D&D Chaos

Four hours, six versions of Dungeons and Dragons. Go.

Spoiler Alert! If you're planning on playing this event at GenCon 2011, some of the info below may spoil a few surprises. I did remove most of the plot info for now, though the plot is always subject to adjustment and change.

So I’m sitting there one day, thinking about the upcoming ShaunCon 27/ KC Game Fair 2009 and what a returning CHAOS event might feature. CHAOS is a semi-regular special event at ShaunCon, where 6 tables of participants play 6 different roleplaying game systems of various genres in the span of a single convention game slot, or 4 hours. A Chaotic Hysterical Association Of Systems, if you will. The results are chaotic and, often, hysterical. Past versions included D&D plus a selection of other popular systems like Torg, Star Wars, Paranoia, Deadlands, Shadowrun and less popular, but still liked systems such as Boot Hill, d20 Modern or Earthdawn. Essentially, the players play one version of their character, who then visits 5 parallel universes (the other tables), while working with parallel versions of their companions to unravel the plot and prevent the destruction of the multiverse, or at least just get home. 

Much of the hysterical bits are the roleplaying opportunities provided when the characters interact with each other upon arrival in a new world. Say the Paranoia character Ray-B-IES tries to order the green skinned Duros around because of its “lower security clearance.” Or the characters’ speeder bikes suddenly turn into horses under them when they switch worlds. Or laser wielding gunslingers are stymied when trying to fire a single-action revolver. Or the Paladin is horrified at losing his divine abilities, wonders why his god has forsaken him, and what the heck is he supposed to do with an “M-60” anyway?  You get the idea.

But what to do this year? It dawned on me that with the publication of Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition, there are now 6 major official versions of D&D and very few have ever played them all, including me. Recalling past stories of younger players being exposed to older versions of D&D, and their often amusing reactions, it seemed like a match. Young players exploring the mysteries of THACO alongside old timers trying to decipher 4th edition powers provides layers of amusement beyond the story itself.

Which versions of D&D?White Box Table. The DM ran it in the '70s.

  • D&D (White box original)
  • Advanced D&D (1st Edition)
  • D&D Basic Set (magenta box)
  • Advanced D&D 2nd Edition
  • D&D 3.0/3.5 Editions (mostly 3.0)
  • D&D 4th Edition

Dungeon Masters: Each DM actually ran their particular version when it was current, if not recently. All had years or decades of experience.

Schedule: A standard 4 hour slot. 45 minutes for 1st and 6th segments, 35 minutes for 2nd-5th segments. This didn’t work out very well, as we started late and had to adjust on the fly. Each segment generally featured some roleplaying and some combat.

Character level: 3rd. Why? That was the highest level the Basic box went to, and I wanted to keep the event to only the core or original rule books for each version. Plus it eliminated the potential complexity of higher level characters with their powers or feats in the later editions. The players would have time to assimilate only basics of the rules anyway.

Character sheets: Official versions for each edition. That meant completely typewritten/handwritten homemade sheets for white box, photocopied blue/salmon/goldenrod 1st edition sheets filled out by hand, badly photocopied Basic sheets, computer generated 2nd edition sheets from the Core Rules CDs, PC Gen 3rd edition sheets and 4th edition sheets with power cards from D&D Insider. Each player got to keep a copy of each character, meaning that by the end, they had 6 different versions of their character for comparison purposes. The character sheets got longer with each edition.

Amusements: Not all of the classes and races are featured in the core rules of every edition. The Paladin suddenly became a Fighting-Man in the white box edition. The halfling thief became just a halfling (no classes) in basic. And the poor half-orc ranger really jumped around – sometimes man, sometimes dragonborn, sometimes fighter, sometimes not.

Plot: Note: As this event is now running at GenCon, this plot summary has drastically reduced. The Dungeons of CHAOS. Archos, a fairly young dragon, turned the ancient Tomb of Chone into its new lair, and the PCs are sent to take care of the problem. The Tomb has a classic dungeon setup with traps and monsters tailored to the strengths and favorite features of each edition. Eventually, the PCs must defeat the dragon and get back to their own world.

Originally, I was going to take on 2nd Edition, but wound up with 1st Edition. It was the first time I’d really read my original AD&D books since high school, and since I became a professional/freelance game designer. It was very interesting. Game design, rules writing and book organization have improved greatly in clarity since those days. I got reacquainted with the 1 minute rounds with 6 second round segments, initiative on a six-sided die and the complexity of the simultaneous combat round. I noted the individual weapon modifiers that applied per armor class on the character sheets. I totally gave up trying to figure out the unarmed combat – pummeling, overbearing and grappling – we just ignored those rules back in the day anyway, and for good reason.

My 1st Edition AD&D table with vintage books, DM screen and even some of my same old dice.

It was fun to compare what has survived over the years and what was revised, transformed or abandoned, and usually for good reasons. I was amused to see some of the defensive explanations presented for some rules in the Dungeon Masters Guide. The rules for Missile Discharge, which took up over a page, were billed as “easily handled”. I discovered I don’t miss a lot of these older, fiddly rules, such as firing an arrow at a group of targets, allies and enemies otherwise, and calculating the odds of hitting a friend, taking size into account. You know, just on the fly at the table. It’s simple, right? Um, no. And we didn’t use that back in the day, either. Maybe if you rolled a 1 something bad would happen, but that was about it.

So, did it all work together? Yes. Most of the players had a great time and many memories of new games and old were shared across the generations of gamers. Edition wars were minimal, but many comparisons were made, as were declarations of what was their favorite and why.

A few (paraphrased) moments from my 1st edition game:

  • “What do you mean I want to roll low on a d20?”
  • “I try to breathe fire on the kobold.” – former Dragonborn now half-orc.
  • “Where’s my tail?” – former Dragonborn, now half-orc (different player).
  • “We throw the dead kobold down the stairs. Are they trapped?” –  they were.
  • “We throw another dead kobold down the next flight. Are they trapped?” –  of course.
  • “I jump in the pool to fight the water snake (water weird). I know the chaos wave is coming, I just want to make it interesting for the next player.” – Paladin player, and yes, it did make it interesting for the incoming player.
  • “ Didn’t we just kill you?” – player to kobold sage after switching worlds. I suddenly realized that the kobold also switched and that the incoming kobold mind was killed in the previous world, so it suddenly fell over dead.
  • “Can I heal him?” – the cleric asking after the paladin failed his save versus breath weapon in the finale.

All good fun, but, in the end, I failed in one crucial respect. As I was a DM, I ran my table the entire time.

I still haven’t played every edition of D&D.