Monday, February 9, 2009

The Dismal Depths: Quick & Dirty

Quick and dirty. It's often how I roll. When my 14 year old says he wants to play some D&D I have a few options. Allow him to rebuild his Labyrinth Lord group which took a few delves into the Lahromil's Demise section of Ulin-Uthor last year, continue his thus far very unsuccessful, bloody runs into Spawning Grounds of the Crab-men with OD&D pre-gens, pick a module which I have not read in a long time, OR give The Dismal Depths a test drive.

Clearly I took the last option. In fact, the very notion of grabbing four sheets of one-page maps, The Dismal Depths Bestiary, Men & Magic, and a handful of dice seemed perfectly quick and dirty for on the spot gaming. I was not disappointed.

Prior to deciding to run The Dismal Depths, and thanks to Chgowiz, I was turned onto the Eposic Dice Roller. I had already created two sheets filled with what I call character stat blocks. I normally give players a collection of 10 six score strings from which to select their characters. They are awarded a new stat block of 10 six score strings when they run out of living characters. Twelve such collections of scores were on the two sheets, so I asked him to pick a number from one to twelve. For solo gaming, I simply allowed him to play six characters from the get go. I was not invoking the Entourage Approach at this point. Just allowing him to have a decent party ready to roll.

I used the AD&D Character Log in order that he had a single page to game with. Each character was given 3d6x10 gold, allowed to outfit using M&M (with the one change being Plate Armor costs 100 gold), and we were ready to game very shortly thereafter.

Our 14 year old likes Dwarves, and he learned many games ago to appreciate the flexibility of Elves. The starting party was:

Fingles, Dwarf
Meltar, Dwarf
Penwaith, Elf
Blaike, Fighting-Man
Trimble, Magic-User
Yeutz, Cleric

In order to get things going quickly, I told him that an Alchemist in town was advertising a bounty of 5 gold per Bogling head, and that Boglings were known to inhabit the Dismal Depths, a dungeon beneath some old ruins about half a day's march outside of town. There were four known entrances to the dungeon, via the Ruins, the Old Tower, the Woods or the Cave.

Yeah, I know. Remember, quick and dirty. He wanted to get to the dice rolling as soon as possible. If anything, playing with my son reminds me of the total lack of need for any real back story or plot that is forgotten by the players as soon as the first gold piece is plundered. Screw the details. The important thing is finding treasure and living to tell about it. In the quick and dirty game anyway.

As we began the actual play, I declared that we would be running this game in a manner vastly different than the sessions before. I was going to remove the screen entirely, and explain what I was doing as the referee, including exactly what all my ceaseless dice rolls were for. Why? This is on the job training for him. I want him to understand what happens behind the screen. How I keep track of time, why I sometimes roll dice for no apparent reason, that sort of thing. I explained that this would require him to play as if the characters had no idea of these small elucidations. I think it went well. In particular, he learned about Turns and Hours, Dwarves sensing traps, Elves sensing secret doors, Wandering Monsters, Morale, and the general randomness of this particular dungeon.

I treat the keyed dollar sign secret Treasure Troves as random treasure, so I was able to explain the OD&D method of determining treasure, and on return trips I showed him how the Restock rules worked, the Distribution of Monsters and Treasure OD&D method that I have distilled down to a table on the one-pagers.

Along the way he learned the rules governing opening doors, springing traps, avoiding traps, surprise, and sighting distance, along with many other dice rolling conventions that never made sense to him in the past.

As the basic goal was to locate and remove the heads of some Boglings, I did describe what they looked like, but those were the only denizens of the place with which he had prior knowledge. Another one of the features of this dungeon is the blanket of mystery. Even my hardened old Grognard crew will have no knowledge of the dangers which they are to face in these deep, dark reaches.

Locating the Boglings was perhaps a bit harder than I had envisioned. The only entrances to their particular region is through the Ruins, but there are four such entrances in the Ruins, so I determined which was found randomly. The Woods, Tower and Cave lead to other regions. Basically, he had but a 2 in 7 chance of entering The Chambers of Zod, where the Boglings reside.

