Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Guest Post: Slithering Horror, Ten Foot Poles, and a Dog Named Honey Boo-Boo

The next session saw two new players. These were old friends who had introduced me to the other three, and had created characters weeks before. These two were also entirely new to RPGs, though they’d heard me talk about them for a couple years.

  • Igollad, lawful Cleric, AC2, HP16 (lvl 3); Str14, Int5, Wis11, Dex11, Con13, Cha7 (Sebastian)
  • Guia, lawful Dwarf, AC4, HP 8 (lvl 2); Str13, Int10, Wis11, Dex10, Con14, Cha8 (Steisha)

CharGen had taken a very long time largely because these two really agonized over equipment. I encouraged everyone to use one of the Fast Packs on the rear panel of the module. Everyone supplemented from the equipment list. But Steisha and Sebastian really thought long and hard over how to squeeze out every GP of value.

I mentioned in passing that they could acquire things not on the equipment list, as long as they were mundane, or they took the effort to explain from the in-character perspective why they’d have this or that thing, or were otherwise reasonable. Well, they went to town probing me for what freebies they might get. They came up with things like mortar & pestle, prayer rug, cooking herbs, wooden box, fishing net, mirror (glass not polished metal), pair of tongs, pipe (smoking not music), and a terrier (a dog named Honey Boo-Boo). Most of this would not matter at all. I just found it funny that, while they didn’t know how to metagame or take advantage of any other aspect of D&D, they aggressively pushed it for equipment.

So, session three had four players and the entire team of five PCs—Halfling, two Dwarves, Cleric and Elf (run in absentia)—all still level 1. Guia and Igollad make their way through the introductions, killing a Stirge outside along the way, and stumbled onto the others en route to the Magi of Usamigaras.

This was one of many times that Guruff’s Charisma bonus helped the party avoid combat and make friends. The leader, Auriga Sirkinos, took to Guruff immediately. Halflings, Dwarves and Elves do not exist in my Cynidicea. They are known from the historical record, but only as relics of a distant past. They found the Halfling Abraxo delightfully cute, and the Elf Wilfer inherently exotic and alluring.

Guia’s terrier they found wondrous beyond description—an immediate object of covetousness. In Cynidicea they still have insects, reptiles and some mammals. But, like some humanoids, many are long lost and known only from illustrations in ancient folios. Their memory kept alive mainly by the colorful masks worn by every human Cynidicean.

The PCs and Magi talk at length, and visit Topside, where the Cynidiceans stare in wonder at open sky for the first time in three generations. The PCs notice that the night sky is fundamentally wrong. Stars are out place. Where the moon should be new, it is now nearly full. Auriga has no notions as to why this is. The Magi have kept careful charts and records of the movements of the heavens. He confirms that the constellations in the sky do not match the ancient records of his people from before the Fall, four centuries ago. Also that this is the same experience noted during every other “return of Topside” since the Fall.

Auriga and the other Magi then delve into study and contemplation. When the party expresses a desire to poke around the Ziggurat, Auriga steers them towards the abandoned northwest section of Tier 3.

Following the rotating passage they enter the hallway aimed at Room 13. They spot the secret door to 18 (Secret Room). They nudge the basket full of coin. Peeking under the lid, they avoid the first strike of the vipers. Closing the lid, they set the basket on fire, killing the snakes and securing a pretty considerable XP haul.

They enter the door to 17a (Water Trap), which is just an empty chamber, and discover a camouflaged pressure plate in the floor. Everyone exits the room but for Guia, who taps the plate with a wooden pole. The door slams shut and the room rapidly starts to fill with water from vents up high in the wall. The Dwarf, in chainmail, is quickly submerged. The others debate how to release him, looking for a trigger to open the door. They don’t know B/X and Open Doors, so it only occurs to them to try to force it on the third turn, after which Guia will drown. They make their roll and I do not have to deal with Steisha losing her only character in her first role-playing game.

Soaked, but still unharmed, they creep back to 13 (Abandoned Ceremonial Chamber). Listening at the door, they hear moaning and mumbling. They knock, and the door is yanked open by a creature that is top human and bottom giant snake. It has been crudely sewn together in the midsection to join man and snake. Its hands end in sharp talons and its eyes are reptilian. It moans piteously, body held up high on its coils. As they frantically back away down the hall, it slithers after them, gibbering incoherently about its punishment at the hand of the Priests, and asking if it has been forgiven for its sins. Terrified, they put their backs to wall and keep very still. The horror, expecting punishment or redemption and finding neither, slithers by and out the door. The PCs scoop up the Zardozian ritual artifacts and make their way back to the chambers of the Magi.

During their brief foray, Auriga has conferred with Padoma of the Warrior Maidens about recent developments. Padoma admires the party’s bravery and willingness to explore. She and her entourage also take to Abraxo (the only female PC) and pass the Halfling back and forth among them.

Guruff is offered and accepts membership as a Novitiate with the Magi. Abraxo likewise joins the Maidens. Wilfer (when I next speak with the player Matt) later declines membership with the Magi, who will continue to court him without success throughout the campaign.

In my games, PCs in the absence of the player earn XP at half the rate, like NPCs do. 1810 XP are therefore divided into nine shares, and divvied out—two shares to each PC with a present player and one to Wilfer. Two of them have already exceeded 1000 xp, but none have yet hit level 2.

