Thursdays in Thracia - Part 21
This is Part 21 of my Thursdays in Thracia B/X Dungeons & Dragons Campaign, an actual play of Jennell Jaquays’ The Caverns of Thracia. For more context, start from Part 0.
Continued from Part 20, when the party once again left the dungeon, and Thelma Turge almost got wasted by Gnolls.
During their brief stay back in town, the party was approached by a Dwarf named Del Bresk. Del was the commander of a Dwarf mercenary outfit called The Red Tooth Company, and they had just arrived in these parts after losing a war up north. Del offered to secure the first level of the caverns for the party for 300 Gold per month. They would provide 30 of their warriors, and the party wouldn’t have to worry about carving through monsters every time, now that they had access to deeper areas of the caverns. The one stipulation was that no one in the company would go deeper than the first level. They would not be following the party into unmapped danger.
Also during their stay, Thelma Turge, now a level 3 magic user, locked herself in the party’s house and researched a new spell. She gained the ability to summon a swarm of vermin to harass and bite enemies.
The party agreed to the deal, and when they returned to the dungeon a few days later, Del was waiting at the entrance, overseeing their warriors. Del introduced the party to a dwarf named Tymin, who was a talented siege engineer. That’s when the party remembered the disassembled bolt thrower/ scorpion / ballista thing hidden in the basement of the temple of Athena! After some negotiation, Del agreed that Tymin could go with them to help assemble it, for a large increase in their fee, and a pledge of Tymin’s safety.
The party and Tymin crossed the first floor undisturbed as it was now held by the force of Dwarves. They moved to the second level, and made their way to the temple of Athena, once again routing a couple groups of gnolls along the way, at the cost of a retainer’s life. Epicaste, who had joined the party, turned out to be a serious badass, fighting on the front lines.
They entered the temple basement, and had Tymin assemble the scorpion. When it was done they had a large, heavy repeating crossbow. It took time to set up and use, but would prove useful and deadly.
They took the scorpion down the hall, to a room where they had encountered a terrifying lizard-human-hybrid beast, which had practically aerosolized two retainers. The creature could only move when the threshold of its chamber was crossed. The party set up the scorpion just before the threshold, and fired bolt after bolt into the creature, frozen still in a ferocious tableau. Eventually it fell.
They approached a door behind it. Upon touching it, a fighter retainer was turned into a cat. Ludens Thrindle, a dwarf, poked the door a second time with the tip of his halberd. A flash of light burst from the door, incinerating the weapon haft and rendering it useless.
Eventually the door ran out of surprises and the party pressed onward. Through a chamber full of ancient burned corpses, then a door covered in a layer of dried, dead mold, slightly yellow. When a retainer opened the door a single mote of yellow spore came through, and into their nose, and they fell dead, gagging!
Jek the Stabber, a thief, happened to have a collection of oily rags that they had collected from their first visit to the basement of Athena. They set them alight and tossed them into the room, and threw the door closed. On the other side, the yellow mold caught fire and burned like kindling. When it had burned itself out, the party pressed on.
In the next chamber, another pile of bodies, finely dressed. One of them, mysteriously intact after surely many centuries. Epicaste recognized this man. She managed to wake him, and introduced him as Anteus! Anteus was feeble and nearly dead, but had been a member of the King’s guard in old Thracia. He had been kept in suspended animation by powerful magic. The party agreed to escort Anteus back up to the surface.
In the room they also discovered a vertical shaft, extending up and down into darkness. Phyllis Thickfilth the thief moved to climb up it, and realized that she could stick to the walls, and climb up effortlessly. Eventually she reached a circular room glowing with amber light. Behind a curtain, a large beast stood facing away. She realized she was directly behind the room where they had encountered a wise and greedy sphinx on an earlier delve.
On the north wall of the room was a 10’ wide round opening that stretched back about 15’. Seemingly suspended at the end of it on the wall, was a chest. Phyllis noticed that when she approached the opening, she felt herself falling into it, as though gravity itself was turned 90 degrees in the hole. (It was) She rigged up a rope to climb “down” into the hole. The chest was filled to bursting with riches!
Armful by armful, phyllis quietly emptied the chest and over the course of several trips carried its contents down to the party. She kept one prized item for herself: A Helm of Telepathy!
