Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Mentzer Basic Cover to Cover: Procedures and Rules 4

This is the last of four posts covering this grab-bag of game rules section, and it covers Multiple Characters to Turning Undead. After this, we move on to the monster section of the DM book.

Multiple Characters
First off, Frank advises that beginning players should NOT run multiple characters, as it may get confusing and they have a lot to learn already. Fair enough. He goes on to suggest that when the players are more experienced, they may run more than one PC, but he suggests each be in a different town in the campaign world. The assumption I'm making here is that like in an old Wizardry computer game, Frank expects that nothing exists except for "The Town" and "The Dungeon" at this point in the process.

And looking back at my own experience as a DM, that's more or less what I did at first. After a few months of just making dungeons that were "near" the unnamed town, I took a bunch of graph paper and made a "wilderness" area with several small dungeons, forests, a dry lake, an old temple, some mines, etc. scattered around the area beyond the town. When I later got the Expert Set, I ended up basing the campaign in Threshold, and this area I'd made up I put somewhere in the northern "viking" kingdoms of the Known World map.

However, in my early gaming there was often only myself and one or two friends playing, so we almost always ran a stable of PCs, with one player running a whole party if it was just two of us, and even if there were more players we'd usually have several PCs each -- and some of the DM's PCs would often round out the party. But we never did the dreaded "DM PC" thing, we were always careful to let the player make decisions about how to handle any encounters.

New Rules and Items
First off, we get some good advice about winging it when players try something unexpected or not covered by the rules. Frank suggests checking to see if an ability score would work, and give a roll (equal or lower on 1d20 plus or minus a penalty as appropriate, or 3d6, 4d6, etc.). These rulings should be written down to be consistently applied, and become new rules -- but if a rule in a later set trumps these rules, he says switch to the official rule and let the players know there's a change. Obviously, informing the players of a change is necessary, but if what you're already doing works and makes everyone happy, there's not much need to switch to the "official" rule.

So again, we've got that idea that rules need to be "official" in here, and so many players over the years have bought into that. I was one of them once. But maybe this is a discussion for another day.

For the DM, creating new monsters and magic items, Frank wisely suggests not to do it while you're learning the rules, and when you do start to do it, base them on monsters and items already in the books. Frank says, "the entire game system is carefully balanced, and a too-powerful item is very hard to get rid of, once it has been put into the game" (p. 20). While again 'game balance' is a topic that's been beaten to death and isn't what I want to discuss here, this is good advice. One of my cousins, when he was DMing, created the "Hell Axe" (based on something in a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure type book he'd read) which was a battle axe +20. Yeah, you read that right. It might also have been flaming. I don't remember. Anyway, with that kind of bonus, you will never miss unless you roll a natural 1, and even many dragons (in this rule set anyway) will go down in one hit. I allowed it for one session and one session only.

If you have questions, Frank advises you to read carefully through the rules again, as the answer might be there already, and also to consider that the Expert Set may also have an answer to some questions. If that doesn't help, it's best to find some other gamers with more experience and ask them. Of course, for me, a kid growing up in very rural Illinois, that wasn't really an option. I didn't know any older kids who gamed (or if I knew them, I didn't know they gamed) and my parents weren't the type to frequent comics or hobby shops when we went to town. If all else fails, Frank provides an address for questions to be sent to TSR, please include a self-addressed stamped envelope for the answer.

If you have 3 or more players, you shouldn't need retainers, Frank tells us. But if there are only one or two, you might consider it. He suggests that every class except for the Thief and Magic-User could survive alone, if they are careful, but they may want to bring some assistance. If the DM wants to allow this, then you can just say the party finds some retainers, tell them how much they cost (or allow them to have a half share of treasure), and write up sheets for their stats and give them a bit of personality.

If the players and DM agree, though, the process of hiring can be role played. Frank gives us a three step process for running this.
1. Be ready to describe a local tavern or other location where potential retainers can be found.
2. Have plenty of "Normal Men" apply, and a couple of classed NPCs of the type preferred. Have some general descriptions ready for each of these NPCs.
3. For classed characters, roll their ability scores on the spot, or just make them up (so the Fighter has high Strength, for example), and again give them some personality quirks to make them memorable.

In our early games, before we started using the stable of PCs I describe above, I did allow some retainers, but I just went with the hand-wave system above. Also, "retainers" were always classed NPCs. I never bothered with what AD&D calls hirelings. Now, I think it might have been fun if I'd thrown in some normal men pretending to be Fighters, Magic-Users, etc. and when the players ask the 'cleric' retainer to turn undead and they can't... Fun. Something for the next campaign, I guess! Anyway, there's a modified version of the Reaction Roll to decide if the potential retainer accepts the deal or not.

