Thursdays in Thracia – Part 14

This is Part 14 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.

Map of a section of The Caverns of Thracia

Continued from Part 13, when Yam Stevens sacrificed G’ruk to some tentacles.

What Happened

The party reconvened back on the shore, just across the river from the lizard encampment. They looked back at the small forest of jagged stalagmites, which the charmed lizardman had warned them was dangerous before leading them through. Unfortunately he had rejoined his tribe. The party decided to try and explore farther upriver.

They hit an obstacle when they realized that not far from where they were, the gravelly shore hit a cliff wall which ran straight to the strong-running river. There was no way around it on foot, and the river was too swift and rocky to navigate unaided. When they leaned out, they could tell the shoreline continued some fifty feet beyond. An elf in the party, Glibble the Average, came up with a plan. Glibble knew a single spell, Floating Disk, which would conjure a slightly concave, almost invisible hovering disk of energy, which would normally just follow him around slowly.

He summoned the disc, and with the help of other party members, backed it into a corner and managed to sit on top of it. Then he used a ten foot wooden pole to push off the cliff and out over the running river. Someone held one end of a rope while he held the other, and he pushed his way upstream, gingerly using the pole to navigate the rocky riverbed.

When he made it to the other side, he hammered in a spike, holding his end of the rope in place, and the rest of the party did the same on their side. Then they heard voices, footfalls and the sounds of people walking in armor approaching from behind, through the stalagmites. Quick as they could, using the rope as a safety line, they waded into the river, around the cliff and onto the next patch of shore.

Moving further up the shoreline, they came across a massive spiderweb, stretching across the entire river and blocking their path up the shore.

Filgrum Thickwobble (fighter), very carefully sliced a whole in the corner of the web, just large enough for them to crawl through one at a time. He managed to do it without disturbing the rest of the web. While the party crawled through, they noticed a large white bundle at the top of the web, just at the edge of their lamplight.

At the end of this strip of beach, part of the cliff face seemed unnaturally smooth. Stellaa the Cleric prayed to the gods of neutrality to detect magic, but unfortunately no arcane secrets were revealed. Eventually the strong members of the party jammed a crowbar into the cliff face and pushed. The smooth cliff face opened up, revealing a stairway descending into deeper darkness.

Playing B/X

So, Floating Disc. It’s a weird one, almost intentionally designed to be useless for anything other than hauling treasure out of the dungeon. But it doesn’t last that long (6 exploration turns), so if you’re more than a level deep it’s not even good for that. Here’s the description for the spell, straight from Moldvay:

Range: 6′

Duration: 6 Turns

This spell creates an invisible magical platform about the size and shape of a small round shield which can carry up to 5000 coins (500 pounds) of weight. It cannot be created in a place occupied by another object. The floating disc will be created at the height of the caster’s waist, and will remain at that height, following the caster wherever he or she goes. If the caster goes further than 6 feet from the disc,it will automatically follow, with a movement rate equal to the caster’s. When the spell duration ends, the floating disc will disappear, suddenly dropping anything that was on it.

So it’s this disc you don’t really have control over, that can carry stuff, and will follow you. Otherwise it just floats there at the same height. Cool cool. It’s not an obvious choice for a first level spell (Sleep is the obvious choice, followed by Charm Person), but Glibble’s player was brand new to role-playing and really got into the random spirit after rolling up his elf, so he rolled randomly for his spell too, even though he had the option of choosing.

Anyway, the players talked it out, and came up with a way to use the spell that wasn’t obvious from the description, but at least plausible sounding enough that I would feel weird saying no. I love when spells get used like this, and want to encourage that kind of thinking in my game.

I’m not interested in edition warring or even particularly in waving some kind of old-school flag around, but let’s take a look at the 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons description of the same spell:

This spell creates a circular, horizontal plane of force, 3 feet in diameter and 1 inch thick, that floats 3 feet above the ground in an unoccupied space of your choice that you can see within range. The disk remains for the duration, and can hold up to 500 pounds. If more weight is placed on it, the spell ends, and everything on the disk falls to the ground.

