Monday, October 27, 2008

Birthday Bash

As I mentioned last week, I decided to celebrate my birthday with some friends by cracking out the Moldvay/Cook D&D rules to play an adventure with my friends, my wife, and my 8 year-old daughter. (My six year-old son had better things to do) I chose the Moldvay/Cook rules first, because they're dead simple and straightforward, so even my non-gamer wife could (mostly) understand them and second, because the module I chose to run was Castle Amber. It only seemed fitting that I should use the rules set for which the module was written.

All the characters began at fifth level, received three permanent magic items -- one weapon, one piece of armor/protection, and one miscellaneous item, all randomly rolled -- and were generated with 3D6 rolled in order. This resulted in surprisingly playable characters. Moldvay/Cook de-emphasizes ability scores compared to AD&D, making it very much in line with OD&D in this respect anyway. Ability scores become (mostly) roleplaying cues, which I think are important when you determine your character's class after you roll the dice rather than beforehand. What we wound up with was a party consisting of an elf (played by my daughter) with the unexpectedly odd name of Amber (my daughter didn't know the name of the module when she named the character), a magic-user named Arveene (played by my wife), a cleric named Brother Candor (played by a friend), a fighter named Thugg (played by another friend), a dwarf named Rock (another friend), and a Thief whose name I simply can't recall (another friend).

What was amusing is how quickly these randomly generated characters came to life. Certainly, they were mostly caricatures -- the dwarf had a limited vocabulary and a tendency to attack anything he thought might have gold, for example -- but experience has taught me that caricatures help to establish a character much more strongly than does sublime characterization, if only because very few gamers are actually capable of the latter. Likewise, caricature enables players to "stake a claim" to a particular social niche in the adventuring party, which in turns lets other players establish their own niches. Given enough time, the caricatures soften and accumulated shared experience lends nuances that, to me anyway, feel "real" or at least organic. In any event, I was quite pleased with how these characters interacted with one another and with the challenges I set before them in the module.

Now, Castle Amber is a bit of a funhouse. Much of it, at least initially, makes no sense. Again, this worked to our advantage, I think. Had the adventure been more plot-heavy -- that is, beyond "you must explore this mysterious manor house in order to find a way to escape its curse" -- I suspect the players might have more quickly fallen into line with the plot rather than creating their own. Likewise, throwing this mix of random characters into some outlandish situations, such as a room whose floor was covered with green slime, its ceiling cover by a black pudding, and whose treasure lay in a chest resting on a pillar of gray ooze, let them go wild. Because encounters like this literally make no sense, the only way the players could ground it in something resembling even fantasy "reality" was to play up their characters' reactions to it.

Over the course of the adventure -- about halfway through the module in about three hours of play -- we lost two characters, both to the magical food served in a ghostly banquet. The thief drank the wrong drink and became an insubstantial ghost who joined the other spectral revelers, taking his shiny new magical sword -- won in the slime room -- with him. Thugg the fighter keeled over from toadstool poisoning, but not before uttering the memorable warning, "Don't eat the 'shrooms!" Later, Rock the dwarf, driven mad by gold lust, began felling trees in an indoor forest, because he had seen squirrels who could turn acorns to gold and he hoped to liberate the acorns from the squirrels' nests. This attracted the attention of the Wild Hunt led by a member of the insane Amber family, who demanded the dwarf's head in punishment for his theft. It was at this point that my wife, who is not a gamer let me reiterate, calmly told the Master of the Hunt that, if the dwarf was guilty of theft, so too were the squirrels, since they'd been swiping acorns from the oak trees without asking their permission. The Master was forced, by the logic of his previous speech about "defending Nature from despoilers," to concede this point and so he let the dwarf go if the party promised never to return to the indoor forest. They readily agreed and headed toward a connecting chapel, unsure how they'd escape if the chapel proved to be a dead end.

There were, of course, many other enjoyable moments throughout the evening and I wish we had had longer to play out more of the module. Nevertheless, I found the experience satisfying, particularly because even my daughter and my wife were able to get into the game. Again, I think the funhouse quality of Castle Amber was a plus in this respect. No one felt the need to "perform" as if they were playing a key role in an epic tale of deep import and meaning. Instead, it was clear this was a fun romp for a bunch of somewhat disreputable characters looking to save their skins and make a few gold pieces in the process. Likewise, the sheer goofiness of the place let me ham it up when playing the parts of NPCs; I always find it much easier to play oddball characters than serious ones, which is why I'm known for including them in all my adventures.

