Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Lessons from al-Qadim Church: 2nd Edition D&D in the time of 5th

Thomas runs a 2nd Edition D&D game set in al-Qadim over Roll20 most Sundays, that we've taken to refering to as 'Church', originally as a bit of a joke about our scheduling, since for most of the players it's a 9am-1pm time slot. But thinking about it, it is a time of fellowship and reflection, with parables I can apply to my (gaming) life.

I've been playing Thema, a lawful evil moralist priest of Ragarra, dedicated to bringing the 'old' Gods of Ragarra, Shajar et al back to prominence and eventually casting out the Enlightened religion in the Ruined Kingdoms area where the campaign is set. So far we've cleared goblins out a monastery, cleared over a hundred gnolls out of a canyon of caverns, killed a vampire by releasing it out of a bottle into the tropical high noon sun and escaped from a trio of giants who wanted to keep us captive to pose for their topiary sculpting, among other things. We've played most Sunday mornings since September 2015, with over 20 sessions and put in nearly 100 days in game and every week it's well worth getting up early on Sunday, even if I was up late the night before, to sign on and play.

But up above I joked about parables, so what have I learned from playing 2nd Edition D&D when we're now three and half more editions on? And what do I want to steal from 2e for my own games?

  • Evil but not the baddies
    • We decided to be an evil party, though I don't know the exact alignment of the other PCs, but at least one other is a holy slayer for Ragarra, the evil deity my priest serves. While we're evil, we're not idiots, my deity isn't widely tolerated by the official Enlightened religion of many of the settlements and cities and so we're not in a position of power (yet). What it's mostly meant is that every now and then we can be ruthless; we can sell fake treasure maps that lead to the giants that tried to imprison us to serve as topiary models. We can enslave the goblins who had attacked the monastary we retook because they followed the enlightened religion, we can kill without feeling (too much) remorse. We aren't kill crazy murder-hobos though, when we find a creature that is willing to parley, we parley. We don't roam through towns setting inns on fire or eating infants. It's been a nice break. Long-time readers know that I'm not the biggest fan of how D&D handles alignment so it's a nice break to play a character that's driven with some goals and ideals (serve Ragarra) but doesn't have to be generic D&D hero. And it's also a nice break from generic D&D hero good which seems to tolerate jackassery as long as a bare minimum of monster killing also happens.
  • Combat is Quick and Deadly
    • Now it wasn't quite as quick when we first began playing, but now that the players have the basics of 2nd back in our heads and our Roll20 macros written, it's quick. Granted, we do initiative by side (PCs and DM) and aren't using some of the fiddlier bits like weapon speed (partly because the Roll20 options for that didn't work when we attempted them). But another reason it's fairly quick is that most of the PCs don't have an overwhelming abundance of choices to make each turn. Even though 5e combat is stripped down compared to to 4e I've noticed that some of my players still take time each turn to decide amongst their spells or abilities instead of having an action chosen. Even with all but one of the four PCs able to cast spells and a sorcerer follower (and at least four other followers most of the time), most turns are quick because we're making a decision of when to close for melee combat. The spells are saved for times when their use is ideal (the goblins are all bunched up, use Sleep to even the odds) or in desperation (we can't hit the Specter with non-magical weapons, time to cast Flame Blade and risk my skin).
    • Combat is also deadly, both for monsters and for the PCs. We had several close calls in the early sessions, with the party almost wiped out by ghouls and a PC almost dying after a random encounter with a giant scorpion. Which leads me to...
  • Teamwork Matters and so does Planning
    • Because even a random combat can be deadly we quickly learned to cooperate as a party, working to enhance each others strengths and compensate for each others weaknesses. While we're a morally suspect party, treasure is shared out to those who will make the best use of it, as are magical buffs. Though, it's clear to all the party members that if it ever came down to it, our group would leave someone to die if rescuing them would mean the party as a whole failed at a goal and there would be no mercy if a party member betrayed the group, so when that betrayal happens who ever makes the first move better be prepared... 
    • Which segues nicely into... Planning. Whenever we can we take time to plan our approaches to dangerous situations or combats. The canyon of caverns with over 100 gnolls? We cleared that over 6 or 7 sessions, the Sha'ir sending his gen to get invisibility spells for the rogues who snuck through the complex, reporting back so that we could plan lightning raids and set ambushes to take out small groups of gnolls and then retreat back to our safe haven.
