Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Madicon 22: Lessons from the Isle of Dread

This was my second attempt at running old school B/X D&D at a small local convention. While last year’s Basic D&D “Keep on the Borderlands” sessions resulted in four separate sorties, the Expert D&D “Isle of Dread” sessions resulted in eight hours of adventuring with just one set of party members. Two people that had played for about two hours each the year before came back to play again this year. Also, six people from the first “Isle of Dread” session returned the next day for the follow-up game. Here are a few random observations for those that might consider doing something like this themselves:

  • The emergent story of Basic D&D with “Keep on the Borderlands” depends on the course of play. If the players are winning, then the story is Texas Chainsaw Massacre— with the players in the role of the Leatherface. If the players are losing, then the story is Alien… with the party members gradually getting killed and then maybe one or two of them surviving to report the horrors of the caves to civilization. The emergent story of Expert D&D with “The Isle of Dread” is closer to  Apocalypse Now.
  • One of the things that bothered me about “Basic” dungeon delving at the Caves of Chaos was that players would be tempted to raid the place and then go back to town as soon as the magic-users had fired off their spell. I dreamed of setting up the dungeon so that when the players went in, a rock slide would block the entrance so that the players would be forced to find another way out. “Expert” wilderness adventure gives you that sort of thing for free without forcing you to be an evil trickster Dungeon Master. In “The Isle of Dread,” even if the players find the Place of Placeness and win the Treasure of Treasureness, they still have to play out the return journey. Assuming they lose half their party members after winning a hypothetical “boss” encounter, all the wandering monster events that seemed too easy on the way in can suddenly become deadly and challenging. Who knows what the party composition will be on the return trip…!
  • Nine players. Nine players! Did that work? Let me put it to you this way. In these convention games, there is no telling who is going to show up. Some people that sign up for a game like this at J. Random Convention will be “regular gamers” that have different ideas about gaming and that maybe will not have fun. Some people may be totally new to role playing and have trouble keeping up, but will sit their and absorb the inherent greatness of the this weird thing that is role playing even though they don’t look completely engaged. The last group of potential players are all around cool people– either they “get it”, they dungeon master as well, they are natural leaders and game-explainers, or else they are your gaming soul mates. You want people like that in your game– they can make the difference between a successful session and a total bust. Limiting the player roster to just six people lowers your chances of getting people like that in your session, so my advice is to cast that net as wide as you can manage!
  • B/X D&D is well suited to larger groups. Combat is simple enough that adding a few more people will not necessarily bog down the game. (If it turns out to be too much of a headache anyway, just hold on and some of the characters will die.) In more story-oriented games, game masters bend over backwards to make sure everyone “has a chance to shine.” In an Expert D&D wilderness adventure, just about everyone will have a chance to be on night watch when something bad happens. Shine on you crazy diamonds! (You hear some sort of rumbling sound… followed by a deep grunt. What do you do!?)
  • And speaking of death… it can be so hard to let someone just die in a game. While walking through the convention I overheard one player talking about last year’s Borderlands game. Being one of just two players to survive a sortie gave her some serious cachet with her geeky pals– coming out of a hobgoblin bloodbath alive like that… it really seemed to cloth her in gaming glory. And people that die in unusual ways… they sometimes seem almost proud of it.
  • In running a multi-session game at a convention, there are liable to be random people that roll into the second session. And Saturdays are inherently more chaotic at these small local conventions. While we were playing, I looked up in mid game and there was some guy suddenly sitting at the table typing on his laptop. (T’heck is that?!) You know, it’s hard enough to get a table of random people on the same page in a noisy environment to begin with. What’s worse is that I was more interested in keeping things moving than investing in bringing the new people up to speed. I really should have had a “what you need to do in order to not mess up the game for everybody else” sheet, because I just ended up yelling at them to roll their to-hit numbers. Probably I should have called out a more experienced player to help me by making sure they were ready and knew what their options were when their turn to smash came up.
  • I had this idea to give everyone note cards so they could figure out what they were doing when they weren’t otherwise engaged. These ended up being used pretty much just by the thief player to tell me what she was trying to steal from the rest of the party. (Ah well, maybe in a Paranoia game the note cards would be more important…!)
  • Giving everyone a random magic item during character generation was cool. No telling what people would get, really, but they were fun. People could trade them… and if somebody died, it was the first thing the players wanted to deal with. The potions actually got used to good effect, too. Somebody rolled up a treasure map… and it just so happened Moldvay had buried tresure stocked up in a random spot on the island. I think it added to the game to have an “X” marked on the island map from the very beginning. (This is my biggest argument against house rules like Jeff Rients’ D30 rule– the books already come with a system for juicing up your session with all manner of weird, one-shot type things. Those magic item tables are packed with implied setting, too. And unlike hero point expenditures and whatnot, players will remember to use their magic item resources without having to be reminded.)
  • Probably the best thing about “Keep on the Borderlands” and “Isle of Dread” is that they give the players lots to do. If anything is too easy or too silly, that’s okay… because we’re going to do a dozen other things in the next hour or so. In a lot of ways, this is more interesting than the canned, strictly plotted six encounter pretend adventure. On the other hand, there is not necessarily going to be a narrative arc or a feeling of resolution– the action will just stop at the end of a random scene. I haven’t sorted out how I feel about it myself, but the problems involved with storyless gaming can be ameliorated by offering to continue the game at a later date. The fact that you actually have the option to do that is a strength of the small local con over the big expensive  faraway mega-convention– and decent game masters seem scarce enough that a fair percentage of people are likely to take you up on it!

3 responses to “Madicon 22: Lessons from the Isle of Dread

  1. PeterD April 15, 2013 at 8:03 am

    And speaking of death… it can be so hard to let someone just die in a game.

    I think the hard part is letting someone get disappointed, and then basically say “You’re out of the game” either for a while or for the duration. Both suck. If the game and group is structured in a way that a replacement PC can join pretty smoothly, I think that’s a good thing. Okay, your guy died, but that spearcarrier in the back steps forward and you can run him now . . . after all the point of the game is to have fun, and it’s hard as the GM to say “Your fun is over.”

    • jeffro April 16, 2013 at 6:02 am

      People get so attached to their characters… sometimes the spearcarrier doesn’t cut it. But the guy that took over the Rakasta… he indicated that just being able to name them suddenly made them “his.” Ah, the strange alchemy that is role playing…!

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

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