Friday, September 12, 2008

1st session of OD&D Megadungeon campaign - TPK

The following was originally posted to Finarvyn's Original D&D Discussion board and Dragonsfoot. I combined my responses to some questions, hopefully all makes sense without the questions...

Our band of intrepid explorers gathered at the inn in the village of Canyon Lake. They had all heard of a great dungeon near the village. An inquiry of the innkeeper gathered that they could either approach the dungeon by boat or by a narrow trail following the steep shoreline.

The party chose the trail and set off, two dwarves, two elves, three humans, and a mule. The trail led down to a small beach with a larger trail leading up the hillside to a ruined village. The dungeon entrance was rumored to be in the largest building.

In the village, the party first met a group of six dwarves. A short parley ensued and the dwarves went on their way hunting goblins.

The party gathered at the first of several smaller buildings that were still standing. The door was bashed in and three kobolds were quickly dispatched. On the way to the second building, the party avoided a giant beetle. Bursting through the door of the second building showed five kobolds and a goblin. A sleep spell dispatched all of them. A very nice looking dagger was found.

The third building approached was larger and near an overgrown graveyard. Bursting into the third building revealed three gnolls. The human cleric collapsed under the blow of a gnoll morningstar. Another sleep spell dispatched the gnolls. After the battle, it was determined the cleric was just unconscious.

The party decided to hole up in the building to recover. Early the next morning, the ground started to crack. Seven skeletons burst forth, The skeletons were eventually defeated but with great loss. An elf was the only conscious survivor. The cleric did wake up in the morning. The human warrior and the other elf survived unconscious. The two unconscious survivors were loaded on the mule along with the treasure and the most valuable equipment and the party started to head for home.

As the party made their way through the ruins, four giant ants engaged them. The mule went down and the ants swarmed the mule. The human warrior was revived with a potion but also went down again. Two characters survived with one unconscious body. They took the most valuable treasure and headed for home.

Most of the way back to town, the trail partially collapsed sending the survivors tumbling down the rocky embankment. Sadly, there were no survivors.

Several things the players might have done to do better:

  • Spend some time finding rumors.
  • Take the boat instead of the trail.
  • Not holed up for a night above the dungeon, especially near a graveyard.
  • Checked out the potion earlier.
  • Teamed up with the dwarves (at least for resting)


For consideration, here are the background bits (in three separate places in my guide). I did read the section on alignment to them before the start of play. Admittedly there is no discussion of the dangers of camping out in the dungeon or the ruins above, but read the description of the chaos alignment... The rest of the players guide is basically the rules from Men & Magic (plus additions from Greyhawk etc. and house rules), except for the spells (they are in separate documents, one for clerics, one for magic users, and an intro document with first through third level spells from both classes.

The Mega-Dungeon (on page 2 right after table of contents)

This campaign will operate primarily in a single large dungeon, often referred to as a mega-dungeon. Like the dungeons of the early days, the deeper underground, the higher the challenge. In general, first level characters will find the most appropriate challenge on the first level underground, while second level characters will find more appropriate challenges one level deeper and so on. The dungeon itself is rumored to be a force of chaos, filled with foul beasts, tricks, and traps. Some tricks and traps may deposit an expedition on a deeper level of the dungeon unexpectedly. Previous expeditions may have left clues in the dungeon, and maps found on the bodies of those who didn’t make it could be quite valuable (though they could also have fatal errors).

The Dungeon--by which this author means the generic category and not any specific instance, though the principles apply in both cases--is a weird, unfathomable, and deadly place, and as such it should sound an irresistible call to those with the doughty hearts of adventurers. Importantly, it is also vast--do not fall into the trap of trying to "defeat" a level. Set goals, work to achieve them, and don't be afraid to move on when the opportunity presents itself. You can gauge what sorts of risks you want to take, and what sorts of rewards you wish to win, by considering the party level versus the dungeon level, as a rough equivalent exists in terms of PC abilities, appropriate challenges, and rightful prizes. Cautious parties may stay on safer levels, but the treasure will be less; daring parties may make forays deeper into the place for richer reward, but the danger will also increase. Choose the path that suits your party best.

