Practicing the dungeon game: Pickups

After I finished my stint as referee in a long game focusing on sailing, exploring the wilderness, and leading bands of warriors, I wanted to try something a little different. That game had risen to really great heights, with dramatic, difficult challenges for both myself and the other players, but also spent a lot of time, maybe too much time, on low-stakes travel and bookkeeping.

I wanted to play shorter sessions, in a more accessible format, spending more time facing immediate challenges. I also wanted to see a bit more of classic dungeon commando gameplay. I’d never played a game with serious players that focused on dungeons, and I didn’t really know what the format was capable of. I was especially interested in the tactical possibilities of various spells and magic items.

I also had some goals for my own development as a roleplayer:

  • Improve play that involves precise locations in time and space
  • Run an environment where creatures respond intelligently to enemy incursions
  • Try out some interesting techniques and rules in a low-stakes environment

Rules are simple: whatever “D&D-like” procedures we can remember at the table, with whatever “D&D-like” means to the table, to adjudicate situations. If we can’t remember anything useful, or we remember different things, we simply make up some model to help us. Bring in or create characters for whatever game you please, as long as they are conversant with the general framework of armor class, hit points, to-hit rolls, and damage. (Potentially a character could be any level the player pleased, or start with any item whatsoever, but nobody has suggested this.) To help with converting characters across games, I fixed a scale where characters generally move 60 feet in 10 seconds, and can move and attack in that time.

Following are my recollections of the sessions. I find the writeups for 3–5 more interesting; they get into issues of technique, and were written immediately after the sessions.

Session 1

I’m writing this report now, several months later, so my memory is spotty. Mostly going to be in-fiction events.

A one-on-one game, online (as are all the rest) with a player I’d never met before, Troyborg. His character was a B/X fighter, Borial. I introduced the game by explaining that he was outside a dungeon, “Borshak’s Lair”, an early work by Jennell Jacquays. The dungeon was once a chapel and later a tomb for a lord, and then it was taken by a wizard who vanished inside it. More recently the orc warlord Borshak has taken it over. There’s supposed to be lots of treasure inside, from Borshak, the wizard, and the old lord. Go!

Since Troy was all alone, I suggested that he might want to start with some hired help, and decided he wanted three armed men to tag along. They descended the long stairway into the dungeon and came across an orc guard leaning against the wall. They killed him. If I recall correctly, they took a little bit of damage in the attempt. They they investigated the room beyond (“curtain room” on the map), which was lined with curtains on all sides and had a large double-door on its south side. They pushed past the curtains to find that the room was a good deal larger than they thought, maybe 10 feet longer and wider. There was a small cloth bundle in the northeast corner, behind the curtains.

At this point I rolled a random encounter got a giant tick. I thought the bundle was a great place to put the tick, and I described the bundle shifting and a grey chitinous shape stirring within it. Troy and company approached and the tick leapt out. The ensuing combat was pretty brutal. The tick latched onto his character and nearly killed him before it was removed. And it probably would have killed him, but he said, “How am I supposed to get this thing off of me?” and I suggested that anything which would work on a normal tick would work on a giant one as well, at which point he tried to burn it off. We agreed that he and the tick would both take damage, since he was holding a torch to his skin, and that the tick would let go. And it did let go, though it survived, barely injured. On the next turn he and the men kept trying to kill it, and it jumped on one of his men. The remainder kept trying to kill the tick, without success, and it killed its victim before Troy decided to flee back to the surface.

I offered Troy some tactical advice, which he took: don’t try to fight everything you see. In this case, he’d seen that the tick was slow, and he probably could have outrun it. Besides, he didn’t look to gain anything from fighting it once it had detached from him, so it wasn’t obvious why he would want to.

Troy replaced his dead retainer and healed up before descending again. The second delve was much more successful. There was another guard at the foot of the stairs (the module specifies there will always be a guard there) and no tick in the curtained room. He found a magical amulet in the bundle of cloth the tick had been hiding in and went through the double doors to the south (to the “room with statues” on the map), setting off a magical alarm but not meeting any resistance. In the next room he found a secret door to the west and followed it to the barracks section of the dungeon. He opened a door with an ochre jelly behind but the group was fast enough to simply run away from it.

Then he came across a row of statues at the end of a corridor. (“Three little statues” on the player map above, though there’s actually four of them.) and investigated them. One of the statues was easily moved, and beneath it was a key carved from a finger bone. The next statue triggered a trap, a pack of 10 demons which emerged from a secret passage and attacked him! In fact they were skeletons enchanted to look like demons. He somehow guessed that a trick was afoot, but wrongly concluded that the demons were completely illusory. I suggested that he could probably try to concentrate really hard for 10 seconds to disbelieve the demons, if he thought they were totally false, but of course they were not, and they still hit him.

At the same time, I rolled a random encounter with goblins. Troy again decided that discretion was the better part of valor and fled from the area, dodging around the jelly and leaving the goblins and demons to clash.

Thus ended the session. I put Troy’s character, Borial, on the scoreboard with a jaw-dropping 2304 XP, mostly from the magic amulet.

Session 2

Again, I’m typing this from memory two months later. Troy returned, and I had a new player, JCD, who I had spoken to but never played with before. JCD brought a B/X magic-user, Wigmund. We introduced ourselves and the dungeon, recapped the last session, and got to it.

The opening was uneventful. I can’t remember if the players killed the lone guard or simply walked past him. (The scenario description states that no guard will stop the players from going deeper into the lair, but they will stop the players from trying to leave or enter the barracks.)

The pair investigated a secret passage to the east of the “room with statues”. There they found stairs and a room with an indestructible curtain around its middle. One boosted another up to the top of the curtain, where he was able to squeeze through gap between curtain and ceiling. (I didn’t have a good mental picture of this room, and it wasn’t obvious to me how the curtain should connect with the ceiling and/or floor. This was a bit messy and inconsistent through the different sessions.) On the other side of the curtain was a pair of skeletons and a crystal ball. The skeletons immediately attacked, and, on their second round of combat, doubled. Again Troy took 10 seconds to stand stock still and try to disbelieve them, and again his efforts when unrewarded. The pair decided they had no business fighting doubling skeletons and again fled. (I don’t recall the logistics of retreating through the curtain, but I’m sure we worked it out at the time.)

They remained in the dungeon, however, and this time explored to the south of the room with statues, finding a big pit and a stone throne in another curtained-off room. The pit seemed to end after 20 feet or so, but at its bottom was only inky darkness. They tossed a torch in and it vanished. JCD’s character cast detect magic, an found that the pit was magic, and that more magic radiated from behind the curtains. Drawing the curtains aside, they found braziers burning with incense in each corner of the room, and, in the southeast corner, just behind a brazier, an impressive-looking door. They went to open the door but the character who attempted this fell asleep, lost to the brazier’s magic. (The brazier sends anyone who spends 1 minute within 5 feet of it to sleep for “not less than” 2 minutes.) They wrongly concluded that the door was the source of the sleep magic and sent a retainer to grab the character without touching the door. This retainer too fell asleep. I cannot recall how they eventually recovered the two sleepers — maybe with lassoes?

