Saturday, December 6, 2008

In Praise of Mentzer

I'm often rather harsh about the D&D rules written in the mid-80s by Frank Mentzer. Part of it is because they're products of a decadent era at TSR, when Sutherland and Trampier gave way to Elmore and Parkinson and when mass market appeal drove most design decisions. And the Mentzer rules are nothing if not mass market. Even moreso than Moldvay/Cook, the Mentzer rules were written for people unfamiliar not just with roleplaying games but also with the entire culture out of which D&D sprang. They're the first truly "post-D&D D&D" and it's very hard for me to look beyond that much of the time.

That's a shame, because, for all their concessions to mainstream acceptance, there's some good stuff to be found in these boxed sets, particularly Set 3 -- the Companion Rules -- from which I stole lots of ideas for my AD&D campaigns. For me, Set 3 was the fufillment of a promise on which D&D had never quite managed to make good -- to provide rules and guidelines for the endgame of a character's adventuring career. The Conpanion Rules gave us not only domain management rules, but also a mass combat system. Together, these two systems addressed issues D&D had had ever since 1974: what do characters do when the reach high levels of experience?

The domain management and mass combat systems in the Companion Rules are simple, straightforward, and abstract. They depend very heavily on referee adjudication and there's a high degree of randomness to both of them that might offend some sensibilities. Quibbles aside, they're both quite old school in their approach and I like that. I played the heck out of both of them back in the day and eventually generalized the domain management system to cover random campaign events and the fate of entire nations rather than the single-hex baronies for which they were originally written. I also used the mass combat rules to wage wars between nations in my fantasy setting. Together, they gave that setting a healthy dose of unpredictability that gave it an air of "realism" it might otherwise have lacked. For example, a civil war broke out in the major good nation of the world and that sparked innumerable adventures, not to mention far-reaching consequences that I doubt I'd have chosen had I instead plotted out its future history myself. This is excellent stuff.

Another aspect of the Companion Rules that I liked a lot, even though I never incorporated them into my AD&D game, was the way Mentzer introduced paladins, druids, and other such classes into the game. They were kind of proto-prestige classes but far more elegantly implemented and far more grounded in the history of D&D. For example, I see in the druid an echo of the notion that OD&D clerics must side either for Law or Chaos once they reach 7th level or they cannot advance any further. Likewise, the paladin offers up a viable interpretation of the line that Lawful fighting men "may opt to become paladins." I've often considered reworking many AD&D sub-classes into a similar kind of scheme and may yet do so one day.

I'll admit that I'm not at all fond of the Master Rules, let alone Immortals, both of which strike me as huge missteps compared to the Companion Rules. Those final two boxed sets are the result of a corporate completist mentality rather than as answers to questions most D&D players had at the time. It certainly doesn't help that I think those sets also highlight the limits of D&D and not in a positive way. There is only so far that the game can go before it loses its identity and the heights of power detailed in the Master and Immortals rules are several steps too far in my opinion.

I'll continue to quibble about the Mentzer rules, because there's much to quibble about, but it's quibbling "within the family," so to speak. Frank's old school credentials are not in doubt nor is his grasp of the history of the game. I am, as I hope this post reveals, very fond of his Companion Rules set and believe it's the only real treatment of D&D's original endgame ever written. I'm not blind to the virtues of later rules sets, but I do have very specific criteria for what I like and what I'll consider using. That means I can be convinced that I'm off base when it comes to my criticisms of this or that. In the case of the Companion set, I need no convincing.

16 comments:

  1. Totally agree on all points. There's tons of great stuff in the Companion Set, much of it just as applicable to AD&D as Classic D&D. Although I realize the marketing and legal reasons why it wasn't done, what I think would've made this set ideal would've been to separate the material into the "Expert Set expansion" book of rules stuff (expanded spell and monster lists, XP and saving throw charts, etc. to "complete" that game) and the "High-level campaigns" book of all the dominion-ruling, mass-combat, and multiverse-exploring stuff, designed to be usable with both Classic D&D and AD&D.

