We had a mix of people not being able to make it, while other people who hadn’t been there in awhile showing instead. I’ve started being a bit flippant about saying, “All right, you run back to camp and swap out.” In other games I’d probably just run people’s characters as NPCs, but with old school being so deadly and so player skill dependant, that just doesn’t feel right. Sadly, our sessions are rarely more than 3 hours, so the party doesn’t often have the time to make it back in a single session.
Anyway, this time we had Long Tom (and co), Lairn and Alren, and Lucian (and co). Alex had cleared up the rules on how many can walk abreast in a corridor, so the players were eager to get their new formation going. However, there was one slight kink in the plan…they only had one guy in plate in the new group. So the front rank was decidedly less ‘hard’ than it normally is.
Still, they bravely continued their investigation, heading deeper into the tunnel and leaving the fish-men behind. They found a door and bashed it open, revealing a prison cell full of skeletons and torture implements…and the shapely leg of a prisoner behind a central column. They exchanged words with the woman, who begged them for help. Being the forthright (and paranoid) bunch they were, they marched around the pillar in formation…
And straight into the gaze of a medusa.
Guido, Lucian’s first hireling, was spared from petrification by the fact his eyes never rose above her chest. The far more noble Nethran and Lysander, walked right into her gaze.
“Well god damn it,” the woman said from behind the pillar.
There was some shouting back and forth, after which the medusa, Kestios, said she knew of a potion that could cure their friends and she’d reveal its location if they freed her.
Long Tom was all for it, but Lairn and Lucian were both hesitant. Lairn asked for the characters to hold back and he would use his amulet to try and read her mind to see if she was lying or not. Long Tom seemed pretty happy to set her free and they had to actually get in his way to stop him.
Unfortunately, Lairn fell prey to the weakness of his magic item, and suddenly everyone could hear him concentrating, “Show me what lurks within your mind! I will know your secrets!” etc, etc. Everyone looked at each other, stymied by what was happening, having never had someone else’s thoughts shoved into their heads.
“Um, Lairn,” Long Tom said, “You’re leaking.”
The Tryshallan looked at everyone, realizing something was horribly wrong, and jerked the amulet off his neck and shoved it into his pocket.
So, with no magic to scan her thoughts, they were left with relying only on what she said. “So, is it looking at your snakes, or your eyes that turns people to rock?” Long Tom asked.
“Oh, it’s the eyes baby, always the eyes.”
They asked her why she was there and chained up. She told them she’d been captured by Bone Shaker’s undead and dragged here against her will. He was intending to sacrifice her to his gods or a demon, after he finished torturing her to properly prepare her.
Long Tom covered his eyes and moved around the column to blindfold her. He felt her snakes hissing and brushing against he hands, but she didn’t bite him. After blindfolding her, he cut her chains with the magic sword Cronyn was wielding.
“All right, get me out of here,” she said. And they escorted her towards the surface.
Luckily, they had no encounters along the way, until they reached the surface. Then they met a group of hobgoblins that had been set by Bone Shaker to ambush the group when they returned to the surface. Three of them fired arrows while the other three charged the front rank (who now had no heavily armored defenders thanks to the Medusa stoning Lysander). The hobgoblins actually hurt Cronyn and Alren, especially Alren who was both hit by an arrow and a charging hobgoblin.
“What’s going on,” Keistos asked.
“We’re under attack by hobgoblins!” Long Tom yelled.
“Well damn,” she said. “Eyes forward!” she yelled and jerked her blindfold off.
Bam, three stone hobgoblin statues.
Lucian stuck his head out of the cave and slept the other three.
“Ok,” Long Tom said, averting his eyes. “Put your blindfold back on and we’ll take you back to our camp.”
“Yeah, I don’t think so,” Kiestos said. “I’m happy like this.”
You could hear the intake of breath as the party prepared to fight a poisonous, petrifying enemy with their eyes shut.
“I’m just going to walk on out of here.”
Sigh of relief.
“Well, where is the potion?”