Yeutz the Cleric fell into a pit and took severe damage, was extricated from the trap only to be overcome shortly thereafter by ambushing Mole-Men in the first real encounter.

Penwaith the Elf was slain by Mole-Men as he tried to save Yeutz in that same melee.

Meltar the Dwarf took some minor damage in a run-in with Mole-Men. The brave warrior was then scared into panic by the sight of the Bronze Idol of the Laughing Minotaur, fled the room and died by falling into the pit just north of the room. The same pit opened by Yeutz earlier.

A pack of wandering Dessicated chased the three remaining members out of the dungeon as they were rolled as Wandering Monsters when the trio tried to make good their retreat back to town. Trimble the Magic User was struck for 5 damage, dropped his torch, and ran past the Fighting-Men and into the daylight. Luck had allowed him to live to see another day. The surprise encounter occurred so quickly that no one in the party even turned to see what had taken them unawares, they simply ran toward the sliver of daylight!

Quite a disastrous initial foray into the Dismal Depths. 1st Level characters are so much fun!

I allowed my son to heal up and recruit replacements for the lost members. Enter Meltar II, Penwaith II and Yeutz Jr.

The return trip began with the decision to enter through the Old Tower. Into the Burial Catacombs of the Burgundy Brigade. After some snickering at my rendition of the ominous warning to tomb-robbers at the Age Old Stone Sentinels, and after avoiding damage from a pit trap, the party was knee-deep in Desiccated bent on exterminating the living.

Yeutz Jr fell first after attempting to roll on the Clerics versus Undead Monsters table, a lucky six did him in before he survived his first encounter. Although only unconscious, he was left for dead when more Desiccated arrived on the scene.

That pack of walking dead was dispatched, but within a few turns the party had become overrun with skeletal pursuers, and made a hasty retreat back to the safety of the surface world.

Two excursions, four dead.

We took a short break to run out and pick up dinner. Upon returning my son couldn't stop talking about his adventures thus far. It was agreed shortly thereafter that my wife would join the festivities. My son, thinking that his mother would muck things up, asked if we could start anew with a half dozen different characters. He is wise beyond his age, as he knows that he and I will likely return to gaming with the Fingles, Meltar, Penwaith, Blaike, Trimble, Yeutz group many more times between now and the next time my wife decides to play.

So, I repeated the character generation process, again using my stat blocks and the AD&D Character Log sheets for the two players. Adventure was quickly afoot thanks to the quick and dirty mindset we had undertaken.

I was still using the “behind the curtain” play style, in hopes that my son would gain a much better understanding of how to play and referee the game.

The Fingles Group, for lack of a better name, was put on “hold” for now, While they were resting up from their most recent excursion, the following adventurers formed a party, likewise in pursuit of Bogling heads for the Alchemist's bounty:

Glotch, Dwarf
Brick, Dwarf
Vain, Fighting-Man
Paryn, Elf (Female)
Tuddle, Magic User (Female)
Saphyn, Cleric (Female)

Bonus points to those who can identify which characters were controlled by my wife! Yes, she has a soft spot for Elves and spell-slingers. Her true adoration is with Elves using Bows. Second to that is magical types. Now, my wife is an old hand at fantasy computer games. D&D is something which, in the past, has bothered her computer gaming sensibilities. Death, downtime and other pitfalls of D&D just don't fly in her gaming ideals.

Nevertheless, she really wanted to make this a family night, and give it the old college try.

The introduction of another player lent an entirely different dynamic to the game. I truly had a lot of fun now. As the referee, I was able to sit back and enjoy the sidebars. On the one hand I had a gung-ho dice rolling hack n slash gamer, juxtaposed with a “I don't want to die” deep thinker. The end result was after three trips back to town to heal up from damage, and no character losses, the party dynamic was boiling over and on the verge of character mutiny.

