Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Madicon 22: Taking on the Isle of Dread

Reading the Isle of Dread module in the last week before Madicon, I just could not conceive of how I could possibly prepare for the event. I had no idea what was supposed to happen. Walking in to the convention not long for the session was to start, I checked out the sign up sheets. That was when I got a bonus curve ball: my request for six player slots for the event had not been received. The sheet had blanks for nine people!

I set up my table in a daze. I felt completely unprepared. And worse, I felt completely uninspired. I skimmed the planned encounters again, but I was just disgusted– I just couldn’t have any idea which ones would be important. I decided that with nine players, I’d start everyone with 5,000 experience points– most people would be level three, but elves would be second level and thieves would be fourth. I quickly made a chart that could cross reference the various movement rates with the terrain so that I wouldn’t have to refer to page X20 during the game. The last thing I did was write down the frequency for wandering monster checks on the Isle… along with the chance for an encounter for each terrain type from page X57. On these sparse notes, everything in the session would hinge.

The players all showed up. There really were nine people there chomping at the bit to play in my game. With very little fanfare, I set them to work rolling up characters. I had one that I’d made as a sample and I showed everyone “BORG” on page B5 to go by… but some people just couldn’t follow the format. I was really wishing I had at least filled out the headings on the notebook paper– in the heat of the game, it sure helps to be able to look in the exact same place to get info from peoples’ character sheets. It took an hour to get everyone sorted out. It was complete chaos with everyone shouting and rolling dice at once. I would occasionally try to interject some editorial comments or try to give some sage advice about adventure tactics, but with people coming and going and tinkering with stuff, I could not make a dent in the collective consciousness of the group.

Why do I even bother…? I mean, would pre-generated characters really mess up what I’m trying to do here? My official reason is people don’t really care about them and that taking the time to roll up characters at the session creates instant engagement, investment, and collaboration. The real reason is that I don’t at all want to know what the players are bringing to game. I don’t want to be tempted to plan around them. I want to be absolved from having to make sure that everyone has a chance to “shine” or to be important. At any rate, the character generation process gives the players a chance to show me what they want to play. Old hands get a chance to kibbitz about the differences between editions. And the players that are totally new to the game…? Well, I figure you can do a lot worse than sitting down to play D&D for the first time and having to roll up a character with the Moldvay Basic Set rules.

I let the players decide what kind of sailing ship they had and what was on it. I don’t think they cared, though– they rightly intuited that such matters would be irrelevant to a one-shot. When all the fighters and clerics went with plate mail, I asked them if they didn’t want to have hirelings, retainers, or henchmen to carry the armor for them, but not one person wanted an armor bearer. I warned everyone that this would cut their movement rate drastically. Still no one changed their mind. We started the game and it all sunk in just how big of an impact this was going to have on the session and I said, “look… if the decision you make creates a scenario that is either silly, unplayable, or even unwinnable, I’m not going to do anything to compensate for it. You guys are responsible for this decision, not me.” Well, the players all knew what they wanted was people with good armor class ratings in the party– they did not care one whit if that choice slowed their progress down to a crawl.

Before the con,  I had asked my friends for advice on how to run this game, and they told me to skip the random encounters altogether. That just isn’t my style, really. If I was going to take the time to run an iconic module like X1: The Isle of Dread, I was going to try to run it as written as much as possible. Other convention game advice such as that from Fight On! #3 says to just plan out six good encounters and let the players do their thing. But Moldvay and Cook did not create a module that consisted of a string of encounters rigged just so to entertain and create the impression of a narrative arc. No, they made something entirely different than that… and they had something they were attempting to teach to novice dungeon masters, too. I might never learn what that was if I ignored their design decisions on first contact with live players.

And that’s the thing. I was wedded to the principle of player autonomy. I was keen on running the game as-is. And yeah, I’d gone into the session expecting a goodly amount of random stuff to happen. But when the players blithely cut their movement rates down by a quarter, they’d arbitrarily ensured that hours of the session would be derived entirely from the wandering monster tables. I had just walked straight into a game session that was going to be driven almost entirely by random dice results.


12 responses to “Madicon 22: Taking on the Isle of Dread

  1. PeterD March 25, 2013 at 8:20 am

    I can’t wait to read part 2.

  2. Jason Packer March 25, 2013 at 10:00 am

    You certainly capture the angst of the con GM well. I can’t imagine that it is anything but stressful to prepare a game for a bunch of potentially judgmental strangers.

