PAX East Review: Knowledge Is Power Edition

At conventions like PAX, I generally find myself in panels more often than in the exhibit hall. That’s partly because I feel like, as people, we should be life-long learners. The instinct to improve ourselves is especially valuable to gamers, as the slow-witted and unaware can often end up getting trampled by unblockable combos, well-placed traps, and well-defended treasure. The more information we get, particularly from the leaders in the industry, the better equipped we are to make pleasurable gaming experiences for ourselves and our friends. And THAT’S what gaming is all about for me.

In that regard, I was not disappointed! PAX has always served as a great place for me to hone my game by learning from the masters in the field. Last year, for example, I had some great conversations with the Chatty DM, whose “Dungeon Master Guys” podcasts are a first-rate, top-drawer information source for DM ideas and campaign fixes. Between his podcasts, articles, and tweets, he’s a whirlwind of DM knowledge to be reckoned with.  There’s just no end to his work, and I highly recommend his material to novices and veterans alike. In particular, take a look at his Drinking D&D series (it’s exactly what it sounds like), and his Dungeon Reality Show series, which I adore for it’s comedic value.

This year, I had the extreme pleasure of attending “The D&D You Never Knew” panel run by the incomparable Luke Crane, the creator of Burning Wheel and the Mouseguard RPG. Here is a person who is so completely taken with the art of roleplaying that he’s willing to go back to the source of modern roleplaying games: First Edition D&D. Now, his job is to make games, which means that his livelihood depends on knowing what makes them addicting and fun. So what better place is there to go than to the beginning? First Edition is the one that captured the imaginations of that first generation of gamers, artists, and storytellers; Gygax and Arneson must have been on to something! Mr. Crane’s panel examined the roots of gaming, and how an old edition played correctly can be as fun as or even more fun than a newer edition.

Just by listening to Mr. Crane talk, I could tell that I would love to be a player in one of his campaigns. He was enthusiastic, had great stories, and really respected the idea that gaming should be fun and personal to the group that’s involved. Still, he forced himself to play by all the rules set forth in 1st Edition, no matter how broken they were. That proved to be a daunting task, as the instructions were archaic. Like, “problematic characters should be punished with immediate character death” archaic.

Mr. Crane reduced 1st Edition to its very core. Was it roleplaying?  Was it intense fighting?  No, sir–it’s mapping! You read that right: the best way to do well in the early versions of the game was to be proficient in drawing detailed maps. The theory here was that mapping naturally promotes a person’s abilities to visualize, create, and remember. That’s an awesome concept–that simply drawing a picture of a room and seeing it could help a person solve a complex problem with many variables. I was skeptical, but I tucked that notion away for later.

Now, the rules were very specific! While mapping, a character may not do anything but walk.  He can’t even hold his own torch!  Another member of the party, a torchbearer, had to walk behind him so that he could work. And the torches only lasted six rounds, so I hope you brought extras! But it was worth the investment, since most of the XP in 1st Edition was granted through exploration, not killing monsters. Searching rooms for treasure and finding secrets doors was worth a whopping 80% of all the XP you’d get in the game. The problem was that mappers were so vulnerable that they died often; the group had to start using a backup mapper! Mr. Crane went on to say that during one session, everyone in the party–every single player–had their character killed at one point or another during the game. EXCEPT FOR ONE!

A rapt audience was told the Story of X, the only survivor of the whole campaign. As a fighter, his stats were positively abysmal; this was back in the days when you rolled three d6’s to determine each stat. His player rolled just good enough not to be allowed to re-roll; so, needless to say, he didn’t seem like he would make the long haul. But, though his garbage stats landed him a permanent position as group mapper, he always mysteriously managed to squeak by. In one instance, he was teleported away from his party into a pitch-black room. Not only did he not have his torchbearer, he had no torches because it wasn’t his job to carry them. So he had to jury-rig one out of a stick and a frayed length of rope. He ran aimlessly through the dungeon, praying not to find monsters until he found his comrades.

When his makeshift torch went out, he felt along the walls to find his way around. Suddenly, he recognized a room he entered; as the mapper, he had drawn it! At that point, the power shifted from the dungeon master to X, who started to run through the dungeon back to his friends. “I go ten feet east!  Now thirty feet west! Great, I’m back in the room I started in!” But, when he got there, he found the floor slick with blood and grease, as was the scene of any massacre in those days. Unbeknownst to X, his comrades were ambushed by goblins at the time he’d been teleported, and anyone who survived had run screaming from the dungeon. He was alone!

X decided then and there that he had to survive. The other players leaned in with anticipation to hear how he might escape, clutching the table with white knuckles (and the entire audience at the panel did the same). X looked back at his map and started back through the rooms, hoping to get out without incident.  That’s when the giant spider attacked. With terrible stats (and the fact that he had his map in his hands at the time and not a weapon), he couldn’t possibly kill it. So X ran like hell. He dashed down the hallway, through a corridor, up the stairs, the spider clacking after him every step of the way. (I got this really great image in my head of a beraggled man in torn chain mail running around a dungeon holding a parchment map out in front of him, screaming as a monster slowly gained on him.)

X turn turned left!  X turned right!  CRAP, THAT WAS A WRONG TURN! He doubled back and jumped clear just as the spider exploded through the stairwell. He could see daylight!  He could feel the spider’s acrid, venom-y breath on the back of his neck.  He dropped the map and ran as fast as he could.  He could smell fresh air! Empowered by the taste of freedom, HE DOVE FOR THE EXIT…!

