Questions on Adam's AP

Last night, I ran Basic D&D (Moldvay, 1980) and Keep on the Borderland for four players. Three had never played that edition. One had played it fairly extensively, despite being in his mid-thirties, and knew the module well, too. I changed up enough stuff to keep him guessing.

They did very well, convincing a dozen of the local peasant types to join them in a quest for revenge against the goblins that had razed their farmsteads. But random encounters are brutal, and their forays into the wilderness cut their numbers down. Eventually, they made it to the Caves of Chaos, falling into area I (the minotaur's labyrinth) and barely escaping with their lives, and then into area G, where they naively accepted the food offerings from the three bugbears, who turned on the party and first slew the 2-hit-point magic-user, then slew the fighter. The rest fled.

Over the weekend I was at TravellerCon. I ran Mongoose Traveller (1e). I had no new material ready, so I ran my "Merchants of Dennis" and "Independence 2776" adventures, mentioned upthread. The con attracts old Traveller grognards, but they seemed to enjoy my neo-Traveller offerings.
From over here.

Tell me about your favorite parts of Moldvay!

I'm running Stars Without Number right now, so I'm fascinated to know what your Traveller games, Merchants of Dennis and Independence 2776 games are about.



  • Right off, let me say that I don't see a huge difference between the various "colors" of old school D&D. I consider Moldvay and Mentzer and BECMI (Basic D&D) to be more or less the same game, and the retro-clones of those are fine, too.

    That probably means that I am not aware of all the little differences between the editions. In play, I do tend to flip to the right page and read the rules I'm using (there aren't that many pages!) so I think I'm hewing closely to Rules As Written. But I can't really tell you what my favorite parts of Moldvay are, versus Mentzer or BECMI or whatever.

    When I'm offering a table of players the "Old School nostalgia experience," I'm going to pull Moldvay and Keep on the Borderlands off the shelf and run those, because that's what I personally started playing back in 1980. I can run those games very easily.

    Why do I love Basic D&D?

    Well, it's frighteningly simple. Classes but no separate races. Most of the chargen information fits on a single reference page that I made. In nostalgia games, we roll 3d6 in order and use the 2-for-1 point swap rules as written. Even inexperienced players have playable characters, equipment and all, in 15-20 minutes. The second time, it takes 5-10 minutes.

    Combat is fast and weird. Party initiative. Stages of combat rather than per-person choices (movement first, then ranged, then magic, then melee--if I recall correctly). Generally, the only mechanics in combat are the to-hit roll and damage roll. Spells don't muddy things that often because you get so few of them (a 1st level magic-user or elf gets one 1st level spell per day; clerics get no spells till 2nd level). Thief characters do get a +4 to hit and double damage for "backstabbing" (with no rules for really determining when that should apply, so it's left to DM fiat).

    Without all the mechanicaltricks during combat, players start thinking about positioning tricks. Can I use a spear and stand behind the fighter, so that he's on the front line and I'm defended? Sure. Can I push the goblin into the fire? Okay. Can I kick the kobold into the other three and knock them down like duckpins? Let's try.

    It's deadly. Players laugh at their pitiful ability scores and even more pitiful hit points. I warn them that, if they're used to later D&D editions, that they need to think differently about combat. For one, the XP awards for killing goblins is sadly small, but they get 1 XP for every 1 gold piece they "liberate." I tell them that some of the characters will probably die--maybe all of them--and that they can just make a new character in 5-10 minutes and jump back in.

    Henchmen. Because it's so deadly, the rules encourage hiring help or attracting followers. I tend to be really generous with this. The peasants whose houses were destroyed outside the Keep want revenge and a solution, so they're happy to sign on with a group of adventurers who seem to know what they're doing. Still, I made lots of morale checks and the unseasoned peasants run away from danger at critical times, often into more dangerous situations.

    I love random encounter tables. I didn't think I did, but I discovered them all over again this year in various OSR blogs and started using them in my City of Brass "social sandbox" (D&D 5e) campaign. In this last Keep on the Borderlands game, every time they ventured out of the Keep, I tracked their travel time carefully and rolled a 1/6 chance of encounters every hour. I used the wilderness tables in the Expert book. Those charts are not built by encounter level, so the party encountered goblins, a giant lizard, eagles, gnomes, pixies, and a white dragon.

    Interpreting random encounter rolls is an art. All the roll said was "goblins," plus the "number appearing" roll (4 goblins). I interpreted that as a squad of goblins far from the Caves of Chaos, hunting and scouting. The giant lizard didn't really fit into the winter environment I had described to the players, so I made it some kind of "white spotted lizard" that hunted in the snowy forests, and it climbed trees and dropped down on the party. The eagles appeared in a giant treetop nest when the party got lost and the thief climbed a tall tree to get a better look at the terrain (and he stole an egg at great risk to himself, and wanted to raise that eaglet and have a pet). I made the two gnomes travelling tinkers with a cart full of oddities for sale (not every encounter is unfriendly).

