Original Dungeons & Dragons is a dangerous affair. On one Discord Server, I took part in an adventure of a variant of it, an attempt at making Original Dungeons & Dragons even more Old School by cutting down on the fat:
- No player rolls, all rolls by GM,
- no attribute scores, and
- no hit points (!)
- 1 Hit Die only, buffered by raw chance: A roll of 1d6, by the game master, without knowledge of the player, decides if the character take actually more than 1 hit at level one.
- Available character options are only fighters or magic users, nothing more.
Otherwise, the rules remain very OD&D, with 1 minute long combat rounds, with a strong caller role, doors that fall shut behind the party, morale rolls, torches burning down, and almost strict “gold = XP”, with a small bonus on top.
The GM ran a pretty tight ship, information-wise: When a character died, the player was removed from the online table. When the party split up, those not present were left completely in the dark about the other group. Access to the server and its channels was on a need to know basis and people who did not participate in active play were removed from the server.
To begin with, GM and party together drew a word picture of the Red Boot Inn as a base of operations, not far from the un-walled port town of Arapis, which also has a mysterious magical lighthouse. The Inn is some quarter hour of walking outside of the town. We defined it as having a squat, robust stonework ground floor and a lighter top floor with bigger windows, where the five rooms are located. Right beside the Inn is a small stable. The main patrons are farmers and shepherds of the region, the proprietor’s name is Urias.
Enter Sir Eggsholme, or, as he developed into during various in-character communications, Stephios.
Sir Eggsholme of the White Hills, younger brother of the new Lord Eggsholme. With a title, but no land, and most importantly, no money, Sir Eggsholme set out to seek coin.
105 gold pieces he had to begin with, and he put most of it into a good set of plate mail, a shield, a helmet, a battle axe and a spear, plus various items useful for adventure.
Two men had already seen what lies below a local ruin – namely, weird corridors and some unknown people who deal with slavers. Rumor has it, that there is old money from the time of forgotten times hidden somewhere down there; others have brought back gold but were too fearful to repeat the delve. These two, Reinhard (F) and Kingsley (MU), pondered doing it again, and when they met Sir Eggsholme (F).
After their first delve they sought more arms to have better chances. And they managed to enlist the wanderer Talbian (MU), the honorable Daan (F), the veteran Zwiebeck (F), and Terry Torchholder (F with very little armor, prepared to fill the important role of torchbearer with good morale – 12 as a player character instead of the measly 6 of a cheap NPC – and scout/thief where necessary).
A later addition was Robert “the Rat”, to replace the suddenly disappearing Zwiebeck, and Syah, the sage, to translate evil scripts.
The original three, after some clandestine meetings in the Red Boot, set out to inspect the chances to get rich quickly and end some evil slave trading on the side.
But first, as they climbed down the stairs and were confronted by four possible corridors to go on, they experienced that there was some odd singing drafting up from somewhere that blanked out Kingsley and Reinhard, so that they followed it like obedient little puppets. Sir Eggsholme slapped them back to reality and broke the charm.
But already standing in corridor B, they proceeded to listen on its two doors and busting one of them open. They found themselves in a room full of rubble and junk. Sir Eggsholme expected something unsavory to live under that pile, and thus he saw it in time: A giant lizard rushing out of the stuff with hungry eyes. Sir Eggsholme quickly closed the door, judging the room not worth the trouble.
But at that time a pair of patrolling Elves, the Phoenix-bearing party awaiting the slavers, had found the group, and attacked. In a pitched battle, the humans killed one of them, the other fled back south, calling for help and warning the group of a gruesome death at the hands of his many friends.
The humans just grabbed the sword and shield of the fallen foe and quickly hid in another corridor and doused the light. In that way they escaped retribution, as the Phoenix-party discussed the incident, spoke about their order to wait here, then took their dead and moved off.
The group re-lit their torch, only moments before two giant, hungry rats attacked! Kingsley and Reinhard were both bitten and survived by sheer luck. Sir Eggsholme, Stephios, failed to get to the fore and bring his arms to bear. It was mainly Kingsley, the magic user, whose quick expert strikes with the knife ended the threat.
Bloodied and wounded, the group decided to retreat and limp back home to heal up.
