Wednesday, September 4, 2019

My DragonFlight Adventures

I know I said I'd post about my DragonFlight sessions, but it's been a busy couple weeks (kids starting school, managing three different soccer teams, last minute road trips, etc.). So before the memory fades too much, I'll jot down some things that stand out, minus any ennui. For the first time ever, I went to the convention with no expectation of running a game, and I played zero indie/story games, instead focusing squarely on Dungeons & Dragons:

Session #1: Captain Zhudo & The Last Crown of Atlantis (B/X)

DM: Scott

My Character: a chaotic fighter with 18 strength and a big axe.

Quick Take: One thing that I noticed right from the sign ups was that there were a lot of common players scheduled for all four games I would be attending. It wouldn't be until my final session that I'd find out that many of these players attend a regular old school game up at Around the Table Games. So a lot of these guys were buddies since long before DragonCon.

I know I wrote that I was going to take a less blood-thirsty approach to the con games, but the beefy axe-guy (a pre-gen) was too hard to pass up.

Much hilarity and blood-letting ensued as we looted our way into the ruined Atlantean settlement...mostly our own blood owing to some invisible stalker mischief. In the end, we went through a teleporter that beamed us to the lair of "the big bad" and while I was discussing strategy with our party cleric, a pair of fireballs from our wizards/elves wiped out all the monsters in a single round. Yay, initiative FTW. It seemed very party deaths occurred.

After the con, I would discover that the adventure was, in fact, an existing OSR adventure written by our DM (though I believe it may have been written specifically for Labyrinth Lord).

Funny Anecdote: Early on in the session I got the "uh-oh-serial-killer" eyeball from my fellow players for "going too dark" (I believe it was the dismembering of one recalcitrant captive in order to compel the other to act as our guide to the lost city) but, well, these were bushwhacking goat men we were dealing with and things needed expediting.

Session #2: The Masks of Lankhmar (B/X)

DM: Travis

My Character: a female "acrobat" (thief)

Quick Take: Another adventure that I learned (after the con) was pre-published, this one for DCC, converted to B/X. Because it took place in Leiber's Lankhmar, the pre-gens were setting appropriate (no clerics, more than half the party consisted of thieves, magic-users had pretty light magic). The DM used a twist on AD&D2 thief rules when setting thief skill percentages (so my character was really good at climbing, while another was our trap expert, etc.). He also included a "heroic luck" mechanic that I found to be less-than-stellar in practice, but was still kind of neat in that it encouraged us to try more risky maneuvers.

For the life of me, I can't remember how the session ended...oh, wait, now I do (floating masks in an abandoned temple). I liked this adventure quite a bit, as it had a real "sword & sorcery" feel...reminded me of the stuff I used to run with first edition Stormbringer, but more supernatural and less alien/extra-dimensional. Having a party consisting mostly of thieves (with a sprinkle of lightly armored sell-swords) helped immensely. That being said, I found the adventure again to be way too easy (no one died despite the absence of healing magic; damage was d3s and d4s), and there was a lot of "roll under ability score" mechanics that made accomplishing tasks waaaay too simple (when you have a character with a 17 dexterity and know something's a DEX check). I'll stand by my earlier assertions that these need to be cut out of the game.

Funny Anecdote: Jokingly asked if I was going to play my character "suicidal" again (based on my actions in the earlier session of prompting folks to follow me through an unknown teleportation device), by the end of the session I had been nominated by at least one player as the "MVP" for braving a fire trap to recover the loot we were after. I later had to escape through said-wall of fire with a bag over my head. Again, my character survived the entire session (as a 1st level thief!). Chalk it up to the double gin-and-tonics.

Session #3: Beneath the Ruined Tower of Zenopus (Holmes Basic)

[if you check out the photos in the link, I was to the left of the guy with the green thermos. You can't see it, but my beer glass was emptied rather early on]

DM: Andy

My Character: a first level magic-user

Quick Take: This was my first time playing the Holmes edition of basic, something I really wanted to do (and a nice way to fend off any leftover ennui from the night before). This was an expansion of the adventure found in the Holmes rulebook, but it wasn't anything I was familiar with. Andy played mostly BTB (except for trading out some of the wonky combat character did not strike twice/round with a dagger, for example). The DEX-based combat went very well, and added an extra level of tension as each monsters' DEX was diced for at the start of an encounter (when the 16 DEX orcs showed up, we knew we were in trouble!).

Since this was a con game, the acquisition of treasure was actually a secondary consideration for us despite, ostensibly, that being our characters' goals (in the earlier sessions we had some specific objectives of play). The "for reals" goal was exploration and survival...could we navigate the labyrinth beneath the town, pick up some bling, and make it back alive? And in this, I think I chose a very challenging character.

