Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Introducing Novice Gamers to Role Playing with the 1981 Basic D&D Set

A newlywed couple had asked me last year to teach them Dungeons & Dragons sometime. They’d seen my game collection and had heard that I run games and were curious. They probably wouldn’t self identify as geeks, so I hesitated to throw them into an existing group. While it’s true that they would miss out on some of the teamwork aspects involved with six or eight players working together (usually badly), I figured they’d get a chance to develop their own style or approach to role playing if they went into it just the two of them. At dinner before the session I mentioned that Dungeons & Dragons had had a huge impact on video game design. The husband was incredulous, and asked for some specifics. I then that mentioned that the ideas of levels and leveling both go back to original D&D. He was shocked to hear that the game was first released in 1974.

We took our time rolling up characters. I asked them to make their character sheets exactly like the sample in the book. (Finding something in mid-game would be much harder if they got creative on me.) I had them roll 3d6 in order for their stats. The husband ending up making a magic-user wile the wife took on a cleric. (She had a wisdom of 15. I mentioned that she could reduce that by two to, for example, raise her strength to 13 if she wanted to be a fighter, but she left it alone.) They both ended up rolling ones for their hit points. The husband thought that since his hit points were so low, maybe he should go with Shield or Protection from Evil for his magic-user. I suggested that such spells would probably not do a whole lot for them in this game. After toying with taking Light, he finally decided that Charm Person was the way to go.

At this point I read out loud the section about their arrival to the Keep. I had them state their name and their quest and made them leave their weapons with the captain of the guard. The cleric character asked if anyone had seen a young girl, but nobody knew anything. The two player characters wandered into the Keep and promptly split up. The magic-user went to the Tavern and observed four underworked men-at-arms and four tough talking adventurer types. The cleric discovered the chapel and talked to the curate. (She’d asked if there were any sewers. I turned the question back on them, showing them the picture of the Keep and asking what they expected. After a brief discussion, they decided that it didn’t make sense for there to be one.)

The two players were at this point very keen on finding out more about these Caves of Chaos that nearly every character I introduced was alluding to in some way. I mentioned that there was one person known to have gone there and come back alive: a man named Eorl, a fabulously wealthy recluse that stayed holed up in his private apartment. He was paranoid and probably suffered from post traumatic stress syndrome due to the fact that he was the only one from his party to make it back to civilization. Upon hearing this, the players concocted an elaborate scheme to gain an audience with this fellow.

After asking around, the players discovered that Eorl’s slave went out for food at particular times of the day. (The slave’s name was “Bob” and he wore outrageous blue body paint.) The magic-user held Bob at knife point while the cleric took the platter to Eorl’s apartment. The cleric went inside with the food, had a short conversation with an outraged Eorl, and then got beat up, thrown out into the street, and had a chamber pot dumped on his head.

At this point, the players decided to brave the caves without any information that they might have gotten from old Eorl. They took the four tough talking adventurers (an elf, a cleric, a fighter, and a thief from the sample characters section) and got going. (They had discussed maybe investigating the Lizard Men that were reported to be south of the river and they didn’t seem interested in investigating what was up with the missing merchant caravans that were either late or missing: it was time for some real action!)

At the caves, they chose the one that was surrounded by trees. They set their marching order with the elf and the fighter in front. They examined the entrance very closely and threw rocks inside to see if anything would come out. Finally they went inside. Ker-plunk bang! The fighter fell into a pit trap while the elf stepped nimbly aside. The party stood there confounded for a moment and heard skittering sounds approaching from the left passage. They debated what to do and then noticed six blue-skinned short monsters pointing spears in their direction. A wild west standoff ensued as each group waited for the other to make a move. Then the giant rats arrived and all went into the pit– there were screams from below! At this point the cleric lit a vial of oil and threw it down like a Molotov cocktail. Flaming rats then scattered from out of the pit in all directions.

The kobolds were still behaving cautiously. I knew the players had no clue as to how the mechanics really worked, so I was bending over backwards to give them a chance to sort out their intentions. The husband elected for his magic-user to cast Charm Person on one of the kobolds. It failed his save and soon was ushering the party into the main kobold living area to serve them a green beverage and something that looked like beef jerky. No one in the party could speak the language, so I ad libbed some grunting nonsense whenever the players required a reply.

Before long, the players went back out to investigate the another cave entrance… now with six kobold “friends” in tow. They found the one with the barred door, the skulls, and the dinner invitation notice. This seemed a bit on the scary side, so the players chose another cave that was further up. At this one they decided to tie a rope around a bolder and then throw that in. (That seemed bizarre to me at the time, but they later told me that they were hoping to set off any traps with it.) As they were monkeying around with their contraption, a couple of arrows flew out from the entrance, killing one of the adventurers that had tagged accompanied the player characters.

