Monday, June 18, 2018

What We Are Really Nostalgic For When We Talk About BECMI

With the recent release of a POD copy of the Rules Cyclopedia, there's been a lot of looking back at the Basic D&D rule set(s) that spawned that early 90s compendium. Retroactively referred to as BECMI (for Basic/Expert/Companion/Master/Immortal) these were the Basic D&D rules released as five boxed sets in the mid-80s by TSR, and written by Frank Mentzer. An army of kids grew up with this version of the game, myself included. Although I owned Moldvay's box for less than a day, this was the boxed set that taught me how to play the game. Many of us transitioned to AD&D, but in name only. We may have pulled monsters from Fiend Folio and magic items from the AD&D DMG, but the engine we ran the game on was Basic.

I never bought the RC when it was initially released, and I don't think I'd buy it now. That book, its layout, and its art hold no nostalgia for me. The OSR clones I have now do all the things I want, generally with better organization. I revisited my old BECMI books a few weeks ago and tried to see if they still held the same magic for me. What I found was surprising.

Taken as a whole the BECMI, or RC, rules system is pretty crunchy. There are a lot of rules in this game which increase as characters progress to higher levels, more than I am currently interested in running. It's not just the number of rules either; it's what the rules cover that leaves me cold. Details about hirelings, strongholds, jousting tournaments, weapons mastery - some these are holdovers from 1974, but they have absolutely nothing to do with the reasons I play the game. Also, the packed, three-column layout of these books isn't very reader-friendly and much of the Elmore/Easley artwork hasn't aged well for me.

I can't imagine going back to descending AC, alignment languages, race-as-class, demi-human level limits, pre-AD&D PHB thieves skills, etc. I mean I could go back and it would be fine, but I don't have to, so why would I? Like most nostalgia, what we remember is a freshness that has long since faded, and one we desperately wish to recapture. Looking through these books now makes my remember the childhood bedroom I shared with my brother where I first read them and had my mind blown wide as to the possibilities of the game. As artifacts of my childhood they still hold some charm, but as gaming materials they are of little use to me.

There is one exception. One book among all the sets that transcends nostalgia and still feels like it has relevancy. The Players Manual of Set 1, otherwise known as The Red Box, is perhaps the best introduction to fantasy role playing ever written. It's my belief that when people wax nostalgic about BECMI, Mentzer Basic, or The Red Box, what they're really talking about is this first booklet. The Dungeon Masters Rulebook from the first box, by comparison, is fairly dry, flavorless, and contains little art. The Players Manual, on the other hand, is gold.

The first thing the PM does right is get the new player right into the action. It puts a sword in the reader's hand and has them step into a dungeon. This opening adventure could cynically be called a choose-your-own-adventure railroad, but for people who have never played the game before, this kind of rigid structure is exactly what they need. It also manages to introduce a number of important concepts of the game in along the way in a naturalistic way. By the end of the adventure, you have a pretty good idea of what D&D is about.

The rest of the book fleshes out the rest of the rules need to play. Mentzer's tone is open and familiar. There's no trace of Gygaxian pretension (which I can enjoy as well). You get the sense that Frank is excited for you to play. The organization is genius, and if I'm not mistaken, it marks the first time in a D&D book where each character class is given a spotlight section each complete with an illustration that conveys as much information as the text. The very D&D concept of a Cleric is initially pretty foreign, but Elmore and Easley's illustrations of the mace-wielding holy warrior and the stern, pageboy-cut priest tell you exactly who these people are.

This version of the Basic game doesn't have hieroglyphic mystery of the Holmes edition or the space-disco vibe of Moldvay/Cook/Marsh's B/X (think of Otus' alien dungeonscapes and Willingham's and Dee's flared cuffs). Instead, a very hair metal/chainmail bikini (hello, Clyde Caldwell) atmosphere starts to present itself. Dragonlance's art killed Elmore's work for me, but his art for the Red Box still gets me. The cover painting, of course, is one of the top 10 iconic pieces in the game's history. When we talk of our fondness for Mentzer Red Box, I firmly believe it's that red dragon and the opening excursion into Bargle's hideout that holds sway. Sometimes that's all your looking for.

