D&D is a big part of my life, and has been for a long time now, even if I do not get to play as much as I’d like to.
Long ago, at the ripe old age of 13, my friends and I began playing D&D…2nd Edition AD&D, or Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, to be exact.
Over the years, we’ve played every subsequent edition, and took a swim through Pathfinder, which was a revamp and expansion on the beloved 3.5 Edition of D&D.
There’s something to be said about getting together with my friends, hanging out for a few hours, and playing the game the way our group of friends play. There’s very little toxicity, we very rarely have squabbles, and we all add bits and pieces to advance the story. We laugh a lot, derail the game just as frequently as we keep it moving, and we have a great time together.
Having introduced both my kids to the game, I look forward to sharing my love for it with them. As our youngest keeps getting older, I hope to start a campaign she, and eventually her friends, can enjoy.
Sometime around 1991, which would have put me squarely in the middle of 7th grade, I remember my friend Tim talking to JD and I about trying out Dungeons & Dragons.
We made the trip down to Lonestar Comics off of south Hulen, a store that’s no longer there, and I bought a handful of mismatched dice that I still have and use to this very day. We perused the books they had for 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and I might have actually bought a Player’s Handbook (PHB). I remember seeing a box for Ravenloft, which becomes relevant here in a moment or two, but can’t remember much else.
If I recall character creation back then, we rolled for our stats straight down and then determined what class we would play. I remember rolled an 18/98 for Strength and getting a 17 or 18 for Charisma. My first character was a Paladin, but what race he was or what I named him eludes my memory. JD would roll up a Ranger, the first of a number of Rangers I remember him playing.
Wait, 18/98? What the heck?
Back in the days of AD&D, you rolled three six-sided dice, or 3d6, for each attribute and took the result. For the Strength attribute, if you rolled an 18, you would then roll 2d10, with one ten-sided die acting as the “tens” and the other acting as the “ones”, though some dice sets come with a die that is clearly indicated to be the “tens”. I happened to roll an 18 for Strength and then rolled a 98 for my percentile, which was just two points shy of the highest Strength attribute you could start the game with.
Now, for the uninitiated, a Paladin is a warrior that wears heavy armor, wields mighty weapons, and calls forth divine power to heal, buff the party, and combat the undead. A Ranger is basically Aragorn from Lord of the Rings before he assumes the mantle of king of Gondor. They are skilled combatants, have particular foes they fare better against, and some even have animal companions.
We had adventures and progressed to level six or seven before Tim moved the adventures into the realm of Ravenloft, which is a semi-horror setting full of undead. Remember how I mentioned Paladins combat the undead? Yeah, my Paladin had a target on his back and we didn’t last too long after that.
With that, though, the hooks were in and we traveled the roads of pen & paper role-playing games for the rest of middle and high school. We played a lot of Star Wars D6 and D20 systems, after all, being able to picture stormtroopers and blaster bolts was made easier due to watching the movies. We played RIFTS, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Runequest, Amber (a diceless game based on the books of Robert Zelazny), Call of Chthulhu, and a host of others…we always came “home” to D&D.
Our regular group consisted of Tim as DM, JD and I, and our other friends from school, Scott and Derek. As we ended high school, I’d end up in and out of the group due to being an insufferable douche, and Derek didn’t always spend the weekends with us.
Ehren and the Blue D20 of Death
Before I move onto talk about 3rd Edition, I remember making an Elven Cleric named Ehren. Clerics are like Paladins, but have less hit points, an abstract representation of health, and access to a larger pool of and more powerful spells. At one point, Tim gave me a custom magic mace called The Bonecrusher. When you roll a d20 and roll a 20, this results in a critical hit, which does double damage.
With the Bonecrusher, a subsequent d20 was rolled, and if a 20 was rolled then, then I got to roll on a d6 chart to see which of my enemy’s bones I’d crush.
If I have one opinion of what 3rd Edition did, it would be that it streamlined the game. Combat was simplified, (anyone that played really old school D&D remembers THAC0, or To Hit Armor Class Zero), character creation was easier and more flexible, and the game focused around the roll of a D20, something so many game systems are still using 22 years later.
Don’t get me wrong, 3rd Edition was still a pretty sprawling, detailed game, but it was easier to learn and, therefore, accessible to more people and, in my opinion, a strong improvement over 2nd Edition.
For whatever reason, around 2000, when this version was released, I feel like the members of our group really started to come into our own as people willing to be immersed in our characters, do different voices, and collaboratively tell a story.