While Kingsley and Reinhard healed up, Stephios went recruiting. But it turned out that the locals had little interest in facing foul dangers, and possible hired helps would have very low staying power, more likely to drop everything and run than to be of any help. Not promising at all. So Stephios concentrated on stranges travelling by, like himself.
With success! The ranks of the party swelled to seven, with a smart, brave and resourceful lad as torchbearer among them, and so they attempted a new delve. Reinhard elected to stay behind this time, so six went. Even though warned about the siren songs, the whole troop was enchanted and traipsed down corridor B and the stairs, and only came to their senses as they stood with an old sodden door blocking their way.
They retreated from there, happy that nothing much had happened to them, and they decided to go north. There they found another door and forced it open, discovering an empty, rather fine room with no further exits, which Stephios named “Safe Room” as a home base.
Then they went down the stairs, Stephios guarding the rear to protect the magic users. And lo and behold, he was grabbed and dragged away by a duo of undead! Luckily, the others noticed this and came back to save him. A battle ensued, which would have gone very bad for all the fighters due to weird enchantments eating away at their resolve. But Kingsley with his knife saved the day and ended the last sorcerous creature.
After a brief respite they went down the stairs again, where mosaics awaited. Talbian analysed them and at the bottom they found a metal door with the Phoenix on it, and chaos script across the top beam. Two depictions of evil gods guarded the portal.
Unable to read the script, the party took note of it and returned back up for now.
The first loot
There they went south and west to inspect a small guard room, where they found a musical instrument… the only item of loot for this delve. No sound or sign of any living creature was found, and Stephios suggested that the slave-buyers might all have died and been turned to undead. An idea both reassuring and unsettling in equal measure. The theory remained untested.
With no other legitimate lead and with more than half the party suffering from the undead encounter, and no sign of living slavers, the party retreated to heal up.
For the third delve, Stephios wanted to take an expert, a specialist in old languages, from the nearby town. They went to inspect the town and enjoy the views, like the famous eternal lighthouse, blocked by sentries. Then they asked around for scholars, and found one, or rather, he found them. But Stephios did not want to (and in fact couldn’t) pay any advisor up front, so he offered the sage Syah not a fixed fee, but a full share of loot for his services in translation, history, and evaluating items, haggling him down from his demand of two shares to one share but minimal risk.
The musical instrument remained a complete mystery, a big okarina but only with two notes to blow, one very high, one low. Stephios shared his map with the team and devised a plan for Delve three, and together with Talbian the magic user devised three formations for marching orders.
Zwiebeck the veteran had suddenly disappeared, but a youth called Robert showed up to replace him. Reinhard was still laboring at his wounds from the rat bite, so he was not coming. Seven then, one of them Syah the sage in a non-combat specialist capacity.
Terry offered that the team should set aside one share as common team treasure for necessary expenses. Which sounded like a good idea; provided we would actually manage to get more than useless instruments (if it is useless, the mysterious thing)
The team also hired a lone mercenary called Philip who would guard the exit while we were below. And that was a very good idea, as it turned out. Because right on our first foray below, we kind of dropped the ball on the wax in the ears against the siren, when the first guy pulled the plugs out and got enchanted, but the second guy failed to slap him awake, but rather tried to talk to him.
The formation was drawn apart by some people pulling plugs prematurely and getting enchanted, others slapping each other back to their senses … in the end we were surprised by the attack of two hungry giant rats, who dragged down and killed none other than Syah, the sage!
The group rallied and killed one of the beasts and scared away the other, but the damage was done. The translator was dead, and his death would seriously hurt our chances with a replacement.
Sad and sobered, we retreated with the bodies of man and beast to discuss new tactics. Leaving the dead with Philip, we went below again and descended to the metal door, where the two magic users faithfully copied the vile script, so someone may translate it back in the comfort of their home. Stephios and Daan noticed some untoward movement of shadows around the door, so something evil was interred there, obviously, and we will have to talk about opening the door in depth again.
With the fresh copies, we returned up and searched for secret doors in the north, without success, then we turned to corridor C, to open up the doors there. Still on the first torch of the day, Stephios Sir Eggsholme was determined to get some measurable mileage out of this delve, after having paid so dearly already.
Terry’s bramble construction was used as rat deterrent at the top landing of the stairs and at the bend of the corridor.