Phyllis is played by Olivia Gulin, my collaborator on Offworlders
Meanwhile, back in the mold room, the party found a hidden closet, with a strange item. On a pedestal of stone, in a recess, sat a glowing green crystal ball. The same supernatural shade of green as the light that emanated from the teleportation pad in the temple above when the gnolls had escaped! After some experimentation, they guessed that this was the teleporter’s mystical power source. They removed it and hid it under some burned rubble in the room. Then they fled back to town with their treasure, making it back to the first level without incident, returning Tymin to the rest of the dwarves.
Running the Game
I’ve been behind on posting by about four sessions, so I’m rushing through a bit here!
After a previous session that consisted mostly of the party hitting random encounters on the first level, I decided for the sake of sanity and pacing to make this company of mercenary Dwarves available. The party had to spend their gold on something, right? Why not let them use it to bypass the tedium of a dungeon level that had essentially been cleared already?
By this point the encounters with Gnolls have become pretty trivial too. I had kind of decided that Gnolls would attack on sight from now on, given how many of them the party had murdered. It makes sense, but it also makes the encounters a lot more rote than early in the campaign when I was making reaction rolls each time. It’s definitely something to be aware of in a large dungeon populated with many of the same sort of monster. In another similar situation I might retain reaction rolls throughout, but interpret them in light of current circumstances. Maybe a really positive one is just a corrupt gnoll captain, willing to take a bribe? Or an early morale victory, the gnolls realize how dangerous the party is now. Maintaining encounter outcomes outside of immediate combat makes the game much more dynamic, and something has been lost here.
The area deep under the temple was a lot of fun. It’s like the party has found a the crawlspaces of the dungeon, of which Thracia has many. Here’s a shaft that lets you get behind a powerful monster to steal her treasure, here’s the power source that controls a major entrance to the lower levels. Combined with the dwarves on the first floor, the party has achieved a level of confidence and mastery navigating around the dungeon complex. They’re an influential force here now!
Thelma’s new spell is Summon Vermin from Gavin Norman’s excellent Theorems and Thaumaturgy, a greatly expanded list of spells for B/X and Labyrinth Lord. The relevant rule for magical research is this one, as written in B/X Essentials (Now being rereleased as Old School Essentials):
My interpretation here is that this means that on leveling up, a Magic User can automatically learn one of the official spells in the game, but can potentially get any effect they want if they devote time and gold to researching it. I love this facet of the oldest role playing games. Explicit permission and methods to create new content and make rulings. The list of spells is not a perfectly complete thing, the game merely starts with the provided options. Coming up with new spells that the player is excited about is completely within the rules as written.
It does make it feel a little weird and arbitrary then that the spells in the books come for free. They are also all over the place. In future B/X games I might always make the MU’s pay for and research their new spells. They can pick one from the existing list, or branch out as desired.
The rules around acquiring spells in B/X are interesting generally. A common interpretation is that an MU’s spellbook can only ever have as many spells as they can cast. I actually like this, as it keeps a more strict power cap on them, and reduces bookkeeping around choosing spells each day. The downside is that things like Read Magic take up a whole slot, and as written you need Read Magic to use scrolls, etc. This has been discussed and dissected at length elsewhere, and some retroclones just give MU’s Read Magic as an extra freebie at first level.
How do you handle Magic User spell acquisition and limits in your old school game?
I was on a panel at Gauntlet Con with Fiona Geist and Abigail LaLonde! We geeked out for an hour about The Caverns of Thracia. You can watch a recording here.
Thursdays in Thracia, Part 20
This is Part 20 of my Thursdays in Thracia B/X Dungeons & Dragons Campaign, an actual play of Jennell Jaquays’ The Caverns of Thracia. For more context, start from Part 0.
Gnoll Warrens on Level 2
Continued from Part 19, in which the PC’s were coerced into service by struck a mutually beneficial deal with an impossibly ancient reptilian lich.
Granted a brief safe haven in the oldest part of the caverns, the PC’s rested, then explored a bit. They debated descending through the sunlit hole down to the gardens below, but decided against it, for now.
They found another room, with a square window that looked out on a circular chamber 25 feet below. Just below the window stood an enormous statue with a gleaming, bejeweled crown on its head. They tried attaching metal spikes to a rope, then using this apparatus to fish the crown off its head from above. Instead they knocked the crown off its head, and the statue began moving, climbing up the wall and breathing bursts of fire! They ran through the halls, towards a stairway up.
