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Category Archives: Labyrinth Lord

The Isle of Dread: A New Campaign Frame After Much Death

(SPOILER WARNING: If you intend to play the Isle of Dread, you probably shouldn’t read any further!)

“If the PCs unknowingly venture into an area they’re not prepared to handle, they should suffer the consequences, including death.” — Justina’s Player

Here’s the score:

  1. Last I heard, you are chomping at the bit to go back into the ruins and try to find that giant pearl, because trudging back to the ship empty handed is too much for your pride. But some of you want to have all sorts of third level characters just magically appear in the village next to the dungeon. Sorry… that’s not happening. If you want a brand new, balanced party that starts at level three you can have it… but not there. If you want to go back into the ruins for loot, you’ll do it with your surviving 3rd level characters and the all-new complementary first level warriors from the village that I already promised to you. (Oh yeah, there’d also be that first level “shaman” that you wheedled out of me.)
  2. There is also the entire freaking Island to explore, of course. Also… the treasure map that… uh… someone (??) has indicates that there may be something potentially valuable to the northeast of your position. (This was not clear to Justina at one point so I am making it crystal clear now. He/she thought the ruins was where the X is on the map– not true!) Maybe you’d want to use this village as a base while you look for other potential adventures that you could have. Who knows what could be out there….
  3. Replacement ~3rd level characters are back at the ship if you insist on them… but of course it took y’all ~20 days or so to make it to the central plateau. No telling how many people will get eaten by dinosaurs on the way back. Heh.
  4. The above three options are the most obvious ones off the top of my head. If it doesn’t cross your minds to even consider what else you can dream up to do… then… well… you may not understand just how much autonomy your actually have– not to mention the lengths I would go to accommodate it. Not that you should feel guilty if you don’t go off on a random tangent– straight ahead old school treasure hunting is perfectly legitimate goal. But #1-3 outlines “the box.” I remind you that you’re free to think outside of it. But it’s also your responsibility. I’m not going to spell out every possible option or goal that you could set for yourself.

It is not my view of this island that characters can necessarily respawn there ad infinitum. Unless you come up with a different vision/goal, you are conquistadors. You’re here to pillage and loot and then GO HOME. That’s part of the reason why I was originally pushing that XP would only be awarded to the folks that make it back to Specularum. Two reasons for that: civilization is the only real home base… and this extreme lost world wilderness location does not provide the fame aspect of the leveling up process. (I have ruled that Justina, Han Yolo, and Steve Erwin will get XP before next session, though. I’m not going back on that agreement– mostly because I’m curious what you guys will do with access to the second level cleric spells.)

Now… there is some objection to the wimpy first level villagers that now make up the bulk of the party. There’s a few reasons why I think you should embrace this:

  • They may be what it takes to get your surviving party members back to the ship. In a conquistador scenario, they are a HUGE windfall. Not having them at all could mean that Justina and Han Yolo are effectively stranded to die of some random disease. If they made a run for it back to the ship by themselves, who knows what their chance of making it back alive would be? Probably not very good. Show some gratitude to an otherwise stingy dungeon master!
  • “But that’s no fair,” you say. “We didn’t know something bad would happen when we killed off most of our party and our new-found Rakasta buddies.” Well yeah, sorry if you didn’t see it coming… but death is already fickle and all-too-likely. You were going to lose characters no matter what. But face it… you lost more because you were careless and you took your matériel for granted. Okay, so you had no idea a dungeon master could be so cruel. The “No Fair Do Over” characters are back at the ship.
  • If any of the tribesmen survive to level two… that is a significantly cool accomplishment. I’d think it would be awesome if you actually did it. I don’t know what your exact odds of doing this comes out to, but it’s there. Adventure around the plateau and see if you can pull it off if you want. You’d risk losing your now-fourth level characters in the process, or else improve your chances of making it back to the ship. Who knows what the best course of action is– or if there even is one at this point.