They searched the stone throne and found an enchanted poison needle placed on it as a deadly prank. Then they searched the walls for secret doors for an hour, staying well away from the corners. Miraculously, in that time they did not trigger any random encounters. They found a secret door, unmarked on the map, to a room with an orc magician in it, taking him completely by surprise. They immediately closed the door and left the entire dungeon. Thus ended session 2.

Borial got up to 2604 XP on the board, and Wigmund (JCD’s character) got 300.

Session 3: A short dungeon jaunt

The following is a lightly-edited copy of my writeup on Wynwerod.

I had two “yes” RSVPs, but one player no-showed, so it was just me and my frequent collaborator and co-GM Adam. He rolled up a character, Norbert the AD&D 1e thief, and asked for two retainers. I rolled up Skamandra the magic-user and Grignr the half-orc fighter. I then gave Adam a brief history of the dungeon he was about to face: first Lord Helmdar built it as a chapel, and then tomb, and then the wizard Tim took it over, and now 100 years later it’s the lair of some orcs and goblins. Adam had heard a bit about the dungeon from the two previous players and my session blurbs, and he was cautious. Jennell loves a screw-job.

The trio descended a long stairway into the dungeon, meeting a lone orc guard at the foot of the stairs. In my notes, all the guards will let people enter the dungeon, but they’ll try to stop players from leaving or finding the orc barracks. So the orc responded to their greeting in a disinterested way. Adam said he felt like he’d have to fight the guard to get past it. I wanted to signal that this wasn’t true, and I figured that the guard, seeing the party get tense and ready for battle, would want to signal his lack of desire to fight, so the guard asked, “Going in?” and stepped aside.

The party entered the room at the foot of the stairs, which was lined with heavy velvet curtains and had a large double door on its south wall. As soon as he was sure that nobody was watching from behind the curtains, Adam had the party attack the orc. Since the orc was watching them, I asked him to roll for initiative, rather than grant surprise. The orc won initiative and ran away, up the stairs. On Adam’s turn Skamandra cast sleep, knocking out the orc. The party took him out of the dungeon and interrogated him.

Here I rolled for the orc’s reaction, to see how pliable it would be. Adam’s character was good-aligned, and he specifically said he wouldn’t torture or threaten prisoners. I rolled a moderate reaction. I played this as the orc being a bit cagey and vague, giving general details but not specifics. If he had used torture, I might have given precise (but sometimes false) details. If I had rolled a more positive reaction, I would have given more details, and fewer or none on a more negative reaction.

The orc told the party that Borshak allowed anyone to enter the dungeon, hoping that its defenses would weaken or kill them, and that Borshak’s forces would pounce upon them as they tried to leave. He said that there were lots of secret doors in the dungeon, the first of which was in the dungeon’s very second room (after the drapery room), and that there was hidden space behind the drapes.

The lair so far

Adam had the party leave the orc tied up loosely, so it could escape on its own in a few hours of wriggling, and returned to the dungeon the next day, spells refreshed. They met another orc guard at the door. (I reasoned that Borshak probably expected a pretty high casualty rate for his door-guards: most of them would either be killed by adventurers who didn’t want to try diplomacy, or get bored and wander off. So he probably budgeted for that and would just keep replacing them, without thinking anything was the matter.) The party shanked this one as they walked by. I didn’t call for any attack rolls or anything; three on one, with a decent chance of surprise, sounds like a done deal to me.

Then the party explored the curtained room. It turned out to be much larger than it seemed – the curtains hid a 5 foot wide perimeter! They dragged the dead orc into the hidden perimeter and began to search the area. Unfortunately, there was no treasure there, as it had already been looted during pickup 1. As the party searched, I rolled a random encounter check, and got 2 orcs. At first I thought I’d roll to see if the orcs heard the party, but Adam suggested that it would probably be impossible, with the thick velvet curtains muffling things, to hear mere footsteps. So we dispensed with that. Grignr circled the perimeter while Skamandra and Norbert got line-of-sight with the stairway. The orcs went to stand guard at the stairway (what else would they be doing? It wasn’t a feature-full environment) and Skamandra and Norbert threw darts at them from behind. In hindsight, I should have given bonuses for attacking unaware opponents from behind, but I did not.

Only Skamandra hit, and she only dealt 2 damage.

Adam remembered that Norbert was a thief, and wanted a bonus for backstabbing, retconning his ranged attack into a melee. I agreed, but he wouldn’t get to reroll his attack: he had to stick with his original, bad roll. This roll was bad enough that, even with the thief’s backstab bonus, he missed.

The orcs turned to attack Skamandra and Norbert. Grignr, who had been holding his attack, charged from behind. (Here I remembered the bonus to hit from behind.) Unfortunately, he too missed.

The orcs attacked Norbert and Skamandra, and both hit. I had instituted a house rule that players could halve a damage from one attack to fall unconscious for the remainder of a fight. Both Norbert and Skamandra fell unconscious – it was that or death!

I hoped Grignr might come to the rescue, but Adam reminded me he should probably roll morale. His morale failed and he fled.

The orcs scooped up the unconscious adventurers, looted them, and tortured them to death. Next session Adam’s going to play as Grignr, who has killer stats and an interesting introduction to the game.

Session 4: Unhygenic play with jellies

The following is copied from my writeup on Wynwerod.

Another two-player session with Adam. I got my VTT working correctly, with the dynamic fog-of-war I had been aiming for, which put me in a pretty good mood. In theory this meant a chance to test my “no torches, 5 foot candle radius, 10 foot lantern radius” house rules. As you’ll see, Adam had other plans.
On the other hand, I had hoped for a higher player-count based on the interest people had expressed. But I’m comfortable running for just Adam, and I was quite confident we’d still have a good run.

We started by chatting about our ongoing project (a zine we’re writing together, hanging on my final contribution) and seeing if his character, Grignr the Coward, had the stats to multi-class into a thief or other class. He did not; he’s a fighter, and that’s it. His background did state that he was a former carpenter, so we briefly discussed the merits of hammers, maces, morningstars, and axes.

Grignr had a super high charisma, 16 (among orcs and giant-kin; 12 among humans). Adam wanted to start with the orc he had tied up last session as his new retainer. I thought that was reasonable. Adam’s characters had treated the orc well, Grignr was a half-orc himself, and Grignr hadn’t even been the one who tied the orc up. So we rolled a reaction check and Grignr’s fearsome charisma made Bagrum Gro-Yagrum a loyal retainer. Adam elected not to hire any other retainers. He explained that he planned on infiltrating the orcs and attempting to depose Borshak, and he wouldn’t be able to get away with it if he had any humans hanging around.

Bagrum would be willing to tell Grignr everything he knew about the dungeon, I decided, so I informed Adam that Borshak had an orc magic-user, goblins, kobolds, ogres, and a troll working for him, along with the usual orcs. I checked my notes and map to see where I thought Bagrum would have been and would know about, and we got started.

