Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

A Modern Gamer Encounters Role Playing’s Dark Past

So my long time CAR WARS buddy was up for an extended visit. Titanic eight car arena duels are a bit of a brain burner, so we were looking for something lighter to round out the weekend’s gaming. I suggested Keep on the Borderlands with the original Moldvay rules and we were rolling up characters in no time. My friend was unfamiliar with the early editions of D&D, so there were many moments where he almost went into shock. (“My cleric doesn’t get a spell?”) Player characters can vary wildly in their initial abilities… and though there was a hopeless characters rule, it was merely an optional rule based entirely on the dungeon master’s whims. (“How long did it take for rpg’s to develop a freaking point-buy system, seriously!”) The game omits a lot of cruft and chrome, but occasionally exhibits apparently random fixations on useless minutia. (“Good thing the designers have thought through the difference between saving versus rods and saving versus magic wands– sheesh!”) Never mind all of that, though. All I asked was that he give it a shot as an experiment in what the game could produce with a fairly strict adherence to the rules as written. (“My fighter’s stuck with just two hit points, then?”) We were going to play the game as straight as possible but in the spirit that the designers intended, including the overall implied setting of the game.

I read the opening bit about the Realm and the Borderlands region in the highest Gygaxian tone I could muster. He introduced his characters to the gate keepers. Some people have criticized this part of the adventure as being… well… not like something Joss Whedon would write. As a game master, though, the players’ approach gives me an immediate indication as to how they are going to play the game. (Are they serious? Stupid? Are they punks? Do they really get creative with their roles? Do they want to get on with the monster stomping or are they curious about the larger world at all?) My player attempted a faux Tolkienian formality as he checked his weapons and made straight for the inn and tavern. He didn’t mess with any of the NPC’s, but he pointedly asked if any of them had a proper name.

I was pleased to see that the notes on the Keep included details of how much it cost to stay the night at the inn, what kind of people might be at the tavern, and also the specifics of how to go about arranging for hirelings. (It’s often vexed me that the core rulebooks tend to be pretty vague on that last point.) I rolled randomly on the pre-genned characters chart in the back to determine that… yes… Silverleaf was at the bar. I used his tale of his party’s disastrous excursion to emphasize that (a) you can indeed talk to the monsters and (b) the monsters are not above treachery of some kind. Meanwhile, my player’s wizard hired five men-at-arms and arranged to provide them with a short bow, some slings, rations, and a couple of large sacks.

Before turning in for the night, the party headed over to the chapel because they heard that the steward might be found there at the evening services. The steward’s name was… Grima… and was very devout. The party expressed a desire to see the Castellan and Grima agreed to help the party out– all they had to do was deposit a couple thousand gold pieces into his personal account at the local bank. He gave the party his account number and wished them luck in their adventures. This was pretty insulting to the party, but at least I’ve introduced the premise of achieving entrance to the inner baily as being something that’s (a) possible, (b) contingent on a good chunk of loot, and (c) possibly related to some kind of unspecified subplot.

The party set off early the next morning, following Silverleaf’s directions to the Caves of Chaos. They made their first camp by the road and then arrived at the Caves at 2PM the next day. After perusing a sketch of the caves area, the party made for the kobald cavern. As they made for the entrance, kobalds lept down from the trees! A fierce battle ensued… and the kobolds hit unusually often. (For some reason they seemed to target the men-at-arms a lot.) The kobalds made their morale checks and the party fought on. When the hacking and slashing was through, four men-at-arms and eight kobalds lay dead. The party was disgusted to find a mere 41 silver pieces on them….

Undeterred in spite of the setback, the party entered the cave. The elf looked for traps in the dim light, but did not find anything… until he fell into a pit trap. This brought six kobald guards to the scene. I think the party tried to fast talk them, but before anything could be sorted out from that… 18 rats scittered onto the scene. The party took some damage from the emboldened kobalds… then the party responded. The elf couldn’t get out of the pit trap, but crawled up the sides of the walls to where he could peek through a tiny sliver of a crack. He cast a sleep spell that knocked out 2d8 hit dice of monsters. The wizard then cast charm person on one of the remaining kobalds. The monsters checked their morale, but were all dismayed and ran away. Acting quickly, the wizard commanded the kobald to free the elf from the trap. The party then collected anything of value and got out of there as quickly as possible. They set up camp five hundred yards away from the caves.

You know... this guy got about as far here as my six year old daughter did in her first outing to the Caves. I can even use her map to illustrate how much my friend's seen at this point...!

I’m going to speculate that my autoduelling friend was almost irritated by the adventure at this point. He had awful player characters, he’d only seen about forty square feet of the inside of the caves… and he’d exchanged four dead men-at-arms for a handful of silver. The experience value of the pitiful amount of monsters that had been neutralized was insignificant. But amidst all of that disappointment, my friend appeared to realize that this is not game where the story is rigged so that he could just randomly bop around from room to room. He wasn’t the hero of narrative that would see him just barely defeating a “boss” monster while on his last hit point. In fact… if he didn’t get creative, his characters were all going to die quickly.

