We finished up the 5 session run with Blueholme and The Lost City (B4) last night. Here are the links to the three sessions (thanks Robbie):
This post has the links to sessions 1 & 2.
To recap, the players were myself as the GM, Sam (Roland – Human Fighter), Robbie (Sheeshoosh – Elven Fighter-Mage), and Jon (Bartle – Human Thief).
Thi is all part of our OS/R Lab play where we explore the games behind the label. This is why we explicitly played Blueholme as opposed to the original Holmes D&D.
Session 3. The party rested up and went down the stairs to the 3rd tier of the step pyramid they were in. In The Lost City, as you descend you encounter more dangerous and more rewarding content. This is literal as you gain XP (experience) from killing monsters, but mostly from getting treasure in terms of gp. They encountered, via a secret door, some more beetles and the group stepped back from that fight. The beetles did not have any need to feast on the fleshy mammalians, so no confrontation occurred. Continuing through the tier the group encountered a revolving hallway. They went straight ahead instead of going through one of the other hallways, I think with the idea that they would be coming back.
As it turns out they discovered a way down to the next (even more dangerous) tier. They moved down into a room with a trick coffin and some braziers. At this point the group could have turned back, but they moved on through the door. Investigating the hallway and they come to a door where the hallway comes to a t-junction. They open the door and discover a lot of skeletons. I cut the game at that point.
Session 4. We pick up here at the fight with the skeletons. They close the door and run back to the room where they came down to this level. The group uses oil and sets it on fire when the skeletons come to their door. It damages the skeletons and takes down a few. A wandering encounter shows up and the skeletons fight them, while the part lets them battle. Once the fire burns out they come and collect some loot. They go back to the room with the mummy (inert) and the skeletons to search for treasure.
Moving on they come to the end of a long hallway where there is another door. They go through and discover two white apes. The encounter does not move to combat immediately, and the party encourages one of the apes to leave with some food. The other stayed and combat began. During the encounter a giant (vampire) bat came into the battle and began attacking Bartle (I think). After the battle they looted the room and rested.
Session 5. This was our last session. They rested up and set out again, going through the same level and trying to find more treasure. Along the way the group encounters some giant rats and fights them off. Sheeshoosh gets to enlarge Roland, and this provided for more fun. They keep going and set off a big trap, which they avoided. Several rooms later the group gets I not a room with a large insect creature. They almost kill it! Roland and Bartle are paralyzed, but Sheeshoosh survives the first round. Robbie rolls an 11 but needed a 12. The creature has 8 attacks and one of them brings down the brave elf. It goes off to the corner to uh, prepare the elf body for later use. Roland awakens and kills the creature. Sam then takes all the stuff and hides just as another wandering encounter comes in. It is a gnoll and 2 hobgoblins. Roland breaks for it and runs, but the gnoll shoots him down. They take all the stuff and the gnoll leader leaves the paralyzed Bartle his mundane gear (no money) and the healing potion, wishing the human “Good luck”, before walking out.
And that is how it ends. Bartle does make it back to the Mages society. Bartle had encountered enough monsters to level. So perhaps we shall see Bartle (and new companions) another day?
We have a lot to talk about, but if folks want to watch and or ask questions that would be good too. I am still collecting my thoughts on last night and the whole experience. Overall, it was a positive experience.
15 responses to “Blue Underworld: The Lost City Sessions 3,4, and 5 (finale).”
A dire fate
I love the way the totally mini-hit-point, non-powered-up, basically "I just hang around these guys" thief Bartle lived through the whole thing basically because he wasn't anyone's special or obvious target. I love the gnoll at the end; I want the whole story about that guy some day.
I'm still working my way through the last video but I couldn't stop myself from commenting now. The ending was nothing but a crescendo from some "hey, big feels good" role-playing, which inspired (addled?) Roland's fellows to stride boldly through anywhere doing anything, until the dice decided this carrion crawler was a meat grinder
Bartle spent a great deal of
Bartle spent a great deal of time with 1 HP during the adventure. I was pleased at the fearlessness at times and also sense in terms of backing away from some fights. It had been so long I had forgotten what a staple of those editions the big beetles were. And how bitey they could be, so when the group avoids more beetles in Session 3, I was giving them full XP for overcoming that encounter. And using their brains to distract the apes.
