The Stonehell session gave me the opportunity to put into practice something I’ve written about but have never been able to field test until now: creating at the game table rather than at the desktop. I’ve been guilty of the crime of doing too much advance world-building and fluff-spinning, as well as creating minor campaign details and obscure house rules long before they’re needed in actual play. Like my attempts to devolve my dungeon notes down into something less than novella-length, this is a work in progress.
Getting back behind the screen two weeks ago made me put my gold pieces where my mouth was. I could no longer safely philosophize that this was the way to do things from the safety of my Daern’s instant soap box. I’d have to see if I could really allow house rules and world design to occur in an organic way. I’m pleased to report that I can and did do just that.
Although it was just a single game session, I did manage to take two things away from it. One has to do with the cult responsible for the Temple of Evil™ the PCs explored. In the notes for Stonehell, the cult behind the temple is left undefined, as is the deity venerated in that ancient place. The reason for this was to allow any referee to customize his or her version of Stonehell to their particular campaign and to cut down of the word count for the one-pager. Considering that I’m the guy who created the dungeon, you’d think that I would have some idea of who the temple was meant for, at least in my own campaign. Unfortunately (or perhaps, fortunately), I didn’t. I figured I’d make it up if it ever became important.
When the characters began exploring it in game, I still had no concrete notion as to the divinity behind the temple. But as the hilarity and the over-the-top evil décor of the place came out during play, I began to get a notion. After the game, I toyed around with that notion a bit more and - oh yes- now I know who was once worshipped in that fane. Without revealing too much, it’s a new deity for the campaign; one that draws heavily upon Baron Samedi and spiced with a dash of the Comedian from Watchmen. Evil with a profound sense of gallows humor. I think he/she/it and those devoted to this entity have a lot to offer my little fantastical world. Time to think of an adventure seed to sow somewhere…
The second result of creating on the fly was a new house rule involving doors. Since I was running B/X, an open doors check was required to bypass any closed portal found in the dungeon. This has always been one rule that I agree with in theory but am often disappointed with in practice. I see the purpose of it: the dungeon is a hostile environment (a Mythic Underworld if you will). The characters can never be assured that they can rush into a room and take their enemies by surprise. Perhaps the dungeon itself is out to get them or it might just be the general state of disrepair that thwarts them.
In actual play, however, what sometimes happens is this: the strongest or second-strongest fighter attempts to open the door. He fails his open doors check. The next strongest gives it a shot and he fails. This is followed by a third attempt and continues on down the line until the scrawny magic-user lucks out with a 1 and the door pops opens. Comments are made that the strongest guys “softened it up” for him. The party then enters the room and the game continues.
I was looking for a way to be true to the intent of the rules, yet keep things moving in the game. I landed upon a solution during the Stonehell session. Dimly remembering reading that up to three people may make an attempt to open a door, I’ve decided that adventurers get three chances at a portal. If all three attempts fail, the door remains sealed until either A) the party employs tools to bypass the door (crowbars, mauls, axes – anything that creates a god-awful amount of noise to summon wandering monsters to dinner), B) the party exits the dungeon and attempts to try the door at a later date (maybe those monsters who can open every door have used it in the meantime and it’s no longer as tightly sealed), or C) magic is used on the portal.
The “three person rule” does exist and it’s mentioned in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide. Of course, its intent in that tome is to address the fact that most doors are 8’ wide and only three characters can fit into that space to make the attempt. The rule as read is that up to three characters may attempt to open a door at a single time. I just prefer to read it as three attempts total.
I’m hoping that this house rule will keep the game moving and will goad the party to move on unless they really, really want to find out what’s behind Door #1. It gives them a reason to re-explore sections of the dungeon previously visited too. I used this ruling during the game session and there remain three crypt doors that have not been breached. Given the bounty discovered behind the rest of the doors, I’m certain the party will return with crowbars, jars of lard, or whatever else they might think would allow them access to whatever may wait beyond. It seems like a fair compromise between the dungeon and its explorers.
One last observation from the Stonehell session is this: I refereed on my feet much more than I ever did in the past. In my younger days, I’d often spend the entire evening with ass planted firmly in my chair when I ran a game. I even mastered the art of using the referee’s screen as a prop, leering at the players from over its top or peering around its edges to simulate ambushing foes. For my return, I wanted to try a change of pace and brought a landscape format screen to use during the session. I thought being more visible would engender more trust with the players.
To my surprise, after the initial intro to the dungeon, I don’t think I sat down again until I calculated experience points at the end of the night. I have a theory as to why this change occurred. Prior to my exodus from the hobby, my last gasp at refereeing was a long series of live action games, which by their very nature require the referee to be constantly moving around. I think I might be retaining that physical memory and my body now needs to be standing in order to adjudicate. My other thought is that we were using a dry-erase map grid during the game session and having to update the grid and move miniatures probably led to me spending most of the evening upright. It’s probably a little of both. Whatever the case, I must say that I enjoyed doing it that way and it certainly cut down on the amount of liquids I drank and the subsequent bathroom trips, which were much less than when I’m in the role of a player in a session.