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One of my favorite villains is fantasy roleplaying is Medusa. In Dungeons & Dragons (“D&D”), that’s a species of creature. In Greek mythology, that’s the name of one of three of her kind, known as Gorgons. Most of you know this, but for those that don’t, here’s one of many videos on them. While I respect the work game designers do, I’m always going to prefer mythological creatures to those game designers invent. Mythology got me into D&D, not the other way around.
I love the way D&D has treated medusae generally. I vaguely remember an article in Dragon Magazine during the 3.5 EditionD&D (“3.5e”) days with a writeup on their ecology, which included their male counterparts, the maedar. I never got to use that article because it came towards the end of 3.5e, and I was so caught up in running Living Forgotten Realms and other canned adventures that I didn’t write much of my own material. I always wanted to write a medusa as a BBEG.
4th Edition D&D
In 4th Edition D&D (“4e”), I loved how 4e’s game mechanic was applied to the medusa’s petrifying gaze attack. In 4e, save or die was jettisoned and replaced by what you could call “save thrice in a row or die.” That is, you got three saves over three turns before you were killed, dominated, or whatever. If you saved successfully once during that run, you shook off the effects (though relatively rarely, you still might be subject to an aftereffect on a successful save). This worked really well with the medusa because each failed save during that three-round process resulted in increasingly bad effects. That is, on the first failed save, you were slowed (i.e., speed cut in half). On the second, you were immobilized (i.e., speed of 0). On the third failed save, you were petrified. This gives the player a means to immerse oneself in the action, as the cascade of worsening effects can give you the feeling of slowly turning to stone. (FYI, medusae weren’t the only creature to use this cascade.)
1st Edition D&D
I’m running 1st Edition D&D (“1e”) for the first time in 40 years, so I had forgotten quite a bit. There are a couple of things about medusae that I relearned. First, their gaze attack targets a single creature, whereas in later editions it attacks multiple targets. Second, the gaze is active, not passive. That is, a character merely gazing upon a medusa doesn’t harm the character; the medusa has to intend to petrify the opponent. (See Monster Manual II, page 55 for more information.) While these represent a break from mythology, as you’ll see, they worked to my advantage. One other thing to note is that I house ruled petrification to use the 4e system of slow progression to being petrified.
B2: The Keep on the Borderlands
Going into last session, my group and I knew that we had reached the end of the adventure. So, I told them that I’d be railroading them a little bit to make sure we wrapped things up and that a particular encounter occurred. That encounter was with spoiler alert! a medusa – I named her Xisper – who was captured by inhabitants of the Caves of Chaos and chained to a wall. She used her gaze attack against one PC, but he saved successfully. Some of the PCs held true to their good alignment and refused to allow anyone to kill her but indicated that they’d leave her to her fate, so Xisper immediately went into negotiation mode. Long story short, that negotiation led to them freeing her to clear out the gnoll infestation (the one area the PCs never addressed) and gave me the perfect recurring NPC to bring back at a later date. She’s undoubtably evil, but alignment in my game world is always more complicated than the books present, so she could still be of use to them, and them to her. This is even better than a BBEG.
Here’s a screenshot of the PC screen for the character builder:
And here’s Westlocke’s current character sheet. The data I said would be missing has now been added, and you can see that the character sheet is, as I like to call it, “one-stop.” You don’t have to look up spells in hardcover books if you’re using my character sheet, even if those spells come from magic items.
Bathroom stalls have two primary forms of coat hooks (that I can remember). One of them always makes me think of a mind flayer. The one in my office looks like a mind flayer that’s been hit in the head too hard.
Oh, no! I used mind flayer in a sentence! WotC’s gonna sue me!
I saw the D&D movie yesterday. I didn’t like it as much as my average social media contact did, but it was fun and worth watching, and I’ll watch it again when it hits Paramount+. This post is loaded with spoilers, but I’m keeping them relatively mild. Still, proceed at your own risk. TL;DR: I give it a solid B grade.
Up front, I want to say that this represents a major step forward for the franchise. In fact, can we just pretend that the other movies don’t exist? I own the second one on DVD and have seen it only once. I can watch it any time I want, and I do exactly that. I watch it every time I want, which is never. But moving on, there are a couple of things I wanted to mention, but I saw the movie by myself, so I didn’t get a chance to talk to anyone about it.