But as they headed towards the room with the carrion crawler, I knew it would be the encounter that returned them as big damn heroes or ended their run. That it got so interesting with the magic user of all people in hand to hand combat and the fighter and theif paralyzed felt right.
I will have to give the gnoll a name now, I think. In case Bartle and he see each other again some day.
Sean, Sam, Jon, and I sat
Sean, Sam, Jon, and I sat down last week for a 2-hour conversation on Holmes/Blueholme and our experience in The Lost City. It's a free-ranging, jaunty discussion, with each of us having topics of interest prepared, but we didn't have a set organization and we weren't too concerned with following where the inspiration took us:
Jon opens things for us with his consideration of dungeon design, and from that point we move through a wide variety of topics inspired both by the Holmes edition of D&D and by The Lost City.
As Ron and Sean noted, the run was notable in the way it magically ended. The Enlargement spell cast on Roland allowed him to physically manifest his larger-than-life attitude, and the short duration of the spell pushed him to make the most of his size. Sheshoosh (my character) was a mere hairsbreadth away from slaying the Carrion Crawler, but he missed two opportunities to put the monster away. And the lowly Bartle left without much in the way of possessions, but he at least lived to be able to tell his tale.
I'm especially impressed by how rich the whole thing is when you look back on it. During play itself, we are making decisions and pushing our characters in directions with no clue of the ultimate outcome and without any idea of how the events will cohere (or fail to). But the end result is magically satisfying.
In my current classes and
In my current classes and during current conversations, I've been talking a lot about constraint: when considerations narrow play down from "infinite possibilities." The range of what they've narrowed from and the range of what they're narrowed to are both left open for purposes of definition. I'm also leaving the topic "of what" open, whether a range of action, or information, or what can be newly invented, or anything.
This concept of constraint is tightly related to the big emergent or second-order features of play I've been talking about for a while, Agency and Bounce. It's also related to the critical concept of uncertainty, especially when different people at the table have different levels of uncertainty about different things, because the net effect of that situation is a special sort of uncertainty regarding the basic question of "what happens when we play a little longer from now."
Example, right here before our eyes, and a telling one.
That exact thing, which neither knows, is synonymous with what I call Situation, and its immediate and described subset, scene.
Did you see that? In this particular construct for play, scene framing is determined by the intersection of two independently-derived, non-negotiated, non-consensual creative acts. By definition, it Bounces both DM and players … every time.
I submit that this is the key feature which makes "dungeon play" engaging, and it compensates for any number of other things which range from trivial to outright stupid, or conversely, provides a platform for spins or tweaks of the concept into new shapes.
It also gives insight into why much dungeon-y or alleged sandbox play fails to be fun, when it does. That happens when: either this feature is faked and subverted so that certain plot events will occur as planned or as desired in the moment (in other words, under the DM's control after all), or the feature is trivial, i.e., it doesn't have any bearing on key consequential variables of play (survival, specific goals, character personality phenomena, et cetera).
That really snaps things together for me! I'm working on a longer reply, but I just wanted to comment to let you know that this really helps me make sense of a variety of dungeon crawl experiences of varying levels of success that I've had over the last year.
Some critique of System
After watching the closing discussions for the group that played Dialect/Fine Trousers I realized I did not speak much on my overall assessment of Blueholme. That is what I am going to do here. And I guess it will cross over into some critique of the Holmes' D&D as well. I suppose one can keep in mind some of the OS/R guidelines too, but more on that later. This is not a review, but if you need that then yes I can recommend playing Blueholme.
I enjoyed the simplicity of the system and the way it was easy to run an adventure that was adjacent to the rules upon which it is based. The charts do most of the math for you and that was interesting to play with again. You could in fact do that for any game, especially anything that plays like D&D and has a linear model of resolution. i.e. you roll and you want to roll high and it increments by 1 each time. It is just now the standard has come to be either a)do the math in your head or b)let a device to the math for you. But the charts, no more less than being CRT (combat result tables) for the rpg crowd, are useful.
The same with the use of the d6 for what I call discrete skills. Things like finding a secret door. You can as needed extrapolate that into other things. "Just roll a d6" covers a great deal of sins.