Adam’s first move was to extinguish his candles and use infravision only. Luckily, my random encounter generator has a toggle for that, allowing him to surprise opponents (which he would have no chance of doing if he carried a light). I thought this was a good tactical move.

The pair descended down the stairs into the lair. As usual, they encountered a guard at the bottom; this time, a kobold. He had surprise on the kobold, and the creature rolled a fear reaction, so I presented it as quivering and nervous as it stood alone at a perilous post. (I’d previously said that the door guard position had such a high fatality rate that Borshak wouldn’t even investigate if one of the guards went missing.) Adam ordered the creature to run up the tunnel so it wouldn’t bother them. Grignr and Bagrum entered the next room and attempted to open its huge double doors, which had a painting of Borshak on them, enchanted to yell and raise an alarm if they were opened. Unfortunately, they failed their open door check several times. Under my new and experimental random encounter rules, I make a random encounter check every 15 minutes of real time or whenever the characters spend time doing stuff – struggling to open a door, for instance. As a result, the party encountered 2 more kobolds. First, though, we resolved the door situation. Grignr applied his carpentry know-how to take the doors off their hinges.

Beyond the doors (and farther than Adam had been in the dungeon so far, lmao at last week’s room 2 tpk) was a large room with stairs and statues and some curtains beyond, and, most pressingly, 2 kobolds. No chance of surprise but the kobolds rolled a positive reaction. Adam ordered them to pick up the halves of the door and guard them, under the pretense that Borshak wanted to gaze on his own portrait. They hopped to. Bagrum showed Grignr how to open the secret passage into the barracks area of the lair (censored for future players) and the pair went on.

In the barracks they encountered a long hallway strewn with filth and 3 doors. Two of them lead to the kobold dormitory, and the third was locked. Bagrum had never seen it opened. Adam suspected treasure behind it and decided to smash it down. The noise from this triggered another encounter check, and Adam bumped into 6 orcs, positively inclined. Adam convinced them that Borshak had likely hidden some treasure behind the locked door. I can’t remember if I rolled another reaction check or just went with it; either way, the orcs decided to help Grignr and Bagrum.

Behind the door was an ochre jelly, poised to fall on anybody who managed to open it.

I told Adam that a slimy thing fell on him and asked him to roll for surprise. He was surprised. The creature then got a free round of damage, 3d4->7 versus Grignr’s 8 HP. I’d instituted a house-rule that characters could fall unconscious to negate half the (non-magical) damage from a hit, and I reminded Adam about this. He took the opportunity. Then we rolled initiative. The jelly won. Before I rolled the 3d4, I asked Adam how we wanted to handle death – at 0 hp, wound at 0 and death at -4, or unconscious at 0, wound at -4, and death at -10? OR something else? I was really unwilling to let Grignr simply die. It felt too hopeless. I decided to wound at 0 hp and roll a death save or die. 3d4->8 brought Grignr to -4. He made the death save. Bagrum pulled him out of the jelly and brushed the bits of jelly off him, while the orcs all attacked it. (First they made morale checks, at a penalty for having their leader go unconscious, and all but one passed.) All misses.

Next round, Bagrum took 3d4 damage from the ooze on his fingers and died. That was it for the game. Adam asked if that was how it worked, does Bagrum just take the damage? I took a step back from the situation. We read the monster manual description and discussed it a bit – how do oozes and jellies work? Is it just contact with them or do they require attack rolls?

I realized I hadn’t given the jelly a single attack roll the entire. It simply dealt damage. That can’t be right. At the very least it needs to make an attack roll to hit the first time, even if it does deal automatic damage after that. (And does it deal automatic damage after that? I think it depends on the specific creature. The jelly is said to deal damage through the digestive enzymes it secretes. It’s otherwise a single giant amoeba. So it probably needs to keep attacking. An ooze, on the other hand, is a colony of many little creatures, and leaves bits of itself behind when it hits somebody, so it must continue dealing damage. Jury’s still out for puddings.)

Fuck it, we’ll retcon the whole thing.

I made two attack rolls for the jelly. Both missed. On Adam’s turn, we kept the orc misses, but gave him an extra orc attack (from the one who fled when Grignr went down) and an attack from Grignr and Bagrum. Grignr got a roll of 30, a major stunt. Now’s a good time to explain my stunting rules, stolen from Eero Tuovinen’s work on Coup de Maine.

My basic combat algorithm is “Target 20”: roll 1d20 + attack bonus + enemy ac. If the result is 20 or higher, deal damage. For a level 2+ fighter, if the result is 25 or higher, deal +1 damage or do a minor stunt. For a level 2+ fighter, if the result is 30 or higher, deal +2 damage or do a major stunt. (In this case I forgot about the “level 2+” thing, alas.)

Grignr rolled a 30. His major stunt was to pick up the pieces of the door and drive them into the jelly, tearing it in half. I guess Adam didn’t know that jellies can divide in half and survive! (Normally they do so when hit with electricity.)l Against a different enemy, I might have asked him to pick a different stunt, because you can’t simply cut somebody in half, but in this case, it worked well, and the jelly divided.

Bagrum rolled a 25 and speared the front half of the jelly to the ground, immobilizing it, though it could still attack adjacent enemies. (Again, I forgot that he shouldn’t have been able to do this.)

The rest of the combat was quick and uneventful. Two orcs fell before the jellies were killed. I remarked that the 6 HD jelly was one of the largest single foes our play group had ever overcome. For whatever reason, we tended to fight hordes of 1–4 HD monsters rather than individual large monsters.

Behind the jelly was an apparently-empty closet. The gang searched inside of it for a secret door. 3 searchers covering 35 feet of wall. I was excited for Adam’s victory and I didn’t want to do any math, so I decided to just roll a single search check for each of the three searchers, and a single wandering monster check, to see if he found the secret compartment at the back of the closet. (In hindsight, it might have been better to only roll for one of them, as only one could possibly have been searching the correct area.) No wandering monsters and they found a chest full of old scrolls. Adam assigned one of the orcs to carry the chest and continued forward. (In hindsight I might have rolled morale or loyalty to see if the orc tried to slip away with the chest.)

Near the end of the passageway the party encountered a set of 4 statues, and Grignr began to examine them before I rolled another random encounter. 6 kobolds, aggressive, with surprise, and given the positions of the miniatures on the VTT, they could only see Grignr and Bagrum. Of course they attacked! They slew Bagrum before the rest of the gang caught up. One or two more orcs might have died, I can’t remember, along with most of the kobolds. Grignr cried out to the orcs that the kobolds were treacherous and had declared civil war, which the orcs of course believed, as they thought Grignr was one of them. Meanwhile goblins had overheard the fight and came running, whooping and hollering, in the party’s direction.

Adam decided to flee rather than take his chances with the goblins. He asked to loot the bodies on the way out but I didn’t think he would have enough time before the goblins arrived. He retreated back two rooms (this is probably hard to picture but I am unwilling to show the map, sorry) where he find the two kobolds, still guarding the door halves (I rolled a morale check to see if they would stay or wander off) and 3 skeletons, milling about idly, apparently from the feared eastern section of the dungeon, where even the orcs dare not go. The party slew the two kobold guards and sent a runner to Borshak, warning him that the kobolds had declared war. Then they retreated to split up loot.