By this time, as I recall, we really solidified the unspoken rule that we wouldn’t grief the other players. You’ll hear horror stories about intra-party conflict, players stealing from other characters, threats to kill/maim other characters, and some pretty despicable behavior, especially towards girls that play the game. Historically, our group has rarely ever engaged in that kind of stuff, and only when the players involved say it’s OK.
Our regular group added Tim’s wife, Misty, to the mix. Interestingly enough, I think she was the one to drop the first “fuck” in our group and we were all pretty shocked, not because we were strangers to foul language, quite the opposite, but rather because in all the years we’d played RPGs, none of us had every really cursed. After that, however, the door was wide open.
Blarth, the Half-Orc Barbarian With an Itty Bitty Brain
Scott was the person with the honor of rolling the first 3rd Edition character. This time, the stats were generated into a pool and assigned to whichever attribute the player wanted. This was done by rolling 4d6, dropping the lowest die, and taking the result. Scott rolled four sixes to start.
Of course, Scott was giddy, as one should be when rolling four sixes. The next roll was quite the opposite…four ones. That means he had an 18 and a 3. The rest of his attributes elude my memory, as do the rest of our characters.
Scott chose half-orc as a race and Blarth the Barbarian was born…strong as an ox but dumb as a box of rocks. I actually just laughed as I was typing this…the thought of that poor, dumb ol’, but well-meaning, barbarian, and the way Scott played him will always be a fond memory.
Unfortunately, only Blarth, a wizard of Scott’s that we joked would cast Sleep on himself at night, a ranger of JD’s named Potifer, and a character of Misty’s named Saffron are all the characters that I remember. The fun and times we shared were memorable, but there have been so many characters over the years that I struggle to remember them all, in spite of being better players.
It was at this time that I remember us starting to use crude tokens and a map of sorts to help make combat easier to picture. I might be wrong here though. A lot of our games still utilized painting a picture in our mind’s eye and a lot of time was spent detailing and remembering battlefield terrain.
3.5 Edition D&D
After three years, D&D 3.5 Edition was released. This version included errata, player feedback, and further streamlined the game.
Everything was transferable between 3rd and 3.5, at least for the most part. Our campaigns continued, and our group remained relatively unchanged. Eventually, somewhere around this time I’d make some terrible choices that would cost me the group I played D&D with.
About Tim the DM
Through a number of moves, Tim would continue to be our host and DM. I believe we were incredibly fortunate in having our first DM want to both actually do the job and be damned good at it.
He had a knack for running games, understanding the rules, and creating worlds that we, as players, simply got lost in. Your first good DM is oddly similar to the way most of us remember our first loves…you might find someone that’s a better fit somewhere down the line, but you’ll never forget that one that started it all.
It was during 3.5 that I actually felt good about story ideas I developed, believed I could set up a solid story arc, and have it into an adventure for players to explore. I wanted to DM a game.
What Does a DM Do?
I’ve talked about Tim, our long time DM, but I haven’t really spoken to what a DM does. You see, being a DM in D&D is a challenging job…one might argue the “hardest” job. As the DM, you are responsible for the following:
- Telling the story and running the game and keeping things moving in a positive direction…most of the time. Keep in mind that while you’re telling the story, it isn’t YOUR story per se…it’s everyone’s story
- Making sure each player receives attention. That attention isn’t always equal, but every player deserves your attention. The more players at your table the harder this is
- Representing every non-player character (or NPC) and environment in the game world that are not the player characters, or PCs. If the PCs interact with the townsfolk, you come up with their personality. The more personalities, and voices, if one is so inclined, you can do, the better. Recurring characters are great, especially if they are villainous
- Generally have a solid grasp on the rules, the basics of what each class does, and if there’s a rules question, you are the final deciding voice on how that rule is interpreted. This doesn’t always sit well with the players.
- Know the adventure you’re running. This includes encounters, both in and out of combat, being familiar with the opponents your PCs will face, who the Big Bad End Guy (BBEG) is, their motivations, and how they flit into and out of the PCs adventure
- Maintaining balance at your table. Conflict resolution is a must here. Introverts, like myself, aren’t always the best equipped for that
There’s one responsibility a DM has…probably the most important one to remember:
It’s not the DM’s goal to “win”
This is a lesson that took me a while to learn. It’s only recently that I feel like I feel good about my DMing prospects.
Did I Ever DM a 3.5 Campaign?
