We’ve been playing Old-School Essentials, a reorganized retro-clone of Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons. Specifically, we’re playing module B4: The Lost City, by Tom Moldvay.
I’ve run one-shots of B/X twice in the past and…as I think about it now, I believe it is my first time actually playing it. We’re playing online, and we’re a group formed from a local tabletop discord mostly focused around mini wargaming at a store local to all of us. The GM is an older dude that has been entrenched in 5e lately (in fact he runs 5e on the same day that he runs this game; earlier in the day and for longer) and started this game up because he was delighted to discover OSE and re-discover an older way to play that he was familiar with from his youth. I’ve played with one of the fellow players before, but only online and also during pandemic-times. I think I’m the youngest, and I am approaching 40 (I can’t communicate to you how uncanny typing that feels).
I joined because I have in particular been yearning to play some challenge-based games that pull no punches. I am also motivated to develop some local ties so that once we can safely play in person, I have people I know and want to play with. So the social motivation is at least as strong as the play-experience motivation.
I am also excited to do player-side old-school mapping; I have done it a little bit but I really would like to dive into an experience where that is a consequential aspect of the game that is left to the players.
Because we’re playing online, we are not doing traditional mapping, which has had me a little bummed, but given the limitations of the medium it makes sense (if we had a will as a group, or I was more forceful, I suppose I could have figured out a 2-camera set-up, with one camera focused on my graphing paper). We’ve been using Roll20 and have digital maps all laid out for us, which I would prefer not exist; everyone else appears to take it as a given that this is how the game is played. Still, I have been mapping by myself on paper and making notes as we go along, which have often been useful as we come across something and want to refer back to where we’ve been before or some knowledge we’ve previously gained and can’t recall in the moment. So that has been satisfying, if not exactly what I want.
Which I suppose is what I want to talk about here: the game has been satisfying if not exactly in the way I’d hoped. For me, when someone says “Let’s play OSE (or Basic/Expert)” it means exactly that we are excited about hewing (perhaps paradoxically) to the rules and style of play as described in the books and also to the “rulings not rules” paradigm of the OSR. To that end, I’ve been amenable to the GM’s addition of a few extra rules, even if were I the GM I would not include them: each class getting an additional signature ability (fine), tweaked spellcasting rules (I like these), and tweaked XP rules (I dislike these).
Why has it been satisfying? Okay, let’s talk about some Actual Play here. The Lost City takes place underneath and inside a ziggurat in the middle of the desert, full of goblins and oiled-and-muscly man-worshipers of Gorm, etc, etc. Despite the map being revealed for us as we play, all the other important aspects of B/X dungeon-delving are in effect: tracking turns and torches and # of arrows and even food, for god’s sake! My wizard spent a not-insignificant amount of his starting gold on pints of wine, and much to my shocked pleasure the module starts with all rations wiped from character sheets as we get lost and separated from our caravan and have to trek across the desert. This was going to be tough. We were going to have to play smart. And we have had to. We’ve been cautious, wedging doors shut behind us at every opportunity. We came across a room with a giant lizard peeking out from under a broken bed, and immediately fled and shut the door. Something on the other side of that door dropped from the ceiling, as we heard. Shortly thereafter, we encountered some goblins who wanted to serve our flesh to their god Zarboz, and we took all of them out with a Sleep spell cast by the other Magic-user in the party (I chose Hold Portal for my spell; not very good on paper, and so far completely unused, but despite wanting to be challenged I also balked at the feeling of “having” to choose the obviously most-powerful first level spell in Sleep. Still, I’ve been thankful my fellow party-member chose it). One by one, we threw them into the lizard room, and listened as the beasts fed–turns out what fell from the ceiling was a second lizard. We kept one goblin alive and awake as we did this, so that he would guide us through the dungeon. And guide us well he has; he told us not to go down the corridor that he came from, as “followers of Gorm” were there, and they would kill us. Despite keeping him for guidance, we blew off his guidance, and we ended the last session (session 6, I believe*) surrounded by absolute gads of absolute units. I really don’t know how we’re getting out of this one. Fighting Retreat is a handy option in the rulebook, as far as I can tell.
And, despite being satisfying, why has it not been satisfying in exactly the way I’d hoped? Well, because in addition to wanting to have to play smart to survive and win, I also wanted to have to earn anything we got. In OSE, as in B/X, you earn 1XP per 1GP recovered, split evenly among the party. And over 6/3* sessions, we’ve found stuff worth less than 100 gold. And it takes about 3,000 XP to advance. So the GM, capitulating to his own sense of “fairness” as he described it (and as other players verbally agreed), implemented a rule where we get 100XP per level of the dungeon we are on per session, as long as we are attempting to make progress (so on the first level of the dungeon, we earn 100XP, if we go down to the next level, we’ll get 200XP per session that we’re on that level and progressing, etc.). To my sensibilities this feels patronizing, basically, and almost a clawing back of the original premise: I’m playing this game to earn what I get. XP is a score. And given the nature of our short sessions, we’re getting about double the XP a “normal” session would get this way, too.
That said…as much as I bristle at this rule, I have to consider: has it really negatively impacted my play all that much? Or am I rigidly holding to a notion of “pure” play in my mind that may or may not exist? As I said above, I have felt challenged, and our decisions are certainly consequential. So maybe that’s all I really need out of this, especially given my equal-weighted goal of connecting with like-minded** players for post-pandemic IRL play.
Though, I still strongly desire to play a game where mapping is squarely in the hands of the players, no gimmes.
*We are only playing in 2-hour increments, and online (which slows things down), so I’d say if I had to compare it to playing face to face that it feels somewhat like we’ve just completed session 3 or are in the middle of it.
**but Hans! Half this post is you describing how you feel you want something different out of the game than the other players. How is that like-minded? “Yes,” I’ll respond, “It doesn’t sound like-minded. But it’s like-minded enough. I’m talking not about players who have all my same opinions on B/X, but players who are likely to agree with and enjoy the system I encourage to be implemented at the table when I GM a game for them.”