My Favorite Character: The Paladin
For someone like me, this is less a movie and more a homage to the game of D&D, so my favorite character was the paladin. Why? Because the movie made the archetypical paladin, which is a class best summed up by Louis C.K.’s “of course, but maybe” bit. If you don’t already know the bit and don’t click through, this may not make sense.
Of course, paladins are great. Of course, they are. They’re so concerned for everyone else’s well-being and will sacrifice their own. But maaaaaybe they’re all really annoying to be around. But no. Of course, we all love paladins. These people are champions of good, justice, honesty, and virtually everything good in this world. But maaaaaybe if they have such high charismas, they should be expected to learn social skills.
Zenk was the archetypical paladin. You should and will love him, but god dammit he’s annoying.
Legacy v. Modern Gamers
I’m on a real 1st Edition (“1e”) kick, and one of the things that bugs me about modern gaming is the aversion to PC death. This movie had a brilliant opportunity to show modern gamers the value to PC deaths, and when I thought they were going that way, my heart skipped. (Perhaps I should have a cardiogram just in case.) Unfortunately, in typical 5th Edition fashion, they pissed that opportunity away on a cheat. In the process, the cheat mirrored elements of our real-world society that have attention spans too short to remember what’s most important, even if it’s their primary goal in life. This was a major point of failure as far as I was concerned. It wasn’t merely a bad decision, but one that by itself keeps this movie out of the A grade range. It reminded me of my greatest pet peeve with respect to modern gaming.
A Funny Joke with the Same Problem
There’s a joke used in the movie that made it on one of the social media/television spots. It’s where they use a spell to speak with the dead. It was a remarkable failure, and hilariously so. However, they cheated their way out of it. Why? Because modern gamers can’t take a loss. It’s not just death, but some gamers get angry when their character takes a single point of damage (or even no damage!) or miss a puzzle. Modern dungeon masters are expected to avoid character failure of any sort, even when it’s the players’ own damn fault. Sure, the game/movie must continue, but the characters should have to admit they screwed up and find another way forward.
Speaking of Pet Peeves
My largest pet peeve about the prior movies was their overt discussion of game mechanics. That was the one thing I didn’t want in this movie. It’s a fourth wall break, and one that’s completely unnecessary. As a long-time gamer, I don’t need to be told that the character just used Misty Step, and for non-gamers watching the movie, naming the spell won’t add anything to the movie. So in the third movie, Book of Vile Darkness, when the main character asked to purchase a sword, and the shopkeeper asked him whether he wanted one at heroic tier or paragon tier, that was really stupid. That is, even in a world of monsters and magic, no one would talk that way.
This movie avoided such stupidity. In the rare instance where they discussed mechanics (for example, the aforementioned Speak with Dead scene), it served a purpose both to the audience and to the other characters. In fact, the only time language was used that was superfluous to the characters was the discussion of the history of Thay. However, that’s something every movie does because the audience needs the exposition. The characters say, “Yeah, yeah; we knew all that” so that they don’t look stupid, and the audience goes along with the fiction because, in the end, it’s a movie, and audiences know that they need the education. This was definitely something important that this movie got right.
Again, they pissed away something that could have improved the movie. You can certainly play the game with four PCs, but you really should have five: a healer, a soldier, an arcane caster, a rogue, and a fifth that doesn’t exactly fit neatly into one of those categories. This is especially true of a movie meant as a love letter to the game. Well, they had a barbarian and a druid that focused on melee, a sorcerer, and a bard that almost never touched a weapon. In fact, all the bard was to the group was a guy who made plans. Don’t get me wrong; he was a fine character, but as someone who likes bards more than any other class in most editions, he didn’t display most of the characteristics of a D&D bard. Moreover, there was no healer in the bunch, not even the druid or underused paladin. For fuck’s sake, they asked the sorcerer to heal someone, and his explanation for why he couldn’t was because of the nature of the injury, not because, you know, he’s not a cleric. But if the producers want to house rule sorcerers as healers, fine. It cuts against everything we’ve seen in every edition, but that kind of flexibility is what RPGs are all about. So why didn’t the sorcerer heal anyone? Because he wasn’t house ruled. He was just a standard sorcerer. There were no healers.
