Preparing a First Edition AD&D Oriental Adventures Game, Part I

Tuesday , 31, May 2016 18 Comments

“It’s your job to create events outside the standard sequence of ‘I roll to hit. They roll to hit. I roll to hit.'” — Matt Finch

“Playing the game as written removes an astounding number of the problems people had with AD&D.” — -C

It’s funny how things like this get started. A Dungeon Master doesn’t always get to pick what’s actually getting to going to get played. Someone might mention in passing how this or that ruleset or module is kind of cool. Then it starts coming up in conversation off and on until somebody else declares that they would totally do something like that. Before you know it you’ve got the required critical mass to trigger the sort of planning and coordination it takes to get a game off the ground.

That’s how is with the Eastern style campaign idea that’s currently getting kicked around. Certainly, first edition AD&D was never really at the top of my “want to run” list. I’ve always assumed it’s just too much game for what I’d normally want to do. In spite of how the old Oriental Adventures book as fallen out of fashion over the years, it nevertheless retains a surprising amount of cachet. And as long as I’ve had this volume in my collection, it does gall me that I couldn’t really tell you how its contents would work in actual play.

The biggest strike against it for me has always been the bewildering, incomprehensible, and fantastically Byzantine combat rules. I could never really make myself slog through them all, to tell you the truth. Taking a hard look at the Oriental Adventures rule book the past few days, I was surprised to see that it seems to tacitly repudiate the combat rules of its parent game while assuming that players will be doing something much closer to B/X in practice. It dawned on my that I could actually run the thing. Or large swaths of it, anyway.

At the very least, the summary of the combat sequence there in the Oriental Adventures rules is easy to understand. Using it as a starting point, it’s possible to flesh it out by dropping in portions of the Dungeon Masters Guide that make sense. Anything that seems missing or that is overly confusing can be patched up by interpolating rules of thumb from other, better edited variants of the game that I’ve played incorrectly for decades.

Here’s a summary of what I get doing just that:

  • SURPRISE: Take each side’s best DEX mod. The side with the higher value gets the difference as a bonus to surprise and as a bonus to avoid surprise. (Note that in some situations, the Iaijutsu proficiency can provide a -1 to the die rolls.) The players are rolling to see if they are surprising their opponents– low is good. If both sides are surprised, the lower result wins. If they are tied, neither side is surprised. Surprised groups may not act during the first combat round.
  • INITIATIVE: All actions are declared before the dice are rolled. Initiative is by side. Kensai get a +1 bonus. Wu Jen may take a +3 bonus once per day due to their ki ability. There are no other modifiers for this roll.
  • SEQUENCE: The sequence of play is not explicit. I presume that Moldvay’s “5 M’s” are adequate: Morale, Movement, Missiles, Magic, and Melee. I also presume that spell-casters may not move. If initiative is tied, this sequence is followed for everyone with each sequence step taken as having occurred simultaneously.
  • MORALE: The AD&D Morale rules are astonishing. The nuance of when to check combined with the many modifiers and the range of results– this is some serious stuff here. The most surprising thing about it? It’s checked on an individual basis by all hirelings and on a group basis by monster types!! The number of modifiers for henchmen are incredible, but a base of %50 combined with subtraction of the PC’s Charisma-based loyalty bonus should be sufficient for people that want to keep things moving. (Any penalties for extraordinary PC behaviour can be calculated between sessions.)
  • REACTIONS: Note that all other things being equal, a character with Charisma 18 will not ever receive a hostile or violently hostile reaction. A party with initiative thus has a strong incentive to parley. Of course, a DM will apply these rules with common sense. But the modifiers for bribes, racial preferences, and alignment factors from the henchmen section are in force here, so the DM is not completely on his own for this. Also note that the situation modifiers indicate that the party can parley after battle has been enjoined and gain significant reaction bonuses by a sufficient show of force.

You know, James Maliszewski said that most people “ignored weapon proficiencies, segment-based combat rounds, grappling/pummeling/overbearing, helmet rules, and a host of other distinctive elements of AD&D” back in the day. At this point, I have to wonder how much of of even the core combat sequence got used.

