Well, here I was back at Madicon after a hiatus of almost ten years. This was the place where I cut my teeth running classic modules like Keep on the Borderlands and Isle of Dread. And wow! In the old days you would see BIG TIME AUTHORS like Jack McDevitt and the place would generally be packed with people. This time I managed to catch one small group of people playing a euro game, but they disappeared before the day could really even get going. The Star Wars people were dressed up as stormtroopers like they always were– with a couple of Jawas in tow, even. And the kendo people were demonstrating how to hit people with a stick. But the type of vendor that could sell you a mint copy of Star Frontiers was nowhere to be seen. And the guys with 40K armies all painted up were missing. The fifty cosplayers competing in the contest got dialed back to five. The hip cool people that dress up like D&D characters to LARP in the woods were no longer hanging around trying to pick up recruits. It just wasn’t the same! (I blame whatever it is that happened in 2020 for the slim pickings and not so much the con organizers. I don’t think people are back in the swing of going out and doing things yet.)
I had three people show up for the game. (In 2012 I would be competing with several other rpgs for attention and still fill a table every day of the con.) We opened the proceedings with character generation. We managed to get all three characters rolled up in less than an hour. I realize it is traditional to provide pregens at events like this, but I can’t give this up. There is something about being able to play a character that you rolled up on the spot that I think everyone deserves to have even if they are just giving things a spin.
I’ll admit, my heart sank at the very beginning of this thing. My signup sheet had promised a delivery of all of the most esoteric AD&D rules all at once– a grand tour of all the things nobody actually played. But my read on the table was that we had some folks here that just wanted to play a game. And really, anything beyond the most straightforward and basic rules elements would surely be a mismatch with the group. Throughout the game we did end up pausing to work through the weird stuff anyway. Nobody ACTUALLY cared– they just wanted to know what happened next! But I did end up fulfilling the lion’s share of my ballyhoo.
It was tough, though. I had somebody show up that had their heart set on playing a druid. But even with method III, they did not get the charisma of 15 that they needed for that. I seriously told a novice player that was a brand new acquaintance that they would have to settle for being a half-elven ranger instead. (This was a challenging thing to have to do to somebody that was not already a close friend!) Another player more familiar with rpgs opted to play an elven thief. A veteran from my con sessions from way back opted to be an elven fighter/magic-user– and I encouraged them to round out the party with ten light footmen.
At this point, I didn’t want to scare these people. So, starting in Trollopulous was out. I also didn’t feel like I should throw them into Ugrecht. I thought they deserved a new adventure environment of their own that could sort of meld with their personalities. So I started them in Lothrivengrove which is to the northwest of Urgrecht– partly so I could lean on the broader setting that I had spent several sessions developing. But really, this was a Lothrivengrove party if ever there was one. An all-elf party would NEVER happen with the online group.
I am normally hyper anti-story, but I balked at dropping this crowd into a D&D world with not a single hook at all. So, I suggested that the druid Kickatrix was in a tizzy because his twin children had been kidnapped by goblins. The thief was not going to do this for nothing, so I decided it was reasonable for Kickatrix to offer them two potions of heroism and one potion of super-healing. The latter the veteran player knew they could split it up into three mini-potions, which I did not know.
The players asked how long the goblins were gone and I said last week. This did not seem like a good thing, but the ranger tracking tables are pretty forgiving. They get to this cave entrance and I think the thief wants to listen. I roll on the unexplained sounds table and it comes up as “chanting”. This whole scene appears in my mind and I get this vision for what everything should be. (I’d spent an hour and a half drawing up and keying a dungeon level that morning, but it was pretty sketchy and needed just this sort of help.)
The players roll in with the thief and the ranger out front and then six footmen, the fighter/magic-user and then four more footmen. The players are bold and they don’t need torches out front. Checking for surprise, the thief and the ranger get THREE SEGMENTS OF SURPRISE on the goblins and kill three of them before combat could even officially start. The thief with Dexterity 19 of course got to cut loose with a sling bullet before anything else could happen. Now the sentries were taken out without their setting off an alarm. They move on and come up on a side passage which they leave three footmen at to cover. Then they come into a goblin worship area where one kid is on the the alter about to get knifed and the other is in a cage.
The players were brutally efficient yet again. I don’t recall the details, but it was so impressive that the goblins simply surrendered on the spot. (A sling-bullet through the eye of the leader was pretty persuasive.) They saved one goblin back to pump for information and find how that the side passage would lead to a Troll den with a lot of treasure. (“Just take two rights and then a left.”) In the other direction, the goblin said there were skeletons which they didn’t like at all.
(Note that the players spanned a varied set of alignments and the debate about what to do with the goblins because very serious. I think the ranger suggested poking their eyes out. I can’t remember how this all went, but when the newer player was fully engaged in addressing this weird combination of strategy and morality, I knew that the fantasy world had taken hold!)
The players debated taking out the troll immediately but decided to take the children back to Lothrivengrove instead. Searching the alter before they left, they discovered an awesome spiral staircase going down. They also broke up the ugly idol which they confirmed was not obviously of an eldritch weird horror type before doing so. I rolled the treasure for these guys and got 500 platinum and a +1 hammer. A darn good haul for this group’s first outing!
At this point I apologized that they had not gotten a full experience of the AD&D combat rules due to first gaining surprise and then later triggering a morale failure. The players all agreed that they DID NOT MIND AT ALL that everything was going their way. (But I have to say… this actually was a pretty good demo of the AD&D combat rules if you think about it.)
The secret passage was intriguing to the thief. The rumor of great treasure was compelling enough that the players were strongly considering going after it even if the Troll was liable to be the end of them. People seemed pretty stoked. We had an encounter with a giant skunk on the way back to the village. The players gave it wide berth. But after getting back to town, everyone could have called the game right there, but everyone wanted to try another delve. So, we went for it!
