Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

The Game in the Magenta Box is not the Game I Thought it Was

Easily enough game material to last a dozen sessions, though if new monsters keep moving in as individual lairs get cleaned out, who knows how long you could keep it going....

“I was mostly stunned that the rules, as written and intended, would make a Total Party Kill so totally possible.” — Earlburt

“Sometimes I forget that D&D® Fantasy Adventure Game is a game and not a novel I’m reading or a movie I’m watching.” — Tom Moldvay

The second session of our B2/Moldvay game is pretty hard to describe, but the action was so engaging, I really did forget I was playing a game. We didn’t have a glossy map or miniatures, but somehow… the sense of place and danger became palpable. And it really was almost like a movie– a horror flick where even as the monster is cutting down defenceless humans, you almost begin to root for him. The player characters of an old school game are not just murderous, thieving hoboes, but they are monstrous terrorists as well. When they really get going, you can almost hear the heavy metal music blaring in the background. The fact that such characters can literally die with almost any attack or saving throw is, ultimately, the only thing that endears me to them.

When we last saw our “heroes”, they had made their nearly disastrous first steps into the Caves of Chaos. The party then retreated 500 yards from the Caves and made camp. They spent time memorizing spells and healing 1-3 hit points per day. On the second night of their “recharge”, a party of eight kobolds managed to track them down. (The rules for how to check for this are clearly laid out in the module.) I rolled to determine which watch they would strike– unfortunately for the kobolds, it was the wizard. They failed their surprise roll and lost initiative, but if either had gone differently (and if the party had not had a sleep spell tossing guy on guard duty) then things could have gotten bloody. The party used their 50 feet of rope to hog tie them and left them at the camp the next morning, hoping that anything that found the kobolds would rather eat them than set them free.

Heading back to the Caves, they sent the charmed kobold ahead to check for a “tree ambush” at the entrance. It was all clear so the party went inside without any light sources. The party told the charmed kobold to head for a corner and cover his eyes if any trouble developed. The kobold guards were ready for the party and won initiative. Each member of the party got a spear chucked at them while a kobold guardsman ran to alert the commons area. The party responded with ranged weapons of their own, failing to take out the kobold messenger. The kobolds failed their morale roll when one of their number fell. On cue, the rats arrived from the western room, but the party threw down flaming oil, setting one rat’s fur on fire and sending the others back to their room in terror.

The party commanded the charmed kobold to keep feeding the fire in order to keep the rats blocked in. This left one large room full of kobolds where the guards had fled to. (I ruled that the actions of the PC’s at this point were so terrible, that they were too afraid to come out. The kobolds’ plan was to hunker down in hopes that the players would just wander into the big room for a stand-up fight.) Meanwhile, the party bounced a sleep spell off the walls to take out the arrow-tossing kobold super-guards. They demanded that the kobold king surrender, but he refused. The party then built a huge fire at his door with the hopes of smoking him out. They kicked down the door of the food storage area and used the stuff in there to set up a blockade of wooden items in the hallway to the kobold commons area.

The rats were hemmed in by a fire being fed by a charmed kobold. The main body of kobolds was blocked in by a barrier of crates and barrels that could be lit in seconds by a dude that could also toss a sleep spell. The kobold king’s guards were dispatched and the kobold king was collapsing due to lack of oxygen. This is what check mate looks like in the kobold caverns. (And let me now state for the record that Earlburt is, without question, the baddest gamer I have ever seen. He makes the people that went through Stonehell last year look like a bunch of cream puffs!)

The main body of kobolds remained huddled in their commons area, expecting extermination and hoping for the chance to fight to the finish. The party (except for the wizard) burst into the king kobold’s room, cut off the heads of any kobolds they found there and took anything that looked valuable. They then lined up the heads in the hallway near the crate and barrel blockade. In kobold blood, they scrawled on the walls in the kobold language, “behold our mercy.” The party gathered up their loot, and headed back to the Keep on the Borderlands. On the way there, they recovered their hog-tied “friends” and made them carry their stuff back home!

