The following is a stand-alone holiday-themed 1st edition AD&D adventure for five to six characters level 5-6. Because this is an entire adventure module, it’s substantially longer than our usual fare.
A small group of adventurers stumble through a portal and find themselves in a snow-blanketed land of forested mountains. They find shelter in a tiny village, but they also find the villagers to be cursed and in desperate need of help. The PCs can assist the villagers in one of two possible ways in return for the knowledge of how to get home. Or they can venture into the wilderness to obtain this knowledge from a centuries-old crone.
Spreading Yuletide Fear
A Dark Holiday-Themed Adventure by Michael Garcia (2020)
The scents of pine needles, wood embers, and roasted boar fill the air, but the pleasant aromas do not match the mood in the room. Mingled with the clinking of earthenware tankards, hushed voices fill the darkened great hall with anxious whispers. The thick oaken doors, barred against the many evils of the night, give the illusion of safety. You and your companions huddle together around a worn oaken table, not far from a great stone hearth. The roaring fire within it crackles and pops, causing shadows to dance eerily in the corners of the room. The reddish glow of the firelight reveals the nervous faces of your fellows. They look uneasily at each other, painfully aware that dozens of dour villagers, seated in the darkened recesses of the hall, send hardened stares in your direction. They are awaiting your answer.
How have you come to this god-forsaken place? Twelve hours ago, you were skulking about in a mysterious dungeon outside of your hometown. One or two wrong turns, and you found yourselves outdoors, stumbling through a snow-covered wilderness of rocky forests and rolling moors. Unable to find your way back, you made a long trek through the deep snow to this tiny village. Stunned, exhausted, and seeking answers, you found instead only fear and mystery.
The fretful villagers told you that winter snows had already blocked the mountain passes until spring. Worse, they claimed that the power of the old gods had returned in recent years to haunt this secluded valley. To wit, a company of spectral horsemen supposedly gallops nightly through the snow-filled sky, sweeping across the moors and across the very treetops, killing all in its path. Moreover, in the tangled forests that envelop this tiny settlement, malicious elves prey on anyone foolish enough to enter their dark realm. Pondering all this, you begin to understand the villagers’ distrustful stares.
After much debate, your friend beside you clearly lays out your options. The villagers claim to know your way home, but their price for this information is your help in breaking a curse on their village. Another way to get their aid is merely to protect them against the Wild Hunt and other terrifying night creatures while they complete their year-end rituals, needed to drive away darkness and to bring good fortune in the spring. If you spurn the villagers, your only other option seems to lie in the goodwill of a monstrous crone, who dwells alone in the trackless forest nearby. Said to be a powerful enchantress, half-woman and half-demon, this crone seems little better than the dreaded Huntsman and his spectral company.
Disgusted by your predicament, you are tempted to do none of the above! Let them figure it out! Vengeful curses, heathen rites, and evil ghosts are none of our business! Yet the grim stares coming from all corners of the darkened hall make it clear that you will find no shelter here if you refuse their pleas for aid.
Outside, the wind moans loudly and rattles the oiled parchment that covers the nearby window. Forceful drafts, like icy fingers, seem to seek you out, creeping beneath the barred doors and around window coverings. Standing abruptly and pushing the oiled parchment aside with your finger, you gaze outside. Wind-driven snow swirls frantically in the pale light of the full moon. An icy blast causes you to shiver, and you back away from the window. It is time to decide.
Many years ago, when we were just learning to play D&D Third Edition, our weekly gaming group spent over a year exploring the Temple of Elemental Evil. What started out as a brief tutorial in a new game system never ended, and a year later several players grew bored and frustrated. Though I joined the group a few months after they began, when the PCs were already at 6th-level, I soon had a 9th-level fighter. Moreover, this fighter had a laundry list of magical items and equipment, though where he kept any of that stuff was beyond me. When my mind began to rebel against such senselessness, some players just shrugged, while others told me that the ‘campaign’ was only a tutorial so it didn’t matter. Well, after more time passed, one exasperated player finally said aloud that the campaign lacked any hint of realism, but rather than blame the DM, he instead took the high road and suggested that the group start, you know, role-playing. Now that we had most of the mechanics down, perhaps we should either start over or start playing the characters like real people. He pointed out that the PCs had been exploring the seemingly endless underground site for close to two weeks in a row (in game) without ever stopping to rest, to eat, to drink, or to sleep. Unfortunately, the players largely ignored his objections as trivial. The game dragged on for a few more months, but it eventually imploded because there was zero interest left. While that two-year campaign was torturous in many ways, we had a lot of laughs and also learned to play D&D Third Edition. More importantly, I learned something fundamental that later helped me as a DM: tough choices make for a good game. The reverse is also true, of course: a lack of tough choices often makes for a poor game.
Though this concept of tough choices could be the title of an entire series of articles, I wish to limit myself here to just three annoying practices that I have witnessed countless times. Though I hardly expect that everyone has had the same experiences, some of you, especially those that have played for a while, can probably attest to seeing a few of these. Perhaps you do these things yourself and even defend the practices. No matter. This isn’t about right and wrong or about assigning blame. I simply suggest that these practices actually detract from a good rpg game session (at least one in the vein of Dungeons & Dragons). If these practices are common in your game, you may not even realize that your game is hindered. I suggest trying a few changes. After a few sessions, you may notice that your game has changed a bit, and you may like it.
I have watched PC archers loose one or two arrows per round at their monstrous foes, doing so in six, eight, or ten encounters in a row, yet somehow they never run short on arrows. When is the last time that you heard a player say, “Guys, I’m down to two arrows”? Maybe your playing history is different than mine, but I honestly can’t recall a player saying that. Some characters purchase arrows during character creation and then go for months or years without every buying more. Talk about getting your money’s worth!
If someone objects, a player might argue that keeping track of such minutia is boring. “This is a game about adventure, not book-keeping!” a player once told me. Two other players that I remember seemed more bothered by the loss of coin than the effort of tracking arrows. One wonders why someone like that would buy a weapon that requires ammunition. Who knows? However, when pressed, at least one said, “I can’t afford to keep buying arrows. The prices in this village are inflated.” By the way, he was not wrong.
Many years ago, my friends and I sent our PCs deep underground, venturing for days without ever giving a thought to our supply of torches or oil. I remember fighting many creatures in that place and eventually getting out alive with plenty of treasure. I don’t ever recall running low on light sources. More recently, I have seen a party of about ten PCs in a long file, winding its way through a narrow tunnel. When the PCs in the lead, carrying the only light source, ran forward to scout ahead, the DM told the PCs in the back of the party that they were now in the dark. An annoyed player grumbled, “We have torches, ya know.” To that the DM flatly asked, “Did you light them before the fighter in the front ran off with the lantern?” Annoyed and a bit incredulous, the player responded with, “We would have when we saw him move away.” This sort of play makes me bury my head in my hands. Yet, we did have fun, and we did so without worrying too much about light sources.
