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.
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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?