Friday, March 26, 2021

Lost in the Dark


So it would seem that The Forest Oracle adventure still has few things to teach me...mainly that the thing needs even more work than I previously assumed. Last night the party entered the tunnel pass known as the Horns of the Dragon, an old dwarf mine that also doubled as a quick road through the rocky hills. Shenanigans ensued as the party figured out the best way to lead/drive their horses and mules into the subterranean caverns, but it all was worked out (it helped that Sonia the Magic-User had a secondary skill of animal husbandry).

Because the box text in this section of the adventure is small, I read/paraphrased it in order to provide the players with some description of the environment. As we came upon the first branch off the main tunnel, I read:
About 5,500 feet into the tunnel another tunnel leads sharply off to the south...
Wait. What?

5,500 feet converts (in D&D terms) to 550" in the underground. The slowest party member has a movement of 9" per ten minute turn, meaning it would have taken roughly 61 turns to cover that distance, a bit more than 10 hours. The party had only brought ten torches with them: enough for ten hours.

But at the time I was running the game I wasn't thinking hard about this...or doing these calculations...because I was already juggling a party feud (one player wanted to leave the party to explore the side passage while the other was adamant they stick with the main trail). In the end, the party ended up splitting, with both groups plunging their separate ways into darkness. I 'hand-waved' the issue, figuring I'd do the math later. Besides, it was always possible that Kitiara and Raistlin had stolen the halflings' lantern back at the Wildwood Inn (plus their four flasks of oil...).

More shenanigans ensued, mainly with players continuing to bicker at every crossroads reached, until the more "adventurous" PC was finally killed by fire beetles while exploring a side avenue. As it was time to check on my soup (and he had to make a new PC) we called the evening's session.

The problem is...and to be clear, I am totally blaming the author and editorial staff at the old TSR...the problem is the map of the tunnels has no recorded scale AND is drawn on hex map in a winding fashion. Caverns are given dimensions in their description ("roughly 1500' x 1500' and 20' high," for example) but, being natural caverns (or dug-out mining operations), none are regularly shaped. Trying to calculate the scale by working backwards from the description is still an "eyeballing" procedure. 

What I ended up doing (this morning) was assigning a figure of 500' per hex, as this seems to match the dimensions of the most regular caverns (per their descriptions), even though it does NOT match the narrative text boxes for the tunnels themselves (if it did, that first side tunnel would have been 6,500' from the entrance, not 5,500). This makes the entire length of the main tunnel, from entrance to exit, roughly 32,000 feet...about 6 miles. Which makes sense when compared to the main wilderness map, because six miles is the distance given between the entry and exit of the pass (the wilderness map DOES have a scale...two miles per hex).

But while the party can make 20 miles per day in the outdoors (about one hex per hour), there's no way for them to navigate at that kind of speed though the old tunnels. Littered with debris from numerous cave-ins, fallen timbers, and old mining equipment, a journey of six miles (at their speed) will take about 59 hours. Assuming 10 hours of marching per day, that's still six days underground, even assuming zero detours into side passages.

Ten torches and four flasks of oil aren't going to cut it. 

Now, if they'd actually beaten the beetles and made off with their luminescent glands, that would be something (of course, if the half-elf cleric had lived through the encounter, they'd also have his daily allotment of light spells at about an hour a pop). As it stands, they're not quite hopelessly lost in the dark, but nearly so. The party did acquire a +1 broadsword from the bandits, and that will shed light in a 20' radius when drawn from its scabbard, but we'll have to see if they remember that (Kitiara is carrying the sword, but she has her hands full with spear and shield at the moment). 

Anyway, it's just as well that we stopped the adventure where we did last night. Turns out, the party was walking for about 25 hours straight.  *sigh*

This is my mistake...I was so busy worried about un-stupid-izing the encounters in the module that I didn't pay close enough attention to the actual logistics. I will endeavor to do better going forward.

Diego's new character, by the way, is a dwarven thief. Here's hoping he bought a lot of torches.

This is how I picture Thisvynn
the NPC dwarf of N2...kee-rayzy.


  1. I'm not sure what edition you mean by D&D, I'd assume B/X. I thought the base movement was while carefully exploring mapping etc. If just moving normally, 3x the base movement. Unless you meant 90" as in 30" x 3?

    1. @ Norm:

      We’re playing AD&D (1E) which is a little different. Movement distance is the the same for exploration. If “following a known route or map” then movement is five times faster...but that’s not the situation here (and if you could see the “players map” the PCs were given, you’d understand why!).

  2. "Littered with debris from numerous cave-ins, fallen timbers" - sounds like torches could be made.

  3. "Littered with debris from numerous cave-ins, fallen timbers" - sounds like torches could be made.

    1. Well, generally speaking, a torch is more than a piece of dusty, rotten wood:

      But, yes, they might be able to work up something with a little cautious scavenging.

  4. It's always interesting how poorly old TSR stuff often handles the mechanics of exploration and supply. For as much as it's talked about in things like the DMG there seem to be very few clear rules about it and even less support in adventures. I think of it as either something that the earliest D&D editions assumed players would have an understanding of as an inheritance from war games, or which represents a sort of vestigial inheritance from the same roots.

    By the 1984, when Forest Oracle was written one suspects that TSR's goals were already turning away from that procedural, wargamey style of play and towards a Hickmanesque narrative approach. It's understandable, both because of market interest in more narrative play/lack of wargaming roots and the paucity of simple, coherent exploration rules.

    My own take on it has been to construct/borrow new rules that I think feel like or honor the sense of exploration and emphasize issues like light supply while avoiding the bookkeeping and pickiness of the clumsy old rules. So I guess I may just be trying to promote an overloaded encounter/hazard/exploration die, simple movement and temporally indeterminate turns.

    1. I pretty much agree with all of this Gus, though I'm trying to go for something a LITTLE more definitive than "simple movement and temporally indeterminate turns." For now.

    2. Oh I don't think your methods are off - I mean a long difficult tunnel that takes two days of spelunking is a good obstacle.

      It just gets me thinking about the use of large and small sized rooms/areas in dungeons. If I use indeterminate time, I can simply say a long corridor is 3 turns long, but for huge caverns I suppose it might be better to just move to 6 torches long, because rolling for 60 random encounter rolls would be both arduous and likely not much fun for my players. Not sure how one justifies the lower encounter rate, but I suspect those big caves are more sparsely populated then the tiny warrens that serve as lairs?

      Gradient Descent (which is worth a look) does something similar, but since it's sci-fi supply management isn't well coupled to the space (atomic flashlights or whatever last a lot longer then torches).