The players scattered from the entrance. I told them that they heard the pitter patter of medium-sized feet running away in the darkness. The thief and the PC cleric went to the entrance to see what was happening and an arrow killed the thief. The PC cleric picked up the thief’s body to use as a shield and arrows continued to fly out from the cave. I told them that they now heard the pitter patter of many feet coming towards the entrance. The two players debated what to do and I described the sniggering and laughing sounds coming from inside the cave. The husband asked if it was like hyenas and I said yes. For some reason, they were feeling really macho. They charged into the cave for battle.

The players won initiative, but failed to kill any of the seven gnolls that they discovered inside. (I was hoping for the off chance that they would cause them to fail a morale check, but it wasn’t to be.) The players’ side lost a couple of combatants and in the second turn lost even more. It was a bloodbath. All that had survived were the husband’s wizard character and the NPC cleric that had come from the tavern. These two then made an expeditious retreat back to the keep. (I think one kobold ran back to his cave at this point, too.)

At this point, I suggested that they each roll up a new character and then quickly try the caves one more time before they called it a night. (It was getting late and I was liable to become a zombie if this went on too much longer.) The wife created a thief character– it was actually the girl that the her previous character had been searching for. The husband made a fighter with seven hit points. I was glad to see that while they had not yet mastered the finer points of the character creation process, they were at least making more informed choices now and were much quicker at whipping something up.

The new party consisted of the husband’s wizard and fighter, the wife’s thief, the NPC cleric, and four men-at-arms. (But the four men-at-arms were equipped only with leather armor and swords– not very effective, that!) They went back to the caves and chose a new one to explore. This time they found a few silver pieces and an old sword by the entrance. They again threw rocks inside. When nothing came out and no traps were triggered, they went in and discovered a maze of twisty passages, all alike.

They wandered around and before long could tell there was something in the room up ahead. They sent the thief forward to investigate and she reported back that there some kind weird bird creatures in there with nasty pointy beaks. The party chose not to interfere with them and continued on, this time going in circles and coming back to the entrance. They went back in and blundered around a while and maybe came in circles again. The third time, they found a new room: a strange area with odd designs in the floor made out of skulls.

At that moment a Minotaur charged up behind the party and speared one of the men-at-arms. (The wife asks… what is a Minotaur? And then I kick myself for not just describing it the first time. Doh!) They fought a while and another man-at-arms was killed, but the monster was soon dispatched with. The thief character actually cut the thing’s head off in an epic sword swing. The players discovered an oddly colored slab in the wall and eventually figured out how to open it. They found a staff, a suit of plate mail, and a few chests. They decided to hire the guild to open the chests back at the keep, so they just grabbed everything and got going again.

They wandered through the maze and ended up going in circles a couple of times, coming back to the Minotaur’s lair. They soon discovered a new area, however, and discovered some fire beetles. We rolled initiative and began the hacking and slashing. The players seemed to be able to drop one each round. In the second round, the last remaining fire beetle ended up randomly going after the thief. This character had been on fire, always hitting and rolling large amounts for damage. (In comparison, the big tough fighter always missed.) This time, though, the fire beetle won initiative, successfully rolled to-hit against the thief’s leather armor, and did enough damage to kill her. Oh, that hurt!

The players trudged back to their keep and I went ahead and counted up the XP. The totals for the session were 902 for the magic-user with the staff of healing, 901 for the fighter, 477 for the NPC cleric with the plate+1, and then 450 for each of the two surviving men-at-arms. They divided the money up equally with each survivor getting 837 gold pieces even though the men-at-arms had asked for just a paltry sum at the outset.

Character sheets: you’re doing it right!

Any game session that goes on until midnight without being interrupted by cell phones or some kind of spat is a success in my book, but this game was especially fun for me. My family was in and out occasionally to observe the proceedings: my son was particularly impressed with the chamber pot incident, while my wife was highly amused by the players’ reactions to the flaming rodent situation. (These folks take care of our guinea pigs while we’re out of town, after all.)

With just two players, I could take my time with every aspect of the game. If they had questions, it was no big deal to just slow down and make sure everything got cleared up. It was luxurious, actually. I would never have time to do that if they were playing in a large group of seasoned role players. The closest thing to teaching or training that they would have gotten then would have been for me to scream at them to figure out their attack roll chart and have have a #*&@! d20 handy next time their turn came up!