Within you will find ferocious monsters, lethal traps, cunning tricks and buried secrets, tortuous layouts and forgotten ways, baffling riddles, and best of all, fabulous treasure beyond imagining. You the player will be challenged as much, if not more, than your PC, and it will take the combined skills of both to succeed. This place is not merely a workaday, subterranean lair, with logically arranged sleeping and eating areas for a species simply somewhat different from (or even antagonistic toward) humans and demi-humans. The door you open is a portal, the stairs you descend a path, into the mythic underworld, luring you farther from the rational and sane daylight lands above, where a man may plot his way with confidence in the laws of nature, and into a nightmarish world of magic, evil, and elements that can devour your PC's very soul. You must be constantly on guard for peril from any quarter; you must manage your resources carefully, retreating when it is wise yet advancing when the time is right; you must demonstrate bravery, intelligence, and prowess as well, if your efforts are to be repaid with wealth and power. Not everything within the crumbling walls, forsaken chambers, and winding ways is hostile, and you may find allies in strange places or negotiate safe passage from others--but be wary of treachery and ill will. Those who think and fight their way back out may bear the riches that will spread their names throughout the realms of Man; those who do not will die a lonely death far from the places they know and cherish.


Alignment (on top of page 4)

Alignment in my campaign represents alignment with a specific cosmic force. The alignments are:


This cosmic force represents the human drive towards orderliness, with kingdoms and empires gaining strength over small communities.

Neutrality or Nature

This cosmic force is the old cosmic force of living with nature in small communities. Demi-humans as entities are overwhelmingly neutral in alignment though individuals may align themselves with law, or even chaos.


This is the cosmic force seeking to tear the world asunder. The forces of chaos breed in dungeons, swamps, and other dank and foul places. It is said that in these foul places, even the very earth itself is a force of chaos. This might explain the inexplicable tricks and traps that abound in dungeons. It could explain the fact that dungeon doors will swing open to allow inhabitants to pass but be jammed solid against lawful expeditions seeking to penetrate the dungeon and slay the forces of chaos. The corrupting nature of chaos sometimes allows individual creatures aligned with law or neutrality to be bent to the needs of chaos, and some individuals will even seek chaos for their own reasons.

Unsolicited Advice (page 13)

The problem with mapping is that so few people (players and DMs alike) seem to understand why it should be done and just accept that it's "part of the game" because it's mentioned in the rulebooks and is somehow "assumed" that at the end of each adventure the players must have a map of the dungeon that looks just like the DM's. But that's backwards -- drawing a map shouldn't be a burden for the players, it should be an aid to them, and they should only do it to the extent it aids them.

In most circumstances, the only reason to make a map is so you can find your way back to the entrance and highlight areas you passed over but may want to return to later. If you think you can find your way back without a map (either because you've got a good memory or because the dungeon is simply designed, without a lot of turns, doors, dead-ends and such) then there's no reason to make a map at all, and even if you do decide to make a map there's no reason to do so on graph paper and try to create a perfect replica of the DM's map. Make each room a square (or oval, or whatever shape the DM says the room is) with the dimensions and number/location of all exits marked; make each corridor a line with the length and any side passages, doors, etc. marked. Don't worry about trying to make it to scale -- if a 20' long straight corridor connects back to a room you've been to previously but your map requires you to draw a long, curved line to represent that corridor, don't worry about it. Mapping in this way should be sufficient in the vast majority of circumstances and IME doesn't slow the game down noticeably at all (because the DM should be giving the same sorts of descriptions of rooms and corridors whether the players are mapping or not -- it's their decision whether or not to draw a map, not his).

