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Old-School Essentials: Challenge and Capitulation

We've been playing Old-School Essentials, a reorganized retro-clone of Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons. Specifically, we're playing module B4: The Lost City, by Tom Moldvay.

I've run one-shots of B/X twice in the past and...as I think about it now, I believe it is my first time actually playing it. We're playing online, and we're a group formed from a local tabletop discord mostly focused around mini wargaming at a store local to all of us. The GM is an older dude that has been entrenched in 5e lately (in fact he runs 5e on the same day that he runs this game; earlier in the day and for longer) and started this game up because he was delighted to discover OSE and re-discover an older way to play that he was familiar with from his youth. I've played with one of the fellow players before, but only online and also during pandemic-times. I think I'm the youngest, and I am approaching 40 (I can't communicate to you how uncanny typing that feels).

I joined because I have in particular been yearning to play some challenge-based games that pull no punches. I am also motivated to develop some local ties so that once we can safely play in person, I have people I know and want to play with. So the social motivation is at least as strong as the play-experience motivation.

I am also excited to do player-side old-school mapping; I have done it a little bit but I really would like to dive into an experience where that is a consequential aspect of the game that is left to the players.

Because we're playing online, we are not doing traditional mapping, which has had me a little bummed, but given the limitations of the medium it makes sense (if we had a will as a group, or I was more forceful, I suppose I could have figured out a 2-camera set-up, with one camera focused on my graphing paper). We've been using Roll20 and have digital maps all laid out for us, which I would prefer not exist; everyone else appears to take it as a given that this is how the game is played. Still, I have been mapping by myself on paper and making notes as we go along, which have often been useful as we come across something and want to refer back to where we've been before or some knowledge we've previously gained and can't recall in the moment. So that has been satisfying, if not exactly what I want.

Which I suppose is what I want to talk about here: the game has been satisfying if not exactly in the way I'd hoped. For me, when someone says "Let's play OSE (or Basic/Expert)" it means exactly that we are excited about hewing (perhaps paradoxically) to the rules and style of play as described in the books and also to the "rulings not rules" paradigm of the OSR. To that end, I've been amenable to the GM's addition of a few extra rules, even if were I the GM I would not include them: each class getting an additional signature ability (fine), tweaked spellcasting rules (I like these), and tweaked XP rules (I dislike these).

Why has it been satisfying? Okay, let's talk about some Actual Play here. The Lost City takes place underneath and inside a ziggurat in the middle of the desert, full of goblins and oiled-and-muscly man-worshipers of Gorm, etc, etc. Despite the map being revealed for us as we play, all the other important aspects of B/X dungeon-delving are in effect: tracking turns and torches and # of arrows and even food, for god's sake! My wizard spent a not-insignificant amount of his starting gold on pints of wine, and much to my shocked pleasure the module starts with all rations wiped from character sheets as we get lost and separated from our caravan and have to trek across the desert. This was going to be tough. We were going to have to play smart. And we have had to. We've been cautious, wedging doors shut behind us at every opportunity. We came across a room with a giant lizard peeking out from under a broken bed, and immediately fled and shut the door. Something on the other side of that door dropped from the ceiling, as we heard. Shortly thereafter, we encountered some goblins who wanted to serve our flesh to their god Zarboz, and we took all of them out with a Sleep spell cast by the other Magic-user in the party (I chose Hold Portal for my spell; not very good on paper, and so far completely unused, but despite wanting to be challenged I also balked at the feeling of "having" to choose the obviously most-powerful first level spell in Sleep. Still, I've been thankful my fellow party-member chose it). One by one, we threw them into the lizard room, and listened as the beasts fed--turns out what fell from the ceiling was a second lizard. We kept one goblin alive and awake as we did this, so that he would guide us through the dungeon. And guide us well he has; he told us not to go down the corridor that he came from, as "followers of Gorm" were there, and they would kill us. Despite keeping him for guidance, we blew off his guidance, and we ended the last session (session 6, I believe*) surrounded by absolute gads of absolute units. I really don't know how we're getting out of this one. Fighting Retreat is a handy option in the rulebook, as far as I can tell.