Friday, June 15, 2018

GM Notes - Morgansfort Session 6

The group starts in the cottage basement of Grelda’s confronting the two tied-up robed men. Nyphus attempts to interrogate the men threatening to kill them, but they are not forthcoming. One of them laughs at the threats, his open mouth revealing a blackened nub where a tongue should be. “Brother Malachi has taken a vow of silence. Permanently,” his partner says. Grelda becomes impatient and disrobes. Now skyclad, she grabs a dagger tied to her waist, cuts her left palm open, makes a few incantations, and thrusts her palm against the forehead of the mute cultist. A gruff, bass voice comes out of Grelda’s mouth. The voice tells the cultists’ story.

They are brothers of The Green Mark. An order devoted in the worship of the demon lord, Shah Gzerohn, intent on bringing him back to this plane of existence. The cult has been making inroads in the old Urdish empire, looking for clues and artifacts to help towards this aim. Over the years the cult discovered the location of their lost temple, obscured within the ruins of the Olde Island Fortress. They were sent by their master, Bishop Nemesine, to the Fortress to retrieve the journal of Mordoch the Mage. The book contains a prophecy in an ancient tongue, unlocking the rites to bring about the demon lord’s return. They have failed in their mission.

During this narration, the other cultist, Brother Karnoff, is praying to himself:

There is no dark – only the light of life – light of the newborn god – his path is paved with the blood of the word – through the blood of the lamb the way is laid open – let the faithful rejoice and prepare for his passing.

Grelda gasps and breaks the connection between herself and Malachi. He collapses. Grelda covers herself and reaches over and opens the cultist’s robe to reveal a tattoo of a green hand on the cultist’s chest. She asks the party if they have the book and they produce it. Karnoff curses. They explain that Thelan, the wizard in Morgansfort, hired them to retrieve it for him. Grelda calls him a fool and says the book would corrupt him and drive him insane. Grelda tells the group that whatever they had planned for the book, they would be best off destroying it.

Just as the group is deciding what to do, the young girl from town, Jyni, descends the stairs. Karnoff hisses in disgust. The party are told that Jyni can commune with the spirits of the dead children in the Fortress and has the makings of a great witch. Karnoff accuses her of harvesting the spirits energies for her own magic. Jyni tells her aunt that are packed and ready. Grelda is leaving the area immediately with her sister, Maien the herbalist, and Jyni. They discovered the Baronette Halden Rathwynn and his men are planning to camp in the boathouse that night and storm the kobolds and goblins in the Fortress early the next morning.

Jyni leaves and one of the barbarians, the woman who seemed to be somewhat in charge, comes down to tell the party that the tribe will head south where it is warmer. They are warned to watch out for slavers. They take the three boats south down the river.

Nyphus takes the book and decides to burn it, taking it outside. It crinkles and smokes oddly as it burns. The witches leave, flying off on the plow, this time with a sled attached to it. The barbarians head south on foot. The group decides to wait in the trees behind the boathouse and watch for the garrison to approach to see what happens.

The group hides in the brush and wait. Within the hour the sun goes down and the garrisons of Morgansfort arrive and begin to quietly (as possible) set up camp for the night. The officers (in silhouettes) enter the cottage to set up a base of command. Perhaps 20 minutes later, two robed silhouettes exit the cottage shake hands with officer shadows. They get into a horse-drawn cart which leaves, heading back up the road to the Fort.

Pater follows the wagon on foot in the shadows ahead of the group who stay clear of the road. Pater follows the cart in, talking his way past the gate who seem suspicious. He catches up and sees the cart heading in to the inner-courtyard of the Fort. While trying to move silently, he slips in the left-behind road apples with a loud splat. He isn’t able to talk his way into the courtyard.

The party regroup at Thelan’s who is in the process of leaving. He seems unconcerned about their failure to bring him the book and their apology of burning it. They go to the Inn and gather their things. Nyphus and Mel go into the chapel by the front. Pater and Renic go up top. Nyphus and Mel confront Fr. Thelbain. He confesses that he has been blackmailed for years by the leader of the Green Mark, the Archbishop Nemesine. Nemesine runs the cult from the Northern city of Ravenstone and keeps his former mistress and child as ransom.

Meanwhile Pater and Renic had crept down the back stairs across the altar waiting at the back door where Mel and Nyphus followed Thelbain. The cultists enter the church. Pater and Renic try to hide, but failing that (Renic), they kill the mute cultist and subdue the other. The group discuss going north to Ravenstone, the seat of power of the cult.

GM Notes - Morgansfort Session 14 - Death Frost Doom - Part 2 of 2

So, here stands the final chronicle of my two-year Basic Fantasy campaign. It ended a year ago and I'm just now getting around to fini...