Opening the first door, we found barracks, and the desiccated corpses of three phoenix soldiers. Stephios expected undead, called the blades forward, and the warriors stormed in to cut skulls from shoulders, before any looting was attempted. The corpse did not resist. And the loot was actually plentiful, counting up into the thousands. The group took the other door next, with even more desiccated corpses, but no loot. Although with a secret door. We followed the secret door, but got thwarted by a door that we did not manage to open.
Back outside, giant rats had gathered in the “exit”-direction of our little bramble-barriere, but fled when the light showed up. We went down and sneaked around quiet and abandoned corridors, found a stairway down to “level 3”. Stephios picked the last door before that way down and we busted it open to reveal an old shrine. Robert was set to watch the corridors, Talbian to hold the door open, while the rest searched the room. It did not reveal anything much, but then Robert warned of a big swarm of rats coming down the corridor – apparently they had managed to gnaw through our brambles.
Robert quickly fell back into the room and the group closed the door against the wave of rats. Squeaking and scratching … then suddenly vapor seeped through the cracks under and above the door. Stephios judged that as a bad sign and demanded bedrolls and blankets to block the vapor. He pulled out his water skin to make the textile wet, so that it might block the air flow more effectively.
“Plug the gaps! Get me blankets!” Stephios shouted, as Talbian implored, “Someone help me. We need to block off the rest of the vapors”. They, along with Kingsley, rummaged for items of their gear, though they were pushed away from the door as Daan and Robert prepared for a fight.
And then suddenly the vapor condensed into a swarm of vicious larger than normal rats. Torches and steel proved successful, ten rats died, and the rest of the vapor retreated. But then the fallen rats dissolved, spreading green gases that brought the whole team to its knees for several minutes.
The group formed up again and ripped up Kingsley’s bedroll to make face masks against noxious fumes. Outside it was all quiet. They made plans for various eventualities, then opened the door: Gone. Following the plan, they moved out and busted open the next door, the first one they had seen down here. Inside were two giant centipedes, which Daan and Stephios engaged and killed. During this ruckus, several baskets and sicks were disturbed, spilling coins!
Stephios guarded the exit while the others loaded up and packed all they found.
Then they moved towards the exit in formation, to go back up to level 1 and blockade the stairs with the brambles again, then push through to the surface, all the time wary of giant rats.
Up there, Philip quit immediately, as his 3 hour job was done. Well, tough luck for him, no extra money for helping us with the body.
Robert insisted on burying the rat right there, but as we had no shovel, he made a cairn of stones. The body of Syah we denied Robert (which turned out to be a big mistake). We wrapped the fallen sage in a bedroll and brought him back to the Red Boot Inn, where we laid him out, covered, with Robert standing guard, in preparation of transporting him to the town Arapis.
But the simple fact that a body was even there sprouted rumors about kidnappings or somesuch. In the eyes of the locals we took on the sinister aspect of dangerous, armed ruffians. The Innkeep demanded we hide the body in the stables. He asked us to not bring bodies here. And our intent to be open and transparent led to requests to shush up and tone it down.
We split the loot by six, on the understanding that after that every member would donate a seventh part to a group account. Meanwhile, the magickers inspected three brooches we found and noticed the beginning of a riddle. So the brooches, like the musical instruments, did not go into treasure, but were considered tools for future delves.
Then it turned out that we did not actually know Syah’s temple, and Stephios’ open questions about where to bring the fallen Syah for burial prompted the patrons of the Inn to quickly leave and avoid eye contact. Three of the team went to investigate to find someone to receive the body for burial, if any such group may exist at all, and had to pay a teamster for the transport, and suffer hostile gazes.
In short, it would have been easier, much easier, to bury Syah on the spot or even dump the body into the ocean.
— Intermission: The three who went to the town were in a separate channel and their adventures remain unknown, until a note written by Talbian reached Stephios: Syah’s temple had been found, all inside dead, and there was something below. Please bring dungeoneering gear and the others quickly! —
Stephios left a note for Robert and Kingsley, who were gone on their own errands. Then he packed all the gear, including that of Robert and Kingsley, and moved to Arapis. The teamster led him to the temple, where he was briefed by Daan, Talbian, and Terry.
The temple was awesome real estate right in the middle of the poorer part of town, a three level building, almost a little spire, with a kitchen on the ground floor that had an entrance to a basement. Strewn all over the place were twisted and broken ruins of men: cultists like Syah, their necks wrung all the way around or their heads bashed in or crushed. What had happened? The only clue was a faint smell of fishy stink. Therefore, we dubbed the presumed murderer (or, by some theories, murderers) “the fishman” (or “fishmen”).