They lost the statue on the narrow stairs, which grew colder as they ascended. They hit a dead end at the top of the stairs, obviously the reverse side of a secret door. They emerged into a room covered in a layer of frost and snow, with two bodies frozen in it. (37 above). One of them, a man, was obviously dead. The other had a very faint, very slow pulse.
The party dragged this body out of the ice, into the hallway to the west. It was a woman, clad in ancient armor! While they slowly revived her, two of the party’s thieves climbed up a shaft at the end of the hall to look around. (Near 39 A, above). They found a Gnoll at the top, facing away northward, but quickly dispatched him with ranged sneak attacks.
The woman woke up, speaking in an ancient tongue. The dead language of old Thracia! Through shared words and hand gestures, the party could just barely make themselves understood. She introduced herself as Epicaste, and her eyes narrowed at the mention of the Minotaur King. She agreed to help them destroy him.
The party climbed up the shaft, and decided to explore the doors on the east side of the room. They threw open the doors to find the next room (38) filled with slobbering Gnolls. There was a lot of jockeying for position in the ensuing battle, with Thelma Turge trying to catch as many as she could in a Sleep spell. Eventually she got it off, swinging the fight decisively in their favor.
After some discussion, they decided to spike the doors to the room and spend the night here. Although at this point no one was sure exactly what time it was.
At some point, just as they were all waking up, they heard feet running, and screams from outside. On investigation it was a beautiful woman with greenish skin, wrapped in flowers and leaves. A dryad! She said she lived in the gardens below, and was being pursued by the Minotaur King’s soldiers. She told them there were other Dryads below, and that near one of her sisters’ trees was an old trap door in the ground that none of the King’s soldiers knew about.
Just then, several more Gnolls appeared in pursuit, but the dryad cast a charm spell on their leader. She told the party she would have to return below, and that the King was chopping down their trees. She asked for their help, and left.
Gradually the party made their way back to the surface, exiting through the wide stairs onto the stone platform in the heart of the ruined city. Once again, they were ambushed by gnolls! some were ahead of them and some were in the trees behind them, with bows.
Thelma Turge began casting another sleep spell, so the Gnolls focused their fire on her, nearly killing her, but she got lucky and cast the spell, once again ending the conflict quickly. They returned to town.
Offworlders has been available in print for a while, and is officially a copper bestseller on DrivethruRPG! Unfortunately the free downloads don’t count towards bestseller status, or we’d be at some, much higher precious metal at this point. Anyway if you’ve downloaded and enjoyed the game, consider a hard copy for use at the table. It’s a big, lovely yellow 8.5x11″ booklet. Grab one.
Playing the Game
During these sessions, I have really come to appreciate the tactical aspects of combat in old school D&D, especially the role that miniatures can play. We’ve certainly had some fights that have gotten very rote. I go, you go, lots of whiffs, and it can be frustrating. However, the same simplicity that can be combat rote, can also give it an air of urgency and “realism” that can get lost in systems with more mechanical options.
In more recent editions, PC’s have many options moment-to-moment in combat. It can give fights a kind of arcadey feeling of chaining together abilities and combos in the sort of abstract mechanical space. In B/X, the combination of simplicity and vulnerability leads to greater importance on “real world” kind of tactics, relying on the terrain and lines of sight. Getting your enemies into a bottleneck is a huge advantage. Getting yourself into position to launch a spell is an interesting challenge in and of itself in the cramped confines of the dungeon. Getting behind the largest person with the biggest shield is a legitimate and worthwhile tactic.
We very nearly lost Thelma Turge, probably the only character who has been with us since session 1. I’m glad she lived, and I am also glad the rules for turn structure and the context of BX play allowed me to have the monsters attack her without feeling too personally responsible. She was visibly casting a spell, and the Gnolls had line of sight. I gritted my teeth, but decided if I were a player I wouldn’t want the DM to dumb down enemies to save my character. So they focused fire on her. By sheer luck she didn’t go down. I had to make a call as to whether or not the spell went off, but I decided to allow it. The rules in B/X Essentials (Soon to be Old School Essentials) read as follows:
If a spell caster loses initiative and is successfully attacked or fails a saving throw before his or her turn, the spell being cast is disrupted and fails. The spell is removed from the caster’s memory as if it had been cast.
