(Blogging has been interrupted lately because I bought a new computer and had to spend far more time than I liked getting it set up. That's done, so with luck I can return to my two-or-three-times-a-week schedule.)
A couple of weeks ago, on October 28, I attended JiffyCon, a mini game convention held at Smith College's Seelye Hall (not to be confused with its counterpart, Unseelye Hall, which only appears at midnight during the dark of the moon). The Northampton game store Modern Myths sponsored and managed the con this year — which was how I heard about it in the first place, since I run a weekly game session in the shop.
Since 2017 marks the 40th anniversary of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, which brought roleplaying to the masses, I decided to take the opportunity to give modern gamers a taste of history. So I signed up to run a session of Basic D&D, using my ancient blue-box rulebook by John Eric Holmes (the box has long since disintegrated).
I created a classic old-school dungeon: "Into the Catacombs." The adventurers would be exploring the cellars and crypts to Normont Abbey, which mysteriously burned down in a single night fifty years ago, leaving no survivors. The PCs know that an old man in the village nearby mentioned a vast treasure still hidden under the abbey — and that the monks had brought about their own destruction by dabbling in the Black Arts.
The dungeon had four main sections: a cellar inhabited by a band of Goblin bandits, another cellar controlled by a pack of giant rats, the actual catacombs infested by zombies (the accursed undead monks), and a hidden demonic temple where the monks called up That Which They Could Not Put Down — and where the big fat treasure awaits. The complex also boasted a half-flooded room infested with giant frogs, some giant spiders, and that classic old-school monster: a Gelatinous Cube. I figured all that would keep us busy for a three-hour play session.
My dungeon did diverge from the Gygaxian paradigm in a couple of respects. First of all, it had almost no traps. That was simply because the concept (the abandoned cellars and catacombs of an abbey) just didn't seem like the kind of place you'd find concealed pits and deadfalls. Second, the dungeon wasn't very magical. It held monsters, including accursed walking dead monks, but I didn't put in any illusions or enchanted pools that reverse your alignment or whatever. Finally, I didn't include any puzzles or mysteries. That was mostly because I knew this was a one-shot with limited time. When you've only got three hours you don't want to spend two hours and forty-five minutes trying to figure out what the anagram over the door is supposed to mean.
I also created a whole lot of pre-generated characters for the party, because low-level characters in old-style D&D games die like teenagers in a horror movie. Following my self-imposed rule of doing everything old-school, I rolled the characters up according to the rules in the Basic Set: roll 3d6 for each attribute, in order, no substitutions. I did follow the "prime requisite" rule allowing fighting-men to trade unwanted Intelligence and Wisdom points for additional Strength, and magic-users to do the reverse to boost their Intelligence.
And so at 10:00 a.m. on a bright Fall morning, six intrepid players selected their characters for the venture Into the Catacombs. The party consisted of:
A Human Cleric (Strength 8, Wisdom 14, Charisma 8, 3 hit points, Armor Class 2, wearing plate mail and shield, armed with a Mace, a Wooden Cross, and a vial of Holy Water; Basic D&D clerics don't get any spells until 2nd Level).
Human Fighting-Man #1 (Strength 17, Charisma 11, 7 hit points, Armor Class 2, wearing plate mail and shield, equipped with a sword, short bow, and 50 feet of rope).
Human Thief #1 (Strength 11, Dexterity 15, 3 hit points, Armor Class 7, with leather armor, a short bow, and a dagger).
A Human Magic-User (Intelligence 11, Charisma 3, 4 hit points, Armor Class 9, armed with a dagger; 1 spell for the day from a list rolled randomly).
The Absurdly Powerful Elf Fighting-Man/Magic-User (Strength 16, Intelligence 12, Charisma 13, 3 hit points, Armor Class 2, wearing plate mail and shield, armed with a sword, can cast 1 spell from a list of six spells known).