Or course, it’s kind of a running gag in the game blog scene that if you consult Gygax’s AD&D books for something, you always always ALWAYS end up stumbling across something that you’ve never seen before, so I expect this sort of thing, really. But it still kind of blows my mind!! I mean… when you think of all the complaints that have ever been levelled at old school D&D combat over the years, it’s just plain gobsmacking to think that there was plenty in the books that directly addressed so many of the commonly perceived issues with the game.

From Forum, Dragon #151.

But there it is. The morale and reaction rules not only shorten the time it takes to resolve combat by having the monsters run away when it’s clear they’re outmatched… but they actually include a means to get the two sides talking and negotiating even after the trading of blows has ensued! And in a clash between two rival gangs, a combination of casualties and desertions can trigger a death spiral that rapidly causes an entire line of fighting men to disintegrate!

Given that role-playing originally grew out of miniatures wargames, it shouldn’t be that surprising to come across this sort of thing in one of Gygax’s books. Still, it’s hard to believe that this was right there all this time. (Granted, I was forbidden from looking inside the DM’s guide back when it ruled the roost. I’m naturally going to be somewhat late to the party….) While I tend to prefer the leaner, meaner rules of the Moldvay Basic set to the imposing tomes of AD&D, I have to admit that this is something I could stand to have in my game. Certainly, this sort of accurate modelling of a fighting force’s cohesiveness is not something I would think incorporate into a game where I am simply being as “imaginative” as possible!

  • Sky says:

    I would be very curious to read how you end up running those games. And I mean the minutiae. I had the AD&D Player’s Guide and made a few characters and played a handful of games with my young friends back in the day. They were total crap, we were too young/stupid to do it right. I remember the rules being very intimidating, especially in comparison to my red box. I left gaming and came back in time for the tail end of 3.5. Always I wondered what AD&D was really like.

    Anyone else hear the Comic Book Guy’s voice when you read the Dragon Forum piece? I can’t be alone.

    Lastly, do people consider 2nd edition AD&D grist for the OSR mill? I am used to thinking about B/X, OD&D, BECMI, but AD&D is part of the whole thing too right? What about 3rd and 3.5 represents a dividing line between old school and new school? Who has two thumbs and is late to the discussion, THIS GUY!

    • Jeffro says:

      2e is not always implied to be “classic D&D” like the others, but people do occasionally speak of “TSR D&D” to explicitly keep it on the proper side of the old school / new school debate.

      The main problem with 3e and later is that combat takes so long it encourages linear adventure designs. The OSR was to some extent a compensation for the lack of significant choice in mainstream role-playing that resulted from this.

      • Sky says:

        That makes a lot of sense. I had fun with 3.5 but one encounter would dominate the whole evening. People talk about combat heavy vs dialogue/story heavy games, but I haven’t read much about exploring. I wanted to explore, the tomb, the hex map, whatever. Hard to do that when 3/4’s of the game is spent playing a tactical miniatures game.

    • cirsova says:

      He’s focusing on minis wargames these days, but Stelios V. Perdios had a pretty good 2e OSR blog called D20 Dark Ages.

    • Jeffro says:

      B/X played strictly by the book produces a game that emphasizes the exploration and “push your luck” elements over the miniatures gaming. The mega-dungeon– which was not publishable until recently– gives players control over the story due to there always being several adventuring options available at any given moment. (And that’s without layering in a hex-crawl.) The trend of the past decade or so of minimizing consequences undercuts this sort of thing.

  • Hooc Ott says:

    “The mega-dungeon– which was not publishable until recently”

    What is “the mega-dungeon”?

    Why was it not publishable?

    • Jeffro says:

      The old modules role-players are more familiar with are not representative of how OD&D/AD&D was meant to be played. They are more like worked examples that demonstrate how to do a *little bit* of what was required to run a game. Dwimmermount and Stonehell dungeon are closer to what Gygax actually ran, but the question of how to publish something like that was not conceivable in the seventies. Or perhaps the need to get product out rapidly meant that first compromises were made, then expectations shifted in the 80’s as to what even the game was supposed to be about. At any rate, there are several mega-dungeons for classic D&D on the market now, so this issue has been well addressed in recent years.

      • cirsova says:

        I do somewhat wonder at what point a dungeon goes from being just a dungeon to a mega-dungeon.