I had been using one of those white erasable boards for the adventures. I told the players that if they wanted to keep a map, it was up to them, and that I would be erasing the magic marker drawings after each excursion. Well...the need for caution and returning to town clashed with the need for adventure and treasure to the point that the two players recruited our soon to be three year old.

Initially our toddler was employed strictly for rolls to hit and damage rolls, but when loggerheads between which direction to take were reached, our youngest family member was charged with walking over to the white board and pointing at the next direction.

It was a vastly entertaining evening as the entire family was involved in the game.

Due in part to the overly cautious nature of my wife, there were no casualties in the new party, and they not only delved deeper than the previous excursions, but they plundered the only treasure looted from the Dismal Depths to date: 500 Silver and 80 Gold.

The adventure night ended in high spirits, and everyone involved agreed that this is to be a weekly, or perhaps twice a week, time permitting, family event.

The only major sticking point thus far has been the entire “return to Town” thing. As I mentioned earlier, my wife is used to computer gaming. Even though she hasn't seriously played one in years, she thought the entire idea of bed rest to restore hit points a royal pain in the arse.

I explained that I had already house ruled max hits at 1st, and the old stanch wounds rule, it wasn't enough. For this reason I am considering a few new house rules that will give the illusion of not visiting town, but will provide out of combat methods for the characters to restore lost hit points.

Sometimes even an old crusty DM like me realizes it might be best to ease up on the carnage and keep the players coming back. On the other hand, I told my wife that I cannot promise that Peryn won't die the next time the party returns to the dungeon. Yes, it seems that her only concern is the well-being of the Elf, Peryn.

If it means playing D&D once or twice each week, and running some good old fashioned Dungeon Crawls, I think I can stomach a few small house rules to appease the players.

I'm going to add some house rules I will detail later, perhaps as an addition to the Dismal Depths optional rules, such as Take Five, Liquid Courage and Second Wind. The end result will be further minor hit point recovery methods that dispense with the constant need to return to town. Such minor boons won't mean much past 3rd or 4th Level, but might suck the players in to the ongoing campaign and create a permanent family activity.

~Sham, Quixotic Referee


Chad Thorson said...

That's great! I hope I can get my kids into roleplaying (right now they're 2 and 4 years old). What's the best age to start, 9 or 10?

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

Sham, that's a really cool game and it's really double cool that you got everyone involved. Yay for more solo/family OD&D games!

I have to agree, my wife is very similar in that she really cares for her character. She understands, from us talking, that Aeli (her fighter) could die a horrible death at anytime, but I can see that she would be unhappy.

And great idea about generatiing character stat blocks! I would have not thought of that, for NPCs or new pregens. Stolen. :)

Mike D. said...

Great stuff Dave. I hope to introduce my son to D&D in the next year or two (he is 5 now), though I doubt I can get the wife to play (but I will try).

Michael Curtis said...

Dave, the idea of dropping the screen and showing the mechanics of the game off to your son is sheer brilliance. I'm going to have to remember this the next time I have to take the role of the teacher to new players. I think this builds a lot of trust between players and referee, allowing you to demonstrate that "this is how I do things and I'm not here to be your enemy, but I am going to challenge you."

Well done.

Sham aka Dave said...

Our 14 year old tried playing about 5 years ago. He was very excited, but he thought the miniatures were more interesting than the game itself. Depending upon the child, I'd think 9 or 10 is a good age, provided you play the role of Dad and DM.

At 14, he considers his steps and appreciates the game much more than even just last year. I think he's starting to "get it".

I had an older brother, so I was into sports, games and music at a very early age. I can't compare my 12 year old D&D self to our 14 year old.

I was surprised that my wife wanted to play. We didn't even recruit her this time. She's something of a control freak like me, so she might be better suited as a referee. My wife is overtly analytical, and questions everything concerning the rules and why I am doing certain things.

In the long run this is a good thing because eventually she will realize that it's not the DM vs the players, and that I truly am just the referee. Oh, yes, did I mention she's very competitive? lol.