And, despite being satisfying, why has it not been satisfying in exactly the way I'd hoped? Well, because in addition to wanting to have to play smart to survive and win, I also wanted to have to earn anything we got. In OSE, as in B/X, you earn 1XP per 1GP recovered, split evenly among the party. And over 6/3* sessions, we've found stuff worth less than 100 gold. And it takes about 3,000 XP to advance. So the GM, capitulating to his own sense of "fairness" as he described it (and as other players verbally agreed), implemented a rule where we get 100XP per level of the dungeon we are on per session, as long as we are attempting to make progress (so on the first level of the dungeon, we earn 100XP, if we go down to the next level, we'll get 200XP per session that we're on that level and progressing, etc.). To my sensibilities this feels patronizing, basically, and almost a clawing back of the original premise: I'm playing this game to earn what I get. XP is a score. And given the nature of our short sessions, we're getting about double the XP a "normal" session would get this way, too.

That said...as much as I bristle at this rule, I have to consider: has it really negatively impacted my play all that much? Or am I rigidly holding to a notion of "pure" play in my mind that may or may not exist? As I said above, I have felt challenged, and our decisions are certainly consequential. So maybe that's all I really need out of this, especially given my equal-weighted goal of connecting with like-minded** players for post-pandemic IRL play.

Though, I still strongly desire to play a game where mapping is squarely in the hands of the players, no gimmes.

*We are only playing in 2-hour increments, and online (which slows things down), so I'd say if I had to compare it to playing face to face that it feels somewhat like we've just completed session 3 or are in the middle of it.

**but Hans! Half this post is you describing how you feel you want something different out of the game than the other players. How is that like-minded? "Yes," I'll respond, "It doesn't sound like-minded. But it's like-minded enough. I'm talking not about players who have all my same opinions on B/X, but players who are likely to agree with and enjoy the system I encourage to be implemented at the table when I GM a game for them."

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

Sean_RDP's picture

Hi Hans. Glad to see other people enjoying The Lost City. I am currently running it for several folks here at Adept Play as part of a wider exploration of OS/R play and phenomena. We are using the Blueholme rules for our playthrough. You can find topics here and here

Also you can find a number of conversations about B/X and OS/R here at the site that you might find to be of interest.

One of the things I note while navigating the older games and OS/R community are some contradictions that may not be as apparent until you play. Play is the thing and we can theorize until we are Expert Set blue in the face, but until dice hit the table, its all just theory. In particular, I would like to discuss "rulings instead of rules" and the comments you made about XP.

First, The Lost City is bottom light. Which is ironic since you start at the top. I can only imagine that Tom M. did this on person to make getting to the good stuff harder. So there is not as much gold XP in the top levels as one might expect. That is a minor spoiler, but I promise it gets better assuming you survive. :)

And I understand the idea that you want that "authentic" XP experience. We are using the same basic XP rules and the experience is not flowing. I too have added bonus XP to sessions and still its not getting anyone near to leveling. And this is where the contradiction between authentic and rulings instead of rules comes to the front. The GM made a ruling that the XP system and situation was not working or wasn't fun or whatever their reason. This ruling supercedes the rule or at least, the text. In effect the rule was changed, which is part and parcel of that old school experience. Yet the change was not something you feel comfortable with or which does not align with what you were looking for from play. 

I am curious about your thoughts on that or expanding your thoughts on it. Also, what is rules and what is text is part of the point about Ron's video here

I do have a second question and this is mostly curious: are the majority of your characters chaotic or neutral? Are you hewing close to Alignment or no? The throwing the goblins in to feed the lizards comment struck me as interesting and entertaining. A very The Chicago Way of getting the goblin to cooperate. I was curious though if there were any Lawful characters and if there was a discussion of this or no? 

I look forward to hearing about your further adventures in The Lost City. We will be finishing up in the next few weeks. 

Hi Sean,

Thanks for your response. I'm definitely aware of the contradiction here, but I think as we talk I'm becoming more and more aware of it: I want the mythical pure experience, but the ur-experience, if we could even get to it, is anything but pure. Maybe that's why some segments of the hobby (myself included) seem to sometimes have a mad need to uncover it, as if having some "pure" experience were better than, you know, having a good time playing with your friends. Talking over this stuff has been very healthy for me; it's good to look at my actual play instead of just run around inside my own head about how we "should" be doing things.