Last bit of praise for the system is how it cleaned up Initiative from Hplmes. The presentation and wording made it more clear how to proceed.
I have two big questions regarding Blueholme and this strikes at the heart of OS/R design philosophy. The first question is, why not take the time to make significant changes to the old text? Holmes is pretty basic (pun intended, mostly), which is not to say it is bad at all. And with so much time between the original and Blueholme, design philosophy had gone forward by decades.
As an example, there is no reason to keep the Thief's skills as %. They are wildly out of whack with the rest of the system and could have easily been converted into a d20 roll. Instead of 10% for Hide in Shadow, it could be listed as "19-20". The only reason to keep that chart is nostalgia. Creating a more consistent game system does not invalidate its OS/R ness. Of course the GM/Players can decide to do this themselves, but that is more work that you do not need to do.
My second question is: where is the heart of Blueholme? I like old game rules because the presentation often has a lot of passion in it. The artwork is more crude, I guess, and the books have a texture to it. The systems are early and they also have a lot of textture to them. You can feel the bumps and they need the occasional tweak to make play smoother. Maybe we can list that as charm; the thing that makes a system bearable even if the system itself runs on square wheels. It can make for incoherent play to be sure and quite a bit of "why we playing X? Couldn't we just use Y?". But I think charm is real and Holmes, while being a good system of D&D, has a lot of texture and charm as well. Blueholme does not have that texture and charm. The system is 98% the same but the system lacks texture, which is part and parcel with updated layout and production values. I admit that to being a personal gripe. But I do think the rules lack passion, even though I am sure the people who made it had lots of passion for it. It did not translate their passion to me. Is that a fair critique? I am not sure. And too much passion can cloud play, but I do feel it is important to feel the author(s)' intent. Especially in a game that wants to tap into nostalgic feelings to inform play.
Whew – I’m finally getting a
Whew – I'm finally getting a chance to think about this topic. It matters to me more than it probably should as I tend to hold the Holmes 1977 D&D in a kind space in my mind, especially since through most of these intervening decades, almost no one I met had any idea about it or thought of it as merely a rough draft for the Moldvay version.
Which incidentally gripes me that everybody seems to be playing an old D&D or an OSR game with THE LOST CITY THE LOST CITY THE LOST CITY, as if the Moldvay D&D were always going to be squatting at the table no matter what we say we're playing. But anyway, moving on …
The issue here is Blueholme relative to the Holmes game, and I have struggled to understand it a little before venturing to play. I definitely would like to appreciate the single OSR effort to include this source material, and to see what it brings as a new look.
However, some of you may recall my severe comments about the OSR as it stood in 2009, when I published S/Lay w/Me, in the essay "Naked Went the Gamer." It first appeared in Fight On! #9. From that essay:
Given what you've described here, Blueholme looks like an unfortunately solid example of what I was talking about. I think your critique is not only fair but necessary.
I agree with Sean that the
I agree with Sean that the author's goal of "cleaning things up" (i.e., trying to better organize the Holmes text) has also scrubbed out a lot of the flavor compared to the original. When I play again, I'll probably use the original and encourage others playing to track down a copy on E-Bay (although I'm seeing that they are now a little more expensive and less available than they were when I got my copy ~ 2009). It's unfortunate that WotC hasn't made the pdf legally available in years and years and it's unclear why they've made that decision: attempts to reach out to WotC by leading Holmes afficianados to find out why Holmes isn't available and if that might change anytime soon have not been responded to. (Most likely this is a result of the cabal of Moldvayites overseeing their pdf distribution program).
But the legality issue isn't simply me going on a tangent: if I recall correctly, one of Sean's motives for using Blueholme was that it was a legal option that anyone who wanted to play could easily (and freely) have access to. And that gets back to the motives behind many of the original retroclone publishers: to establish a framework to publish material for AD&D1e, Moldvay/Cook B/X, 1974 D&D, and Holmes legally. For example, Matt Finch was very vocal about his purpose in publishing OSRIC as a legal fig leaf, and he expressed surprise when he heard reports of people "playing OSRIC".
