Thursday, February 14, 2013

So I Got Level Drained Tonight


and I'm over it.

Since I'm usually the one running games, and have been since I was a kid, this has actually never happened to me, before. (I've had it happen in my games maybe a handful of times, and only one time that I can think of where it didn't just end up killing the character in question.) The bitch of it is, I saw it coming. We (the Fear Böners) are up in the eastern mountains, having somehow (against high odds of getting seriously squished) negotiated an alliance with the frost giants, but the whole thing hinges on our clearing out a cave system full of ghostly insubstantial nasties (the giants being too big to fit into the cave, you see). We were riding high on luck and smooth talk, having already survived a scrap with a roc besides the giant armistice, and honestly it was going to have turn sooner or later.

We fought a couple of relatively manageable beasties ("breath stealers", which do what it says on the tin, killing by suffocation), but when we entered the cavern with the ghostly-form-superimposed-on-skeleton sitting on the throne, I kinda knew it was time to pay the piper. The (mid-level) party cleric called to Kurdan and attempted to turn, no dice - and while my character just knew enough to be freaked out, the DM in me is already mentally rolling up a new guy. The apparition screeched and charged, taking a single spear hit from my fighter (Ordrick of the Hill People) before falling on him and SUCKING OUT HIS DAMN SOUL. Oof. Two levels, from 3 on the cusp of 4 to HELLO FIRST LEVEL FREDDY. (Unconscious, to boot.) Luckily, the next round our dwarven badass hit with a 20 for full damage, banishing the spirit, and we avoided a fate far worse than death (NO NOT THAT, c'mon, don't be gross).

Again, the DM in me knew it was a spectre, and that we got off EASY. It actually missed its first attack, and didn't get a chance to make a third. Beyond that, we were rolling well enough. (Although our thief sent one of his dogs to attack the thing, which had predictably tragic results for the animal lovers in the house (and probably tragic for us, later, since the words "spectral dog" were tossed around).) And, let's do the math: While being back at level 1 stings (SHIT FUCK GODDAMMIT), with the XP I'll net from treasure in the last couple encounters (and for surviving the encounter), I'll be back at 2nd the next time we can train, and at the level we're punching at as a party, 3rd a session or so after. Even until then, I'm sure as hell not equipped like a first level character. I've got plate mail and two well-trained (well-armored) war dogs. We netted a nice haul from the spectre, still to be sorted, and I've voice my *ahem* strong suggestion *cough cough* that I be first in line on that, namely on any spears or armor that come out of it.

Still - damn, that shit stings.

But fuck it. Some stuff is supposed to be SCARY, even to the players. And now my PC's got distinguished salt-and-pepper temples. Reed Richards gets all the girls, right? Besides, it was a great game moment - especially 'cause I was the only player at the table actually experienced enough to know that was a thing that could happen. The general intake of air when Matty dropped the 2-level bomb was priceless. The other players were genuinely taken aback (and you could see a general nervous shuffling of character sheets as everybody reevaluated their place in the game universe and considered exit strategies). And I got to experience one of old-school gaming's more "special" experiences. [Wonder Years narrator voice]In some small way, I think we all grew up a little bit that day.[/WYnv]


Thursday, February 7, 2013

In Search of Adventure (Young Lord Steakfist Goes Forth)

Well, hell, that was fun.

Wednesday's been kind of a big deal, lately - Wednesday is the night I actually get to PLAY D&D. Like, as a player. Most of the time, I'm the one running the games. (Sure most of you know how that is.) However, over the last 6 months or so, I've gotten to try out Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, gotten into a good handful of Labyrinth Lord sessions, and even banged out a session of our buddy's mythic Greece AD&D campaign. It's cool to get some time on the other side of the screen. (Heavy is the head that wears the Viking Hat, after all...)

This week, though, a slot opened in our Wednesday night rotation, so I kicked off a new Classic D&D campaign of non-specific vintage. I'm using the Rules Cyclopedia as my reference, but the players are all using '81 Moldvay Basic books. Beyond telling the guys that thieves can't use two-handed weapons, it's close enough for government work - if anybody gets to Companion level, we'll address the differences. We're using GAZ1: The Grand Duchy of Karameikos, B1-9 In Search of Adventure, and my modest pile of B Series modules for background and adventure material. Compared to our usual Monday Forgotten Realms game (where my... well-stocked Realms library can be a double-edged sword, sometimes), this is a nice slim set of sources to work with, and of course Basic is just a whole other order of simple compared to drink-from-the-firehose-style AD&D. It's liberating.

Now, I know it's base heresy, but I am enjoying the added minute or so the GAZ1 background tables add to B/X character creation. (For human characters, it amounts to 3 rolls, less for demihumans.) We get to find out a human PC's social standing, ethnic background (native Traladaran, Thyatian, or mixed), and their hometown. I'm firmly in the "character is what you do, not what you write down" school, and I like to see players develop their PCs in play. Two-page backgrounds are not encouraged in our games, much less a requirement. But with just 3 pieces of information, the guys were spinning off all kinds of speculation about their characters' place in the world, their family structures, and their relationships to each other. Great signal-to-noise ratio - once these guys are at Expert level, and their adventures expand in scale a bit, we'll have plenty of grist for the mill. We already have the illustrious dynasty of Lord Steakfist (and their ancestral home, "Castle Planet Fitness") contrasted with the ill-fated and penniless Brownwater clan of Black Eagle Barony (poor Dunder escaped that blighted land concealed in a pig cart, got killed in the face by a giant shrew in the first encounter, and was in short order replaced by his brother Slipsun). Great stuff.