The others had gone to the basement and had found a tunnel system, and Stephios went down once more with them, but this time he saw a chance to get rid of the bodies for good, so he insisted they take them down below. He had no desire to seek proper burial grounds any more.
The group descended and found a grid of straight canals under the city, with ledges along the sides, and murky water. The moment was a bit difficult in game, because the area had already been described and nobody was willing to rehash all the details just because one more person was here, so Stephios was disoriented, with no clear description of the place.
Anyway, there was a bright light somewhere along the tunnel, and Stephios finally rallied the troops and the four of us made our way over to that light.
Follow the Light
The GM did his best to throw us off and motivate us to move not on the ledge, but in the waist-deep water. Yet we did not bite. At some point there was a dry tunnel going off to the left, but again we did not bite but went on to the light. Finally reaching it, it turned out it was not daylight at all, but the whole thing was a huge cave full of crystals, and they broke the light from somewhere so it was all glittery and blindingly bright.
We retreated from there, and decided that this might very well be the home of the fishman and the reason for the killing. Then we went back to the junction and turned to the dry tunnel, still all stealthily and silent.
In the dry tunnel we found three dead cultists strewn about, all again with the classic caved in heads. There was also a doorway to a room with some more dead, and a doorway in there that led to a room full of desks and lots of paperwork, also with some ten cultists slaine where they stood. The fishman was thorough, and he was a force to be reckoned with.
Stephios insisted that we bring all the bodies here. No better place to hide a body than among other bodies. It was hard work and took us about 40 minutes, but we managed and placed Syah and his three friends from upstairs randomly among their friends. Then Stephios wanted to go, but Terry insisted that these papers may be interesting, and so we took a bunch of maps and parchments, a bit less than a third of it all, and left. Despite the GM again trying to lead us astray, we kept to our way, returned home, (the GM tried to lead us astray and make us lose our way, but the layout was simple enough) and wanted to close the lid on the stairwell. This was impossible, said the GM, because the entrance was so awkwardly formed. So we retreated up to the kitchen, closed the trapdoor, and piled up a lot of furniture on it to deter any fishy visitors.
A new home
And then Stephios was happy: A great new place, a house where we could do what we wanted without any shifty gazes from weird farmers who spread dark rumors about us.
He immediately planned to move in there for good, clean up the place, make it comfortable, and put a good, strong lid with tough bolts onto the stairwell into the water drains. He ordered such a lid, but the production by an NPC specialist took surprisingly long.
Terry was less happy about moving in there, because he felt there was something not right. Why would the fishman kill so many of those guys, and not in his lair, but at their desks and up here in their kitchen and their basement? He felt that something sinister was going on.
Of course, Terry was right.
Talbian spent the next couple of days checking out the papers, and we checked out the maps. Maps of the world at large, but also maps of the general vicinity. The GM had us take a bit longer than we would have liked, in order to get Robert and Kingsley back in synch with us: We had done a quick delve that took about 2 hours or so, resisting all temptations to do dumb shit and die, while Robert and Kingsley had done research that was resolved with one die roll but took them days.
So we had to lose days, in which Kingsley could not find my notes.
Finally we go our results, and I got to find Kingsley and Robert.
- Syah and the other men of the Secernerium are actually slavers. (!!! The very same slavers that we had heard about, obviously.)
- The religious nature of the brotherhood is just a front.
- Their leader is a shadowy figure that directs the slavers from afar.
- There’s someone else in Arapis, someone of some importance, that oversees the slaver operation in the port town. (This gave us pause, and spawned Terry’s theory that the fishman worked for this high level traitor, tasked to tie up lose ends. Terry was sure that the fishman-kills were a deliberate hitman job. Stephios rejected this theory. He was sure that such a big rampage could only be spawned by some gross misjudgement on the part of the cult. Emotion! The cult had done something to enrage the fishman, and he had come for them to kill them all, even up in their house in the city, before retreating into the shadowy depths again. Who was right? No idea.)
- The documents don’t reveal from where the cult leader operates, nor who the slaver-operative is in Arapis.