        B4 feels a lot like a miniature mega-dungeon, with its factions and long-play goals, but it’s still relatively cramped in terms of its geography. The closest one could come, i suppose, via the old modules would be by cramming dungeons inside each other. I suppose you could stick B4 at the bottom of Porttown or Skull Mountain, and stick B1 and B3 in the lower caves around the City below the Pyramid, and have a tunnel at the very bottom that leads to the hollow interior earth and put X1 there.

        • Sky says:

          That might be one of those unanswerable questions there.

          I run a game at a public library. We have a core of regulars and a lot of people dropping in and out. I wanted some cohesion and some ongoing narrative so I wrote up a rather extreme mega dungeon. It is a floating structure, an amalgam of various castles and libraries and buildings mushed together. A sole portal allows entry. Upon entering the party is transported to a random level. Some levels are minimalist, like row upon row of library shelves stuck in the middle of the desert, attended by one solitary gnome, armed with a shovel to keep the dunes at bay. Other levels are more traditional. I have about thirteen levels sketched out and of course, the portal allows me to wing it, make new levels at home or even on the fly. Depending on the party going through I may seed more narrative elements. People get to see some wild stuff and roll some dice. Its a good time.

          • Jeffro says:

            I’m told that making your own and steadily developing it in response to actual play is the soul of “real” D&D. I’m not much of a Do-It-Yourself guy, but I’ve paid attention to this thread of gaming discussion. I think there’s something to it.

  • Sky says:

    A public game is hard because you don’t know who is going to show up. We get some players with some legitimate difficulties in social settings, not awkward gamers, I mean people that have a state appointed handler. I rule the table with a much firmer hand than is necessary in most games, but it is done to make sure everyone gets to play, everyone gets to have fun, and it works. Oddly though, the wild west atmosphere frees me up to work on the thing, experiment, and really react to the players and riff off what they are wanting. The average home game you are playing with people you’ve known for years and ironically I think is a harder crowd. With my library game I am out there dancing, sweating, trying to keep this thing from running into a ditch. Thanks to the players it works. People show up desperate to play. I get away with a lot, probably more than I could with my jaded friends. Not that I wouldn’t love to sit down with my jaded friends and play if adulthood wasn’t constantly in the way.

    • Alex says:

      This – when I ran Tower of Zenopus for a library group, I think there was only one or two people who made it to all four of the scheduled scessions.

      How long does the library give you for your game? I got stuck with a 1.5 hour slot, but we got a remarkable amount accomplished considering.

      • Sky says:

        Ooh sometime you will have to tell me all about that, is it on your blog? We are blessed with a full three hours. I have it starting at 5, a soft start really, we get everybody seated and get really going around 5:30 usually. We have enough people coming that we run three tables. The core group that makes every session is about 10 people and then we usually get another 10 or 12, a mix of new faces and people that have been to a couple.

        • Alex says:

          Wow, that sounds awesome. I don’t know if the program last year was not successful enough to do it again or if they didn’t like that I asked for better signage if we were to be stuck in a conference room behind doors marked “Employees Only”, but I have not heard back from anyone about doing it again this year. I got paid like 25 bucks to do it, though, so I can add “Professional DM” to my resume.

  • David says:

    There has been a lot of analysis of the Oriental Adventures hardcover which didn’t get much playtesting before it was released. Are you planning to run it by the book or do you intend to fix some of the disparities found in the rules. In particular some spells are lackluster for their level and the whole martial arts subsystem, while nifty, has some super-optimal builds.

    The book is also more written for social and political themes and conflicts with court skills and family and birthright tables. The birthright table is another interesting subystem, the family table less so. The book implies you are running a political game with PCs having family responsibilities and a daimyo or other superior they work for as part of an ordered society. Rather than as mercenaries or adventurer outsiders who work as free agents.

    • Jeffro says:

      Imagine THE BROKEN SWORD as the starting point. The birth of Christ has initiated the crumbling of Western faerie, but no missionaries or explorers have set foot in the East. Spirit beings are ubiquitous there as are eastern style goblins, ogres, and dragons.

      The question is not so much how the players fit into society. It’s how much of the sprawling AD&D cosmology applies to the setting.

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