  3. Brendan March 25, 2013 at 9:39 pm

    Another option that preserved impartiality would be to randomly generate a number of pregens (more than needed) and then distribute them randomly. Or maybe let players request a class. This avoids the worry about planning around the PCs and saves con time. You can automate it with a generator like Ram’s:

    Optionally, players who wanted could still do the 3d6 in order themselves, pick class, etc. The idea about building engagement via character creation is interesting, but they are there to play the game, right?

    I’m curious why you bothered spending time on outfitting the ship. Since presumably you did decide beforehand that there would be a shipwreck?

    • jeffro March 26, 2013 at 5:45 am

      I wanted them to spell out what was on the ship just in case they attempted 15-minute workday tactics. Some encounters require the ship to be statted and so forth. Also… in my game, they don’t get the XP until the treasure gets back to Specularum.

    • jeffro March 26, 2013 at 7:42 am

      >> The idea about building engagement via character creation is interesting, but they are there to play the game, right?

      The stress of prepping a game for an unknown conglomerate of players is too much for me. Role playing is completely pointless if I have to work up a self-contained Chinese puzzle. Either the players can contribute to the prep by rolling up characters for themselves or somebody else needs to run the game.

      At any rate, I don’t see rolling up characters as “not playing the game.” It is integral to B/X D&D.

      • Brendan March 26, 2013 at 8:20 am

        I didn’t mean that rolling up characters was not part of the game. Rather, it seems like attending a convention at all shows engagement, investment, and collaboration. But I’ve never been to an RPG con, so maybe the dynamic is different.

      • jeffro March 26, 2013 at 8:25 am

        Showing up to the gig with your saxophone in hand does not show engagement, investment, or collaboration. To show engagement, you must first listen. To show investment, you must step in and take a solo when there is an opening for that. To show collaboration, you must be able to play off of the other musicians and respond to their ideas as they emerge.

      • Brendan March 26, 2013 at 11:17 am

        Didn’t mean to come off like I was criticizing. Just throwing ideas out there. I should wait for part 2 to see how it went.

  4. David Zimdars March 26, 2013 at 11:30 am

    So I’m old enough to remember a lot of discussion between D&D fans back in the early ’80s about the theory of how you should approach pre-prepared modules as a DM interacting with your players.

    The concept I really liked was to realize that from the point of view of your players, they were totally ignorant about what you pre-prepared in a linear fashion and what you pre-prepared as a random encounter. The idea is that real-life does not have any pre-prepared linear narrative. A narrative is an emergent property the we create after the fact. So if feels entirely natural to the players if they leave town and find an encounter. Then through a sequence of these the players get treasure and experience, improving their characters and devising a plan in organic way. Even with just a string of “random” encounters, good DM-player collobration will find a story to emerge. And when this is done really well the players may not even know it was random!

    The beef about pre-prepared modules is that it shoe-horned DMs and players into a forced playing style where the players might want to do something entirely reasonable, or intereting, but the DM was only prepared to force them back into the straight-jacket of the prepared material. And this inevitably at best seemed very awkward and unatural. Now this doesn’t mean you can’t leave maps to your well-prepared dungeon in the pockets of the random wandering thugs. But it may mean the players won’t read it or care; and if they are happy for another round of random monsters, who but the DM knows any different?

    For example. The players just defeated a wandering giant. Players: “We want to grind the giants bones and sell the bonemeal in town.” DM: “What are you doing with the Gian’ts clothes and effects.” Players: “We just burn them.” DM: “You sure you don’t want to look in the pockets first?” Players: “Uh..OK”. DM: “You find a treasure map to a hidden castle on the distant mountain.” Players: “Uh…How much can we get for the bone meal?” DM: Impatiantly “You are teleported to the castle.” Players: “Uh..did the bone meal teleport too?” DM: “Forget the damn bonemeal…I spent $8 on this module!” Players: “I just realized I have a lot of laundry. Maybe next time”. On the othe hand, another wandering encounter for the bonemeal toting players might seem entirely appropriate on the way back to town.

    The counter argument was that most 17 year old DM’s (or maybe most) just didn’t have the skills to dynamically change a book full of prep-prepared encounters into a story.

    • jeffro March 26, 2013 at 12:06 pm

      The way I would handle that is… let ’em go back to town and enjoy the bone meal… maybe even score a potion of giant strength out of it [for a fee]. Back at town, there would be at least six plot hooks for them to choose from… or else they could just pick a spot on the map and go to it. If the castle was really that significant… news about it should get back to town at some point or else the effects of the castles badness should emerge in the wilderness encounters.

      (An no… at age 17, I would never have run a game that way.)

  5. Pingback: Revisiting Matt Finch’s Zen Moments of Old School Gaming | Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

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