Forest Romp

   Welcome to the rundown of my First Edition AD&D game #6. If you’d like to read about previous sessions, check out the “Dungeon Do-Over” post from three months ago.

   The PCs are now real local celebs.

 • They found a fresh, unexplored dungeon, and didn’t grab anything from it.
 • They found an ancient relic of Boccob, and one of Joramy.
 • They won the Dwarven King’s Dungeon Lottery.
 • They brought back a 3-ton silver menhir for the King.

   Villagers are beginning to sing songs about these guys – thus, when a nefarious Orc shaman kidnaps three newborn Human babies in the night, who you gonna call?

   The ranger easily picks up the shaman’s trail. Cleric says, “First 72 hours are key!” Anachronistic, but funny. Those babies have been taken 24 hours ago. So the party promptly follows the kidnapper’s footprints through the woods. After a few hours of tracking they reach a dangerous part of the forest. There are three particularly evil landmarks in that zone: 1) the indestructible wooden tower of an extinct witch coven; 2) a reoccurring rift leading to the first Plane of (possibly) the Nine Hells; 3) an ancient fertility sanctuary of the Ogre goddess Beqweth, Vaprak’s wife.

   Three very evil spots, close to one another – what an ideal place to hang around if you happen to be an Orc shaman!

   First magic-user sends his familiar (a crow) flying towards the old Witch Tower. All he can see are two grizzly bears chained underneath the tower. But as the crow flies closer to that warped wooden structure... an Orc archer hidden inside kills it with an arrow! Ouch. Poor magic-user loses 8 HP. Meanwhile, the second magic-user had sent his familiar (an owl) towards the Ogre sanctuary. He saw a lone gargantuan snake sleeping on top of a huge mossy tumulus, with some shattered phallic monument nearby, but no Orcs.

   The PCs head for the Witch Tower; there’s at least one Orc over there, right?

“And there’s smoke pouring out of the damned thing!”

   Perrier drinking ranger and his E-cigarette provided excellent special FX for the Witch Tower. The ectoplasmic goo covering the building from top to bottom was already scary enough – but if you add drifting wisps of smoke, well...................

   Thief and ranger approached from the west while the cleric, Dwarf, and magic-users came in on the northern side. Those bears were quickly released, and surged forward to get the PCs. From the tower’s balcony, not one but three Orc archers began firing arrows at the Dwarf and cleric. Thief sneaked up to the base of the tower and climbed. Ranger carried on for three rounds firing six arrows at the Orc archers. Orc number one died and fell out. Magic-users blasted one attacking bear with four magic missiles. Dwarf hurled a couple throwing axes. Cleric cast his spiritual hammer.

   By the time the thief had climbed all the way up to the balcony, Orc archer number two was dying and collapsed over the wooden railing, pierced with arrows. The thief boldly stormed the tower all by himself and engaged that remaining Orc in melee – short sword against short sword +2.

   Dwarf and cleric tried to steer the two bears to either side of a dead tree, hoping for the chain to get stuck, but it didn’t work. Ranger and Dwarf had to resort to animal cruelty and finish both bears in a bloody manner. Then the MARG people showed up unannounced – the Medieval Animal Rights Group. I’m kidding.

   One of the babies was retrieved in a makeshift crib inside the tower, under a powerful sleep spell. One down, two to go!

   By that time in the game, one missing player had showed up, so I added the bard to the party – he was following but had gotten lost for a few hours, as Hobbits are wont to do.

   Nightfall found the PCs trudging through dense forest with no clear trails, and the ranger kept seeing traces of various beasts and monsters: bugbears, wolves, panthers, goblins, and even a giant of some sort... We had about ninety minutes of gaming left on the clock, so I decided to skip the random encounters. The cleric carried the sleeping child, and the party arrived at that second location (the Ogre fertility sanctuary) a short time before midnight. Only source of light was a declining campfire in the center of the clearing. The ranger (an Elf) could make out the gargantuan snake on top of the tumulus, as well as two giant snakes lurking in thickets at the edge of the glade. After choosing one of those giant snakes, the PCs made their way towards it.

   First round saw a staggering 39 points of damage dealt to that giant snake; it quickly retreated towards the tumulus, and the other reptiles started to slither in the party’s direction. Except for the thief who wandered off again, all PCs stayed entrenched in that thicket, and were soon assaulted by the 154 HP gargantuan snake, and two 45 HP giant snakes (including the one that had already suffered 39 damage). The wooden door of the tumulus opened and an additional giant snake came out to join in the fight.

The mighty Battle of the Thicket.

   Four or five rounds later the Ogre priestess herself awoke and shambled out of the sacred tumulus clutching her meat cleaver. She cast a spell on the thief and he missed his Save, thus being transformed into a giant ant.

   Antoine, who plays one of the magic-users, grabbed my camera and began taking pictures of the Ogress from inside the tumulus. This proved difficult because of the close proximity and the flash. He had to snap ten or eleven pics, but finally got one right. I think it looks awesome.

“Who dares disturb my sleep?”

   With all the snakes dead except for the biggest one who was being relentlessly clobbered by the Dwarf, the cleric decided it was safe enough to lay down the sleeping baby near that campfire, and he then marched towards the priestess who attempted to polymorph him too, but failed. Priest against priestess – that is one holy clash we all wished for, didn’t we?

   Boccob “the Uncaring” prevailed over Beqweth “the Mother of Ogres”. THE DAMN PATRIARCHY WINS AGAIN...