I’ve played in games that were all one combat, others that were all random wilderness encounters, and others that were just one gigantic dungeon. This session got a pleasant mix of many things all together:

  • The players got exposed to the wider setting and got hints about local big wheels that they might not meet for many sessions. (The Castellan might have invited the thief into the inner bailey if she had made it back from killing that Minotaur, though– too bad!)
  • The players got exposed to some local personalities that they could interact with in later sessions: the Curate, Erol, and Bob. And yes, they got to hear my funny voices, too.
  • The players got hints about some lizard men and some problems with trade caravans not showing up. They chose to pass on these adventure hooks and opted instead for the Caves… where they could pick and choose from among many different caves. This meant the got to experience having a significant amount of control over the game.
  • The players got to see that weird, unexpected, and unusual things could happen even in this relatively simple combat system.
  • The players also got to see that the combat system is often deadly, sometimes disastrous, and often somewhat arbitrary.
  • The players got to make up characters… and whether they lived or died, they got to do stuff with them. (I didn’t hear anyone complain about only getting to do “medic” type stuff.)
  • Second level is not impossibly far off, though unless they get significantly more cunning before the next session, they are liable to lose the few experienced characters that they have at the moment. They are facing down one of the classic challenges of gaming if they choose to continue.

And this is, in broad strokes, the basic idea of role playing in a nutshell. I told them a couple of times that if it turned out that this particular mix of rules and styles and situations were not to their liking, that there were role playing games out there for every conceivable taste. In talking to them after the game, it struck me that they seemed completely oblivious to all the usual complaints about this quite venerable system. On the one hand, I think they just liked finding out what all of those Munchkin jokes were actually referencing. But also, they were too busy experiencing what all could be done within these constraints to sally forth into some kind of deconstruction of them.

The one thing that they wanted to know more about as they inched towards the door to leave was just what was in the rules and the scenario and what was being made up. What was really “there” and what was just stage dressing? I told them that it was mostly straight from the books, but if they press their autonomy enough and go beyond what is prepared, then I’m forced to create new things on the spot. But though the thing with “Bob” was clearly the product of my ad libbing, even throwaway details like that can obtain a surprising amount of significance if they get played with enough.

Of course, running a game like this for new players, I was more inclined to omit extraneous details than I was to make silly contributions. I’d had a notion to put a dragon on the road that would shake them down for a cut whenever they were heading back to town with loot. I don’t know if that would have been that fun or not, but when I was actually at the table, it struck me that it would distract from the real thrust and tone of the module and perhaps even overload the players.

At any rate, they got the full “Summer of ’81” treatment here. I’d explained when setting up the game that you kind of have to just sit down and play until you find the fun. You just don’t always know what’s going to “click” and what’s going to fizzle. My game design alarms were going off with the Minotaur, for instance– it’s just too easy for a gang of player characters to whoop up on even a moderately tough monster like that. But I kept it going by the book, though, and didn’t embellish the situation at all hardly. The players seemed to be finally at the point where they could engage the game in a relatively informed manner and the rules were becoming slightly more invisible. They knew just enough that they could enjoy their success and maybe worry a bit about whether they could hold onto it. Given that I wouldn’t have been surprised with a total party kill, I was really glad that they could get as invested in the whole situation as they seemed to be. This was about as good of an introduction to role playing games that I could imagine anyone getting.

In loving memory:

Sigan the Acolyte 12-11-15-12-11-14, 1 Hit Point, AC 2, Neutral. Killed by a gnoll in the Caves of Chaos. (Note: abandoned by party members.)

Migna the Apprentice 10-11-12-8-11-11, 4 Hit Points, AC 7, Lawful. (Decapitated a Minotaur.) Killed by a fire beetle in the Caves of Chaos.

NPC’s killed in action:

Fighter #7 killed by falling into a pit trap, getting eaten by giant rats, and then set on fire with flaming oil.

Thief #9, and Elf #16 killed by gnolls. Two men-at-arms killed by the Minotaur.

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3 responses to “Introducing Novice Gamers to Role Playing with the 1981 Basic D&D Set

  1. Sturat June 2, 2014 at 12:00 pm

    Was the fighter that fell into the pit, was set upon by rats and then covered in flaming oil not killed by all of that?

    • jeffro June 2, 2014 at 12:03 pm

      Yes he was killed. I may need to edit the post to correct it if I said he died again later on… which I can see that I definitely did in the bones listing at the end. Thanks for the catch!

      Edit: I think it’s fixed now.

  2. Fenway5 June 2, 2014 at 8:24 pm

    Outstanding game session report. I am happy to hear some novices are willing to get into it and give the game shot. I have yet to find anyone who doesn’t like it once they get out of their won way and dump their preconceptions. Game-on!

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