Let's talk about the source material a bit. In particular B1-9. I've seen this collection get a lot of bad press from completist Mystara folks, and on one level, I can see why. The premise is that it's a collection of the first 9 B Series adventures (I'm with you, so far), and that they're threaded together in a loose campaign - not a lead-you-by-the-nose "adventure path", but a branching web of adventure hooks that allows the players the lead in navigating (a great idea, and - even if you don't use the adventures presented - it shows how this can be done, which is an important lesson for new DMs using published material). Unfortunately, several of the adventures presented are chopped for space, and I have to question the decisions made on what got in and what didn't.

B2 Keep on the Borderlands is included, but the Keep itself (one of the most iconic base towns in the hobby) is reduced to a paragraph describing the castellan brushing off the PCs. B3 Palace of the Silver Princess (the green, published version, not the extra-spicy orange version) is included, although the "programmed adventure" Chooose-Your-Own-Adventure content is skipped. (I don't miss it - as a matter of fact, this version is in some places better-presented than the original.) B4 The Lost City is here, but only the top levels of the complex are provided - the unkeyed lower levels are missing. (This kinda sucks - for play value vs. page count, a few more pages with the lower level maps would give a DM running this a lot more potential mileage.) B5 Horror on the Hill has its mini-wilderness area amputated - while I haven't run this one, a friend is running the original for two groups right now, and he tells me this is an unfortunate omission. Tracy and Laura Hickman's B7 Rahasia is here, both sections in their entirety. (With the original Daystar West Media printings, publication as RPGA1 and RPGA2, and subsequent compilation as B7, this is the fourth incarnation of these adventures!) B8 Journey to the Rock (a tournament adventure) is presented, slightly slimmed down. B9 Castle Caldwell and Beyond (itself a loosely linked collection of scenarios) gets 4 of its 5 mini-adventures seeded into the larger work, and the 5th is dropped. Finally, B6 The Veiled Society is the thread that ties the whole thing together - all roads lead to Specularum, and any of In Search of Adventure's three main threads will bring the PCs there to deal with the machinations of the Veiled Society. It is presented with the map from GAZ1 (as opposed to B6's earlier Specularum cartography), and sans cutouts or stand-ups, but is otherwise unexpurgated.

And poor, poor B1 - the original Basic Set module, the one that started it all, gets reduced to two half-page maps, unkeyed, and a single rumor. Not a line of the text makes it in. I can see, if I squint, where the "key your own dungeon" aspect would make it easy to lay this one on the chopping block, but I think it's a glaring omission - beyond the historical significance, these are some of the most iconicly weird room descriptions around, and exploring Quasqueton's baffling labyrinth is one of the hobby's major shared experiences. Devoting less than two pages sorely underutilizes Mike Carr's work on this foundational text.

So I can see where this collection gets its tawdry reputation from. Beyond the missing material (and make no mistake, this still clocks in with the AD&D megamodules on pagecount), the links between scenarios are tenuous - that they're not on hard rails is a feature, not a bug, but it will require a self-motivating party to navigate from one scenario to another. (The hook for B7 Rahasia, in particular, is... barely there - it amounts to, "Hey, there's this guy, an elf I guess, he wants you to play FedEx, and there's no reward offered - do you do it?") That said, there's a great campaign here if you're willing to fill in the holes. It presents Threshold (as detailed in the Mentzer Expert Set, and expanded upon in GAZ1) as the "base town" where the PCs meet, equip, fish for rumors, and return to should they ignore the scenario links presented in the "interlude" sections of B1-9. It provides some basic wilderness movement rules (nice if you're running this without access to the Expert Set and you want to handle such things in play). And the overall structure of modules is solid - a smorgasbord of Basic-style dungeons, culminating in a first foray into city adventuring. The whole thing would lead seamlessly into either the proto-Expert Set play of B10 Night's Dark Terror*, or the hardcore hexcrawl of X1 Isle of Dread. It just takes a DM willing to shore up the superstructure.

Looking at the table after tonight's game, I'm especially struck by what a complete game one could run with the Rules Cyclopedia, GAZ1, and B1-9. That's a lot of stuff in 3 books. As it happens, I have copies of B1 through B4 on hand, so I'm using the originals in tandem with the compilation material to bulk things out a bit. But you could do without.

So, I'm using my super-scientific review process and slapping a B minus on B1-9. It's just a ton of material, flaws notwithstanding. And it's worth pointing out that, of all the modules ever released, B1 and B2 are far and away the most common (and the ones that are most sorely missed here). If you're running B1-9 In Search of Adventure, spend five bucks tracking down B1 and B2, and you'll have upgraded this megamodule to a solid "A".


* Formerly available on eBay for the price of 10 talents of gold and an orphan's heart, this classic - the last thing the TSR UK team would do before defecting to GW and creating the legendary Enemy Within campaign for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay - is now available in PDF format on for a paltry sum. It's a great time to be a gamer.