The loot was absolutely bonkers, 5 spell scrolls with a total of 44 spell-levels among them. That’s 300 gp per spell level, split between Grignr and the 5 remaining orcs. (If he had been a magic-user he could have totally destroyed some dungeons with the spells in those scrolls, but, oh well!) He walked away from the adventure with a cool 5500 xp.

As we wrapped things up, Grignr told the orcs he could lead them better than Borshak, and bring them more riches, and pointed out their haul as evidence that Borshak had been holding out on them. I had to agree. They vowed to depose Borshak and take his riches.

We discussed the practicalities of running a gang of orcs. I’m not looking for a full campaign, just a series of dungeon-crawls, so I think if Grignr runs a gang, he could get as many orc retainers as he wanted, until they all died anyway. Next session I’ll roll up the survivors as his fully-statted henchmen and we’ll go from there.

Session 5: The gap between plan and execution

The following is a lightly edited copy of my writeup on Wynwerod.

Another session. Adam, plus Patrick, who I’ve played with previously, though not in the pickup series, and Tommi, whom I have spoken to but never played with. Going in I was excited and a bit more nervous than usual. I think Tommi represented the entirety of Eero Tuovinen’s “RPG Theory” discord server in my mind. They’re cool kids, and the “wargaming way” is one I aspire to. So I felt some pressure, and planned pretty hard for Borshak’s response to Grignr’s next incursion. As it happened, the play did not interact with my prep, or maybe Borshak’s prep, at all: I had assumed the party would go to the western portion of the dungeon, and instead they went east.

Adam brought Grignr, the AD&D 1e half-orc fighter. Patrick brought Gargamel, the Knave necromancer. And Tommi brought Kanora, the Cairn adventurer who we agreed to treat as a fighter when necessary. We converted Cairn’s armor-as-damage resistance to traditional D&D armor-as-penalty-to-enemy-hit-chance.

Here’s Patrick’s description of the session:

We hire some retainers to fill our ranks. We enter the dungeon in the midst of an ongoing civil war. Gargamel the Necromancer hires a tall person with bad eyesight and a limp. Norbert the Lame. People accuse the poor Necromancer of bad intentions. Grignr and his Orcs kill and scare off some giant centipedes we find and we enter a room with an immovable curtain. We figure out they’re suceptible to gravity and drill away a few of the hooks. We see inside: 2 skeletons and a glowing crystal ball. We drill more hooks out to create a small opening to club the skeletons and walk in. As we walk in and start fighting them, a gong sounds and where there were 2 skeletons are now 4! The necromancer in the group raises a centipede exoskeleton to help and we manage to get the crystal ball out of the room. The skeletons disappear and the crystal ball ceases to glow.
We plan to get the whole curtain and sell it as a group of Hobgoblins shouts through the darkness, demanding valuables or they’ll block our way. We try to send the centipede after them but Sharpshooter-Gob rolls a natural 20 and smacks down the centipede. We then plan to ambush them if they come through the door while we detach the curtain. They don’t want to get ambushed and fruitlessly shoot arrows at us but they can’t shoot around corners. We take off the curtains, roll them up and throw it down the stairs on the hobgoblin troupe. Meanwhile, Gargamel checks for secret doors and finds a secret door that leads to a room with two orcs staring at something small towards the other wall. Grignr thinks one of them may be Borshak himself and we ambush the two surprised Orcs. We overwhelm them and they surrender. The big one is actually Borshak. He says there is a treasure chest in a small table, made of 4 feet of oak. The chest is trapped with a poison needle. We carry out the whole table to figure out the trap elsewhere as more Orcs and an Ogre barge in, one of them gestures and talks to cast a spell. He casts darkness, then disappears and we have to leave the table behind with a heavy heart as we flee through the darkness, heavy Ogre footsteps behind us.

So, the important beats of the session:

  • figuring out the outside of the curtained room
  • fighting the skeletons
  • standoff with the hobgoblin patrol
  • ambushing Borshak
  • whatever the fuck happened after that

As usual, I’m going to focus on what went wrong and what I can do better. The session was marred with a few technical difficulties and three notable blunders on my end.

I was really excited about my fancy individualized fog of war, but it turned out to be a lot more trouble than it was worth, constantly glitching out and interrupting play. Additionally, players could only control their own individual hirelings, meaning they got in each other’s way constantly. Tommi suggested that one dedicated person (the caller maybe?) could be in charge of character, or at least hireling, position, and I think that’s a good call. Otherwise, I think the personalized dynamic fog of war is better suited to survival horror. It’s just too much effort, with too little reward, for dungeon warfare.

Twice I had to say, “Oh, did you actually do that? I thought you were just planning to” because I had moved to interrupt the players before their plans could come to fruition. They, meanwhile, thought they had already done the actions. The two occurrences were: maneuvering away from the hobgoblin patrol, and tying up Borshak. It’s just not obvious when an action counts as “done”. For something like “I attack”, the answer is obvious: you try to attack, making an obvious movement to do so, and then you roll, and maybe you hit and maybe you miss. But for something like “Let’s tie him up”, does that count?

Takeaway: I should have asked if the players were planning or acting. If they were acting, I could have said, “Before you have a chance…” or similar.

The end of the session, when the players ambushed Borshak, was a total mess. They had surprise, so the whole party crammed in into his chambers and surrounded him. They had the movement range, so I didn’t see a problem with it. In hindsight, I should have asked, “How many people do you think can slip into the room in 10 seconds? Given that they’re not in a line beforehand, they’re all bunched up and trying to push through.” Perhaps only three or four could have squeezed in in that first turn.

I had Borshak surrender after they got him surrounded, and was going to lead the players to his trapped treasure chest while he got help from his magician. But was he already tied up or not? Adam said, “I get a length of chain”, but where did he get the chain? Was it already on him? I didn’t think to ask. And how long did this all take?

Borshak told the players the treasure was in his huge oak table, and the players decided to just cart the thing out. They had four extra hands, so they could probably do it.

Then the magician came up the stairs, followed by his guard and an ogre. I was pleased with his first move, to cast darkness over the whole party, and planned on following it up with a limited wish (to get Borshak and himself free) or a fireball, if Borshak couldn’t be saved.

But could Borshak be saved? Tommi reminded me that with his high HP (Tommi didn’t know how high, but it was 25) Borshak shouldn’t be simply beheaded by Adam. (Adam had repeatedly said statements of the form, “And if x, I’ll behead him!”) He could wriggle out of his chains or similar. I’m using Eero Tuovinen’s conceptualization of this principle, which he has called the “HP Cancel”: pay hp per hd of your opponent to negate their status effect. So I had Borshak take 20 damage and asked Adam to do the rest on his weapon strike. This was an error in two parts: first, Adam’s character Grignr is only level 2, so it should only have been 10 damage to Borshak; and second, I didn’t ask Adam to make an attack roll, just to do damage, “since he’s already tied up”. Adam dealt 7 damage, which was enough to kill Borshak after the 20 from ???, but that’s all in the past.