In contrast to campaign Group 1, this group does not assume that every living thing it meets is evil or dangerous, despite having suffered three fatalities and a fourth near death. They are learning to be open to indirect solutions to problems, whether that means negotiation, retreat or siege. Virtually all of their XP thus far has been earned other than by melee. I find this very much to be in the spirit and intent of B/X.

I feel a need to explain how I played the factions. I’m a bit hesitant, because this is a little un-politically-correct. But I think it helps illustrate something about GMing and role-play in general.

Kanadius and the Brothers of Gor’m I play as a stern, sober, honorable bunch, wary of taking risks and not especially open to new ideas. Auriga and the Magi of Usamigaras (in their multi-colored robes) I play as effete, omni-sexual, decadent, friendly schemers. Padoma and the Warrior Maidens of Maduara are direct, brave, rash, honorable.

I shamelessly use a lilting gay voice for Auriga, and a sassy black woman’s voice for Padoma. It might be lazy, falling back onto obvious stereotype. And I totally get that gayness and blackness ought not to be used as objects of inherent amusement, thereby rendering them implicitly not-normative. The thing is, it works. At least it worked for me and this group. Stereotype in a game can be really fun. I’m not exactly sure why that is, but I think most of us have experienced it.

I do know that stereotype, by its very nature, is easy because it’s familiar and accessible. It’s kind of shorthand that can be used to rapidly fill in the blanks of a character’s motivation, personality, appearance, etc. What it discards in depth and sensitivity, it gains in accessibility (to the un-offended anyway). It paints a colorful picture quickly, if two-dimensionally. This is super useful when trying to engage players around a table.

This kind of gets at a broader aspect of my GMing style. I’m a huge planner, researching/inventing the history, geography, politics, etc. of the game world. And I’m very much drawn to making it “realistic” in its way, with reasons for the existence of various humanoid races, monsters, magic, and so on. But in actual game-play, I tend to play up humor and irony where I find it. I don’t run a silly game. But I don’t shut down table banter, however silly, if it’s in-character or about the game-world or adventure.

I think I embrace humor, however lazily, in part because I don’t have access to players who are willing to play the sober game I’m actually more interested in. I’d love to play a hyper-realistic game, where monsters are deemed monstrous, magic wondrous, and NPCs are entirely three-dimensional. But it’s a rare player who would be willing to invest that much psychological effort into taking it that seriously. So, I go for a second-best mode, blending realism and hyperbole.

There’s certainly a longer essay to tease out here, but this isn’t my forum (and I haven’t written it anyway). I just thought I’d throw it out there, because the tone I set for the faction NPCs was a big part of the fun of these campaigns. It occupied a fair bit of screen time, and went a long way towards getting the players to engage.

Blog Watch: Kothar, Sadistic Pleasure, B2 Diplomacy, 8 Bit Box Art, and Cosplay as Economic Indicator

Appendix N (Castalia House) RETROSPECTIVE: Kothar– Barbarian Swordsman by Gardner Fox — “I don’t mind Fox’s Kothar stories. They’re actually much closer to the typical fantasy role playing game scenario because of their simplicity. What bugs me is that the impression that most people have of Conan is that the stories must be every bit as trashy and formulaic as his imitations. That just isn’t the case. And yet, even though the action and the pacing seem to anticipate the sort of typical fare that would become ubiquitous in later role-playing and computer games, there are enough standard tropes missing here that it’s interesting to see how things play out without them. Like an odd reductio ad absurdum, Garder Fox’s small volume of tales demonstrate why Dungeons & Dragons had to meld so many disparate and contradictory themes together in order to get a coherent, playable game.”

Appendix N ( Advanced Readings in D&D: Gardner Fox — “Kothar’s a self-proclaimed adventurer, and in the spirit of adventuring that would influence a role-playing game in which experience points are granted by the accumulation of gold, Kothar’s main motivation is to make money. He’s a sword for hire, and even when he takes on heroic tasks—like rescuing a young girl from a cult of weirdos—he only does it so that the girl’s father will give him a better price on some jewels Kothar’s trying to unload. That simple motivation makes the Kothar stories work pretty well, actually. It gives him a clear mission and a clear sense of purpose. And if he happens to do awesome stuff along the way, well that’s just part of being Kothar. But awesomeness is its own reward. And it doesn’t pay the bills. So the gold and jewels are really the reward that matters. Not that Kothar actually has any bills. But he does seem to love to travel. And to stay at fancy places filled with beautiful women. And that lifestyle ain’t cheap, friend.”

Appendix N (Tankards & Broadswords) Revisiting Kothar, Barbarian Swordsman — “It might not be the most eloquent prose, but it’s a good measure better than a lot of media tie-in fiction that gets published these days, and certainly not bad for a paperback fantasy novel that sold for 60 cents in 1969. And, hey, how many pulp fantasy paperbacks at that time had an introduction from a Ph.D. (I have no idea who Donald MacIvers is, but apparently he wrote an introduction to the first Kothar book) about the need for super-heroic literary characters in mid-twentieth century fiction, jiving off of the writings of one Albert Kremnitz, an early 19th century German philosopher?”