My opening anecdote already touched on how a group could completely ignore the importance of food and water, let alone rest. It was silly, and again a few players seemed annoyed at the suggestion that we start tracking such things. Yet, we had some fun. As a kid, I remember playing in Tracy and Laura Hickman’s desert-themed adventure called Pharaoh. It is still one of my favorites, but I laugh now at our silliness because I recall that food and water were never concerns during that adventure or during the two sequels. One could certainly argue that we had a blast without ever giving a thought to food or water, and that is true.
IGNORING CARRYING CAPACITY
I submit that bags of holding and portable holes are perhaps the most useless magical items in the entire Dungeon Master’s Guide. Do I dislike the idea of those items? Certainly not! In fact, they’re great. My issue is that so many players and DMs completely ignore realistic limitations on what a person can carry that those items become pointless. A player might moan, “But the encumbrance system in AD&D First Edition is awful!” I couldn’t agree more. It may have improved in later editions, but I haven’t met a single player that has liked any system for carrying capacity.
More recently, my gaming group was exploring an old castle. I watched a fellow player run his seven-foot-tall, female, half-orc barbarian-cleric in her characteristic style. She has a penchant for bull-rushing enemies, dropkicking them, or tackling them. As a side note, I love that she does this for flavor, though some other players dutifully remind the player that the PC could deal more damage with standard moves and attacks (yawn). Anyway, twice or thrice in one recent session, the half-orc delivered a tackle that would have made Jack Lambert proud. After rolling around on the ground several times with her opponents, she then pulled out a javelin and hurled it at a new foe. I could not help myself and asked, “Where did she have this javelin all this time?” Without missing a beat, the player responded, “Tied to her back.” Ok. I laughed inside, for having fought full-contact, mock battles in medieval armor for more years than I want to admit, I can tell you that carrying just an extra longsword can be positively unwieldy when you’re in the grind of a melee. Carrying a long weapon on your back, not to mention rolling around with one on your back, is absurd. I laughed inside but said nothing. The half-orc missed with the javelin, but what did she do the very next round? “I try with another javelin,” announced the player. “Where did you get that one?” asked the DM. You know the answer, right? “It was tied to her back. I had two,” he said with a straight face.
IGNORING AN ITEM’S LOCATION
I have no funny anecdote for this, but several times in the last few months, my fellow players have become disgruntled while their characters were in the middle of combat. It may have been a wounded character that wanted to drink a healing potion. It may have been a character that wanted to read a scroll. It may have been a character that wanted to make the equivalent of a Molotov cocktail with oil and rags. In each case, the DM informed the player that it would take at least one round to accomplish the task. In each case, the player grumbled. Again, I put my head in my hands. Of course, the DM was correct. Indeed, in the AD&D game that I run, I would have required a minimum of one round to do such things, and in AD&D a round equals one minute. In these instances, we are playing D&D Edition 3.5, and the players were annoyed that they lost one round, which is only six seconds! Few of the players can roll their dice in six seconds, yet they expect their character to back away from combat, take off the mysterious backpack (that holds everything and never gets in the way), throw it on the ground, rifle through it, retrieve the desired item, and then use it in six seconds.
“I don’t want to miss my turn,” a player might object. He might even continue, “It takes at least ten minutes in between rounds—on a good day—and I don’t want to wait ten minutes before I can actually do something!” I admit that there is logic there, and of course one can sympathize with not wanting to miss out. I think of my eight-year-old when she doesn’t want to go to bed because she doesn’t want to miss anything.
SO WHAT’S THE REAL PROBLEM?
I just laid out three common practices, but in each case, I seemed to admit that the game continued, we usually had fun, and some of the players’ complaints were at least partially justified. So what’s the problem then?
Dungeons & Dragons, as initially envisioned, is a game of exploration and treasure hunting. In this game, player-characters, after carefully selecting their equipment, explore dark, dangerous, and sometimes remote locations in search of treasure, confronting any monsters that threaten them along the way. Exploration is a fundamental part of the game. Removing that, by and large, leaves mainly combat. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but if that is all that you want, why not just play a gladiatorial game with alien races? That could be fun, but the experience would be radically different from the initial vision of D&D. Some may object to the idea of clinging to a decades-old vision just for the sake of orthodoxy, and that would be a sound point. Yet, I submit that anyone making that argument has not given Gary Gygax or Dave Arneson enough credit. Their initial vision of the game took into account a very basic precept: tough choices make for good games. Consider the following ridiculous example:
Your DM allows your party to have the entirety of the equipment list in the Players Handbook, spread out between the various PCs. He doesn’t care how you manage to carry it all. Furthermore, he does not let the incredible burden that you now carry inhibit your ability to gather as much treasure as you want. This is every player’s dream, right? Even better, when the PCs realize that they need a particular item, even in the midst of a battle, the DM does not force the PCs to spend several rounds rummaging through their colossal hoard of possessions. Instead, a PC can find the item instantly and carry on without losing even one round of action. For the moment, let’s put aside the objection that this breaks radically from the initial vision for the game. Let’s ignore that this would break radically from the exciting and legendary literature on which the game in based (the Conan stories of Robert E. Howard, the adventure tales of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser by Fritz Leiber, the Lord of the Rings saga by J.R.R. Tolkien, or the various legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table). Let’s dismiss the fact that this would make the game much more akin to Pokemon with medieval trappings. I submit that more important is that the game would be BORING. Logistics force players to make tough choices, which in turn creates tension. Tension is what keeps a movie audience on the edge of its collective seat at the movies. Tension is what makes you keep flipping the pages of a book when you are an hour past your bedtime. Tension is what makes many role-playing sessions dramatic and memorable. Eliminating these for the sake of convenience actually does more harm than good to the experience. Consider another silly example:
Imagine playing a game of Monopoly with some friends, some of which have never played before. In this example, all of the players love the game (or at least the idea of it, though if they are over the age of eight, I question their sanity). The game begins normally, but as it progresses, half of the players get increasingly annoyed with having to pay rent, having to pay fines to get out of jail, or having to pay random fees like a luxury tax. Another player even grows tired of collecting rent and collecting money when he passes Go. Thus, several players advocate for doing away with the use of money in the game, as they find it trivial.
