I’m Running Hommlet

I no longer get grief on OSR sites when I mention that I play 4e, but I do get comments about how challenging it must be to try to run 4e in an old school manner.  It actually isn’t that hard, provided you are prepared to let go the 4e sacred cow of balancing everything – which is part of what you are going for in you want to play old-school anyway.

To illustrate how easy it is, I want to talk about how my newest campaign got started.  I was planning on hanging out with a buddy, and we were trying to decide what to do, and D&D was suggested, but no one had anything prepped.  So I asked if he had ever been through Hommlet.  And he said he hadn’t, and had never read it, but he was game to give it a try.  I told him there was likely to be a high mortality rate and he was okay with that.

So I told him to go though his computer and pull up any first level characters he had on his hard drive.  And while he was doing that I opened up Maptools and started setting up maps (we play on a VTT even when we are sitting in the same room).  I already had the village map ready because I had used it for a homebrew campaign.  Ditto for the moathouse, but I needed the dungeon.  I found an image file of the dungeon, dropped it in Maptools, and quickly set up the vision blocking layer, then started picking tokens for potential allies and enemies.  We would have been playing in 30 minutes if I hadn’t had some other stuff come up that I had to deal with.  But we were playing that afternoon.

I ran it straight out of the paper module, converting creatures as I went.  I have pretty much perfected my method of converting 1e monsters to 4e and was able to pick monsters on the fly.  This worked for me because I also have the Temple of Elemental Evil, which includes Hommlet, and it has the XP value for all of the monsters – my conversion table depends on knowing the 1e XP of a creature.  FYI, a 0-level man-at-arms is the equivalent of a 3rd level standard monster, unless he has less than 4 hp, in which case he is a 2nd level standard.

So when the party made it to the moathouse (I’m writing this for people who are probably familiar with the module; if you aren’t , try to keep up), which I wasn’t expecting that first session, I was able to find melee and ranged bandits, giant frogs, rats, a spider and a snake, all of appropriate level.  The frogs were a particular bonus, since as I started running them I remembered that I had built them to mimic the powers of 1e frogs.

The party insisted on not inviting any of the many potential allies (my buddy has PTSD from a previous DM with whom trusting such allies would inevitably have led to betrayal).  The frogs taught him better, as one swallowed the Invoker and he died before anyone could rescue him, or he could rescue himself.

They returned to the village, picked up a 5th level monk and a 4th level knight as allies (because not everybody in the party needs to be the same level, I promise), and returned to the moathouse.  They cleared out the snake and the bandits, and were ambushed by the tick when I had to call it an evening.

The point is, I ran that on the fly, converting from one edition to a very different edition as the need arose.  There is no magic to the edition you choose when running an old-school game, you just have to be willing to let go of the edition’s baggage.

We’ve played three sessions now, and I was right, there has been a high mortality rate.  As I am running it, it is probably harder than the original module at 1st level, because (I think I have mentioned in a previous post) 1st level in 1e is about the equivalent of 2nd level in 4e.  So the starting 4e characters are about halfway between (1e) 0-level and 1st level characters.  The appropriate 4e level range for the modules is probably 2-5 (as opposed to 1-3 using the 1e rules).  I might let replacement characters start at second level.

So far, there are four dead and five captured, with the captured on the verge of escaping (the gnolls reported the captured to the New Master, who kept all the party’s gear to himself, thereby pissing off the gnolls even more than they were already pissed off, at which point they abandoned their posts as jail guards).

Fortunately my buddy enjoys character creation.  And I don’t mind if, following the death of Hogar the cleric, his cousin Blogar, also a cleric and with identical stats, shows up to join the party.  As long as Blogar starts at 1st (2nd?) level.




“Lord Level” Campaigns – Alpha

I have been playing D&D of one sort or another for nearly 40 years.  And in all that time there is a type of campaign that I have always wanted to play, but was never able to.

