Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Madicon 21: Keep on the Borderlands and Modern Gamers

My goal in running Keep on the Borderlands at a small local convention was mainly just to fill a table with gamers. I also wanted to see if I could run a multi-session campaign in a setting that would otherwise suffer from short attention spans. As a game master, I wanted to give as much autonomy to the players as possible. I wanted to accurately represent the Caves of Chaos as Gygax designed them and I strove to apply the rules from the Moldvay red book evenly and consistently. I was not invested in any particular outcome: I wanted to see what direction modern players would take when exposed to such a simple, deadly gaming environment.

I was very pleased with the turnout. Having five or six players continuously for about eight total hours in two separate events… it was fantastic. There were game masters, board gamers, people who were pretty new to the scene– all kinds! Some people dipped in for just an hour or two and I even had one guy balling up his character sheet in disgust. The most awkward moment was when (in the middle of a session) the players started discussing which edition would be the best fit for the seventeen year old girl who was playing for the first time. What I could see from my standpoint were stretches of fairly intense engagement. As situations arose in the game, the players would really try to come up with effective plans and argue about them earnestly.

Looking over the deaths… we had three die from a surprise hobgoblin attack in the first sortie. The players fragged a random elf player in the second. The third featured death by giant rats in a kobald pit trap. In the last one, we had one person consumed by a green slime and then four more people killed in a gigantic hobgoblin attack. The first sortie was an epic success marred by a fumble and the second was a moderate success. The third one… players only narrowly avoided a total party kill. The last sortie was a terrifying failure– almost a Call of Cthulu type ending. Modern gamers are not expecting such a high chance of character death, but I think this wide range of potential outcomes comes as even more of a shock to them.

If the players don’t pull together and cooperate closely, they are very likely to fail. Even if they do forge an esprit de corps and coordinate all their skills… they still have to face the fact that the game is patently unfair. You can’t win by developing the ultimate character build with the latest splat books. You can’t even win by being really good at a tactical combat board game. When the Keep is implemented with the bare bones Moldvay rule set, the players are forced to get really creative. (If things get to the point of having to roll initiative, odds are characters are going to die.) The most important things that occur in the game are pretty well outside the scope of the actual rules, but the lack of hard rules covering 80% of the action seems to speed up play, spur creative problem solving, and foment a descriptive, ad hoc style of game mastering.

Can modern gamers actually like this? I don’t know the answer to that. It certainly seems that retro is “in”. The chance to play anything with the name “Dungeons & Dragons” on it is going to inevitably attract some people. Accomplished, game-savvy people will give it a shot, if only to see what the original game is like when played relatively straight. Even the hard core 3e/4e people aren’t going to be particularly doctrinaire once the zealots self-select themselves out of the session. That seems like a really good mix of gamers to me: it’s easily an entertaining enough crowd that I’d try this again.

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4 responses to “Madicon 21: Keep on the Borderlands and Modern Gamers

  1. earlburt March 28, 2012 at 10:20 am

    This is just my preference (not speaking for the world here), but in high lethality games I like to run several characters. I can’t really play without background and personality. I’m gonna have some kind of character concepts, however thin and however little time I have to conceive them. I need that sense of investment.

    But, of course, developed characters dying sucks. Which is why I like the multi-char model for early D&D. One or two out of, say, four or five starting chars should make it to level 2-3. And at that point, Suvivability goes way up and there’s a reason to invest more heavily.

    In a multi-player game, everyone running 4-5 chars would be difficult, and weird, and unbalanced. But they could run two or three maybe. You kind of do that with your kids, right?

    • jeffro March 28, 2012 at 10:28 am

      I don’t think the players realized that PC’s are actually more replaceable than Hirelings. A player that loses his PC just rolls up a new one. If the hirelings are all dead, then no one wants to work for your party anymore. On the other hand, the more people in your party, the more people there are to divide up the treasure and xp to. I don’t know what the best strategy is, but parties with a Charm Person spell could maybe find all sorts of people to tag along if they take some time to deal with that. (At which point… cost of living actually starts to matter….)

      • earlburt March 28, 2012 at 12:02 pm

        “I don’t know what the best strategy is, but parties with a Charm Person spell could maybe find all sorts of people to tag along if they take some time to deal with that. (At which point… cost of living actually starts to matter….)”

        As you told me when we were debriefing after that first session, “It’s about sweating the small stuff.” Early D&D is nothing like modern players think it was, and nothing like children (like me) who played it back then thought it was. I bet the only people who knew what they were playing was that subset of grownups who actually read the rules.

    • Peter March 28, 2012 at 7:39 pm

      I agree with you here – if the game is “one bad die roll kills you” I want lots of guys to absorb those die rolls without having to keep starting over. That’s not just theoretical knowledge either, but practical experience running and playing in high-lethality “old school” games (tabletop and computer-based) and somewhat more survivable “modern” games (ditto).

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