Hmmmm. Are they wrong? Should they be able to do whatever they wish with their game? Isn’t the most important thing that they are having fun? Well… no, yes, and yes. However, the real question is this: why would those people that wish to get rid of money play Monopoly in the first place? When asked, one might tell you that he loves rolling dice and just likes to see if he can move fastest around the board. Another might say that she likes seeing if she can avoid going to jail and can instead land on Free Parking, Broadway, or Park Place. These are not ‘wrong,’ of course, but the game without money certainly isn’t Monopoly. Anyone that truly loves the game, as is, and sits down to play in a game without money is in for a big disappointment. If they are new to the game entirely, they might not complain, for they have no idea what they are missing. That is my point though. They would be missing much of what brings tension to the game—much of what forces players into tough decisions. As this is a key ingredient of any challenging and memorable game, they are missing out.
Before I continue, a quick request: Please don’t write me to tell me that ‘having fun is what it’s all about.’ I already know that. If you think that I’m trying to stop anyone from playing their games as they wish, you haven’t read this carefully. I am suggesting that, if players have come to ignore logistics and other hints of realism in their games, they may be missing out. They may not even know that they are missing out. I merely suggest that they try reintroducing some logistics, as they may change the game for the better. How to do this, you ask? I think that players can certainly do their part, but I think that DMs must take the lead here. DMs can design their adventures in such a way that logistics can make or break the party’s chances for success. That’s the key. Consider the possibilities below.
DESIGNING ADVENTURES WITH LOGISTICS IN MIND When it comes to ammunition, keep track. A character that is heavily invested in a bow, for example, will only have so many shots. The game changes for him when he runs out of ammo. That should not mean that the fun is over. Far from it! This new challenge requires that PC to be more creative and more careful, at least until he can find more arrows. Great memories often result when characters face terrible danger when already disadvantaged. Moreover, such a situation allows the DM to place arrows as meaningful treasure. In a game in which even magical arrows can seem a bit hum-drum, the player can find satisfaction in finding two quivers of mundane arrows. This is how you keep the game fresh and avoid the slippery slope that leads to Monty Haul campaigns.
As a history nerd and a movie nerd, I cannot help but think of several movies in which a lack of ammunition plays an important role. I’ll offer here just one example. The 1979 movie Zulu Dawn is based on the true tale of the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879, in which several thousand Zulu warriors attacked an invading British expeditionary force in what is now South Africa. The supremacy of modern industrial warfare is on full display during much of the battle, as the British soldiers, armed with Martini-Henry breach-loading rifles, just mow down the onrushing Zulu warriors. Yet, a beleaguered British soldier, nervously eyeing the Zulu lines, mutters, “but bullets run out, and those bloody spears don’t!” As the British fire volley after volley, the tension becomes palpable, and when the movie shows a diligent British quartermaster, handing out ammunition one small box at a time to a line of desperate soldiers, you want to jump through the screen and smack him. For a moment, try to imagine that movie (or the battle itself) if the British had endless ammunition. Yawn.
If tracking ammunition seems like added work that you, as the DM, do not want to do, ask the players to help. I do not mean simply asking players to mind their ammunition. In a group of great players, they will do this naturally, but if your group needs a little more accountability, try this instead. Fill out an index card, listing each missile-using PC and his or her ammo. Keep the card in the center of the table. Whenever someone looses an arrow or bolt, ask him to cross it off the card. You may need to remind players a few times, but after a while, it should become habit. This ammo card goes to the DM between sessions. Not only will there be an accounting of ammunition, but every player that uses missiles will notice when the group as a whole is running low on ammo. This may urge players to have their PCs start looking for more ammo, and if nothing else, it makes several players aware that their limited resources are dwindling. This adds tension. The ranger that has weapon specialization in a bow, a +2 magical bow, and only a few +2 magical arrows left will start to squirm, knowing that soon he will have to draw his non-magical longsword, with which he has no bonuses at all. For such a character, the next battle will be tense. Will they be able to prevail before he runs out of ammunition? If not, he’ll have to make do with his longsword, and that will be memorable! Even advancing down an empty tunnel becomes tense because the player will be anticipating the next combat at any moment. Does the party hear a noise coming from down the tunnel? While this may generate tension in any circumstance, it would now generate even more because of limited resources.
When it comes to food and water, keep track. This is admittedly more difficult to use, at least at face value, because most editions do not clearly state that you lose hit points or strength points whenever you miss meals or fail to drink enough water. When game mechanics ignore something, you can be certain that players will too. I am convinced that if the game mechanics did not have rules on drowning, many players would expect and demand that their characters be able to walk for days underwater without ill effect. Rules encourage or discourage behavior. It’s simple. Though the game often lacks rules on food and water, I suggest that you do what most early DMs were entirely expected to do: make up a simple mechanic. If a character is in a desert without shade or water, perhaps he loses a strength point every hour (if you are feeling strict) or every day (if you are feeling generous). Instead of strength, perhaps the PC loses one hit point every hour. There is no right mechanic. Just make up whatever seems sensible. Is this being cruel? Not at all! The goal is not to kill the PCs. The goal is to make the PCs aware that they will not survive for long in a desert without shade or water (imagine that).
If tracking food and water (not to mention strength points and hit points) seems like a lot of work, don’t worry. It need not be complicated. You need not calculate how many ounces each waterskin holds or research the exact hydration needs of the human body in certain conditions. Keep it simple if you wish, but clearly give the PCs a reason to carry and to keep track of water. If you wish to be grossly generous, perhaps each PC on your typical wilderness trek must consume at least one skin of water per day. If they do not, they lose strength or hit points. That certainly isn’t complicated, but it does provide complications for the group. Will they go off the trail to search for water? Will they drink from the stagnant pond that they come upon next (risking sickness and throat leeches)? Will they push on and risk dehydration, fatigue, and collapse? Remember—story complications (like dwindling resources) lead to tough choices, which create tension and make for a memorable game.
One small side note on the above: I tend to favor loss of hit points instead of strength points for two reasons. First, most players instinctively get that hit points mean life. Without them, it’s “Game over, man!” (quoting the late, great Bill Paxton in Aliens). Players may be less aware of the danger of lost strength points. The second reason that I favor hit point loss has to do with mechanics. In AD&D (First and Second Editions), a loss of strength only affects a PC if he initially had extremely high strength or if his strength drops to an extremely low score. That means that strength loss poses little threat. In contrast, in Third Edition and in later editions, a PC’s strength score does indeed affect most characters and in many ways (attacks, skills, etc.). This seems good, until you realize that it requires you to do many mathematical adjustments up and down the character sheet, which slows play and takes the focus off of the story. Hit point loss, on the other hand, has little to no effect on other mechanics (regardless of edition) so there is no delay or distraction.
