Thursday, July 19, 2012

HelgaCon V - Outdoor Spoliation

Sandbox Play on the OUTDOOR SURVIVAL Map; Party Configuration and Preparation; A Synopsis of Their Various Travels and Exploits; Final Commentary and Literary Echoes

So for the final game of HelgaCon back in April, Sunday morning, I ran a session of an upper-mid-level  hex-crawl D&D plundering adventure on the old Outdoor Survival map. This was done pretty closely following the guidelines set out in Original D&D, Vol-3 for adventures on said map (p. 14-20; as part of my continuing science experiments to play the original game as much as feasible). The goal is for the party to acquire 100,000 silver pieces worth of treasure in the session --which would be enough to raise the whole party up by one level (under my silver standard sp-for-gp, and ×5 XP rules). I call this scenario Outdoor Spoliation for hopefully obvious reasons.

I did make some alterations for flavor; while OD&D states that pond icons are castles and cabins are villages, I switched it around so that pond icons are caves (with monsters) and the small number of cabins are castles (with various high-level inhabitants). Also, for simplicity I use the movement chart directly from the original game box (instead of the slightly altered terrain adjustments rates in OD&D). Inhabitants of caves & castles were almost entirely generated beforehand by random methods (and wandering monsters could also occur mid-game, of course); I've got the pond/caves on my version of the map numbered with a wax pencil to link up with game notes. Due to my busy spring schedule, I came to play much less prepared than I ever have been for a game -- just 3 pages of handwritten notes, which was downright unsettling for me. Nevertheless, it may have been my biggest hit of the convention, and gave a seemingly pitch-perfect denouement to the whole weekend. For example, see here for the writeup of the game on Paul's Blog.

The Party

I had a very nice, full-sized group of 8 players, everyone well-experienced with D&D or RPG's in general. As usual, I provided a collection of OED-specification pre-generated characters for them to select from, all of them constructed at the 95,000 XP level. They selected a group of 2 human wizards, a fighter, a thief, a dwarven fighter and a halfling thief, with one elf fighter/wizard and another wizard/thief (levels 6-9 depending on class). You can see these characters here (PDF).

These characters were allowed to start with 5,000 sp for any gear they wanted, so of course they all had horses and 6 weeks of food. Several (wizards in particular) also decided to hire a few men-at-arms guardians with missile weapons, and grooms for the horses. This sort of made for a comical logistical snowballing at the start of the session, as some players decided they wanted helpers, then so did other players, then more horses were needed, etc. There was some friendly squabbling over exactly what to set for a limit on party size. (In truth, I actually had my Book of War mass-warfare game within reach, and without saying as much, I was fully prepared if the group decided to raise a whole army and traipse into the wilderness that way; in fact, the starting money was balanced for just that.)

The group was permitted to start at any of the 4 castles (cabin icons) around the map edge, assuming a friendly and allied castle-owner -- they selected the south-central one and proceeded northwards from there. At that point, I started rolling the standard encounter and "lost" checks and moving the group on a per-day basis. (Side note: Until this very moment I always presumed that the lost/encounter checks on Vol-3 p. 18 were on the same die; but then I realized this doesn't line up with the text, and I was rolling 2 dice of different colors each move-turn. Furthermore, note that encounters are technically at the end of a day, while lost conditions are triggered at the start of day.)

The Travels

Below you'll see a map of the group's travels (cabin/castles are indicated on the original map but not the image below; here they're replicated by numbers in circles). Thereafter, a synopsis of their journey is given.

