Wednesday, December 14, 2011

1st Edition: How It Went

So, last Saturday we gathered for the long-planned AD&D 1st edition game. We turned out having a relatively small group (for us): four players and myself as DM (it wd have been more, but deadline pressure took out two other players and a last-minute cold struck down another).

How did it go?

Well, I had a blast. As for the players, you'd have to ask them -- but so far as I cd tell, it went well. I know it was slightly weird afterwards to find out that Janice, who'd gone upstairs with her I-Pad when we started rolling the dice, had been able to follow the game through FaceBook postings taking place during the event.

The scenario I chose was B1. In Search of the Unknown, by Mike Carr. As much as I respect Carr's work putting together the AD&D game,* I'd always had a grudge against this adventure, because it's not playable as published. It contains a map, a detailed history of the place, and a description of each room with some background about its original use before the underground stronghold of Quasqueton was abandoned and became a dungeon. What it's lacking are fully keyed encounters.** Instead there are two lists (not tables, or easily divisible by die rolls), one listing monsters and the other treasure, which the DM is supposed to go through and decide where to place. In short, exactly the sort of things you buy a published module in order to have already done for you.

For this adventure, I went through the room descriptions, altering them freely to match the dungeon I wanted to run (this included moving some walls and doors around as well). Most of the monsters from the original I jettisoned; instead, I went through the MONSTER MANUAL and picked out monsters I thought it'd be interesting to use and then placed them throughout the complex. In my read-through, I was reminded of just how many interesting monsters the game system has jettisoned over the years, so aside from a few classics (skeletons, zombies, giant rats) I deliberately skewed my monster selection to include things like a gelatinous cube, green slime, and a unique monster or two. I also added a few specific treasures (e.g., a nearly-depleted wand of magic missiles) that I carefully placed, relying on Carr's list for minor treasure from random encounters. Finally, to shake things up, I decided one of the lair's two builders had been an Illusionist, rather than the Magic-User of Carr's original; that allowed for a number of effects that misled the party from making the most effective response to things they encountered (e.g., not trying to Turn creatures whose undead nature was disguised by illusions).

The player characters were a mixed group: a half-elf cleric (LG), a human paladin (LG), a half-orc Fighter/Thief*** (CE), and a half-elf Fighter/Cleric (CG) whom we half-jokingly decided cd be his sister. No magic-user, which normally wd have put them at a disadvantage, but the presence of two clerics was actually v. much to their advantage, since unknown to them I'd stocked the dungeon primarily with undead (which seemed to make more sense for a long-abandoned complex than the berserkers of Carr's original, who are apparently guards who have hung around for thirty years or so waiting for their bosses to come back). Menaces they faced included

--a corpse infested with rot grubs (too bad they burned it before finding the wand of magic missiles [7 charges] still clutched in one dead hand)
--an apparently endless stream of skeletons who emerged from secret doors near the entryway to attack trespassers and cut off their line of retreat (they finally, after encountering this four times, to spike shut the doors the skeletons used to reach their ambush points).
--a kitchen in which unseen servants were chopping and slicing up the corpse of the last adventurer to come through.
--a dining room, to which the unseen servants delivered the wh apparently had a decapus in it**** who attacked as soon as they entered. Here I did a switch. In its original appearance (in B3), PCs enter a room and see a group of men around a table attacking a woman with knives with apparent cannibalistic intent. But this is just an illusion, covering up the actual menace: a ten-tentacled monster who tries to gobble up the intruders. I decided to reverse that: in my dungeon, they saw the decapus, which here itself was an illusion hiding a room full of eight zombies. A secondary motive, besides creating a tough fight, was to throw off anyone who'd figured out which module we were playing (given that one of the players, Steve Winter, was already working for TSR about the time the adventure I was using was published back in '81), which was after all a classic. By throwing in an iconic monster from a different adventure, I thought it might muddy the waters -- and for those who hadn't played the old adventures it work just fine as a stand-on-its-own encounter.
--an underground garden overgrown by mushrooms. The PCs pulled back without running into any danger here, partly because the cleric's songbird began to tweet in panic as they entered this area, and partly because some of the mushrooms started hopping towards them,which weirded them out.
--a shrine to Our Lady of Darkness, where a summoned servitor offered them healing if they swore an oath to her goddess. The paladin and LG cleric declined; the other two decided to go for it, and both gained a level (1st > 2nd level) but learned that their bodies wd spontaneously animate as undead when they died. This encounter was to insert a role-playing opportunity into the dungeon, as well as parallel the level-bumping power of some magic items and, indeed, one of the magical pools elsewhere in the original module. And of course to give the party increased odds of survival by having character potentially gain an extra level with its attendant hit points, spells, &c.