    The three pixies were super fun. The party was stomping down the trail through the woods at night with torches and a lantern, and I decided that the pixies didn't want to fight; they just hated the lights. So the pixies attacked the light sources, knocking out their torches and the lantern with a sort of magical fire drain attack. The players didn't even know what was doing it. Just something flying by their heads, knocking out light sources, till they were all standing in the dark. When the dwarf tried to relight the lantern with flint and steel, a pixie attacked the dwarf directly, doing 2 hit points (he had 8, a huge number at 1st level), slicing his cheek. They decided to tap their way back home with their ten-foot pole in the dark.

    Rolling a white dragon as a random encounter was surprising. There's no reason they have to actually see a dragon though. The party found two new footprints along their trail. Three feet long and six inches deep, reptilian. They started to wonder if the prints were created by a bigger version of the giant lizard they had killed earlier... (maybe!)

    I suspect I love Basic for a bunch of reasons:

    * simplicity (easy to run)
    * deep familiarity (easy for me to run)
    * deadliness (a different play style than more modern games)
    * more freeform-iness (more improvisation on both sides of the DM screen)
    * nostalgia (takes me back to my teen years and why I fell in love with the game)
  • Where Basic D&D falls down is the lack of any kind of skill system. The thief class has a bunch of %-based thief skills. There are no other mechanics for resolving non-combat things, generally, though there might be one-off subsystems for resolving certain kinds of problems (morale checks, for example).

    A lot of OSR folks seem to use a 1d6 roll for this kind of stuff. I don't even know offhand what their rule is. Probably something like "roll a 6 on a 1d6 to succeed, add ability score bonuses to the roll."

    I used a "roll under your ability score" system a few times in the Keep game. So roll under your Wisdom of 9 or whatever.

    The party did stray from the trail and I made them check Wisdom to see if they got lost (they did, yay). Then the thief climbed the tree to see if he could spot the Keep or smoke coming from it (no) but it did give him a feel for the slope of the hills, and they knew that they must be in the foothills to the north of the keep, and the thief could see the sun, so they headed south and eventually got out of the deep woods.

    As you can see, it's a combination of lots of player ideas and occasional skill checks.
  • Adam,

    That's a nice overview of OSR gaming! I agree that, aside from minor quirks in layout or wording specific rules being left in or out, the differences between editions are fairly cosmetic. The overall ethos of brutal but quirky adventuring ties it all together, for me.

    I think you don't know "what their rule is" because everyone does something different. That's, perhaps, part of the charm. (Or part of the frustration! ...or both.)

    For many groups, it's "play it out", which is another type of answer.

    I'm sure Judd and Adam are familiar with this stuff, but for other readers, these earlier conversations might be interesting:

    The OSR in Vivid Colour

    What do we like about Old School
  • I love random encounter tables too. I've got a blog post brewing about using 2d6 as a random encounter format. More on that later.

    1 random encounter roll per in-game hour out in the wilderness? Wow, that is intense!

  • 1 random encounter roll per in-game hour out in the wilderness? Wow, that is intense!
    I think that's what the module called for. Mind you, it's a 1 in 6 chance of an encounter, not an encounter every hour. Still it makes the wilderness feel dangerous.
  • edited October 2016
    Any specific questions about D&D? I want to settle that as much as possible before diving into Traveller stuff. Or maybe I'll just start another thread. Yeah.

    Here's a new thread for Traveller discussion.
  • @Adam_Dray What techniques do you use that are different when you DM Keep in the Borderlands as opposed to your City of Brass games and what techniques are similar?
  • City of Brass is a very structured game. A two hour slot of CoB goes like this after chargen and setting explanation prologues:

    1. Commune meeting. PCs and NPCs meet in the courtyard of the commune to welcome new squatters, learn their names and skills, and learn why they're here. (This ensures that every player understands that their PC is desperate and has no other options.)

    2. Problems. The commune discusses the problems facing the entire group. Each problem is written on an index card. I generate two new problems randomly (2d12 + highest PC level against a chart). These are usually social issues, not dungeons or monsters.

    3. Problem solving. I make it clear to the players that the only ways they earn XP in this campaign are a) solving the problems on the cards or b) materially improving conditions for the entire commune. So they attack the problems that interest them. It's open sandbox at that point.

    4. Daily grind. The rules say it costs 1 SP per day to just survive under the worst conditions. I enforce that. Cough up a silver piece, everyone. Do you have a job? How far a walk is it? Can you keep your job and do these other things?

    5. Morale check. Once per session, everyone makes an Insight skill check. Disadvantage if you're sleeping on the dirty floor. Clerics and other religious leaders can help another person get through a tough time. If you fail your roll, you have to pick one of the five Commune stats (based on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs) to lower by a point; your sad state is bringing the entire commune down, man. I use those stats to inform other decisions about stuff happening around the neighborhood, and when I have to refill a slot on the random problem table.
  • Keep on the Borderlands is far less structured.

