There’s a lot to like about the first edition Oriental Adventures hard back. The eastern variants of the classic D&D class archetypes all have a distinctive flavor. Each one has their own ki power to further differentiate them while simultaneously infusing the game the essence of great kung fu movies. And no gaming junkie can resist the allure of the new spell lists, monsters, and magic items. Even better, it’s AD&D from the time when it was at the height of its cultural prominence– up to and including toys and a bizarre Saturday morning cartoon. It’s flat out cool. But if you never got this down off the shelf and onto the table with a group of your gaming buddies, I really can’t blame you. The sort of game design legwork that would make it a cinch to do that simply isn’t there.
What do I mean by that…? Well for starters, there’s a glaring ambiguity in the rules for how the wu jen memorize spells. If you read it one way, it sounds like the eastern magic users require six hours per spell in order to be able to cast it. Or maybe it’s six hours for everything you can learn a la the shukenja class. Okay, yeah, this is maybe not that huge of a deal. (This question was answered in back in Dragon #121, not that a forteen-year-old from the mid-eighties would have had access to that. It’s turns out that, officially speaking, it’s not six hours per spell, of course.) But it’s the sort of thing that gets a Dungeon Master’s hopes up. What if… what if eastern style magic was different…? What if it really did take days for a high level wu jen to get all of his spells back? How would that change both the world and the gameplay? Would wu jen spells be a bit more powerful as a result? Or would they get other perks to balance out the hassel? Would they get the ability to make potions earlier on after the fashion of Egg Shen in Big Trouble in Little China?
But no, as captivating as the idea of what this game could be is, it’s still just AD&D. I mean it’s really, truly, thoroughly AD&D. By the book, 5% of all spell scrolls that turn up in play are going to be “gaijin” spells straight out of the Players Handbook or Unearthed Arcana. And as tantalizing as selecting from forty– count ’em, forty!– first level spells from a totally different campaign milieu is, you’d think there’d be something more to eastern magic than simply having to burn through a casting of Read Magic.
Of course, now that I think of it… I pity the poor mage that fails his chance to know roll for that particular spell. Although, that can’t happen here because wu jen begin the game with 3d6 spells of their choice. However, if they lose a point of intelligence in play, I suppose they will have to roll to see if they still understand it. And I have to hand it Zeb Cook, I never really understood how all that “chance to know” business was supposed to work anyway. Half of the wu jen class description is taken up with maybe the best explanation of that anywhere. I will finally get to play these bizarre rules with a sense that possibly maybe kind of sort doing it the correct legitimate intended “official” Gary-approved way. (You did see his name on the cover, didn’t you…?)
But I digress. Here’s my point, though: shouldn’t oriental style magic be a bit more exotic? And shouldn’t its exoticism be rooted in something other than some wonky rules that date all the way back to the OD&D Greyhawk supplement? It just seems like a little “extra” could have been done here, that’s all. And sure, a creative Dungeon Master can take some liberties to spruce this sort of thing up. I don’t need TSR (defunct or otherwise) to get fancy with this for me. Besides, if I really wanted them to help me get a campaign going I would have settled for them making it dead simple to figure out the currency system, the AC of Japanese style armor, and the encumbrance levels and movement rates that go with them. (Every time I look at that stuff, I find some other aspect of my game to go prep for! Agh!)
None of this is a deal breaker, though. It really isn’t. And in my case, the players are keen enough on the system that they’re willing to dig through some of this sort of thing for me. I have to admit, too, that as a “drop in” replacement for the AD&D Players Handbook, this is really a pretty good book, all things considered. You’re still going to have to consult the original manuals for a few crucial things, sure. But on balance the players really like it, and nobody is going to argue with that. That really is the sort of thing that gets game sessions off the ground, after all.
