This is Part 21 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 20, when the party once again left the dungeon, and Thelma Turge almost got wasted by Gnolls.
During their brief stay back in town, the party was approached by a Dwarf named Del Bresk. Del was the commander of a Dwarf mercenary outfit called The Red Tooth Company, and they had just arrived in these parts after losing a war up north. Del offered to secure the first level of the caverns for the party for 300 Gold per month. They would provide 30 of their warriors, and the party wouldn’t have to worry about carving through monsters every time, now that they had access to deeper areas of the caverns. The one stipulation was that no one in the company would go deeper than the first level. They would not be following the party into unmapped danger.
Also during their stay, Thelma Turge, now a level 3 magic user, locked herself in the party’s house and researched a new spell. She gained the ability to summon a swarm of vermin to harass and bite enemies.
The party agreed to the deal, and when they returned to the dungeon a few days later, Del was waiting at the entrance, overseeing their warriors. Del introduced the party to a dwarf named Tymin, who was a talented siege engineer. That’s when the party remembered the disassembled bolt thrower/ scorpion / ballista thing hidden in the basement of the temple of Athena! After some negotiation, Del agreed that Tymin could go with them to help assemble it, for a large increase in their fee, and a pledge of Tymin’s safety.
The party and Tymin crossed the first floor undisturbed as it was now held by the force of Dwarves. They moved to the second level, and made their way to the temple of Athena, once again routing a couple groups of gnolls along the way, at the cost of a retainer’s life. Epicaste, who had joined the party, turned out to be a serious badass, fighting on the front lines.
They entered the temple basement, and had Tymin assemble the scorpion. When it was done they had a large, heavy repeating crossbow. It took time to set up and use, but would prove useful and deadly.
They took the scorpion down the hall, to a room where they had encountered a terrifying lizard-human-hybrid beast, which had practically aerosolized two retainers. The creature could only move when the threshold of its chamber was crossed. The party set up the scorpion just before the threshold, and fired bolt after bolt into the creature, frozen still in a ferocious tableau. Eventually it fell.
They approached a door behind it. Upon touching it, a fighter retainer was turned into a cat. Ludens Thrindle, a dwarf, poked the door a second time with the tip of his halberd. A flash of light burst from the door, incinerating the weapon haft and rendering it useless.
Eventually the door ran out of surprises and the party pressed onward. Through a chamber full of ancient burned corpses, then a door covered in a layer of dried, dead mold, slightly yellow. When a retainer opened the door a single mote of yellow spore came through, and into their nose, and they fell dead, gagging!
Jek the Stabber, a thief, happened to have a collection of oily rags that they had collected from their first visit to the basement of Athena. They set them alight and tossed them into the room, and threw the door closed. On the other side, the yellow mold caught fire and burned like kindling. When it had burned itself out, the party pressed on.
In the next chamber, another pile of bodies, finely dressed. One of them, mysteriously intact after surely many centuries. Epicaste recognized this man. She managed to wake him, and introduced him as Anteus! Anteus was feeble and nearly dead, but had been a member of the King’s guard in old Thracia. He had been kept in suspended animation by powerful magic. The party agreed to escort Anteus back up to the surface.
In the room they also discovered a vertical shaft, extending up and down into darkness. Phyllis Thickfilth the thief moved to climb up it, and realized that she could stick to the walls, and climb up effortlessly. Eventually she reached a circular room glowing with amber light. Behind a curtain, a large beast stood facing away. She realized she was directly behind the room where they had encountered a wise and greedy sphinx on an earlier delve.
On the north wall of the room was a 10′ wide round opening that stretched back about 15′. Seemingly suspended at the end of it on the wall, was a chest. Phyllis noticed that when she approached the opening, she felt herself falling into it, as though gravity itself was turned 90 degrees in the hole. (It was) She rigged up a rope to climb “down” into the hole. The chest was filled to bursting with riches!
Armful by armful, phyllis quietly emptied the chest and over the course of several trips carried its contents down to the party. She kept one prized item for herself: A Helm of Telepathy!
Meanwhile, back in the mold room, the party found a hidden closet, with a strange item. On a pedestal of stone, in a recess, sat a glowing green crystal ball. The same supernatural shade of green as the light that emanated from the teleportation pad in the temple above when the gnolls had escaped! After some experimentation, they guessed that this was the teleporter’s mystical power source. They removed it and hid it under some burned rubble in the room. Then they fled back to town with their treasure, making it back to the first level without incident, returning Tymin to the rest of the dwarves.
Running the Game
I’ve been behind on posting by about four sessions, so I’m rushing through a bit here!
After a previous session that consisted mostly of the party hitting random encounters on the first level, I decided for the sake of sanity and pacing to make this company of mercenary Dwarves available. The party had to spend their gold on something, right? Why not let them use it to bypass the tedium of a dungeon level that had essentially been cleared already?
By this point the encounters with Gnolls have become pretty trivial too. I had kind of decided that Gnolls would attack on sight from now on, given how many of them the party had murdered. It makes sense, but it also makes the encounters a lot more rote than early in the campaign when I was making reaction rolls each time. It’s definitely something to be aware of in a large dungeon populated with many of the same sort of monster. In another similar situation I might retain reaction rolls throughout, but interpret them in light of current circumstances. Maybe a really positive one is just a corrupt gnoll captain, willing to take a bribe? Or an early morale victory, the gnolls realize how dangerous the party is now. Maintaining encounter outcomes outside of immediate combat makes the game much more dynamic, and something has been lost here.
The area deep under the temple was a lot of fun. It’s like the party has found a the crawlspaces of the dungeon, of which Thracia has many. Here’s a shaft that lets you get behind a powerful monster to steal her treasure, here’s the power source that controls a major entrance to the lower levels. Combined with the dwarves on the first floor, the party has achieved a level of confidence and mastery navigating around the dungeon complex. They’re an influential force here now!
Thelma’s new spell is Summon Vermin from Gavin Norman’s excellent Theorems and Thaumaturgy, a greatly expanded list of spells for B/X and Labyrinth Lord. The relevant rule for magical research is this one, as written in B/X Essentials (Now being rereleased as Old School Essentials):
My interpretation here is that this means that on leveling up, a Magic User can automatically learn one of the official spells in the game, but can potentially get any effect they want if they devote time and gold to researching it. I love this facet of the oldest role playing games. Explicit permission and methods to create new content and make rulings. The list of spells is not a perfectly complete thing, the game merely starts with the provided options. Coming up with new spells that the player is excited about is completely within the rules as written.
It does make it feel a little weird and arbitrary then that the spells in the books come for free. They are also all over the place. In future B/X games I might always make the MU’s pay for and research their new spells. They can pick one from the existing list, or branch out as desired.
The rules around acquiring spells in B/X are interesting generally. A common interpretation is that an MU’s spellbook can only ever have as many spells as they can cast. I actually like this, as it keeps a more strict power cap on them, and reduces bookkeeping around choosing spells each day. The downside is that things like Read Magic take up a whole slot, and as written you need Read Magic to use scrolls, etc. This has been discussed and dissected at length elsewhere, and some retroclones just give MU’s Read Magic as an extra freebie at first level.
How do you handle Magic User spell acquisition and limits in your old school game?
I was on a panel at Gauntlet Con with Fiona Geist and Abigail LaLonde! We geeked out for an hour about The Caverns of Thracia. You can watch a recording here.