It was a great time for all involved!

Sham aka Dave said...

Mike: I just posted that comment as you were making yours.

I cannot stress the point you made which I talked about as well. "Drawing Back the Curtain" will eventually dispel the competitive notions, and shed light on the meaning of Referee, or of DM as Referee.

Good insight as it was a point I failed to make in my post.

Matthew James Stanham said...

Brick the dwarf? I know that guy! One of my few surviving characters; I think he is a level six fighter, but last I heard he was trapped in Ravenloft. I wonder, is it possible that he eventually escaped (not before being energy drained back to level one, of course)and found himself in the vicinity of the Dismal Depths?

Sham aka Dave said...

Brick the Dwarf, level drained, robbed, and teleported to another dimension. And you thought you had a bad weekend.

Actually, that's a novel idea for a character's background.

"Yeah, I used to be a Champion. Got trapped in a pit full of Wights. Had to remove all of my gear to climb out"

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

I so related to the wife being competitive. She still will not play Othello with me. *chuckle*

I sure wish I could talk her into playing Squad Leader with me, but I have a feeling that I would find my counters somewhere where I don't want them to go... o.O

Matthew James Stanham said...

Brick would probably have been happy to have gotten out of Ravenloft alive, levels or not. The entirety of his original party were killed by vampires, and I have a dim memory of him somehow "blowing up" Castle Ravenloft in order to make his escape... I don't think he had much in the way of magical items, none that I recall off the top of my head, but he was a good shot with the crossbow.

I think I remember reading something similar in the Dragonsfoot Classic forum about someone starting with a level one magician, who had previously been level nine or something.

At any rate, I am glad to hear that D&D night is becoming a successful family event for you and yours!

Chris said...

"Initially our toddler was employed strictly for rolls to hit and damage rolls, but when loggerheads between which direction to take were reached, our youngest family member was charged with walking over to the white board and pointing at the next direction."

I think I injured myself laughing right about here. What a great family. What a great game. :-)

Welcome to Dungeon! said...

I once had a Wizard PC whose background was that four hundred years ago, he had made a deal with a devil for great magical power (i.e. many levels), but had eventually been killed by heroes and went to hell, where said levels were summarily revoked. Eventually a clerical error was made in the roster of hell and he was accidentally sent back, as a lowly level 1 character once more.

He was Neutral Evil, but trying, with great distaste, to reform so as to avoid returning to hell.

Is level 2 of Dismal Depths near on the horizon. I'm interested in running it as long as I have 2 levels to explore. (I want there to be SOMETHING down the staircase if they need to, say, flee down one!)

Sham aka Dave said...

Chgo: Dominoes is the poison the women in our family pick. Their all night sessions can get quite brutal at times. I normally make myself unavailable.

Matthew: Funny stuff. I own but have never run Ravenloft (I6 I think it is?). If Brick lives for a while I might weave a minor back story using this idea.

Chris: It was pretty funny stuff. Our youngest will be 3 in March, and he already has a burgeoning love affair with dice.

Cole: I feel bad about the delay, a few others have asked the same question. I've got one of the four maps layed-out. I'm sure once I block out some time Level 2 will be done and posted in short order. My goal is to get the Upper Levels, 1-3, available as a single large PDF file before too long.

Matthew James Stanham said...

You know, now that I think back on it, I think I know what happened to Ravenloft castle in that game (we were using the second edition boxed set, I think). Being something like thirteen years old at the time, we were convinced of the flammability of alcohol, which in the imagination equated to "explosions".

I am pretty sure Brick started a fire in the wine cellar, after which began an earnest debate as to whether this would result in an explosion of the castle. Clearly we had been watching too much of the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon series, but whether it blew up or burned down, Brick made his escape! :D

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

@Matthew - whether its realistic or not, exploding castles are always fun. :)

Sham aka Dave said...

If any dwelling ever deserved to be burnt down/blown up, it's Ravenloft. I say that with great appreciation for the module. It's just that the residents are so deserving of such a fate.