The silence was palpable as Mr. Crane surveyed the crowd. He smiled as he announced that X had made it through the gate and out of the dungeon. But the crowd was unphased. Someone asked, “Wouldn’t the spider just follow him out?” Mr. Crane replied, “Nope!  According to the rules in 1st Edition, the only space that exists is the dungeon. As soon as all the characters leave, the encounter immediately ends!” The crowd ERUPTED in applause. In the short time we knew him, we had all come to identify with X…maybe even love him a little. Every one of us in that panel wanted him to survive and felt like we shared in his success. And talk about using visualization to creatively solve a problem! That’s why X survived so long: his player could use mapping to see an issue before it happened and resolve it quickly.

And Mr. Crane was only beginning! He then took us through a brief 1st Edition encounter. He even gave us a character, a fighter named Morgana.  We instantly latched on. We were told that there was a door in front of us, and asked us what to do. So we entered…and immediately fell into a pit. Everyone groaned. All together, as a group, we walked through rooms, found some treasure, even slayed a monster. And we made it out with one hit point left.  And you know what? It didn’t matter what version it was.  Hell, it didn’t matter what GAME it was!  We were all together, we were all invested in what became of our character, we got out alive, and we all had an awesome time doing it.

AND THAT’S WHY WE PLAY GAMES. ANY GAME. EVER. To have fun! Whether that fun comes in the form of a compelling story or from random hilarity, so be it. And when a game isn’t fun, we don’t play it. That was the whole point of the “Roleplaying Theory, Hardcore” panel. Game makers Vincent Baker (Killing Puppies for Satan, Murderous Ghosts) and Ben Lehman (Polaris, The Drifter’s Escape) put a whole one-hour panel together to spell out three simple points:

  1. The basic unit in ANY game is a rule,
  2. Rules can either make games more fun or less fun, and
  3. Rules that make things less fun should be changed or eliminated.

They even went a little bit further to say that the best rules are ones that provoke players into making interesting choices or doing and saying silly things. That’s it. And people need to hear that, because so many DMs and players get hung up on the minutiae of the games they play that it kills the experience for everyone.

Part of the problem is that some people feel the need to be told exactly how to play the game–at least, that’s the only reason I can think of to explain some of the bizarre questions people asked at the panel. “I’m making a game with such-and-and a rule. Is that good?” “I heard of a game online that I think is terrible. Do you also think it’s terrible?” I was stunned. The presenters here are two gentlemen who have created and sold thousands of copies of their games worldwide, and they just told you how to make a game awesome. Do what they said! Make rules that force your friends to be silly and interesting! Just play the games, people! You won’t have to wait long before you know if they’re fun or not, I guarantee it!  Maybe I’m becoming a snob in my old age….

D’aww, I can’t stay mad at the panel-crawlers! Their very existence is the reason we have a PAX at all!  And I’m so grateful that a convention like this exists, one with an emphasis on D&D and tabletop gaming. It’s a mingling of creative wellsprings and stagnant cesspools alike, and we owe it to Gabe and Tycho to at least dip our toes into a few of them. After all, there’s something to learn in every facet of the experience: from the panels to the expo hall, from the tournament rooms to tabletop freeplay, from the most venerable veteran to the most scarily clueless novice. And knowing (more than anyone else) is half the battle!

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  1. I’m one of the players in Luke’s games. Couple points about the D&D panel:

    1. the game is 1981 Moldvay “Basic” D&D (as opposed to the earlier Holmes or later Mentzer editions) not AD&D

    2. The backup mapper is actually suggested in the rules if you have enough players.

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    • Hey, Anthony! Thanks for the info.

      1) I got into D&D around 2nd Edition, so the differences between Moldvay Basic and other previous versions are lost on me. I’ve skimmed the old rules a few times, but they always seemed so broken that I never bothered to study them intensely, incorporate them in my games, or learn the history of their coming to be. That’s part of why the panel was notable for me; I now can see the purpose of going through all that trouble. But if I inappropriately used the phrase “1st Edition” as a blanket term for “anything before 2nd Edition,” that’s my bad, and I apologize.

      2) I took license there. At one time or another, we all ignore suggestions or change rules offered to us in the instructions. From what he said, Mr. Crane made it seem like backup mappers were necessary rather than optional, given the difficulty of the campaign. I only meant that the dungeons were tough, and circumstances warranted a second mapper.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  2. This was a funny article, and I do suspect I would have laughed out loud at the conclusion of the spider-chase story. However, it seems to emphasize the rule mechanic in a way that… well, *nobody* ever played.

    D&D is a game of imagination, not of rules mechanics. There is no reason to follow every rule written ‘exactly as they are written’. Most were not, probably many of them were not even written as intended, and the vast majority of the game is resolved by a DM and a player deciding for themselves what would have happened if… (fill in the blank here, as players always come up with something you couldn’t have possible imagined when writing the rules).

    As for the spider not pursuing out of the dungeon, I have two questions. One, with all the rules in the gameset (by that point in time) detailing outdoor and overland adventuring, why didn’t the spider just continue the pursuit outside. And two, why was the spider pursuing in the first place – spiders don’t like to pursue their prey, they pounce on those in range and don’t generally follow. Both of those questions rely on knowledge that is not addressed by the rules – but both of those questions is what a DM would have asked – and answered for himself – when actually running a game.

    D&D exists in all of it’s depth and complexity today because nobody ever bothered with the rule that “a mapper can do nothing but walk and carry nothing but the map and pen”. The rules today are better for it – but the play back then was better than the “rules” imply.

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