This is Part 17 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 16 when the adventurers returned to town and purchased a home with their plunder.
The adventurers decided that their next move would be to try and push straight towards the Temple of Athena on the second level. At this point they’d heard that the temple held a cache of ancient weapons, as well as a kind of teleport pad that would take them to the rumored place far underground, where the sun shines and trees grow, and where the Minotaur King lives in his palace.
They re-entered the caverns through the main entrance , a wide set of stairs in the ruined city on the surface. As they entered a large, square room they saw something terrifying: a single gnoll, tied up to a post in the center of the room, whimpering. It was Slam, who had been charm person’ed by Yam Stevens in their very first outing.
Furglum Thickwobble, a fighter, stepped forward to untie the pitiful creature, but found the ropes were tied only loosely, and Slam freed himself just as arrows began to shoot towards the party from the hallways ahead and to the side. An ambush!
The gnolls were aided by a creature the party hadn’t seen before, a dangerous jackal-headed warrior who seemed to be their leader. The beast-folk fought hard, but were bested by the party and slain. The party’s only casualty was Mockingbird, a retainer and first-level fighter.
The party continued through the stone corridors of the first level, weaving left, right left, right and so on. They encountered a pair of large poisonous spiders at one point, which nearly crawled inside the armor of the fighters at the head of the party. At another point, they encountered a pair of stirges: hideous, mosquito-and-bat-like-but-as-big-as-your-head flying monstrosities that tried to suck their blood. Both pairs of creepy crawlies were dispatched with relative ease.
They finally descended to the second level, where they crossed a wide room littered with detritus and ruins from a collapsed floor above. From the top of a short flight of stairs, they were attacked by four gnolls behind columns, firing arrows into their midst. After another short fight, these gnolls were dealt with. Beyond the stairs was another large cavern, in which stood the glorious, many-columned temple to Athena.
Playing the Game
Pulling off this ambush was a lot of fun. It’s the first time in Thracia that I’ve specifically created my own encounter as a response to earlier player action. I wish I’d been doing it more frequently, but even though we’ve been playing on and off for almost a year now (!) there have only been about three total expeditions into the dungeon and back.
There are whole books written about how RPGs create story, but a huge component of old school games is that the narrative is emergent and organic, growing out of a combination of play procedures, player ingenuity and game master common sense. The GM doesn’t plot an epic arc ahead of time, and we don’t every necessarily get something remotely literary in tone. What we do get is a series of narrative moments that are satisfying specifically because they are derived from play. There’s a direct line from the game presenting a particular random encounter (gnolls appear!) to the player making a mechanical decision (Yam Stevens casts charm person) to the GM using common sense to create a repercussion that is both narrative and mechanical (Slam, the target of the spell, wants revenge for being manipulated. The beast faction is enraged against the PCs and sets up a dangerous ambush). Again, we didn’t set out to tell a story, we just played the game and these little narratives occur in a way that is really satisfying. Yam’s player moved away a few months ago, but another player had to immediately text her that slam had been killed. There was a genuine moment there that would be very different if the story had been planned out, part of a linear adventure.
After that, this session did become a little bit of a slog, with one low-threat random encounter after another just sort of delaying the party from their single-minded goal. There’s a happy medium somewhere between letting the procedures of the game take you on an unexpected ride versus cutting to the chase and letting the group arrive at their real task. The Caverns also calls for a 1-in-6 random encounter roll every turn, double what the B/X rules call for.
I just did an accounting, and realized this post represents the tenth session of the Thracia campaign, in as many months. For a while I was dividing each actual session into two Thursdays in Thracia posts, but it hasn’t always worked out that way. The original intention was to play every two weeks, but life has often gotten in the way. The good news is that we seem to be playing more regularly again now, and the adventurers are exploring ever more of the twisting complex.
Lastly, in a fit of blasphemy, I decided to convert combat into using ascending armor class from now on. I’ve heard people have been murdered over this kind of minutiae, but the math is identical and I’ve found that using the charts seems to slow things down for most of my players, myself included. So now everyone’s armor class is 20-Descending AC, and instead of an attack chart they get an attack bonus of 20 – THAC0 (the roll required to hit descending AC 0).