We created our characters at the table (3d6 rolls in order), and it just so happened that I rolled up the stats to play a magic-user. Poor rolling for "spells known" precluded me from taking the usual spells of sleep, charm person, or magic-missile (or even read magic!), but I was satisfied with protection from evil, which I used to ward myself against possible undead in the first crypt we had the chance to desecrate.

While I would not go so far as to say Zenopus was exceptionally easy, it's a fact that only one PC died during the session (see below). However, I'd say that death for our fragile characters was mostly mitigated by good game play (we were very much on our toes during the game), and partly through sheer strength of numbers: it's harder to kill PCs when you have a large party (we had eight plus two NPCs) and can rotate bodies in and out of the marching order. We actually found a respectable amount of treasure; definitely enough to encourage further exploration.

Funny Anecdote: The one character death that occurred was my PC, at the very end of the game. The crypt room (where I used my one and only spell) occurred near the very beginning of the adventure, so for most of the four-hour session my character had neither spell, nor armor. What's more, I was injured early on in the game as well (hit by an arrow? maybe) and spent nearly the entire time adventuring with 1 hit point.

Did that mean I was huddled up in the middle of the party doing nothing? Of course not! When we were ambushed by orcs, I spoke to them in their same language and tried to bluff them into letting us pass. When there were trap doors in ceilings, I was the first up the ladder. When we found some sort of venomous gorilla straining at the bars of its cage, I'm the one who splashed oil on the damned thing and set it on fire.

My character survived the entire scope of the adventure. I was killed by another player at the table, in a fit of PVP violence, as we were leaving the flaming tower, loot in hand. He attacked my AC 9 character from behind, apparently piqued by my setting the place alight as we were making our escape (I assumed we should leave no evidence of having despoiled the place). It was more of an epilogue to the session than an actual part of the adventure.

Session #4: The Castle That Fell From The Sky (B/X)

DM: Scott (again)

My Character: a cleric of Odin

Quick Take: Yes, I ended up playing four different character types over the weekend, none of whom were demihumans. This was yet another pre-published adventure that I'm not familiar had kind of Krull-crossed-with-White Plume Mountain vibe to it. It was also exceptionally loooong...we did not reach the game's objective goal (getting through only about one-third the thing). Of all the adventures I played, it had (probably) the most challenging encounters...we even saw an actual PC death!...but it probably evoked the most listless performance from myself of any of the sessions. Maybe it was fatigue (on my part), but I just couldn't get up for it like I had with earlier games.

One thing The Castle That Fell lacked was any connection to an implied setting. Here's this thing: go explore it. Oh, you're trapped, find your way out. So what? Boring. Even though the earlier adventures were still "con games" (i.e. one-offs and not a part of any on-going campaign) there were cities/towns involved...a sense of place. When our caravan was ambushed by goat men on the road to whatever-whatever, there was still this place (whatever-whatever) that we had been attempting to get to...we almost continued on anyway (after dispatching/dismembering goat men) to stock up on supplies and whatnot before we realized (meta- like) that O Wait, this is a con game, and we're just supposed to follow the goat men's back trail into the jungle. Lankhmar is a place...with themes and concepts and history and its own weird culture. Portown is likewise a was our following of rumors that led us to the secret entrance of the place in some woman's root cellar; when we were making our escape, it was with the knowledge that we would be fencing our loot somewhere in the town...some place we probably lived and resided.

Just working with set-piece challenges (giant hypnotic albino snakes, huge lurking spiders in mirror-crystal caverns) isn't enough to get my blood churning. It isn't enough to evoke a sense of least not when it occurs in a vacuum. It's not that I've "outgrown" dungeons or that I need my dungeons to "make sense." It's just that there has to be some sort of larger consequence or reward for my actions; that my actions need to matter (even in the most paltry fictional way) to the setting. That I'm not just playing a board game or some app I've downloaded on my phone. There are already apps for that.

Funny Anecdote: I've got two for this session. First one goes like this: we thought we had too many people at the table (I'd actually been on a waiting list) so when the last two folks arrived, the DM thought we were waiting for two others and (gently) turned them away. Upon discovering that those guys were the ones we were waiting for (the couple we thought we were waiting for hadn't signed up for the session), one player commented that "they sure were quick to leave" (rather than staying and explaining they were signed up for the game). And the DM said, "Yeah, and the funny thing is, one of those guys was that dude who writes the B/X Blackrazor blog!" Of course, I then had to explain no that's me...the same guy they'd been gaming with for two days.