Human Thief #2 (Strength 13, Dexterity 16, 2 hit points, Armor Class 7, equipped with leather armor, a short bow, a dagger, and 50 feet of rope).
It's instructive to compare this crew to a "modern" adventuring party. Since Dexterity doesn't give any advantage to defense in Basic D&D, everyone plates up in the heaviest armor they can afford. Much depends on the random roll for starting wealth; this particular bunch rolled well. Their hit points are miniscule — even a modern magic-user typically starts with at least 6 hit points. Here we've got a Fighting-Man with just 3.
The team began at sunset amid the burned-out ruins of the abbey, now covered by vines and shrubs. Two of the party heard faint noises from underground, and the group discovered a stone slab which seemed to be a hidden entrance. Rather than go charging in, they elected to toss a flask of oil down and set it alight, then close the slab again. This tactic failed to kill off any of the goblins down below, but the smoke did let the party spot another potential entrance, which they investigated: a crude chimney barely wide enough for an unarmored person to shinny down.
It also alerted the goblins, and a team of them snuck out through the flooded crypt, trying to take the interlopers from behind. The party spotted them and our first combat erupted! The players learned that in Basic D&D everyone uses the same table to hit, and all weapons do 1d6 damage. (This led one player to rely exclusively on shield-bashing attacks thereafter.) The skirmish with four goblins armed with clubs and slings left the PCs victorious, with a couple of minor injuries.
They decided to split the party, because that always leads to good results. One bunch went into the flooded crypt while the second team lifted the slab and tried to fool the goblins with a dummy improvised from goblin armor and brushwood. That didn't work against creatures with night vision, and the players learned that the goblins had at least one crossbow down there.
The crypt team fought off a killer frog and found the back entrance to the goblin lair. The magic-user explored the kitchen and the room used by the goblins to pickle giant frogs (for use in pies) while the Fighting-Man and thief pushed ahead toward the sounds of battle.
The sounds of battle were coming from the other half of the party. The Absurdly Powerful Elf took matters into his own hands and went down the stairs holding the unconvincing dummy in front of him, trying to intimidate the goblins. It didn't work, but his comrades hurried down to join the fight. One goblin managed to kill the Absurdly Powerful Elf, and another took down the second Thief. The party slew all the goblins but two: one bolted away up the stairs, the other surrendered, promising to show the humans where his leader kept the loot and the pickled frog pies.
The team also rescued two captives, replacing the casualties:
Halfling Thief (Strength 9, Dexterity 16, 2 hit points. Armor Class 7, with leather armor and a short bow).
Human Fighting-Man #2 (Strength 13, Dexterity 13, 7 hit points, Armor Class 7, equipped with leather armor and a short bow).
They gathered up the goblins' loot: 2,000 silver pieces, jewelry worth 200 gold, and some expensive rugs. They left the rugs to retrieve later, but took the coins.
Then, back through the flooded crypt (no frogs this time) to examine a pair of heavy doors in there. Those led into a mortuary chapel, which fortunately wasn't flooded, but unfortunately was home to several giant spiders. The heroes tried to chase the spiders away using torches — it worked on two of them, which retreated to the upper corners of the room, but the remaining spider wasn't scared, and instead dropped down onto the cleric. A brief but spirited battle resulted, with the cleric dead along with all three of the spiders.
It was getting close to the end of our time slot, and when the thief opened the door at the back of the chapel to reveal a long tunnel lined with burial niches — and a distant shambling humanoid shape — they decided to seal it off and retire with their loot. Game over.
Everyone seemed to enjoy the session (including me). Of course, I've been running games since, well, 1977, so I could probably manage an entertaining session using baseball cards for characters and rock-paper-scissors as the combat system. The players were amused by the game's quirks, and I was fascinated by the primordial DNA of certain game features. If I were to run it again I'd set it up as a two-parter, with a second session to let them finish exploring the catacombs.
What have you played lately?
For more adventures out of my fertile brain, buy my new ebook Monster Island Tales!