Then the magician cast fireball. Or started to, anyway. First we had to puzzle out if he could even target the party. Yes, we decided, he could. Then we figured out how big the explosion was. I said I wanted to do fixed-radius fireball. The other players ignored and started calculating the size of a fixed-volume fireball, which of course would kill everybody in the vicinity. (I’m actually fine with the gang disagreeing with me here; not everything is up to me. When I want to adjudicate something, my first move is always to ask, “What do you think?”.) Well, the magician’s not suicidal, so it won’t cast the fireball if it’ll kill itself, so what else would it cast? (Limited wish, to teleport himself and Borshak out.) Does he even know Borshak’s dead? The whole thing happened inside the cloud of darkness, after all. Fuck, whatever, he vanishes, teleported away to gather reinforcements.

I felt like I had a poor handle on the magician’s capabilities and plans. I realized, with a start, that I had never controlled such a powerful magic-user; not as a player, nor as a GM. Not even close. My preferences have always skewed martial. I need to brush up on the effects of all the magician’s spells, and think about their uses.

Remaining forces (an ogre and an orc) check morale and succeed. They’ll come chasing after the party. At this point I really have to end the session and get ready for work, so I give a summary judgement. The party can’t both hold onto the table and escape the ogre. If we are to end things, they’ll have to drop the table. (My call, not theirs.) Then they escaped the dungeon without further incident, before the magician could rally Borshak’s forces.

If we hadn’t had a summary judgement, I told the players, they would have had to actually deal with the ogre (possibly just running away; the ogre couldn’t see through the magical darkness either) and then their way out would probably have been blocked by the magician and a wall of fire. And the magician would have summoned reinforcements. It would have been a pretty nasty fight out.

I’ll comment a little on the intraparty dynamic. I think Patrick got bored by some of the bean-counting, like when we were calculating the weight of the magic curtain or the volume of the fireball. Physics modelling never engages him. I think Adam felt stifled when his plans didn’t work or were rejected, particularly by Tommi, and he was positively shocked when Tommi suggested that Grignr couldn’t simply behead Borshak. And I think Tommi was frustrated at the looseness of the game. Of course, they are all free to disagree if they read this.


This drawing of a skeleton beyond the magic curtain is so charming. Thank you, Patrick!

I’d really like to replay the last 15 minutes of the session, from the Borshak ambush on. I’d need to get familiar with the magician’s capabilities first. We’d need to have a really tight control over action timing – who is doing what, when? What is being discussed, and what is being done? If we did that, I think we’d have a hell of an interesting scenario on our hands.

I started this series with the intention of uncovering (and hopefully fixing!) some of my weaknesses, and it’s definitely working.

Next time, I’ll do a bit more opforce modelling for the magician, maybe get some advice from some other gamers.

Further sessions

I’ll post more updates as sessions occur on Wynwerod and as comments to this post.


9 responses to “Practicing the dungeon game: Pickups”

  1. I like your summary judgement regarding the table at the end. It provides a necessary ending and seems fair, given that the PCs have not yet reached a position where they can declare a win.

    As for playing that magician, I think it’s fine to not have all the powers and their best use at the tip of your fingers. It’s both okay to occasionally need some time to figure things out and it’s also okay to have a powerful NPC act less than clever — maybe he’s bit of an egghead.

    In fact, I personally find playing supergenius villains challenging — because I have to come up with good plans AND resist the temptation to cheat to make him or her act smartly (e.g. by retroactively foreseeing a PC’s spell combo and having packed just the right potion to counter it and similar bullshit). Probably why I haven’t played one in a long time, prefering out-of-touch liches, overconfident vampires, scatterbrained overlords and such.

    • I think I need to stretch my creative/tactical skills with respect to magic-users in general. I’ve got no problem playing the general of a small army commanding his units, but as soon as magic comes into the picture, I’m out!

      Several of the next modules on my playlist have magic-user enemies. I hope to improve with practice.

    • Canyon, when I have something to say which might go in kind of hard, I always ask permission first. So … is that OK?

  2. ## Session 6: Gliding through dark water, Lichway 1

    Patrick and Fishbones. Patrick has a gift for
    character concepts. He pulled in a Knave necromancer with a hireling that had
    “big bones”, no doubt so he could reanimate the guy once he died. I asked if
    they wanted any hirelings and they took several, maybe 3 or 4.

    My memory of this session is dim so I’ll skip a lot of it. I want to focus on a
    few key situations.

    In the set-up, I had a really tough time explaining the geography of the
    situation. In part I blame the module, because the geography doesn’t really make
    sense. I also think I had some misleading word choices that caused a lot of
    confusion. There’s no concrete lesson in this. Describing things accurately is a
    skill, and needs a lot of practice.

    The dungeon has a lot of water features, and the players followed an underground
    stream through it, avoiding a lot of potential violence. They found themselves
    in the east branch of a four-way intersection. North and south lead apparently
    to dead ends. North also had a rope ladder, fastened to the floor, just piled up
    — no “down” that anyone could see. West was a crawlspace, through water, into a
    dark room. They searched the north end and found a secret door opening 15 feet
    above a flooded room. They let the rope ladder down and one guy descended. They
    tossed a rock into the flooded room and disturbed something in the water — I
    rolled a random encounter with 2 lizardmen, who could only have emerged from
    that room. Their dispositions were neutral, but I decided that they interpreted
    the rock as a sign of aggression. The lizardmen swam towards the party,
    remaining underwater, though I told the players they could see large shapes
    moving through the water. The party retreated, but left the secret door open and
    the rope ladder unfurled. I decided that when the lizardmen reached the ladder,
    they would climb it stealthily. If the players didn’t leave a rearguard (and
    they didn’t) the lizardmen would have a chance of surprise against them.

    Meanwhile one of the party wriggled through the crawlspace and found himself at
    the top of a mini-waterfall pouring out into a pool in a magician’s
    headquarters. The magician, Dark Odo, arose and ordered her minions (hidden in
    the pool below) to grab the adventurer. He retreated far back enough to break
    line of sight, but stayed on his knees in the crawlspace so he could poke
    anybody following him with a spear. (Of course no one would follow him into such
    a terrible position.)

    While this was going on, the other player was doing some math on the size of the
    southern branch, and realized it too led to a secret door which must connect to
    Dark Odo’s room. He was right, and I told him so, but I decided that, even if
    someone knows there’s a secret door somewhere, one still must search for it in
    order to open it. But while it normally takes 10 minutes to search for a secret
    door, with a 1-in-6 chance of success, because he *knew* there was a door there,
    I’d give him the same chance of success in each round of melee spent searching.
    Their plan, I think, was to sortie from the secret door and take Odo by
    surprise. I would certainly have given them a chance at surprising her; I
    thought it was a very good plan.