It's been good to read your AP of The Lost City, as well. I discovered it after I posted; funny coincidence that on this relatively obscure site we're playing the same module but with two different rulesets. 

Onto your questions:

The GM made a ruling that the XP system and situation was not working or wasn't fun or whatever their reason. This ruling supercedes the rule or at least, the text. In effect the rule was changed, which is part and parcel of that old school experience. Yet the change was not something you feel comfortable with or which does not align with what you were looking for from play. 

I am curious about your thoughts on that or expanding your thoughts on it. 

I suppose I talked about that some, above, but to expand: I think it is less that the actual ruling doesn't turn out to align with what I want, but rather in the moment it seems to threaten what I want. "If we're being lax here, does that mean this game isn't about challenge after all? How many things do we have to ease up on before the fundamental experience I'm looking for is changed past recognizability?" It's more an anxiety than a reality, but it's not an invalid anxiety: there does come a point where we're doing something different than the challenge-based play that OSE leans into. However, we're definitely not there yet, and I don't think we are particularly headed in that direction. The game is less fragile in this regard that I suspected; perhaps it's because of my inexperience with this style of play (coming to D&D basically from growing up on Dogs in the Vineyard, Burning Wheel, Polaris, Sorcerer...the indie explosion of the aughts was my Mother's Milk). I know the style of play I want with this game (challenge) and I know the rules that encourage that style of play (in theory); so as rules change I get anxious. But it's turning out to be not much of a real concern.

Thanks for that link; I'll check out the post and video later.

I do have a second question and this is mostly curious: are the majority of your characters chaotic or neutral? Are you hewing close to Alignment or no? The throwing the goblins in to feed the lizards comment struck me as interesting and entertaining. A very The Chicago Way of getting the goblin to cooperate. I was curious though if there were any Lawful characters and if there was a discussion of this or no? 

You know, we all do have alignments, per character creation, but after we set them, I could not tell you what my fellow players' PCs' alignments are. I could give you a good guess at what my PCs'* alignments are, but I couldn't tell you for certain without looking. Alignment has not explicitly impacted play at all; we're basically playing for the eeps. We did the goblin thing both to scare the one goblin we held back, and also to placate the lizards in hopes of searching the room safely to see if we could find anything of value (there wasn't anything, of course). There was no discussion on the morality of this. There are some laughs about it, to be sure, but we're not glorying in the darkness of being utter bastards, either: given the harshness of the beginning of the module (stealing away our very water), we're pretty hardcore focused on survival and riches.

*there are three of us playing PCs, each with a PC and each with a retainer, who gets half XP.

Sean_RDP's picture

Challenge and player skill are something that has come up in our discussions during Forge out of Chaos and Blueholme. What kind of challenge were you looking for in the OSR / early games. 

Two things, primarily:

1. Navigating (imagined) physical space, i.e., mapping the space out so as to create knowledge that can be used to survive and thrive (find gold), and 

2. Facing a hostile environment overseen by a neutral third party where we have to use knowledge an intuition to make decisions that lessen the chances that we die and increase the chances that we leave the hole in the ground richer for the excursion.

Essentially, as imagined, the game is for me about exploration, and both the challenge and the mechanism for rewarding XP are tools to the end of making play about that.

Sean_RDP's picture

Mapping does work better in face-to-face play, though a player has been doing it in our Blueholme game, which is online. And that seems to be working alright. A great deal depends on the GM being able to give an accurate description of what the characters see. But those are the chances we take.

I also enjoy exploring imaginary space, but one of my potholes about exploration as that it gets wrapped up in the legends of Old School and B/X but was not as much a focus of the text. And it was not as much a focus of actual play, at least in the play I was involved in. Yes, we did explore the space, the dungeon most of the time, and exploring, finding out what was in there, was a great deal of fun. But at the same time, we were exploring the system and seeking out encounters.

I guess where my questions ultimately lead is: why is it only B/X or its derivatives that can do that? Exploration is implicit in many systems. One could explore Glorantha using several versions of Runequest, but also HeroWars and HeroQuest (and now Questworlds).  One can explore Middle Earth using MERP/RoleMaster. I realize I am treading close to “you are doing fun wrong”, which is not my intention at all, least of all for the reason that I do not believe that you are. I feel like there is a zeitgeist around the D&D (and strictly D&D) of that time period that was not at all in the minds of many of us who were playing those games then. Thanks for putting up with my questions.