Now, Thelma had been attacked and damaged after casting the spell, but before it was cast. In BX you declare casting before rolling initiative, which I love. Normally, the spell might have been disrupted completely. However the initiative was tied, not lost by the party. I think in the future I may rule that any damage between spell declaration and casting will disrupt the spell. Feel free to comment with your thoughts on this one!
The other encounters were also great. Thracia includes a little chart along with the Epicaste encounter that involves some weird subtraction from intelligence and a D20 roll to see how well she can understand a character. Rolling on it and trying to role-play that conversation was a lot of fun.
The Dryad encounter was cool too. It was a bit of a lesson for me on how random encounter tables can be used to give the party additional hints and useful tidbits that they can use in the future. The encounter doesn’t explicitly say that she’ll tell them about anything, but wouldn’t a dryad on the run give them whatever help she could?
Offworlders in Print
Offworlders is now available in print! My lightweight but heavy-hitting, planet-hopping science fiction game now exists in physical form, and you can order it from DriveThruRPG. It has taken a bit longer than anticipated, but the print on demand book is a product Olivia and I can be proud of.
The print version improves upon the original digital version with an easier to read three-column layout, as well as a number of typo fixes and edits for clarification. The definitive version of the game also sports an extremely yellow cover and newly designed, spiffed up sheets for characters and ships. We’ve also updated the PDF version to reflect the update.
Grab a copy today, run a game, and tell me all about the crazy stunts your players pull!
Thursdays in Thracia, Part 19
This is Part 19 of my Thursdays in Thracia B/X Dungeons & Dragons Campaign, an actual play of Jennell Jaquays’ The Caverns of Thracia. For more context, start from Part 0.
Rooms and doors and stairs
Continued from Part 18 when the party found a secret stairway behind a statue, and descended into darkness.
It was apparent that this part of the dungeon was far, far older than the places they had been so far. Stalagmites jutted upward from a floor carved into the stone, indicating that geological stretches of time had past since its construction. The dread of long aeons lay in the air.
First, they encountered a terrifying demon statue in a circular room, (53, above). The state didn’t come to life and attack, or shoot fire, or death rays. It merely turned, slowly, to face Toba, a cleric of Law. Eventually the party ignored it and found a secret door behind an old fresco, leading further downward.
They found a massive chamber like the nave of a cathedral (A). overgrown with geological formations, the floor covered in a layer of dust. There were no signs of life, save a line of reptilian footprints along the stone tiles. Something had been here recently. Exploring the area, they found several doors that could not be opened, either because stalagmites had formed over and through them, or for some other, invisible reason. Searching nearby hallways, they came upon a pedestal supporting a beautiful, gleaming silver mask, fitted for the face of a lizard person.
In the next chamber, a square shaft was cut into the floor, from which shown a gray light, like an overcast afternoon. The shaft ran downward for maybe 50 feet, but then looked down on a sunlit garden, and a gleaming white palace!
They continued exploring the nave, finding a hidden hallway behind curtains at the back of the altar. They passed through a number of twisting corridors and chambers. Everywhere they turned there was a harrowing figure represented in paint and graven stone. A creature like the lizard-folk the party had encountered, yet much larger, standing amongst cyclopean architecture and surrounded by adoring apostles, acolytes in long robes, and sacrificial victims. Unlike the other reptilians it had a pair of enormous wings. It did not discriminate in its victims. In one piece, it was shown eating humans, lizard folk, and other larger reptiles, great beasts with armored plates, feathers and long teeth.
As they entered one small chamber, two piles of bone, dust and tattered rags stirred, assembling themselves into two animate, mummified forms! The ghastly dead reptiles attacked on sight, swinging foul gray talons. The battle was hard fought, and sadly Ferglum Thickwobble, a powerful fighter, lost his life in the melee. The party eventually prevailed, but Glibble the Average, an elf and a close companion of Ferglum, felt the loss deeply. Steeling themselves, the party pressed onward into the next room.
There lay upon the floor a pile of riches unlike any had ever dreamed of. Gemstones and gold coins, heaps of silver and gleaming jewelry. Upon a pedestal in the midst of the hoard sat a figure, cross-legged. A reptilian form, twice the height of a tall human, with great wings splayed out to either side. Its limbs wrapped in layers of yellowing linen wrappings. As soon as the party entered, it turned its head, long-stilled tendons straining, dusty bones creaking. it narrowed its cloudy eyes, then faded away, disappearing.
