and when it's down to only 1/4 hit points remaining. It's usually the first one where I forget to check morale, to be honest. Especially for big monsters like dragons or giants.

For groups of monsters, check twice as well. Check when the first death happens on either side (emphasis in original), and when half of the monster group has been killed or incapacitated.

These rules are pretty awesome, actually. Many animals may flee when they get damaged, and even intelligent creatures are likely to rethink combat if they get hurt. And in a group, the first death on either side can be a reason to rethink what's happening. If it's on the monster side, they may want to cut their losses after that first one goes down. If it's on the PCs' side, they may be thinking, "oh shit, they're gonna be pissed now!" or else be thinking, "We got one, time to fall back and regroup while they deal with their downed comrade."

I read a great interview with a former Viet Cong soldier. He said their main tactic was usually just kill or wound one U.S. soldier, then get out of there before any of them got killed. Because they knew the U.S. troops would stop to deal with that casualty, and wounding was actually better than killing because it slowed down the whole group. From that perspective, this makes sense. Monsters may try to whittle down a party through attrition, while preserving as many of their numbers as they can.

The next subsection is about Retainer Morale. This is determined by your Charisma score (and you thought it was a dump stat!) and checked whenever one of these two conditions applies: 1. the retainer is ordered to do something dangerous while the party is in less danger (no, that never happens...) or 2. the retainer is reduced to 1/4 hit points remaining. That's fairly badass, when you think about it. I mean, unless you're telling your retainers to open every door, stick their hands in green devil faces or sample your potions for you, they're not gonna run from combat unless they're in danger of immediate death (although since most have only 1 hit die, if they survive a single hit they're likely going to be checking morale right away, or dying in combat).

Adjustments to Morale Checks is the next subsection. It gives a guideline of adjusting the morale check from -2 to +2 depending on situational factors, like a death on the PC side may boost monster morale, but flashy magic may lower it. Up to the DM to decide.

Results of the Morale Check tells us what happens when monsters break morale. Usually, when DMs actually use morale, they tend to treat it as a route, with the monsters just running away. However, Frank mentions that the monsters may use a retreat or a fighting withdrawal, and if that's not possible, surrender. I've never seen a DM play a loss of morale treated as a fighting withdrawal, where the monster party just tries to disengage but stays wary of the party. And that's including myself, of course. Something to think about, especially in cases where the morale check was caused by the party suffering a casualty, or for more organized, militant, or tough monsters.

Intelligent monsters that surrender, the book mentions, usually offer to provide treasure, either their own or as ransom. I know B2 Keep on the Borderlands has notes on what happens if the PCs get captured by some of the humanoid tribes, but I don't remember any notes in any modules about what sort of treasures monsters might offer if they surrender. And of course, being of Irish descent, I'm reminded of tales of the leprechaun, who will offer you their treasure if you promise to let them go, but use any and all means to not actually deliver on the promise. Again, monsters surrendering sounds like an opportunity to make the game more fun, rather than simply having every fight be a battle to the death like we're playing some computer RPG. However...

Surrender: despite having just given us some interesting tidbits about monster surrender, we have a subsection of the morale rules saying that of course, neither side needs to accept a surrender, or even "stop fighting long enough to listen" (p. 20). However, the paragraph then goes on to remind the DM to use common sense, and play the monsters as they should be played, having them flee from hopeless battles.

And that brings us to the end of this post. I'll try to get the fourth post about this section of the rules up sometime next week, covering topics from Multiple Characters through Turning Undead.


  1. I once did a family tree for humanoids and demihumans. Kobolds and goblins share a common ancestor (ku). Its offspring the gobelin and kobolt sired the gremlin. Goblins are aparently superpollenators creating offspring with bears (bugbears), dogs (barghest), horses (pooka), kobolds (knockers), hob (hobgoblins).
    The dhwergher family tree produces albho (wights, banshees, fairy), hob (elves: sea elves, cave and forest elves, sky elves), dweorg (dwarves, dwergi), twerg (troll), geant (ogres, cyclops, giants)

  2. "Playing by the book" (with regard to time) is a lot easier when one is using miniatures and moving around a scale model of the environment. However, that makes mapping a bit of a moot point.

    Interesting the small differences from B/X that have dramatic impact/implications. Morale rules in Moldvay deal only with "group morale;" there are no rules for individuals. While I agree it makes sense, the lack of "individual morale" in B/X ups the convenience level for DMs to include encounters with more than one monster (morale checks being a bit of an equalizer), since individual monsters have a greater chance of fighting to the death.

    Also, how does this work in conjunction with rule for subduing dragons...even more chances to get the beast to surrender!

    The spell acquisition is the real doozy, though, as it allows casters to acquire more spells than the number of spells they can cast (if I'm reading this correctly). MUs in B/X can only have as many spells in their books as they can themselves cast, short-cutting the whole chance to learn/minimum/maximum known rules found in Greyhawk (Supplement I) and Holmes Basic. Here, it appears MUs can simply add as many spells as the GM will allow into the campaign (whether through NPC teachers or scrolls found, etc.) with nothing to balance the fat spell book that will eventually result. I would think it would this become a common goal of most ambitious spell-casters to someday acquire "all the spells."

    People say there's really no difference between B/X and BE, but that's quite a change.

  3. @Sean, I always go back and forth between things like that. Sometimes, like you, I want those connections to be there. Other times, I just want each monster to be its own thing. I like the connections myself, but players rarely care (or even find out) about it.

    @JB - Yeah, the changes make some big differences. As for trying to subdue a dragon, I'd rule that a morale check isn't the same thing. The dragon may offer terms if morale breaks, but I doubt an intelligent dragon (always had the impression non-talking dragons were just dangerous beasts, but that's a discussion for later in the series) would become subdued from losing morale. The players would need to give it the old non-lethal beat-down for it to be cowed.

    Regarding spells, that's exactly what happens. Several of our old MU and Elf characters' motivation to adventure was to fill in their spell book and get "all the spells" they could.

    Very early in my gaming career, this was easy due to a misinterpretation by myself and my friends. We gave a number of new spells in the spellbook equal to the new number of spells castable per day! It didn't take long to get all the level 1 spells, and by name level I think that was all of the level 2 spells, too. Later we realized this was too much and scaled it back.