I did. At the start of that whole situation I mentioned at the top of this tab, we did run the start of a campaign around a story I called “The Gem of Arohisma”. We had a few sessions and the players made it to the choice described towards the end of that link.
The Gem of Aroshima
You might ask, “Did you ever DM a 3.5 campaign? Yeah, I did. It was called, as you see there in big, bold orange letters, “The Gem of Aroshima”.
There was one story in particular that’s stuck with me all these years later, which wasn’t terribly original, revolved around a powerful gem formed from the heart of a dying god that contained the essence of a great evil.
The gem had been protected by a legendary family line that had finally tasted defeat after generations. An ancient ritual to free the evil being and return it to power was to begin on the eve of the a seventieth seventh anniversary of its defeat. However, in an act to reclaim his family’s honor, the gem was stolen by a bastard son of that broken line, and he disappeared.
Eventually, the bastard had a daughter and sought a way to break the gem up into fragments for, without the whole gem, the ritual could not be completed. Unfortunately, years of research revealed two truths: that he lacked the necessary power to separate the gem and he was a descendant of both the evil being and the family whose line had been broken.
When his daughter reached the age of 12, the man shared with her the story of their past and the burden he bore. He would sacrifice his mortal body to break off a fragment of the gem. His daughter argued against his decision, but the man revealed that the followers of the evil within the gem had learned of their location.
Knowing he had one day left to live, he poured a fraction of his soul into a necklace he fashioned for his daughter. In it was a silver setting for the sliver of the gem. He gifted it to his child, explained that she was to guard it with her life, and sent her to the other side of the world.
Over the course of her journey, she began to display a preternatural talent for the arcane and was summoned by of a powerful wizard. Under his watchful eye, she learned to harness her magical talent and he came to care for her as if she were his own.
On her 18th birthday, something inside the gem began to stir. She felt a whole new level of power course through her body. Curiosity drew her teacher to the necklace. He asked to examine it, and, with absolute trust in him, she said yes.
As soon as his fingers touched the fragment of gem within the necklace, he was possessed by the spirit within. Through his great power, he was able to resist the great evil inside, but he knew it was a losing battle. He returned the necklace and told her to leave before he was no longer himself.
She recognized the evil inside of him for it had spoken to her mind for the six intervening years. She knew of its power but had never dared to speak its name.
The girl fled into the mountains. Using the powers awakened by the gem, she created a fortress within the stone. For as powerful as she had become, she was no match for her master. He hunted her down, killed her, but could not remove the gem from her body.
The wizard would eventually call on the players to cleanse the haunted mountain fortress, retrieve the gem, and perform a ritual to remove it from the body buried in the heart of the fortress.
Of course, the party would find the ghost of the girl, begin to fight it, and would be given one of two choices:
- Destroy the girl, perform the ritual, and return the gem to the possessed wizard
- Listen to the girl, spare her, and have her reside in the necklace to serve as a guide the party
Either way, the party would end up with possessed wizard as an adversary, either preventing him from completing the ritual or keeping the sliver out his clutches.
So What Happened Next?
When I started the Gem of Aroshima campaign, I asked a couple of friends who were more experienced than the other players to play. Without realizing it, I put them in an awkward situation. I hadn’t realized the severity of said situation and thought it would all blow over. I was wrong. They rightly bowed out after those first sessions and the campaign fizzled.
I spent so much time writing, revamping, and rebuilding the hook that it’s stuck with me. While I spent time fleshing out the next section, without a group to play with, I never got too far with it.
I remember there being something about the PCs being cornered and about to be captured before being saved by a Gold Dragon that would seem to sacrifice herself for them to get away, a city in the clouds where a Unicorn King would rally behind them, and…well…it would turn into a “the friends we made along the way” moment.
In November of that that year, I started working at the place I still work today, spent more time with my now wife and her friends, and D&D became something I used to do.
It would be a while before I’d play D&D again. It was at least 2008 because my wife and I had moved to Lewisville, TX at that time. We both played World of Warcraft, which really popularized the whole party role system of tank, healer, DPS, etc.
For better or worse, the 4th Edition of D&D kind of took this model and applied it to D&D. I think it’s not an understatement to say that 4th Edition was divisive. There are people that enjoyed it and people that absolutely hated it.
- Attack rolls were kind of simplified. Attacks still required a d20 roll, but this now included spells, for as much as I can remember, which had a target number needed to be effective. In 3rd and 3.5 Edition, and returning in 5th Edition, there are times when the target of a spell has to roll a “saving throw” instead.