The party didn’t delay, stuffing their pockets and sacks with as much coin as they could carry, and ran, clinking and rattling back down the hall. They heard a great rumble and grind, stone against stone. They made it as far as the nave, where the great lizard-god-emperor waited for them, standing upright behind a new creature, a pile of gravel, boulders, and tiles from the floor in the shape of a human, an enormous servitor of animate earth.
“Kneel.” said the great lizard, in a voice that echoed in their minds, and after only a moment of hesitation, they obeyed, Glibble last. The immortal lizard indicated the space in front of its feet, and the party dropped their newfound riches before it.
It looked into Thelma Turge’s mind, seeing all that she had seen since her arrival in Thracia. It saw its fallen reptile ancestors, and it learned of the ascendance of the Minotaur King. “Let’s parlay.” said the creature.
It made them an offer: Return with the head of this usurper minotaur, and they could keep this paltry sum of riches. What were these trinkets anyway, compared with the bounty of the inevitable empire that it would raise, once the minotaur was out of the way, and it could take the caverns unhindered? That, or they would die here.
The party agreed to its terms.
Please indulge me in some cross promotion. Offworlders, a game I designed, has been available as a free PDF for a little while now. It’s a lightweight interstellar sci-fi game, and if you’re reading this, you just might like it. The big news is that we got the first proof of the print version recently, and it looks pretty great:
If you’re interested, download the free version on DriveThru and you’ll get notified when the print version becomes available. Along with print, we’re going to be updating the PDF version soon with some typo corrections and a layout update.
Now back to your regularly scheduled (as if!) Thursdays in Thracia.
Playing the Game
This session was really uneventful, until it really wasn’t. Poor Filgrum was a favorite, with 18 Strength, and the first PC death for a player new to RPGs. He took it in stride though. Now Glibble the Average (that player’s second PC) has become stronger in grief.
This area of the dungeon is really cool. The deep-time stuff reveals the ancient history of the caverns, and the lack of wandering or stationary monsters adds to its sense of long abandonment. The footprints in the dust belonged to G’ruk, the lizard shaman who the party abandoned to a tentacular death a while back.
I was a little torn about how to deal with the immortal lizard king. Jaquays gives us little in the way of explicit motives for these very powerful monsters, and the creature’s presence is practically shouted at the players. Every room they enter, it’s shown, mighty and terrible. But, its stats also look like this:
Essentially, it can look at the party and utterly destroy every single one of them, and barely needs to roll the dice to do it. But Jaquays does tell us that the king will avoid placing himself in any danger. The Immortal King is incredibly powerful, but is also cowardly. So what does this impossibly ancient, newly-awakened lich want? To start a new reptilian / undead empire and reclaim what was once his, when the world was younger, maybe? Sure, let’s go with that. So he decides to use the PC’s greed and fear as leverage and point them in the direction of his greatest obstacle. Why fight yourself when you can have some mortals handle it? He can wait a little while longer.
Now the PC’s have a stronger incentive to go deeper and reach the climactic of the dungeon.
Looking at the map above, this area again exemplifies the looping interconnectedness of this dungeon. The circular area at 41b is actually detailed elsewhere, and accessible from a window on its east side, coming from B on the map. But the window is high above the floor of 41b. The secret door “s” on the north side of 41b is actually above 41b, and connects to another area on level 2.
Thursdays in Thracia - Part 18
This is Part 18 of my Thursdays in Thracia B/X Dungeons & Dragons Campaign, an actual play of Jennell Jaquays’ The Caverns of Thracia. For more context, start from Part 0.
The ancient and beautiful temple of Athena
Continued from Part 17 when the party arrived at the Temple of Athena.
As the party moved into the large cavern to explore the area around the temple, almost immediately a trap door opened under an unfortunate mule named Barty. Barty had been brought into the dungeon by Turgle the Tardy, a fighter new to the party. Barty’s life as an adventuring mule was cut short as he plummeted into a pit lined with sharp spikes, dying instantly.
Shortly afterwards, Yen Halfroot, a retainer, fell through another nearby trap door, although he was seen sliding down an inclined floor, towards the space under the temple just as the trap swung shut again. His sister, another retainer named Yan, shouted after him, but no sound came from below.
