Monday, November 23, 2015

Kid's Stuff, Part XV: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons #1



A book that’s rolling all twenties while using a vorpal blade



If you understand the above sentence, you need no introduction to what is arguably the most popular Role Playing Game of all time. Originally envisioned as a set of war gaming rules for a completely different board game, Dungeons & Dragons caught on with the public in a way few strategy games did. When Gary Gygax expanded upon Jeff Perren’s rules for single character medieval miniature battles, the groundwork for a brand new type of game was laid. From this foundation, Gygax went on to include a system of character creation, magic battle system, fantasy creatures and a theatrical component that made the whole a unique entity in the gaming industry. Role playing was born. And millions of geeks everywhere cheered its birth by shaking odd-shaped dice.





Out of the billions of AD&D sites available I’m picking a few at random. For game info go HERE, for a web ring go HERE, for a list of the top 30 modules HERE, and a great twitter group is found HERE.







A more complex version of the game rules was created after D&D’s introduction. This version was called Advanced Dungeons & Dragons due to the differences between it and the Basic rule set. Two hardbound rule books and one book of creatures defined the rules for players and the Dungeon Master (a sort of referee), various dice were used to determine out comes of various in-game actions and the rest was up to the players and DM’s imagination to craft. Oddly the use of miniatures, which was the driving force in creating the gaming system, became optional at this point.

 



The rules underwent a revision in 1989 creating the second edition rules. Mostly a PCing of various game elements (evil playable character classes where removed, suggestive artwork excised and demons and devils removed as monster types) with little being changed in the core playstyle. Three fantasy world supplements followed with horror, sci-fi and space fantasy themes. Again in 2000 the rules were revised, but this time the core set of conventions were changed. Incorporating a broader role-playing design that combined the Dungeons & Dragons system with an existing rule set called the d20 system, the system brought the Basic and Advanced games together for the first time. A fourth revision of the rules came out in 2007 followed by a fifth in 2014 and free PDF setup for those that wanted to learn the system.



Dungeons & Dragons has fed popular culture from movies (two Dungeons & Dragons films plus the anti-RPG movie Mazes and Monsters), book series (hundreds of game tie-in novels have been written), an animated TV show, and, of course, comic books. The Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms and Spelljammer campaign settings all got their own books, each under the DC imprint for a time. Along with them was the more generically titled “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” book. Both the AD&D and Dragonlance books lasted for three years. Forgotten Realms was forgotten after issue 25 and Spelljammer got in a jam after issue 15. Coinciding with the release of the third edition rules, a Dungeons & Dragons comic again appeared, first from Twenty First Century publishing and then from Kenzer & Company.The one I hold in my hot little hand, however, is the one that started them all.



There are many ways to screw up a game-to-book translation. I know because I’ve read a whole slew of TSR’s novels. Some were great junk food reads and some were horrible abominations. As we saw in the DragonStrike review, a couple of tricks to avoid are 1) don’t be to cutesy and in-jokey and 2) you may have to bend the subject matter a bit to make a better, more realistic story (like giving your character a name.). One of the other pitfalls that must be avoided is the tendency for writers who play the game to turn their actual game sessions into story fodder. The reason D&D works is the social element. People feel involved in what’s going on. No one but your players want to read a turn-by-turn transcript of last night’s game. Stories need character arcs and the old rising action-climax-falling action structure to entertain us. By comparison, gaming sessions are very inconsistent and random. Don’t believe me? Try reading the second book in the original Dragonlance trilogy by Weis and Hickman and see how it compares to any true fantasy book. A character even relates he was saved by "divine intervention" i.e. DM rejuvenation.



Advanced Dungeons & Dragons avoids all those pitfalls, I’m happy to say. The story by Michael Fleisher, brings together a unique party of adventurers, bends the AD&D rules just enough to keep them interesting and creates the potential for each of them to have their own story arc. We start with our Paladin Agrivar, who is here conversing with his father, a mage. Agrivar has just returned from routing some evil greedy barons.


 

That mcguffin around Dad’s neck is just asking to be stolen. The art chores are done by Jan Duursema, and I don’t really care for them in most places. It’s not horribly bad, but it’s not above Sunday Funny Paper good either. Sadly Duursema doesn’t get the out of saying it’s the heavy-handed inker’s fault, since she’s doing those duties as well. I guess the pictures are serviceable, just not jaw-droppingly good. 



Anyway, those wings Agrivar hears turns out to be a demon (or if this is second edition rules, a denizen of the outer planes. Sheesh, being PC sucks) riding some kind of mini dragon that I’m pretty sure wasn’t in any Monster Manual I’ve ever seen. I’m glad they break with the game conventions when it fits the story, because the monster’s break-in is pretty cool to look at. Agrivar challenges the beast’s master, of course.


 

That result was a bit unexpected. I mean Agrivar had to be defeated and the amulet thing has to get taken for the sake of the plot is understandable. However, by using the Staff of Withering on him they just removed him as a paladin for good. No way he can fight now. What’s the rest of the book about? How Agrivar files for welfare and food stamps?

 

Nice use of a Death spell there. The setup here is since the demon (or denizen of the lower planes, DOTLP for short) killed his Father, Agrivar is going to go all Indigo Montoya on him later. Once he gets some new hands. He will also have to get back Selune’s Eye because the writer says so. The DOTLP flys off without killing Agrivar much happier because, he not only got the bauble he was after, but because he also got to be needlessly cruel while doing it. Yay him!





We next catch up with our DOTLP (named Imgig Zu) friend six years later in his pimped out tower of evil. I always think that towers contain evil creatures. They just look so lonely and menacing. If I had my way, I’d blow up all towers just to be on the safe side. Also lighthouses. Anyway, enough of my peculiar afflictions. It seems that Zu has been trying to find a mage worthy of using Selune’s Eye by capturing them and “testing” them against his personal assistant, a female Drow mage.



