Monday, June 19, 2023

Con Games

Hope those who celebrated yesterday had a wonderful and happy Father's Day. Mine was pretty good. The fam is generally pretty great about catering to my every want (for a change), though when no one besides myself is up before 11am, you do feel a little "short-changed."
; )

Still and all, it was great because the main thing I wanted to do was play some Dungeons & Dragons. Or, as I put it to my family when they asked, eight hours of D&D played in two four-block sessions with a break in between. Because I had some pretty specific play-testing I wanted to do.

As I mentioned a while back, I'm going to Cauldron, "the OSR EuroCon," in October and my plan, as of now, is to run three sessions with three different scenarios. As of now, I have two of the scenarios written  (more-or-less) but I feel it's important to test them and fine-tune them...I don't want to just show up and run a bunch of off-the-cuff stuff and crap the bed. Best to have an idea how things are going to unfold, see where problem issues are, etc.  I'm paying too much money for those plane tickets not to give a solid effort.

Unfortunately, what with the lateness of our start yesterday (the kids are on summer break already, which means late nights and sleeping in), we were only able to get through the first session. And that was okay! Because not only did the play-test go well (which was important), the kids were enthused enough about it that they are quite excited to to part 2 at the earliest opportunity. Or (as my kids put it):

Diego: I didn't really think this was going to be fun but it turned out to be really good!
Sofia: Yeah, Paps, I thought it was going to suck dog poop but it didn't!

The adventures are set in the classic David "Zeb" Cook module I1: Dwellers of the Forbidden City. The first scenario is cribbed from the original tournament scenario, but tweaked and tuned for my purposes. Designed for five to seven PCs of 5th - 7th level, it is a fairly linear affair consisting of a dozen or so numbered encounters...which is about all you can expect to get through in four hours of focused play.

For our play-test, the kids broke out their 6th level PCs "Salamander" (elven assassin) and "Potter" (half-elf fighter). Neither of these characters had been used since last August (!!) because, while they had shown themselves to been fairly successful adventurers (knocking over both N1 and I6 and having last absconded with about 10,000 g.p. in owlbear eggs from an abandoned wizard tower), the kids had decided they wanted to create NEW characters that would not be subject to level caps...because of their particular class-race combinations, neither character expects to progress beyond 10th level.

[I *do* use Gygax's updated rule from Dragon #95 allowing single-class demi-humans a +2 increase to their natural level cap, though ONLY in the case of a class that could normally be multi-classed (like fighters). That's why Potter can expect to reach 10th level, and why Salamander canNOT expect to reach 12th level]

SO...since it's been 10 months since we used those characters, I updated their records with upkeep costs (10 game months passing when no active play otherwise occurring) along with their age records, etc. Before whisking the PCs down to the Oregon jungles, which is where the Forbidden City exists in my campaign world. Just what had been occurring to them while the rest of our campaign had been passing made very little difference...probably lost in a drunken haze of debauchery that is commonplace for adventurers after a successful score (see Conan the Barbarian for examples).

For the convention I am (of course) bringing pre-gen characters, taken directly from the list in the back of the original module. Since we only had two players in our game (Kieran, Maceo, and Winston presumably occupied with their own Father's Day festivities), I allowed the players to choose four of the six pre-gens to accompany them as NPCs. They chose Nasaldromus (5th level magic-user), Bruti (6th level dwarf fighter), Daniel (6th level cleric), and good ol' Olaf Peacock (a 1st level bard with 6th level fighting and 5th level thief abilities).

Timer on the clock was set and 20 additional minutes was granted for additional outfitting: swapping gear or purchasing additional equipment. The PCs had an extra suit of (dwarf-sized) Chain +2 that they gave Bruti to better his AC, and extra gear/weapons was procured and noted. I allowed the players a day to cast continual light on a pair of torches the day before starting on their adventure. 

[first "pro note" for the convention: we actually ended up running about 25 minutes over-time, so it's probably a good idea to have ALL pre-gens functionally equipped. That way minimal time will be lost in playing the session]

Nasaldromus was killed in the 2nd encounter area, which was kind of awesome (I mean dead-dead-dead). But it did leave the party without a magic-user for the rest of the session, which made several encounters MUCH harder/longer. That's good to know.