When it comes to light sources, keep track. While the need for food and water is obvious, it may not seem urgent. After all, you can live without food for weeks and can survive without water for about three days in temperate conditions. In contrast, the need for ammunition can seem immediate and pressing when in a dangerous dungeon, abandoned temple, ruined castle, etc. Yet, even running out of ammo pales in comparison to losing the gift of sight. Of course, darkness is a staple in horror movies, and for good reason. Even some action movies make limited use of the effect. We find a poor example in Raiders of the Lost Ark, right after the Nazis seal Indiana Jones and Marion in an underground chamber. As Indy tries to figure a way out, Marion fends off snakes and yells, “Indy the torch is going out!” If the torch had died, they would have been trapped underground in pitch darkness with hundreds of snakes. This is a poor example only because the condition does not last long enough for the audience to feel anxious. Indy sends a giant statue crashing through a wall and discovers a way out. If he hadn’t, though, the movie would be much darker (bad pun—not intended). The same is true with the classic movie Jaws (which is really a horror movie, but the second half of the film seems much like an adventure movie). Toward the end, after the characters spend hours excitedly hunting the shark, water damage to the boat causes the lights to go out. In that instant, despite all that you’ve seen to that point, the mood changes. This too is only a mediocre example because there is still some light outside. Imagine the movie if that had occurred in the middle of the night. Terrifying.
I think many DMs can use darkness to better effect in their games. Ask yourself this question: when was the last time that the party had no light source at all or was in danger of losing it for more than a few moments? I imagine that most DMs require the party to light a torch or lantern, but as time passes, can the characters simply light another torch or refill the oil lantern? Put differently, has the party really had to contend with being in a dangerous or hostile environment in compete blackness? If not, consider a few possibilities on how to bring about these conditions or how to use darkness once you have it.
First, keep track of torches or flasks of oil the same way that you track ammunition. An index card will do just fine. In fact, you can even put this light-related information on the back of the ammunition card suggested above.
Second, design your dungeon (ruin, temple, etc.) with an area that makes it difficult for PCs to bring torches through. A narrow underground tunnel may have a fierce draft that blows out just about any flame. Though you may know that the draft only exists in a limited area, the PCs should not know that. Will they turn back, will they push on while blind, or will they innovate and find another solution? Tough choices make for good games. In addition to drafts, you could use water as a barrier between two areas. This too is common in movies (even if light is not the focus). Consider The 13th Warrior, at the end of which the characters, trapped underground with monsters closing in, try to escape by swimming through an underwater tunnel in the hopes that they will find their way out (talk about desperation—would you do that?). Another silly example that comes to mind is in Conan the Destroyer, when they enter the wizard’s castle to get a magical key. Yes, the movie was terrible (I know), but my point is that the only way in was beneath the water. In your game, perhaps the only known way to access a certain cavern is by swimming underwater. Do the PCs push forward? If so, they will be without light at least temporarily. Will they manage to keep the torch dry so they can light it on the other side? If not, how would they see? Do they decide not to swim underwater and turn back instead? Do they seek another, perhaps longer or more dangerous route? Tough choices make for good games.
In addition to making it tough to maintain their light sources, consider how to use darkness effectively if they fail. For starters, remember the notion that the greatest fear is that of the unknown. While we often repeat this saying today as a way of implying that we actually have nothing to fear, in our games there may be very good reasons to fear the dark. Let’s start with terrain hazards. Pits (man-made or natural), crevasses, chasms, and crumbling ledges are common underground, and each could lead to serious injury or death.
Continuing with this idea of the unknown, consider how the DM can use darkness to make monsters more frightening. Though the PCs may not be able to see, a crafty DM might add tension by allowing PCs to hear creatures around them, to smell creatures around them, or even worse, to feel creatures around them. That hissing, slimy thing that just bumped into the character in the rear of the party may be terrifying and powerful or it may have one hit die. The players will not know (and will often assume the worst).
If it eventually comes to combat, a good DM will realize that fighting monsters should be exponentially more difficult, if not impossible, without any light. PCs suffer hefty penalties to both their attacks and their AC, and they may lack the ability to direct missile fire at enemies. A generous DM may allow a PC to fire blindly and have a tiny chance of success—though there should be an equal chance that the PC might hit a companion. PCs would also be unable to read from magical scrolls. They might not be able to cast certain spells if they cannot see or cannot find their spell components. A thief or rogue cannot use his backstab ability on a foe that he cannot locate. Even the ever reliable and inerrant magic missile requires a clear target. Furthermore, intelligent creatures that can see in the dark will use every advantage. They may strike from a distance. They may strike a PC and back away from the dumbfounded target. Why stand in a line and wait to be hit? More than anything, they would make every attempt to stop a PC from relighting a torch or lantern. In short, fighting in darkness should be terrifying and desperate. Realize too that your game can improve even if a battle in the dark never occurs. It is the threat of such a battle—the fear of such a battle—that can make a session more tense and memorable. Even better, if the PCs ever have such a battle, you can guarantee thereafter that tensions will rise whenever light sources start to run low.
Darkness brings one last side-benefit. In the Stygian darkness, even relatively weak creatures (like goblins) can be terrifying, provided that the DM runs them properly. This is another way to keep the game fresh without having to resort to increasingly powerful creatures to the keep the PCs engaged.
When it comes to carrying capacity, keep track. In the games that I run, I am a stickler with this, but not as you might suspect. The encumbrance rules in AD&D First Edition were indeed awful. They measured weight in gold pieces, each equal to a one-tenth of a pound. Moreover, each item had an encumbrance value, representing not only its weight, but also its bulkiness. Your strength and your armor type indicated how much you could carry and fast you could move. It was logical (sort of), but unplayable. In Second Edition, things improved some. They started measuring things in pounds, and they did away with encumbrance points. This was certainly better, but still a bit clunky for my tastes. In Third Edition, much remained the same, though they simplified the five categories (unencumbered, light, etc.) to just three (light load, medium load, and heavy load). While this is manageable, I opt to use an even simpler way.
As DM, you need not use a Byzantine system to track carrying capacity. I simply ask each player to note on their character sheet where each item is on the PC’s body. Some find it easier to draw a stick figure diagram, showing me where each item is. Before we start, I ask each player to give me a sixty-second rundown. Reason is our only guide. Usually, players are very practical, and I recognize that the PCs are sometimes stronger than the players that run them. Yet, I insist on common sense. A few months ago, when a player told me that he had a spear strapped to his back, I marched into my garage, produced a nine-foot spear, and offered to strap it to his back while he ran around my front yard. He declined. Sometimes we just need a visual as a reality check. When dealing with a simple list on paper, it is sometimes too easy to keeping adding stuff.
