Jim Felli - The Dice That Made Grithsdane

Jim Felli - The Dice That Made Grithsdane

xthexlo     
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Dragon Dice

Grithsdane was disposable. That's what made him so much fun.

When I started playing Dungeons & Dragons in the late '70's, we rolled our character's statistics in order: strength, intelligence, wisdom, constitution, dexterity, charisma. We used three six-sided dice for each statistic and we played whatever we rolled. If you rolled a high wisdom, you played a cleric. You rolled a high dexterity? Enjoy your thief. Rangers were rare and paladins were very few and very far between. Later, we drifted to statistic generation systems like "re-roll 1's" or "best 3 out of 4d6." But in the beginning, it was simple: three dice per statistic, right down the line. And it was magical. It may well be that my memory is muddled by a pleasant haze of nostalgia, but indulge me for a spell and I'll tell you why it was a magical time. Maybe afterward, you'll feel it too.

First, it was a time of wild variability in play style and character scores. No two characters were alike, in essence or in archetype, due as much to our desire to break free from Tolkien's long shadow as the capriciousness of the dice. Our characters were all different, all rough and damaged to some degree, and all stubbornly individualistic. And we played them that way, with as much emphasis on their weaknesses as their strengths. Each and every one was full of life and flavor and oddity, thanks in no small measure to the brutality of those three dice.

Case in point: Grithsdane.

Grithsdane was a magic user with unimpressive stats. As I recall, he had: strength 10, intelligence 17, wisdom 10, constitution 11, dexterity 7, charisma 7. I should have re-rolled him, but 17s were hard to come by, so I didn't. I played him, more on a lark than anything else. He turned out to be one of the most enjoyable and fulfilling characters I have ever played. He topped out around level 14 or so, which was rather high for our campaigns. (We were quite stingy with experience points and tended to find creative ways to suck away levels.)

So, why was Grithsdane so much fun? Because he wasn't worth saving. He didn't trigger a "protective" mode of play, so I was free to develop him as his statistics suggested: an unhinged, ugly, clumsy, crusty curmudgeon. He was gruff and mean-spirited, but smart enough to know who his friends were and act accordingly. He was also impatient, easily agitated, and reckless. He was never supposed to survive. What's that yellow goop seeping out of the wall? Grithsdane will touch it. What's causing that curtain to ripple in still air? Grithsdane will have a look. Who will approach the floating, bloody skull? Grithsdane. Duh. Like you had to ask. By the time Gristhdane reached level 5, he'd lost a hand to misadventure. He replaced it with a dagger. Several, in fact, over the course of his career. Eventually those daggers served as conduits for electricity spells. Of course, he experimented along the way. The saw-blade version was conceptually interesting, but proved too difficult to remove from bodies in a timely manner. By level 8, Grithsdane had lost an eye. He replaced it with a gem, over which he wore a patch with a drawing of an eye on it. He thought it was a riot. So did the wizard that eventually enchanted the gem with a True Seeing spell. Grithsdane wanted the patch enchanted instead of the gem, but that was not to be. He took to shock tactics around level 10, such as quaffing a potion of fire resistance and running into the midst of combat while casting a fireball spell on himself. He'd stagger away afterward, almost always badly wounded, scorched, and grinning broadly, loudly bemoaning the potions and scrolls he'd destroyed in the process. When we played, fire was fire: if you were in the way, you got burned. Area of effect spells were to be used with care.

