Wednesday, January 07, 2009

adding 'Eldritch' makes everything cooler

Without a doubt Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry is the most badass of the original D&D supplements. Most of the rules additions it presents push D&D into a darker, more metal direction. You get a playable druid class, from back when druids were into human sacrifice rather than hugging trees. (Though I must admit I also like hippie druids sometimes.) You get a psionic system that in many ways is better than the attempt to improve it in AD&D. And you get demons. Weird, vicious demons were one of the monster types curiously absent from the OD&D monster list. And of course there’s the naked chick on the cover. By the time I got into D&D they were hiding that sort of stuff inside the book. Later of course it was excised altogether. You know, to protect us kids from the dangers of seeing ink curves vaguely resembling boobs. In this modern internet era that concept seems quaint as well as dunderheaded.

And then there’s the artifacts and relics. Some days I wonder if the game would have been improved by dropping all the bland +1 swords and going with a moreartifactish line-up. Maybe keep one-shot items like potions and scrolls and replace the rest of the magic section of the DMG with guidelines for building your own artifacts. Other days I wonder whether or not Eldritch Wizardry was the Unearthed Arcana of the seventies: full of ridiculously awesome stuff but maybe hurting more games than it helped. In many ways Eldritch Wizardry is the closest TSR ever got to that gonzo Arduin Grimoire vibe. I can’t help but think that today a veteran DM running the Holmes Basic rules plus Supp III would make for a helluva campaign.

But as a kid I only knew of Eldritch Wizardry as an old book occasionally mentioned in passing in Dragon, or as a single line on old product listings. Druids, psionics, demons, and artifacts were integrated parts of AD&D, but not the Basic/Expert rules I started with. I’m pretty sure I for my Basic Set in June of 1981, as a birthday gift from my Mom & Dad. I could be off by a year, but it was definitely the summer of either ’81 or ’82. The year after that I bought my first set of Advanced books at the after-Christmas sale at the K-Mart in Bloomington, Illinois. They must have over-ordered the D&D stuff because I believe I paid only five bucks for each book (PHB, MM and Fiend Folio), except for the DMG, which might have been seven fifty.

This was back when D&D was having its first mainstream success and you could find entire lines of product at toy stores. My first Basic set came from the now-defunct mall-based Kaybee Toys. I bought lots of stuff in toy stores, book stores, and department stores. My buddy Pat used to get a lot of his gaming stuff at a freakin’ hardware store of all places. My first Holmes Basic rulebook was purchased in the late eighties, years after the Menzter Basic set had come out. It was sitting innocently on the book rack in the toy section of a department store, next to things like Strawberry Shortcake coloring books and wooden puzzles for toddlers. At the time I had no idea what Holmes Basic was. All I knew was that it had the two magic words and an ampersand on the cover and based upon the production values it looked like it predated my Basic set. And they only wanted 5 bucks for it.

Anyway, by starting with Basic D&D and later ‘upgrading’ to AD&D as a kid I associated all the cool stuff in Supplement III with Advanced play. If you wanted to play grown-up D&D, you clearly needed stuff like psionics and demons in your game. As a young man this introduced a certain tension in my DMing style, as I clearly wanted to use this stuff to show off how mature I was but I also assumed that I wasn’t experienced enough of a Dungeon Master to pull it off. To this day I tend to shy away from AD&D/Eldritch psionics. I use more demons but I tend to gloss over their psionic abilities. I’ve played some druids but never made much use of them as a DM.

And I think I’ve used exactly two artifacts straight out of the book. Once I managed to bleed my high school group dry of gold pieces by putting the Ring of Gaxx up for auction. They pooled their resources to make sure they won the bidding and then proceeded to squabble over who got to wear it. Sadly, it never reached the point of outright PC-on-PC violence. The most likely instigator of such action was distracted by his paladin being slowly corrupted by the demon lord Pazuzu. I had hoped that he was going to ask his ‘guardian angel’ to get the Ring for him, but he never took the bait. Sadly the campaign ended before that subplot could come to a head. I had in mind this endgame where Jonathan’s paladin would be transformed into a death knight and then totally crush the rest of the party. I think he would have gone along with it, too.

The other time I used an artifact out of the book was for my first post-3e campaign. My Greymoor campaign (so-named because it was set in First Fantasy Campaign version of Blackmoor merged with Greyhawk’s version) crashed and burned mainly because at first I didn’t grasp how different 3e was from its antecedents. Attempting to use templates without understanding Challenge Ratings nearly ended in a TPK when the party threw down with some Fiendish Half-Dragon Gnolls. And when Pat’s sixth level cleric started mass producing magic items I freaked out. Running AD&D after that fiasco helped me get my equilibrium back. I felt so much more at ease with the older system that at one point I literally just handed a player a write-up of the Recorder of Ye’Cind, just to see how it would turn out in play. “Here, your new PC has an artifact.” Dude ended up not using it too much because the more experienced players at the table warned him that artifacts often come with undocumented bugs.

So with my new campaign I’m trying to work out some of these kinks in my DMing style. For starters more magic items will be of an artifact-type nature. I’m considering adding some demon summoning spells to both the magic-user and cleric lists, at lower spell levels than baseline D&D. As I mentioned earlier in the week, I’m also trying to come to grips with how to handle druids. On one hand I like the Supplement I: Greyhawk version, where they are a NPC-only group and druidic powers are expressed as the ability to cast both cleric and MU spells. That spell ability adds a certain mystique to the class, since under OD&D a PC is not allowed to be a cleric/magic-user (also true for my campaign’s system of choice, Labyrinth Lord). A clever and ambitious PC might try to get into the druidic cult to gain some of their mojo. This lines up nicely with my approach to psionics, where a PC might be able to gain access to psi powers providing they can find a guru willing to teach them the mental arts. On the other hand, some players just want to play a druid without messing around a bunch. Simply adapting Frank Mentzer’s version of the class would cater to that demographic. I like players getting to play what they want, but at some point you cross the line from accommodating players to pandering to them. Which side of that line the druid should be on isn’t entirely clear to me right now.