Appendix NOT (Roles, Rules, and Rolls) Cultural Literacy, Gamer Literacy — “Say what you will about the literary merits of the D&D canon (and the vaunted Appendix N is no Harold Bloom paradise either) — because it sticks so closely to actual gaming, a discussion of the approach of the GDQ series, versus Dragonlance, versus Forgotten Realms actually has more direct bearing on how a DM would run a campaign.”

Appendix NOT (Rpg Corner)  Thoughts on 5e…so far — “It’s no big secret that D&D long ago stopped referencing literature and mythology and instead became a self-referential genre unto itself. Some people are okay with this, others aren’t. I find it interesting from a cultural point of view, but it doesn’t bother me too much. Things that happen in D&D sessions and media derived from the game don’t really happen in any other medium, and in fact I believe that RPGs are at their best when they’re not trying to explicitly recreate the experience of reading a book or watching a movie or TV show.”

Appendix N (Just the Caffine Talking) It Gets Real — “Writers like Dunsany, Tolkein, Lieber, and Howard all had extremely well-realized characters and settings right from the start. I wonder if that’s one reason fantasy never quite had the ‘kid stuff’ stigma that bedeviled science fiction.”

Appendix N (Black Gate) Collecting Lovecraft, Part II — “Why do I collect vintage paperbacks? Because if you have the complete works of H.P. Lovecraft in a modern hardcover edition, you’re very likely to ignore the earlier editions… and in the process overlook a whole wealth of splendid fiction, art, and literary history.”

Culture (Daily Intelligencer) In Defense of Male Aggression: What Liberals Get Wrong About Football — “George Orwell, the old socialist, was well ahead of his time when he scribbled out an angry rant against the sporting ethic, which, he wrote, ‘is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.’ That is all more or less true. But shooting is precisely the problem with war. War minus the shooting is actually pretty great.”

GURPS (Gaming Ballistic) Deceptive Yak Shaving – Deceptive Attack Redux — “That ‘go to 16′ plan looks good (within 5% of the best choice, or itself the best choice) up to the point where my foe is sporting a defense roll of about 16 or more. Of course, that’s a shield, a retreat, and Dodge-11 (+2 shield and +3 retreating dodge) or Parry-13 (+3 for a medium shield and a +1 retreat). That’s Skill-20 for my foe, so he’s a real champ – Cadmus’ level.”

Role Playing Games (Semper Initiativus Unam) Diplomacy, D&D and Roleplaying — “When you consider that many of the pioneering roleplayers were Diplomacy players, their style of roleplaying becomes much clearer. As I said in my last post, negotiation is a key aspect of dungeoneering in early editions as written, but was all too often overlooked in favor of the expedient of simply fighting. The best evidence of this is B2 Keep on the Borderlands. Here is a scenario right out of the many Diplomacy variants: each humanoid group has its forces, every group can pretty easily kill the PCs, but with careful negotiation they can play one against the other.”

Role Playing Games (Sarah Darkmagic) How a picture of girls playing D&D went from cool to awesome — “For days I pored over each and every word in the article, until that weekend when my parents took me to the toy store so I could buy the Holmes Basic D&D set and the Monster Manual (plus a few dice).” — Geoffrey McKinney

Gamma World (Age of Ravens) History of Post-Apocalyptic RPGs (Part One: 1976-1984) — “From Gamma World I learned a classic trope of post-apocalypse games. Young tribal members have to go out into the wilderness to find something to save the village or carry out a rite of ascension. We’d end up doing that dozens of time. Gamma World presented a world of anachronisms, showing that any tale or trope could be rebuilt with a science-fantasy frame. It offer a more robust system of random mutation tables. Players could choose their type, but beyond that had to settle with their results- good and bad. It made rolling up characters a desperate and fun gamble. One awesome element, little used in modern games, was the random artifact interaction table. Players rolled on the flowchart to see if they could figure out how to use a device, break it, or set it off in their hands. It was a great system and one worth lifting for other games.”

GamerGate (According to Hoyt) It’s Time The Gloves Came Off– “For the last ten years or so, they’ve stepped up their game too. Say anything – anything – they disagree with and you’ll be slandered and attacked in ways that boggle the mind. It started in politics, but right now it is at every level they control or would like to control, including even sf fandom and (they wish) gaming journalism.”

Adventure Design (I’ll See It When I Believe It) Interesting and Useful Dungeon Descriptions — “Imagine a place so dangerous that the players can’t afford to be distracted by red herrings. Just by coming in here, they’ve accepted a level of risk that would drive most folks to terror, because death could be lurking around every corner. There might be great rewards, even potential allies, but there are also threats that they don’t stand a chance against, and they don’t know where those are. Everything the party does spends a precious resource – time, light, magic, their unbroken bodies, their sense of direction, or just their luck. Everything they use up might be needed later, every step forward invites an untimely death, or maybe a lingering one: the dungeon is only the halfway point of their foray!”

Star Wars (Searching For Magic) Retro-Speculative: D6 Star Wars, What Is It Good For? — “The game is beautiful in its simplicity. The majority of the rules are in the first 24 pages! The pulpy action this RPG emulates is the same pulpy action George Lucas was copying from the wild adventures of speculative fiction from the early 20th Century. With these things in mind it should hardly be a surprise that there is so little adjustment needed to bring the game full circle and use it to run a Sword and Sorcery game.”