It would be pretty darn useful for continuity purposes if either Justina or Han Yolo actually did make it back to the ship. (And I know this has been a low-treasure high-death game… but do not underestimate the value of the exploration you’ve done and the intelligence you’ve gathered.) BUT… that’s my assumption. However… I haven’t heard anything to make me think that you guys think that would be awesome. In fact… maybe it is that you… dread… the onerous trek through the wilderness. Maybe the thought of taking a twenty day journey back the ship and then backtracking back to the plateau again– maybe that sounds just completely silly, dull, and pointless. If you genuinely feel that way… let me tell you. Maybe you don’t really want to play “The Isle of Dread.” If you want to do unlimited respawn with a town that is very close to a massive dungeon such that you would not ever have to play out very much in the way of hexcrawling… then what you actually want to do is play Stonehell Megadungeon. Just sayin’!

So… that last bit is the reductio ad adbsurdam that explains why I am so stingy with the concessions you’ve been asking for here and there. At some point, you can make so many modifications to the implied campaign structure of this adventure that you’re not really playing “The Isle of Dread” anymore. If you genuinely want to play a different type of game, that’s fine. There’s a reason why there is a big campaign setting map included with the module. I know I need to be flexible juggling the desires of the players and all that, but I’m not going to tinker with the parameters of this scenario until it is functionally identical to every other adventure you’ve played. The Isle of Dread is its own place. It has its own distinctive qualities and if we’re going to play it, I intend to preserve them.

Which leads us to option five: We could just rule that Justina and Han Yolo made it back to Specularum only to get killed in a bar brawl before they could get another expedition together. Your new party would have their log, so you’d know everything you already know and you can take another stab at the adventure with that information more-or-less intact, but out of date by a few years. This gets your balanced, full-strength party in place without violating my precious sense of narrative coherence. It would also preserve the island as being a remote, treacherous location that you cannot adventure on indefinitely. Option six would be the same as five except that you would do something else for a while on the mainland and then tackle the Isle once you think you have enough levels and magic-items to do it. If that is the case, then I can place both Stonehell and The Darkness Beneath on the campaign map and you can take your pick of those two megadungeons.

My chief concern in all of this has been to reasonably and impartially present this classic module to you as a change of pace from whatever else it is that you normally do. I am not necessarily trying to steer you one way or the other… but I do hope this explains why things have been done the way that they have been. It’s not my job to continuously throw resources at you which you then spend like drunken sailors until you manage to systematically clear out every stinking hex on the island. It’s your job to take the resources that you do have and then see what you can accomplish with them in the context of a situation that is rapidly evolving.

Nothing Sacred: Separation of Concerns in Role Playing Games

“There’s some kind of weird six armed statue on the dais. It’s about four feet tall and it looks like it’s made out of some kind of metal.” This was it. The epic climax of my adventure. Half the party had died to make it this far, and a trail of bodies was strewn across three levels.

“How heavy is it? Can we carry it?” That would be Ogbar the dwarf’s player– only interested in one thing.

“You can’t tell how heavy it is just by looking at it,” I said… perhaps a bit too smugly. “I dunno, though… if it was made out of brass or something, a couple of you could haul it out of the dungeon. It’d slow you down because you’d have to stop and rest every ten minutes or so.”

“Thief! Check it for traps!” Ever since getting hit by that crossbow bolt while looking for secret doors, Flinderflaff the elf had been noticably more careful. Heh.

“Yeah, okay. I check it for traps,” said the thief’s player.

“Yeah, but how do you check it for traps,” I asked. “Describe your actions!”

“Well… I walk around it and look it over very carefully. I keep my distance, though. I don’t want to come any closer than one foot from it.”

“Okay. You see nothing special about the statue.”

“Fair enough,” said Ogbar’s player. “I’m going to sort of tip it over to see if it comes off the dais without us doing any stone work. Thufir, give me a hand with this, will ya?”

Thufi’rs player nodded in assent.

“Okay, Ogbar…. You grab the statue and give it sort of a shove… and yes, it does tip over. It doesn’t seem overly heavy. Not for you, anyway. But before Thufir can pick up the other end of it… you notice that the statue begins to glow with a dull cobalt light.” At this point, I picked up an oversized twenty-sided die and rolled it in front of everyone. It was a seven! “Huh. That’s weird. Your hands have gone numb.”

“Wait, what did you just roll? Was that a saving throw?”


