The Saturday before last, due to the whims of real life, my regular gaming group found itself down a few members. With the 4th of July approaching and the DM going on vacation the following week, it looked like we were in for a three week hiatus before we’d be meeting to roll the dice again. Rather than go so long without, I offered to fill the time with a one-shot delve into Stonehell. The offer was accepted and the following Saturday saw me behind the referee’s screen for the first time in years. I’d love to report that it was a stellar success and that I was carried aloft on the shoulders of the players at the end of the evening. Unfortunately, the session would only turn out to be a fair one.
The primary problem was that the rust of disuse had settled heavily over my referee skills due to inaction. I was very nervous at the start of the evening and muddled my way through the introduction and background of the dungeon. Words escaped me and I had to pause to collect my thoughts before continuing. The rust began to flake off as the hours passed and I started to find my groove again, but I still felt I was trying to patch up my spotty beginning throughout the night, and that I never managed to fully get back into stride after that false start.
The secondary problem was with the player base. One regular player arrived in a mood that could only be defined as “crotchety,” while another two of the players consisted of the group’s “second string.” I don’t intend that as an insult, but one is a regular who just goes with the flow of what everyone else is doing and the other is 15-year-old girl going through the post-adolescent “pod person” stage, so neither is an aggressive gamer. It wasn’t the best collection of players to be trying new things on short notice with. Luckily, the remaining two players were of the old school and helped keep things flowing. I’ll stress that I take most of the blame for the evening’s ultimate level of success. I mention problems with the players only because there was a certain toxicity to the atmosphere of the evening that originated from the other side of the screen. Perhaps it’s my fault for not addressing or attempting to dissipate that atmosphere before we got rolling, but I’m still getting back into the swing of things.
The last problem which contributed to the flawed night was that we were playing both a one-shot game and a stress test on Stonehell. In order to get us up and running as quickly as possible, I began things in medias res with the party assembled at the stairwell leading down into the dungeon. There was no tentative getting to know the world or the other characters, which served to distance the players from their characters and from the game itself. It was cardboard characters in a cardboard world; not the best situation with which to draw people into the game.
Despite the negatives, the evening did generate a few successes for me. If I had any lingering doubts about the feasibility of the One Page Dungeon template in actual play, they died completely before the night was half-finished. With the bare bones of the setting at my fingertips, I was able to flesh out any grey areas of the dungeon during play with ease and careful note jotting will ensure that those areas remain constant on repeated explorations. Even the lack of written stats in the notes for monsters wasn’t an issue. I’d made crib notes of the needed attributes beforehand in my DM’s log sheet and rolled for hit points only when a monster took damage for the first time. The lack of predetermined hit points had been a concern, but in play it was simple and even led to a few surprises for me, the referee, when I saw what I thought was going to be a rough fight crumble under the PCs’ onslaught due to some cruddy hit point rolls for their opponents.
The second and most important positive of the night was first-hand confirmation that B/X remains a rule set with intrinsic value. As much as I’ve waxed philosophically about it (and Labyrinth Lord) over the past several months, this was the first time I’ve used it under combat conditions. Over the course of the entire evening, I looked at the Basic rulebook but once and that was to confirm a zombie’s armor class. I knew that I knew the system due to long exposure but I was pleased to see how simple it was to recall even during my stumbling first-time-back attempt.
I threw three house rules into the mix: a modified “shields shall be splintered” (invoke this rule for a save vs. death roll. If successful, the shield’s toast and you take no damage), Dave Arneson’s “chop ‘til they drop” house rule for fighters, and “liquid courage” (once per session, characters can take a two turn break and quaff a pint of wine to recover 1d6 hit points). The night also allowed me to field test the NPC Hireling class from my “New Classes and Racial Variants for Basic Dungeons & Dragons” (the class works but I’m going to upgrade Hirelings to allow them to wear chain mail after I couldn’t really come up with an argument otherwise during play. Plate mail will remain unusable by the Hireling class), as well as the Elven Jack-of-a-Trades from that supplement. Unfortunately, the elf died before I could get a good bearing on the class’s suitability.