- Parchments note that the slavers had entered into an agreement with Iliéans to supply slaves at a rendezvous point near the dungeons of Yrag Norr. A curious note regarding the agreement says there is to be 13 slaves, and they need only be alive but never of any great strength or health. (= obviously they were meant for ritual sacrifice)
- The slavers were also aiding a band of smugglers near the village of Dymchurch-by-the-Sea, about five miles south of Arapis. The smugglers peddle in goods to avoid taxes by Arapis’ ruler Sir Argus and the authorities. The slavers mention recent trouble stirred up by “The Revenue,” a reference to the forces of the Baron and the buccaneers who aid in squelching the illicit trade.
Two things follow:
1) Syah was not there to aid us, but to infiltrate us, so the slavers were very aware of our activities.
2) If the slavers knew of us, chances are great that the high-level traitor knows about us too.
Robert had hired three new mercenaries, locals who did some guarding for money. Of course, they could not be informed about the sinister stuff going on under Arapis.
Kingsley had researched the brooches, but without success.
Stephios brought them up to Kingsley’s room for privacy, then info-dumped them, including clear descriptions of the underground area, to avoid that they should fall into the same trap as he and be disoriented while nobody would bother to describe the environment.
This done, he immediately brought them to Arapis and into the house;
this they did not like after they heard about the traitor and the possibility that we all might be watched. But at least we were all together, developed theories, and prepared one more delve to fetch the rest of the papers to get more information.
So delve 5, complete with water-tight backpacks, was to come for the rest of the papers from the office …. if still there. If not there, that would be bad.
The fifth delve was planned to be another quick go to the storm drains, to fetch the papers, check out if other stairwells led down there as well beside ours, and retreat to read all the rest of the paperwork, to decide on the next steps and next delves with more information.
The two magic users and Daan wore the brooches, as a kind of test to see if they changed anything.
We found that there was indeed another such stairwell right next to ours, and storm drain pipes leading into the system at every dead end. But then we got to the area with the papers and found it changed. Somebody had smashed a ceramic lantern, and taken away the five cultist robes that we had seen there last time. Syah’s body was disrobed too. But all the bodies were still strewn about, apparently undisturbed. So someone had been here and had identified Syah and investigated him – and taken the spare robes.
Stephios inspected the doorway to the office room for traps, and found none. The papers in that office, though, were all gone, down to the last shred. Frustrated in their desire to shed light on the mysteries of Arapis, the party chose not to grope through these clearly sacked rooms, but to retreat. Yet before this move back home, likely to never return to these storm drains, Stephios wanted to see where the tunnel led. So he went there, closely followed only by Kingsley, past a tunnel with signs of destruction and another dead cultist, until they found a table with oil flasks and more tunnel work. Kingsley inspected these and returned with news of some find. So he gathered the other four and the team crawled through some cramped spaces to reach a big pile of boxes, baskets, and sacks, mostly filled with stale liquid, moldy bread, and some mundane work tools. Maybe a sign that the greedy fools had planned to wreak havoc upon the crystal cave.
Speaking of crystal, above another exit was a stylized crystal painted in white colour. A sign of Evil, claimed Kingsley, drawing from his research.
Either way, behind all the sacks the party found an entrance to some freshly dug underground section that seemed to be a storage area. Stephios and Kingsley went in to inspect it and promptly fell into a spiked pit three paces long. They survived and were rescued, removed the spikes, and then the long slog of creeping along the area in 10-minute-increments began. The GM offered us a so-called “rushed” inspection in slightly shorter time windows, but the players chose 10-minute-searches for every ten feet. As it turned out, even the 10 minute increments were considered “quick visual inspections”. So we only reached the end of the tunnel because there were not more traps before the room beyond, which had two boxes, two chalices, and two small coffers.
Stephios insisted that two of the party would stand guard at the back at all times, in shifts. He stood there with Robert, when Terry led the inspection of the items in the first room beyond. The place offered a line of sight to a second room with high-backed chairs and a third that had a bed in it, and a chest. After some careful inspection the team brought the items outside to open the containers. Stephios and Robert went in to feel their way slowly forward to room two during that time, where they found another Russian Roulette setup, two chairs with handkerchiefs neatly folded in front of them. Unfolding them revealed a logo — the same one that the others had found opening the coffers, as the embroidering of cultist robes. Stephios went on to clear the way to the last room, probed floor and rugs, walls and wall hangings, and with Daan’s help, took off all the bed covers to make sure nothing hid there. Then he let everyone take cover and broke open the big chest waiting there, and uncovered parchments, a long box, and big sacks.
