HelgaCon: The Slavers Stockade

Here's the first part of a belated recap of our HelgaCon house-convention action from the first weekend in April. This year I ran 4 games across the 5 sessions of the weekend. These included the following:

Secret of the Slavers Stockade (Ad&D Module A2)

I'm on year 2 of a multi-year run to play through the famous A-series, which I've never done, sticking to the "tournament" subsections, rules, and scoring guidelines. This was (obviously) two separate sessions: one for the above-ground hill fort, and one for the below-ground dungeons section. Of course, I'm translating the content as best I can to OED rules, clerics become fighter/wizards or a fighter with a special-power sword, etc.

One thing in trying to recreate the "tournaments" on a small scale is that you can't guarantee you'll get all 9 players expected by the original setup. In the first session of A2, I actually only had 4 players at the table (another was scheduled but got sick). I started out halving the number/power of the monsters, but found these players were just carving through everything like a knife through hot butter, so I ramped up the proportion from half, to three-quarters, to full-strength by about the half-way point. Still they plunged into the final encounter and swept the board for a victory. It seemed like they could do no wrong.

For the second session, I had 7 players (again, missing the same extra player). It seems like this group didn't have a noticeably easier time with the event. They overcame traps/puzzles admirably and fought through the final encounter. Here, the boss wizard let loose with an opening lightning bolt that felled either 2 or 3 of the party's 4 wizard PCs. The two sides then basically fought to a nail-biting standstill until the remaining party wizard used his last spell, suggestion: "I suggest this fighting does neither side any good and we should part ways in a truce," which was successful. So: a draw, although the party still scored almost all the points for the game.

I'm a little baffled at how the 4-player group did so remarkably well with the hill fort scenario (I expected to roll in replacement characters, but none were needed). Is the first session simply easier? Does the smaller group make it simpler for the team to communicate and coordinate?

Regarding this and other A-series modules that I've seen: (a) the text seems wall-of-words copious (many paragraphs per area) and frankly it's a real burden to parse and translate it (both before and during the game), and (b) many of the puzzles/traps are somewhere between inexplicable-unworkable-incomprehensible, both in terms of describing/explaining and running them mechanically. Example of the former: The text for the single new "cloaker" monster, with all its various "subsonic" powers, alone spans 7 big paragraphs in the adventure text (I'm pretty sure I missed some components in-game). Examples of the latter: Many of the A-series traps are hard-to-believe mundane traps (toppling stuffed bear, pillowcase in flue that looks like a ghost, humanoids dressed as mummies in angled mirror) so you can't even hand-wave it away as "it's magic". For the players' benefit I started to set expectations with, "the slave lords might just be mentally ill", and on my end, I tried to be sensitive to the point when we all started becoming disinterested in a particular barrier and then say "yes" to whatever idea the PCs came up with to bypass it. I think I'm coming to a philosophy that the very-wordy classic AD&D modules are not my favorite thing to run; I'd really rather have very terse, couple-line areas that I can expand on improvisationally during the game (and very clear stats for monsters, tricks, and traps).

I should point out that the design for the A-series is extremely regimented. It's usually a linear path (no surprise), with the 5 sessions from A1, A2, and start of A3 all with about 16 areas areas each, 9 "significant" ones for scoring, with exactly 5 monster encounters and 5-7 traps (and also one "new" monster per section). I will say that this seems pretty well-timed, as both my groups reached the final encounter with a comfortable amount of time (although last year in the dungeon part of A1 we did not reach the final room). The scoring system is surprising: although given as a table, it boils down to 45 points for each of 9 significant areas cleared out (not explicit in the text; you must decide which 9 of the 16 areas count), minus 5 points per character death. Note that the lives of the entire party are worth the same as a single encounter area (45 points in each case); so this equivalent to a scoring system of, "count areas cleared from 1-9; for a tiebreaker, count surviving party members". I suppose for brevity this system means the one table can be used for all the sessions in A1-4 uniformly; although more recent tournament scoring I've seen has more detail in terms of specific tasks accomplished, which I think I do prefer (not having tested them to date as a DM).

One other thing I stumbled into is that (for example) the A2 module has "battlemaps" with detailed furnishings and monster starting positions for three of the most climactic encounter areas. I blew these up to a full-page each and printed them out, but didn't actually expect to use them. (They're sized so a single letter-size page can only show them at about 1" = 10' scale; for my preferred 1" = 5' scale, I'd need to split and paste together 4 sheets each, i.e., 12 total pages, which was more work/resources than I wanted to spend.) But when the first such encounter came, I did find myself pulling out the blow-up and handing it to the players as a shortcut to explain all the details. We didn't use minis, but instead just jotted some notes in pencil as the action took place. This seemed to work out very slickly and I continued that for the other areas that had such blow-ups.

Special shout-out to my player Jon who took the modified Eljayess character, scratched out my "wizard" and wrote in "cleric", and then got KIA'd in the final encounter of both sessions.

Favorite random scribble on PC sheet: "Leave No Door" (this from Elwita's player, usually following behind the max-strength "Ogre" character who tended to smash all the doors to splinters; and in other cases tear them off the hinges to use as platforms over pits and such).

More to come. In the meantime, you can look back at the Wandering DMs wrap-up livecast we did when when Paul & myself were still hot from the convention just wrapping up a few weeks ago. 


OD&D Critical Hits

I'm recovering from "convention season", and running a week or two behind on blogging and responses to emails. Still need to write a short recap of this year's HelgaCon games. I just got to our school's spring break week, so hopefully I can catch up soon.