“Bone Shaker has it. He took it from me. His temple is in the north.”
Pause. “Well, that’s where we were going anyway.”
As they heard her walking away, she said, “Give him a good kicking from me, will you.”
“Wait,” Lucian cried out. “You could come with us and have your revenge.”
Now, obviously, the module doesn’t intend this sort of thing to happen. In fact, the module clearly intends that the only ‘good’ choice the characters can make is to kill the medusa in her cell in order to avoid her swift but inevitable betrayal. But I don’t like playing everything like raging psychopaths so I had her willing to cut a deal. Especially since these guys might end up killing her enemies for her.
But I certainly didn’t want her going with them, petrifying everything they encountered. Soooo I let the dice decide. I had Lucian roll a hiring roll, which he failed.
“Sorry hon, too many undead and my powers don’t work on them. They got me once, I’m not giving them another shot at it.” And so she left.
Long Tom healed the two wounded hirelings, but exhausted all his first level spells. Still, the party decided to press on.
They went back into the tunnels and then down the slope they’d encountered last week. When they reached the bottom, they decided to go south first and ‘clear out whatever might be behind them’.
And suddenly arrows shot out of the dark and nailed Alren. They heard the twangs of bows but could see nothing. Gnolls, who had taken up a position guarding one of the Fanes, and who could see them just fine thanks to the party’s torches, starting sniping them. On initiative they were in pretty bad straights, taking fire but unable to do anything about it. Lucian snatched Long Tom’s torch and threw it down the tunnel, illuminating the sniping gnolls. Guido charged down the tunnel and stabbed one of the gnolls but failed to take it down. Alren, with his single hit point, ran and charged a gnoll but failed to hit it. Long Tom dropped his spear and drew his blades and engaged the next while Cronyn ran forward to take on the forth. He was the only other one to harm an opponent.
When the gnolls took their turn, they stabbed Guido and he went down in a spray of blood (but luckily unable to make good on his cleave). Everyone was biting their nails when the initiative die was rolled, knowing that a bad roll with the gnolls going first could see many more of them going down.
Luckily, Lucian rolled high and threw his last sleep spell and dropped all the gnolls.
Alren bent his healer talents to Guido and managed to wake the wounded hireling up after bandaging his wounds. Unfortunately for Guido, the blade of the gnoll’s axe cleaved through his abdomen and lower, ruining his manhood. Guido was too out of it from the pain to realize how bad he was doing and without any magic healing, he was going to need at least a week to recover.
The party looked around the room and realized they were in a dark, dark place. Made of redstone with a mosaic checkerboard of black and red, the back wall was covered in a tapestry that depicted unidentifiable shapes holding struggling humans. A stone alter stood in the centre of the room with valuable golden vessels, worth a huge amount of blood, but covered in the blood of who knew how many sacrifices.
Lairn’s demon familiar, Karragos, whispered that he should take the items. They wouldn’t directly empower Lairn, but they might be used to appease dark beings in the future. Meanwhile, both Lucian and Long Tom weren’t having any of it. Lairn tried his best to convince them, especially after Lucian knocked them to the floor and the room reacted with a present aura of hostility (the tapestry began to shake and the sound became horribly muted), but Long Tom wouldn’t hear of it.
He threw a bless spell on the objects and they all felt the warm breath of Sethi on their necks as her grace descended upon the room and banished the darkness. Ice seemed to form over the metal items, and then they began to fold in upon themselves, as though an invisible force of great strength was crushing them. When the objects were nothing more than lumps of corrosion, a wisp of air drifted from them, like a dying breath on a cold day.
Then a bell began to sound in the north, ringing with great, thundering reverberations.
Then they heard shouts and yells and the echos of feet coming from the northern darkness.
The party decided to flee and head for the slope. A light appeared about 100’ up the tunnel, as a door opened and men poured out with torches. Gnolls were standing behind a palisade, drawing arrows.