The party made to enter the temple, where they heard there was some kind of teleporter that would take them deeper, to a place where the sun shines under the earth, and where the Minotaur King rules from his palace.
Lurking behind the temple’s columns were eight gnolls, who attacked on sight! Using a bit of tactical trickery, the party fell back, luring half the gnolls back down a short stairway into another chamber. They dropped caltrops, slowing the bestial creatures. Jek the Stabber (thief), climbed up a column and struck the creatures from behind with sling stones as the battle was joined. The gnolls were killed.
When the party returned to the temple, the remainder of the defenders had disappeared, perhaps through the teleporter? An eerie green glow lingered in the temple’s interior.
The party scouted the area, and found a statue of particular antiquity. Eventually Toba (cleric) discovered that it was holy, and that when prayed to, it would heal ones’ wounds. They then found a door hidden in the side of the temple. Having heard a rumor of a cache of ancient weapons stored under the temple, they entered. Yan Halfroot hoped to find her missing brother.
In the first chamber they entered were about a dozen large crates, unopened for untold centuries. Opening them one by one, they found many weapons. Spears, shields, and a set of beautiful ancient armor. Several boxes contained the parts of some complex war machine that had been disassembled. Unfortunately no one could quite figure out how to put it together, and it would be too difficult to take all the parts with them.
In the final box, which looked quite different from the others. All black with red writing in a language none of them had seen before. In it were a variety of weapons from a very distant land. Including a long, slightly curved sword with a circular hand guard, a number of star-shaped steel blades for throwing, and a weapon made of two clubs with a short chain between them. In the bottom of this box were ten fireworks designed to look like dragons.
They parceled out the strange weapons and continued exploring.
In the next chamber they found a horrible sight: A massive creature, a hideous human-lizard hybrid, had ripped Yen Halfroot in two pieces, showering the inside of the room with his gore. But the creature itself was perfectly still now, frozen in a hideous tableau.
In a blind fury Yan ran forward into the room. As soon as she crossed the threshold, the creature sprang into life! In seconds, her doom was written across the walls in bright red, authored by serrated tooth and yellow claw. As soon as she was gone, the creature again ceased its movement. None in the party dared cross that threshold, despite seeing another door beyond.
Returning to the exterior, the party explored behind the healing statue once again. A curved wall of complex engravings showed ancient human life. Hidden among the figures was a single figure of a lizard person, subtle in the composition but clearly different. Glibble the Average (elf) pulled at it. The wall swung slowly open with a grind, revealing a dark stairwell beyond.
Official map of the Temple of Athena from The Caverns of Thracia
This little area is really fun to explore. It’s a microcosm of the interconnectedness and the wealth of hidden playthings that are characteristic of the dungeon as a whole.
The secret door on the east side of the temple leads to the basement with the weapons cache and the monster, where the 30’ pit trap leads. From there the basement connects to other areas entirely. The patterned floor in front of the statue is a teleporter to the palace level. The secret door behind the statue to the northwest is where the party ended up, which leads down to another hidden area of the dungeon with its own connections and secrets.
Its this kind of environment that makes Thracia so interesting and so challenging to run. The players could end up exploring more nearby rooms and corridors the whole session, or end up teleporting to an entirely different level and reaching a climactic moment.
I love that there is a stash of badass ninja weapons under this temple. Toba the cleric now has a set of +1 plate mail, intricately carved in greek Thracian themes like medusae and whatnot, which she wears into battle weilding a set of nunchucks. This is the kind of nonsense I play this game for. The sword and shurikens are both +1 weapons, not because they are magical, but because ninjas are just that sick.
The freeze-tag beast under the temple was a particularly entertaining moment. It’s a hideous damage dealer, but it is in stasis until someone enters the room. After it has killed its foe, it falls into stasis again. I played it up by emphasizing the crossing of the threshold as an important moment, and having the distraught hireling run forward as a gory illustration of just what they were dealing with.
As we will continue see in the next post, there are fouler things than gnolls in the deep places of the world, things that could easily kill even high level characters. I don’t want to make these things less dangerous, but using their quirks and telegraphing their presence makes them an interesting puzzle to be solved as opposed to an instant way to kill your party. Considering that often the potential rewards measure up to the risk, they may find themselves wanting to return at some point and find a way around.
Thursdays in Thracia - Part 17
This is Part 17 of my Thursdays in Thracia B/X Dungeons & Dragons Campaign, an actual play of Jennell Jaquays’ The Caverns of Thracia. For more context, start from Part 0.