One thing I want to address is the idea of the neutral third-party. I find this an impossible ideal for anyone to live up to. And I am someone who has used that language for years, mostly without thinking too hard about it. But the DM/GM is not and cannot be neutral. They are invested in the outcome of the game. If they run a session where all rulings and ruled adjustments were on point, but everyone had a horrible time, then something has gone wrong. It puts a lot of pressure on a game runner to get everything right, factors that create even more stress. They do have authority over situation and in some games, are the final arbiter of the text and rules. But I do not see this as being neutral. I also do not see it as neutral if I do not stop the players from making dumb decisions. Respecting their authority over their characters is not the same as being neutral. I am rooting for you to succeed in the trap you stumbled into, even if I may also experience some schadenfreude as realize you should have gone left and not right.

How have things progressed in the game? I am eager to compare some notes on our game and how you all handled situations.

 

"one of my potholes about exploration as that it gets wrapped up in the legends of Old School and B/X but was not as much a focus of the text."

I think I, who came of RPG age in an explosive era of design informed by the truth that "system does matter", can sometimes look back on older texts, like B/X, and think, "this game does exploration extremely well, even if it doesn't quite tell me it does. That's probably because it doesn't quite understand what it is doing, because this all was so new." So chalk that up to my arrogance and present-bias.

"I guess where my questions ultimately lead is: why is it only B/X or its derivatives that can do that? Exploration is implicit in many systems."

I think we're again finding ourselves at my desire to have some kind of ur-experience. Much of my early and continuing RPG play could very accurately be described as Story Now, with a particular focus on character drama. But before all that, I ogled the 3.5 books in Barnes & Noble and wasn't thinking a whit about *story*; I wanted to *inhabit a world*. The complexity of it and the whiff of simulation was a draw. These days my thinking in that regard tends toward making that impulse actionable: *exploring* a world, feeling it live and breathe as we move through it, rather than having everything so strongly framed as "scenes". I feel like I will only really understand this style of play by going back to the sources. When Luke Crane (Burning Wheel designer, among other games) was first re-exploring Moldvay, he wrote fairly extensively about it on the Story-Games forum, and reading his threads, I had the same feeling I did when I first read and played Burning Wheel and Dogs in the Vineyard: Holy Shit! This is SOMETHING NEW (to me). I didn't know it could be like *this* (he described Mapping and Calling as utterly crucial elements to play that produced very interesting and satisfying emergent properties in play. When I got the first version of Old-School Essentials, which was called B/X Essentials back then, I remember being crestfallen when it didn't mention anything about Mapping or Calling. How could it fail to replicate something that SURELY was so important? When the designer/publisher put a call out for things to fix/streamline/make better in the transition to OSE, I wrote a detailed comment to him about the importance of Mapping and Calling and those player-roles. He responded that he hadn't considered procedural stuff like that as a core to the rules, but that I had a point. In OSE, those things are mentioned).

I guess what I am trying to get at is that I wanted to experience a canonical version of "exploration" play, and for the reasons above and probably more, B/X meant that for me, and probably still does.

"I feel like there is a zeitgeist around the D&D (and strictly D&D) of that time period that was not at all in the minds of many of us who were playing those games then."

Makes sense to me, and I believe it. A handful of years ago I peeked at Norse neo-paganism, and now it strikes me as similar to my project here: we* have no idea what the fuck all those people were doing back then but we're going to kind of believe our way into it.

 

"

One thing I want to address is the idea of the neutral third-party. I find this an impossible ideal for anyone to live up to."

 

Good point. "Neutral" really is impossible. If I think about what I mean when I say it, I get this: "Don't fucking go easy on us, yeah? I'm not interested in your tricks. If you try rolling your damage behind that screen I am going to knock it over." Wow, there's quite a lot of emotion in there. Hmm.

"How have things progressed in the game?"

