Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Guest Post: Shattered and Demoralized in The Lost City

My longtime Car Wars opponent Earlburt is back with more on his excellent campaign. This is one of the all time great modules and one of the all time great rule sets. It’s always a fascinating read to hear about how things play out with people that have markedly different expectations from the original target audience of these materials. Thank you, Earlburt!!!


Almost two years ago, I acted on a lifelong goal of DMing a B4: Lost City campaign. The Gods were kind to me, and provided me with not one but two groups interested in playing. Both groups were new to Moldvay Basic (and anything I consider old school RPG). Most of the players in Group 2 were entirely new to the pen and paper RPG experience.

The two campaigns were staggered by almost two months. That is, I’d already run five or six sessions for Group 1 by the time Group 2 started. I think Group 1 had just explored Tier 3 when Group 2 entered the Ziggurat. This was very helpful, in that I really had a bead on the upper levels of the module and changes I’d made, various NPCs, Moldvay, etc. Group 2 probably had a more nuanced experience, as I’d undergone much of the learning curve.

Anyway, Group 2 had more or less the same intro:

But certain differences in their understanding of role-playing became manifest:

Group three was really different and kind of eye-opening for me. Neither player had any experience to speak of with pen and paper RPGs. They play video and online games and are both in their early twenties. World of Warcraft is about as close as either got to a RPG. I was struck by how passive they were during the intro sequences. I’d present world background, and pause for them to respond or ask questions, and be met by silence. Then I’d press on, pausing on occasion, with the same response.

I liken it to a cut-scene in a video game. During a cut-scene, gamers know they can’t modify the outcome of the action or story, so they just sit back and watch. Eventually, I pointed out that this wasn’t strictly a cut-scene, and that questions and character action were permissible at any time. That the fact that I’m describing something doesn’t mean they can’t do stuff.

Then there was a brief period where they seemed to take that revelation, and imbue everything I offered with too much meaning. They seemed to think that every detail involved something with which they were expected to interact.

Eventually, I responded by telling them that such is not the case—that I will describe lots of things, significant and otherwise—and that they can choose to interact or not, to take heed or not, at their discretion. Here, I contrasted the tabletop RPG experience with games like Myst, where every scene has details that really do contain a puzzle. My reference to cut-scenes and to Myst really seemed to help them orient themselves to the game and to wrap their minds around the pen and paper RPG experience.

As it happened, Group 2 also stuck together longer, and ultimately progressed much farther through the module. The following series of posts will catalog their campaign, leading up to its climax.

I had the first two players create two characters each. I did not record their original stats, so I will just lay them out as they were at their end. The main changes, of course, were in level/HP.

  • Abraxo, neutral Halfling, AC6, HP15 (level 3); Str12, Int9, Wis8, Dex12, Con13, Cha9 (Hailey)
  • Raina, neutral Elf, AC3, HP 3 (lvl 1); Str11, Int15, Wis11, Dex8, Con9, Cha14; Magic Missile (Hailey)
  • Wilfer, neutral Elf, HP 7 (lvl 2); Str11, Int14, Wis13, Dex9, Con10, Cha6; Protection from Evil, Floating Disk (at lvl 2) (Matt)
  • Herman, lawful Fighter, AC3, HP 3 (lvl 1); Str14, Int7, Wis12, Dex13, Con10, Cha15 (Matt)

[I tried to let them pick spells without too much guidance. I didn’t tell them that Sleep is the best choice. Maybe that was unfair or unhelpful of me. Matt’s choices for Wilfer were character-driven, which I admired.]

After reaching the Ziggurat, they spotted a group of Stirges from afar. They crept close, using the ancient ruins for cover and observed that the Stirges appeared to be tearing apart one of the hawks from the Expedition. When they debated attacking, citing concerns that these creatures, while grotesque, might not be “evil”, it was really obvious how unlike Group 1 they might be. They drove off the Stirges without much incident, and seemed really concerned about where they came from and how they entered/exited the Ziggurat.

Eventually, after some exploration, they discovered the door to Tier 1, several dead Orcs, and the litany of triggered and un-triggered traps. This put them on high alert, as it did with Group 1 and as (I believe) the module consciously intends. They scooted partway down the tubes to Tier 2 and dispatched the Fire Beetles with ranged weapons.

They had survived their first ever RPG session. [225 xp divided four ways]

We were joined by a third player for the second session. He was a for-real gamer, only a bit younger than me, and almost old-school. He certainly knew how to meta-game. I was glad to have him in this group, as he helped grease the wheels in many ways. At times he steered the others away from lethal mistakes. And he frequently acted as leader and decision-maker when the others were at a loss or feeling passive. Dickie also got into character, which I think encouraged the others to follow suit. He served as map-maker, of course. I don’t actually think it would have occurred to the others to even keep a map.

When I ran him through the introductory bits—joining the Expedition and heading into the desert—he was quite suspicious of the entire project, and of the expedition leader’s motives. He never swallowed the notion that the sandstorm and their arrival at the Ziggurat were accidental. His skepticism made sense to me and throughout the game I was always puzzled by the other players’ acceptance of it all. I think some (maybe most) players just kind of accept what happens and don’t spend too much time trying to figure out the big picture.

Guruff, neutral Dwarf, AC4, HP18 (lvl 3); Str13, Int11, Wis10, Dex9, Con14, Cha16 (Dickie)
Blaise, neutral Magic User, AC10, HP3 (lvl1); Str8, Int11, Wis11, Dex8, Con8, Cha8; Sleep (Dickie)

Guruff’s strong Charisma bonus meant he was often the mouthpiece of the group, despite being played as a stereotypically bristly Dwarf, and a decided racial animus toward Greenskins.