The second reason that things felt magical was because we stressed story weaving over story telling. A story telling DM creates a narrative and invites players into the tale to take on specific roles that influence the way the story plays out. A story weaving DM creates a world in which they and the players construct a joint narrative in which no one, not even the DM, ever really knows how the story will evolve or where it will go. As story weavers, the rules existed to guide us, not constrain us, and our role playing was supported by dice, not managed by them. I never expected Grithsdane to survive. No one did. And let's be honest: in a campaign dictated by rules and dice, he would have been pushing up daisies before he hit third level. But Grithsdane did more than survive: he thrived. Whether he did so because of luck, unintended consequences, or the DM's pleasure never mattered to us. What mattered was that the stories we wove together were always good, and somehow more colorful, more fun, and more quirky with Grithsdane in them. No one remembers with any emotion how their fully geared, stat-maxed paladin took out a vampire lord (trope) in a dark (likely) castle (probably) to break a longstanding (of course) family (naturally) curse. It's a "yeah, that happened" kind of event. But the story of an awkward, one-handed, half-blind magic user sticking his daggered stump into an ogre, frying it from the inside with a lightning bolt channeled through the blade, and pulling out a charred stump of blackened flesh and melted metal? That's the stuff of game group legend.

Few gamers today would play a Grithsdane. His stats are too low. Besides, most of today's gamers would balk at the notion of rolling three dice per statistic in order. They'd be too focused on maximizing their DPS or optimizing their gear or some other nonsense to bother with such an obviously suboptimal character. Competitive campaigns and online games tend to push people in that direction. As do shiny, thick books full of words and pictures and rules. I feel pretty bad for those players... not so much because of what they are missing, but because they don't even know what they're missing. A good adventure shouldn't feel like you beat the odds or outsmarted your DM, it should feel like you're reading The Hobbit for the first time while riding your first two-wheeler down the biggest hill in the neighborhood with a ramp set up at the end. Maybe I'll try D&D again, for old time's sake, with three merciless dice. Maybe I can ride that bike again.

Jim "xthexlo" FelliFollow Jim Felli Follow Jim Felli Follow Jim Felli Message Jim Felli

Writer

Jim was introduced to AD&D back in the mid-1970s. For a high school kid that grew up devouring comic books, Warren magazines, and Harryhausen films, AD&D was the epitome of the game he never knew he wanted. From his very first game, he was hooked on the magic of imaginative play.

By day, Jim works as a scientist; by night, he creates fantasy worlds and designs unique and quirky games. He is the owner and sole employee of Devious Weasel Games.

Jim is married to a wonderful woman, has three awesome kids, three unruly and enigmatic cats, and a goofy, loyal Newfie. He loves good food, single malt Islay scotch, and pretty much all dad jokes.

And math. He really likes math.

Jim Felli - The Dice That Made Grithsdane There Will Be Games
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Posted: 25 Jun 2018 02:14 by MattDP #276120
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What a wonderful article.

I was never a very good role-player. With my Grithsdane's, I couldn't bring myself to actually *play* their stats. Yes, my warrior might have abysmal scores for intelligence and wisdom, but as a player, I couldn't do it without slumming up stereotypes.

But I mostly ran games, and I mostly told stories and people had a good time and that was great. But my best-ever campaign was woven, not by me, but by my players. It was magnificent and it actually a nail in the coffin of my regular involvement in RPGs. Because none of the games I was involved in after could match it.

One of my fondest gaming memories is getting my first red box D&D set and spending a happy half hour colouring in the dice with the provided crayon. Kids don't know they're born.
Posted: 25 Jun 2018 02:55 by Erik Twice #276121
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Wow, that's a fantastic article, thanks!


I must ask a question, though: Did you actually have to put the numbers on the die by painting them on? Like, when you bought the die, it didn't have them on? Or is it just a special kind of die?
Posted: 25 Jun 2018 02:56 by Colorcrayons #276122
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MattDP wrote:
Kids don't know they're born.

A bit off topic, but that's a rather unique idiom to me.

And while I can interpret the meaning based on context, I had to do some etymological research on what turns out to be a seemingly distinct British turn of phrase.

I watch a lot of British tv, and have never encountered it, that I know of.

On topic, I agree. It's a very good article. I no longer play RPGs, but that brought back a lot of memories playing NPC henchmen who weren't quite expendable, yet weren't so needed that we couldn't do some rather unorthodox stuff with them that made their play more memorable than my carefully cultivated Archdruid.

Lots of stories that have meaning for those who were there, yet likely either bore the pants off the reader or be so unbelievable that they would turn away from the tale in the same way.