  • Proficiencies remind me what I don't like about skills
    • Now, Thomas and I played 2e D&D for the first time when I was in Middle School, but by the time I was in High School we had largely dropped D&D for White Wolf games like Vampire and Changeling (mostly LARPs) as well as Fading Suns. We picked D&D back up with 3.5e after I had moved back to MN after college, in 2006 (I think) and I remember at that time being impressed and pleased with the move from proficiencies to skills, but going back to 2e has let me see some of the advantages of proficiencies over skills, for instance.
      • They're more specific.
        • There's a distinct difference between having Local History and Ancient History, between having Animal Lore and Animal Handling or Animal Training. I find myself frustrated lately by 5e having "Survival" cover what would have possibly been the following 2e proficiencies.
          • Direction Sense
          • Fire-building
          • Fishing
          • Hunting
          • Mountaineering
          • Navigation
          • Survival
          • Tracking
          • Weather Sense
        • Especially since I'm running Out of the Abyss, it would be nice if instead of one player having a high Survival skill and being called on to make all the checks if that could be spread amongst the PCs, one being good at navigation, the other at tracking and so forth.
      • They're focused more on knowledge than social interactions.
        • I used to despise the Perception skill and how it seemed to lead players to call out "I roll perception" whenever they walked into a new room but now my ire is reserved for the Insight skill (and Intimidation skill, to a lesser degree) which is trotted out by one player or another during any interaction with an NPC with the phrase "I roll insight to see if they're telling the truth" as if it were simple to detect a lie, told by a creature they might have just met, who is of a different species they have little or no experience interacting socially with, who is perhaps, not humanoid and so perhaps does not have the same facial expressions that one would use to detect a human telling a lie, which again, is often quite difficult in the real world </RANT>. So yeah, the al-Qadim Arabian Adventures book has the Debate and Haggling proficiencies but they're more about knowing how to do those things than just rolling to Intimidate the goblins and assuming that rolling a 17 while offering no explanation of why you would be intimidating would work (plus Haggling comes with a disclaimer to ask your DM before you take it and a fairly simple mechanical system to handle the results of using it.)
      • They feel like more meaningful choices, especially Weapon proficiencies
        • Just this last session we needed to pick some proficiencies for our followers and discussed as a group if we should have someone in the party with Bowyer/Fletcher, just so we would be able to more effectively salvage and manage inventory of arrows while we're deep in the jungle exploring ancient ruins days or weeks away from a town to resupply at. 
        • Thomas has us using some options from the late 2e Combat and Tactics sourcebook, though I suspect that weapon choices would still feel meaningful without them, but playing in 2e makes me wish that weapon choices mattered more in 5e. Four of the twelve class options in 5e can use any weapon proficiently at 1st level, even the weirdo options like blowguns or nets... But in 2e it matters if we get another magic short sword because for a while (or maybe still?) not all the party had short sword proficiency. And having most of the party use long bows so they could take two shots if they didn't move helped in many encounters, just as my priestess taking light crossbow proficiency instead because it will ignore up to 5 points of AC from armor offsetting my poorer THAC0.
  • Languages Matter
    • This could almost be folded into proficiencies as languages are just another non-weapon proficiency, but I find myself really liking that languages are more than just Common, Elven, Goblin etc. Now this could partly be a matter of playing al-Qadim as well, but my priestess speaks Noga and Midanai, and reads Noga and Ancient Noga, so now that we're in ruins of ancient Kadari it helps make the puzzles more of a mystery and the use of Comprehend Languages consequential. Having reading and writing separate makes a poor farmer who took up a spear and became a folk hero who maybe speaks a common tongue, his local tongue and the tongue of his orc oppressors make more sense than if he could speak and read and write all three of those languages. Plus, in 2e you can decide to throw additional Non-weapon proficiency slots into languages while in 5e you have to put in 250(!) days of downtime training to learn a new language, a requirement onerous enough as to seem ridiculous unless your DM does in-game years in between levels or something.
  • Dates, time and travel matter