But there’s another side of the old reference screen that’s relevant here. How does this tome serve the Dungeon Master…? Well I hate to say it, but it’s awful. I mean sure, the AD&D rules function as sort of a Procrustean bed with this setting. It’s awkward to see the whole of Eastern culture and spirituality filtered through the venerable nine-point alignment system, for instance. Do the assumptions under-girding all of this even make any sense? Now… it wouldn’t have to if they provided me with the tools to actually run a game. If they did it right, I could even get going with a campaign right away and gradually get up to speed on both the rules and eastern culture over time.
Instead they hand me a big fat headache.
Look at the monster section. They give a list there of the monsters from Monster Manual, Fiend Folio, Monster Manual II, and even Legends & Lore (formerly Deities & Demigods). Never mind the fact that it’s nuts to expect a fourteen year old Dungeon Master to really, truly have ALL OF THE BOOKS. (TSR was utterly shameless about that, even peppering references to the Survival Guide rules into the adventures in Dungeon magazine. That’s pure tee Lawful Evil right there!) But the encounter tables referencing this hodge podge of creations spanning a decade of people noodling around with the system…? All they give are a handful of d8+d12 tables for a sixteen terrain types like the ones in the back of Monster Manual II.
Maybe this is another clue, though. Maybe Oriental Adventures is supposed to emphasize social, political, and wilderness encounters beyond and above the traditional dungeon. It’s possible. But I’ve been wrong about these sorts of rules oddities in this book already. I certainly leaped to the wrong conclusion regarding wu jen spell memorization rates! If that was the intention, they sure didn’t equip me to pull off much with a non-dungeon oriented campaign. If that’s what I’m “supposed” to do with this book, I would think that I’d be getting a little more help.
But I’ve logged more hours putting people through dungeons than really any other adventure type. Given the self-balancing nature of the sprawling mega-dungeon format, I have no fear of jumping into a gigantic Oriental themed underworld even if the classes and spells and weaponry are totally brand new. Sure, there’s no reason I can’t simply drop the players into something like The Isle of Dread. But the dungeon is the most tried and true campaign format in gaming history. It can’t fail.
What do I need to get it rolling? Easy: something like Appendix C Random Monster Encounters from the Dungeon Masters Guide. To relocate from Mythical/Vancian Europe to Mythical/Vancian Japan, all I really need is the random monster encounter tables by dungeon level. And note: you can’t fake those by going to the Monster Manual entries. The number appearing stats in those are for determining total lair populations on the wilderness maps! (Man, wilderness adventures must have been more central to the medium compared to what was more normal when I was starting out.)
The bottom line here is that to get a game off the ground, I either have to do the design work involved in creating these sorts of tables myself. OR I have to use the tables from the Dungeon Masters Guide and then manually retheme the results to something feels a little more “eastern” somehow. Now… the former is simply not going to happen. (With the number of functional, completed game designs on the market, why would I ever do that?! Bah!) The latter? I really didn’t need this book to get a game like THAT off the ground!
Looking at what’s in the book, then, I can’t help but think that this is an intentionally incomplete game that is designed to be so useless, the DM has no other choice but to pick up a module series in order to get play out of it. For all the people that got this game back in the day and yearned for a campaign to come out of this– for all those people for whom days turned to years and years turned to decades without a first edition Oriental Adventures campaign spontaneously breaking out on a nearby tabletop– THIS IS THE REASON WHY IT NEVER HAPPENED.
Y’all got handed a half baked book that looked good on the shelf and that’s it. It was not in the interests of the company that sold it to you to ACTUALLY SOLVE THE GAME DESIGN PROBLEMS THEY WERE PUSHING ONTO YOUR DUNGEON MASTER. That poor sod either had to be so good that he didn’t need the supplement in the first place or else he had to shell out cash for modules that would only complete the design process on an adventure-by-adventure basis.
But hey, that’s par for the course by now as any gamer worth his salt would know. What then is the solution to this low grade gaming crisis? Well that’s obvious, really.
Obvious as all hell!