Design Fail (The Escapist) Twilight Imperium’s Shocking Conclusion — “This game, I turtled and turtled hard, slowly placing my fleets in positions that would grant them the most flexible movement options as I acquired technology. One strategy I found the most helpful was to keep my fleet split up into pods of three or four, all turtled around the same planetary hex. It was this strategy that I built my ship producing space docks around. What this allowed me to do was soak an attack by Greg Tito’s Jol Nar and quickly respond with a counter attack from ships on multiple hexes, keeping my loses from an attack down to the absolute minimum while preserving a strong defensive strategy.”

Role Playing Games (Bat in the Attic) Why You Can’t Game the OSR — “The OSR is indeed mostly about classic DnD for the simple reason that classic DnD has the largest fan base of any old school. It dwarfs other old school games by at least an order of magnitude. The only way an old school movement can not be about classic DnD if it excludes it.”

SatyrGate (Hack & Slash) On Even More 5th Edition Monster Manual Comments — “My, how well dressed are you, you hedonistic reveling Satyr. You look like you’re going to a mid-level marketing seminar.”

GamerGate (Breitbart) How to Lose a Public Relations Battle on the Internet — “Just how stupid do Polygon and Kotaku think their readers are? Do they really believe that EA, Bungie, Capcom and the like don’t already know exactly what their customers are like? Do they think that their discredited and widely derided publications are going to change a single mind not already determined to hate gamers for the mere crime of being white men?”

GamerGate (Gawker) What Is Gamergate, and Why? An Explainer for Non-Geeks — “Projects like Anita Sarkeesian’s ‘Tropes vs. Women in Video Games’ inspire such vitriol precisely because they’ve pierced that bubble of privilege and started conversations that gamers can’t conveniently ignore. And that can be hard to accept, especially when you identify with a group that has traditionally been at the bottom of the (white, male) social pecking order.”

GamerGate (The Escapist) Greg Costikyan GamerGate Interview — “GamerGate is an attack on the weak by assholes, supposedly in defense of multi-billion dollar corporations who need no defending, and are likely embarrassed by this crap. It’s worse than that; it is one of the most repulsive excrescences of anonymous, bullying, Internet culture. These people seriously need to be taken behind the woodshed, spanked long and hard, and reminded of what it means to act like a civilized person. It is very easy to set up ‘an other,’ paint that other as somehow threatening and less than human, and get a clique of people worked up about the supposed iniquities of the other. And, apparently, get them to issue death and rape threats, make threatening phone calls, harass family and friends, hack accounts…”

Computing (The Verge) How Atari box art turned 8-bit games into virtual wonderlands — “For Basic Programming artist Rick Guidice had a particularly challenging task: to make learning to program seem exciting. To do so, he created a cover featuring two men working at huge consoles full of blinking lights. It makes programming look as intense and awesome as operating a spaceship. Those sci-fi influences shouldn’t be too surprising, though, as Guidice had spent time in the 1970s creating concept paintings for NASA, providing the world a glimpse of what the space colonies of the future might look like.”

Role Playing Games (Save Versus All Wands) What is the OSR? — “The Old School wants to kill you (often or at least sometimes). The Man wants to hold your hand through 29th level…. The Old School defines you by your actions. The Man defines you by your character sheet…. The Old School is sexy. The Man is a sex theorist…. The Old School embodies diversity. The Man preaches it.”

Economics (The Week) Why the rise of cosplay is a bad sign for the U.S. economy — “When you’re disillusioned with the reality of your early adult life, dressing up like Doctor Who starts looking better and better. It’s not to say that all or even most cosplay aficionados are struggling to find work. It’s only to say that any rise in people fleeing reality for fantasy suggests problems with our reality.”

Game Design (IGN) 5 Awesome Gifts Dungeons & Dragons Gave to Video Games — “A group of MIT students used Colossal Cave Adventure as the inspiration for another, more sophisticated text adventure game called Zork. The setting was classic D&D: a descent into a mysterious, ancient underground ruin complete with cryptic puzzles, swords, sorcery, monsters, and traps on a quest to become the ‘Dungeon Master.’ Zork’s design inspired a generation of adventure game designers to expand the limits of interactive storytelling, eventually birthing the graphical adventure games and cut scenes we take for granted today.”

Random Thoughts: Narrow Mindedness, Regrettable Debates, the Path to Fun, and Leveling Rates

These blanket condemnations of pulp writers for sexism display a disappointing lack of empathy and perspective. REH did not include scantily clad women in his first few Conan stories; they came later… when he really needed the sales. He knew what his editors would pay for and that stuff was not what he would have written were money no object. And A. Merritt knew darn well what would sell in his time… because ERB’s Princess of Mars was so wildly popular, you’d be crazy not to follow and develop on the exact same model. You can’t act like these guys were just arbitrarily sexist, as if their attitudes spontaneously emerged from nowhere. Editors and readers had a great deal influence on their work. They grew up in a world without birth control, without safe/easy abortion, with relatively primitive medicine, and with frighteningly high maternal mortality rates. That had a tremendous impact on peoples’ notions of romance, love, and marriage. Yes… the culture was different. And no, these guys do not need warning labels attached to their works or apologies made on their behalf any more than Mark Twain or Jane Austen do. And people that like old books do not need to engage in ritualized self-abasement if they enjoy them. They are valuable and compelling precisely because they are so different from books written today and they preserve glimpses of a past we too often assume we have evolved beyond. Human nature hasn’t changed as much as most people think it has; that’s why the classics aren’t going to become obsolete anytime soon.