  1. This is the castle of the Lawful Necromancer, Thjodolf Crowfoot. He provided initial accommodations and saw the party off on their travels.
  2. This cave contained 4 Giant Scorpions, which were engaged with a combination of spells & hand-to-hand combat. One party member narrowly avoided death (had to make a save vs. poison); the group thereafter decided to be more thoughtful in their engagements. Only a small amount of treasure here: 500 gp and 500 cp.
  3. This cave at the edge of a mountain spur was the hideout for a band of 7 Ogres. Here the party sent several stealthy magic-using members forward under invisibility, catching the ogres by surprise and blasting them with multiple fireballs. While the ogres were successfully shock-and-awed to pieces, any treasure was liquified and ran into the bowels of the earth. The party decided to be more careful in this regard in the future.
  4. This was the stronghold of the Neutral Necromancer, Kaxen of the Rain Castle. He met the party on the plain outside the castle with his apprentice and a charmed manticore, demanding a toll for trespass on his property. While discussing this, one of the party members took the initiative to hit him in the head with a sling stone, at which point he ice stormed the party, and general mayhem ensued. At the end Kaxen and his apprentice were dead, and so was one party member (thereafter resuscitated with the single wish from Halig Redsaber's magic sword). This put negotiations with the other six-score defenders of the castle on a notably sour note, with the party dropping Kaxen's head in the castle with demands for surrender or else face destruction, while the castle-men declared steadfast resistance against such Chaotic marauders. Ultimately Halig found the proceedings distasteful, and got the party to agree to a more reasonable ransom demand, which was met with a magic scroll, 2,000 sp and some gems, and a map to a nearby large cache of treasure (see below).
  5. Here was the hideout of a large force of Bandits; 200, to be exact. Advance runners spotted the party coming up the forest trail and the body of the group formed an ambush, with cavalrymen arranged on the trail and scores of bowmen in the trees to either side, which the party then walked into. A wall of fire was effective in forestalling a cavalry charge from the enemy, with fighters dashing into the woods on either side for a general melee. One notable frustration was Yuri the Bull, who charged into the woods on his heavy warhorse, and then critical-fumbled his way into a stout tree branch, knocking his helmet around backwards and blinding him for the balance of the engagement. However, other fighters did more fine-edged work, the party guards returned fire, and a barrage of sleeps, charms, fireballs, and other magic served to break and send the bandits running. The party forced a number of captured bandits into their service and had them show the way to the cave-hidden treasure; and thus they marched away with a force stronger than they started out with, some 50,000 sp richer, and with an effusive forest fire burning gaily behind them.
  6. This is the location of a river crossing, at which point the group met Olaf Lancethruster, a Neutral Superhero in full plate armor challenging any who wished to cross the river to a joust. This the party agreed to, under the stipulation that the loser would forfeit all property to the winner, and Yuri went forward to meet Olaf in a glorious joust. (Olaf was a random wandering encounter; at this point I pulled out the jousting rules from original Chainmail.) Unfortunately, on the first hit, Yuri was hit square in the fess pale (center shield), and knocked clean from his horse with a resounding clang. The party decided to pay Olaf for Yuri's otherwise forfeited gear, and they proceeded onward, leaving Olaf happily 5,000 sp richer than he was previously.
  7. Here was found Castle Cougar, home of the arch-thief Ketil the Demon and his group of malign robbers and sell-swords. Initially the castle appeared deserted, but when the party investigated by means of flying and ESP they found the whole place well-guarded with hidden men and defenses. After some planning, they came up with an extravagant and detailed plan in which some members would be invisible, a phantasmal force of a far-off marching band created, while thieves scaled the walls, invisible wizards would knock the castle gate open, and then the remaining fighters and men could storm the place with help from various confusion, fear, and sleep-type magic. After a hard-fought battle, this turned out to be successful, with Ketil himself and his chief henchmen cut down in combat, and the other questionable men ultimately surrendering. Here was found some 40,000 sp in treasure -- a good amount, but not quite enough for the party to claim full victory as time ran out. 


Granted the relatively small amount of preparation I'd done, and the great amount of freedom on the part of the PC's and the ad-libbing I had to do, this game was a ridiculous blast to play. The thing is: Never in all my years of D&D play have I ever felt more like I was smack directly in the middle of a Vancian Dying Earth or Leiberian Fafhrd & Gray Mouser story -- jaded, wry, roguish, completely mercenary, and bewildering from the outside. I was frequently ducking down behind my DM's screen so as to hide my almost uncontrollable laughter -- particularly as the PC's were threatening to invade a castle of Neutral men, claiming right of seizure after its leader had "blackmailed" them by asking for a toll from their otherwise free movement across its land. Memorably, when the NPC's started calling back heroic taunts against the "Chaotic marauders", the face of one single player fell (Halig Redsaber), and he started basically yelling at the other players for their outrageous behavior -- but when other players suggested that they could let the men live for a mere ransom of 20,000 sp, then he considered it thoughtfully and agreed that was eminently reasonable. That and the fact that no one realized their many fireballs along the woodsy trail had set off a raging forest fire had me in stitches.