When it comes to retrieving items, use common sense. If you ask each player to note where each of his items is located (as suggested above), then this becomes easy. Before we go any further, remember that editions matter here. In AD&D (First and Second Editions) the combat round is one-minute long, while Third Edition and those that followed use a six-second round. Keep that in mind as you use common sense. My rule of thumb is that if a character has an item within his grasp and does not need to look for it, he can usually grab it in one round or less (though using it may take longer). If a disagreement arises, I just ask a player to walk me through the steps that his PC would need to take. Through experience, I have noticed that disagreements usually begin when a player starts with a vague statement like, “I reach in my pack, grab my flask of oil, light it, and throw it at the monster.” Rather than being argumentative or authoritarian, I usually just ask him to clarify each step for me. My favorite phrase here is “I just want to make sure that I understand you correctly.” This is often followed by something like this: “You have a shield in your left hand and a battleaxe in your right. You have one troll in front of you and one to your right. You now want to withdraw from combat—how far by the way? Ok. You want to withdraw 25’. Then you want to drop your axe and shield. Then you want to shrug off the leather pack that was on your back. How many items do you have in there? Sixteen? You want to rummage through those and grab a flask of oil, a rag, and the tinderbox. You then want to open the flask of oil and stuff the end of the rag into the flask, put down the flask, open the tinderbox, remove a piece of charcloth, wad up a bunch of tinder, grab the flint and steel, hurriedly make sparks until one hits the charcloth, blow on it until it flames, throw the tinder on top, blow on it again, use that flame to light the rag, get up, and then throw flask at the monster? Ok. How long do you think that would reasonably take? Usually the conversation never gets into the weeds because just calling attention to the many steps involved helps the player to realize that it would take longer than he imagined. Sometimes a player responds with, “Forget it. I’ll just attack again.” But more times than not, a player will say, “OK. I’ll do that as fast as I can. If it takes two rounds to prepare the oil, so be it.” I want to stress this point: As DM, I don’t want to stop PCs from doing certain things. Quite the opposite! I just want players to be clear on how long it would reasonably take. I have found that the more we discuss this stuff, the more reasonable their desired actions become. They don’t stop doing fun things; they just realize that it may take them a round or so to pull off their cool idea. In the end, they get to choose. Does the PC continue fighting a losing battle against trolls, trying to save his companions from injury and death? Does he call for the whole party to retreat? Does he withdraw from the battle, leaving his friends even more vulnerable for a few moments, while he tries to put together a weapon that might turn the tide? Tough choices make for good games.
If you have not used logistics in your games (for whatever reason), consider dabbling with some of the above ideas in your upcoming sessions. I think you may need to try them for more than a single session, as enough time must pass for supplies to dwindle. Yet have no fear. The ideas are easy to implement, and they force PCs to make tough choices. This adds tension, which players will remember, regardless of what their characters choose to do. Freaked out, frustrated, and anxious players may even thank you afterwards for the wonderful experience. As DMs, we indeed have a weird job.
If you decide to use pre-generated characters, send the character sheets to your players before game day. This will allow them to familiarize themselves with the character a bit. This is especially important for spell-casters, which are more complex to run than fighters. Distributing the sheets early also fosters excitement and anticipation for your game.
Bring Extra Stuff
Expect a few players to forget dice, pencils, and paper. These things take only a few minutes to gather, and the players in question will be grateful. Besides, you don’t want anything to delay you, as time is fleeting on game day.
Preroll For NPCs
This is a trick that I’ve used successfully for years now. The slow pace of the combat round has been a bugbear in most versions of D&D, and I imagine that other games have similar problems. Though I learned from experience that AD&D (or 1st Edition) can move combat along quicker than later versions, pre-rolling attacks and damage will speed things up, no matter what version you play. Of course, you can do this in your regular campaigns too, but the practice is doubly helpful with single-session adventures.
I usually roll between three and seven attacks for each monster, but use common sense. If you have twelve goblins, then perhaps thirty rolls are enough. Several goblins will likely die in the first few rounds, and if they are getting stomped, they will likely flee and end the combat. After rolling attacks, you can usually eyeball the numbers and figure out how many potential hits you have. If I rolled thirty times, I might see only ten rolls that are above a 14. Roll that many damage rolls and then add a few extra for good measure.
When you pre-roll damage or attacks, ensure that you include all known modifiers now. The more math that you do beforehand, the less you’ll need to do on game day, and combat will move that much quicker. Make sure that you are clear on what modifiers you already included (jot it down if necessary). Read more
This is Faith in Play #32: Zealots, for July 2020.
Some years back in one of my games an important local military official was murdered, and under the authority of their cavalier the party took over investigating the crime. They had out-of-character reason to believe that a certain local cleric and his two acolytes were responsible, so they focused on these. They had been told that the acolytes had taken vows of silence, but were intent on getting them to talk, so they used torture.
After the session I commented that their adventure “grades” were going to be penalized for acting against their alignment. One player objected. His character was a Neutral Good cleric/fighter, and he said that he could see penalizing him if he were Lawful Good, but somehow he did not think that he had to be quite as Good if he were “only” Neutral Good.
My response was, for what does a Neutral Good character stand, if not Good?
This is the trick to the “side alignments”, that they are ultimately about one value. In our miniseries on alignment we recognized that the character alignment is the True Religion of the characters in the game, and talked about what each of the four values means in Goodness, Wickedness, Order, and Individualism. We also considered neutrality in Believing Balance, and that can certainly impact how you play your side alignment. But ultimately someone who declares an alignment of Lawful Neutral has as first priority the interests of Law, the orderly preservation of the social order, and so with each of the side alignments it is the non-neutral part that ultimately matters.
And it matters pointedly. Someone who is Chaotic Neutral is zealously interested in the rights of individuals. The Neutral Evil character is unmitigatingly selfish. This is the one principle that drives your life, the one thing you believe matters, the one concept from which your actions spring.
For my player of the Neutral Good cleric, if he had been a corner alignment, there would be other values at play–but that’s really a subject for the next article in the series, the corner alignments. We’ll get to that.
This is Faith in Play #27: Believing Balance, for February 2020.
Over a year ago we began a series on the notion that in the Original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons® game system alignment was the True Religion, what characters actually believed. We have since examined those beliefs in Goodness, Wickedness, Order, and Individualism, the four sides of the alignment grid. However, the game also included a center, a middle ground between each pair of creeds, which it called Neutral, and a character could be neutral in regard to law and chaos or in regard to good and evil, taking the middle ground.
There are actually four distinct ways in which neutrality can be achieved in play; the book puts a lot of focus on the third, and connects it to druidism, but for the many applications of neutrality in the game it is important to recognize these concepts. I label the four choices pragmatic, oblivious, druidic, and cross-principled. Let’s start with a brief tutorial. Remember, a character can be neutral in either axis, that is, a “neutral good” character is neutral in regard to law and chaos but committed to good as against evil, and a “lawful neutral” character is committed to the maintenance of order without regard for whether good or evil is the outcome.
