Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A Tale from the Dark Side

So, last weekend, while we were playing our Dwimmermount campaign (I'll post full details of the latest session in a couple of days), my 10 year-old daughter, who plays Iriadessa, the teenage magic-user, decided that her character wanted "a pet owl," which she then clarified as "a familiar." Now, there are no explicit rules for this in OD&D, but, as it happens, I had just received my copy of Goblinoid Games's awesome Advanced Edition Companion the other day and it included the 1st-level spell Summon Familiar, which seemed to nicely meet the reasonable desire my daughter had for her character. While the characters were in Adamas resupplying, I allowed her to purchase and learn the spell and to then use it in order to summon an owl, which she called Eveningstar.

Looking back on it, I don't regret simply plucking Summon Familiar out of the AEC and dropping it into my game. One of the many great things about the AEC is how seamlessly it works with non-advanced versions of D&D. It really does a superb job of providing the flavor and texture of AD&D without all fiddly bits that most of us never used anyway. Still, I won't deny that there's a part of me -- a small part, admittedly -- that feels as if I "wimped out" by dealing with my daughter's request by simply opening up a rulebook and pulling out a spell rather than coming up with something on my own, as I've done many times in the past.

No one should think I'm beating myself up over this, because I'm not. I don't regret my decision, as I said. But the decision has gotten me to thinking: when should I go with a "canned" answer to an in-game problem/question and when should I make up the answer on my own? This is particularly relevant right now, because, as I've admitted many times before, I'm very fond of AD&D. Even though I'm using OD&D in Dwimmermount, I am regularly tempted to start adding bits and bobs from AD&D in order to restore some of the Gygaxian flavor I associate so strongly with D&D, a process made all the more easy with the publication of the Advanced Edition Companion, a book I can't gush about enough.

At present my feeling is that, when I don't really care about a particular game/setting element, I'll just grab an "old standby" and run with it rather than waste unnecessary time trying to be "original." On the other hand, when I do care about something, I'll go my own way. A good case in point are paladins, which, as I imagine them, are somewhat different than their AD&D forebears and thus deserve their own presentation. On the other hand, if I ever felt the need to include illusionists in the campaign, I'd probably just use the one in the AEC and be done with it, since I don't have (at present) any strong opinions about the class that demand an original approach. Since I don't like every element of AD&D, I'm sticking with "OD&D plus" for the foreseeable future, since it better reflects the way I play the game and doesn't set up any expectations in my players about what I will include or how things "ought" to work.


  1. "If it ain't broke don't fix it"

    As a DM it's not our job to be a miracle worker it's all about providing a story and environment for people to have fun in. If someone has a better idea on how to do what you want and it's already done for you then run with it. You'll speed up story line, the players will enjoy the lack of downtime, and everything is accomplished.

    Baseline for your answer is:

    a. Does it take more than 5 min to create?

    b. Has someone already done it betterer than me?

    If A is no then make your own
    If A is yes and B is no then make your own
    If A and B are YES then use the other version.

    Saving your time and effort better devoted to telling the story is more valuable than crafting something on the fly that others have done for you. Anyone can create stats/spells/stuff, only you as the DM can tell that particular story that your players want.

  2. My simple answer would be to do what works. No formulas, no long examinations of intent, theme, etc. Just do it.

    The long part of this is that you shouldn't feel you are cheating or taking short-cuts by going with a canned answer. Good rules are there to make the game and the work fo the DM easier. You don't want to bog down on the ideology of a gaming decission.


  3. Yeah, just remember to slap your own wrist the next time one of your players asks how long he can hold his breathe underwater while trying to navigate an underground stream, and you find yourself reaching for that good ol' DSG...


  4. AD&D was the only game that understood Illusionists (my favorite class -- I even have letters in the old Dragon forum opining on this class). Later versions of D&D never got what this class was about. The attempt to post-engineer a metaphysics onto Gygax's parenthetical descriptions (phantasm, conjuration, etc) totally destroyed that class. No matter how the specialization schools were sliced in later editions, the class was always missing key components that defined the 1st edition character.

    The Illusionist is a Controller(tm). As a rule, they don't do damage. They control the battlefield through glamours, enchantments, phantasms, and misdirection. It was this philosophy, not the metaphysics of their spells that defined that character.

