Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Winter War report, part 2

My Sunday afternoon game, Jeff’s Big Stupid Dungeon Party, ended up with twelve players: Alex Riedel and his buddy Michael (a.k.a. Chgowiz), Max Davenport, rock-n-roll astronaut Chris Tichenor (more metal reviews, please!),Kathleen (a.k.a. coeli) and her housemate Doug, Josh “Shumate” Shumate and Shannon “Shannon” Shumate, Marc “DJ Scribble” Hoover, Brad, Mike and mighty Joe. You couldn’t hardly ask for a better group of players; they came ready for some D&D turned up to ‘11’ but remained cognizant of the fact that a twelve player game might be a little rough around the edges.

It has become my regular practice to ask people for these sorts of outings to generate their own PCs on the spot. To make this go more smoothly, I handed out a slightly modified version of the 4-page document I use in my new Labyrinth Lord campaign. It has all the information you need to put together a new 1st level PC. Except the price of friggin’ torches. Candles and lanterns made it onto my abbreviated equipment list but I somehow omitted the cost of torches. I suppose it could have been worse.

The people who were a little quicker on the draw took advantage of the fact that I handed out three charsheets per person and made up more than one PC. I’m glad they did because we lost 6 or 7 party members over the course of the session. As far as I can tell no one signs up for this kind of game hoping that everyone makes it out alive. Senseless slaughter is part of the fun of a stupid con one-shot. That’s why I tend to arrange for Total Party Kills when I run Call of Cthulhu as a con game and that’s why when picking an adventure to run Sunday I made absolutely no effort to limit myself to dungeons suitable for first level parties. We’re here for the excitement of a demolition derby smash-up, not the idle pleasures of a casual stroll through the park. Why hold back?

I pitched two possible missions to the party. One was an attempt to wrest the Crown of Power from the Pyramid of Ra’Dok, an evil old pharaoh. The other was to generally knock about the Rat on a Stick dungeon. They opted for Ra’Dok’s Pyramid, as several of them had been present when I ran Rat on a Stick using OD&D a couple years back. Neither of these dungeons is strictly compatible with Labyrinth Lord, the game I professed to be running for the group. I have all but given up on caring about such niceties. There are too many good adventures out there to get in a tiff over how well the stat blocks match up with the rules the party thinks are in play. The adventure they chose seems to be written for OD&D plus Eldritch Wizardry. Ra’Dok’s crown is one of the few magic items I’ve seen outside the DMG/Eldritch Wizardry that was statted up using the canonical artifact/relic power charts. That’s pretty cool. Rat on a Stick, meanwhile, is actually a Tunnels & Trolls adventure. Occasionally I get the urge to actually write conversion notes for the module, but I actually enjoy having to figure out what Fire Demon (MR 75) means with 12 pairs of eyes on me. Weird, I know.

You know what the coolest thing is about running a large group of people? There’s no chance in hell that they’re all going to have the same ‘creative agenda’ as the GNS gurus might say. You just can’t sit twelve people down to play D&D and expect to get 12 hardcore dungeoneers or 12 gonzo ad hoc worldbuilders or 12 serious thespians or whatever. It just ain’t gonna happen. As a con GM, you’ve got to work to accommodate all those needs, as all twelve paid their money to come sit at your table. Again, that might be frustrating to some people, but I think that push-and-pull dynamic of competing interests adds a little extra frisson.

We established pretty early on that dungeon operations like establishing marching order, listening at doors, and providing sufficient lamination were being taken semi-seriously. One player volunteered to map. I personally thought it would be better if two people mapped in case the mapper was killed or the map stolen or something, but I remained silent on that point. The issue came up later in my favorite room on level 1, the quicksand trap/will-o-wisp combo.

There’s nothing fundamentally wrong about the Pyramid of Ra’Dok as published, but much of it is unadorned. I had to put in or ad lib a lot of dungeon description to make the place come alive. One bone thrown to the DM is a line to the effect that the will-o-wisp in the quicksand room is “diamond shaped”. I decided to push that idea further and actually make the will-o-wisp into a cunning and malevolent gem. Same stats as a standard will-o-wisp, but its intact corpse would be worth 20,000gp. That’s a lot for a first level party but the same dungeon is stocked with a 100,000gp that is both trapped with a heat ray that is almost assuredly fatal AND cursed to kill anyone who touches the gem (no save).

