Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Guest Post: Experience Points and Threat Levels in The Lost City

After clearing (to their knowledge) Tier 2, the party returns Rufus and Klacus (the two red shirts on loan) to the Brothers of Gor’m and descend on their own to Tier 3. Kanadius explains the rotating corridor and tells them which doors correspond to the three factions. Kanadius still considers their urge to “clear” hostile zones to be folly, but he does not forbid it. He has other concerns about what the return of Topside portends for his people.

The players first make contact with the Maidens. The party sees the pressure plate outside Room 21 (Chamber of Maduara) that rings the bell in Room 23 (Warrior Maidens of Maduara), and they press with a 10’ pole. When they see nothing happen, they proceed to the end of the corridor and knock. The PCs are greeted with mild hostility by Padoma the leader of the Warrior Maidens of Maduara, who is ready for them since they just set off the alarm. After some greetings and a favorable reaction role, the PCs are invited in to parley.

On the surface, Padoma seems less interested in Topside than Kanadius. She is as dismissive of him as he is of her. She offers a more favorable view of the Magi of Usamigaras who, while pansies, are at least not chauvinist pansies. When the PCs express interest in clearing the ziggurat of the horrors of Zardoz, she meets them with a certain degree of skepticism, but admires the intent of the project. After conferring with her retinue, she sends a level 1 Maiden, Sativa, along with them.

The PCs then explore the only non-faction-controlled zone of Tier 3. They immediately discover the secret door to Room 18 (Secret Room) with its basket of snakes and treasure. Rather than risk fooling with it, they keep the basket lidded and take possession as-is. They also find the secret door to the water trap (17a), and trigger the pressure plate with the secret door ajar, allowing the water to harmlessly run out.

When they burst through the door to Room 13 (Abandoned Ceremonial Chamber) they see a creature wit the top half of a Cynidicean and the bottom half of a giant snake. Its hands end in sharp talons, bloody with strips of flesh from the Cynidicean corpse on the ground next to it. It blinks reptilian eyes and hisses. Golan immediately casts Sleep and the horrific thing collapses. Upon examination, they see it has been crudely sewn together in the midsection to join man and snake. Sativa explains that it must be some cruel joke of the Priests of Zardoz. The teakwood candlesticks, bowl and holy symbol are Zardozian, and Sativa further explains that this room is perpetually tainted with the Breathe of Zardoz. Evil things seem to always make their way here, and any dead thing left here is brought back to unholy life. They hack the snake-man to pieces and sever its head for good measure.

[The module has the room contain a Draco lizard. I simply found that dull, so I invented the man-snake (with Draco stats) to add color and to introduce some more information about the activities of the Priests.]

Finally, the PCs peek into Room 17 (Abandoned Storeroom), see an unsavory yellow fungus coating everything and burn it out.

They’ve cleared Tier 3 of hostiles, and earned 2055 xp this session, their biggest haul yet by far. They’ve gone two sessions without a fatality, and are on good terms with two factions.

Analysis: Treasure, XP, threat levels

Under Moldvay Basic D&D rules, defeating monsters (meaning any non-player character) is worth a few experience points, but not a lot. Real xp comes from acquiring non-magical treasure. Realistically, acquiring treasure is how PCs are going to level up.

In pretty much every module ever written, the biggest treasure troves are well protected. They tend to be in the room/cave of the biggest and baddest leader of a tribe of monsters. The PCs have to fight, sneak or trick their way through lots of henchmen to even get there. Sometimes, large treasures are instead hidden behind secret doors and traps.

This all poses a problem for low level PCs, because they are so fragile. If they have to go head to head with every group of monsters on equal footing, the law of averages says they’re eventually going to suffer a TPK, or at least endure persistent attrition. Trickery and fighting unfair whenever possible is essential. The Sleep spell is a really important tool in a low-level party’s arsenal, in my opinion.

Finding secret rooms (every module has a few) is important too. Those are sometimes kind of a freebie, since they are often less well-defended… if only the PCs can find the damn things. That’s where the rules for finding secret doors are so important. In particular, how we implement searches in-game matters a lot. The difference in xp outcomes under a DM who allows constant passive search-radar (vs. one who requires that the PCs describe where and how they search) will be tremendous.