  5. Why reinvent the wheel? Better to save precious brainspace for use on stuff you can't just pluck from another book.

  6. If a canned answer springs immediately to mind, then it's probably just as good an answer as anything you could have thought up yourself. After all, if you didn't like the AEC Summon Familiar you wouldn't have thought that it was a good solution to the problem.

    Great artists steal ... repeatedly.

  7. The only rule there ever was: use what works.

  8. This has little to do with your post, but I wanted to mention that I am loving the AEC too. My favorite bit is the relaxed rules on multiclassing. You'd be amazed how many problems I have with AD&D that it solved.

  9. I often describe my AD&D 1st ed. to new players as either "1st edition light" or probably more descriptive as "Somewhere between OD&D and 1st edition."

  10. I have to agree with everyone else - it adequately met a need in your game and saved you time. What's not to like about a win-win like that?

  11. I'm curious. What other solutions might exist for acquiring a familiar/pet?

    She could have bought it from a wizard.

    She could have found a ancient Eldritch ritual.

    She could have found it in the forest and coaxed it into friendship/service with tasty OwlTreats. (sorta like a henchman)

    I mean, maybe Summon Familiar is just the way of attracting the Owl. You could still embellish on it, if you so chose.

  12. I find "do what works" a bit vague to be useful advice much of the time. I'd rather say: "are you dissatisfied with the canned solution?" If not, then you're good: someone poured love into it, and you recognised its utility. If you are, why? That question's the basis of all great inventions.

    Secondary advantage of using the canned solution: someone's already documented it. If you made something up, then the next time someone wanted a familiar you might have to remember what you did.

  13. But James, you *did* make up your own answer. And it was to pull the spell out of another book. That was the answer you came up with, and it was the right one. Stop over thinking things. I think you done good.

  14. I've never gamed with kids before, but aren't you worried about your daughter's reaction the first time her "pet owl" goes up in flame when an evil wizard casts Fireball?
    My wife, who is very attached to pets (both real and fictional!), wanted her character to have a small puppy, but also wanted it to be immune from harm--a deal I could make only because she agreed the dog could never have any in-game advantages (it could never bark when danger approached, serve as a distraction, etc.).
    Anyway, just an odd question I thought I would bring up . . .

    Jeremy Patrick

  15. What do the familiars do in your campaign or are they just pets?

    Personally I don't care for pets or intelligent animals that are only used as scouts but I do like demonic familiars in animal shape. Wizards should have a sinister/diabolic side to them and spell-teaching familiars which are ultimately loyal to their outsider masters are perfect for underlining that.

    CAS's stories have good sinister familiars (like Malygris' coral snake or the ferret-demon in Naat).

  16. I'll be honest, I didn't read the entire post. I pretty much got:
    Your daughter plays in your group, and she wanted an owl familiar.
    You gave her an owl familiar.
    That was all I needed, best gaming story I've heard in a while. A lot of these discussion forums and blogs related to gaming get so bogged down in theory and stylistic debate that I get really fatigued.
    A story about playing rpgs with kids and "bending the rules" for the sake of fun is just what we need more of.
    You rock, James. Thanks for the story.

  17. Since there is a very good existing option in the Familiar spell, why worry about remaking the wheel yourself?

  18. Stop over thinking things. I think you done good.

    Don't misunderstand me: this was more a rhetorical question than anything else. I'm quite happy with my solution and wouldn't change it. I do, however, have a tendency to lean heavily on "prior art," so to speak and one of the principles behind Dwimmermount was to explore new avenues and approaches where possible. So, whenever I decide to do something in a way that's already be done, I consider whether or not it's the best possible solution given the circumstance or if I'm just being lazy :)

  19. What do the familiars do in your campaign or are they just pets?

    The precise details of what familiars are beyond "magical animals employed by magic-users" is unclear at this point. I have some vague ideas that go beyond the way they were handled in AD&D, but I've yet to implement them. Time will tell.

  20. You rock, James. Thanks for the story.

    Thanks. I really do appreciate the kind words.

  21. Yeah, the AEC is really nice. I see the emphasis more on "Companion" than "Advanced", in regards to the never released companion set for Moldvay/Cook B/X (as opposed to Frank's BECMI).