But my main concern here, as small as it is, is that I would have preferred to see a party of five with one of them using healing magic at some point. Instead, they went on one of their minor quests with the paladin. To give him his moment to shine, he did most of the heavy lifting on that quest but then left the group. He wouldn’t have made the story too complex by sticking around.
This movie is loaded with references to the game and tons of Easter eggs. Like I said, it’s more that than it is an actual movie. You can make a game out of spotting them.
EDIT: A Note on Faithfulness to the Game
Some have nitpicked the movie for not living up to game mechanics, and others have responded by saying “it’s a movie, not a game.” But it’s a movie that’s not only based on a game, but it has the name of the game in its title. If this is billed as a Dungeons & Dragons movie, then it should be based on the game. Otherwise, this might as well be a Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings movie. Maybe it’s just overstatement typical among the way Americans (everyone?) argues, but the counterarguments don’t seem to appreciate that fact. In fact, someone well known in the industry was taken to task (by someone else I’ll say is well-known) for criticizing the movie. “Are you a cinematographer?” she asked. What difference does that make? Are we not permitted to criticize a movie because we aren’t professional filmmakers ourselves? And if so, wouldn’t that mean that you have no right to complement it unless you’re a professional filmmaker? Are we not allowed to voice our opinions without filmmaking experience? That seems ridiculous.
Still, even acknowledging all that, the first question you should ask is, “What edition of D&D?” The various editions of D&D are very different from one another. Which edition should the film emulate? The classic OD&D or 1e for reasons of appreciation of where we all come from? The current 5e for reasons of marketability? A combination of them all? How should that combination be weighted? Also of note, dungeon masters have always house-ruled their games, meaning my 1e may be very different from your 1e. And besides, there always has to be some license given to filmmakers adapting source material to another medium. So, lighten up, Francis. This isn’t going to be exactly the game you play, but it’s faithful enough to the source material that everyone recognizes it. If you don’t like it, fine. I’m clearly no Wizards of the Coast apologist. But if you don’t like it because you have an axe to grind, then you’re robbing yourself of fun. Don’t ruin ours.
It was fun. It was worth my time and money, but it could have been better. I’m sure we’ll get a sequel or two, so maybe those will be.
A few weeks ago, I hosted another 1st Edition Dungeons & Dragons (“1e”) game at my home. The group spent over an hour at the start of the session just reminiscing about the good old days when most of us first met. This was during the era of 4th Edition. Inevitably, the subject of synDCon came up. synDCon was the gaming convention financed primarily by Vic and me. The two of us did almost all the work of running the convention once it began. It was large enough that we had everything represented (see below), yet still maintained the coziness of conventions like Winter Fantasy.
synDCon Was Awesome
I need to put my modesty aside for a bit and say that we pulled off something magical (pun absolutely intended). In our first year, we took advantage of a holiday and put on a four-day convention. We provided tons of organized play: Living Forgotten Realms (4e), Pathfinder Society, and Heroes of Rokugan (Legend of the Five Rings). We also had individual games from less popular RPGs being run here and there, tons of card games (including, of course, Magic the Gathering), tons of board games, and we were the official DC-area convention for Munchkin. We had special events, a LARP, dungeon delves I wrote based on classic 1e adventures, and live music on Saturday night for one of the cons. Our slots were staggered so that slots didn’t start every four hours but rather every two hours. If you wanted to sleep in a bit, you could. You’d just start playing at 11 am instead of 9 am, but there were enough 2-hour slots of other things to do that you could still get three slots of gaming in.
It wasn’t run in a convention center, nor in the basement of a mediocre hotel, but rather in a really nice “hotel and executive meeting center” right across the street from a Metro (subway) stop in Rockville, Maryland. As the county seat for Montgomery County, there were tons of restaurants, et al. in the area, including a gaming store down the street. Of course, we had a gaming store as our in-convention vendor both years, and we generated about 200 attendees both years. Our attendees represented everywhere in the United States east of the Mississippi (e.g., Florida, Georgia, and Ohio), but we gave an award to a guy named Matt for having come the farthest for the con (Alaska).
We had tremendous support from volunteers that helped organize the detail while Vic and I focused on the big picture, and we’re forever indebted to those friends, but I’ll be damned if my feet weren’t atrociously sore by the end of both cons.
Seriously, it was stupendous, and everyone that attended and commented on it said so.