Anyhoo, the PCs open this door and see a floor covered in white sand, with a bigass gem set into the far wall and crackling with electricity. I could see a more focused party closing the door and forgetting about the whole thing. They were here for an uber-powerful crown, not some lightning-powered wall decoration, right? But they decided to mess with the thing. The group did a good job determining that the sand was, in fact, quick (a dead halfling flung into the room solved that mystery, as I recall) and also managed to figure out that you could cling close to the walls to find a safe path around the quicksand. Why the mapper decided he needed to be the one to go after the gem remains unknown. He removed all metal gear to reduce his conductivity, tied a rope around himself and went after the gem. The will-o-wisp waited until he was reaching out his hand to zap him dead.

That’s when I reminded his that he was the mapper and that, not being made of metal, I assumed the map was on his person, i.e. in the room with his corpse next to the electric death diamond. Ah, the howls of protest were like music to my ears! Here they were, on level 1 of a fairly simple dungeon and still the thought of losing the map sent a wave of panic through the party. Sweet. To demonstrate my benevolence as a dictator, I eventually relented to a 3 in 6 chance that the map had been handed to one of the other party members. The die throw indicated that the map was safe. Eventually someone (Shumate, perhaps?) took a shot at the gem with a bow. The party was not expecting it to respond by detaching itself from the wall and flying into their midst to zap people at random. I thought maybe they would route at this point, but instead they got their act together and trapped the poor wisp in a canoptic jar, thanks in no large part to Kathleen shorting it out by dousing it in cheap wine. One of the PCs then carried the jar around in his backpack. I tried to look for an chance to break it open, but no such opportunity ever arrived.

Lots of other extremely cool stuff happened at the table. It was one of those nearly non-stop sessions that leave me exhausted. It felt like 16 hours of fun packed into four. Here are some of the other highlights:
  • Kathleen's magic-user distracting some giant bees with a pack of Twinkies she got out of the Deck O’ Stuff.
  • Kathleen burning her dwarf’s beard off trying to spit fire using a flask of cheap hooch she got out of the same deck/
  • Max’s second PC spending a large part of the adventure riding a donkey and writing haiku (Max, please share!)
  • Chris donning the pharaoh’s armor and using it to convince some guards who were in stasis that he is the reincarnated Ra’Dok. Chris ended the adventure with two loyal henchmen, the armor, and the artifact crown. Not too shabby for a 1st level fighter!
  • The party’s first encounter being a bunch of zombies. Only then did they discover that by independently rolling up 12 PCs they somehow ended up with nary a cleric between them!
  • Joe’s 1 hit point magic-user with Hold Portal as his memorized spell surviving the entire session. Joe was cautious, but no coward hiding in the back and leaching XPs. Shannon also spent most of the adventure at 1 hit point. She was wounded early on and the party never seemed intent on resting or going back to town or any of that stuff.
  • Chgowiz collecting PC corpses, which he would tie onto the backs of his mule, Stupid. The bodies came in handy on occasion but it still creeped me out.
Any players recall any choice bits I missed? I'm definitely going to continue running games like this at future cons. In retrospect I think shooting for 20 players was over-ambitious. With twelve I had a big table, but I could handle the player load without relying on callers or anything like that.


  1. The party’s first encounter being a bunch of zombies. Only then did they discover that by independently rolling up 12 PCs they somehow ended up with nary a cleric between them!

    This part made me laugh out loud!

  2. Anonymous6:50 PM

    I want to link to this page if I ever have to discuss flaws in GNS theory with somebody because, despite the fact that it is full of amazing kickass fun, accrding to GNS, none of the the events that happened here really "count" as "player-contributions to the story" since none of them have any thematic/moral/emo content.