“I’ve always rolled my own saving throws.”

“But, well–”

“That’s not right!”

Sometimes things happen like this that make me realize just how big of a cultural gap there is between me and some of the players in the games I run. In the first place… the rules at best govern what goes on in maybe twenty percent of what we do at the table. And secondly, most of the rules that we have are there for one reason only: so that when I say, “you’re dead,” you starting rolling up a new character instead of kicking the table over. Role playing rule sets are, if anything, a solution to the long standing cops and robbers problem. (And you do realize, of course, that if things get to the point where you’re making saving throws that it’s pretty well game over for you anyway, eh?)

Never mind, for the moment, the absolute absurdity of anybody insisting on being able to roll their own dice. Sure, it’s a courtesy of the game master to let the players to do that. And yeah, gamers love their personalized dice sets. Role players especially are superstitious as hell. But at the end of the day, the only reason you get to roll your saving throw is that it’s fun. You hold that swirly D20 in your hand and think about all the stupid stuff you’ve done in the game… and everyone is watching to see how this plays out…. It’s just stupidly fun.

But maybe there are reasons that I might want to roll something like that myself. Maybe I suspect that certain players have loaded dice or else are fudging die rolls– maybe I just want to be one hundred percent sure of this roll’s authenticity. Maybe I don’t want to go through a big production of asking a player to look something up on their sheet and rolling a die. Maybe there’s some stuff going on that I want to be more discreet about. Maybe I just want to make a real quick roll to keep the game going…. Or maybe… just maybe… you have a huge misconception about what we’re doing. Maybe we all think we’re playing this thing called “Dungeons & Dragons,” but in actuality, we’re both bringing radically difference assumptions to the table about how this works.

So… let me make myself perfectly clear…. The rules aren’t there for you and they aren’t there to protect you from me. And even if I were one of those mythological “abusive Dungeon Masters,” rules cannot afford you any protection anyway. (“Rocks fall; you die.” Q.E.D.) If the rules could protect you from me, then we wouldn’t be playing a role playing game anymore. It’d be either a straight up tactical wargame or else some kind of board game. What really holds the game together is a loosely enforced separation of concerns. The players and the referee are each responsible for different things– and the individual player and the party as a whole each have their domain as well.

With that in mind, here are ten meta-rules that take precedence over anything that is spelled out in the actual rule sets:

1) Play the game I’m running, not the game you think this is. If something goes wrong or else something doesn’t work out quite like you expected, you will feel a strong temptation to blame it on the rules. Don’t do that. You’re probably focusing on what other systems emphasize anyway.

2) Quit making rulings. Focus on imagining exactly what your character is doing. (I don’t know how many times I’ve seen a veteran player explain to a new person that they shouldn’t even try something because of their interpretation of the rules… or even because of the rules in some other edition of D&D! In a lot of cases, I would have just said, “yes” to whatever they were suggesting in order to keep the game moving and reward out-of-the-box thinking.)

3) Don’t tell other people what to do with their combat turn. Sure, there are times when the party could conceivably hash out a game plan before battle; that’s cool. But in the heat of battle, you’re just not going to have time for a full-on committee meeting. Of course, explaining a new player’s options in order to be helpful is different, but the “help” should be given in a spirit of preserving their individual autonomy.

4) Likewise, if your character is not in the same location as another party member and they’ve found something cool or dangerous… then step back and let them play it out without your interference at least until your character gets into their vicinity.

5) If you’re dead… then please just be quiet about everything the surviving party members decide. Really. Go roll up a character or something. It’s part of the suspense to slowly be losing the creative input of other players over the course of a session.

6) Some players get hung up on who knows what and which players can communicate with which other characters. For the most part, I am happy to hand wave all of this and just assume that the entire party knows everything that is discussed at the table. In an immediate situation, who knows what may matter a great deal… but after it is resolved, it’s safe to assume that the party has hashed out the ordeal even if they have to pantomime it.

7) If rules and rulings are the domain of the referee, then deciding what your character does is yours. I will not stand in your way– even if it will kill you or set the campaign on an unsustainable course. Player autonomy is sacrosanct.