Speaking of dead elves, the actual dungeon crawl was typical of 1st level characters exploring an old school dungeon. A few treasure-less rooms where turned over, some fun was had with “a door…will usually swing shut when released unless it is spiked or wedged open” (although I prolonged the interval for dramatic effect), and the Wheel of Fortune was spun (resulting in a “heal all damage” effect for an uninjured PC and a “gain 500 xp” result for Gunter, a stalwart Hireling with “eyes unmarred by the gleam of intelligence”).
The only deaths of the evening were a result of the poisonous fountain. Two PCs failed their saves when the “fish that breathes air” spouted its toxic breath (the numerous rolls behind the screen to see if the trap was triggered wasn’t enough to deter the party from continued poking and prodding of the fountain). Tragedy might have been avoided if anyone had stated they were examining the fish or asked for more detail on the piscine adornment. Such investigations would have revealed that the fish depicted was a toxic archer: similar to the mundane archer fish, but using a gout of poisonous gas to incapacitate prey rather that a spurt of water. I’m partially to blame for this though. My imitation of a leaping fish caught in mid-jump was entertaining enough to call for an encore and that might have caused the players to discount the fish early on.
The party stumbled upon the Temple of Big Evil™ not long after their run in with the fountain (after replenishing their ranks with the clichéd “you encounter two adventurers exploring the halls” method. I defend this choice because it was a one-shot/stress test and time was of the essence. I’d never do this in an actual campaign). The thief’s Pick Locks roll was a 06, causing the massive iron portals to swing open (and surprising the hell out of me). Undead were battled along the hall, including a slugfest with a skeleton that lasted much longer than it should have simply because neither side could land a blow, and the central temple was reached.
Deciding that the cultists had come from the “anything worth doing is worth overdoing” school of evil temple decoration, the part discovered an altar made of bones positioned before a 10’ tall, 5’ wide bas-relief of a skull. The walls were adorned with frescoes of cavorting skeletons interrupted by columns of robed skeletal figures supporting bone-shaped vaulted arches. Even the tiles were macabre: a small skull decorated each individual tile. Picturing the temple as a 14 year-old Goth girl’s dream bedroom and describing it as such elicited gales of laughter from both the players and myself, which is exactly what I was going for considering the altar’s strange protective enchantments to avoid desecration. (The result of the cleric’s failed attempt to identify the cult: “Probably death-related, but you’re uncertain,” which resulted in more gales of laughter.)
Over the course of the evening, the party had no opportunity to interact with any of the dungeon sentient residents (which was another reason for my general dissatisfaction with the session. There’s a lot to be learned about the dungeon and plenty of potential role-playing opportunities when the smart monsters are encountered, and I wasn’t able to tap into this). Their path of exploration led them straight into undead territory and the only wandering monsters encountered during the evening were some skeletons and zombies. They almost ran into one of Stonehell’s omnipresent kobold work crews, but the kobolds discovered the bodies of the dead adventurers and their abandoned equipment on the way to the party’s location. Knowing Stonehell’s kobolds the way I do, I ruled they engaged in their aggressive “recycling program” and carried off the bodies and equipment to be used in the dungeon’s economy, thus taking them in the opposite direction from the adventurers.
The decision was made to return to the surface just in time for our usual game session end time. This was a wise choice because, although I didn’t mention it, I had my copy of The Miscellaneum of Cinder stashed in my game notebook and was prepared to roll on Rient’s “Dungeon Escapes” table if there was any dilly-dallying. The evening adventures netted the adventurers a total of 1,265 xp (1,010 of it in treasure – they got really lucky tomb-robbing, although their characters aren’t aware of the value of the plundered jewelry).
I’ve purposely delayed in writing about the game session because I wanted time to reflect on the evening and identify what worked and what didn’t. I think I’ve correctly identified the problems as stated above and I know exactly what needs to be improved upon. I feel much better about the session now than I did immediately afterwards, which was very down in the mouth about the whole thing. Any referee is going to be looking for an enthusiastic response to his endeavors. I realize I need to get my chops back somewhat before this is going to happen.
Does this discourage me from running Stonehell or B/X again? Not at all. If anything, I’m more keen on doing it again and to get a regular game going. I just need a few more things to fall into place before I pursue that goal. In the meantime, I’m going to tweak a few things and play around with a few new ideas that occurred to me while on the “right” side of the screen again.