In the meantime, here's a little historical note that came up on yesterday's Wandering DMs livecast on critical hits, death, and reincarnation: Does OD&D have critical hits? The obvious answer is "no", but the semi-snarky answer is "yes". In the original LBBs (little brown books), within the Vol-3 Aerial Combat section (p. 27), you do have a specific Critical Hit Table just for flyers. Here you get the following tables and no other text explanations (apparently checked with the 2 or 3 extra rolls on every single hit):

I've done some playtesting with streamlining those rules (actually: that fed into my friend B.J.'s game at HelgaCon two weekends ago), and therefore played a number of games with my partner Isabelle. I kind of like the extra spice from those tables, but Isabelle rather hates the whole concept as an unwanted surprise/complication. Obviously she's not the only person to ever feel that way.

The other thing that exists in OD&D with critical-hit-like capabilities is the "Hit Location System" in Supplement II, Blackmoor, by Dave Arneson. This runs about 7 pages and dictates apportioning creature hit points into separate limbs and body parts, and rolling on tables for each hit to determine which part takes the damage. For example: once the fraction of "head" or "body" hit points are depleted, then the creature is immediately dead. There are separate charts and specification for different types of creatures (humanoid, flyer, reptile, insectoid, fish, snake), and also a 20 × 20 matrix of attacker-versus-defender height comparisons (in one foot increments) with various adjustments or restrictions to what body parts can be hit. Here's an excerpt just for humanoids:

Nowadays there's an opinion in some quarters that Dave Arneson represented the "radical freedom" side of D&D, and that he ran his games in the spirit of total improvisation, without regards to any systematized rules whatsoever. I find this pretty hard to digest when it seems like he has his name on the most complicated and baroque parts of the OD&D game system: the aerial combat, the naval combat, the hit location tables, etc. Some might defend this as "he wrote them but didn't play them", but to my ear that comes across as "fraud" or something very close to it.

On the other hand, I now read many of the Gygaxian comments in AD&D as mostly responding and rejecting to these complicated ideas by Arneson in Sup-II. E.g.: "[D&D] does little to attempt to simulate anything either" (in the "The Game", p. 9), and "... the location of hits and the type of damage caused are not germane to them... Lest some purist immediately object, consider the many charts and tables necessary to handle this sort of detail..." (opening to "Combat", p. 61). Any argument that D&D has "fully abstracted combat" or whatever definitely has to play monkey-covers-its-eyes in regard to these kind of rules from OD&D; and indeed they've mostly been successfully shoved down the memory hole at this point.


Stats Saturday: AD&D Wandering Monster Rankings

Commentator G. B. Veras has generously shared with us this delightful piece of work; a complete analysis of the relative chances of encountering any AD&D monster in the dungeon, based on the encounter tables in the 1E DMG. Stunning! It's best if you download the spreadsheet locally and poke around at the chart (which in Libre Office lets me select certain bars and easily see which of the 165 monsters they represent). Thanks to G.B. for making this available!


Co-DMs for Boss Fights

I must reflect on an experiment from last month's TotalCon that worked smashingly well (likely my favorite event of the con). My friend and co-Wandering DM Paul invited me to join him for his recurring Sunday-morning "Boss Fight for Breakfast", a two-hour all-out fight between players and some major D&D bad guy in an interesting lair with various environmental hazards.

In this case he invited me to participate as something of a co-DM, namely, the dedicated brains behind the boss -- here, Flame, an ancient red dragon of maximum size, power, and spellcasting ability, from the Dungeon Magazine #1 adventure "Into the Fire".

Specifically, my role was this guy.

I was really thrilled by how this worked out. Sometimes with a single large bad guy there's a danger that PCs are going to swamp him with the "action economy" of getting lots of actions while the boss only gets one per round. There were 9 high-level PCs coming at me with lots of spells, magic items, cold abilities, magic detecting swords, etc., etc. -- which I was not allowed to inspect before the game -- so I was worried this was a distinct possibility.

Situation as PCs saw it at the start.

But as it turned out I was really quite happy with how challenging I could make this. I used illusions layered on illusions on top of other illusions to distract the players. I hit them with two 88-point flame breaths while they were carefully trying to avoid a major trap. I got one player to run to their death into a hidden chasm. Another, flying on a magic carpet, conked their head on a cavern roof hidden by magic. I hit a batch of them with a hold spell (although all but one made their saves), and managed to drop a portcullis trap on them. I even taunted them into using the one spell against which I had an item giving me immunity. I was defeated in the last 5 minutes of the session, but I think I put up a fair game.

Situation as everyone saw it at the end.

When we left the convention, both Paul and I shared the same observation; neither of us could have made that game work the same way working alone. As referee, your hands are definitely full going around the table adjudicating (high-level) player actions, questions, details on spells, saving throws and damage, etc., etc. When it gets to the monster turn, I would feel compelled to take an action in 5 seconds or so -- the same as I permit players, to keep the action fast-paced -- regardless of whether it was a very well-considered move or not. But by separating the jobs here, Paul could focus on rulings on player actions, while I had the whole 10 minutes or so to meditate on my options, look at my big hand of spell cards, estimate distances, reflect on player actions, etc., and come up with the best and most devious response possible.

In particular for these kinds of "genius-level" take-no-prisoners opponents, this approach definitely resulted in me running the most devastating boss monster that I've accomplished to date. I think that may be generally true; simply put, getting 100 times more processing power is going to make your simulation look a whole lot smarter than normal. That may not be something feasible all the time (e.g., in a campaign game where combat is not happening all the time, there wouldn't always be something for the boss-actor to do), but in climactic set-pieces with mastermind spell-casters, now I might think this is the best possible thing to do, if I can find a co-DM for it.

More: Our March 10th Wandering DM livecast was on the subject of Dragons, and lessons that we'd learned from the very game. Watch it here.