    OTOH, like you I find very little to love in the Master Set, neither the rules additions (the Weapon mastery system) nor the notion of "master-level" play, which both doesn't have the same firm and obvious distinction of assumed activity and playstyle (Basic = dungeon-crawling, hoping to survive, Expert = exploring the world (i.e. wilderness and town adventuring), Companion = ruling your own barony and exploring the multiverse, Master = more of the same as Companion, pretty much, but with bigger numbers) and also, through the "quest for immortality" endgame, represents a narrowing rather than expanding of possibilities -- what if my campaign-world isn't oriented towards adventurers becoming immortal, especially in these specific ways? -- that is, at least IMO, completely contrary to the open-ended toolbox spirit of what non-Advanced D&D was supposed to be about. The guiding "do anything" philosophy becomes, at the endgame, "do this thing."

    And, by Frank's own admission, the Immortal Set was pure self-indulgence, something he managed to sneak by management while they were distracted with other issues. As far as I'm concerned it bears essentially no relation to D&D and should properly be viewed as an entirely separate game.

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  2. Companion was the last of the D&D boxed sets that I ever purchased. I do remember it being the strongest one out of the Menzer era, mostly for the reasons you pointed out. I always thought that the abstract nature of the War Machine system was superior to the Battlesystem that TSR was trying to market for mass conflicts, but I'm biased because large miniature-based wargames have never been my particular cup of tea.

    In the recent months, I've fallen under the belief that 10th-12th level is about the apex of a character able to see regular play. After such a time, I'm more inclined to believe they should be shuffled off-camera to maintain their holdings and the next generation -be they hirelings, henchmen, or relatives of the original characters should start to take the limelight. I beginning to think a trip down to the FLGS is in order and I need to see if there's a copy of the Companion book(s) in the used bin. I really should replace that long-lost set and start thinking about how I might want to run the end-game when that time rolls around. It'd be a year or two real time before that'd be an issue, but it never hurts to start early.

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  3. War machine and dominion system were very useful things. It was part of the specificities of the BECMI, which had no counterpart in Ad&d. It allowed an easy switch from role-play to wargame during a session and helped to flesh out powerful characters - or even to solve big fights at lower level, and so give a very epic tone to D&D. The 'quick BR' thing was a wondeful tool to design in a few minutes a skirmish or to end a scenario with a big battle, something which is needed in any sword & sorcery rpg.

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  4. On a related note...

    http://kotgl.blogspot.com/2008/12/outdoor-survival.html

    Mike Mearls says he's using the Outdoor Survival map for his 4e sandbox campaign. In the comments section, I asked if he'd be using the Stronghold Builder's Guidebook from 3e when the PCs wish to start a fiefdom. Perhaps I should have also mentioned the Companion Rules as well as the Construction and Siege rules from the 1e DMG.

    4e has made some steps towards fleshing out the idea of a D&D "end game," as you aptly put it. But it's entirely geared towards how cool you can juice up your superhero powers. There's no mention of PC ambitions of building temples or rewards of fiefdoms.

    I noticed that Swords & Wizardry addresses this issue.

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  5. I never knew about the "strategic level" options added to the game by the Companion set and Battle System until recently.

    Any possibility of seeing some elaboration of how you adapted the warmachine and domain systems?

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  6. what if my campaign-world isn't oriented towards adventurers becoming immortal?

    I have a hard time imagining what it is oriented towards apart from this by the time you reach 20th level, or any level comparable with the creatures in Deities and Demigods (which is a long-winded way of saying I agree with Mike). I certainly always interpreted the game this way, even though I never read M or I, having moved from Moldvay/Cook to AD&D1 by 1983.

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  7. I've recently been introduced to Birthright and the domain/mass combat rules there in. I haven't looked at them in depth but ignoring the blood lines fluff they seemed very interesting.

    I wonder if you are familiar with them and what was your opinion vs Companion set rules?