  • Casting Time: 1 action
  • Range: 30 feet
  • Components: V S M (A drop of mercury)
  • Duration: 1 hour
  • Classes: Wizard
  • The disk is immobile while you are within 20 feet of it. If you move more than 20 feet away from it, the disk follows you so that it remains within 20 feet of you. It can move across uneven terrain, up or down stairs, slopes and the like, but it can’t cross an elevation change of 10 feet or more. For example, the disk can’t move across a 10-foot-deep pit, nor could it leave such a pit if it was created at the bottom.

If you move more than 100 feet from the disk (typically because it can’t move around an obstacle to follow you), the spell ends.

I think you could still ride it over a river, probably. But I’d probably spend a lot more mental energy wrestling with the intent of the spell here, because when I run games I am generally interested in running them as close to as-written as possible. I want to experience the game that the designers designed. Fifth Edition feels a lot more concerned with balanced mechanical interaction than B/X does. That kind of play certainly has its appeal, and I love me some complex mechanical games, but I’ve really been drawn into B/X by the open-ended lack of precise definition. Or the existence of just enough definition to make the rules something you actively have to play with as you go. Some of the quirks and weird vagaries of early D&D would be inexcusable by modern, published game design standards, but they make running the game an exercise in making fair and creative rulings. Most contemporary role playing games make the GM primarily a creator and arbiter of the fictional situation, but present the rules of the game as being a relatively static thing, to be consulted and executed as necessary. In B/X, the rules fit together loosely. Like the minute mechanical imperfections that allow a lock to be picked, the spaces in between them are where so much creative play happens.

In general, I like rules. Rules are important in games.  They define the baseline expectations for the players and communicate the intent of the designed experience. I find the common “If you don’t like a rule, just throw it out!” platitude at the beginning of a lot of rulesets overly simplistic and dismissive of the experience that a carefully designed system can create. I am finding a space in B/X play where there is a nice middle ground, neither a tight set of constraints, nor a casual dismissal of game design. Each rule and mechanic can be held up on its own, and applied if and when needed, but not thoughtlessly. Once considered, new rules can be applied, or certain restrictions can be removed. It’s all in the wiggle room.

If you want to follow along at home, you can get both The Caverns of Thracia and B/X Essentials at DriveThru RPG. If you want to know when I post something new, put your email address in the sidebar.




2 Replies to “Thursdays in Thracia – Part 14”

  1. “In general, I like rules. Rules are important in games. They define the baseline expectations for the players and communicate the intent of the designed experience. I find the common “If you don’t like a rule, just throw it out!” platitude at the beginning of a lot of rulesets overly simplistic and dismissive of the experience that a carefully designed system can create.”

    Amen to that. And great blog!

  2. I am running this module with D&D 5e (the party is 6th level now, but I use more powerful monsters to make up for it). It’s nice, but the experience is very different. This is partly my own fault (the PCs are going there with a specific goal, not with exploration in mind), but I think part of it can be attributed to the ruleset.

    I’m under the impression that brute force is a much more viable option in 5e than in B/X. They faced a group of 8 gnolls, 60ft away, behind barricades and solid prison iron bars, boosting their AC by +5 against ranged attack and making them untouchable for melee attacks. The door through the bars is locked by four solid iron locks. Each gnoll shoots arrows at them *twice* per round. To me, that’s a clear case of “back off, let’s try another way”, but they advanced. (The fight happened in room 40c.)

    Suicidal? Hardly : they prevailed. One sharpshooter dished some pretty decent damage, and spellcaster was making the gnolls life pretty hard, too. After something like 7 or 8 rounds of this, the very tanky fighter (almost untouchable) eventually bent the bars enough to get through, with some help from the shapechanged druid. Then, it was a massacre for the poor 6 gnolls still standing. 5 of them were still very fresh; they were all dead after 2-3 rounds.

    Sure, the PCs were fully rested at the beginning of the combat, and very drained at the end of it, but their first instinct was to use brute force to fight that very uphill battle, and they ultimately won. I’m not saying that there were no creative thinking involved (the bending of the bars was pretty cool, albeit very dangerous), but with a ruleset like that, you kind of discourage it.

    Oh, yeah : the whole thing took almost three hours of real game time.

    Everyone had fun, so I’m not complaining. I’m still longing for a different kind of experience, though. 🙂

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