Spot on, xthexlo.

[Edit] I can't resist. This one is in honor of my recently departed former best friend at the time, Ray Dail.
Boat drinks, Ray.

It's 1996, AD&D 2nd ed.
We had a nasty habit of abusing teleport for convenience. We were in the middle of tracking down a great wyrm in the land of Iuz. This was a particularly intelligent beast and after a couple failed assaults, he found out tbeprecise location we would teleport back to, in order to harass him for his treasure.
So, he simply collapsed the cavern in that area, and we all teleported back intosolid stone.
Instant death. Make new characters...
Except for Ray's cavalier henchman, Buford. He was still back home and orchestrated a daring plan to excavate our bodies after auguries revealed we were entombed near the dragons lair.

We all took over some of our henchmen to play this out, as an attempt to recover the main party.
The dragon, again, rather intelligent, was able to surmise this plan, and counter stuck the party through a bottleneck where the henchmen were approaching.

The wyrm reached its head into the cavern to breath many many D6 worth of rock melting immolation upon us all, but Buford got initiative and was able to react due to wearing a Robe of Eyes. He dual wielded two vorpal swords, and struck at the dragon.

Buford. Rolled. Two. Natural 20's. In. Front. Of. The. Whole. Table.

The dragon's head fell to the cavern floor with all the grace of a dumpster being dropped on the ground.

There had never been a more decisive ending to battle before or since.

After trying for a couple months to dispatch this dragon, only to be constantly thwarted, we left that night from the game table knowing that such nights were why we sometimes tolerated the occasional grind such as that.

The type of legend nobody else besides those 7 people present would care about. But to us, epic.
Posted: 25 Jun 2018 03:01 by MattDP #276123
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Erik Twice wrote:
Wow, that's a fantastic article, thanks!


I must ask a question, though: Did you actually have to put the numbers on the die by painting them on? Like, when you bought the die, it didn't have them on? Or is it just a special kind of die?

Early polyhedral dice came un-inked. So they had recesses printed for the numbers and came with a crayon so you could work the wax into the recess and then wipe the excess off with a paper towel.

Colorcrayons wrote:
A bit off topic, but that's a rather unique idiom to me.

And while I can interpret the meaning based on context, I had to do some etymological research on what turns out to be a seemingly distinct British turn of phrase.

I watch a lot of British tv, and have never encountered it, that I know of.

Divide by a common language and all that. It's probably quite old-fashioned which may be why you've not encountered it on TV.
Posted: 25 Jun 2018 03:18 by repoman #276124
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Another great article.

I always liked the idea of "play what you roll" but I always liked to let my players play whatever class they thought would be the most fun which meant they had to have the ability to manipulate that stats to one degree or another. Now sometimes this led to a min/max player but overall I think my groups had a better time.

Got to play in a game this weekend and had a great time. It was very casual and fun with lots of table talk. We have dubbed our group "The Worst Heroes Ever" being both somewhat despicable and inept.
Posted: 25 Jun 2018 05:59 by hotseatgames #276127
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This really makes me want to play Dungeon Crawl Classics again.
Posted: 25 Jun 2018 06:27 by xthexlo #276129
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MattDP wrote:
But my best-ever campaign was woven, not by me, but by my players. It was magnificent and it actually a nail in the coffin of my regular involvement in RPGs. Because none of the games I was involved in after could match it.
A great comment! It takes a confident and mature DM to allow his players to really shape the story. Sometimes, we never reach that level of maturity — not because it is not within us, but because we don’t stay with the same game or group long enough to develop the level of intimacy required to freely pass the reins back and forth. If the group isn’t right, there isn’t the trust; if the game is too new, it just doesn’t work.

My greatest lesson as a DM came from Princess Leia when she said to Grand Moff Tarkin, “The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.” It’s the same with DMing: the more bound you are to your own story, the more side-stories will fall by the wayside. You’ll have your meal, but at the cost of so much flavor.
Posted: 25 Jun 2018 06:29 by xthexlo #276130
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Erik Twice wrote:
I must ask a question, though: Did you actually have to put the numbers on the die by painting them on? Like, when you bought the die, it didn't have them on? Or is it just a special kind of die?