Probably the hardest thing to ad-lib in the game was running the open assault of high-level characters against fortresses that I only had a single line of information on each (name, leader, and number of men). Honestly, I hadn't actually expected that to happen when I visualized the game in advance -- although I did think possibly personal combat with the leaders was likely. On the fly, I had to visualize the layout of the castles and administer reasonable defenses along the gates, walls, etc.; that seemed to work out perfectly fine in practice, maybe even better pacing-wise than I'd normally manage, but I think in the future I'd like to have at least one "default" castle layout and defenses on hand for adjudication in that regard, since on my end everything seemed just a bit sketchy, like I was probably overlooking some obvious protections (and see also situational-response notes in 1E DMG p. 105).

At any rate, it's a game I don't think I'll ever forget, and in its random and accidental mechanical way, more successfully transported us all into the "Appendix N" literary tradition than anything I'd experienced before. A really great game, and great play and comments from all the players -- I'd love to do it again sometime.


  1. Could they see the gameboard as they played? If so, how did you handle them getting lost?

  2. Y'know, regarding on the fly castle defenses, you could come up with a standard template, and then cook up a random chart of complications for attackers. Stuff like "Flooded lower levels" or "cursed foot bridge" that you could just snap on for flavor.

    Just like with a lot of modern buildings, folks remember the big features like "that weird piece of modern art out front" or "the art deco foyer" not the bathrooms or how far apart the power outlets are.

  3. Also, I'll own up to being the player of Halig Redsaber, who was pooping the party with my inconvenient bout of morality.

    Chaotic will attack regardless of whether you're chaotic or lawful, whereas lawful will not attack lawful. Which do you think it's better to be perceived as?

    I still maintain that having 50% of the people you meet wanting to kill you on sight is better than 100% of them.

  4. @ Hedgehobbit: Yes, the map was out on the table and the players were actually moving their own icon around (see picture here). The rule is (Vol-3, p. 17; following Outdoor Survival) "A lost party must move in the direction indicated by the die roll... and may make only one direction change from that direction". So, to interpret that: The party catches their mistake within the day and can at least partly correct for it (in practice it usually means losing 1 hex of spurious travel).

    Later AD&D-style rules for persistently being lost would be a lot more troublesome in this regard, of course.

  5. @ B.J.: I am still sitting here LOL at what you got to do in that game; your reaction there was so heartfelt and completely made my whole weekend. I'm really appreciative that you picked up on my clues and could point out what was happening to the rest of the party without me coming out and saying it. Truly delightful.

    And that is a great idea for "snap-on" details to encountered castles.

  6. Cool that you're playing the game in a way the probably hasn't happened in close to 40 years.

    I really envy those early gamers. They didn't know anything about associative mechanics or player empowerment or edition loyalty. They just got together and played what they thought would be fun.

    If you haven't, you should download Barbarian Prince. It's an old boardgame that does something similar to what you were trying. It's a solitaire game and has some cool ideas like river rafting and giving each castle a distinct reaction table (one castle owner hates wizards for instance).

  7. @ HedgeHobbit: Another good suggestion. There's a review in an old Dragon that always highly intrigued me -- I finally got to play this January at my friend Paul's place (he has a copy, and is also big on it). It really is a fantastic game, lots of detail and tough as I like it!

  8. RE Random Castles - I have used the old Judges Guild Castle Book I & II for quick castle generating tables as well as the pre-made layout maps.

  9. P_Armstrong: Thanks for the tip, on your suggestion I just picked up the Castle Book I PDF from RPGNow ($4). Looks like a fair solution to just what I need.