Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Roper

A few weeks back my regular Thursday Night D&D Group fought a roper and had a real good time in a very old school style battle. In fact, it was more old school than the old school was.

I should mention our Thursday group – I’ve been a part of it for over ten years now, since moving out here. We are all present or former members of WotC, and more than a few of us date back to employment at TSR. Because of who we are, we’re usually playing stuff that hasn’t seen the light of day yet, and playtested mechanics ranging from Star Wars to D20 Modern to Eberron. Our playing style is pretty relaxed – we kill monsters, tell bad jokes (until the GM reigns us in), and relish a good fight.

Anyway, the roper fight was a small bit within a larger adventure against trolls (we use official adventures because, well, we write them), so this would be a “minor” encounter, an amuse bouche, something to cleanse the palate. The roper was backed up by some trogs, who were keeping at a distance but chucking spears at the party members, sometimes pinning our people to the ground. We triumphed (hey, we’re heroes), but I came away feeling that this felt like a “classic” encounter – very appealing and reminding me of the "good old days" of the game. And I’ve been trying to figure out why.

Part of it is the roper, which is an old familiar monster. The creature didn’t appear in the original little books, but rather in The Strategic Review #2, and has over the years remained pretty stable in concept. It is a dungeon-dweller that looks like a stalagmite, shoots strands out at its enemies that weaken them, and then bites them when they get close. There have been some cosmetic changes -the first illo of one was in the 1E AD&D Monster manual, and it looks blobby but had evolved over time into a more formidable looking rocky form, with a weird side-trip through a Michael Kaluta version that looked like a frozen wave. But the concept was pretty stable, all these years.

But I never liked the roper, either as a DM or player. I don’t think it was what the monster did but as much as the fact that it ran afoul of a lot of what D&D did in that era (this was Greyhawk/Blackmoor pamphlet era) – it moved out into areas that the game didn’t quite cover well, yet.

Part of that was the whole grabbing mechanic – you hit, you’re grabbed, you stay grabbed until you make an open doors roll (that was very OD&D – pressing mechanics from one situation into service for another (not to mention it was a reminder that in the “good old days” we could actually be defeated by a door. Any door.)). And the weakening (originally halving one’s strength, cumulative, per hit) was a pain requiring recalculating to hit bonuses (and penalties) on the fly.

And of course the entire “hit you up to fifty feet away and drag you 10 feet per round” mechanic was a bit of a pain for those of us who were positioning figures in rough approximation, and even an irritant to those of us true gaming grognards that were armed with our tape measures.

Oh, and then there was the Magic Resistance, 80% for the original, which sidelined the wizards. And that was back when we just assumed that this meant that 80% of the time any spell failed, which was later replaced by the official explanation which was 80% against a spellcaster of the same level, which left the whole mechanic a smudgy mess.

The roper was a great monster in concept, but in delivery was a mish-mash of special requirements that the game was not sufficiently developed enough to handle. A lot of corner cases, kludgy rules, and a combat profile that took out both the fighters through ability drain (and a high AC) and wizards with high MR. A monster used once or twice, then abandoned forever with a shudder.

So why was THIS encounter so good? Well, it evoked what the monster was supposed to do without having to deal with all its powers as exceptions. We’re on a grid now, so distances are pretty clear, with all the pull and push and shift mechanics. You get weakened? That’s a status. Here’s what the status does. You want to escape? Here’s the mechanic – same as other escapes. Any hit on the roper’s tendril will cause it to let go, not just X amount of damage (that’s unique to the roper, but it is minor and handled without requiring any additional tracking). All the experimental bits of original roper were handled under a system that fit together well. All the mechanics actually felt like they were part of the same game, and one that moved smoothly, allowing more time for tactics and bad jokes.

Oh, and add that bunch of trogs, highlighting a secondary power of theirs, without even making the DM break a sweat. It was a pretty sweet encounter, and showed that old school sensibilities can be brought into play in a new system.

So yeah, 4E is a worthy component of the continuing evolution of D&D.

More later,