However, it brings up an important question: what do you do with players who get killed straight away? For us, it wasn't terribly important (Nasal was an NPC we'd only just met, after all) but at a convention this might be the character of a player who'd paid good money to sit down at the table. Is he/she just supposed to sit there for the next 3.5 hours watching?

[second "pro note:" have areas where new 'back-up' PCs can be introduced, seeded throughout the scenario]

There are at least three, fairly complicated fights in the adventure, consisting of multiple groups of opponents with varying abilities and tactics. Several of these include a vertical element to them, which adds further complication. In general, I've never been a DM to use miniatures or map grids in my AD&D games, instead making quick sketches when necessary or (with the kids) using Lego minifigs to show relative facing and placement of opponents, but this was pretty rough to run in actual play due to the time crunch. If we hadn't been pressed (pacing was brisk, for the most part), I would have preferred to calculate ranges (especially for missiles and movement) with more specificity, using right triangles, etc.

[third "pro note:" draw out area maps ahead of time; have scales and ranges pre-calculated and determine speed of climbing for all PCs based on armor and/or encumbrance. "Winging it" worked fine for our table, but at a con you never know what kind of stickler players you might to be prepared]

The cleric was downed at the two-thirds mark...knocked down to -2 hit points, he nearly bled out (only being aided at -9). This meant no more healing for the rest of the scenario. Fortunately, the party members that remained had very good ACs (ranging from 1 to -1) and high hit points (40s+). But it was a close thing: the four remaining PCs were at 11, 12, 16, and 39 by the end of the penultimate encounter, and things might have ended very differently if the one of the quartet had blown his save vs. spells. 

The final encounter (only played after our time limit had expired) ended up being a cakewalk, though mainly because of streaky dice...Sofia rolled something like four 19s in a row and everyone was hitting for max damage, while my dice had run ice cold with nary a hit dispensed (and all damage rolls 1s and 2s). The players thought it was too easy, but mathematically it should have been very tight, especially given the shambling state of the remaining party members. Luck, which you can't really count on, had a huge impact.

While my initial thought was that an extra party member might be helpful in offsetting any streaks of "bad luck," on further reflection, I think that being able to 'sub in' new characters for downed PCs [see pro note #2, above] would accomplish the same end. All of those encounters get much easier with one or two extra bodies absorbing punishment.

All in all, a very good time. As I said, the players were very enthused...they'd said they'd like to continue playing I1 as a campaign game (i.e. open exploration) rather than in snippet scenarios designed for convention play. And I don't blame them: I1 is one of my all-time favorites of the classic TSR modules. 

But testing is important. I learned a lot of useful info from yesterday's play-test...stuff that will important when operating under the time constraints and more rigorous conditions of a con game. It's not that I'm worried a bunch of cranky Germans are going to leave me beaten and lying in a ditch. But I do want to make a good showing of myself...I care about my craft!

Anyway: it's been a while since I sat down for such a long session outside a convention. For the curious (and for my own memory), I make the following notes:
  • Two PCs, four NPCs, average levels 6th (the bard counts as a 7th)
  • 30 minutes prep (character selection, equipment purchase), 90 minutes play, 5-10 minute bathroom break, 110-115 minutes play. Game was "called" at that mark, one encounter short of the end. After (roughly) a couple hours break, we finished up the scenario in about 20-25 minutes.
  • Total monsters slain (by hit dice): 44 (1 x22, 2 x8, 3 x3, 4 x1, 6 x6, 8 x3, 9 x1). Six combat encounters. Number of bugbears appearing: zero.
  • Total treasure recovered: 42,400 g.p. (not counting enchanted items). 
  • One NPC death; one NPC forced to retire prior to completion.
Not bad. Not bad at all, considering. Hopefully we'll get a chance to run Part 2 this week.


  1. Sounds like a great Father's Day.

    I've never ran a con game, but I have few homebrew adventures I've ran multiple times and the more play through I do the better the adventures get. Every group goes a different way adds I new wrinkle. If you get the chance I'd run it for another set of players.

    1. Yeah, I thought about going to DragonFlight this year but there’s a good chance I’ll be at a soccer tournament that weekend.

  2. JB, I live in Hamburg, Germany. In the event you're in nearby (It's a 4.5 hour drive from Schloss Hohenroda, so maybe not) drop me a line and we could have a coffee/beer.

  3. Doubtful I'll get out to Hamburg this trip (I'm not renting a car). I *will* be staying an extra night in Frankfurt after the con ends...but I guess that's even farther for you?