This is Part 16 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 15 when Stellaa met her doom and the party found a sword in a transparent chest lid.
The party began searching the large chamber, inching warily towards the barred door and peeking towards the throne behind the curtains. Then they heard heavy footfalls coming, and hid back in the small hidden room, just peeking out. Those who could see in the dark saw a creature enter the chamber. A woman. a cow? A cow-woman. A large, aging cow woman with graying fur and a stooped posture. They watched as she scooped up the lifeless body of Stellaa the cleric, and carried her away. They decided to follow, sneakily.
They followed her back up to the subterranean river, and she kept moving back towards where the tribe of lizard men had been. She waded right into the river, standing strong against the swift current. They would have to move along the shore, passing once more under the great spider web that spanned the river. In her haste, Thelma Turge snagged her pointy witch’s hat on the web, alerting an enormous spider. It descended swiftly, foul poison dripping from its mandibles. Luckily, someone remembered that they still had the gleaming yellow statue-eyes from their first expedition, which held the power to paralyze foes! The eyes were deployed, freezing the spider in place, but using their final allotment of arcane energy. The light faded from them. The party hurled torches at the web, burning it away while the spider was stuck. It fell into the white water and was washed away. The elderly cow-woman was nowhere to be seen.
Thinking it best to return to the surface, the party headed back to where they knew there were stairs – near the bridge / home of Grastic Hammerclay, the self-conscious giant gnome whom they had befriended on dubious terms. On the way, they ran into some gnolls. After a sleep spell and some bloodletting, they interrogated one of them about the cow-woman and found out she was the grandmother of the Minotaur King, who rules the caverns from an ancient palace below.
They left the gnoll, greeted grastic, and proceeded upstairs. Waiting for them was a group of the black-clad death cultists behind a set of iron bars. When they moved to retreat down the stairs, however, the stairs flattened into a steep slide / ramp, and the whole party slid downward. Luckily, Grastic was able to catch them on their way down, and prevent them from tumbling into the rushing river.
They hatched a plan. Phyllis Thickfilth, a chaotic thief in need of a bath, crept back up the stairs, then clung to the ceiling above the metal bars, obscuring herself in the shadows. The other party members then shouted insults up to the cultists. Falling for the ruse, the cultists deactivated the stairs, opened the bars and came running down. When they had past, Phyllis moved into the next room. She found the switch for the stairs in a skull-bedecked ceremonial basin just in time and flipped it, reactivating the defenses and sending the cultists tumbling into the river. Grastic did not save them.
When the rest of the party arrived upstairs, Glibble the Average, an elf, stepped on a stone which clicked under his feet. Looks like the switch controlled multiple defenses, and had not been turned off. As he leapt off the switch a spear shot downward from the ceiling, barely missing him.
Towards the back of the room behind dark curtains was a great black stone statue, with beautiful blue stones for eyes, flanked by great burning braziers. Phyllis climbed up the statue, and immediately felt the presence of death upon her. She was cursed! Having come this far, she made to pry the stones from the statues eyes. The braziers erupted in fire, and Phyllis duck-and-rolled down behind the statue, but not without getting a bit singed. To make matters worse, the thick curtains caught ablaze, creating a wall of fire between her and the rest of the party. Thinking fast, Ludens the Dwarf used his polearm to reach up and snag one of the curtains and slide it back along its rod, creating an opening.
The party quickly made their way back to the surface, consulting the existing map to figure out where they were in relation to the entrance. They moved along the rope bridges in darkness, the elf and dwarf leading the way so as not to attract bats.
Back in town, the party celebrated their successes and counted their coins. They visited Tiffara, a creepy lady on the edge of town who offered to identify magic items. The glass eyes (realistic ones, not the paralysis jewel eyes) they had given her earlier turned out to be able to magically grant someone the ability to see in darkness. The catch is that you have to replace your current eyes with them. She also identified the sword encased in the transparent chest-lid, and told them that, sadly, it was a cursed blade.
The party realized they had more than enough extra money now to purchase a modest cottage in the town of Thracia, and so embraced the joys of home ownership. They placed the cursed sword on the fireplace mantle, a trophy to be proud of.
In order to remove her curse, Phyllis approached the temple of Law. The high priestess could smell the Chaos on her, and gave her a choice between a very steep tithe to the temple, or swearing an oath to the gods of Law. Phyllis begrudgingly accepted the latter, and underwent the ritual bathing and purification.
Playing the Game
There were a lot of great moments here. The players are really starting to embrace the idea of combat as war in the game, avoiding a head to head fight with four measly guards in favor of using elements of the terrain to dispatch them without ever rolling initiative. They almost certainly could have won that fight, sure, but why risk the casualties? B/X really encourages this kind of thing, with death at 0HP and the combat game being highly chaotic. Or as, someone on a discord I belong to put it recently : “use your brains to fight and if you don’t, you get this bullshit video game from the 80s that murders you.” Anyway I am loving this style of play more and more, and it’s fun to analyze what enables it. Some combination of a dungeon that is detailed enough to enable this sort of manipulation, combined with a lack of both attractive options in combat and a lack of incentive to engage with it. Where modern D&D characters each have so many ways to be badass in tactical combat, creating a whole hammer / nail scenario, B/X characters don’t have a lot of options to be badass in… anything really? The net result is that B/X tactics are about surprise, terrain, and other physical elements of the environment and fictional positioning: “You’ve got a shield and good armor, and I have a blade at the end of a long stick, so I’ll stand behind you.” Where as a lot of 3+ edition combat is about chaining together special abilities and class features, and requires an understanding of the tactical game in the abstract. Note: I’m not edition-warring or cheering for a particular play style here, there are appeals to each, and I imagine most players’ preferences lie somewhere in the middle.
Until now, I’ve mostly been treating town as this abstract place where paperwork happens between dungeon expeditions. But now we’re developing some persistent elements that I want to play up in the future. I love that the players have decided to buy a house, it gives us a concrete place to imagine them crouched around a table, plotting their next foray. One player even started blueprinting the house on grid paper, figuring out where they could put their trophies.
When players create these little bits of creative ephemera, it brings me a lot of joy. We’re developing a nice stack of maps and sketches at this point. If you recognized the style behind the evolving Phyllis Thickfilth, it’s because she’s played by Olivia, who did all the art & design for my game Offworlders.
As town becomes more persistent, it also has me thinking about the wider world. It’s possible that I’ll start adding additional modules or dungeons as potential locations if my players feel like exploring something other than the caverns. Maybe the Isle of Dread lies just off the coast?