He left the interpretation of these finds to the others and took a short rest.
Turned out, the chest contained a load of good treasure, and together with the useful items from the storage, it was altogether too much to carry, so we had to load up to full capacity on the way back “home” into the cult house. Encumbrance calcualtions! Always my “favourite” part. And that of the other players as well, it seems, because when it came to number-crunching, deathly quiet settled around the table. I have fallen among fellow anti-algebra-specialists.
With the help of Excel tables we finally managed to spread the load around and returned back topside with the loot. However, it turned out that in order to qualify for the XP, we had to sell the treasure, which we did not want to do in the city itself. The others elected to stay behind and prepare the house as an orphanage/hideout/base. Daan and Stephios shouldered backpacks with the jewelry and art wrapped in unspeakables down low under the other stuff, and went walking along the travel road, a pair of sellswords on the road to find a job.
And here this story ends… although Stephios Sir Eggsholme is still alive, againt all odds, I shall cut it here and publish. The End.
Seriously, I am surprised he still lives at this point. Rat attacks, undead attacks, super-strong fishmen, enemies in high places, falling into a pit… one lucky chap to still be healthy as a happy toddler. And that is one important Old School Lesson: Even with prep and care, you still need to be a bit lucky too to survive and thrive.
Speaking of lessons:
Review Time: Lessons learned.
First and foremost, system-agnostically speaking, descriptions are extremely important. One of the biggest problems in the flow of a game is when someone is stingy with information, because while the characters are right there, and see, smell, hear, and feel things, the players are not, and are totally dependent on what the game master says. I am always happy when a GM gives clear descriptions.
The same goes the other way around: players must communicate clearly what they are doing, what their goal is, and how they are doing it (based on the knowledge they have).
In this game, the Game Master ensured that he understood the player ideas well by asking in detail, whenever he was not exactly sure what we were doing, and who was doing it.
He did not readily part with information, though. Even when asked about things, he liked to remain vague, did not give numbers or reliable descriptions of items without prompting, and he even gave some deliberately wonky descriptions of the route in the hope of goading the party to make wrong decisions, in order to force the group to ask detailed questions if they wanted specifics.
Sometimes (often?) the struggle for descriptions even turned a bit (a good bit?) antagonistic when he gave vague descriptions, we gave vague statements of action, and got insufficient results out of them with the reasoning that we were being vague. I took the hint and asked more obnoxious and long-winded questions after that (mostly. Sometimes I did not because I did not want to be to anal about mapping and prioritized getting somewhere). Just as he asked probing questions of us when it came to our positioning, we should have asked probing questions right back and challenged his smokescreens about the available space and backdrop. However, this verbal wrestling can become quite cumbersome, and some players mentally check out and hope that the others will explain the important bits later.
Precise descriptions are 50% of success.
In exploration, but also in combat: clear statement of intent is especially important in OD&D (and AD&D), because of the long time span of a combat round. B/X is more forgiving because errors only carry so far.
Which brings us to second.
Duration! Original D&D works with 10 minute long exploration turns and 1 minute long combat rounds in game time, like Advanced D&D does as well. One minute is very long. In fact, it is long enough to put on rainboots, go out of the house, lock the door, and get the trashcans out to the curb. When we talk about combat within an area of 20 or 30 feet, it is plenty of time for several changes of position and switching of weapons. Even enough for some in the party to fight while others pull the wounded out of the way. That is a lot of grey area and makes things too vague for comfort, especially in a dungeon environment.
That means that Game Masters are confronted with a problem: How can they adhere to the rules by claiming it takes a minute, but hold the players to only a manageable span of time, like one quick reaction, to avoid over-complex combat rounds with 20 three-second-activities by everyone present?
Advanced D&D 1e solves this by splitting the minute up into an avalanche of short segments, into which various actions can be slotted; OD&D does not have that (luckily! I am not a great fan of Excel sheets, and segmented combat rounds scream “Excel!” at the highest volume.).
You cannot reasonably have three guys “surprised” for one minute, except if they are completely plastered with heavy liquor. A troop of 30 men “surprised”, because it can take a minute to form up into your square when you are suddenly attacked – but mass combat systems usually have even longer rounds. So adding more people we still always lag behind believability.