All in all, it was a fun night. I'll probably have some further thoughts on the evening at some point, because I learned a few valuable things I think might be of general interest.


  1. The reason you can't recall the Thief's name is that Chirs never got around to naming him. ;-)

    Poor Thugg. I'll miss him.

  2. Happy Birthday - sounds like a grand time was had by all. I'm sure 'Don't eat the 'shrooms!' will be uttered around your gaming table for years to come (especially when you order pizza).

  3. Sounds fantastic!

    "Don't eat the 'shrooms" indeed.

  4. Nice. I'm not a fan of "comedy gaming", but "fun" adventures can be a riot. The bizarre randomness and patchwork-quilt nature of D&D - especially older D&D - really lets you get away with a lot that just wouldn't "jive" in other games (I had a game in college involving Illithids and a sentient orange sherbert. Yeah, it was pretty effing weird, but it was still a blast.

  5. Awesome birthday party!

    That post makes me want to get my hands on Castle Amber even more now.

  6. That sounds like it was a blast! What were the random magic items? How were they used?

  7. Most of the magic items were pretty banal things, but my daughter's elf had a crystal ball that she used to see into a room ahead of the party, so that they could safely observe what they might next encounter. The funny thing was that, by and large, the players' used decent tactics that didn't rely on the use of magic. My wife was very reluctant to use her few spells, quite rightly surmising that they'd be needed later.

  8. Great story. Could this experience perhaps help turn around your mixed-to-negative opinion of "funhouse" dungeons? The Abduction of Good King Despot calls...

  9. Hmm... Makes me want to run Castle Amber with my wife and brother-in-law! They have 5th level PCs, too... (statted for C&C and 3e).

  10. Great story. Could this experience perhaps help turn around your mixed-to-negative opinion of "funhouse" dungeons? The Abduction of Good King Despot calls...

    I appreciate funhouse dungeons for what they are, but I'm not sure I could ever build a campaign setting around one. As a side foray to "cleanse the palette," so to speak, I'm fine with them. What still bugs me about them is that I like even my whimsical stuff to have a vague justification. Castle Amber provided me with at least a sliver of an explanation I could work with. Does Good King Despot do the same?


    AoGKD has a detailed and specific backstory and thematic framework: the dungeon was designed by the wizard Ignax as a test/puzzle for his rival wizard Candelabra as part of an ongoing contest, and the major encounter areas are all tied to the signs of the zodiac, in order (Aries, Taurus, Gemini, etc.), including both their elemental and gem-stone associations (the stones are both necessary to solve the final puzzle and serve as the treasure for successful parties). The dungeon (its 13 major encounter areas at least) isn't at all random or arbitrary -- it's very specifically and thematically designed, much moreso than comparable funhouse dungeons (S2, C2, Tegel Manor, etc.) -- it just isn't at all ecologized (except in a jokey manner in a couple places). The dungeon, and the monsters and traps within it are there solely to test/kill (or, in a couple places, potentially aid) those trying to rescue Good King Despot. The monsters don't have their own motivations, backstories, or interrelationships, their sole purpose is that they placed by Ignax to serve as tests/obstacles.

    Theoretically I suppose a GM could expand this module by detailing how Ignax built the dungeon, what he did to gather all these monsters together, whether he had pre-existing relationships with some of them (a couple such relationships are actually hinted at in the module), how aware the monsters are of the role they're playing and whether PCs might be able to use that to their advantage -- find out how much Ignax is paying the frost giant twins in the Gemini encounter and offer them double to let them pass or guide them to the Cancer room -- what the monsters will do if the PCs are too slow in getting to them, or after the PCs leave (assuming they're still alove), and so on. I'm not sure such a level of extra detail would actually add much of anything to the play-experience of the module (cf. the remake of Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure in Dungeon 112 that added tons of additional backstory, NPC personalities and relationships and such, and tripled the original's page-count, but the best and most memorable parts are all still the same stuff from the original -- fighting the Terrible Iron Golem, fighting Eli Tomarast, and fighting Kerzit the demon) but if it helps some GMs feel better it could be worth it, I suppose.


  12. Perhaps I should keep an eye out for The Abduction of Good King Despot then. If nothing else, it'll give me something to review ...