Retainers have Morale scores based on the hiring PC's Charisma score and modified by good or poor treatment, but unlike monsters, when to check it is different. Always check at the end of an adventure to see if the retainer stays on. There's also a fuzzy sentence saying that it can be checked during adventures, with a reminder to check the Morale rules section (where, if you remember, we're told to check if the retainer is ordered to do something dangerous while the PC sits back in safety, or if they are damaged and have 1/4 or fewer hit points remaining).

These days, I'm always allowing "normal man" hirelings to be employed, and I think next time I run a campaign (still playtesting Chanbara on the rare times I get to run a session these days), I'll also throw in some classed NPC retainers/henchmen, and some 0-level wanna-be retainers for the players to consider hiring on.

Sleep Spells
This is the most powerful 1st Level spell in the game, so it's fitting that it (like Charm Person) gets its own section describing its effects. First, we're reminded that this spell will only affect creatures with 4+1 hit dice or less (so ogres can be affected), there is no saving throw, and only 'normal' creatures. Undead are immune, as are fantastical creatures like a medusa or gargoyle.

The next two paragraphs explain how to roll for and determine the hit dice of creatures affected by the spell (roll 2d8, ignore 'pluses' or 'minuses' to hit dice, no partially asleep creatures, start with the weakest creatures first). Finally, we get an optional rule saying that the DM can just decide how many creatures are affected up to the maximum possible result instead of rolling, in order to make a killer encounter into an easier one.

It actually doesn't touch on many of the problems that have cropped up because of this spell, but maybe back in '83 most of those problems weren't considered problems yet. Personally, I think the spell has been overly nerfed in more recent editions. 4E allowed a saving throw EVERY ROUND! 5E has you roll a random number of hit points instead of hit dice, and with the hit point inflation of that edition, that doesn't leave it affecting many creatures, AND they get a saving throw. But again, this is a discussion for another post (one I do have planned to write, comparing spell durations and numbers of spells per day across different editions as a means of balancing spell casters).

Thief Abilities
First, be aware of what these abilities are, and be sure there are opportunities for their use in your dungeons. I'm often guilty of the flat dungeon, with very little vertical challenge that allows low level thieves to use the one ability that they actually have a good chance of success on. Sure there are traps and locked doors, and places where listening, hiding or moving silently are useful. But the climbing one I should really work into my dungeons more.

Frank reminds the young DM that Hear Noise is on a d6, but other abilities are on a d%, and that the DM should always ask the player for their chance, and the DM should roll. Why the DM should roll is discussed later.

Next, we've got a section that it seems many DMs I read about on the internet ignore (or never learned, if they stared with a different edition). "A failed roll will often simply have no result" (p. 21). Frank specifically calls out Remove Traps, leaving it up to the DM to decide if failure sets off the trap or not. Maybe so many people complain that the Thief is worthless because too many DMs always have the trap go off if the roll fails. Maybe, just maybe, if the Thief were able to try to remove the trap without consequences of failing that 15% chance roll, there would be more perceived value in the Thief.

Finally, Frank mentions that the DM is free to simply decide whether the attempt succeeds or not (but as usual, always roll to keep players guessing). He gives an example of the PCs running from a tough monster and being blocked by a locked door. In this case, wanting to avoid a TPK (no, Frank doesn't use that term), the DM can decide the Thief is successful, but maybe after forcing the group to fight for a round or two.

Nowhere near as dramatic as Mr. Gygax in the AD&D DMG with its all caps warning, Frank simply suggests that in order to keep track of things like spell durations and wandering monster checks, it's good to have a system in place to keep track of time passing.

Transferring Characters
Way before there was a FLAILSNAILS Convention to reference for this sort of thing, Frank suggests three things to look for in a character that a player wants to bring to your game from another game:
1. higher level
2. more or better magic items
3. treasure owned is more than 50% greater than that of the current PCs
If any of these are true, don't allow the PC in the game, unless you and the player can negotiate some changes (in private, before the game).

I think the first one might be hard for players to accept. "Yes, you can run your PC, but only if they drop from 6th level down to 2nd." Since rolling up a new character isn't that hard in this edition, I think I'd rather do that. But then I'm always full of ideas for characters that might be fun to play. Some players really love their character (you know, they pretty much play the same character all the time). Leaving behind some treasure or magic items might be easier to swallow.