    At this time we did indeed switch to melee, because the lizardmen had succeeded
    in their surprise and got the jump on two of the retainers! They munched one of
    them and grabbed the other. As the players had an enemy to the north and west,
    and no immediate chance for sortie to the south, they opted to retreat. I think
    that was the best option for them. As I said, Odo’s forces wouldn’t follow them
    through the crawlspace, and the lizardmen were attacking opportunistically, and
    wouldn’t follow either.

    They continued their delve, coming upon a long hallway lined with sarcophagi,
    hundreds of them. They correctly realized that all the sarcophagi contained
    skeletons, which would reanimate when the party solved some magical whatever in
    the place.

    Two further points for that session. I played a giant spider as a genuine ambush
    predator, grabbing a hireling and killing it instantly after a successful poison
    attack, and then immediately retreating to its web above. The players decided
    they didn’t want to tackle it. Then they encountered a band of drunken Xvarts. I
    described them bumping into the Xvart’s sentry, but then I realized that the
    Xvarts had two entrances to their camp and only one sentry. In that case, why
    would the sentry magically occupy the entrance the players chose? Thus I flipped
    a coin to see which entry they guarded, and wound up retconning the exchange.
    (“Never mind that, the entry is unguarded. Here’s what you see…”.) I didn’t
    make my reasoning clear in the moment, and later one of the players asked me
    what the deal was there.

    ## 8: Big battle, Borshak 7

    I got a lot of ideas from the RPG Theory about how the orcs of Borshak’s Lair
    would fortify their hideout after the last session, and I prepared a whole order
    of battle and fortifications and stuff. The orcs were really mad about the last

    Adam and a new player, Aggie, whose brother is in our Reavers game. (Aggie also
    joined that game.) Aggie had never played with any GM other than their brother,
    and consciously opted to let Adam take the wheel in this session.

    I offered to Adam that he could have his delve take place the next day or two
    after the previous delve (when he had killed Borshak) or wait a few weeks
    in-game to let the orcs cool off. If he chose the lattter, I told him, their
    defenses will have relaxed but they will have penetrated deeper into the tomb
    complex, removing some of the loot and getting new spells and stuff (but maybe
    also taking casualties). Adam chose to return immediately.

    Adam grabbed a bunch of men-at-arms, wise for a siege, a mix of archers and
    heavy infantry. Two of the infantry had big two-handed shields, pavises. I
    don’t think much of this as a strategy; pavises are better used against ranged
    attacks than in melee, where you really want to be able to stick the other guy.
    Otherwise his setup was good.

    I took out the (hilariously vulnerable) sentries from the dungeon and replaced
    them with a Magic Mouth spell that would holler whenever somebody other than an
    orc, goblin, or ogre passed through the entrance. I also added a barricade to
    the first large room, beyond which 10 guys would wait in ambush with ranged
    weapons. I set up a sleep-watch-raid schedule with the inhabitants, figuring out
    how many of them were at each position at any given time. (One quarter on guard,
    one quarter outside of the dungeon on a raid, one quarter sleeping, one quarter
    resting awake.) And I figured out what the orc magician would do with his
    spells, if he were engaged in combat again.

    The session had two forays into the dungeon.

    In the first foray, the orcs had piled up wreckage blocking most of the doorway.
    I thought this was a decent plan, because the players would have to take apart
    the barricade in order to pass through. By chance, the orc magician was on guard
    duty when the players arrived. They had a very clever idea, which helps to
    explain why real armies don’t totally barricade up doors like this: they would
    push out the very top of the barricade, and use it as cover while they sniped
    the enemies beyond. I decided that if the orcs got the chance to re-fortify,
    they would take apart the barricade and instead use it to make a whole field of
    “difficult terrain” which would prevent charges and slow attackers. They
    wouldn’t give up their line of sight again.

    So Aggie, who had a bow, climbed to the top of the barricade to shoot at the orc
    magician. At the same time the orc magician began to cast an ice wall spell at
    the ceiling above the party. I left it to initiative to see whose action would
    go off first — the arrow naturally interrupting the spell. The orc won
    initiative and flattened Aggie and several hirelings with a sheet of ice from
    above, dealing some 3d10 damage to 150 square feet of dungeon.

    The gang retreated after this, and Aggie rolled up a new character. Adam grabbed
    some new hirelings. I rolled for a new defense crew and found the magician was
    sleeping. Instead an ogre was helping man the defense. I also reworked the
    barricade into difficult terrain, as I discussed above.

    Adam had his footmen advance with their pavises while taking shots from goblin
    and orc archers behind a barricade and up some stairs. They warded off the
    arrows thanks to the pavises, but then the ogre came out and started smashing
    the pavises. Then the goblins sent a runner to grab the quarter of the troops
    that were resting but not sleeping, and the players again retreated, confident
    that they couldn’t break through the lair’s defenses. They lost 6 or so
    retainers but neither PC was scratched, I think.

    Adam wanted to lay seige to the lair, and I knew how the magician would respond
    to that. He would burn through his spell scrolls, tossing a fireball at the
    besieging force, and preparing a sally with mass invisibility, and summoning an
    invisible stalker to either carry him to safety or take out the leaders of the
    seige. Adam wasn’t interested in playing out the siege itself, I think because
    he was demoralized by the loss, and said he’d prefer to abstract it and pay 1k
    gold to hire forces. I decided that, given the quality of the wizard’s plan, any
    small seige would simply fail, and the money would be lost. It would take a big
    effort to crack this place.

    ## 9: Lichway II

    Just Patrick this time, with a lot of retainers. He made it far into the dungeon
    and tried to befriend the bandits that lived there, eventually asking Dark Odo
    to become her apprentice. I had a tough time handling this, for two reasons: I
    didn’t know how Odo might respond to something like this, and I didn’t know what
    it would mean for our play. In the end I had Odo ask him for all the treasure he
    had, “to prove his worth”, and rolled a reaction check using the treasure as a
    bribe modifier. She didn’t accept him as an apprentice, but she was happy to let
    him go in peace, since (she thought) she’d relieved him of his valuables.

    This session was mostly chill and fun. If I have to run a one-on-one game, I’m
    most comfortable running for Patrick or Adam. Patrick’s ideas can sometimes be
    more zany than I’d like, but they’re always fresh and exciting.

    I was glad to avoid a serious roleplay challenge like figuring out what Odo
    would want from her apprentice, and how the apprenticeship might change
    Patrick’s character and adventuring opportunities. I’d be happy to revisit that
    kind of situation later, when I’m more experienced, but for now it seems like
    too much for me.

    Patrick added up some incidental pieces of information about Odo’s band and
    realized that they were extremely hungry, starving even. They must not be very
    good bandits! As soon as he guessed this, I knew he was right. So he formed a
    plan to bring a cart of food back to the Lichway next session, and to try and
    seduce some of Odo’s men into his service.

