Friday, April 13, 2018

Old School AD&D Game II - Thoughts on 1st Edition AD&D and an Old Session Recap

Long-time readers of my blog might remember that back in 2011/2012, I started running an old-school AD&D game as part of our "Friday Night" games (which have recently switched to Saturday nights). These games are intended to be a bit less "serious" than my on-going World of Samoth game, and they are also an excuse for me to dig out a lot of old-school B/X and 1st Edition AD&D modules that I've had for 35+ years, but have never had a chance to run.

I first ran S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, and then moved on to S4: Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth. I've had S4 since I was in my early teens. Way back then, shortly after I discovered D&D thanks to some friends at my junior high school, I started trying to acquire and read as much stuff as I could. I really responded to the idea of creating worlds and characters that populate them, and I was a voracious reader back then - in my "downtime" before I started reading comics and game books, if I had finished all of my library books, I would end up reading my parents' World Book Encyclopedia (1964 Edition) just for fun. So, discovering the world of D&D added a ton of new things for me to read and explore. 

Back then, I didn't have a lot of discretionary income (or, technically none, because I didn't have an allowance), so actually acquiring modules and rule books was a lot more difficult than it is today. My mom helped by purchasing the Moldvay Basic Set and the 1st Edition hardback rulebooks for me, but for modules I was kind of out-of-luck until I discovered that I could borrow them from my friends and my dad could photocopy them for me at his work, which he patiently did on several different weekends over the years. Although I have now properly and legally acquired these old treasures, I still get a smile from seeing all of my old photocopied modules (all of which I kept) and remembering all of the work my dad put into copying those, even though he probably didn't really understand what he was copying for me. 

In any event, S4: Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth always held this very special place in my heart, and I dreamed of running it for a group one day. The interesting and complex mix of wilderness adventure and dungeon-crawl, with the competing political groups all racing to discover the lanthorn, and fun touches like referring to a druid as the "medicine man" of a tribe of mountain men, really struck a cord with me. I began envisioning how much fun it would be to run this adventure, which is essentially a mini-campaign. 

Of course, the reality of the situation could never match my expectations, so when I finally had a chance to run this game, which I offered to do while the main DM of our Friday Night group needed to take a break, the actual experience has so far been less than stellar. It's not totally dissimilar from my experiences running S3, but I think a lot of that has to do with my expectations and the kind of game I was envisioning running for these type of one-off module explorations of 1st Edition AD&D, and the players' preferences for more long-term, story-based games where characters grow in importance over time and become powerful and influential leaders in society. Things like "save or die" and "the bats automatically do damage no matter how many of them you kill" do not compute for this group of players, and it's caused a ton of post-game email discussions about what kind of games we'd prefer to play. 

With that out of the way, after the last time I blogged about a game recap from our S4 sessions, back in August 2012, we played one more time and then the game went on hiatus until about a month ago (an almost six year hiatus!). 

Below is a short recap of the last three sessions (including the last one from way back in 2012), along with my commentary on the things that the players didn't like and what kinds of discussions we had.

As I noted in the previous write-ups of our game sessions, the information below does provide spoilers for anyone who hasn't played this adventure. 

3rd Session: Sometime in late 2012 or early 2013
After Estian's botched accent attracted the suspicion on the Kettite Border Patrol Captain, Lord Flemin, Dwarf from the Principality of Ulek, begrudgingly opted to speak with the Captain, all the while muttering under his breath about the incompetence of his adventuring companions. After the situations was rectified, the Border Patrol Captain let the company continue on their way.

After this, they made quick work of figuring out the quickest path to the entrance of the caverns based on the aerial reconnaissance accomplished by Dolok the druid while wild-shaped as an eagle the day before, and entered the caverns.

Descending into the entry of the lesser caverns, the company were confronted with six passageways adjacent to six large bas-relief caverns of different, grotesque faces with strange features such as tusks, doglike ears, drooping wattles, etc. The characters examined the faces from a distance, and after a cursory determination that there were no clues as to which face indicated where the correct path lie, they chose to work with the old adventurer chestnut of "start on the right and work our way around."

Entering the far right tunnel, they marched in a northern direction through a fungi-filled corridor where they encountered a swarm of bats. After failing to move quietly, and with their torches full a-glow, the adventurers awakened the bats, and were mercilessly attacked until they finally moved through the corridor, which then led them into a long galley pock-marked with large holes on either side. As the company advanced through the corridor, they were attacked by "cave morays" that lunged out of the holes in the corridor walls. The characters took considerable damage from the cave morays and bats, but finally maneuvered through the corridor, and entered a large cave.

Inside the cave, the company were attacked by two large formorian giants, who had heard all of the ruckus outside their cave and prepared themselves accordingly. After a fierce battle, the company was victorious against the giants, but then upon investigating the treasure inside, the company cleric, Benedictus, donned a cloak that radiated magic, only to find that it was a "cloak of poisonousness," whereupon he died immediately.

It was at this time, after Benedict died, that the company realized that he was no human cleric after all, but a bizarre, otherworldly humanoid type creature with flat, gray-skin and amorphous features.

