Saturday, November 29, 2008

Skip Williams' Axe of the Dwarvish Lords

So I recently re-read this adventure from the very end of the 2E AD&D era: "Axe of the Dwarvish Lords" by Skip Williams (published 1999). Basically it's your canonical giant craftily defended goblin lair (see: "Tucker's Kobolds"), set in an abandoned dwarven mountain stronghold, whose leader happens to hold the Axe of the Dwarvish Lords. I'm not sure how it would play out in actual AD&D gaming -- depending on DM adjudications, it could possibly get boring or frustrating (PC levels 13-15).

There's a number of interesting details as I read it. First of all, "2nd Edition" is nowhere on the cover (it just says "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons" on front & back, which I tend to see as admission of the foul taste 2E put in most everyone's mouth). In addition, there's a whole lot of 3E-isms included, so I think we can conclude exactly who was respibsible for certain new things in the 3E core rules:

(1) Opposed ability rolls in a sidebar on p. 5.
(2) Change of the Axe artifact from hammer-backed (1E) to spike-backed.
(3) Repeating crossbows in a sidebar on p. 63 (with nets & garrotes).
(4) Alchemical "thunderpots" (basically grenades, 4d10 damage in 15-ft; p. 183) which I'm assuming got transformed into alchemical "thunderstones" in 3E.
(5) The idea of "items of quality" providing a partial +1 bonus, similar to 3E's masterwork quality; although here it requires an artifact to produce them! (p. 185)
(6) The wacky idea that permanent, at-will powers time out every X-turns and need to be "re-cast" like a spell. That drove me a bit batty when Skip started asserting that for magic items (like a ring of invisibility) in his "Ask the Sage" articles for 3E. (See p. 94)

Finally, here are things in this adventure which irritate me when I read them.

(1) Volley fire. D&D is set up so that high-level characters mow down whole armes of low-level warriors. That's a primary expectation of the structure of D&D. But every now and then someone doesn't like that assumption, and proposes a mechanic to totally break the rules and let low-level warriors en masse somehow magically damage high-level characters. (See 3E DMG2 "Mob" rules.) Well, you have that here in a "Volley Fire" rule as Skip calls it. Get 2+ goblins together and suddenly their joint fire bypasses all AC and automatically deals damage (save for half). Frankly, I hate it when a D&D mass combat rule completely contradicts the effects of core D&D game mechanics.

(2) Calling hazards non-traps. In a move to gimp rogues' "Find Traps" ability, Skip pulls a rules-lawyerish move and starts calling out a whole bunch of hazards as "non-traps" and therefore impossible to find with the rogue ability. Crumbling pillar? (Not a trap: it's just erosion.) Collapsing ladder? (Not a trap: just poor workmanship.) Exploding gas? (Not a trap: it's an accidental release.) That's weak, man.

(3) Defensive matting. Probably the most ridiculous thing in the adventure, and it's splattered all over the dungeon maps, too. Supposedly these goblins have figured out how to make piles of straw/ hay/ sticks/ detritus a few feet deep, structured so it carries their weight (they walk on top of it), but human-sized adventurers crunch through it -- which (a) slows them, (b) makes noise, (c) pinpoints invisibles, (d) explodes into poison gas from fire, and (e) hides pits, exploding pots, rut grubs, disease, and pungi sticks along the way. I mean -- do I really want to play out all the crap it would take clear this stuff? Do the goblins really fill hundreds of feet of corridors directly outside their sleeping areas with poison/ rot grubs/ disease/ exploding/ poison garbage? Did they really structure every inch of it that perfectly -- and do they never have to haul in a bag of treasure or equipment that causes them to snap through it? Ugh!

D&D That Never Was (1)

Let's say OD&D was released as published. Later Gygax decides to use different Hit Dice for different classes. Instead of bumping Fighters and Monsters up to d8 (and later d10), he instead does this:

Fighters: d6 per level.
Clerics: d6-1 per level (equivalent to d4).
Wizards: 1/2 d6 per level (equivalent to d3).

So: (1) Different classes have different hit dice. (2) Everyone uses d6 dice for hits. (3) Monsters can cleanly add Fighter levels, since they use the same Hit Dice. (4) The DM can roll all monster hit dice with a big handful of regular d6's, instead of having to keep track of a set of d8's just for that purpose. Ah, sweet relief. :)

(Also, an elegant way to roll d6-1: Roll d6's, turn any "6" into a "1". Average is 2.67, compare to d4's average of 2.5.)