This is my most recent experiment in playing a system in pure referee-style, six three-hour sessions of Knave in the famous B/X module Keep of the Borderlands by Gary Gygax. Previously, I attempted forty hours of a 5e West Marches Campaign which was a mixed experience. My sense of “referee style” is to stick adamantly to the module’s direction for game elements and its implicit notions of what is and isn’t possible. I might develop elements present in interesting ways but otherwise, the module lives or dies on its own merits.
Knave is a classless creative commons open system designed to be widely compatible with OSR material, especially B/X materials. Its author has cultivated a successful personal brand as an advocate for OSR with a particular focus on challenge, GM-as-referee, and emergence. B2 was chosen in anticipation of playing B10, Night’s Dark Terror. Both have wilderness exploration and have a lot of internet resources for comparison.
These choices were made in view of my West Marches failure. Most players had no willingness to engage with 5e’s complicated systems. Since I’m just interested in focused play, I wanted a system that people could pick up and understand. Knave’s ethos of “no class abilities” was promising because it emphasized a closed-loop from “exploring and acquiring stuff” to your character’s set of abilities.
My hope was that we could discover interesting situations and challenges without forcing them into play. This happened about once or twice a session in my West Marches experiment, but mostly from strong choices I made in the scenario design (imbalanced opponents, spells, keyed hexes, etc.)
The situation for Keep of the Borderlands is simple. The players come to a keep in the mountains armed to the teeth with soldiers which acts as a base of sorts. From there, they can explore the environment dealing with a few “monster situations” and eventually foray into “The Caves of Chaos”, a cave formation in the mountains home to different monster races living close together.
Running the module was quite challenging. Its conception of the environment is relentlessly spatial and it’s clear that I’m a failure as a human being because I can’t visualize how far the horizon is for someone standing atop a 1500 foot hill or how far someone can see into the darkness of winding passageways with two torches instead of one. When I run games, I am immensely clear about interpersonal relationships, character motivations, and information asymmetries. The module is immensely specific about every spatial detail of the keep like it was slavishly copied from the map of a computer game.
The result was a really even and nearly rote play cycle. The players would travel to the caves, kill as many enemies with ranged weapons as they safely could, and retreat back to the keep. If I presented other opportunities, they would simply ignore them and continue doing the exact same play loop.
It seemed like the players and I had very different experiences with the same play. The players seemed to find this fun or rewarding and I found it maximally dull, like watching people play one of those gacha games. Challenging situations only developed at my direct behest- playing out dinner with the master of the keep, an eldritch artifact picked up.
I can’t say that the players’ methods were particularly ineffective. Picking up a lot of followers and concentrating on ranged DPS is extremely effective if your enemies are the ultra-vanilla creatures featured in the module and there aren’t any traps.
In discussion with some OSR folk, it was suggested I play the enemies as more intelligent though it arguably flies in the face of the module’s design which is very “room-oriented.” Arguably, this is a crucial weakness in the entire genre of play. If enemies coordinated realistically, they would attack at once like real armies and overwhelm the players with DPS. The convention of disconnected groups of enemies located in rooms is 100% an artifact of design as far as I’m concerned and I’m not sure how to “balance” the two perspectives.
Play continued with the same group past this into the B/X module B10: Night’s Dark Terror. And this story shall also be told.