HelgaCon Classic D&D Postmortem

The first weekend of April, I ran two events at HelgaCon: an OD&D game (Cave of the Unknown, by me), and an AD&D game (Tomb of Horrors, by Gygax). There's quite a bit of overlap in the experiences; here I'll recap the common features in Game Developer "Postmortem" format (not restricting myself to the 5/5 structure). One thing I've come around to is paying minute attention to the things that are even the smallest bit aggravating during play, and trying to make notes right afterwards as to what could be improved (which I also do when teaching college classes these days). And so:

What Went Right

1. Gridless Battlemap. Man, I love playing on a gridless battlemap. I got myself some big sheets of white vinyl at a fabric store, dirt cheap (actually my girlfriend did; thanks, hon). I made a plexiglass ruler with 10-ft marks so I can quickly draw out rooms as needed. This feels a lot more free-form and open, and stops players from counting squares for all their moves, as if it were a game of chess. At least one player comments that they liked seeing the free-hand cave drawings.

2. Shortcut Thief & Save Mechanics. In my OD&D house rules, I've got it documented that these mechanics all turn into the "Target 20" system: roll d20 + level + modifiers (Dex bonus for Thief skills; or special bonus by save type), 20 or more to succeed. No table lookups required. Allegedly I was trying to use standard AD&D rules for that stuff in the Tomb of Horrors game, but when the action started I just couldn't bear to look the stuff up, and so I reverted to this rule for the AD&D game, too, without planning to do so in advance. (As an aside, I'm supposed to assess some penalties for Thief/Wizard saves, but in the heat of the moment I totally forgot about those -- maybe that's a sign that they need to be snipped out entirely.)

3. Using Callers. This looks very archaic, and I got in some critical theoretical discussions about it beforehand, but it seems to work great in all my games. The short story is that there's a "leader" elected beforehand who calls direction when in exploratory mode (no 6-person debates at every intersection). When in encounter mode, then we go around the table in order for each person's actions (after the leader rolls group initiative). I really wouldn't want to do it otherwise.

What Went Wrong

1. Classic Modules Are Way Too Long for Conventions. This one aggravates me about how completely kuckleheaded I can be. It's been a few years now that I'd trot out a classic module at a one-time convention-style event, to share my love for the old stuff with newer players. Problem is, the classic modules are way, way too long to run in a 4-hour session or so. Even if they originated in tournament events in the 1970's, they were massively bulked up for publication, and intended for home campaign play over many weeks or months. It's kind of butt-stupid that I didn't react to the obvious problem with this until now (it's frustrating and unfulfilling for the players). In the future if I use classic modules at a convention I've got to prune them down to 7 to 9 key encounters (taking module A1, Slave Pits of the Undercity, as a canonical example). Furthermore, it would be nice if there were an identifiable "win" situation, to give closure to the adventure (and the antithesis of ongoing sandbox campaign play). I've already done this to module G1 as an exercise and I'm pretty happy with the result.

2. Need to Simplify Magic Item Generation. First of all, in my games we all make PCs from scratch as the game starts (no pregens), using DMG Appendix P (for both games). One problem I ran into is that the Appendix P magic item tables are a bit too complex for my taste; I had to be bent over a laptop and be crunching a whole slew of numbers in my head for about half an hour. In the future, I need to drop back to a simpler MM-p. 66 style method (straight 10%/level per category; level% for a +2 or more item, plus amount over 100%; pick any type you want).

3. Remember to Reveal Traps/Secrets Through Descriptive Play. I feel like I might need to be more liberal about giving bonuses or advantages to players searching for particular traps/ secrets in just the right place or way. When the action starts, I tend to forget about that, and slide back to just straight d6 rolls for everything. There's also this weird language in the DMG, distinguishing between "tapping for hollow spaces" versus "searching for an opening mechanism", and I'm not sure if that means the former is supposed to be automatic success all the time. (The example of play seems to contradict itself in different places.)

4. Put a Compass on the Damn Map. I feel like I obviously know the cardinal directions (NSEW), but as soon as the action starts and I'm narrating directions from a map, all of a sudden I'm uncertain about whether I'm describing East vs. West properly. I need to put a compass rose on all my dungeon maps in advance, for immediate visual reference.

5. Do 5-Counts for Actions. One way that I'm considered a "hard ass" is that when a player's turn comes up, they need to quickly call out a specific action for their PC (possibly with one single question about the situation around them; rules questions are frowned upon). If they don't, then I start giving them a count-down before moving on to the next player. This is ridiculously hair-splitting, but with 3E I got in the habit of using a 6-count (because rounds were 6 seconds). Now it just occurred to me that it would be easier to do a 5-count (say, 2 seconds each in my/Holmes OD&D), and display it on the fingers of one upheld hand. Ridiculously minor, but yes, I do think about these things.


