Friday, September 30, 2016

The meat grinder

There is an imaginary line I draw between the first two editions of Dungeons and Dragons published by TSR and everything that came after produced by Wizards.  While there are many differences to be sure, the demarcation for me is the lethality of the games.   1st level was a very precarious position for any class in the TSR editions.  Games were lethal and a making it past first level was kind of a big deal.  The wizard editions went to grate pains to make it easy to have party level encounters, so nothing too difficult was ever encountered.  While generally I think this is a good thing, it does eliminate a certain caution amongst the players.  They don't every expect to interact with anything that could cause instant death, nor is there a concern that the dungeon may take more time and resources then they have. 

The last campaign I ran started off with the quintessential introductory adventure: The Keep on the Borderlands.  We pulled out the AD&D 2nd ed rules (which were a lot more clunky than I remember, but that is a story for another time) and had a run through it.  Most of the players were more well versed with 3rd edition rules, and so there was some definite growing pains.

The leader of the group kept on pushing the party farther and farther into what was in fact a very large dungeon without ever thinking to go back to town to rest or resupply.  Little things manifested as play continued as well.  At one point they asked where something they had previously encountered was and I asked them who had been mapping out the dungeon, they had just expected that their characters were doing it automatically (with their hands full of swords and shields etc.) and none of the players were making any notes.  So they were lost.  A lot of what I grew up with as a player was either forgotten by, or never experienced by this group.  So we had some talks about expectations part way though and things continued.  Then the character deaths started.  Some of it can surely be blamed on the luck of the dice.  One player in particular, ended up losing a character every session. Ultimately I decided that no amount of pre-briefing can change what a player expects an adventure to be.  There was a definite learning curve between the two editions.  This got me thinking, is there a way to introduce people into a harsh and deadly adventure without turning the players off?
Does this mean I should do away with the adventures that are by their very nature "hard" especially for 1st level characters?  No.  Though perhaps I should change my approach.

Two very clever ideas (neither one that I came up with) may provide an answer.

The first is the funnel method of dungeon exploration.  Instead of each player having a character and a handful of NPC / henchmen accompanying the party (because really, who wants to play a henchman anyway, after their PC dies) Every player makes two or three characters and the entire mob of adventurers enter the dungeon.  In this way the party has a fair number of combat ability, supplies, and redundancy of skill sets where loosing a character isn't a big deal either for the party or the player.  Lessons can be fatal and the game still moves forward and by the end of the adventure, perhaps only a few of the characters have made it through the dungeon, but those that survive and passed through that first crucible are the party that continues on through the campaign.  Natural selection of dungeoneering if you will.

The second is running the adventure through two different parties method.  This came from the Thulian Echos adventure by Zzarkchov Kowolski.  In the adventure the party finds a journal detailing the exploration of a dungeon.  The players then take the roles of the adventurers described in the journal and play though what the journal describes of the dungeon.  After getting a glimse of the dungeon and what it contains, the party then follows the journals instructions to delve through the very same dungeon having the advantage of knowing the lessons the previous party learned so painfully.  Of course the adventure itself has some wonderful twists and turns, but the concept I think is sound for anyone who wants to really set the tone of not pulling any punches, but having the players experience the feel of the game while keeping their characters relatively safe until the initial learning curve is past.


  1. I was one of the players in the mentioned game. We were playing as a rather inexperienced group of adventurers (we were experienced players all), and our characters payed the price. I was slightly upset to lose that first character (I had developed quiet an extensive backstory deeply tied to the history of the campaign), but overall I understood what Tim had put together. We had been warned, and I didn't want to meta-play the campaign. I would have done nothing different. In fact, the next character was designed to be even more reckless than the first (just more hit points and armor). I think the difficulty came with the distance to the dungeon, and the feeling of time having an importance to what we were doing. We pushed ahead because we had a "deadline" and heading back to town to restock and rest would have been lost time.

    So, Tim, if I had any advise from this experience, it would be this. Early adventures can be deadly, but if you want to encourage a particular behaviour (the group leaving the dungeon to restock and rest), it needs to be built into the adventure (I know you were using a prebuilt adventure in this case). The adventure needs to be close to town (within hours) so that a trek across the wilderness is less dangerous than pushing forward in the dungeon. The adventure needs to have a lack of deadline (no commoners to rescue!). Perhaps an easily barricaded room (barracks even) within the dungeon (and now that I think about it, there very well might have been one of these we missed).

    And don't take this advise an indictment of my experience. I had a BLAST playing the game. It fell through because we were playing online (where it is so much easier to blow off a game), and we adults had these things called lives that would get in the way of our ability to show up. Work schedule conflicts being the biggest one.

    Keep up the great blogs!

    1. No offense taken. There were lots of hiccups in that game, mostly because I had ideas that were working at cross purposes.

  2. On a side note, that second method sounds like a blast. You can have number of ways to make a character tie in, depending on how old the journal is. Siblings and cousins, long lost uncles and aunts, and the descendants come together to find out what really happened.