8) Strategy and tactics are therefore the domain of the players. It is bad form for a referee to tell players the finer points of these things directly. Divulging “what might have been” or even slightly more efficient solutions to known problems really kills the magic of the game for some reason. (I’ve never heard anything good come of it.)

9) Death, then, is the only real way that I have to signal that your tactics aren’t effective. Sure, a lot of deaths are just stupidly random… but others are flat out your responsibility. And even the random ones are something you have to be prepared to manage. Instead of begging for more resources or more character options, try to think about what you could have done differently.

10) If I’m running a classic module that has unique monsters in it, it is an extremely bad idea to announce their true names and then start iterating through everything you can recall about them. Anything that smacks of this brazen, meta-gaming, spoiler-ridden attitude makes me want to kick the table over!

The B/X Sequence of Play for Combat

“So the set of rules we play by is the shared cultural set of rules passed down through the generations, and not the ones written on the booklet inside the box.” — The Campaign For Real Monopoly (via Noble)

Normally when I’m running a game, I just do initiative by sides. When it’s time for the players to attack, I just go around the table and have them roll to-hit and damage. I usually can’t even see the die rolls from where I’m sitting. They just holler stuff out while I frantically make notes on the status of their foes. Usually these combats end pretty quickly– either the players cast one of the “we win” type spells or else the monsters fail a morale check. (Alternately, the party is surprised and loses initiative on their first turn and then is almost completely wiped out… but that’s another story.)

Anyway, when I first start playing a new rule set, I am often extremely careful to attempt to play as much by the rules as is possible. But especially with some of these older rules sets, I’ll start coming up with rules of thumb to keep things moving and hand waving other stuff… and then after a while I’m making lots of rulings based on what I’ve been doing rather than the actual rules. For instance, I’ve been ruling that magic users that lose initiative and take damage during a turn cannot cast spells. I have no idea where I got that rule other than that I just suspected that there had to be some sort of substantial justification for the legendary tactic of targeting the magic-user first. The thing about this sort of thing is that when I go back and look at the rules they have almost nothing to do with what I actually do at the table.

So… let’s go back through this and see what’s actually there.

  1. Morale Check — This is a signature component of the Moldvay ruleset and I strongly encourage everyone to use this component of the system. It shortens the combats tremendously, makes encounters far more believable, and goes a long way towards differentiating the various monsters.
  2. Movement — I don’t tend to use miniatures lately, so this generally doesn’t come up. Note the bit there about “meleed” opponents only being able to move defensively. That would be at best at half speed going backwards. This is a mechanic that would allow fighters to move forward and pin their opponents by “basing” them. Pretty cool. Also note that if the magic-user opts to move, he just kissed his spell-tossing ability goodbye for the round!
  3. Missile fire — Nothing surprising here, but note that when the movement rules are omitted, then the range modifiers on page B27 are going to be forgotten as well. Cover is something that I have rarely applied, so be sure to note the guidelines on page B26.
  4. Magic spells — Given the extreme limitations on the number of spells that can be cast in a day in Moldvay, it’s no wonder that spells automatically hit. What’s more, there’s no saving throw on some of them. The example of combat on page B28 has the party forming a “defensive line across the room” in order to stay out a Sleep spell’s area of effect, but I don’t see anything in the rules that would nail down quite how that would have to work. (I wonder if that is an artifact from earlier editions of the game.)
  5. Melee — A lot of times in the past, I have ruled that melee attacks are effectively random in terms of who they effect. This maybe makes some sense when you’re not using miniatures, but I don’t see anything in these rules that would imply anything like that. (Where could I have picked that up…?)

So here’s the thing. Why is there such an elaborate sequence of play like this when we just do initiative by side anyway? I’m not seeing a lot of reasons here right off. All I can really come up with is that if melee happens after magic, then spells will get let loose before the party can know what they heavy hitters will do. Is that really worth not being able to just go consecutively around the table? I dunno….

What really stands out to me is that these combat rules are undeniably miniatures rules. This is interesting more for the fact that in the mid-eighties, I don’t recall anyone playing with these rules even close to as they are written. Indeed, none of us would be able to afford miniatures until after we graduated college. Never mind that we’d maybe never obtain the requisite skill and patience in order to actually sit down and work them up. Of course, these rules as remembered will always be much closer to the loose, lean, simplistic form of play that seemed to spontaneously emerge on playgrounds at elementary schools all over North Armerica right around 1983 or so and which just so happened to be reflected in computer games like Zork and Ultima II.