Torn between escape and combat, we rolled initiative. The players decided to have a go, so they declared spells. Lairn or Anika, I forget who, beat the monsters, and dropped the gnolls and one of the soldiers (who were actually priests). Long Tom charged and tried to climb over the palisade while the priest swung an axe but missed. Alren followed (still with one hit point) and swung his two handed axe over the palisade and missed as well. This went back and forth until the other caster dropped the remaining priests with their sleep spell.
Alren and Long Tom jumped the palisade and started chopping on the sleepers, figuring they’d have to deal with them either now or later. In the darkness, they could hear the sound of many, many marching feet, coming down the tunnel in what sounded like formation. Lairn ran up to the palisade and dowsed it with oil. Long Tom and Alren finished one more sleeper each and then booked it. Lairn was last to act, tossing the torch onto the palisade. As it burst into flame, enough light was cast for him to see the glint of metal and bone as an army of skeletons and putrefying corpses marched towards them.
Needless to say, he ran.
Right before the players fled up the slope, the last thing they saw were the skeletons sacrificing themselves to the pyre to tear down the palisade and clear a path to reach the characters.
Suitably encouraged, they fled up the tunnel and out the cave, into the light of day. They didn’t stop at the camp and instead, got the camped characters to turn and flee back to Restwell.
That’s where we ended for the evening.
This was a good session. I had to ‘fix’ a couple of ‘got you!’ elements in the module. Namely, the medusa betraying the characters regardless (and strangely having a potion still on her), and the valuable religious objects in the Temple. These things were worth 8000 gp. As written, anyone who took them would have to make saves or else fall under their influence and become corrupted… to the point that after a certain point they are irrevocably lost to darkenss. Coupling this with an experience system that rewards killing things and taking their stuff… just seems grossly unfair. Yeah, I understand the occasional trap and punishment for being greedy, but this felt like too much to me. I gave them the experience value of the items even though they didn’t get the gold because, well, that seemed reasonable to me.
I also gave them the experience value of the medusa for ‘overcoming’ the encounter with her through negotiation and roleplay. Again, seems fair to me. I know it’s not really ‘old school’ but I’m not bothered.
The other thing that bothers me about this module, penned by Gary Gygax himself, is that I feel it has done a lot to shape people’s attitudes towards Dungeons and Dragons. For most, myself included, it was the first module we ever encountered. From all the Old School blogs and reminiscences I’ve read, the way Gary and Co. ran their games was that the whole point was avoiding combat as much as possible and trying to be sneaky and crafty in securing the treasure (the main experience point driver). However, this module is not set up in a way to facilitate that. The caves are fairly linear and the monsters often wear their treasure. Since it is for 1st to 3rd level characters, they don’t have recourse to things like invisibility, and the thief’s chances of success are about nill. So just how in the hell are players supposed to avoid murdering everything they encounter? Even if you regularly use the reaction table and characters roleplay their heart out, and aren’t too bothered by making deals with Chaotic monsters, some of the monsters just plain attack on sight. So what do you do about that?
Ultimately, as much as I like B2 The Keep on the Borderlands, I feel it’s a bad module. Not just for having this hive of monsters only two hours up the road from the human settlement and no one has any idea where it is. Not just for having tribes of monsters living in ‘monster apartments’ that are waiting for PCs to come and clear them out. Not just for caves that are mostly linear and filled with monster ambushes and choke points. But it’s bad for not demonstrating the kind of play that Gary supposedly wanted/expected players to engage in. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’ve read it wrong for nearly the last 30 years and all the people I’ve played it with, or heard play it have been doing it wrong too, I don’t know. But when this is your first exposure to D&D, it’s no wonder the game has head down the primrose path of ‘murder everything’.
However, I have fixed a lot of it, for my campaign at least. Bone Shaker has become a named villain (the priest in the last cave) and been powered up to represent a more serious threat to the surrounding territories. The monsters have a reason to be here (service to a higher level priest of Chaos and an eventual assault on the home of man).
Now if I could just figure out how to let the players more sneakily extract the loots without constantly fighting…