 

We have only had one more of our two-hour sessions. The next one is coming up on Sunday. We negotiated a tentative truce with the Gormites (we had ended the previous session with them streaming from their hideout, armed and ready to get to it). We wanted to be allies (we presented our goblin prisoner as evidence of our good intentions) and they stated that we could be accepted as allies if we gave them evidence that we had done some hurt to their enemies, which they briefly described. It's clear to us that there are three factions here (and goblin-men) that correspond with the three gigantic statues on the top of the ziggurat: warrior-dudes (Gormites), Cleric-people, and Wizards. We ended up killing the last fattened lizard and found a Gormite helmet made of gold (GOLD! XP). We're figuring that if we need to we can possibly persuade the Gormite enemies that we are enemies of the Gormites, that we took one's head. We're prepared to play all angles. We had a peaceful night of sleep since the first time we entered the Lost City. And now we're prepared to find the next level down. Fuck.

*of course some people do; it seems like you do. But neither I nor anyone I've played these types of games with do.

Sean_RDP's picture

Good point. "Neutral" really is impossible. If I think about what I mean when I say it, I get this: "Don't fucking go easy on us, yeah? I'm not interested in your tricks. If you try rolling your damage behind that screen I am going to knock it over." Wow, there's quite a lot of emotion in there. Hmm.

That makes a ton of sense. A degree of verisimilitude is always appreciated and not pulling punches. The dice were kind to the group last time, but not kind to my antagonists. 

The three factions is one reason I like this adventure. More so than B2 Keep on The Borderlands, which was my first and also a favorite, The Lost City let's you use reaction rolls and good role-playing to navigate the dungeon. 

Hi Hans -

I was playing in the Lost City game that Sean was DMing, and was waiting until we finished before I read through this thread (in case of spoilers).

I am right there with you in terms of yearning for a canonical, ur-experience when dungeon delving.  However, what I have come to realize, at least as it comes to my own play and enjoyment of play, is that that yearning has been a bit of a trap. Or, rather, for me, the assumption that this kind of play is really all that different from "normal role-playing" has been a trap. Specifically, for my return to running dungeon crawls after a 10 year break, I tried to keep in mind as many of the guidelines and principals suggested by OSR blogs (and adjacent literature) as I could and I communicated to the players my hopes/expectations that we were going to be doing something different from what we had been doing in other games we had played together before (Sorcerer, Trollbabe, Legendary Lives, to name a few). That session ended up being a particular disappointment: not as fun as a I remembered past dungeon crawls, not as fun as contemporary games of Sorcerer and Legendary Lives. The players felt similarly let down, saying the experience was too much like a video game, as if they were spinning their wheels trying to figure out which buttons to push.

I had that failed experience in mind when I started prepping for my next dungeon crawl games: Forge: Out of Chaos and then Tunnel Goons. For these games, I put all the OSR-derived advice and guidelines out of my mind, and approached them like I'd approach prep for something like Trollbabe and approached play like I would any other RPG with the same distribution of authorities (i.e., DM/referee with strong backstory and situation authority, whose job it is to strongly play NPCs; players whose job it was to play their characters as characters and not as video game pawns/avatars). These games have been much more successful, and the enjoyment of that actual play has pushed some of the yearning for that ur-experience out of my head. (It also helps to remind myself, as Sean suggests here, that much of the "ur-experience" concept is a creation of those of us here after the fact, looking backwards, rather than something that ever existed as a coherent thing in the past.)

I think if we take any consideration of the "ur-experience" off the table, we can then look at the procedures we are using right here and right now that may or may not contribute to overall fun and enjoyment. For example, I have a similarly negative take on participatory experience/advancement in these kinds of games: not because participatory experience is less pure than XP for Gold, but because it feels more floaty. XP for Gold connects the reward cycle to a lot of different meaningful choices that are happening in the fiction, whereas in the Tunnel Goons game I've been running we use "XP for showing up" which seems to take some of the bite away from this kind of gaming. Even when facing the same kind of challenges, we seem to be missing out on some of the urgency or sense of "earning" an advancement with the "XP for showing up" rule.

XP for exploration seems on the surface to be less floaty than XP for participation alone, though in that case it strikes me as being too straightforward: one of the great things about XP for gold (especially using the distribution of gold that you find on old treasure tables or in classic modules) is that there's really an element of gambling going on; maybe that super powerful creature is guarding a huge hoard of gold, but it might turn out all you get a is a few copper pieces and the rusted out equipment of its prior victims. That kind of intermittent reinforcement is a lot more engaging and exciting than a more predictable reward scheme.

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