    • This is probably more to do with the game Thomas is running than 2e but I appreciate more dates and time in a game since beginning to play this campaign. One of our big sources of healing is the goodberry spell, but those berries only last as many days as my level, so berries created on day 90 are no longer effective on day 96. I just used my 5th level crocodile one time a week summoning power for the first time and so I had to note down the date. 
    • We have a base in an old monastery we cleared and its so many days away from the nearest settlement and so many days further to the nearest city, so when we travel with our entourage we have to take that into account. At one point we had a month to clear out the gnoll canyon, but that was given at a tower and then we had to travel two or three days back to the city to get supplies and then four or five days back up to the canyon and clear it out with the two or three days to spare to get back to the tower.
    • One thing I intend to pick up for the game is taking on the task of "mapper" in the sense that Torchbearer uses it, where I'll start keeping a log of the days and brief descriptions of each location we visit. Previously I had been tracking inventory, but another player was also handling that and to be frank he's much better than I at it. Plus, I kinda want to try this out before I try and talk my own players into doing it.
  • The uneveness allows for discoveries
    • This is definitely a feature (or bug, depending on how you look at it) of 2e, but there is very little attempt at balance. Each 1st level spell is not meant to be even roughly as powerful as another and that's a bit of a joy to play around with (a little frustrating too, but on the whole I'm enjoying it). You get the pleasure of finding that Animal Friendship is every druid and nature priests best friend (or brings them potentially many best friends), that while the 1st level priest Detect Snares & Pits is pretty abysmal, the 2nd level priest Detect Traps is amazing for assisting in clearing out an ancient tomb.
So, what do I want to take from my 2e al-Qadim sessions? I'll try to make this part brief since I've already gone on for so long.
  • Take another look at making combats quicker. Encourage my players to have a couple of default actions that they can go to, so that each round doesn't get bogged down in a re-reading of spell lists or combat manuevers that are available.
  • Provide some opportunities for my players to make teamwork and planning by their PCs count.
  • Really, really wondering if I could get away with going back to enforcing a "no skill checks until the DM asks for them" rule at my tables. I've tried a few times, but never quite made it stick.
  • I think the next time I run an ongoing 5e game, I'll make the players pick a 'specialization' for the skill they're proficient in like "Athletics:Running" or "Arcana:Divinations" or "Insight:Gambling Tells" to provide some more dimension and specificity to their skills.
  • I do plan on laying down the expectation to my players that I'm going to handle the problematic social skills of D&D 5e (Deception, Intimidation and Persuasion, because, let's be honest, nobody uses Performance and even if they did it's less of an issue) differently going forward, but there will be no "I got a 19 insight I knowz the truth of what the goblin said" or "I rolled a nat 20 on intimidate, the dragon's gotta flee even though all the rest of the party failed their fear saves" but instead those skills will allow them to adjust the direction of a social encounter, not to completely control it. Probably will need to figure out a better way of saying that.
  • Take another look at my abortive attempt at weapon options and language/skill/intelligence options that I had started drafting for the DMs Guild now that I haven't touched them in almost two months and see what might be salvageable. 

1 comment:

  1. Some of your observations are, I think, mostly a product of me running the game: languages and the calendar, though I bet many others would track that in an OSR game as well.

    The combat, however, generally does seem a lot faster than any version of D&D we've done in the past decade. Which is a little funny because one-minute rounds mean all those combats are technically longer. I think a lot of it is simply because players have fewer options: its more 'who do I attack' than 'who do I attack and which attack do I use and what do I do with my bonus action?' I like the proficiencies, but I've been debating adapting it so they focus less on letting you use basic weapons and more on giving you access to advanced weapons and cool things to do with them.

    Its definitely turning out to be a blast. I wonder sometimes if I could make my ideal version of the game, at least at the moment, I think I'd take the simplified basic D&D rules (i.e. simplified stat progression), add on some of the variety from second edition (a variety of classes), and mix some of the ease-of-table concepts from 5e (dis/advantage, spell durations of a round, a turn, an hour, bonuses over penalties, no dead levels, etc). I'd need a month or two to write it up though, and that might depend on whether it'd be for my own use or if I'd throw it out there for others to use as well.


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