The inverse is true, though, when the combat round is filled with something other than combat. When the encounter is filled with talk, or supporting activities, then games with shorter combat rounds players tend to fill their six seconds up to the brim and overflowing, sometimes entire dialogues are held as “free actions” within a few heartbeats. Here the full minute of 0e is preferable.
In both instances the game works best with a flexible mindset – when people do not insist on calling it an exact minute and just handle it as a variable span of time in which one important task is accomplished — flying in the face of the old OSR mantra:
That works not always: We see that after a party split group 1 had, in theory, enough time for six or seven quick delves, while group 2 did only 1 die roll that represented almost a week of effort. That is not optimal, the GM was forced to put the breaks on group 1 hard. That was not his fault, it was the obvious outcome of splitting the party.
(Oldest rule in the book: Don’t split the party if you can avoid it.)
(Although we did not actually play with HD in this particular set of house rules,) Hit Dice of the same size for all … fighters, magic-users, or what have you … is a boon in my eyes. The Hit Die as such is just a spectacular invention: How many hits can this person expect to survive? This simple concept goes out the window in later editions with various hit die sizes and monsters being generally stronger than humans. I see the reasoning behind it. We are, after all, one of the physically weakest species on the planet. So monsters with bigger hit dice make sense. But humans crave more chances, so we invent copouts like 4d6 drop lowest, reroll 1s and 2s, or even full HP at first level. However, d6 for all humans are more beautiful, as I see it, than different class HD. A magic user, in later editions, cannot one-hit a barbarian. But actually, it should be possible. Knives are no joke, and even a barbarian can mess up.
and closely tied to the HD issue: no hit points – that is not part of OD&D, but it was part of this game, and it was a good concept. In a fight, you were either winded or you died. Healing up, you either felt “okay” or “not yet fully restored”. Either way, our actual resilience was unknown to us. There was no sure way of telling what would kill you and what would not. So it all came down to: When the next fight comes, don’t get hit. Which is a much more sensible approach than any “I have X HP, so I can safely soak up 2 shortsword stabs before things become serious.”
So playing without HP or at least with HP unknown to the players is a good idea.
the caller role. This is a rather taxing job, having the ultimate responsibility to decide actions. It makes it a bit different to speak as character, as what the caller says is usually taken to be what happens. I am prone to speak in character and to let the other players step up and do their thing instead of steering them (otherwise it would feel as if I would play solo), but sometimes it has to be done. I felt a bit burdened by it, when I was not available and handed the role over to others, they also showed obvious signs of stress.
One player who stepped away from the game told me he preferred a very structured approach with uniform length of turns or rounds in real-world time, with enough information given for quality decisions. That is a good idea to provide structure for scattered online players, although it does slow down the game a lot and only works with players who actually like play by post. Those who like audio live sessions better will likely drop out because the waiting time is too long.
Sixthly, (i have never heard that word, but I expect it must be correct)
mapping. The party has to draw maps or it will be lost. There is a current trend of doing London-Tube like maps, just nodes with connections. That is stylish and all, but it will not get you back home if the GM gives you a slightly fuzzy description of where you are, and asks you where you want to go from there.
Tube maps assume that the way is obvious, or abstract. They are good for mapping options in social settings, or to connect rough areas like city districts. But that is not always best. In a dungeon, players need distances, a good idea of space and position, and robust detail. Good maps save lifes.
Original D&D is not by any means a simulation of the real world; rather, it provides a framework to align imaginations within certain bounds. It is inspiring and evocative, stimulating creativity and story building. It shines brighter in exploration than in combat. That means, dungeon exploration outside of combat, nonviolent actions during an encounter, overland exploration, hexcrawl, in short, discovery: That is its forte.
Common understanding of atmosphere and playing style is always important, and playing philosophies can clash. It is important to remember that different styles are not “the right style” and “the wrong style”.
OD&D is fresh and open, full of a sense of wonder and discovery, open to improvisation. So where it is sometimes called “unfinished” by those who decry the lack of specific rules for a great number of defined situations, that is its very strength.
And this game, OD&D-ish, was a great learning experience with a GM who managed to bring all this to the fore and in stark contrast. He knows the system in depth and in detail, and that is a big advantage when herding cats … or worse, gamers.
Header Image: Rene Asmussen, Pexels