Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Madicon 21: The Kobayashi Maru of Old School Gaming

As we sat down for the second session of Keep on the Borderlands with the classic 1980 Basic Set, I was pleased to see two people returning from the session we’d played the night before. The dwarf-player was back and was easily half way to leveling up. The seventeen year old gamer girl who’d never really played role playing games before was there to continue with her cleric of Ares.

Joining the table for the first time was a couple of college-aged guys that had played the more recent editions. An experienced gamer that I’d seen running a big Wings of War session sat down with us as well. (I later saw him playing in the big Diplomacy game.) I was a little nervous seeing a seasoned dungeon master showed up, as he was easily the most confident and acerbic person of all the guys that had spoken up in the earlier discussion panel.

I really wanted to try to get some sort of summation of the previous session to start the new game, but it’s really hard to get a meeting of the minds together in the chaotic environment of a convention. I would have preferred a little more consensus on it, but I finally had to just blurt out that the caravan goods were confiscated by the Keep’s men. I told the players that there was a minor ceremony where the player characters were given insignificant awards, but afterward they were encountered by a shadowy figure that had several questions about the man-at-arms that didn’t return. The players blamed the elf for all that and told the guy that they’d dealt with the problem.

For the most part, I hung back as the players rolled up characters and made their plans. The only rule I really had to explain was about the nuances about spell books, spell choice, and Read Magic. I finally realized that I couldn’t just throw modern-day gamers into this without any advice, so I told them that though there’s combat in this, it just isn’t a tactical board game; the challenges are not balanced so that the players will win when they’re down to their last hit point. I said that the outcome of the game ultimately depends on player skill, but warned them that it’s also likely that circumstances and capricious die rolls will create catastrophic failure anyway.

The players all met at the tavern, and it just so happened that the new player characters were adventurers interested in going to the Caves of Chaos. The party was six characters strong, but after losing that dwarf hireling and getting a man-at-arms killed in the last session, there weren’t any hireling types around that were interested in going along.

(SPOILER WARNING: If you intend to play the Keep on the Borderlands, you probably shouldn’t read any further!)

The party headed to the Caves and opted to enter the Kobald Caverns. They had no idea what they were walking into. They completely ignored the trees surrounding the entrance. They marched straight in banging their ten foot poles in front of them. There was some discussion about what to do when they saw the intersection and they opted to go to the left.

As they went around the corner, the pit trap triggered for the two fighters in front. This caused some push back from the players– they didn’t think it should have gone off. They claimed that their ten-foot-pole trap checking was a continuous action and that they never stopped doing it. I didn’t quite see it that way, but in the interests of appearing fair, I gave one of the guys that fell in a DEX check to avoid falling in. He made it, but the other guy was in deep trouble: he only just barely survived the fall.

The party began examining the trap to see if they could get their associate out again. I described the pit as making sort of a steam-punk sound as its top clanked to a close over the hapless fighter on the inside. At this point, the kobald guards revealed themselves. The kobalds won initiative and threw their spears at randomly determined party members. The spears mostly missed, but it was tense as each one was rolled. At this point, I described the rat-like sounds that were coming from the direction that party had intended to go. The players did not like any of this. The experienced game master guy had his magic user character lasso a kobald guard and drag him over the pit. “That’s something I cooked up back when I played Tomb of Horrors,” he remarked. His idea what that this would trigger the mechanism so that the pit would open again, but the kobalds weren’t heavy enough to trigger their own trap. There was some fighting and a kobold was killed.

The party won initiative for the second round and the kobolds made their morale role. The party discussed the situation, apologized to the player of the guy in the pit trap, and started to leave the cave. I then told them that they saw eight kobald spearmen blocking the entrance. This caused even more argument– the players just couldn’t see how this could have happened. Maybe the way I’d explained the action was mediocre or something, but the players could not seem to visualize themselves being outmaneuvered this way. (They did not search the trees before going in and did not explicitly watch their backs, so I figured I was running this as fairly as it could have been.)

The players were now staring a total party kill right in the face. I asked them if they had any more actions to declare before they rolled for initiative, and the Wings of War guy said that he wanted to use his Ventriloquism spell to make a sound from outside the cave: “all right men, prepare to fire!” I ruled that the kobalds out there all looked to where the sound was coming from, and that they could barge their way past them if they wished.

As the party ran away from the Caves of Chaos, I told the guy in the pit trap that the skittering sounds grew louder until giant rats poured inside the pit with him. His screams echoed around the canyon area as he was eaten alive.


2 responses to “Madicon 21: The Kobayashi Maru of Old School Gaming

  1. Peter March 22, 2012 at 8:17 am

    (Hmm…for some reason this didn’t go the first time)

    I started to respond about the pit trap, and realized I had a blog post’s worth of stuff to say about it:

  2. Tedankhamen March 22, 2012 at 9:59 am

    Sounds fair to me, especially since banging 10 foot poles around is a great way to let cavers know company is coming. I would have let the other players roll for the rats against the pit guy, though. Just ‘You die’ can be taken wrong by some people.

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