As kids, we treated searching as passively “on” because we were lazy and didn’t especially honor the rules. It also got us where we wanted to get— leveling up and “succeeding”—faster. Of course, that’s against the rules as written. This campaign has been my first ongoing experience with a stringent interpretation of the search rules. And I have found this to be the aspect of B/X D&D that most determines the pace of play.

If players don’t slow down and search everything, they will miss out on low-risk xp behind secret doors. They will also eventually get zapped by traps, of which there are always a few. But moving slow risks high-risk, low-reward Wandering Monsters, and uses up resources (water, light, food). It’s really a rather elegant balance… if it weren’t so damned tedious.

This is only broad area where I am genuinely critical of B4: the Lost City. It has a lot of potential depth and richness going for it. It’s a module that feeds the imagination particularly well. But when it comes to the level grind, it magnifies how mechanics influence player behavior. In order to succeed, players pretty much have to meta-game big time.

Here’s a summary of B4, with approximations of how much xp is “available” from monsters and treasure on each Tier. While a party could potentially skip Tiers, the structure of the module limits that a good deal. It’s the opposite of B2, where each Cave of Chaos is accessible from the get-go. PCs are pretty much going to work their way through the Tiers in order.

Tier 1
No xp. FIVE traps (albeit two triggered). If Moldvay wasn’t explicitly trying to put players on high alert with this introduction, I don’t for the life of me know what else he could have intended.

Tier 2
500xp from monsters and almost 5000xp from loot (plus one magic item). 1700 of that xp is treasure in the secret Stirge room. It has two secret doors leading in from hallways. There’s nothing about the hallway to signal an alert—not a weird dead-end or anything. To find this room, the players have to be really committed to slow, careful progression down each hall.

2600 xp comes from treasure with the Brothers of Gor’m. There are ten of them, which is a BIG threat at level 1. The Brothers of Gor’m are obviously intended to become allies of the party, who need water and a safe base of operations. The only way to get that 2600 xp is to forego the Brothers as allies and defeat them, or to access the treasure room from the west and get it without contact with a Brother. PCs can later make nice with the Brothers, and give back the treasure having earned the xp. [That’s how it went down in Philotomy’s campaign.]

Tier 3
800xp from monsters and almost 6000xp from loot (plus three magic items). About 4000 of the treasure xp resides with the Magi of Usamigaras and the Maidens of Maduara. Realistically, there’s no sneaking into those lairs without defeating at least a bunch of the inhabitants. And the Magi and Maidens are significant threats. The Maidens have a lot of hp between them. Played intelligently, the Magi with their spells are a likely insta-TPK.

B4 is structured in such a way that the party will likely be allied to one of the three factions, and in an implied position to defeat the other two. If they don’t attempt to defeat the other factions, there’s no way the members of a decent-sized party will have reached second level by the time they descend to Tier 4. The non-factional xp just isn’t there for it to even be possible.

Without defeating an Old-God faction, a Party might be able to eke out 6000 xp in the top three tiers, by defeating all the other monsters and finding all the treasure. Only Clerics and Thieves have a chance at leveling, and even that’s pushing it. I wouldn’t want to go through B4 with fewer than five or six PCs. Four is do-able with red shirts, but red shirts bleed away xp.

I still love B4. It continues to spark my imagination. There’s a lot of underlying substance to it and loads of great role-playing potential. But fine tuned, in terms of risk vs. reward, it is not.


Read Earlburt’s entire series on The Lost City:

  1. Setting out for the Lost City
  2. Nonvariable Weapon Damage, Alignment Tongues, and Rolling Hit Dice
  3. Setting and Player Introduction for The Lost City
  4. Into The Desert
  5. Context, Cut Scenes, and the Pen and Paper Experience
  6. Death Lurks in Every Nook and Cranny
  7. Guest Post: The Mythic Underworld and Gygaxian Naturalism in The Lost City
  8. “Yes, of course we’d love to go see the Priests; but first…”
  9. Cynidicean Bee-people, the Breath of Zardoz, and Giant Geckos
  10. Joining the Brotherhood of Gor’m
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