The pragmatic neutral has a strong belief in that in which he is not neutral, but regards the other axis as tools to achieve this. A pragmatic neutral evil character seeks his own benefit, and accepts that sometimes that is achieved by supporting the social order and sometimes by opposing it in the name of liberty. He thus uses law and chaos as means to the end of his own gain.
The oblivious neutral does not recognize these as real values. A chaotic oblivious neutral believes in liberty at any cost, and when people say that law is required to protect people and bring benefit to the greater number, he replies that this is so much sophistry, that the difference between helping one person and helping many is an illusion, and the many are just as selfish as the one. To him, the concepts of good and evil simply do not exist; what matters is the struggle between law and liberty.
The druidic neutral is in some ways the most difficult. The assumption is that the character will balance the good he does with a like amount of evil, and the chaos he causes with a like amount of law. Thus in combat he kills a man, and then in another place he heals one who is dying; he steals from an enemy but then gives to the poor. In this sense he is relatively unpredictable. Most who play this alignment try to keep their actions contained, never doing anything too good or too bad, too structured or too anarchistic. On the other hand, this alignment is open to some rather drastic conceptualization, such as a character who heals everyone in a village and then in the next village flame strikes a children’s playground. For the druid, the concept is that good and evil, law and chaos, must remain balanced in the world, and they must not put it out of balance by supporting one against another.
One solution to this seemingly erratic approach is the fourth option, the cross-principled neutral. This approach recognizes that the side alignments, while in a sense coherent approaches to reality, can be divided into distinct issues. A character who is neutral on the law/chaos axis might support the monarchy absolutely, but completely oppose legal slavery in the realm (a lawful structure in many societies). A cleric neutral on the good/evil axis might feel it his obligation to heal the poor of their diseases but at the same time take whatever valuables they might have for himself.
By the book, a druid has to be druidic neutral in both axes; however, that can be achieved by being cross-principled. Any character who is not a druid but is true neutral (“neutral neutral”) can be druidic in one axis and something else in the other, and those who are “side neutrals”–neutral good, chaotic neutral–can be any kind of neutral in the neutral axis. A true neutral fighter could be pragmatic to the ethical axis and druidic to the moral, that is, believing that law and chaos are tools to maintain the balance between good and evil; or he could be druidic in the ethical and oblivious in the moral, believing that talk of good and evil is all nonsense and what matters is maintaining the balance between order and liberty.
It should be evident at this point that the neutral alignments represent a plethora of belief systems, even within the concept of druidism. The druid, of course, believes in maintaining the balance of four beliefs, although he has several ways of achieving that. The “side alignment” neutrals are perhaps more complicated, and we will return to them in a future article.
This is Faith in Play #25: Impact, for December 2019.
Back in maybe 1981 when I first started explaining on contemporary Christian radio station WNNN-FM that Dungeons & Dragons™ was not some evil cult activity but a very Christian game, I was as a lone voice crying in the wilderness. In 1997 when I first posted Confessions of a Dungeons & Dragons(TM) Addict, Webcrawler (the original search engine) and Yahoo! (at the time a directory maintained by people reading and indexing web pages) between them had a dozen pages on Christianity and role playing games—half of them against. So sparse was the defense of gaming against the assaults of well-meaning misguided Christians that within days of my posting that page Reverend Jim Aubuchon knew it was there and invited me to join his newly-formed Christian Role Playing Game Association, which within two years would become the Christian Gamers Guild.
I’d like to say that I immediately saw the benefit of joining my ministry with that of others. That is not how it happened—but I have told that story elsewhere. Suffice it that God saw the benefit of putting me on their team.
Today the voices that rage against the evils of role playing games have been isolated to pockets of cranks, and most of the world knows that Dungeons & Dragons™ is not a cult but just a game, and a good game at that. Meanwhile, there are so many people who in an organized way are involved in some kind of ministry involving gaming that there is a Facebook group specifically for such groups, and even though I am one of the moderators of that group and I have more than once read the article on this site naming many of them, Our Friends and Allies—August 2019 by Bryan Ray, I have no idea who they all are or what they all do.
Did we start something?
I can’t make any grand claims for the Christian Gamers Guild. When Reverend Paul Cardwell joined us for a while, he was already working with The Committee for the Advancement of Role Playing Games. I don’t know when Bill Walton launched The Escapist, but he has never been a member of our group to the best of my knowledge. Michael Stackpole and Tracy Hickman were working on rebutting anti-D&D arguments independently of me for as long as I had been doing it.
On the other hand, I know that at least a few of those currently part of that group of game and hobby ministers were at one point members of the Guild now using their talents in other ways. Further, I know that we had an impact beyond them. Just recently (now a few months ago, but only days as I draft this) someone found me on Facebook and reported that two of the articles I wrote in the late 90s (the aforementioned Confessions and the recently unburied and republished Morality and Consequences: Overlooked Roleplay Essentials) had had a positive impact on his life and marriage, as they helped persuade his wife that his gaming interest was not something evil. That was someone I helped twenty years ago of whom I only just became aware. They use to say in media that you will hear from one out of a hundred listeners or readers. That suggests there were a lot more that I helped whom I will never know were helped.
So what, am I patting myself on the back and giving praise to the organization of which I am so visible a member?
That is not my intention.
I wrote that first article because I saw a wrong that needed to be addressed. In fact, I drafted the original sometime in the mid eighties, based on notes from the arguments I’d made on the radio prior to that. I did it because I saw a need. It made it to the web in large part because I had it already largely drafted and needed material for a web site that would draw attention to the game I had just published. I had no intentions nor expectations of becoming a recognized defender of hobby games—that was God’s decision. What I want to convey to you is that if you do what God has put in front of you, if you right the wrongs you see at hand in the ways you see to do so, you will ultimately have far more impact than you imagine. You will change lives simply by becoming involved in them.
There is a local pastor whose church is not more than five miles from my house; I know him because his mother and I attend the same church. One particularly cold night he found a homeless man trying to shelter himself on the front steps of his church. He took care of that man that night—but he thought he, and his church, ought to be doing more for the many homeless on the streets of their small city. One had recently died trying to take shelter in or obtain clothes from a clothing donation box. He started opening the church sanctuary on cold or stormy winter nights for homeless people to sleep on the pews. He worked with other churches in the city and with city officials and police, establishing a program called Code Blue to identify potentially harsh weather, and soon managed to set up places where such people could sleep on such nights, not only in his city but in the two other major urban centers in our county. This was not enough; creating something called the M25 Initiative (for Matthew chapter 25), he got people working on finding and fixing abandoned houses and moving homeless families into them. They are approaching a hundred families so helped—and with their initiative, the State has passed legislation supporting such efforts in every county, and local businesses including the major hospital chain have helped fund and manage the program. (The hospital says that putting people in homes reduces the numbers coming to the Emergency Room for shelter on such nights.) Reverend Robin Weinstein has, I think, had far more impact on people’s lives than I have had, but it began because he insisted on giving a homeless man shelter on a cold night.