Continued from Part 16 when the adventurers returned to town and purchased a home with their plunder.
The adventurers decided that their next move would be to try and push straight towards the Temple of Athena on the second level. At this point they’d heard that the temple held a cache of ancient weapons, as well as a kind of teleport pad that would take them to the rumored place far underground, where the sun shines and trees grow, and where the Minotaur King lives in his palace.
They re-entered the caverns through the main entrance , a wide set of stairs in the ruined city on the surface. As they entered a large, square room they saw something terrifying: a single gnoll, tied up to a post in the center of the room, whimpering. It was Slam, who had been charm person’ed by Yam Stevens in their very first outing.
Furglum Thickwobble, a fighter, stepped forward to untie the pitiful creature, but found the ropes were tied only loosely, and Slam freed himself just as arrows began to shoot towards the party from the hallways ahead and to the side. An ambush!
The gnolls were aided by a creature the party hadn’t seen before, a dangerous jackal-headed warrior who seemed to be their leader. The beast-folk fought hard, but were bested by the party and slain. The party’s only casualty was Mockingbird, a retainer and first-level fighter.
The party continued through the stone corridors of the first level, weaving left, right left, right and so on. They encountered a pair of large poisonous spiders at one point, which nearly crawled inside the armor of the fighters at the head of the party. At another point, they encountered a pair of stirges: hideous, mosquito-and-bat-like-but-as-big-as-your-head flying monstrosities that tried to suck their blood. Both pairs of creepy crawlies were dispatched with relative ease.
They finally descended to the second level, where they crossed a wide room littered with detritus and ruins from a collapsed floor above. From the top of a short flight of stairs, they were attacked by four gnolls behind columns, firing arrows into their midst. After another short fight, these gnolls were dealt with. Beyond the stairs was another large cavern, in which stood the glorious, many-columned temple to Athena.
Playing the Game
Stairs from the first level, a pile of debris, and the stairs to the temple cavern.
Pulling off this ambush was a lot of fun. It’s the first time in Thracia that I’ve specifically created my own encounter as a response to earlier player action. I wish I’d been doing it more frequently, but even though we’ve been playing on and off for almost a year now (!) there have only been about three total expeditions into the dungeon and back.
There are whole books written about how RPGs create story, but a huge component of old school games is that the narrative is emergent and organic, growing out of a combination of play procedures, player ingenuity and game master common sense. The GM doesn’t plot an epic arc ahead of time, and we don’t every necessarily get something remotely literary in tone. What we do get is a series of narrative moments that are satisfying specifically because they are derived from play. There’s a direct line from the game presenting a particular random encounter (gnolls appear!) to the player making a mechanical decision (Yam Stevens casts charm person) to the GM using common sense to create a repercussion that is both narrative and mechanical (Slam, the target of the spell, wants revenge for being manipulated. The beast faction is enraged against the PCs and sets up a dangerous ambush). Again, we didn’t set out to tell a story, we just played the game and these little narratives occur in a way that is really satisfying. Yam’s player moved away a few months ago, but another player had to immediately text her that slam had been killed. There was a genuine moment there that would be very different if the story had been planned out, part of a linear adventure.
After that, this session did become a little bit of a slog, with one low-threat random encounter after another just sort of delaying the party from their single-minded goal. There’s a happy medium somewhere between letting the procedures of the game take you on an unexpected ride versus cutting to the chase and letting the group arrive at their real task. The Caverns also calls for a 1-in-6 random encounter roll every turn, double what the B/X rules call for.
I just did an accounting, and realized this post represents the tenth session of the Thracia campaign, in as many months. For a while I was dividing each actual session into two Thursdays in Thracia posts, but it hasn’t always worked out that way. The original intention was to play every two weeks, but life has often gotten in the way. The good news is that we seem to be playing more regularly again now, and the adventurers are exploring ever more of the twisting complex.
Lastly, in a fit of blasphemy, I decided to convert combat into using ascending armor class from now on. I’ve heard people have been murdered over this kind of minutiae, but the math is identical and I’ve found that using the charts seems to slow things down for most of my players, myself included. So now everyone’s armor class is 20-Descending AC, and instead of an attack chart they get an attack bonus of 20 - THAC0 (the roll required to hit descending AC 0).