The party began to question their charmed kobald compatriate to find out where exactly the loot was. Instead of viewing the scenario on terms of some kind of Ultima II or Diablo type hackfest, my friend began to think more along the lines of Mission Impossible. As we’d be gaming some more the next day, he would soon have a chance to put his new adventuring style to the test….


9 responses to “A Modern Gamer Encounters Role Playing’s Dark Past

  1. Jimmy Anderson November 22, 2011 at 7:58 am

    WOW! Very cool! Interesting to see the contrast here…

  2. Peter November 22, 2011 at 9:42 am

    Bwahahahah, the kobold ambush wipes out another party. Are you keeping the Keep’s results from one group consistent with that of the other, or running them as wholly separate games?

    • jeffro November 22, 2011 at 10:00 am

      I think novices deserve to have a fresh, by-the-book Keep module experience. But expert dungeoneers should get more of a “living Caves” experience– where monster populations and demographics evolve. I’m treating the monsters as not-too-experienced– but once they see spells cast and flaming oil used (and live to hash it out), they will develop tactics around what they expect the pc’s to do. Multiple groups of adventures delving the caves concurrently…? That’d be some incentive to check out one more cave before heading back to the Keep….

      • Peter November 23, 2011 at 8:19 pm

        That’s how I’m running mine – the monsters are learning, changing their defenses, making alliances, getting reinforcements – even leaving! So there is a strong incentive to push your luck because it might not be there next time.

        Damage the goblins enough and maybe the orcs will wipe them out, or leave some treasure in the gnoll caves and maybe some curious hobgoblins will ferret it out and abscond with it. And everyone digs more pits. :)

  3. Chris Mata November 22, 2011 at 2:58 pm

    Very nice!!!!!! This is the very first adventure my son will embark on in a few years as soon as he can comprehend D&D. (I am sure I will rush it!!!!!)

  4. earlburtearlburt November 22, 2011 at 9:36 pm

    I wasn’t irritated at all. I was mostly stunned that the rules, as written and intended, would make a TPK so totally possible. I had Basic D&D as an 8 year old kid, and my friends and I played a ton of it. But we didn’t strictly abide by all (or even many) of the rules. We didn’t even understand them really. By the time we were old enough to understand the game, we had moved on from Basic to other games, which we routinely modified with house rules. So, while this game and Keep were a huge part of my childhood, I had never consumed it as intended.

    Basic D&D is… just weird. Well, as Jeff pointed out, it is a resource management game, more than anything else. That was news to me.

    And it’s not fully a role-playing game by my understanding of the term. To me a big part of role-play is about acting in character. But an equally important part is that by doing so– acting in character– the world responds to the characters appropriately. So, for example, by describing the stealthy approach we make through the woods to the cave entrance, one might reasonably expect that the die-roll for achieving surprise might be modified. Nope. 1-2 equals surprise, and that’s just kind of the end of it.

    It’s the rigidity of it that got me. And by everything I’ve heard about Gygax, I’m sure he totally meant for the rules to be applied rigidly, controlling and egomaniacal as he seems to have been.

    Once I realized that any character-driven or role-play elements I introduced were window dressing– purely and exclusively for fun– it kind of clicked. I stopped thinking in terms of what actions would make sense to the characters and instead meta-gamed it more. If we needed to spend two days camping a short distance from the caves to recover hit points, then fine, that’s what we’ll do. If XP is earned mostly from loot, then fine, we’ll pick up every weapon the Kobalds drop, however useless to us.

    And it actually got more fun at that point, believe it or not. I still made room for role-play, and added some character-driven flourishes. But it was nice being able to actually achieve some success, as the game measures it.

    • jeffro November 23, 2011 at 8:06 am

      The kobalds in the trees– I ruled that your stealth was cancelled out by their camouflage, thereby producing a toss-up situation where either one of you could have been surprised. If one side shouldn’t be “surprisable” in a given situation, then the surprise result might be ignored for them. (This being your first outing, the tree-kobalds were surprisable this time. Next time you or some other party comes back? No way! This is one example of how the monsters learn and adapt….)

      • earlburt November 23, 2011 at 3:03 pm

        It isn’t so much that I think the world/setting is un-elastic or unresponsive. It’s plenty elastic about things like tactics, population depletion and economics. It’s more that it seems like… there are things that are going to play out as written/ruled, regardless of RP.

        As one example, I feel like there’s no amount of role-play or cleverness that could alow us to gain an audience with the Castellan (short of 2000 gp) and persuade him to lend us some men-at-arms. It’s kind of like a video game, where that section of the game is categorically unavailable until we do X, Y, Z. Whereas in the free flow RP that I’ve normally done, virtually anything (except violating the laws of in-game physics) is at least theoretically possible.

  5. Pingback: Guest Post: Setting Out for the Lost City « Jeffro’s Car Wars Blog

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