- Every class felt like it was geared for combat. Each class had powers that could be used for your regular attack, one that could be used once per encounter/fight, and one daily power that was quite powerful. These were often replaced with better versions as you leveled, very similar to how WoW handled abilities.
- It introduced an idea called Minions, which were the cannon fodder that the big bads would use. They typically had 1 HP but could still do damage to your characters. Want your fighter to feel heroic? He could go in and wipe out multiple enemies a turn. That fireball from your wizard could literally clear a room of minions. They made players feel powerful and heroic. However, they could be used to overwhelm characters as well. If I recall, they still hit like regular enemies so if a DM wasn’t careful, they’d wipe out a party if handled wrong
- Battles could also be scaled fairly easily by changing the enemies between minion, regular versions, and elite versions. Again, very much like WoW. Then there were the boss enemies. I always described it as feeling way too close to a paper version of WoW.
- The skill system was further simplified from 3.5, and to some, it was TOO simplified.
- The rules encouraged something called “Skill Challenges” which resolved non-combat situations through a series of rolls. Success or failure determined the outcome. I personally didn’t like this because a lot of DMs and modules used this to take roleplay out of the equation in what I felt was an attempt to get things back to combat. Combat is fun. There’s a reason that people refer to people who love combat above all else as “roll-players”, but there’s a time and place for skill checks to be used to affect a verbal encounter
- It felt like it was trying too hard to appeal to the sizeable and rapidly growing WoW player base and it didn’t feel like D&D to me.
- Characters felt too “cookie cutter”. There just wasn’t enough customization, something that 3.5 was famously infamous for.
I suppose, in the end, the simplified nature of 4th Edition made it super accessible for people who weren’t previously interested in just how complex the game could be. I also feel like this was where D&D started to creep into pop culture and less of a stigma that it was just for the nerdy nerds.
Getting Back Into D&D
I’d reconnected with my friend Vik and learned that he played D&D, which was a revelation to me.
He talked about how he played in something called the D&D Role-Playing Game Association, or RPGA. This was an official D&D group where you could create and advance a character, participate in “official” game modules with different players, and do this at different local gaming stores.
After a few years of not playing D&D, I was intrigued by the idea of it, but felt a bit intimidated by the idea of being the new guy who was unfamiliar with the game. I mean, after all, I’m a bit of an introvert…an extroverted introvert, but an introvert nonetheless. This would give me the opportunity to meet new groups and maybe find a regular group to play with again.
Vik and I also created a post on meetup.com looking for people to play with. His girlfriend at the time would join us as well. We ended up meeting up with a couple of guys and one of them agreed to DM.
I created a Dwarven Fighter whose name I can’t remember and we had a good time. Our group got on well until we stopped meeting up. I think the guy who was DMing got busy with family stuff and we just didn’t have time.
After that, I decided to join the RPGA. Vik was living in Grapevine at the time and there was a comic shop there that hosted RPGA sessions.
My Experience with the D&D RPGA
I never got to play a game with Vik. His character was a much higher level than mine and so we didn’t get grouped together. If I recall correctly, you could only play at official events and official events only took place at these stores. There might have been a DM that had the ability to host a private event, but he didn’t want to pass up the ability to advance his character and play with the people he’d been gaming with for some time. That is 100% understandable and didn’t and still don’t fault him for that.
The people I had the chance to play with were nice enough. No one was rude, no one was THAT guy, and the games were run by serviceable to solid DMs. I was fortunate to have grown up playing with what I consider to be a hell of a DM, but the dudes running the games did well with the modules they were given.
One night, Vik explained that the RPGA needed DMs. Through our conversations, I’d discussed wanting to get into DMing and since the RPGA provided modules, it would be a great opportunity to get my feet wet using something structured before moving onto my own homebrew adventures. I did what I needed to to sign up, received my first module, and began to study it.
While my experiences had been good so far, there’s always that one asshole who’s willing to take a big, fat dump on your fun. Vik warned me about the guy who fit that bill, and told me that the guy enjoyed and had a knack for getting a TPK, or “Total Party Kill”.
Spoilers: He succeeded.
The session itself wasn’t terrible, but it was flavorless. This DM, whose name I cannot remember for the life of me, did very little to embellish the story he was telling. Every NPC was done in his droning, monotonous voice (this coming from someone who has a relatively monotonous voice), there was no descriptiveness of attacks or of combat in general, and the game felt like it dragged on.