However, currently it seems like most people who are beginning to play this style of game are coming in through "clean up" versions like Old School Essentials. It's hard, in this context, to raise the concern (let alone convince anyone) that what they are getting isn't exactly the same as Moldvay/Cook B/X, and that despite the broad compatability in the numbers, they are experientially different texts potentially leading to experientially different play.
Which incidentally gripes me
In my defense, I had forgotten that Moldvay wrote The Lost City.
In regard to Blueholme, one of the reasons for choosing it was the fact that it had a free version and it was a 98% close to the original Holmes. This was a definite reason. However, I also think that to some degree it has same concept as something like OSE or LotFP: emulating almost 100% one of the old Basic D&D. And at some point there is the intention to play OSR games that are one or two steps away from that. Black Sword Hack is one example. And will that solve the passion issue because it will be a new expression of old ideas? I think that it might. I think that as we dig deeper into the OSR branding, we might find games forging their own path.
But I am not sure it solves the nostalgia and expectations issues.
I appreciate the point about
I appreciate the point about Blueholme being available and the original game being, basically, illegal. It may have pulled us all into an unintended topic – "is it retro and is it a clone?" – so feel free to start a new comment about anything else if you want.
The 98% interests me greatly. I'll explain by referring to Lamentations of the Flame Princess, whose author told me he did not consider himself a game designer, but a terraformer. According to Jim, he merely celebrated the 1985 Mentzer D&D with his personal aesthetics and play-based concept for setting, changing only a thing or two here and there in terms of system.
I think that's hilariously un-self-aware (clarifier: that was 2013). Lamentations is a profound act of play-relevant design regarding any and every aspect of the Mentzer game. As text, the differences from Mentzer are also consistent for its play and purpose, across magic, fighting, general resolution, leveling-up, alignment, context for characters, and the nature of adversaries; the only truly conformist portion and also the game's weakest point, is the clerics.
I've written about this before, so won't go on and on here. I'm trying to get to a point, prolix self! Lamentations was not conceived and published as a so-called retroclone or even as "OSR." It was adopted into that terminology fairly late in the history of these terms, therefore was not designed to conform to and be included in anything, no matter what anyone believes or how much they butcher the game in play to make it seem that way. Whereas Blueholme is very much both, and the changes are presumed to be both minimal in percent and effectively unchanged in function.
So, real point #1: I don't care about the percentage of changes from the inspiring text. I care about what they are. RPG rules are very much like biological phenomena: robust, which is to say, continuing to operate a bit flexibly but as "themselves" given an incredible array of possible alterations and situations, but also prone to flipping dramatically given particular changes. (This applies at many levels, e.g., genetic and developmental, or population and ecological, and at present my analogy concerns the former.) A small change may result in profound cascades through every other aspect of the system.
Point #2: I also count alterations of presentation: all those "clarifiers" or "fixing a bit about how they say it," which often includes ordering … these are all about how the current author plays and what they're aiming the more concrete procedures toward. In their minds, perhaps, these are merely clarifying because obviously that's what the author meant or what the game needs, so it's meritorious, faithful, and plain nice just to … you know … here, let me erase that bit, oh, this bit needs to be over here, wait, that can't be right, I'll just fix it … Matt Finch may be honestly surprised at people "playing OSRIC' but I am not … because they are in fact playing his and specifically his OSRIC, not "old D&D."
In case you think I'm being mean and awful, I think this work is a good thing in terms of design and play. I think its designer ideology is self-deluded, but in a quaint or blameless way that I really don't object to or disapprove of. But more harshly, I think it's inaccurate – wrong, counter-factual, incorrect … how many related terms do you want? It's that. The inaccuracy reflects the romance and faith-based loyalty which ultimately drove the creative work, and I'll leave it to culture critics to decide whether that's good or bad.
There is a way to do this which I do think is unfortunate. I choose that word carefully because it has nothing to do with motives or bad design. It's exactly what you're talking about, Sean – when "clean-up" is about more than clarity and turns into neutralization, even neutering.
The fan and comix-y pictures and off-kilter layout are not the point, but only indicators of the spunky and "anything can happen" content of the Holmes D&D. If you pick it up to play, it will take you through a learning curve as its author very well knew how to do, and that curve will land you in a play-space which will be thoroughly your own – not what Holmes would do next, not what Gygax would do next, not what anyone would do next except you and your players. And I am not talking about this or that dungeon tactic or specific setting content like more adventure scenarios, but about the entire situation of play, meaning, what characters, as played and expressed by you, might do in it. You do not play to find out what Holmes has in store for you, as content or process, but to gain techniques to find out what you yourselves can do.