If not for the “regrettable debates” between the Old School and 4e, I would never have taken classic D&D seriously or treated it as the masterpiece of game design that it actually is. There are incredibly fascinating things involved in its impetus and that derive spontaneously from its execution that are not explicitly stated in the rules. A big problem with these debates is that there is a large group of extremely loud people that do not know that they don’t know about this.

Let me explain this diagram from Rob Donoghue. In “real” role-playing games, the scenario is not necessarily “balanced” and the abilities of the characters are not necessarily “balanced” and the players have agency to go and do as they please. Once everyone gets settled in and the group dynamics have been sorted out and people suddenly stop making Monty Python jokes and suddenly start caring a great deal about the outcome of each and every die roll, sometimes the whole table can end up screaming in either glee or despair with each and every outcome. The “push your luck” element to the game combined with the concept of distinct dungeon levels serve to facilitate this happening. The scenario does not have to be balanced as long as the players have the option to dip into the sweet spot where they have a chance to get either epic loot or horrifying consequences if they just venture temporarily into a region that they know is just a bit too much for them. D&D is popular because this is a very complex premise for a game that is surprisingly accessible in this format. A lot of the people attempting to one-up D&D have no clue about how this works.

The key to good game mastering is allowing the players to find these sweet spots. To do that, there has to be a range of difficulty on the map and the players have to have the latitude to go where they want and even to be stupid. (The process looks very much like Rob’s diagram, because when you sit down to run the game, you have no idea where things are going to “click.”) You have to be willing to let them face the consequences of their choices. Lewis Pulsipher says you don’t have to kill player characters, they just have to believe that they are in life threatening situations. Well that’s fine, but the quickest way to make them believe is by letting a few of them die early on.

High mortality rates, variable difficulties of challenges available, player autonomy, and referee neutrality make for a powerful combination. It forces the players to think and to cooperate. It’s consistently dramatic, surprising, and the outcomes are delightfully varied. The rapid shifts from glory to outright terror is completely addictive. It’s a different kind of game and not one that tends to emerge in either computer gaming or from people that think they know what they want– people that know in advance that they’ll, for instance, reframe everything on the fly in order to artificially ensure that every character gets an equal share of “spotlight” time. Why put yourself in a position where you’re personally responsible for each player’s fun? Why not fade into the woodwork and put the players in charge of the game?

One of the thing I like about B/X over 5e is how with it taking more than a couple of sessions to level up usually, it forces you to really pull off several heists. You have to master the game. With everyone generally leveling up once a session in 5e, you completely lose the sense of relief and accomplishment that a “real” graduation used to effect.

Something like 3 to 5 sessions on average to level up (with lotsa death) is brilliant design if you ask me. It was also normal at one time. Even Car Wars followed that same approach. The thing about it: it makes you focus on playing over everything else, you don’t need a large amount of complex rules and splat books to support it, and you don’t need an endless stream of other people’s modules to keep it going. The fun emerges from the game rather than being something the game master has to baby along.

Guest Post: Shattered and Demoralized in The Lost City

My longtime Car Wars opponent Earlburt is back with more on his excellent campaign. This is one of the all time great modules and one of the all time great rule sets. It’s always a fascinating read to hear about how things play out with people that have markedly different expectations from the original target audience of these materials. Thank you, Earlburt!!!


Almost two years ago, I acted on a lifelong goal of DMing a B4: Lost City campaign. The Gods were kind to me, and provided me with not one but two groups interested in playing. Both groups were new to Moldvay Basic (and anything I consider old school RPG). Most of the players in Group 2 were entirely new to the pen and paper RPG experience.

The two campaigns were staggered by almost two months. That is, I’d already run five or six sessions for Group 1 by the time Group 2 started. I think Group 1 had just explored Tier 3 when Group 2 entered the Ziggurat. This was very helpful, in that I really had a bead on the upper levels of the module and changes I’d made, various NPCs, Moldvay, etc. Group 2 probably had a more nuanced experience, as I’d undergone much of the learning curve.

Anyway, Group 2 had more or less the same intro:

But certain differences in their understanding of role-playing became manifest:

Group three was really different and kind of eye-opening for me. Neither player had any experience to speak of with pen and paper RPGs. They play video and online games and are both in their early twenties. World of Warcraft is about as close as either got to a RPG. I was struck by how passive they were during the intro sequences. I’d present world background, and pause for them to respond or ask questions, and be met by silence. Then I’d press on, pausing on occasion, with the same response.

I liken it to a cut-scene in a video game. During a cut-scene, gamers know they can’t modify the outcome of the action or story, so they just sit back and watch. Eventually, I pointed out that this wasn’t strictly a cut-scene, and that questions and character action were permissible at any time. That the fact that I’m describing something doesn’t mean they can’t do stuff.

Then there was a brief period where they seemed to take that revelation, and imbue everything I offered with too much meaning. They seemed to think that every detail involved something with which they were expected to interact.

Eventually, I responded by telling them that such is not the case—that I will describe lots of things, significant and otherwise—and that they can choose to interact or not, to take heed or not, at their discretion. Here, I contrasted the tabletop RPG experience with games like Myst, where every scene has details that really do contain a puzzle. My reference to cut-scenes and to Myst really seemed to help them orient themselves to the game and to wrap their minds around the pen and paper RPG experience.