[DM Note: After the last old-school game through module S3 ended with all of the character's deaths at the hand of a group of doppelgangers, who killed all of the characters and took over their shapes, I decided that I would run S4 as though it were 100 years after the events of S3, and that the doppelgangers from S3 were actually an alien species living on the crashed ship, and that one of them had been mimicking a human form for so long that he had actually gone partially mad and would occasionally forget who he was. I gave the player notes to indicate that at the start of each day, the character was to make a Wisdom check on a d20 to see if he could recall who he really was; if not, he would act the part of a human cleric perfectly. But, if not, he would remember that he was an alien and that he hated humans and their demi-human allies, and would do his best to try to maneuver into situations where he could kill his comrades. That actually never occurred in the game, but the player really liked the idea of the character. In the write-up I gave the player, I mentioned that he collected and drank only jars of honey - that was his only sustenance, and in the other character write-ups, for a few of them, I mentioned that they had noticed this and thought it was peculiar, but nobody chose to follow-up on it.]


That ended the third session, and after that, it would be over five years before we resumed this campaign.

During this particular session, a lot of things came to light, which are greatly impacting the direction of playing through this module, as well as the overall enjoyment of all parties involved (the players as well as me as a DM):

  • Wilderness Adventure: This part of the module was added much later when TSR published this module in 1982; the original tournament adventure did not include this section. However, it was in reading the wilderness section as a kid that I really fell in love with this module. While I'd seen wilderness adventures before (notably X1: Isle of Dread), the unique encounters in S4's wilderness section really sparked my imagination. However, for many of my players, the wilderness encounters seemed annoying. A few players in particular kept asking, "How long until we actually start playing?" or "why can't we just go directly to the caverns?" The idea of them having to search for the entrance to the caverns was a bit foreign to them, and not something they enjoyed. They were notably frustrated after the first two sessions that they "hadn't made any progress." I'm not sure where this mentality comes from, other than the idea that I set this up improperly. I had also intended that this particular module could take several play sessions, but I think some of the players were anticipating that it was only going last one or two sessions as most. Additionally, while I found that the role-playing opportunities were most notable in the wilderness section, the players really just wanted to explore the caverns and few of them had any interest in interacting with NPCs that were seemingly distracting them from the "main objective."
  • Searching & Problem Solving: This particular topic has come to the forefront lately, but what I've discovered is that while this group of players are all guys in their late 40's or early 50's who started playing RPGs in the early to mid-80's (with one exception), there is definitely a demarcation line between those of us who started playing "pre-Dragonlance" and those who started with Dragonlance.  That really seems to be the difference between "player skill" and "character skill." I've discussed this with my players after the last two sessions in particular, but it had come to the forefront all the way back in 2012/2013 when we first started playing this. I explained to them that they needed to "describe" their search, not "roll" for it. That seems to have thrown a lot of my players for a loop, which explains why, when they entered the cavern with the six faces, they did not perform a detailed search of the area. I didn't offer anything, but the faces actually do communicate, but only if you approach within three feet and interact with them. These players did not do that, and just randomly decided to start out on the right hand tunnel. I do understand the benefits of things like a Search skill, or the idea that a character with an 18 Intelligence might know something that a player might never think of. That's fair - we don't expect a player who has a character with an 18 Strength to perform a physical task in order to succeed in attacking someone, but I do think that the reliance on simple die rolls to accomplish mundane tasks like searching a room have removed a lot of player ingenuity and skill in the game. I'm all for giving characters with higher Intelligence a clue if their description of what they are doing warrants it, but I'm not going to just say "Roll a d20 and if you roll under your Intelligence, you figure it out." To me, that's just lazy. 
  • Pre-Generated Characters: While I created the pre-gens for this game primarily from the desire to help my players out and make it easier for them to not have to learn a new system to create a character, I also really enjoy creating the relationships that exist between characters and giving them little role-playing quirks for my players to work with. The company of the Lucky Fools and Gloaters (the name of the adventurer group for my game in this module) include a cannibalistic druid who eats the bodies of any creatures he kills, lest they be raised as undead; a human cleric who was actually an alien from a crashed spaceship - using the rules of a Doppelganger; and a Martian, disguised as a "red elf" who accidentally got stranded in Greyhawk via a portal malfunction and has been searching for a way home. However, one thing that has come to light is that these players have a hard time getting into character, even though I am providing them plenty of role-playing hooks, when they don't create the characters themselves. A few of them have also mentioned that they don't have a lot of interest in playing a character that they aren't doing to use again (and who therefore can't grow and become more important) and also who might die at any moment due to the savage 1st Edition rules with things like "save or die" or even "put on this cloak and die with no save." Those types of situations have removed a lot of motivations on the part of the players to role-play their characters much. 

I'll post the recap from the previous two sessions later. In the meantime, I'd love to hear peoples' comments and thoughts. 

1 comment:

  1. My group often becomes too aware of the "game" part of "rpg", over-emphasising the problem-solving element, so that things like interacting with NPCs, wilderness travel, and so on become unwelcome distractions from the "real" part of the adventure. This leads to issues similar to the ones you've been facing; I wish I had a solution but I haven't discovered one yet!


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