In 1e, the classes had different names for each level of character.  So a first level fighter was a “veteran”, and a second level fighter was a “warrior”, for example.  At higher levels, usually around 9th or 10th, the level name would be something that indicated a measure of power or nobility, and names would stop changing so fast.  So a high level cleric was an “archpriest”, a high level fighter was a “lord”, high level paladin was a “paladin”, a high level High level ranger was a “ranger lord”, a high level thief was a “master thief”, etc.  We usually referred to this as “lord level” or “name level”.

Around that time, most of the classes gained the ability to construct strongholds (and possibly obtain income from the surrounding lands) and/or attract a body of followers.  So for instance, an 8th level cleric (“matriarch”) could construct a place of worship, in which case she attracted a body of 20-200 fanatically loyal followers, plus some men-at-arms.  And at 9th level (“high priest”) she could build a fortified religious stronghold, and if she cleared the surrounding lands of monsters, she would gain an income from the population that would settle in the area.

Similarly, a 9th level fighter (“lord”) could construct a stronghold and clear the surrounding area, and thereby attract a body of followers and collect an income from the settlers.  A 10th level ranger (“ranger lord”) attracted a body of various sorts of demihuman or monstrous followers (including the possibility of a copper dragon!) without having to construct anything.  A 12th level magic-user (“wizard”) could construct a tower and clear the area, and obtain an income but no followers.  And a 10th level thief (“master thief”) could set up a thieves’ guild in or near an urban centre and attract thief followers.

In addition, there were lengthy rules on the hiring of henchmen and mercenaries, as well as other hirelings necessary to run a stronghold.  High level contemplated players commanding armies and defending or expanding their territory.

And I really want to play and run that sort of campaign.  Or at least have the option of doing so.  High level D&D is a bit wonky in every edition, and needs a workable alternative.  And the older I get, the more I feel like powerful adventurers who have paid their dues aren’t likely to be interested in spending their middle age slogging through dungeons for treasure; they are now in a position to have people for that.  They are rich as lords, maybe they should live like them.

But other than rules for obtaining followers and hiring armies, in 1e there were no procedures for how to run that sort of campaign.  So I am trying to make them. Continue reading ““Lord Level” Campaigns – Alpha”

Dungeon Exploration Procedures

As The Alexandrian pointed out recently, the 4e DM Guides express no procedures for handling exploration. This is perhaps not surprising from a team whose focus in published adventures was on small, easily navigated lair-assault style dungeons and used skill challenges to represent overland travel. But it means that new DMs and players were given no tools for dealing with exploration of large and/or complex underground environments or actual exploration of the wilderness.

Thumbing through the 5e core books, I can see that the situation hasn’t improved very much.

If you want a experience that treats dungeon exploration as more than finding the transition to the next combat encounter, there are mechanical procedures which were developed at the dawn of D&D, and have evolved and improved in the intervening decades, which are available to help you. Continue reading “Dungeon Exploration Procedures”

Keep on the Borderlands, Fourth Edition

Courtney Campbell over at Hack & Slash appears to be starting a series comparing the original B/X module, Keep on the Borderlands, by Gary Gygax, to the 2e adventure, Return to the Keep on the Borderlands, by John D. Rateliff.  His thesis appears to be that, even when closely following the source material (which Return does), later adventure writers largely missed the point, and created adventures that were missing the magic of the early “Golden Age” period modules.

Well, if he thinks Return misses the mark, he really wouldn’t like the Encounters adventure, Keep on the Borderlands:  A Season of Serpents.  So in keeping with my work on this blog, I thought I riff off of what Courtney is doing and do my own comparison.

The first post in the series covers the introduction and DM advice sections of each module, so I am going to do the same here.  You should probably read Courtney’s blog post for context, because otherwise some of these comparisons won’t make sense.

Continue reading “Keep on the Borderlands, Fourth Edition”

Encouraging Social Interaction

This started as a comment in a blog post by DM David which went a bit long. David was discussing how to encourage “role-playing”, by which he means social interactions with NPCs. I personally think you’re role-playing any time you’re making in-character decisions, but here is my advice if you want to encourage social interactions.

Basically, if you want players to talk to your NPCs, give them interesting NPCs to talk to. That does not mean caricatures or over the top personalities. It means making NPCs who are like real people with real wants and needs and fears. Continue reading “Encouraging Social Interaction”