Is playing correctly something that would even be worth the effort? Well, with a game that was utterly opaque for as long as this one was, it is arguable that it cannot ever be played “correctly.” It’s part of the attraction. Certainly there are dozens of better explained, more tightly designed games of this sort that will effectively go unplayed for all eternity. I have to admit, I take a special pleasure in playing by the more child-like rules. They not only signal that a session played with them will be focused far more on exploration, pretend, and what we now term as resource management, but they also make what is ultimately an obscene gesture at the thirty years of design and development that have occurred within role playing games since the release of Moldvay and Cooke’s B/X rulebooks.

My retro-hipsterism is short lived however, as there are still the seeds of more current styles of play within those old rules. Most notably, there are optional rules not only for d20 style attribute checks, but also for individual initiative rolls modified by dexterity bonus. (So much for being a purist.) At any rate, if there is one case where I will attempt to apply the sequence of play explicitly as written, it is in the unusual case where the two opposite sides roll the same number for initiative. Sure, it doesn’t happen very often, but it is the one situation where the exact sequence of the five “M’s” suddenly take on a lot of significance.

Exploring the Isle of Dread, session three

(SPOILER WARNING: If you intend to play the Isle of Dread, you probably shouldn’t read any further!)

Picking up immediately where session two had left off… Stripe (Rakasta) had quaffed a potion of giant strength and thrown a bolder through two successive walls before putting his rampage to a halt. While the rest of the party dedicated themselves to looting the body of their comrade Otis (Dwarf-3), Stripe examined his immediate surroundings on the other side of the giant defaced and now-smashed head worshipness. On the wall to his left, he spied a lever on the wall next to him.

Now… being a cat… it was of course in character to stupidly investigate these sorts of things. Justina’s character smelled trouble, however and argued that the primitive, tribal creature would not necessarily understand such mechanisms. I ruled that one of those (optional) attribute checks would govern this situation… and Stripe’s player failed the roll. However… Stripe’s player was determined to see this through… and thanks to the fact that we were short one player, she was actually playing both Rakasta at once. So… “Skinny” pads over to the lever, makes an intelligence check and… pulls it.

This was going to sting. But would the mechanism still work after a boulder had smashed through the wall? (There is nothing in either the rules or the module that could help me determine this impartially.) I ruled that it would still be operating on a five or six on a D6 roll… and a five came up. The lever is pulled… the mechanism is still working… and into the room where the rest of the party is… there came a burst of flame!

Looking at the size of the flame as specified in the module, I ruled it would either hit one or two people. Dio (Dwarf-3) took four dice damage, but made his saving throw and cut the total in half. Trevor (Fighter-3) was not so lucky. Having just picked up a +1 sword off the body of Otis, he was completely and totally incinerated. (His player took Skinny from the player that was running the two Rakasta. You know… it kinda bothered me that we had someone running two characters at once anyway…!)

The mildly singed dwarf Dio picked up the shiny sword+1 from Trevor’s body, muscled his way around the corner and explored the far passage with the two Rakasta. They came to a wall that was clearly of a different style of stonework than the previous advanced Atlantean-style stuff– this was much closer to a Mayan look, maybe. Dio set to work removing the wall. I think the rest of the party focused on guarding their rear– the group had not “cleared” the previous section, so they were wary of something coming up from behind. After an hour of game-time, the wall was cleared and the party reformed their marching order on the other side. They opted to send the scouts on ahead to check things out– the dwarf and the two Rakasta. The scouts went around the corner and on ahead into the darkness, when suddenly heard, “crumble… smash; whoosh– SPLASH!”

Rushing around the corner to see what had happened, the torch bearing set of party members saw that much of the passage had given way. The dwarf was down on the next level standing in a room with water right up at his chin. Stripe was on top of Skinny’s shoulders. The dwarf felt something move past his leg, while stripe leaned down into the water and managed to catch it– a blind cave-fish! The party was sufficiently rattled that they did not want to explore either the water-drenched region or the hallway any further. They climbed up a rope that was attached to a grappling hook and the party went back to explore a side-room that they had bypassed.