Tallying up the xp, the party ended up with 371 for monsters, 69 for various loot, 58.13 for coins, 1200 for jewellery, and 90 for bringing back captives. I opted to give out full xp for situations where the party outsmarted monsters, rather than merely killing them– but I only gave points when the characters actually saw the monsters directly. I gave double xp for captures and 2gp each for the kobold performers. In one of the perverse twists of the game, the party members each get proportionally more xp because of the deaths of the four men-at-arms!

Awarding the xp, the man-at-arms’s -50% penalty yields 178 xp (about 9% of the way to level 2), the fighter’s +5% bonus yields 375 xp (about 18% of the way to level 2), the magic user’s 5% bonus also yields 375 xp (15% of the way to level 2), the cleric’s 10% bonus yields 393 xp (about 26% of the way to level 2), and the elf’s -20% penalty for illegally low intelligence yields 286 xp (about 7% of the way to level 2.) The party can expect to have to repeat this level of performance about three or four more times before they’ll start seeing characters level up– the basic set assumes you’ll be playing a lot of D&D! Amusingly enough, the elf can expect to level up at an even slower rate than the hireling fighter.

So the party successfully pillaged what’s probably the easiest cave in the module in two sessions. However, the kobolds could deal out a total party kill to the unwary, and even a savvy player can expect horrible things to happen on bad rolls for surprise and initiative. The party lost four men-at-arms and will have trouble replacing them. After getting back to the Keep, the party has (not counting the jewellery) 145.12 in new gold pieces– easily double what they spent equipping the men-at-arms when they first set out.

Looking for more information on this classic game? Check out The RPG Corner for an Old School Revivalist’s take on what’s it’s like to dig into this strata of gaming history. To see what the Caves might play like under a modern system, be sure to follow Peter V. Dell’Orto’s Dungeon Fantastic  for his frequent GURPS Dungeon Fantasy campaign updates. Finally… if you want to start an old school campaign right now without having to shop around on eBay, go download your copy of Labyrinth Lord right away!

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7 responses to “The Game in the Magenta Box is not the Game I Thought it Was

  1. earlburt November 28, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    The crippling fear of an easy death was largely behind what ingenuity I mustered for that second game. My twin goals going in were to neutralize (through death, intimidation or isolation) as many foes as possible without actual combat; and to gain quick access to maximum loot. The layout of this cave made that eminently possible. Once the rats were isolated and the guards had reatreated to the barracks, I was pretty sure we were ok.

    “The player characters of an old school game are not just murderous, thieving hoboes, but they are monstrous terrorists as well.”

    Can one “murder” a thing? Can one terrorize a monster incapable of feeling anything beyond the basest of emotions? If the kobalds had only surrendered their riches to us when requested– riches surely pillaged from humans and demi-humans to begin with– they would not have invited the righteous fist of Law.

    Our mission to neutralize the Chaos threat on the borderlands, sanctioned by the Temple and with backing from both the Oder of Wizards and a minor Elven King, is beyond reproach.

  2. Peter November 29, 2011 at 10:09 am

    Very cool. That’s pretty vicious right there, but it’s tough getting to level 2 in old-school games. None of this “three level appropriate encounters” or whatnot, you stay at level 1 for game after game, and almost want to enshrine and retire your guy if he makes it to level 2!

    • jeffro November 29, 2011 at 3:08 pm

      Once your spell-casters are at level 2, you’ll have a second level fighters and thieves to cover for them, a cure-light wounds spell (finally!), a second “load” on the sleep spell tosser, and double hit points all around except for maybe the elf characters. It’ll take as much xp to get to level three as level two cost, but you’ll have a lot more of a cushion and extra abilities to boot. What party wouldn’t be tempted to go for it?

      • Peter November 30, 2011 at 10:22 am

        I just remember it took so long, that when my cousin finally got his first guy to survive to level 2, we had to go look it up in the book to see what to do. We knew how to generate new 1st level guys, sure, we got really good at that . . . ;)

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

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