We just used regular dice. Our collective suspicion was that those early dice weren’t as balanced as standard dice.

Hmmm... now I am wondering about our choice...
Posted: 25 Jun 2018 06:40 by charlest #276131
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Fantastic work, Jim. Really enjoyed this one.
Posted: 25 Jun 2018 07:42 by ubarose #276144
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Great article. Brought back a lot of childhood memories.
Posted: 25 Jun 2018 08:26 by xthexlo #276148
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Colorcrayons wrote:
The dragon's head fell to the cavern floor with all the grace of a dumpster being dropped on the ground... The type of legend nobody else besides those 7 people present would care about. But to us, epic.

Thank you for sharing that story! It resonated with me in so many levels!

It would be so cool to have several TWBG members and old F:AT folks recount an epic tale from their old D&D days (complete with commentary), and publish it as a book.
Posted: 25 Jun 2018 08:42 by BaronDonut #276149
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Great stuff. It took a long time, but the best thing I've learned as a player/DM is that failure and weakness are inherently more interesting than success and strength.
Posted: 25 Jun 2018 08:48 by xthexlo #276150
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BaronDonut wrote:
the best thing I've learned as a player/DM is that failure and weakness are inherently more interesting than success and strength.
Amen.
Posted: 26 Jun 2018 21:01 by Jackwraith #276308
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Excellent piece. BaronDonut is right. The best fiction comes from characters finding ways to achieve things despite their own weaknesses or failings. I was usually the DM, but two of the best campaigns I ever played in were 1. A barbarian fighter with moderate intelligence but very low wisdom. I decided to play him like Sir Lancelot from the Holy Grail ("Ha HAAAA!"), instantly charging in at the slightest inclination toward hostility by anyone or anything and completely oblivious as to why that wouldn't be the best course of action. Half the fun was my compatriots trying to steer me in a direction that would actually be useful to the rest of them.

And, 2. A high level campaign with Whisper, a mage/thief cum assassin, who was determined not to give any hint as to its actual identity to anyone around him/her/it. That involved backing out of a number of situations where we easily had the advantage, much to the occasional frustration of Michael Cabbagedragon, a very cynical cleric of Tempus (this was a Forgotten Realms campaign), and Gregarius, a thief who was quite convinced of the superiority of his own abilities, especially when they didn't measure up. The three of us kept the DM in a bit of a state during most games, since we never followed the most obvious path, but instead followed the inclinations of our characters. He rolled with it pretty well, but I remember him stopping and shaking his head while trying to adapt to our antics a couple times. One was when Cabbagedragon revealed that he'd come up with the best method of using the typically useless Command spell. With Command, you could say one word and the targeted individual would have to complete said action as well as he/she/it could for a period of time. People always tried "Sleep", but then they'd wake up when you went clanking past them in full armor; or "Run" but then the monster would run away for a few seconds and charge right back. What one word was capable of disabling a threat for the full length of time?

Why, "masturbate", of course.
Posted: 26 Jun 2018 22:16 by Colorcrayons #276313
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XD Genius.

We tried "Defecate" once, but it just made combat stinkier. Forcing those in the party with low constitutions to save versus poison or vomit. A party member died because at that time, if a blow was struck while a target was incapacitated, then it was instantly death.
The same way you don't get an armor save if you're tied up and someone slits your throat.

Our DM was unforgiving if we tried to get clever. I do wonder what the result if the masturbate command would have been. I could see ol' Frank Wilson give a crude cackle and either allow it because of low brow creativity, or come up with an equally yet horrendous backfire to the plan, like a poorly worded Wish spell.
Posted: 27 Jun 2018 06:55 by Shellhead #276327
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If an opponent is wearing armor, Command them to "undress" and they will waste plenty of time taking off the armor.