Then came the final fight. It took place in a sewer and involved a creature called a Gelatinous Cube. Imagine a massive 10′ cube of jiggling jello moving about in an attempt to engulf and digest you. One by one my companions fell. I watched as my character’s health dropped as I made futile attempt after futile attempt to defeat the creature. As the battle reached its climax, the DM rolled max damage and, with a leering smile on his face, thought he’d reduced me to zero hit points, or HP. Except he hadn’t. I had one HP left. I then rolled my attack. A natural 20. A critical hit. I defeated the Gelatinous Cube. We’d achieved victory. Every player cheered.
“When you go to walk away from your body to heal your party, you step into the remains of the Gelatinous Cube and slip. Roll a DEX (short for dexterity) save at a minus 2 to see if you fall,” he said with that same leering smile on his face.
I was playing a fighter. Fighters are strong characters that wear the heaviest of armor…they generally don’t have the best the best DEX. He knew I was likely to fail. With the -2 to my roll, he stacked the deck against me.
Of course I failed. I had one HP left. There was no way to mitigate the damage. He’d succeeded in getting his TPK.
That soured me on D&D. I quit and said I’d never play D&D again.
Was it an overreaction to just quit? Yeah, but I have a bit of a history of making rash decisions that I later regret. Have you seen my Pedals of the Past page?
That concluded my experience with D&D and I wouldn’t play again for another three or four years when my friends and I would take up the gauntlet that is Pathfinder.
Oh, man. This was the big one. This was the one that rekindle the fire in my little, shriveled D&D heart.
But, wait, it’s not D&D. It’s Pathfinder.
You’re right…and you’re wrong, at least from a certain point of view, wise words I’ve stolen from one Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Pathfinder was born in 2009 after the rise of 4th Edition D&D. I suppose a way to describe it would be 3.5 v2. Pathfinder was created by Paizo and lovingly restored and improved upon 3.5. It cleaned up some skills, made some other adjustments I can’t exactly recall, and gave people what they were seeking from and didn’t find in 4th Edition. It was a tweak instead of a redesign.
I pulled this image from the Amazon listing for the Core Rulebook…one it showed I purchased back in 2011. I’m pretty sure that rulebook is over in my nook of the window sill.
By this time, I’d made amends for the stupidity of 2004 and found myself back with most of the circle of friends that I’d always played D&D with. We talked about getting up another campaign again, but doing it under the banner of Pathfinder. Picking up where I left off from my interest in DMing for the RPGA, I volunteered.
The Kingmaker Adventure Path
I’m not sure how we arrived at it, but the decision was made to start off with some Pathfinder adventure modules. They called them Adventure Paths, or APs. They are designed for a party of 3-4 and for classes from the Core Rulebook.
The point of Kingmaker was to explore a wild land, settle it, and build a kingdom. One PC would rule and the others would have critical roles in the running of the kingdom, but the players would work together to make decisions on how to build and improve on the kingdom.
Each module of the AP introduced a map full of hexes which could be explored in any order, with some hexes presenting challenges that might be too dangerous from the players to take on at their current level. It was a sandbox campaign, something we simply hadn’t really done before.
Years later, Paizo would launch a Kickstarter and turn Kingmaker into a video game. I bought it on Steam and played through what would have been the first module. There were some adjustments made here and there, but, for the most part, it seemed like a pretty faithful recreation. I should go back and revisit that game.
The Cast and the First Mistake I Made
We had the following players and the classes they chose:
- JD – Ranger
- Matt – Rogue
- Ben – Summoner
- Shane – Magus
- Chris – Cleric
You see, the mistake I made was that I allowed the players to make characters from any Pathfinder resource available to them. There were a number of resources out there. Pathfinder, like 3.5 before it, was ripe for min/maxing, which is essentially optimizing your character to be as powerful as can be, sometimes to the point of being broken. Some of the Pathfinder combinations were broken.
Take five overpowered characters made with every optimized option available to them, put them into a module made for 3-4 normal characters, sprinkle in my first real time DMing, and…well, it didn’t go as well as could be. All of this wouldn’t be immediately apparent…obviously.
Investing Time In Something Short Lived
Before things even started, I’d read through the book, read online reviews and feedback, and spent some time creating a map of what I thought would be the base of their operations. After all, it seemed like MOST groups made extensive use of it. I bought a BIG tablet of 1″ square graph paper, drew the fort, colored it with map pencils, had it laminated…the whole nine yards. They didn’t use the fort.