The other funny thing: the same guy who backstabbed my character in session #3? At one point his character was in danger of dying (the reason is a too-long story about hypnotic toads, armored dwarves, and boggy swamps), and the only PC in any position to save him was my own. And I did, solo and unprompted (possibly to the surprise of some people at the table...). Sometimes, you just have to break that karmic wheel.
; )


  1. Nice Stories! Those con games aren't so bad. :)

  2. Four humans, four classes. And it seems like you had a good time, yes?

    1. Yes. It *was* a good time. I don’t think I said otherwise (even in my last post on the subject).

  3. never underestimate the value of a bag over your head.

  4. Thanks for the report. I added a link here from my post about the con. Glad you finally got to play a Holmes based game!

    1. Here's the link for anyone here that wants to read my post, which includes some pics of the game by another player: Zenopus game at Dragonflight 40

  5. Other people's games are usually not to my taste. But that's what motivates me to create my own.

    1. Do you actually sit down at the table and play Alpha Blue with other middle aged fat guys?

    2. I do. Middle aged and in their 20s and 30s. Fat, skinny, average... men and women. Couples and singles. Always a full table at Garycon!

  6. You'll want to correct the post title (DragonFlight instead of DragonCon).

    My first reaction to reading this post was "hey, I didn't see ANY of those games listed at DragonCon!" Though I had somehow missed out on some proper OSR-goodness.

    1. @ Knightsky:

      Yes, I realized It's corrected now: I've never yet been to Atlanta!

  7. Hey, I'm the guy who ran the Lankhmar game (Travis). Nice write-up JB, thanks! I grew up in a somewhat remote place and I was reading D&D books for a long time before getting into a solid group in the late 80's. By then, we were playing AD&D 2E, and spent a lot of time in the Lankhmar setting. It was nice getting back to it. I think setting is important, as you've described, although in a con game the DM can only do a quick intro to it and throw a few seeds along the way to stay connected to the setting.

    The jury's still out for me on DCC's fleeting luck optional rule ( but it did allow for a healing option in a world without clerics, and does provide more opportunities/incentives for heroic risk taking. In our game, the party did lose all their luck at a most inopportune time, near the dramatic conclusion of the one-off.

    As far as attribute checks, I'm thinking about your post on that, and will probably reply on that thread. For now, I'll say I probably use them too often as DM and could instead decide some things quickly by fiat. The variable difficulty xd6 method of doing attribute checks is a mechanic I haven't used... think I'll give it a try.

    1. @ Travis:

      I *did* enjoy the game; thanks for running it!

      I had the Lankhmar sourcebook for 1E "back in the day" (come to think of it, I still have it on my shelf), but I've never attempted to run anything with it, nor anything Howardian (I've owned a couple of those old Conan modules for 1e, too). I was surprised how well the setting worked with the system, but in retrospect it's not that surprising: at low levels, B/X certainly feels much more "low powered" (with regard to magic and the supernatural); by limiting magic-user spell selection and available equipment, it's very easy to create an S&S setting.

      With regard to ability checks...*sigh*. I realize they're an easy method of addressing various aspects of the game for which there's no existing procedures. It's just not my taste.

    2. What is your taste? You didn't say in you ability checks post. To decouple from ability scores and modifiers, do you prefer a DM chosen die and target number?

      In my game, a few times I asked for a d6 roll, having chosen a difficulty target. Other times when I did ask for ability check, the player was told to add a +4 or more for difficulty.

    3. I'm going to assume that most rules-light OSR gamers who don't like mechanical procedures like xd6 ability checks prefer to roleplay it out. The player describes what he's doing and the GM responds with either questions or results. If something potentially hazardous occurs, roll saving throw.

    4. @ Travis:

      It really depends on the in-game situation.

      The B/X game already has systems that can be adapted for various "weird procedures." Grabbing a flying mask and popping it in a bag could be an attack roll, rather than a DEX check, for example. Clearing a magical fire trap might be the use of a dispel magic spell (and for a mage who doesn't have the spell you're SOL; though the DM may allow the PC to recognize this fact as a character class versed in the "universal concepts of spell craft" or whatever). Communicating with folks...whether bribing for information or negotiating safe passage or whatever...should be handled by reaction checks. Saving throws can be used to negate or mitigate unpleasant effects that might otherwise happen to a character.

      I apologize that, at this late date, I don't recall many (or most) of the ability checks we made at the table, I just remember feeling we were using an awful lot of them.

      My basic stance is that when it's *appropriate* to check whether or not some action is successful, we should strive to use an existing system. Should such a system take into account a PC's ability score (as an adjustment of some sort?)? Probably NOT...because an unusual action is outside the character's experience and training. Leaving such chances up to an ability check is a poor way to resolve an issue when players will find a way to default to a good ability score, giving themselves a better chance of success than they probably should have, based on the circumstance.

      But, as I said, it depends a bit on the in-game situation to make this determination. My inclination is to look for a resolution procedure that is NOT an ability check.