   Another sleeping baby lay inside the tumulus, along with some treasure: three potions, one phylactery, one ring, one cloak, a pair of bracers, and a very intelligent Dagger of Petrification +3 with an ego as big as a two-handed claymore’s.

   One baby still unaccounted for; but we were already running late and so we called it a night. Decent result: 66⅓% of all missing babies duly rescued. But I only plopped 10 monster miniatures on that table... out of 24 available!

Forest Grump

   We now get to the last part of this post, where I can analyze the game and highlight what went wrong.

   The props are kinda stealing the show now. Players want to head straight to “the best props”. That is no good. So, what’s the answer? Tone it down on the terrain / scenery side of things, and maybe paint more minis instead?

   Also, waaay too much talking. Guys, we can get together once a month if we want and talk about TV shows and movies and politics and stuff – but we only play D&D twice a year. Less talk, more play.

   Third problem: tactics. The guys are too good, that’s all. I really need to break up that tight cluster of PCs by any means necessary. I need to scatter the party and sprinkle small monsters all over the place, make a mess, make things dynamic and unpredictable again. Things are too static right now, because players are excellent strategists. Warcraft and Call of Duty and Halo and Splinter Cell transformed players into masters of efficiency, and that in itself should be a good thing – but it seems to defeat the whole purpose of miniatures and scenery. Why the sprawling terrain if the party keeps moving in a tight knot with the spellcasters huddled in the center and always zeroing in on one monster at a time? Why the trees and rocks and tumuli if no one ever hides under a tree or seeks cover behind a rock or enters the tumulus? Hours of model-making work for zip.

   Elaborate terrain is inherited from the kriegsspiels of the ’60s – wargames, historical reenactments – when things were guaranteed to get messy and trees / rocks / hills were very important. For a group of seven characters, it’s not as relevant. You could run entire scenes with graph paper. The solid clump of characters edges to the left: giant snake #2 is now in range for the magic missiles and spiritual hammer: fire away! Delivering 39 points of damage on a 45 HP giant snake in the first round – just with missiles! The amount of damage dealt by a party of level 4 characters is crazy. I need to give them multiple targets and throw a lot at them all at once if I hope to generate at least a little mayhem; it probably won’t break up that solid clump of miniatures but at the very least it’ll have them surrounded and they’ll have no other choice but to split their damage on several foes. Still pretty static, but it’s a start.

   In my opinion, big minis are a waste of money. Two otyughs cost me $42 with shipping, and only dealt 23 points of damage between the two of them, with no typhus. Air elemental cost $18 and dealt 14 points of damage over four rounds, before being annihilated by seven PCs surrounding it and easily generating 90 damage. That’s $18 for 14 points: more than a buck per point of damage. Expensive, and not a sound investment.

   No more big miniatures then – unless they’re backed by lots of smaller minions. That is the trick: don’t let a party of seven concentrate their attacks on just one monster. Get in their faces. Create urgency. Press them hard. Overwhelm their “defensive huddling”. Split the nucleus, in other words. Make things dynamic again. Use a lot of small miniatures. Use monsters that can appear out of thin air, like invisible stalkers. Use monsters that can drop from the ceiling, emerge through the floor, pass through walls, or blink.

   For my next game, that’s the first challenge. Dynamic. Move player miniatures around on the map. Shake that tree.

   The second challenge is to deal more damage. I realized that none of the PCs in my game ever dropped below 5 Hit Points in the last two sessions. One magic-user dropped to zero when his familiar was shot and killed by an Orc, but that’s the only exception – and I feel like it doesn’t really count. Nobody else was ever out of commission, not even the engineer NPC in game #5. Last time I had a player character dropped to zero HP was exactly one year ago in a big fight against 4 Drows and a Handmaiden of Lolth. Two games were played since – one 9-hour session and one 5-hour session – and not a single knockout. Fourteen hours of play. Man. The guys are tactical. This is not Splinter Cell though, it’s goddamned First Edition AD&D – madness and chaos are supposed to be part of the deal.

   Those challenges stand.

   My next game will not be static. It’ll have forced flow and movement. And mark my words: PCs will drop to zero HP or lower. This, I swear before the Gods of Gaming. It may sound harsh to some players’ ears, but of course I’m not saying this in an aggressive manner. It’s just – I’m starting to feel inadequate. Two entire adventures without anyone dropping to zero? Really?

   The guys don’t see each other often and of course they wanna talk. I prepare too much stuff. That is my fault. For this particular forest adventure I had 3 main combat scenes with spectacular terrain, 1 secondary scene with bugbears and their feral panthers, and 1 mobile / random encounter (the Orc shaman and his apprentices). We tackled 2 main combat scenes, period – and I had to cut the second one short because it was past 19:00 and two players had already left. Basically we played that big scene at the beginning of an action movie, and then went directly to the climax. Nothing in between. Just talk talk talk.

   I need to take that into account and prepare less stuff. Of course the guys are going to talk: that’s only natural, and I don’t want to ban chatting around the table like some Soup Nazi. So I’m going to prepare 2 main scenes and that’s it; there will be ample time to chat before we play the first scene, and in between those two scenes, and at the very end, with the awarding of XP. There’s hardly ever any time left to do that.

   I’m actually quite optimistic. Can’t wait to start working on game #7 which is scheduled for Halloween. Now I know what’s wrong – and I’ll be able to fix it!