The party unanimously agreed to send Han Yolo ahead to search for traps. Han crept incredibly silently down the stairs and then found a trap… by setting it off! A trap door opened beneath her him and she he fell with a thud down to the next level into a room with strange green and red stone statues. There was something unearthly about those statues… but that didn’t keep Han from limping over to one of a hobgoblin to attempt to remove a small ruby from its base. While working on that, Han discovered the spitting cobras that were in the room. One of them spit directly into her his eye, but she he made her his saving throw and thus avoided some horrible life-ruining effect.

The other players climbed down to fight the cobras. Dio had an IQ of 4 and his player had really keyed into that with his role playing. At the first report of a ruby down there, he’d *jumped* down taking the same amount of falling damage that Han had received. (“Well *that* sure helped to waste a healing spell,” someone remarked.) The party then lifted the portcullis and wedged a statue underneath it. They reset their marching order and went down the long hallway. The scouts passed by some large holes in the wall, but once the party heard scritching type sounds coming from them they waved torches around them and kept on moving. They assuredly did not want to engage any rodents of unusual size….

Turning the corner, they found a large hole in the floor. Someone dropped a torch down it and it dropped a heck of a long way down. The party sent the thief across it to listen at a door– he heard “glug glug” sounds. I actually made the thief roll to open the door; his player just so happened to make it. On the other side, the party saw a portcullis with a door on the other side of it. They also had the choice of going down some stairs toward where the “glug” sounds were emanating. The party argued about this for a bit. Should they explore the second level some more or should they continue on down into the depths. Lemmy (Magic-User-3) argued that it probably wasn’t a good idea to keep going down, but Justina (Cleric-3) swayed the party’s opinion towards continuing on down the steps. When the party got down there and saw the mudpots, someone mentioned that the black perl probably wasn’t down there in that weird place, but was probably in some kind of throne room or something somewhere. Justina *still* argued to continue on and the party collectively agreed to continue on.

The floor was extremely slick, so the players had their characters tie each other together. (They drew a zigzag through their marching order to represent the ties.) It wasn’t long before a geyser erupted and sprayed a character with scalding hot water. They went along the edge of a gigantic mud pot and came to a three-way intersection. One way led to a terrace which they opted not to climb. (“Probably nothing up there… and we don’t want to slip and fall into the mud-pots.”) While exploring the second way, there was a tremor. The party became rattled, thinking that something they had stepped on had triggered it. They navigated the third way, went through another branch in the path, and then stopped when they heard ominous sounds coming from far into the mud pot on their right.

Just on the edge of the their torchlight… the party saw a strange hippo-sized beast in the mud. It had a face like a star-mole. The players without torches fired missile weapons at it for several turns when… Drake (Cleric-3) suddenly started bashing on Justina with his mace. (Come to think of it, it was a little odd when he’d readied his mace instead of his sling the previous turn….) Reacting quickly, Justina and Lemmy immobilized Drake by looping their ropes around him and pulling tight! Meanwhile, at the front of the party, the two Rakasta turned on the rest of the party as well. Han Yolo pulled out his mirror and used that to distract the cat-men with a moving light. The Rakasta chased the light madly– evidently light-hating relex trumped whatever mind-control they were experiencing. Lemmy and Justina shoved Drake to the ground and pinned him with their boots.

The party kept shooting at the mud-mole creature throughout all of this… gradually getting up to about thirty points of damage. But the thing just wouldn’t die. Panic set in when Lemmy showed signs of being about to turn on the rest of the party. Even worse, in the previous turn the dwarf Dio had suddenly started shooting at Justina with his bow. Thinking fast, Justina jerked on the rope to pull the dwarf Dio off balance while falling on top of Lemmy. Dio fell into the mud pot and was boiled to death. Justina fell on Lemmy and shoved him down on top of Drake, managing to pin them both at once.