That's all gone in Blueholme. The clean-up has sterilized it. It's not a learning curve to anywhere.
My memory failed me…
In the process of packing for an upcoming move, I came across an old notebook that I was using to record gaming information from 2009-2011. While flipping through it, I realized I was misremembering something that I mentioned in the debriefing video: I said there that when I was playing a magic-user in an OD&D game I did not take the sleep spell, which led to some comments from other players. Well, looking at my notes, it seems that in reality I did succumb to peer pressure and ended up taking the sleep spell (which I used to some effect during the character's first outing in that game). I wasn't completely misremembering things: I did have feather fall in my quiver, and my listed spells for the last iteration of the character sheet that I have shows the character's spells as sleep, feather fall, find familiar, invisibility, and rope trick. All of which I have marked down as being used, though, of these spells, all I remember is using feather fall and rope trick.
The notebook was also interesting because it records the other things I was playing at that time, including a lot of D&D4E (although these were mostly single sessions through meet-ups or sporadically with my brothers), other kinds of "old school D&D" (including my own "Arnesonian" hack/setting of OD&D called "Arnemoor"), and Burning Wheel (including an attempt, failed, to use BW to run a dungeon crawl-type set-up; and an attempt, successful, to run a Chronicle of Prydain-inspired game). I mention this to note that there was definitely overlap at the time among people playing in these different games, without much sense of there be any significant "tribal loyalties" getting in the way of enjoying D&D4E on one day and a Moldvay-based game the next. On the other hand, I don't think I came across any Pathfinder players in these groups.
Umm – you are going to make
Umm – you are going to make that "Arnemoor" available to the interested parties? I hope? If you wanted to play it some time, you have my number, it's scrawled next to the pay phone at the back of the bar.
However, currently it seems
Jon, I'd be real interesting in hearing you discuss this further. I encountered older D&D through Moldvay circa…2011-2012-ish, when Luke Crane posted about it on Story-Games. I promptly ran a very good session of it, though it was a somewhat shorter experience than I was hoping for at the time. And I've since been playing OSE for the last few months, 8 or so sessions. Those two are my only material table experiences with those older texts (notwithstanding Lamentations, which isn't trying to be what OSE is trying to be), and I hadn't thought until this moment about whether the different texts engender different play. Since I was a GM in one and a player in the other, one face-to-face, one online, I fear any real analysis on my end in that regard will be obscured by things irrelevant to it. But I think a conversation is in order. Do you think it matters if the nostalgia piece is there, or not there, for any particular player of either the retro or the clone?
That was a good group of
That was a good group of people to play with, and sad to say everyone's been scattered to the winds.
Jon, that use of Featherfall is still legendary and I think about it at least once a year.
The guy who played a wizard with no "good" spells was me. Loved that character so much, in part because he was this sneering challenge to every other player: I'm gonna rock this session harder than you and I have nothing.
But even by my standards, I really envied what you pulled off in that session.
Ron – in true Arnesonian
Ron – in true Arnesonian fashion, the notes for Arnemoor are scattered across a number of notebooks and are not in order. However, their rediscovery at this specific time (i.e., when I'm in the middle of extensive play and thought about dungeon crawling) has definitely rekindled my interest in getting it ready to actually play.
James – sorry my addled memory appropriated your character! That was a good group, for sure.
Hans – I'm in the middle of a move and so don't have access to my copies of Moldvay/Cook or OSE, and so can't speak in as much detail as I'd like, but one major difference that jumps out at me is the very split between B and X in the original publications, versus the "all in one" approach of OSE. That is: Moldvay leads you very clearly to a dungeon crawling type experience, which is very clearly "what you're supposed to be doing", whereas the format of OSE lacks this focus. (Whether it's a cause or an effect, removing the strong focus from the dungeon as THE suitable arena for challenge and conflict is part of the fetishization of "sandbox" play that one encounters in many contemporary discussions about D&D type games).