    Here’s Patrick’s take on the session:

    > We return to the Lichway with Amdor the Magnificent and a couple of hired
    > help. We pull some levers in an early room and find out one opens the big
    > floodgate and the other does … something else in the ceiling? We get out and
    > move on. We find a bridge made of bones and Gargamel the Necromancer gathers a
    > skeleton from the remnants to animate at his own discretion.

    > We find a large octaconal room with a big cage and a large creature in it that
    > looks like a moving pile of holes in a honeycombed pattern, a big spongey
    > texture but rigid in nature. We move past it and it charges us whenever it
    > notices we’re near but the cage holds it back.

    > “Amdor the Magnificent” is asked what spell he prepared and he turns out to
    > actually be Cackhand Amdor, a fraud that posed as a wizard to Dark Odo and
    > that’s what made him seek revenge.

    > We find two of Odo’s men gnawing on rat bones, asking for food. We strike up a
    > conversation and find out there are 11-ish bandits working for Dark Odo and
    > she happens to be a terrible employer. Her people are dissatisfied. I ask to
    > meet her and offer Amdor the Fraud as a guest’s gift. She isn’t interested in
    > Amdor since he was cursed to seem as what anyone who meets him wants him to be
    > and commands him to jump in a lake. We hold him back.

    > She refuses Gargamel’s offer of apprenticeship because the treasure he shows
    > isn’t impressive enough. We go back out of “their” part of the dungeon.

    > On the way out we come past a door behind which kobolds are cornered by big
    > dogs. They forgot their arrows and sit on top of a shelf. We attack the dogs
    > and armor them which wins us the fight. I buy the kobolds’ uncertain loyalty
    > with 100 coins and we continue. Gargamel remembers he knew the Kobold language
    > all along and they talk. They were chased here by the Xvarts, blue anti-hobbit
    > smurfs. We are united by a common enemy and leave the dungeon to return at a
    > later point to take over Dark Odo’s faction and – perhaps – find the treasure.
    > The kobolds will come with Gargamel.

    > The plan is to use a handcart full of fine food and bribe the starved and
    > overworked bandits under Odo to switch sides, then hopefully find the treasure
    > in the remaining few spots of the dungeon.

    ## 10: Lichway 3

    Patrick and Nathan, Aggie’s older brother. They brought the cartload of food
    into the dungeon with a few retainers. Unfortunately, they made a tremendous
    tactical blunder, and were all defeated by Odo when they allowed her guard to
    sound the alarm. One sleep took out the whole party.

    Here’s Patrick’s take:

    > We return to the Lichway with a small warband of heavy footmen, archers and
    > kobolds as well as cart full of fine food and drink and a dead boar skeleton.
    > The plan is to take over Dark Odo’s organisation and then find the treasure
    > hidden in the dungeon.

    > We climb up all the towers and, unsurprisingly, they don’t hold anything
    > interesting for us to find. We go in and find out that the floodgates didn’t
    > close this time around – that’s probably what the lever does we pulled last
    > session. We find a bunch of firebeetles in the lever room and are quick enough
    > to chain the doors shut with them inside.

    > We go south and find a group of hobgoblin adventurers. Helios challenges one
    > to a duel and wins. We likely cause a change of leadership and go further.

    > We arrive at the room with a bone bridge and pull the tongue of the fanged
    > lady statue.

    > We follow the Lichway to the monster that looks like a void sponge and realize
    > the sound all over the dungeon emanates from the monster.

    > We meet some rats and kill them, then we find a plate-armored skeleton hanging
    > in iron wire and Helios defeats it one-to-one in a narrow passage. We find the
    > area where we met Odo last time. There’s just a single person: a little gnome.
    > It tries to warn others while we file into the room from a narrow passage. We
    > manage to fill the room completely just in time for Odo to open a door and
    > cast a sleep spell that catches everyone by surprise.

    > We wake up in Odo’s dungeon. Helios gets charmed into servitude and the rest
    > of us aren’t heard of again.

    And here’s Nathan’s:

    > This was my first pick up game. I played as Helios Boppopagon who had middling
    > stats, but 8HP. His low funds meant who could only afford Leather armor, a
    > shield, and a sword. Given that this was pure dungeon crawling, and given that
    > I had no idea of the context, I prioritized spending my meagre monies on
    > armaments.

    > For the first little bit I did not really know what was happening, and only
    > had a vague idea of what the Lichway was. I generally deffered to Gargamel,
    > who led the expedition and payed for the hirelings. My first actual decision
    > came about when a Hobgoblin, leading a pack of Gobs, insulted my group.
    > Helios took that personally, and challenged the Hobgoblin to a duel. I set the
    > terms as First to Half HP and Canyon let me know about a handy OD&D rule used
    > for non-lethal duels (The loser recovers with 75% HP). I will use that in the
    > future!

    > Personality wise, Helios is pretty typical for the sort of character I like to
    > play. Even while I run games (Which is what I mostly do) I tend to really
    > enjoy running somewhat naive, bold, and forceful types who are generally
    > morally upright. I find that in lots of OSR play there is a tendency toward
    > caution which can sometimes be counterproductive toward both having fun and
    > fulfilling game objectives.

    > After winning the duel the GobGroup fell into dissent. I figured that, later
    > on, we could explore that way and route the remaining Goblins. We traversed
    > for a while and I made sure to position the men we have strategically during
    > each open door check. We stayed focused on Gargamel’s goal of finding Odo.

    > We ventured forth and found a sponge thing. I wanted to kill it with arrows,
    > and it would’ve been pretty funny to do so given that it held the answers to
    > the dungeon’s treasure! It also held a devious trap as this creature held all
    > the undead of Lichway in stasis.

    > We advanced further toward the suspected location of Odo and came upon rats.
    > We killed them easily.

    > In the rat room I found a swag baller gold anklet which I immediately wore.

    > We then found a hallway lined with spiked walls, with a skeleton wearing
    > partial plate armour in the middle. I was very concerned that the walls would
    > crush us. This was unfounded but, seeing as I recently used that very trap, I
    > felt the need to investigate properly. Gargemel suggested we move around the
    > Skeleton, but Helios wanted the armor so I approached and stabbed it through
    > its visor. The Skeleton rose and I had a plan to fall back and fight with the
    > footman we had hired. I failed to gain the opportunity to escape safely, due
    > to Canyon’s maneuveur system. I felt that this system actually added a bit of
    > texture without being as punishing as 5e’s Opportunity Attacks which have a
    > tendency to root fights in one place. It may get fiddly in larger battles,
    > however.

    > I defeated the skeleton in single combat and claimed its armor for myself. We
    > then advanced up ahead and found a gnome. Instead of talking like reasonable
    > people, we filled the room with men and I attempted to pin the Gnome to the
    > ground. This was in part an error in interpretation. I had thought the Gnome
    > was quite weak due to his diminuitive size and pathetic countenance (The
    > latter was all in my head, haha), but it turned out he was a capable warrior.
    > He ran away, calling for help. I called out “Don’t help him!”