As it happened, Group 2 also stuck together longer, and ultimately progressed much farther through the module. The following series of posts will catalog their campaign, leading up to its climax.

I had the first two players create two characters each. I did not record their original stats, so I will just lay them out as they were at their end. The main changes, of course, were in level/HP.

  • Abraxo, neutral Halfling, AC6, HP15 (level 3); Str12, Int9, Wis8, Dex12, Con13, Cha9 (Hailey)
  • Raina, neutral Elf, AC3, HP 3 (lvl 1); Str11, Int15, Wis11, Dex8, Con9, Cha14; Magic Missile (Hailey)
  • Wilfer, neutral Elf, HP 7 (lvl 2); Str11, Int14, Wis13, Dex9, Con10, Cha6; Protection from Evil, Floating Disk (at lvl 2) (Matt)
  • Herman, lawful Fighter, AC3, HP 3 (lvl 1); Str14, Int7, Wis12, Dex13, Con10, Cha15 (Matt)

[I tried to let them pick spells without too much guidance. I didn’t tell them that Sleep is the best choice. Maybe that was unfair or unhelpful of me. Matt’s choices for Wilfer were character-driven, which I admired.]

After reaching the Ziggurat, they spotted a group of Stirges from afar. They crept close, using the ancient ruins for cover and observed that the Stirges appeared to be tearing apart one of the hawks from the Expedition. When they debated attacking, citing concerns that these creatures, while grotesque, might not be “evil”, it was really obvious how unlike Group 1 they might be. They drove off the Stirges without much incident, and seemed really concerned about where they came from and how they entered/exited the Ziggurat.

Eventually, after some exploration, they discovered the door to Tier 1, several dead Orcs, and the litany of triggered and un-triggered traps. This put them on high alert, as it did with Group 1 and as (I believe) the module consciously intends. They scooted partway down the tubes to Tier 2 and dispatched the Fire Beetles with ranged weapons.

They had survived their first ever RPG session. [225 xp divided four ways]

We were joined by a third player for the second session. He was a for-real gamer, only a bit younger than me, and almost old-school. He certainly knew how to meta-game. I was glad to have him in this group, as he helped grease the wheels in many ways. At times he steered the others away from lethal mistakes. And he frequently acted as leader and decision-maker when the others were at a loss or feeling passive. Dickie also got into character, which I think encouraged the others to follow suit. He served as map-maker, of course. I don’t actually think it would have occurred to the others to even keep a map.

When I ran him through the introductory bits—joining the Expedition and heading into the desert—he was quite suspicious of the entire project, and of the expedition leader’s motives. He never swallowed the notion that the sandstorm and their arrival at the Ziggurat were accidental. His skepticism made sense to me and throughout the game I was always puzzled by the other players’ acceptance of it all. I think some (maybe most) players just kind of accept what happens and don’t spend too much time trying to figure out the big picture.

Guruff, neutral Dwarf, AC4, HP18 (lvl 3); Str13, Int11, Wis10, Dex9, Con14, Cha16 (Dickie)
Blaise, neutral Magic User, AC10, HP3 (lvl1); Str8, Int11, Wis11, Dex8, Con8, Cha8; Sleep (Dickie)

Guruff’s strong Charisma bonus meant he was often the mouthpiece of the group, despite being played as a stereotypically bristly Dwarf, and a decided racial animus toward Greenskins.

After taking stock of their supplies and regrouping, the six adventurers carefully exit Room 6 via the east door. They open the door to Room 9 (Abandoned Priest’s Quarters) and see a Gecko tearing into something. They enter, and the second Gecko drops upon and kills Herman outright. Stunned, they back out and escape.

Despite my warnings about how lethal Moldvay Basic can be and how fragile first level characters are, they were really taken aback by this sudden death. Matt and Hailey in particular were surprised, as they’d probably never played a game where character death wasn’t just a matter of reverting to the last save point.

Abandoning Herman’s body to the Geckos, they decide to put exploration to the east on hold and go back west. They had already established a pretty good S.O.P. for going down hallways (probing with poles, felling along walls, etc.) so they discover a secret door to Room 3 (Secret Room).

They peek in and hear the Stirges hooting and cawing from the ceiling. Using the very smoky oil salvaged from Room 6, they smoke out the Stirges harmlessly. After blocking up the exit holes as best they could, they find the gems among the bones and debris on the floor. [Room 6 is the only good XP haul in the top three tiers, without taking on the Old God factions]

As they proceed north towards rooms 2, 5 and 8, they meet their first Wandering Monster, which turns out to be a Cynidicean behaving like some sort of feral canine. Finding him harmless, though puzzling, they offer him a bit of their remaining food and name him “Carl”. Carl would remain with them for several sessions as a mostly-unobtrusive and useless hanger-on.

They then discover and chat with the Sprites in Room 5, for whose voices I again used a helium balloon. They note and bypass the Green Slime in Room 8. Then they head back to where they started and stumble into the Brothers of Gor’m. Having only met dead or harmless humanoids, the party is not particularly paranoid or confrontational, and quickly establish rapport with Kanadius.