See how that’s done, DragonStrike? Proper names add to the characters. Now you know. Speaking of Drow, ever notice how this geeky game played mostly by white males has a majority of the evil people being, well, of darker skin color? I’m not saying that AD&D is inherently racist, but let’s face facts: “Dark” Elves all being evil is pretty much a given in the game world. The oddball Drizzt exception doesn’t change that fact either. They even have to live below ground, like that’s some fantasy version of a ghetto. Bet they have to sit in the back of the carriage too. Where is the Drow version of Rosa Parks.

 
Our plane-jumping illegal alien obviously has an extensive network of evil. I wonder if he uses Twitter, Facebook or Linked-in? Here we see him chatting with a Yuan ti  servant . Yuan ti are bastardized versions of Lovecraft’s Deep Ones using snakes instead of frogs. They even have psionics or mind powers. Many players have no good grasp on how to play psionics in D&D. Even more players believe psionics is a place you go to get burgers, tater tots and shakes, but you have to eat them in your car.

We next happen in on Cybriana, an elven woman and magic user, who is making her way to Waterdeep (a city in the Forgotten Realms world) but has decided to stay with some friends in their cabin for the night. These elven chicks do what all chicks do when they are having a female companion in from out of town: have a slumber party, stay up late watching Rom-Coms on Helga’s crystal ball, and goad their guest into conjuring up flowers.




It’s about this point that I get worried that all the major good-guy characters in this book would be crippled from the elbows down. Cybriana’s hand and fore arm are now made of solid crystal. The sad part is that if you look closely at the underside of her hand you see the word “Mi Casa” in bold letters. Which means not only is it crystal, but it’s also bad Mexican knock-off crystal to boot! And even more bad news is waiting on the other side of that window.


 

If you thought I was going to say “Her elf friends forgot to plug in the giant bug zapper,” give yourself a gold star. I also might add that I live in Texas and see flies bigger than that every day. These monster insects are actually Chasme, another denizen of the lower planes and the Imgig Zu’s stand in for flying monkeys. Shouldn’t take more than a couple of giant fly swatters and the girls should be home free. Sadly they are all wimps and get scooped up and carried off.



Luckily for Cybriana, her cries are heard by Onyx the dwarf and his friend Timothy Eyesbright. They are bored thrill-seekers with nothing to do. Timothy nails the Chasme carrying her, which drops her to the ground. Onyx lets fly with a volley of spit and blow-darts (pfft short pants, 1d4 of damage isn’t going to do squat to a minor demon.) Cybriana is a bit surprised to see the nature of her saviors.


So should we because Timothy is a centaur, and centaurs are not a playable race in AD&D. It’s a nice surprise to see the writer bucking convention and giving us something different. Trouble is, seeing Timothy and his cool set of skills (fast, strong, able to use long bow and a COOL! new weapon called the double sword) probably makes every D&D geek ready to roll character stats for a centaur of their own.



When Zu finds out that his Chasme failed in their task to return all the magical female elves, he as a bit of a hissy fit. And pity whoever might be in the way of that hissy.




Inventive use of spells there. A bit wasteful, but not much chance of coming back from that. Cybriana relays to her new companions that she’s going to Waterdeep to find Agrivar and convince him to help her find her sister who was taken weeks ago by the same creatures that just attacked them. Onyx is typically grumbly at the prospect of traveling with an elf while Timothy rolls out the red carpet for her. Meanwhile someone in this book has the same idea I did.


 

Excellent! Waterdeep’s finest are going to take that tower out of commission. Yay, someone in the story has more than half a brain. But only slightly more than half, because if a mysterious tower appears near your city in a world full of magic, odds are it has some pretty potent defensive enchantments around it. All these guys are eaten by the gargoyles that come to life at the top of the tower. *sigh* At least they tried.





Now it’s time to introduce our final party member. After showing pity on the drunken beggar in the street outside Selune’s Smile tavern, this mystery person wanders in to find a bar brawl in progress. I’m sparing you the shot of the brawl which has both coloring issues and a guy standing in mid-air brandishing a bottle. And the dude is NOT a magic user. As soon as our cloaked guest steps in, everyone stares at them and then calmly goes back to their bar stools. So our hero-to-be takes a seat by the fire.





Luna is obviously ignorant of Bakshi’s version of Strider/aka/Aragorn because if she was she’d make this visitor change position for fear of copyright disputes. They get interrupted by a patron who’s not impressed until he sees the visitor’s manacle which comes from some arena where all the contestants are bad-asses. He leaves and we finally get the hood pulled back to reveal…



...that Duursema can’t draw women that well. This is Varjra. Very manish face on this one, even though I think she’s suppose to be pretty. Needless to say she joins up with our crew, who are looking to find the great paladin Agrivar. And find him they do. Varjra leads them out in the street where they save the beggar from being beaten to death by thugs. And the beggar turns out to be…


We end with many intriguing story setups. Not a bad first issue for a game.



While now the property of Wizards of the Coast, I’ll always think of AD&D as rightfully belonging to TSR. Blame it on the hours spent staring at their logo stamped on all the materials while I waited for someone to resurrect my character. So after two strikes, TSR finally hits one out of the park with a winning storyline from their many gaming properties. At least for the next 36 issues. 


1 comment:

  1. I read this series a couple years ago. Not sure why, other than I'd come across a torrent of the complete series and it seemed like it would be a quick read. It was surprisingly entertaining. Nothing brilliant, but the characters managed to raise it a notch above similar properties.

    Still think the whole "tiny hands" thing was weird, though. If memory serves correctly, I think the Paladin leaves the series after that first story, which I found interesting, as it shifted the focus to the more unusual characters.

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