    When I run it, I always take them first to the Keep. They have to convince the guards to let them in. They might explore the burning village outside the Keep (I added that; it's not in the module). They might interact with homeless peasants, sleeping on the street with their hungry children, and help them (but they can't help them all).

    Inside the Keep, they meet members of the Watch and the Guard. Some are disillusioned and depressed. A few are eager and optimistic. Based on the chances listed in the book, they might bump into other notable NPCs in the Tavern. They might run into the two sets of holy men (one good, one evil--I won't tell you which is which, and I often but not always switch that up). They might shop. Theoretically, they might turn into murder-hobo-thieves when they see the huge bags of loot some of these people have (tens of thousands of gold pieces of treasure hidden away), but that's never happened in my adult years...

    I use the module's rumor system whenever possible to give them information that will encourage them to leave the Keep and go explore the wilderness. Only a few NPCs even know about the Caves of Chaos, though. They just all know there are goblin parties that attack the keep a few times a month.

    Eventually, the group ventures outside. The module has a really strange map scale. Each square is like 100 yards or something. I make each square two miles and roll a 1-in-6 chance of random wilderness encounter each square. As the book suggests, I increase those chances if they are near marked encounters on the map.

    I drop the Caves of Chaos into a huge, dramatic box canyon instead of a little thing like in the book. Eventually they find it and explore it. That's when characters start dropping like flies.

    Mostly I spend the whole game asking players what they want to do, gently prodding them with NPCs and rumors, but in a way that is "realistic" (and reminds me of how you run Towns in Dogs in the Vineyard). They tell me what they are doing and I interpret the sandbox and tell them what happens. Over and over. And it's brilliant fun.

    The genius of Gygax's Keep on the Borderland is that it is a small microcosm. There's specific advice in there to think about how one thing affects another. If you make noise in this part of the dungeon, the monsters in adjacent rooms may hear and prepare or come to help. There are tenuous agreements between the various tribes of humanoids in the Caves; the PCs might figure out how to play them off one another.

    When I was a teen, I ran the module pretty much straight, adding little of my own stuff to it. These days, I add a little to it each time I run it. This last time, I decided it was early winter and the raids were slowing down a lot, but the peasantry were worried about food. (There are caches of food in the Caves of Chaos that could help.) A while back, I decided that the Castellan in charge of the Keep wasn't just aloof and arrogant, but had actually been turned evil (Chaotic) by the dark artifact in the ancient temple in the Caves. His elf counselor figured it out and is using Charm Person spells to manage him and keep him out of sight of the Keep until he could fix it. Meanwhile, though, the entire Keep thinks the Castellan doesn't care about anything outside the Keep. The Guard protect the walls, but don't venture out.
  • 1 random encounter roll per in-game hour out in the wilderness? Wow, that is intense!
    Oh, I decided that the Caves of Chaos literally create chaos in the area. The increased danger in the wilderness is a direct consequence of the activity in the ancient areas of the Caves.

    I don't want the wilderness to feel comfy. Let's say I rolled once per day. I think the Caves are a day or two of travel from the Keep. If the wilderness weren't hella dangerous, parties would camp outside the Caves to heal instead of returning to the safety of the walls of the Keep. I want to push them back to the Keep between dungeon runs.

    I don't make every encounter a combat, either:

    Goblins: Heard before they were seen. Could have been avoided entirely.
    Giant Lizard: Totally attacked them.
    Eagles: Up in a tree nest, could have been avoided easily.
    Gnomes: Friendly tinkers selling goods.
    Pixies: Hate the light and extinguish sources, but don't attack people who aren't trying to light torches.
    White Dragon: Footprints only.

    So only the giant lizard was a "roll initiative" thing. The pixies were aggressive against the torches, but only attacked a PC when he tried to relight his torch.
  • Adam,

    Your advice/methods for running "Caves" are fabulous. Consider them stolen!
  • Thanks for capturing the magic and excitement of playing OSR so well.
  • For me, it's not a Old School Renaissance, so much as an Old School Return. I grew up on this stuff in the 80's, grew disillusioned in the late 90's, found the Forge and stuff in the 00's, and am now just getting back to my roots--informed by what I learned in storygaming.
  • 2 years later, what are you playing now, Adam?
  • For the last six months or so, it's been an actual play drought.

    I'm writing settings for D&D 5e (Towerlands, my fantasy white whale) and Cepheus Engine (Main Sequence, my hard sci-fi / post-cyberpunk thing), but not actively playing any of it outside of conventions. I had to ditch TravellerCon due to illness and Camp Nerdly due to my wife's illness. Yuck.

    I'm starting to boot up some D&D 5e with my sister-in-law and her husband and some other folks. If there's interest in Towerlands, we'll play that, but I'm super jazzed about Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and that's on the table.

    A few friends are starting up a Scum & Villainy campaign and I'm making up a character for that.
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