Over some wine, Kanadius explains that the “return of Topside” has not happened for three generations, and that it portends a dark time for his people. It does explain the recent spate of abductions perpetrated by the Priests of Zardoz and their Goblin henchmen, who must be readying for a “harvest”—a particularly large sacrifice to the demon Zardoz.

Kanadius does not try to recruit the party (the five survivors are neutral after all), but he does try to steer them away from the other two misguided factions. He sketches out a map with directions to the underground city should they wish to go there. The main route descends through a hatch to Room 35 (on Tier 4), around a few halls to the hatch to Room 44 (on Tier 5), and thence to the main tunnel down to the city. He warns them to be wary of Goblins and more evil things.

In passing, he mentions a more perilous alternate route, crossing the rotating passage to the ramp in Room 20. Of course, the party decides to go that way. The teleportation jars in Room 38 really got their curious juices flowing. They took great care trying to determine the danger, figuring out what the jars do, and how to utilize them. Eventually, they wound up prying a jar loose and taking it along and for a couple sessions, using it to beam back treasure and other objects for pickup later.

They follow the passage west and south towards Room 28 (High Priest’s Burial Room). Pausing outside, they hear sounds of crunching and slavering jaws. But the three Ghouls pick up the scent of the party and bound out into the hallway. In the fierce melee that ensues, both Raina and Blaise quickly fall (without ever having let loose Magic Missile or Sleep). The three survivors cut down one Ghoul and retreat in good order, leaving the two remaining Ghouls to feast on their companions.

Shattered and demoralized, Guruff, Wilfer and Abraxo (Dwarf, Elf and Halfling) make their way back to the Brothers where they take an extended rest. Kanadius tut-tuts their foolish foray. He more fully explains the rotating hall, to make quite clear where they ought not to go. After a few hours, the three go forth and knock on the Magi’s door.

[With half the party dead, the 1815 XP for this session need only be split three ways. One of the ironies of the game.]

Blog Watch: Defanged Vampires, Intel, Fighting Men, White Male Power Fantasies, and Holmesian Role-Playing

Horror (The Escapist) How Society Defanged The Vampire — “Vampires are religious monsters, sharing more in common with demons than ghosts or mummies. After all, you fight them off with exorcism tools like crucifixes and holy water. And not only are they tempters, their bite doesn’t just make you join them, it condemns your immortal soul. This religious aspect cannot be overstated. In most classical conceptions of the creature the real horror in the vampire’s bite came not from death, but damnation. Vampires preyed on their victims’ souls as much as their bodies, enlisting them unwillingly in Satan’s army. Vampire victims lose both body and soul in a coerced conversion experience. While this likely spoke of societal fears in Eastern Europe — where people feared conquest and conversion by Turkish invaders – it keyed into a fear of hell that doesn’t exist in the modern world.”

Science (John C. Wright’s  Journal) Pluto is a Planet Again! — “I, for one, rejoice that Planet X is once again a planet! I welcome our new Mi-Go overlords, I applaud the hideous and unspeakable Fungi from Yoggoth, cheer the colony of semifourthdimensional yet cowardly organisms from Palain VII while they are busily dextropobopping, acclaim the forward military base of the hivequeen creatures we call ‘Wormfaces,’ and greet the resting place of Kzanol the Slaver, who will arise an obliterate the Earth!”

Game Design (Pulsipher Game Design) Really Small Games (Card Version) — “A major difference between what card games and board games naturally do is access to information.  Card games naturally hide information, where board games naturally reveal information. If there’s little hidden information, people try to figure out an optimal move, resulting sometimes in analysis paralysis….”

Appendix N (Dave Rollins) Still searching… And the Mash-Up! — “Mixing together two intellectual properties has a lot of advantages when it comes to creating a setting for play. It wipes the slate clean as far as what the players know about the world. If you’ve only read three Conan short stories and want to use it in a game because it’s so cool and one of your players has read every Conan story ever written by all of the authors that took up the character after Howard and has maps of Hyborian world on the wall, you might run into some issues with the player knowing more about the world than you do. The easiest way to fix that is to add more cool things! So you like the theme of the value of the barbarian over civilization that runs through the Conan stories, but you also enjoy the fatalism of Vance’s Dying Earth? Perfect! Smash them together and make something new and even more fun to play in. Instead of the world being new, it’s impossibly ancient and more decadent than even the most noble Hyborians could have dreamed. Still, such a place always has its frontiers and wild places. Untamed lands will still produce men and women like Conan.”

GamerGate (Daddy Warpig’s House of Geekery) BOOM! Goes The Dynamite — “Intel. They make north of $50 billion a year. Their chips are inside most PC’s. Hell, their chips are inside every single Apple. They are the big dog of the computer industry. And they pulled their adds from Gamasutra, because of #GamerGate.”

Appendix N (Save Versus All Wands) OSR Art Friday: Cover of DragonQuest — “Before I sidetracked everything by first talking about clothing, I wanted to make a second point that the Eldritch Wizardry cover represented the lost pulpy element of old school art. Practically every literary source listed by Gary Gygax in his famous Appendix N, had one or more pulpy covers attached to it, either in the magazines of the 30’s and 40’s or the mass-market paperbacks of the 50’s, 60’s and later. One can say that some of it was sexist, borderline pornographic or just plain stupid or bad. But there was also a huge amount of good in it, and Its studied abandonment by the current market leading roleplaying game is a net loss.”