  1. Here's a comment to my own post about "callers". Prior to the game I got in a discussion with my good friend Paul S., who pointed out that in OD&D's Example of Play (Vol. 3, p. 12-14), the only people who speak are the Caller and the DM, all other players being completely silent. Does that imply that the Caller should filter all other player communication, the DM refusing to speak with anyone else?

    One thing I picked up on later is that this Example completely skips over the combat encounter. (A dozen gnolls show up, and then parenthetically, it just reads "Here a check for
    surprise is made, melee conducted, and so on.")

    So if you note that, and that other classic D&D Examples tend to have the Caller speaking for exploration, and other players speaking in encounters, I feel that my system is very much the same intention as I get from this Example of Play.

  2. Your comment about secret doors had me go back and look at the DMG. I've only seen it played as a straight up die roll usually with no narration.

    But huh, the DMG does seem to consider tapping as a real separate thing that isn't supposed to be merely folded into a detect roll. Meaning it can just find some doors automatically. And finding the mechanisms wouldn't even seem to require the detect roll either, if descriptive interaction is used.

    So many simple push/pivot secret doors would could be found and opened with no rolling whatsoever. Which seems right to me as I say it but doesn't match the way I've always seen it done.

    (So there's the question of why the DM is rolling dice in the pre-ghoul room (how many times have I felt sorry for that gnome?). I would say that's just blowing smoke. The bit about the tapping being "feeble work" but sufficient to find the door seems strong.)

    Weird. Thanks for pointing this out. There's no end to the DMG's ability to surprise and confuse.

  3. Yeah, I'm honestly really bothered by that "tapping" discussion on DMG p. 97 and thereabouts.

    I have half a mind to just ignore that, myself. (a) It's so unlike anything in the OD&D books or any other version of D&D. (b) It smacks of some particular strategem used by EGG's players that he was liberal with one day (a la the light-in-the-eyes trick that made its way into the AD&D DMG).

    The other problem is how short a time the "tapping" takes (top of page 97). If it only takes 1 round/10x10 section, and success is automatic, then the obvious result is that PCs should tap every surface all the time (it's not any slower than standard movement). Anytime a strategic decision is taken away like that, it smacks me of a broken rule.

    Separately, another interesting thing is the listening check on p. 98: "(Rolling a d6... In this case the DM knows what will be heard, but pretends otherwise... )" The "tapping" issue aside, I should find ways to be liberal with sight/sound clues that are intentionally part of the adventure.

  4. I think there would be some simulation-based implications that would balance things out. There's the false positives that the DMG hints at (which create a strategic choice). Sometimes it wouldn't work: if the corridor behind the secret door runs the whole length of the wall, no variation in the sound will be heard. Silence is required; if the players/PC's are arguing, or people in mail/plate are walking around, it should fail (so doing it during movement requires coming to a complete stop every 10' so it should reduce movement rate). There could be increased chance of wandering monsters and increased chance of being on the wrong side of surprise.

    Or, you could just say that it doesn't really work on stone. When the player of the dwarf raises his hand you tell him that light, quiet tapping is already part of his roll.

    Still, in a room with wooden walls where there's a large secret panel, and a player says "I tap along that wall", it seems perverse not to let the panel be found automatically.

  5. Sometimes it wouldn't work: if the corridor behind the secret door runs the whole length of the wall, no variation in the sound will be heard.The problem I considered here is that it's totally dependent on the design of the dungeon. Stuff like B1 or Gygax's Dungeon Geomorphs, sure, there's a lot of adjacent corridors. But in most other styles that's scrupulously avoided, like in B2, G2-3, Bloch's "Castle of the Mad Archmage", etc.

    Still, in a room with wooden walls where there's a large secret panel, and a player says "I tap along that wall", it seems perverse not to let the panel be found automatically.And this contrasts with the fact that most wooden-enclosures (G1, buildings in B2, A2, etc.) are all adjacent rooms, which would make it likewise useless for actually finding anything.

    Or, you could just say that it doesn't really work on stone. When the player of the dwarf raises his hand you tell him that light, quiet tapping is already part of his roll.Yeah, I think that this is what I'm most likely to do in any case (in other words, revert back to the OD&D rule before this possibility bubbled up in AD&D).

  6. It would be quite interesting if you designed a module for 4 hour tournament play (playtested and everything), and compare it to tomb of horrors and others.

    My guess is you would have to have 15 minutes prep and pre gen characters (Maybe include 10 and randomly choose 4?), but its the length and style of adventure that would be interesting.

    only 9 encounters? Maybe a few more, plus some branching paths, or the possibility to fail.

    And finally a clear GOAL for the adventure (find the Game of Antioc of some otehr mcguffin).

    1. That's a great idea. Coincidentally, it was within an hour of your posting this that I was told that the new WOTC book, "Art & Arcana" includes an original tourney version of Tomb of Horrors, at that indeed it's a lot more linear/shorter than the published version. Eager to see that at some point. (My friend Paul has this, which he told me about as we set up for today's "Wandering DMs" livecast on YouTube.)