Who says you can’t win at rpgs?!
The players all traveled back to the cave complex and this time they end up going left. It is kind of a maze. They go in this one room and there is this chest that is marked, “Borg’s Things No Touch”. The thief fiddles with it and is careful about it but they finally open this thing up and it is this chattering skull head with x-ray vision type eyes and it makes a lot of noise. I dunno how this goes over, really. I think the players decide it is like an alarm system to give warning about intruders in the caves.
They move on to the next room and there are four sarcophagi here. And there are sounds coming from the hallway that is further on. I tell the players that there is no way either group could surprise the other due to all the sounds. The skeletons barge into the room and I think one footman is killed and another is dropped to zero hit-points exactly. The ranger had planned to do a shield bash against the skeletons, so I worked through the overbear table. The weight advantage for the heavy fighting-man was enough to smash one to bits on a flat 66% chance of hitting. The players cleaned up the rest without anyone stopping the game again to work through the unarmed combat tables.
Now the sarcophagi. The thief checked them out and found that three were trapped. One of the traps she was able to disarm. Opening the casket, there is this mummy with gold jewelry on it. So what about the other sarcophagi??? The players think that maybe knowing the traps are there, the thief could trigger them but still get away due to reflexes. The other players want to pay the thief to do this and the thief agrees. I explain to the thief that I will allow their dex bonus to apply to the saving throw and that they needed an 8+ on 1d20 to escape getting killed from poison gas. She rolls a ten! And then decides NOT to try to open the other caskets!!! But she asks if she can take the trap mechanism. Looking over the item saving throw table, I tell her that she can throw the thing and that on an 17 or less on d20 the poison gas would go off.
Continuing down the hallway, the party comes to this doorway. It doesn’t have a door, but instead it is blocked over with barrels, planks, etc. Like a barricade, right? The fighter/magic-user tells his footmen to clear the stuff away. But while the party is clearing the stuff away, these two spears come poking out and at least one more footman is on the ground. This forces a morale check for the footmen, but they hold. (This party never seemed to miss a roll.)
I am not sure how it happened, but there ends up being this discussion with the people inside this room. I think the thief climbed up by the door and looked in and inside someone squealed, “an elf! agh!” Then the elf thief got blasted with Burning Hands and we checked that their clothes hadn’t caught on fire.
Some of the players are trying to deescalate this. One person realizes that maybe the party was supposed to team up with these guys and is facepalming now. But now the thief that had been considering trying to use the poison bomb to take out the troll for the big treasure– well, she was NOW so mad at this NPC party that she declared that she was throwing the poison gas thing into this room. Several saving throws later, no one inside was left standing except a magic-user, a cleric, and a fighter.
Everything spun out of control here as the players debated what to do with these people and spoke to them in character. The ranger that had very carefully carried three burlap sacks into the dungeon was now demanding that the captives strip down and wear the burlap bags. The ranger also made sure to claim the magic-user’s pointy hat with moons and stars on it– it was that cool! The thief meanwhile was considering forcing the survivors to open the other three sarcophagi, but got talked out of this by someone with a less callous alignment.
Looting the NPC party’s stuff, the players came away with three suits of plate armor and four sets of chainmail. The fighter/magic-user’s eyes lit up at the chance to take somebody’s spellbook. (Seriously, who hasn’t wanted to do this?) I think the players told these human scum to get out and to not show their faces around Lothrivengrove again. (When the players wondered what would happen if anyone of these guys got the word out of what the players had done, the thief reminded everyone that there were ways to handle that.)
I was very happy that even with a single session an a relatively short playing time, we had managed to develop a situation where several different things worked together to create a sort of hyperspecific convergence situation– the troll den, poison trap, the unopened sarcophagus, and the hapless survivors of this npc party. Just an odd sitution that I don’t think you can really plan and which is better than anything you can plan.
Anyway, I think the treasure here was so good that the ranger could actually level after this. The players decided to wait a week to let two footmen heal up from dropping down to zero. The thief– due to my obnoxious adventure setup– would have to travel over to Burgleburg to find a trainer. The fighter/magic-user could not level at all due to the multiclassing.
All told, if this was somebody’s first experience playing D&D… I am not too shy to claim that they got the fabled “BEST FIRST TIME EXPERIENCE POSSIBLE”. While we were short a few people if we wanted to have the classic con “full table” game session, I have to say that player engagement was overall much higher overall– partly due to the small number of PC’s and party due to the situations that happened and the temperaments of the players.
The hard core long-time D&D player caught me off guard with a couple of rules that I wasn’t familar with. In his turn, he mentioned afterwards that this crazy deal with starting the game with a fighter leading ten mercenaries like this– this was VERY new to him and very different from how he played back in the day. Another thing, he was coaching the other players on how they could buy some magic-items to round out their group’s strategies– and I realized that he was not aware of the tremendous expense that training costs introduce into the game.
Anyway, I think a good time was had by all. Very happy to have been able to deliver this much AD&D in just one sitting. Note that once I have a big box of my wildly cool D&D booklets on hand, I will want to do this again– preferably some place where I run games nonstop for three days. (I hear the bigger cons have a hard time finding game masters these days? Need to look into this!)
Great stuff! Very encouraging after the somewhat disheartening account of the D&D-Traveller game. :)
Six hour sessions are 1000x better than these 3.5 hour things the bros have been doing. It just takes time for a group and an adventure to click.
Also: the traditional 4 hour convention slot is SIMPLY WRONG. It is very poorly chosen.
Wonderful write-up. I enjoyed seeing both DM and players adapting to circumstances.