A Slight Diversion Before My Point
I’ve been thinking of doing something other than a Vegas blackjack trip for my fall vacation – I say this every year, so we’ll see if I follow through – and was considering an RPG gaming convention instead. Because I wanted to play 1e, I was initially thinking about GaryCon, but a friend pushed me towards GameholeCon. It was an easy sell because the timing would be better. GaryCon would interfere with Winter Fantasy, but GameholeCon would slide right into the Vegas slot (again, pun absolutely intended). The trouble is that Winter Fantasy and synDCon have spoiled me. I have no intention of going to a convention and paying between $100 and $200 per night for my hotel room if I’m staying at least 2 miles from the convention. That’s ridiculous. It’s like GenCon on a smaller scale. The city is obviously not big enough to handle the convention. So, I decided to look into other options.
There Aren’t Any
Sadly, I went through all my options I could find online, and nothing quite matches the magic of Winter Fantasy or synDCon as far as I can tell. The lists were not complete – Winter Fantasy wasn’t even mentioned (?!) – so maybe there are some other cons out there, but I can’t find them. The cons are at least one of the following: in an inconvenient or excessively crowded location, lack inexpensive parking, or focused on only a few things (usually the shiny new things of the day). Some are also not “cozy,” which I define as between 200 and 350 people. It’s large enough that there can be plenty to do, and you can meet new people, but small enough that you’ll always be able to find your friends and hang out with them. Winter Fantasy doesn’t even satisfy all of these characteristics perfectly – I tried to run 1e but only one ticket for only one slot of three was sold – but it’s as close to perfect as I think practical for a cozy con. It’s also in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. I’m fine going out there, and I will every year they’ll have me, but I find it odd that an area with as big a gaming community as DC doesn’t have something like this.
And this is my point. DC needs a convention like synDCon or Winter Fantasy. Such a con isn’t going to hit the radar scope of the big players (i.e., Wizards of the Coast and Paizo), but it’ll appeal to plenty of players. The DC area is filled with them. Our Gamers’ Syndicate gaming club had over 200 people that identified as members, and we ran game days every single weekend in as many as five gaming stores at a time. While organizing synDCon, I learned of several other groups just as large that had never even heard of us. They were organizing at other stores. This area has an abundance of gamers, and I suspect there are even more here over 10 years later.
Will There Be a synDCon III?
That’s the magic question. I’m happy to organize it, but as we discussed at the game session, my demands are high. First off, I want to do it right or not do it at all. I’m not willing to put together a con in “the basement of the Best Western.” No offense to the chain in general, but that happens to be a hotel we visited that would be the site of a con not worth having. It was downright gross but not unlike venues of cons I’ve attended in the early 2000s. No thanks. Second, having learned from my experiences with the first two, the only way I’d do it is if I had a number of additional owners willing to slap down cashier’s checks for at least $2,000 each (or more depending on how many people commit) and having signed an operating agreement that prevents them from every cashing out that initial investment. That is, I need a sizeable stable of people willing to commit whole-heartedly so that I know I’ll have both the funds and the work ethic necessary to make this doable. Trust me when I say that it’s not enough that someone throw money at me. I need to know that they’re committed to doing the work necessary to pull off a great con. Because it’s been over 10 years, I don’t know what the minimum acceptable number of owners would be, especially without knowing exactly how much each would be willing to contribute up front, but I do know $2,000 is enough to motivate most gamers to stay the course and do what they could not to throw that money away. Any of them willing to drop $2,000 are likely to take it seriously.
Another thing I remember is that no one wanted to be the guy, the “convention coordinator” or CEO who had to make the calls when weird situations arose. While I’m happy to be that guy, I’m not willing to be the one that puts out the feelers (beyond this post, I guess) and see if there’s interest. If I thought my odds were better than 50% of finding such interest, I would, but I don’t think there are enough people willing to make this kind of commitment, so why bother trying? I did my part for king and country, and wound up with a small, overworked group. If this is meant to be, then someone else will have to get the ball rolling. So, while I’m not the one destined to put this together, I strongly suspect there’s a market for it, and my recent thoughts and conversations on the matter sure leave me wishing someone would.
If that’s you, drop me an email when you think you’ve got something real.