Appendix N (Castalia House) RETROSPECTIVE: The Moon Pool by Abraham Merritt — “There is a lot of material here that can provide useful insights into the intent of the early adventure designs. This is certainly a solid premise for how to handle the mysterious domed city on the seventh level of J. Eric Holmes’s megadungeon. More subtle is how Merritt can alternate between both scientific and religious explanations about what is going on while he combines science fiction gadgets with traditional mythical creatures in a sprawling underworld. If you’ve ever wondered why early D&D materials are bursting with the sort of chutzpah that would allow designers to randomly insert an honest-to-goodness leprechaun of all things in the middle of something like this, it might be because guys like Abraham Merritt paved the way for them.”

Appendix N ( Advanced Readings in D&D: A. Merritt — “Moon Pool is just as misogynist and racist as almost all the other sci-fi romances of the first half of the 20th century, sure. And that’s the problem. That I can just wave my hand and say, ‘well, it’s just like everything else’ and kind of ignore those problems because they are endemic to the genre at that time in history. But, at the same time, I don’t know that we can do much more than point it out and say, ‘that’s wrong.’ Well, I suppose we could do more, but I don’t think this is the forum for it. Part of me thinks that we should just provide a blanket statement that addresses the fact that most of these books in Appendix N are problematic in their portrayals of race and gender and act as white male power fantasies more often than not, but by offering such a statement, the implication is that, ‘yeah, yeah, we know this stuff’s corrupt at a moral level, at its depictions of actual humans, but we’re going to mostly ignore that because, hey, rayguns and underground cities and monsters!'”

Appendix N (Jon Peterson) The First Female Gamers — “Famously, the class that would later be called a ‘Fighter’ was originally a ‘Fighting-man,’ a term that appeared in much fantasy fiction, applied to characters like John Carter and Conan.”

Appendix N (Don’t Split the Party) Sideline: Appendix N and Me — “My earliest reads associated with D&D were the tales of Charlemagne’s Paladins, and Three Hearts and Three Lions, and the High Crusade, and the Outlaw of Torn, and similar works. And I loved the Dying Earth stuff – I read the Night Land when I was 10 and followed it up with the Time Machine, Vance, and re-reading the Zothique stories, all of which had a huge impact on my creation of Seaward, my AD&D 1e campaign, just a year later. Looking back, Norton’s Witchworld books, especially the first few in the High Hallack series, were a pretty strong influence, too.”

Appendix N (The SF Site) The SF Site Featured Review: The Moon Pool — “Are characters like the scientist-skeptic, the hulking blonde Norse berserker, the slightly fey heroic Irishman, and the nefarious double-crossing Russian (German in the pulp magazine version) clichéd? Completely. Are plot devices like lost races, male characters enraptured by incredibly beautiful virginally pure or malevolently evil priestesses (or possibly both combined), alien super-science, and vampiric transdimensional life-forms as ancient as the hills? Absolutely. Except that Merritt, along with perhaps Haggard and Burroughs, created these clichés, and these clichés sold — something that Merritt would have been acutely aware of as a newspaper man. Besides which, Merritt’s breadth of imagination and sense and ability to depict completely alien surroundings and atmospheres far outweigh the aspects of his work which tie it to his time.”

Appendix N (Grognardia) Pulp Fantasy Library: The Moon Pool — “Being Merritt’s first novel, it’s also a lot less polished than his later works. Yet, it somehow manages to overcome its structural and stylistic weaknesses and command my attention. Part of it might be the way that the story takes lost world tropes a step further by introducing a level of ‘cosmic horror’ that you don’t find in say, Arthur Conan Doyle. This is clearly what Lovecraft saw in the story. There’s also the fact that The Moon Pool includes if not the first, then one of the earliest examples of the classic pulp adventuring team made up of a rogues gallery of guys with different backgrounds and skills united in a common cause to save the world.”

Appendix N (Skulls in the Stars) A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool — “Merritt is certainly great stuff — he has a subtle command of an unique type of strangeness which no one else has been able to parallel.  You are absolutely right in considering his original Moon Pool novelette — as published in the All-Story for June 22, 1918 — his best work.  The sequel — The Conquest of the Moon Pool — was relatively commonplace and tainted with the atmosphere of cheap popular fiction.  It is a major crime that many of the best touches were taken out of the novelette when it was fused with its sequel to form the ultimate book version.” — H. P. Lovecraft

Appendix N (Grognardia) Forgotten Father — “Whereas Lovecraft can be crudely called a ‘horror’ writer and Howard a ‘fantasy’ one, Merritt defies such facile classification. More often than not, his stories feature recognizably “pulp” heroes — men of action and intelligence equally adept at problem-solving and fisticuffs — but Merritt’s style is ornate, even florid, marshaling a veritable army of adjectives, adverbs, and archaisms to describe scenes of remarkable power.”

D&D (Semper Initiativus Unam) What are D&D and the OSR? – A Couple of Reactions — “In fact, I would submit that this makes D&D a really good roleplaying game. Roleplaying is not just play-acting your character; it’s negotiation as part of a strategy for surviving in a ridiculously lethal dungeon and getting out with treasure. By the book, in Holmes D&D, roleplaying is a required part of the game and, in fact, is a really good strategy. If you keep negotiating there is a 50/50 chance that you will get a positive result. The worst thing that can happen is that you’re forced to fight.”

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