There were other encounters and places they explored; unfortunately, we ended up with a total party kill when they decided to take on some monsters they cd easily have avoided (having already learned the monsters activated when someone opened the door but did not pursue intruders beyond the room, they entered the room to take them out). Here was another case in which illusion played a key role -- in this case, hiding that the three humans in the room were actually ghouls. Ouch.

The lesson learned? Despite what you may hear, 1st ed. AD&D is really easy to run. It has lots and lots of rules, but you can ignore most of them; most of them are there to resolve specific circumstances, while the core mechanic is really simple. By contrast, in Third Edition you pretty much HAVE to play it the way it's written; the rules are so interlocked that you drop or modify one at yr peril. And of course Third Edition is so complicated that it's rare to even see a stat block with all the details right . . . but that's a discussion for another day.

It also became clear that Third Edition is a much safer world for PCs. In Third Edition, if your character dies, it's because you did something wrong, and then had really bad luck on top of it. In the normal course of play, that shd almost never happen. In 1st edition, death is always just around the corner, and your character can die at any time, not because you made a bad choice but just because of a bad die roll. Consequently, it takes much more skill to keep a character alive in 1st edition, and working your way up from 1st level to 2nd, then 3rd, &c is a real achievement you can feel proud of.

That this arbitrariness is a deliberate part of the system is shown best, I think, by the Potion Miscibility Table (DMG.119). Faced w. the question of what happens when you drink a potion while a previous potion is still in effect, the simplest solution wd be to just say each takes full effect. Not 1st ed. AD&D, which provides a handy table enabling you to determine if one cancels out the other, if one or the other's effects become permanent, or if the imbiber explodes. It helps show that you're in a weird, unpredictable world where the stakes are high and danger is never v. far away. In fact, I suspect that the style of 1st edition role-playing is alive and well today as the basis for most online fantasy games, far more than any later iteration of those rules or its derivatives.

In any case, having whetted my appetite, I want more, and hope I'll be able to organize another game sometime. We'll see. I know another member of the group has volunteered to run a D&D game, using the third edition of the D&D rules (Moldvay's BASIC and Zeb's EXPERT rules). I always played AD&D, not D&D, so I'm really looking forward to it.

--John R.

*it was Carr, as editor of all three hardbacks (PH, MM, DMG), who seems to have put together the material by Gygax (et al.) into coherent form.

**originally B3. was issued in similar unkeyed format, but Moldvay's re-write fixed that problem, and greatly improved the adventure overall. Unfortunately, B1. was never given the Moldvay treatment; the closest it came was when TSR released the compilation B1-9 IN SEARCH OF ADVENTURE -- which despite its designator omitted B1 altogether, aside from reprinting the maps!

***(he wd have been a Fighter/Assassin but cdn't quite make the pre-requisites)

****cf. B3. Palace of the Silver Princess; it's on the cover (of both the suppressed original and the standard green-cover version).


grodog said...

Sounds like a fun evening, John! :D


James Smith said...

If you're getting back into TSR era D&D, I might point out that aside from retro-clones, there have been some 200-odd commercial publications, released for these games in the past few years.

I would suggest Fight On! and Knockspell magazines, as being particularly of interest!

Happy Gaming!