    To most gamers, distracting giant bees with a twinkie is about as serious and awesome a contribution as you could ever hope to make to a story. To GNS people, it's just an "exploration of setting".

  3. " Ah, the howls of protest were like music to my ears!" This is the part that made me laugh out loud!

  4. The haikus of Aname the Forgotten:

    after much talk
    a halfling is sacrificed
    the gem still crackles

    a fight with treasure
    an explorer's life is short
    greed is eternal

    (Not my best efforts, but note that both were written during the fight with the diamond will-o-wisp, which I think may have killed a couple PCs all on its own. The halfling was already dead.)

  5. Did any of the magic-users or elves in the game take Sleep? Joe's M-U had Hold Portal, Aname had Read Magic, and I don't remember anyone casting a spell all night.

    Alex made a cleric as his replacement PC...and failed both of his attempts to turn undead!

    We got so distracted disarming a bunch of skeletons that we forgot to explore the Pharoah's treasure boat.

    Shumate's second PC was named Princess Darling Nikki. Prince fans will find that pretty funny.

  6. Kathleen's first character, the MU Alette, had Sleep memorized. It would have come in handy had you gone in the other dungeon or if the wandering monsters rolls had gone the right ways.

  7. This is just superb. Jeff, are you making it to Gen Con this year? You need to register this event! Or just announce you'll be running it at a certain time, and I will be there, reserve PCs at the ready.

  8. I had a pre-made pc, but somehow didn't show up with a pencil, so never made any back ups. I guess making back ups was bad mojo, because Ragin' Rondo made it all the way through with nary a scratch despite being a front line fighter all the way through. Mind you, donning the black plate mail about two thirds the way through certainly helped.

    (Name's a play on the name of the starting point guard for the Boston Celtics, by the way.)

    After 25 years of playing D&D, I think I finally figured out how to play fighters... Smash the smashable things... let the smart magic-user and thief types deal with strange, probably trapped stuff. They die screaming, on fire, you get the treasure.

    The 12 person game was a blast, but it pretty well confirmed my long held belief that the ideal size for a game is 1 DM and 4-6 players. However, I liked the size of the group in terms of pcs, which confirmed my long-held belief that those 4-6 players should have all sorts of cronies, henchmen, hirelings, etc. along with them.

  9. Zak S,

    Do I sense some bitterness about GNS there? ;)

    Heh, as flawed as that theory is in many respects, I don't think you're being fair there. The game Jeff has described seems to me, in GNS terms, like great Gamist fun. There is no need for "emo" or whatever else for it to be valid in GNS terms, and I don't know why you seem to equate "GNS" with "Story", or "Story" with "emo".

    That's, in fact, one of the things I really enjoy about OD&D: the unabashedly "game" aspect of it, which seems to have disappeared somewhere in the 80's. I don't play to create an epic story or explore the depths of the soul... I play to be faced with challenges and, with planning and wit and quite a bit of luck, -maybe- win and come back with loot. Cheering and cursing along the way, as the dice command :)

    Great report, btw! I wish I could have played in that game.

  10. Anonymous1:36 AM

    I wouldn't want to hijack the comments page here, but I'm just saying that, according to the GNS essays I've read on the Forge page,
    the idea that a "story" might simply be a series of funny/interesting/cleverly constructed incidents (like in this here Winter War adventure) strung together never seems to occur to the people who came up with GNS theory. Which is strange.

    To me, distracting bees with a twinkie is not only a clever strategy (Gamist-wise) but a good story, too (Narrativist-wise).

    That's why RPGs are fun--you accidentally create a story while you're busy trying to kill monsters.

  11. Anonymous1:38 AM

    "Great gamist fun" my ass.

  12. I'm sorry, we covered this in a previous blogpost.

    Thread closed.

  13. that a twelve player game might be a little rough around the edges<

    Haven't done that since high school, and to be honest these days I would rather take a kick in the nuts.

    I assume it was a crowded, noisy con game room? Hats off to you for pulling it off, bro.

  14. "I assume it was a crowded, noisy con game room?"

    Yeah, but since we were easily the loudest, most unruly group in the room, it didn't bother us much.