People always say, “Let yourself be used by God.” Yet the hearers often respond, at least within themselves, “How?” The answer is right here: do what you see in front of you to help people and correct wrongs, and God will use you in that, and open more in front of you.
A wonderful thing about fantasy role-playing games is that they unfold mainly in the minds of the players. They are games of wonder and imagination. Players that keep this concept firmly in mind realize that they can play almost anywhere. Over the years, I’ve played AD&D (my game of choice) in basements, in dining rooms, in living rooms, and in a bedroom (sixth-grade sleepover). We’ve sat on floors, folding chairs and bar stools. We reclined on couches and played poolside on lounge chairs. To a limited extent, we once played in a car and while walking through a park. Your environment can be minimal, if necessary. A few sheets of paper, a pen, and some dice are all that is really needed (and even the dice are questionable). Nevertheless, a nice gaming area can indeed make the game session much more comfortable, more efficient, and more intense.
I have been blessed in that I have been able to play RPGs for over 25 years now, and I’m currently blessed with a comfortable home in which to play. Over the last few years, I decided to make small, incremental improvements to our area. Why not, especially if gaming is a consistent hobby? I am quite pleased with the results so far, but I’m always looking for small ways to improve further. Inspired by an article by Johnn Four of Roleplaying Tips, I recently took stock of all my gaming area features, and I share my thoughts with you now. Perhaps an idea that I borrowed along the way might prove useful to your group. I would love any tips or suggestions that you might have. Read more
This is RPG-ology #24: An Amusing Dungeon, for November 2019.
On June 1, 2001, Gaming Outpost began publishing Game Ideas Unlimited with an introduction to the author and the series plan. The following week this article appeared, only slightly edited for republication here, under the title Game Ideas Unlimited: An Amusing Dungeon.
Some years ago I was the dungeon master for a new group of novice AD&D players. After a hiatus, I found myself back in the dungeon design business, and this time for a bunch of teenagers who did not know me. I wanted to do something good, fun, interesting. But I also wanted to apply the lessons of previous games to the new one. One of those was that dungeons had to make sense: there had to be a reason why this underground structure had been built. And that meant that I needed to create history, a story which explained what had happened in the past.
The story I invented was fairly simple. Eons before (when dealing with elves who live for millennia, ancient history must be defined in eons) an elf had a crazy notion of establishing trade with the underdark, possibly even negotiating peace between the surface elves and their estranged drow brethren. It was he who designed the original dungeon and financed its construction. The tension between his dream and his fear that he might be unleashing a great evil on the world made him a bit crazy. The original designs included some levels which were safe havens, places for travelers to rest and even be entertained, interspersed with levels which were deadly, laced with traps or fierce beasts, intended to kill anyone not privy to the safe path.
The builder died, and was buried in the depths of his creation; that which he built fell into disrepair, and was discovered and occupied by others. The newcomers made changes, making this their homes. Some areas lost all trace of their original purpose and design, while others were untouched.
Among those discovering the abandoned rooms and tunnels was a traveling troupe of entertainers. They saw in the upper levels the opportunity to build a home, a place to practice their crafts. A secret door provided a wonderful entrance to the area they picked–the second level of the dungeon–and behind it they began making changes. One of their number, a young wizard, began to construct something here that would be the wonder of the age. Yet as his companions died, the troupe and their work would fade into oblivion, leaving their magical showplace buried and forgotten.
And so it was that the character party stumbled into something none of them could possibly understand, something so strange and frightening it would leave them bewildered and terrified; yet so awesome they kept returning, trying to fathom its mysteries. For the thing that had been built eons before into which my characters now blundered was something unknown to their age.
It was an amusement park.
It wasn’t difficult to design. I had to throw a lot of continual light spells around, and extrapolate some spell research into locomotion. There were some things I couldn’t include–I wished there were a way to do a Ferris wheel, but the underground setting limited the vertical dimension of my designs. Still, I managed to create a very real collection of attractions.
Some of these were very straightforward. There was a stone zoo, in which petrified specimens of a number of fantastic creatures had been caged for display. Two stages were illumined with light spells in reflective containers; one of these was for plays, and had prop and costume supplies behind it, while the other was the sideshow where the magician kept his tricks and gear. A betting wheel would spin automatically when a bet was placed, and if the d6 matched the player’s number it paid five to one. A small cafe included a floor where some ancient musical instruments still sat. And there was a quiet boat ride through a dark tunnel, the boats magically teleporting back to their starting point once the passengers had disembarked. I even included vending machines which could create food and drink when activated by a coin. But there was so much more.
The merry-go-round had carved figures of horses, but also of fantastic beasts; and they were enspelled such that once riders mounted all would move in a circle with the same gait they would have if alive. The cavalier in the party loved this, using it to train herself on gryphons and dragons and pegasi. The funhouse had mechanical shifting stairs and floors and slides, vents of air blasts from below, distorted mirrors, and an entrance to the vast maze on the next level. The strong-man bell was extensively magic-mouthed such that on a die roll (adjusted for strength) it would hurl insults or compliments at the characters. And the shooting gallery provided five bolts to fire from the tethered light crossbows (sites suitably misaligned), again charging a coin to play and rewarding victory with a few coins returned.
My favorite trap–that is, ride–was the tilt-a-whirl. The characters entered a room; it was perfectly round, with two doors, one to the north and one to the south. The room had a thirty foot ceiling. There was a sort of statue, more like an obelisk, in the center–shapely and not unpleasant, but with no feature that would distinguish the front. The floor was metal, and this smooth metal continued up the first ten feet of wall. A few minutes after characters stopped entering the room, all doors would close and then vanish, and the metal floor and wall would suddenly shift, slowly turning. As it turned, it increased in velocity, and characters were forced to the outside wall; but as everything was told from their perspective, they were told that as they were moving, some magic drew them against that wall. Then, as they were pinned helplessly against this wall, they saw the obelisk slowly drop into the floor; at the same time, the ceiling descended toward them, inexorably threatening to crush them. This took only a couple minutes, and the ceiling stopped descending when it reached the top of the metal part of the wall. But then the truly terrifying happened: the metal floor beneath them dropped twenty feet, down to the obelisk below. They were now suspended by the magic which pressed them against the wall as it spun. Then, slowly, the metal wall began to drop toward the floor below, and once it was there it slowed to a stop. One door–randomly selected–opened to permit the dizzy characters to stumble back to the halls, uncertain of whether they were north or south, or whether they had descended to a lower level of the dungeon. Of course, they had not–they had been lifted twenty feet and then lowered back to their original depth. But their perception of the situation left them quite bewildered.
