Most of the afternoon’s exploits occurred around the Keep (of Borderland’s fame) and the Haunted Keep (from the sample dungeon at the back of the Moldvay rulebook). The session ended with three-quarters of the party dying and the last member escaping with all the loot—about average for an 1st level party right out of the box.
While the adventuring portion of the day was only average, the point of the “Out of the Box” experiment—to see if it was possible to revisit the game without succumbing to the preconceived notions that come with thirty years of involvement in the hobby—was by far more successful, surprisingly so, in fact. Having re-read Moldvay Basic with what I hoped was a pair of novice’s eyes, I came away with fresh notions and a few house rules that I would never have considered otherwise.
The biggest joy of the process, however, was reacquainting myself with the Keep. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve bothered to look back on that stony edifice, but, once I did, what I found surprised me. The Keep gets a lot of flak from folks who’ve never actually experienced it firsthand or did so only in their youth. The lack of names for its inhabitants is often cited as one of the flaws of the place. Having returned to the Keep with more mature eyes, I can only say that it is one of the finer examples of “home base” design I’ve encountered. Gary certainly knew what the hell he was doing when he put that place together.
In my youth, I remember looking at the Keep and wondering why all this “useless” information was provided: details about guild fees, storage of trade goods, the habits of residents after-hours, and the like. Now I found all this to be an immense springboard for not only future possibilities of conflict and adventure, but as a means to bring the location to life.
In yesterday’s session, the thief decided to see if it would be possible to rob the chapel, perhaps acquiring some of its overly-priced holy water as well as cash. That heist, as unsuccessful as it was, was a joy to run as a referee because I had all the pertinent information at my fingertips: the layout of the church, the probable positions of guardsmen, the surrounding buildings and their heights, and information as to whether or not there would be any cash in the donation box in the event that the thief got inside.
When it comes to refereeing style and advance preparation, I’m definitely more in the “free-wheeling, it’ll come to me when it’s needed” school, but the Keep showed me that there is something to be said for sparse, yet precise, game notes. It got me to reconsider, if not revamp, my style of game prep and I’ll be making some adjustments to my notes over the holidays before the Watchfires & Thrones game recommences next year. Even with thirty-years of gaming experience under my belt, Gary can still run rings around me when it comes to game design. Here’s one student who will undoubtedly never surpass his master.
The “Out of the Box” experiment allowed me to walk away with two nifty house rules. One was a complete surprise. With me reacquired novice’s eyes, I came up with a system that determines a PC’s social class, previous profession, connections to other characters, and, optionally, reason for adventuring in a single action. I was impressed with my own creativity and I’ll be fine-tuning that method and submitting a piece on it to Fight On!
The second house rule was a simple method for determining and tracking wear and tear on a character’s arms and equipment. That’s not something I usually pay much (read “any”) attention to, but when the Keep’s description mentioned that there was a smithy that repaired such items, my novice brain told me I had to come up with a way to keep that poor guy employed. And frankly, in a world where a suit of plate mail runs you 60 gold pieces, anything that causes the characters to continue to spend money on arms and armor is a good thing from the referee’s point of view.
The method I developed was this: Whenever a PC rolled a “1” on an attack, his weapon became worn and I had him put a mark next to the item on this character sheet. After three such marks, the weapon broke and became useless. It would have been possible to have some of the damage repaired (have all but a single check removed since you can’t get a weapon back to “new” status) for a fee at the smithy. For armor, I used a similar method. Any time an opponent scored a “20” on its attack against the PC, the player made a mark next to their armor and the rules above applied. It was a simple yet elegant solution to the problem—provided you’re not already using ones and twenties for fumbles and critical hits. I’m on record as being against those things anyway, so it works fine for me.
Nevertheless, I realize that some people expect that there will be critical hits in D&D—nearly forty years of house rulings tend to do that. But I wanted to do something different with the way I adjudicated such blows in the “Out of the Box” game. In a response to this, I came up with a “floating critical hit” idea.
In my Labyrinth Lord game, I’ll tell the players what an enemy’s AC is so that they know what they need to hit the beast. In theory, they have their attack matrix written down at the bottom of their character sheet so it’s a simple matter of looking down to see that they need “X” to hit AC “Y”. I say “in theory” because I have a player or two who still rolls their attack die and then looks at me like a deer in headlights while they wait for me to tell them if they succeeded or not. That drives me up a wall.
So to avoid that, I decided that critical hits would be a result of a d20 roll that resulted in exactly the number they needed to hit their opponent’s AC. It would be the same 5% chance as rolling a natural twenty, but that “20” would change from AC to AC. So, if as a 1st level character, you need a 13 to hit AC 6, a roll of “13” (not counting modifiers) meant that the attack bypassed the opponent’s armor completely and did maximum damage. As one little wrinkle to this, only fighters and demi-humans could score a critical hit. That was my little way of rewarding the otherwise overlooked fighter.
As of now, I doubt that “Out of the Box” will become a recurring campaign. I may return to it as a one-shot from time-to-time, but I think I have too much already invested in my Labyrinth Lord campaign setting to branch off into a second fantasy campaign. It’s much more likely that I’ll take the lessons I learned and some of the neater ideas I came up with for that setting and import them over to the Kinan-M’Nath. Despite this reluctance to return, however, the concept of an “Out of the Box” game is a good one and I’d recommend it to anyone who digs crazy thought experiments of this sort. Revisiting old ground with fresh eyes is a fascinating experience, even an instructive one, for jaded old referees like myself.