And of course, you've then got the question -- if I go back to my original game, do I get the XP and treasure I earned in this game along with the levels and/or treasure that was given up? Or is this now an alternate universe doppelganger of my original character? If the change to the new campaign is expected to be permanent, a lot of these issues cease to be issues, but they aren't really mentioned. It's just assumed that the PC will now be part of this game, with any changed necessary, or else they can't be imported into the campaign.

Turning Undead
As with Charm and Sleep spells, Turning needs a bit of extra explanation, and we get it here. Frank again covers the basic mechanics - the player declares they will Turn Undead, and rolls 2d6 against the chart by the type of undead. If they roll the number or better, the undead are turned, and the DM rolls 2d6 hit dice (or can choose the result, maximum numbers turned by type are listed up through Mummy).

Because the chart lists Wraiths and Mummies for reference (both are in the Expert Set), there's a chart for Clerical turning up to level 7 for Wights, Wraiths and Mummies. In this way, higher level NPC Clerics might appear and turn some undead.

One interesting note - Frank describes a wraith as "a shadow which flies, and drains levels as a wight" (p. 21). There's been some discussion in the OSR about how physical wraiths are, based on Tolkien, the LBBs, etc. Here, Frank is saying they're incorporeal. Of course, DMs are free to disregard that, and other editions may describe them differently. But here, in this version, they're explicitly stated as being ghostly.

As with Sleep spells, monsters can't be partially turned. Remainders are discarded. While it doesn't say, if turning a higher hit die undead creature and you roll lower than even one's hit dice, none run away. But if the attempt is successful, the Cleric can attempt to Turn again in the next round. This is actually something I don't think I ever considered the full ramifications of until now.

Higher level Clerics get to automatically succeed against lesser undead, but you still need to roll for the number of hit dice affected. So when facing off against a vampire or specter, say, a Cleric may succeed to turn, but still roll too few hit dice to affect it this round. But next round, they might. The Cleric still succeeded in the attempt, it's just that none were affected. I think I always just used the alternate rule especially with vampires, in that if the Cleric succeeded, ONE vampire would flee (and it's not often that multiple vampires were encountered). But by the rules, the Cleric may spend the round Turning Undead but have no effect, and the rest of the players are battling it out (and the vampire, if smart - and many are - is trying to level drain that Cleric!) waiting for the next round for the Cleric to attempt it again. That would make for a great tense battle situation. Note to self, remember this!

Finally, we get something I think I've always overlooked -- the official duration of a Turn effect. 1-10 rounds (roll or decide). I've more or less just always ruled that the undead flee and won't return until much later (if at all), but by the book, Turning is only a temporary measure. Again, this could add some great tension to a battle as written. Again, note to self, remember this!

And now I've finally completed this 8-page section of the rules. I'll be moving on to the monster chapter hopefully next week.


  1. Shame on you for not having that cave entrance fifty feet up a hundred foot high rockface or the entire dungeon (for some reason I typed fungeon) oriented vertical down a sinkhole.

  2. @ Dennis:

    Huh. Very strange on a couple counts:

    1) I presume that the CHA adjustments are the same for Mentzer's Basic as they are for B/X (I don't have my copy of Mentzer with me for reference in Paraguay). If this is the case, his assertion that parties of 3+ don't need retainers makes the stat pretty f'ing useless (and is pretty fairly against the grain of earlier edition play styles).

    2) This "multiple turn attempt" rule is pretty different from B/X which seems pretty explicit (based on the textual example) of "one attempt per encounter." On the other hand, the B/X version IS explicit that a successful turn attempt always affects at least one creature regardless of the die roll. Based on your reading, it's possible that even a high level cleric could (by rolling poorly) fail to turn a single undead foe, despite round after round of "auto" attempts. I am kind of flabbergasted by that.

    RE: Traps

    I think it's possible B/X folks like myself take our cue for setting off traps from the infamous Black Dougal example in the Moldvay set. However, the point is a good one...certainly worth considering.

  3. Black Dougal did not get poisoned until he tried to open the trapped box.

    This is why a dwarf (or halfling) should be a member of your party: to deal with poison. Opening sinister boxes and sipping strange potions to find out what they are should be the Edward's (or halfling's) job, b/c of the better saving throw versus poison.

    1. Barring that, the Cleric. Their save vs poison at level 1 (11) is something most people don't notice, but is very good.