I’m probably seeing Shazam! Fury of the Gods tonight, so here’s something stupid that didn’t take a lot of work to post. EDIT: A work outing kept me from seeing the movie, but still kept me busy tonight. It’s not even my image. Bards are my favorite Dungeons & Dragons class overall.
Also, happy St. Patrick’s Day!
It’s not St. Patrick’s Day until these three bards have their say.
Last weekend, I ran my 7th session of 1st Edition Dungeons & Dragons (“1e“). We spent over one hour shooting the breeze before diving into the game, and that was as much fun as the game itself. One topic that came up was magic items and how many modern gamers don’t take them seriously. One particular instance threw me off. Erik says,
In a game I was playing, we found a headband of intellect, and no one cared. They all pointed out that they weren’t intelligence-based characters, so it didn’t matter to them.
But that’s exactly why you should want one! You can become an intelligence-based character, which matters for skill checks and role-play in general!
Erik agreed and noted that his low-intellect ranger now has a 19 intelligence. The reaction of the other members of his gaming group isn’t a surprise to me. I’ve encountered this as well. While a ranger would probably prefer a +5 vorpal longsword for mechanical reasons, the headband opens up more avenues for role-play. Why doesn’t that appeal to people? Obviously, this is a generalization not backed by science, and even if accurate, it may not apply to you. That’s not important. What’s important is that 1e makes magic items more valuable, minimizing players’ disregard for them.
In 3rd Edition, you need to-hit bonuses in order to keep up with the increase in monster power because those bonuses were built into the math. That is, the power curve for a monster was steeper than that of a PC because it was assumed PCs would gain such magic items. (I’ve talked about how stupid I think that is despite how universal that is to game design.) In 4th Edition, the same math applied, but you could forgo magic items by using “inherent bonuses” that have the same effect. You simply add a cumulative +1 to your rolls at set levels in your advancement. In 5th Edition, you should probably get better magic weapons as you advance, but as long as you can get just a +1 weapon (or, like a monk, treat your attacks as magical even without a magic weapon), then you’ll always be able to hit creatures immune to mundane weapon attacks (e.g., flesh golems). These approaches to game design lessen the impact of magic items or make them altogether unnecessary, and usually make them boring (again, as I’ve discussed).
None of these are the case for 1e. First, an anecdote. In last Saturday’s session, PCs hid themselves in small room to avoid an unnecessary combat. They followed the elven ranger and magic-user who found the secret door to that room, which meant those two characters were at the back of the room. Neither elf found the secret door at the other end of the room, so when the zombies opened up that secret door, suddenly the magic-user found herself in what was now the front of the room engaged in melee with three zombies with the BBEG high priest behind them.
The magic-user wanted to cast Sleep, but I warned the player (the aforementioned Erik) that it was possible the spell would never go off. For those of you that don’t play 1e, long story short, a combat round is divided into ten segments, and each round a single initiative die is rolled for each that sets the segment in which each side goes. Because the die is a d6, that means everyone starts during the first six segments of the round. Also, Sleep requires 1 segment to cast, which is relatively quick but not a guarantee of success. So, even if the PCs win initiative, if the zombies go on the segment immediately after the PCs, the zombies will get to attack the magic-user before she’s finished casting Sleep. If even one of the zombies hits the magic-user for even one point of damage — likely to happen considering how poor the magic-user’s armor class always is — then the spell is disrupted, and it’s lost for the day. This means that it’s exceptionally difficult to cast spells in combat, which is worse for spells like Fireball (3 segments to cast) or Time Stop (9 segments to cast). (I’ve previously discussed how much I love this, because having more useful spells require longer casting times assures that different players will choose different spells for their casters, and that material components can be another way to achieve this goal.)
How is this relevant to today’s topic? Well, using magic items (e.g., scrolls, rods, staves, wands) is often instantaneous. In fact, their powers take effect before any melee attacks are resolved regardless of initiative. That means that many magic items allow a caster to cast their spells without fear of having them disrupted. At least for casters, magic items therefore become far more valuable, and isn’t that a common trope within the fantasy genre? That’s one more way in which 1e succeeds where some supposedly “evolved” editions fail. Nowadays, all innovation in game design means is that you’ve mashed together new combinations of existing mechanics from prior games, so don’t attempt to ignore the past when designing yours. Whether you adopt the precise mechanic of a prior game or not, at the very least it may provide inspiration for the feel and tone of your end product.