After taking stock of their supplies and regrouping, the six adventurers carefully exit Room 6 via the east door. They open the door to Room 9 (Abandoned Priest’s Quarters) and see a Gecko tearing into something. They enter, and the second Gecko drops upon and kills Herman outright. Stunned, they back out and escape.

Despite my warnings about how lethal Moldvay Basic can be and how fragile first level characters are, they were really taken aback by this sudden death. Matt and Hailey in particular were surprised, as they’d probably never played a game where character death wasn’t just a matter of reverting to the last save point.

Abandoning Herman’s body to the Geckos, they decide to put exploration to the east on hold and go back west. They had already established a pretty good S.O.P. for going down hallways (probing with poles, felling along walls, etc.) so they discover a secret door to Room 3 (Secret Room).

They peek in and hear the Stirges hooting and cawing from the ceiling. Using the very smoky oil salvaged from Room 6, they smoke out the Stirges harmlessly. After blocking up the exit holes as best they could, they find the gems among the bones and debris on the floor. [Room 6 is the only good XP haul in the top three tiers, without taking on the Old God factions]

As they proceed north towards rooms 2, 5 and 8, they meet their first Wandering Monster, which turns out to be a Cynidicean behaving like some sort of feral canine. Finding him harmless, though puzzling, they offer him a bit of their remaining food and name him “Carl”. Carl would remain with them for several sessions as a mostly-unobtrusive and useless hanger-on.

They then discover and chat with the Sprites in Room 5, for whose voices I again used a helium balloon. They note and bypass the Green Slime in Room 8. Then they head back to where they started and stumble into the Brothers of Gor’m. Having only met dead or harmless humanoids, the party is not particularly paranoid or confrontational, and quickly establish rapport with Kanadius.

Over some wine, Kanadius explains that the “return of Topside” has not happened for three generations, and that it portends a dark time for his people. It does explain the recent spate of abductions perpetrated by the Priests of Zardoz and their Goblin henchmen, who must be readying for a “harvest”—a particularly large sacrifice to the demon Zardoz.

Kanadius does not try to recruit the party (the five survivors are neutral after all), but he does try to steer them away from the other two misguided factions. He sketches out a map with directions to the underground city should they wish to go there. The main route descends through a hatch to Room 35 (on Tier 4), around a few halls to the hatch to Room 44 (on Tier 5), and thence to the main tunnel down to the city. He warns them to be wary of Goblins and more evil things.

In passing, he mentions a more perilous alternate route, crossing the rotating passage to the ramp in Room 20. Of course, the party decides to go that way. The teleportation jars in Room 38 really got their curious juices flowing. They took great care trying to determine the danger, figuring out what the jars do, and how to utilize them. Eventually, they wound up prying a jar loose and taking it along and for a couple sessions, using it to beam back treasure and other objects for pickup later.

They follow the passage west and south towards Room 28 (High Priest’s Burial Room). Pausing outside, they hear sounds of crunching and slavering jaws. But the three Ghouls pick up the scent of the party and bound out into the hallway. In the fierce melee that ensues, both Raina and Blaise quickly fall (without ever having let loose Magic Missile or Sleep). The three survivors cut down one Ghoul and retreat in good order, leaving the two remaining Ghouls to feast on their companions.

Shattered and demoralized, Guruff, Wilfer and Abraxo (Dwarf, Elf and Halfling) make their way back to the Brothers where they take an extended rest. Kanadius tut-tuts their foolish foray. He more fully explains the rotating hall, to make quite clear where they ought not to go. After a few hours, the three go forth and knock on the Magi’s door.

[With half the party dead, the 1815 XP for this session need only be split three ways. One of the ironies of the game.]


6 responses to “Guest Post: Shattered and Demoralized in The Lost City

  1. Jason October 11, 2014 at 11:57 am

    A hidden truth – while you needn’t be super prepared for an OSR game that you’re willing to play by ear, if you’re working with published materials, familiarity with them pays dividends.

    It’s B/X, so creating a character takes about seventeen seconds. Did that sort of “life is cheap” style of low-level play impact character development (in a “why bother giving him a name, he’s not going to survive the stirges” way)?

    • earlburt October 11, 2014 at 1:26 pm

      Agreed. The ease of B/X and the potential for little to no prep time is nice to fall back on. Even though I always prep, it does take some of the pressure off.

      Even after CharGen, I don’t think they realized how easy it is. They haven’t rolled up enough chars for it to have become quick for them, as every step needed some explanation. Over the course of the campaign, there was some character development. They provided and thought about background a couple times at my prompting. And character personalities emerged.

      But their investment or non-investment was not at all influenced by this system, in my observation. Mostly, the concept of developing and inhabiting a character was new (except to Dickie).

  2. Brian Renninger October 11, 2014 at 11:57 am

    I’d like to see more of how this goes. I played this decades ago and barely remember a thing of it. My main memory is just one of repeated drubbings. But, after reading your descriptions, things are filtering back up — oh yeah, the stirges…

  3. Alex J. October 13, 2014 at 10:38 am

    I quite enjoy your (and Jeffro’s) actual play recaps. Often, people’s recaps seem either very different from my own experience, or just like my own bad experiences. :) Yours, and Beedo’s at Dreams in the Lich House, are like both what I’d like to achieve and what I can see myself achieving. Good job.

    • earlburt October 14, 2014 at 9:52 am

      Thanks! I’ve peeked at DitLH from time to time. Looking again now, I think I’ll add him to my web routine. That Taenarum campaign looks wicked fun. And his musings about RP, dungeoneering, etc. seem very much up my alley, and inspire me to try to achieve more.

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