But their favorite was probably the roller coaster. This began as a bench at the end of a hall. If anyone sat on the bench or stood in front of it, suddenly a low wall would appear creating a sort of cart around it, and it shot straight up thirty feet, and then moved forward–at the same time leaving behind an identical looking bench at the end of the hall. I mapped out a course that carried them three hundred feet per round (a minute); along the way there was one straight stretch where a group of piercers would attempt to drop into the cart, and another where large spiders sprang at them. But the true terror was in hurtling through alternately light and dark tunnels, sometimes bound straight for a wall only to have the cart turn at the last instant. Of course, once two of the party members had been swept away by this trap–I mean, ride–others had to follow in the hope of rescuing them. The carts would depart at one minute intervals. And in the midst of the ride was a section where one cart would leap over another. I think one of the players may actually have screamed. I know that at least one of the characters leapt from the cart onto the track to escape.
I’ve run thousands of hours of fantasy games; yet this is the adventure people best remember. They all agree it was an insane idea, a concept which never should have worked, never should have been tried. Yet it was among the most fun and most memorable adventures they ever had. Almost fifteen years later they still spoke of it.
I never imagined when I thought of it that it would really work. It was just an idea for an adventure, something to fill space in a dungeon map. Two levels down I had a luxury hotel; two levels below that was a dragon lair; below that was a race war. This was just part of the show. What made it so wonderful was that it was so totally out of place, and all the players realized that whatever they thought it was, to their characters it was completely inexplicable and clearly very dangerous, even demented.
A substantial part of creative thinking involves taking two things that have not been put together before and asking whether they can be combined. This adventure placed a modern amusement park in a medieval fantasy dungeon. I often find my ideas by looking at what to me are perfectly ordinary things and asking how they would be perceived by someone with an entirely different understanding of reality. I find a way to make it work in that reality, and then attempt to describe it to the players through the filters of the characters’ mindsets and presuppositions. The result is always strange to the point of alien, to the level of magical. By taking the ordinary and shifting it until it is out of place, you can create something quite original.
This is Faith in Play #22: Individualism, for September 2019.
Quite a few years ago now I was playing a character in an experimental Attorney class in a game largely based on original Advanced Dungeons and Dragons™. I had just successfully defended a player character (an Antipaladin) on a murder and robbery charge, and the player said to me, “Boy, your character must be really lawful.”
I answered, “No, he’s Chaotic Neutral.”
And that illustrates just why it is that the Chaos side of the alignment graph is so badly misunderstood and so poorly handled. My attorney was Chaotic in the best traditions of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU): he firmly believed that every person (character) had the right to be and to do whatever he wanted, as long as in doing so he did not unfairly infringe on the right of any other character to do or be what he wanted. Although anarchy can be the consequence of chaos pushed to the extreme, chaos is not about anarchy, but about liberty. It is the alignment expressed in the Bill of Rights, espoused by the Libertarian Party, and represented by Democracy. Read more
This is RPG-ology #19: Treasure Auction, for June 2019.
A recent article by Michael Garcia, Treasure Division: A Case Study From Northumbria, got me remembering treasure division from the past. I was in quite a few games, and we had quite a few ways of doing it. In more than one group, the party leader decided who got what, and tried to keep everyone happy while ensuring that useful objects went to the party members who could most benefit the party with them. One of the groups tried a method recommended in one of the Original Dungeons & Dragons™ rulebooks that involved rolling dice, with higher level characters rolling more dice and henchmen rolling fewer, which one of the groups tried once or twice at least; I might have modified it for their use. At least one party regarded every object property of the party, and it wasn’t given to you but put in your care for you to use for the benefit of the party, to be returned if you left the party or died. These are all interesting and useful methods, but with one party I needed a very different method–and as party leader, I found one, which some of the players loved and others hated.
First, the party situation should be backgrounded. My character was hired to go on a mission, promised a few thousand gold coins and permission to keep anything we obtained along the way other than the object we were to retrieve. I hired seven people of different races, classes, and alignments to be part of that mission, promising each of them a specific share of what we obtained–two of them, whom I hired to be my lieutenants, were to receive larger shares than the others. The mission took more than a week but less than two, if I recall correctly, and we recovered the object and a few thousand in cash, plus something approaching two hundred objects some of which were obviously useful for some characters (e.g., swords and other weapons) and others of which might be either worthless or strange magic artifacts. It fell to me to find a way to divide these fairly, and there were a few items that certain characters particularly wanted. I also faced the fact that once the treasure was divided the characters would also divide, and if there were another mission it would fall on someone, probably me, to hire a team for it, and up to them whether to accept my offer.
My solution was to hold an auction.
Because there was no loyalty and my character did not use magic, it was stated up front that no one was permitted to use any magic such as detect spells on any of the objects prior to distribution. Just because the wizard says something is not magical does not mean he isn’t intending to buy it cheap and sell it to someone else. Only hired members of the party were permitted to bid, or to be present during the bidding.
I organized the items in what I thought made sense as the least to most valuable, given what could be told by looking at them. I then divided the cash between the party members according to their promised portions, and put the first item on the table. I had prepared myself by jotting down for each object what my character would give as the opening bid (and if no one else bid, it defaulted to me for that amount), and how high I was willing to bid for objects I particularly wanted. Everyone else could then bid in an open auction until there was a highest bid no one would overcall. That person then paid the amount into the pot and received the item, and we moved to the next.
As auctioneer and party leader, I would periodically decide that the pot had grown large enough that I should divide it according to the proportions promised each party member, partly so that they would have cash to keep bidding. I knew (but had not anticipated) that several of them had borrowed money from non-player characters so they could bid high on objects they particularly wanted, so the pots got rather large sometimes.
The logic of the system is that every object we obtained went to whatever character placed the highest value on it, or at least within the bounds of their funds, and for at least the value of the person who put the second highest value on it. Objects thus went to the people who thought them most valuable, and everyone was compensated for the value of every object, having tacitly agreed that it was not worth more than that. The people who love the system love it for that reason.
Of course, auctioning almost two hundred objects among eight players was an extended bit of roleplaying. With interruptions for the shenanigans of some of the player characters, it took most of three game sessions to complete, and people who don’t like the system generally remember that “waste of time” and the tensions of trying to bid high enough to get the objects they really wanted.
I swear by it, and whenever I’m the party leader I use it; I’ve been in games where others from that game or even others who heard about that game think that the auction is the best way to divide treasure objects. I’ve also known at least one gamer who won’t play in a game if the auction system is going to be used, but I’m not sure his absence is all that much of a loss.
I would be interested in how your parties divide treasure.