    > Here is where I should have gone with my gut. Gargamel was intending to parley
    > with the Gnome’s gang and, given that I was unfamiliar with the dungeon itself
    > and this table’s culture in general I deferred to Gargamel in setting up an
    > ambuscade in the room. What I had wanted to do was either: bar the door and
    > take another route, or chase the gnome and enter bravely into a chaotic melee.
    > Tactically, information is the most important thing so it really wasn’t
    > sensible to give that up. This was, I think, the only actively poor decision
    > we made, though this happens. At low levels, there is little margin for error.

    > As we waited in the room, the wizard we were looking for kicked open the door
    > and cast sleep on us. We went to bed, despite Helios’s insomnia, and that was
    > that. My only note on this conflict is such: when initiative is rolled, don’t
    > both sides get an opportunity to move before actions are taken? I would have
    > liked to give the order for the troops to scatter in the face of the wizard.
    > Helios would’ve fallen asleep, but Gargamel likely could have moved out of the
    > room, or at least some of the hirelings. It’s not a big deal, though, and
    > likely wouldn’t have changed the outcome.

    > Overall I had a ton of fun. I provided some feedback at the end of the game.
    > Other feedback is as follows:

    > I don’t really like side based initiative, though I totally understand how it
    > helps expedite combat. I think it should be used for this sort of pick up game
    > for sure. However, definitely make sure to seperate movement and attack.
    > Without that, it becomes a little too easy for the initiative winner to
    > dominate a battle by taking up a superior position.

    > The maneuver system works, though a little more nuance may be needed. Are
    > there circumstantial bonuses (i.e, a small halfling running through the legs
    > of a giant could perhaps get +5, or whatever)? I don’t think things like that
    > need to be codified much, but I think a bit more may be needed. Also, for some
    > maneuveurs I think some kind of Save may make more sense. For many maneuveurs
    > though (Such as disarms) I think that the system here is good, and I’ll steal
    > it because it’s really easy to use (Attack bonus vs. Attack bonus). Finally,
    > while I don’t think RPGs should seek to replicate real combat I’m not entirely
    > sure why retreating requires a maneuver roll. The “Fighting Retreat” of older
    > D&D games which just cut your movement in half.

    > Being able to play a character form any system definitely shows how compatible
    > these different OSR games are with each other, and how procedures/Ref style is
    > ultimately more important than the system

    > I ran out of space lol, but basically I think the Fighting Retreat of older
    > games works well enough. Penguin time

  3. I have 5 more sessions to report on, but in the meantime I reread these reports and thought more on my progress. Here are some notes I took:

    I think I was enchanted by the possibilities of the virtual tabletop. I was distracted from the fundamentals of the game, because I was too interested in features like automated fog of war.

    I wasn’t sufficiently neutral. Clearly I wanted certain things to happen — I wanted characters to survive, I wanted them to find treasure, etc. Now it’s ok for me to root for my play group! But I can’t let that bias my rulings, and I did.

    I didn’t take sufficient control over proceedings. There are times when I should have put my foot down harder and said, No, it’s not possible to do that; or No, the time for strategizing has past, you don’t know everything about the situation but you must decide.

    On the other hand, I think my play group could have been better about not requiring such treatment from me. I don’t want to, and usually don’t, view myself as the manager of a bunch of players, in any respect. I shouldn’t ask them to cut the chatter or to make a decision. They should just do it.

    Similarly, I don’t want a game where players “push their luck” in terms of modeling, where they try to make things possible for themselves just because those things are advantageous, and then they (the players) expect me to restrict them to whatever’s reasonable. Rather, I only want them to try reasonable things in the first place.

    (Usually if someone suggests something unreasonable, I just ask them, “Do you think that would work?”, and normally, no, they don’t. Only occasionally do we have a vastly different conception of how the situation should play out.)

    I should have a firmer hand on resolving events as they occur. If necessary, I can always ask, “And what were you doing while such-and-such goes on?”. I can ask players to clarify if they’re planning to do something or actually doing it.

    On lots of small matters I can keep the game moving past disagreements and misunderstandings. It’s not necessary to hash out every detail of the situation in real time. (For instance, recently one play was certainly misinterpreting a rule to double his number of attacks per round. Ultimately, this is not such a big deal that the game has to halt and we have to dig out rulebooks to puzzle things out. After the game I told him how I thought the sweep attack rule should work.)

  4. (following from my question above and Canyon’s permission to continue)

    Here goes … I think you have the whole thing, play, I mean, turned inside out. You’re treating an instrument for subroutines as the framework of “what is” and “what to do,” and the fundamentals of play as perceived subroutines, or edge-cases in which special skills or strategies need to applied.

    Turning it right-way-round means that who the NPCs are and what they want, along with anything environmental, are the first priority, or “what you came to do.” The very presence of that witch in that cavern is, itself, to be played as a responsive and often proactive entity, i.e., as with every other monster and NPC, in the context of whatever has happened so far. Therefore, not in the canned sense of a prepared speech and maybe some mission she wants you to do, as if she were an animatronic activated by the pressure of a player-character’s boot on the first stone past the cavern’s entrance – but rather as an entity whom you are playing as if she were a body and a mind and a backstory, no matter how sketchy, merely sufficient for your enjoyable response to whomever she meets, in whatever recent or immediate context, and whatever they do.

    If that’s the fundamental thing for anything and everything you play as DM, again not because the witch is special but because she is there at all, then the various rules and devices for encounters, like tables and dice-checks and surprise, are great fun for unpredictably getting places and in what states of injury or expectation or surprise … inside what is happening, which is the robust state of “we play characters in this place.” If these things are used instead as the actual state of play, then in my experience, the result is grim.

    Brieftly: it turns into bloodless repetition, increasing manipulations by the players because they’re a bit bored, (conversely) a sense of dizzying emptiness when a player actually tries to play their character with wants and interactions, a constant need to deliver an idealized, vague notion of “fun” for everyone else, and a lurking suspicion that it’s not happening. Continuing to play becomes a matter of faith and observance of ritual.

    I’m only seeing what you’ve written so I don’t pretend actually to know anything about your own processses or perspectives. Your reflections show their own depth without any needed input from me. I can say fairly that what you’ve described looks like my real-world experiences that I’ve tried to summarize here.

    A lot of this is coming from my current play of AD&D, which I’ll be posting about soon.

    • I have a small quibble: I do think there is a general “art of war”, which one can study and improve upon. It’s the sort of thing a general or a squad leader learns: flank the enemy, avoid being outnumbered, keep track of your supply lines, etc. If a group of well-armed outcasts try to rob underground caverns populated by enemies, they’ll do well to keep these lessons in mind.

      A magician in such a world will probably have their own tactics developed, and will have a good understanding of what spells to use in which situations. Some of these tactics will depend on the magician’s personality and goals, but I think a lot more will be generic.

      As for the rest: I agree, it’s inside-out. I have a really good idea for a session report that brings this out; maybe we can continue the conversation there, or in your future adnd post.

    • Good thinking and preparation are part of characterization, which is to say, preparation and play. There’s nothing to quibble about on that topic.

      That session report is fantastic, relevant for lots of others’ own reflections.

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