Tonight we took a time machine back to 1984…at least attitudinally. That’s how long it’s been since I’ve run a game of D&D (I played a disastrously bad game around 1992 with a DM that gave my wife of the time a female cleric that was mute. That’s right — bitches should heal and not heard or something…) I have leafed through the latest edition of the game and found myself transported back to the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons of my youth, but with a few tweaks that appeal to my current style of gaming. I got a set of the books from a friend that had inherited them from a friend. Later I got a request from the local Meetup guys to run a game. When i mentioned this to friends, they were interested. Every few weeks, a new hint from the universe hit me: Run some D&D, dammit!
I don’t like high fantasy. I didn’t want to do a rehash of Tolkein, Martin, or any other the others… so what to do? I hit on the idea of setting it early in the medieval period: pre-knights, etc…and my historian’s brain immediately thought, “Well, why not set it in the fall of the Roman Empire? But with the Greco-Roman gods and monsters?” I bounced this off the gaming group to good response. So how to do monsters..? This led me to look through the Monster Manual and decide I was ditching most of the stuff in there. First out: Orcs. That’s Tolkein’s schtick. Orcs went back to being goblins. Then I noted the hobgoblins were pretty bad-ass in 5th edition…there’s my “orcs.”
But what about the alternate history part of it? I decided the various tribes might have stand-in creatures: the Celts are elves and Firbolg, depending on where they’re from, with plenty of interbreeding wth humans; the Vandals are goblins, the Ostrogoths are a bunch of tribes of humans and hobgoblins that have ties of fealty; the Visigoths are something worse. Dwarves, giants, other Nordic critters are out there. Likewise, there are still let-over nasties from the Olympians; there are angles and demons — and their “human” spawn the aasimar and tiefling — running about the deserts of the Western Roman Empire with ties to the Jews.
So tonight, we took the campaign out for a spin. The characters are a cleric who can cast magic, Aurelius Augustinius Hipponensis (or, to our universe, Saint Augustine!) We’ve decided magic is relatively rare, and that this represents some kind of preference by the gods. The other character is Quintus Marcellus, a recently retired optio (the second in command of a century — a sergeant major/lieutenant) who is working as a mercenary for caravans traveling on the Germania border.
We opened cold (literally) with the characters waking from their sleep on a frigid, snowy morning on the road from the Alps through the Black Forest to Augusta Treverorum, the provincial capital for Germania Inferior. During a breakfast of hot water, stale bread, and an egg taken from a nearby bird’s nest, Marcellus notes something is off, but he’s not sure what. They soon find out — a six-man band of Vandals (goblins) attacks the caravan. They’d already captured one of the four guards who was out for firewood, and after a trade of arrows, they set on the caravan. Aurelius lets fly with Sacred Flame, setting on goblin alight! This brings the attention of a Vandal archer that shoots him through the arm. After getting the arrow out, he used heal light wounds on himself. The goblins were quickly put down, including one getting stomped to death by the panicked horses of the lead wagon.
The caravan moved on along a frozen solid track of mud, arriving at a small hamlet near a bridge over a small, fast river at mid-afternoon. They note the farms around, some walled to keep in animals, have no animals about. Then Aurelius notes there is no smoke from the chimneys…no one is home. With two dozen or so visible buildings, there should be about 120-150 people here.
Marcellus and another guard reconnoiter the town and find the buildings empty, but signs of struggle everywhere. There are indications of bloodletting, and they find a severed hand in the town’s inn. The livestock is either gone or slaughtered. Breakables in the homes have been shattered for no apparent reason and Nordic runes are scrawled here and there. The Vandals have attacked the place, but where is everyone? If they killed the villagers, why take their bodies? If they didn’t kill them, what did they do with them..?
By this time it was night and the caravan hunkered down, fortifying the tavern, a two story Romanesque building in the midst of single story stone hovels, and putting the caravan wagons and horses in the space between the tavern and stables. They light no fires, but Aurelius purifies food so they can use some of the slaughtered animals. It’s their first fresh meat in days…but it’s uncooked and barely palatable.
A few hours after nightfall, the goblins make their move — two teams of three are sniffing around looking for the caravan. This led to a fight that eventually went for the players. In the fight, they also made a point of capturing one of the Vandals for questioning. With the goblin trussed up, they were preparing to question it when we knocked off for the night.
So, we were learning on the fly some of the rules, but mostly it’s simple — roll a d20, add modifiers, hit a target number (or don’t.) I tried to keep it simple, and it was. The fights were quick, and damage was much more heavy than I remember from AD&D. The addition of proficiency bonuses, fighting style bonuses, etc. rapidly add up, making even low level characters pretty effective. Second, magic users are much more useful at lower levels. I remember spellcasters being pretty useless until they had a few levels under their belt; here, even using cantrips wisely, the cleric was a heavy hitter. I did note, during the character creation, that the attempts to give the various magic classes their own flavor leads to the most fiddly, complex bits in the game.
As to the setting — it’s still a work in development, but the flavor of the night wasn’t high fantasy, except for the magic. The environment was much less generically pastoral, with a generally wintery depressive feel, and a more menacing note between the howling of wolves, the cold, the bad food. Adding the Roman elements was more spicing than a main flavor; that may need to change, but overall, I thought it worked pretty well for a first run of a new system in a genre I just don’t do.