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  8. I thought this might be apropriate to ask here... I recently came into posession of a copy of the Rules Cyclopedia which is missing pages 195-200. Would it be fair use to ask someone to clue me in on the missing stuff and if so, would anyone be willing to help me out as a late birthday present?

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  9. Any possibility of seeing some elaboration of how you adapted the warmachine and domain systems?

    I don't have any notes left from the mid-80s to consult, but my recollection is that I mostly took the existing rules and "zoomed out." That is, instead of the rules covering single-hex baronies and engagements between hundreds or thousands of troops, I used them to cover entire kingdoms and much larger troop numbers. I do recall that I reorganized the random/special events into something more table-like and coherent, with certain events increasing the chance of others to follow. The Mentzer rules just include flat chances for everything arranged in alphabetical order, which is a bit more random than I liked.

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  10. I wonder if you are familiar with them and what was your opinion vs Companion set rules?

    The Birthright rules were good, as I remember them, but they were a lot more fiddly than those in the Companion. They were certainly much harder to run on the fly, but they weren't really intended to be. In a game solely focused on domain management and warfare, I think the Birthright rules are probably superior, but, as a general set to be used in a variety of circumstances, I'll take Mentzer.

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  11. Would it be fair use to ask someone to clue me in on the missing stuff and if so, would anyone be willing to help me out as a late birthday present?

    Those pages contain monster write-ups, so they're pretty important to have.

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  12. Right, but would it be practical to just reverse the ACs on the Castles and Crusades write-ups, or should I be looking for a new copy?

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  13. Rach: Just make up your own monsters! ^_^

    You have to respect the way Frank tried to keep the names Gygax and Arneson on the products.

    Frank had been directed by Gary to ensure the D&D game was different from AD&D. Even after Gary was gone, however, I imagine that Frank had as free a hand as anyone at TSR would have at that time, with the main focus of the company being on AD&D rather than his work. I think he did his best to keep the old spirit alive.

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  14. But! But!
    Orcs! Ogres! *undue stress*

    Looking at it though, the C&C ones are pretty much accurate, with maybe a little power reduction.

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  15. "For me, Set 3 was the fufillment of a promise on which D&D had never quite managed to make good -- to provide rules and guidelines for the endgame of a character's adventuring career. The Conpanion Rules gave us not only domain management rules, but also a mass combat system. Together, these two systems addressed issues D&D had had ever since 1974: what do characters do when the reach high levels of experience?"

    Can't help but comment on this. I certainly shared the desire to see comprehensive domain and mass-combat rules in D&D. While I know they're well-regarded, I found the Companion rules to pretty much totally fail my requirements.

    I did use the domain rules for a while, but -- I found that it's impossible for your domain to be run badly. The PCs had enormous mountains of gold income every month, they actually could not spend it all, no matter how much they tried.

    The mass warfare rules I also tried in the context of module X10, but my problem there is that the outcomes were greatly at variance with the outcomes if you played it out in detail (say by alternate Battlesystem rules in X10, which more closely hewed to D&D statistics). That's always a huge aggravation to me (and I mentioned that in passing in a recent review of Skip Williams' "Axe of the Dwarvish Lords").

    So for me, the best mass-combat rules I've seen are either Battlesystem 2E (very, very close) or even the original Chainmail, which I find drawing me back in these days. Domain rules I've still never seen to my satisfaction (tried Birthright, but way too tied into the setting and bloodline story).

    I eagerly had the Companion rules at one point, and after trying and discarding the domain rules, there wasn't anything therein that I ever used.

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  16. So for me, the best mass-combat rules I've seen are either Battlesystem 2E (very, very close) or even the original Chainmail, which I find drawing me back in these days. Domain rules I've still never seen to my satisfaction (tried Birthright, but way too tied into the setting and bloodline story).

    To be fair, it's been years since I used either system, so your comments may better reflect reality than do mine. Back in the day, when I used them, they worked just fine and I had no real complaints. I concede that I was young and almost certainly adding lots to the rules as written to make them work "right." I may need to go back and re-examine them sometime.

    And FWIW, I took have been looking at Chainmail for mass combat rules.

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