Whatever the mud-monster was, it disappeared under the mud. The party members shot at the last location that they has seen it… then hog tied the two Rakasta, Lemmy, and Drake. Only three sane party members were left now. Han Yolo (Thief-3), Justina (Cleric-3), and Steve Erwin (Fighter-1). These three decided to continue exploring– there just *had* to be some good loot down there somewhere, they thought. Meanwhile… Drake begged them to throw a tarp onto him and the other tied up party members, but he was ignored.

Sallying forth, the final trio came to a dead end. It was a wall. The path was narrow enough that they had to send Steve Erwin up by himself to examine the wall. They were sure there would be a secret door or something. It turned out that the ground was just a thin layer of crystallized minerals covering up a deadly hot spring. Steve fell down into the boiling waters. He was hurt, but was still alive. This was the point where the party decided this had to be a death trap and that there was nothing of value down by these mud pots. They decided to go back and try something else. But going back the way that they came, they blundered into the rest of their party members– who were now not only untied, but still intent on killing them!

I announced at this point– before a single die was rolled– that if a magic-user loses initiative and takes damage before his turn, then he cannot cast spells that round. (This is perhaps not exactly rules as written.) The side with the magic-user lost initiative and everyone on the other side tried to take Lemmy out. Lemmy took some damage and was reduced to tossing daggers instead of casting a game-ending Sleep spell.

There was a confusion of blows as melee ensued. Han Yolo took out the mirror and attempted the moving light trick again, this time leading the cat characters into the boiling mud pots. The cats (who reflexively hate the evil-light-of-hell more than anything else) dove after it. Though the burning hot mud damaging, it managed to knock some sense into them. As they attempted to scramble out of the mud pot, they were met with Justina and Steve Erwin, who kicked them in the face while screaming, “this… is… Sparta!” The Rakasta then back flipped back into the mud-pots where they met their demise.

Stunned, confused, and terrified… Justina, Han Yolo, and Steve Erwin quickly looted the bodies of their companions and then ran out of the dungeon as quickly as possible. They scrambled back up the terrace, when through the doorway and past the deep pit, down the hallway, under the portcullis with a statue wedged under it, up the grappling hook rope, up the stairs, back through the temple area, between the feet of the destroyed colossus, and back to their boats. Justina’s player said, “oh… my… God.” Other players immediately began rolling up new first level characters and arguing about how to plan the next delve. In response to a suggestion that they go back to their ship at Tanorora, it was indicated that they did NOT want to go back without the giant perl that was supposed to be here….

The Death Log:

Session 1:

  • Rex-Tum (Elf-2) — Gored by a triceratops in the swamp near the tar pits.

Session 2:

  • Tirantis Blackhawk (Magic-User-3) — Fell off the side of a volcano on the central plateau.
  • Otis (Dwarf-3) — Impaled with the spear of awesomeness by the bone-armor wearing warrior in the temple with the huge, defaced head of worshipfulness.

Session 3:

  • Trevor (Fighter-3) — Incinerated by a fiery blast that emerged from the defaced head of worshipfulness when Skinny pulled the lever that Stripe found on the other side of the smashed walls in the temple area immediately after picking up a sword+1 off of Otis’s body.
  • Dio (Dwarf-3) — Boiled to death in a mud pot after getting mind controlled by a star-faced mud-mole monster and then getting shoved off the path by Justina the cleric.
  • Lemmy (Magic-User-3) — Head smashed in by Steve Erwin with a sword+1 after getting mind controlled by a star-faced mud-mole monster, hog-tied by the party, and mysteriously set free.
  • Drake (Cleric-3) — Cut down in a melee by Steve Erwin with a sword+1 after getting mind controlled by a star-faced mud-mole monster, hog-tied by the party, and mysteriously set free.
  • Stripe & Skinny (Rakasta) — Maneuvered into a pit of boiling mud by Han Yolo’s moving-light-of-evil and then kicked in the face by Justina and Steve Erwin, back-flipping through the air in a slow motion movement of acrobatic perfection… after getting mind controlled by a star-faced mud-mole monster, hog-tied by the party, and mysteriously set free.

Note: The sword+1 is connected directly or indirectly to the deaths of Otis, Trevor, Dio, Lemmy, and Drake.

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!