The only time to bother trying to draw an accurate map that matches the DM's exactly is when you're either in a very mazy environment where there's a significant chance of becoming seriously lost or when you have some reason to believe that 'empty spaces' on the map might conceal secret passages that you wouldn't be likely to locate otherwise. In such cases mapping/navigation becomes part of the challenge of the game, as much as combat tactics and resource management, and drawing an accurate map is an accomplishment in and of itself -- some players will become proud of their mapping skills and how they were able to 'beat' the dungeon through mapping (by finding a secret area, or quickly spotting a teleport trap, or whatever). If you enjoy such a challenge, go for it, it'll add a whole new element to the contest of the game. But if this sort of 'detail-work' bores or frustrates you, you should probably avoid it and stick to sketch/trailing maps (or even no map at all). Yes OD&D vol. 3 and some old modules (B1 probably most famously) emphasize this 'mapping challenge' part of the game with tricks designed especially to confuse people trying to draw accurate maps, because the people they were playing with (Ernie Gygax in particular, from what I understand) enjoyed that aspect, but if you don't there's no reason to try and force it. Make trailing maps or trust your memory if that's what you prefer -- you may miss an occasional hidden treasure, or get lost in an occasional maze, but that's the price you're willing to pay.

Trent Foster

In Depth Commentary

The players were a bit frustrated, but will return. They are used to newer systems that are more "fair." Perhaps I should have given them a bit more slack on preparations for holing up. They did spike the doors shut - which did play into possible encounters, a humanoid encounter WOULD have had to bust through the door - it just turned out to be an undead encounter.

One thing I realized I had neglected, or couldn't find, was an outdoor encounter table for the ruins above the dungeon. I used my 1st level encounter table with some on the fly adjustment (discarded one encounter that didn't make sense), especially for the night (adjusting probabilities on the fly for their proximity to the graveyard).

I talked with one of the players who rode we me (he lives three houses down from me) on the ride home about things they could have done better.

At the beginning of the next session, I will spend a bit of time talking to them about expectations and perhaps giving them a few suggestions. None of the players had read the background info in the players guide I gave them (the neighbor to his defense did not get one of these guides until we were at the session).

I think in old school tradition, the players do need to discover some of this stuff the hard way, or at least by thinking about it themselves. This is not 3.x where the GM gives the players "fair" encounters and recommends "gather information" rolls...

These segments above are pretty much all the "background" information.

What they were exploring was the surface which just has a few standing buildings. Perhaps having every one of them occupied was too much. I do need to track turns better, I think I did roll too often for wandering encounters (4 giant ants was also probably too many). While holed up though, they did only get a single roll per hour (and many/most encounters would not have been able to get in easily - just the undead (and only because of proximity to the graveyard) and burrowing creatures).

Along the trail, they only got one roll per hour (3 hours travel normally, 4 hours for the return carrying a body). I had tried to at least hint that the trail was dangerous (I certainly described it as a narrow trail clinging to a steep hillside above the lake). The landslide was the result of rolling a 20 on my encounter chart which was "special". They did get a dex roll to avoid falling. I can see that it was perhaps excessive.

One issue is that I couldn't find the surface encounter chart I thought I had made. I also didn't actually have an encounter chart for the trail. For next time, I need to write up a good encounter chart, and probably should have a range of specials (so it's not always a landslide on the trail).

I think it's fair to chalk this up as a learning experience for both me as GM and for the players. Part of the problem is that they are used to being spoonfed information.

While it might not be to everyone's taste, I think it's kind of cool that even though players may have had old school experience years ago, that there is still a learning process. I think that is part of what makes the game exciting.

In my play in Makofan's campaign on the OD&D board, I'm realizing that it's actually not so bad losing a character. I mostly stopped playing and just GMing partly from this fear, but I think when D&D is approached differently, it's not so bad. Sure, sometimes you lose, but there is no winning without losing. EVERYONE WINS is not really all that fun.

I hope that the players come to see this. I think that is what actually drives D&D players to seek more and more challenge, either going deeper into the dungeon, or pushing the limits of their resources. Without that pushing, there is no loss, and thus no real winning. I think this is what Ron Edwards gets at with his definition of "Step on Up" Gamism.

One thing I would like to add, this play took less than two hours. Our session was supposed to run from 6 pm - 10 pm, but traffic and nearby burning buildings caused the last player to not show up until 7 pm. The store clerk also told us we would have to leave at 9:30. Well, we actually finished up before 9 pm.

I love how much faster encounters run than in later editions of the game. We did use miniatures (for PCs, counters for the monsters). The extent of laying out the battle was to set two dice on the table to show the doorway.