Megan and I are both signed up for the D&DNext Playtest…but now that the time had finally come, I didn’t feel like just playtesting the latest flavor of D&D. So I decided on something more ambitious – we were going to try and playtest all of D&D. Megan would control 5 PCs and play them through the same module – Keep on the Borderlands -- but each session would be converted to a different version of the game, determined by random dice roll. I would follow those rules as closely as possible, taking care to look things up fresh instead of running the game from memory. My first roll brought us randomly to 1987, the tail end of the 1st ed. AD&D years.
Megan’s party consisted of Mary, a female dwarf fighter; Jack, a male dwarf cleric; John, a male human cleric; Ernil, a female elf magic-user, and Beau, a male Halfling thief. Themes became non-weapon proficiencies, but we never used them. A lot of bonus modifiers dropped and backgrounds were dropped altogether. The magic-user took a serious power hit, dropping to just one spell. With weapon specialization added to the fighter, she began to look almost as powerful as how she started before conversion. Megan never took advantage of the thief’s special abilities, using him as another fighter. I cheated on hp, allowing everyone to have max hp at 1st level, which was never suggested in AD&D. This gave everyone 5-11 hp, much lower than for the official playtest. Though I rarely did so in the past when running AD&D, we played this game with miniatures and a battle map.
The PCs came to the Caves of Chaos and headed straight for the goblin caves because it was closest. They found the entrance guarded by six goblins, but managed to lure four goblins outside into the ravine with taunts. After taking some hits, three of the goblins surrendered and one fought to the death. Mary was hurt by a military pick, but it was Beau’s sling bullets, fired into melee, that took her down before the battle was over. The remaining two goblins fled back into the caves to alert their kin.
Low to hit rolls marred this first combat and almost soured Megan on the experience. Most of the time her rolls were low enough that the huge modifier boosts of later editions might have still not made a difference. Had the goblins all charged and fought to the death, it likely would have been a TPK. What changed that was AD&D’s morale rules, which when followed closely essentially give each monster only a 50% chance of attacking each round. The morale rules were not only Megan’s best friend, but varied the encounters and ultimately made them more realistic. I might not have thought on my own to have two goblins hang back and watch to see how the battle turned out, but I thought of that after the morale results suggested it to me. When so many goblins surrendered, I decided that they hated their leaders and were eager to change sides, even to dwarves and an elf. Now I wish I’d used morale checks more often when I used to run AD&D (I always waited until the monsters were at half hp before rolling).
What initially seemed to be a problem were the negative hp rules from AD&D. Since Mary had been brought down to -1 hp, she needed a full week to recover even though she had received clerical healing right away. I was concerned that this would kill the momentum of the campaign. Indeed, something similar had literally killed my Blackmoor play-by-post campaign I once ran. But what had taken us a month of downtime in online time in that campaign took only 30 minutes to resolve in person. And forcing Megan to pull back her forces and rest gave us a chance to reflect on what the world was like around the dungeon.
It quickly became apparent that, with three more goblin mouths to feed, Megan’s PCs did not have enough food for everyone to last the week. When some of her PCs went to the Keep on the Borderlands to restock, Megan found PH standard prices for rations seemed ridiculously high (which was always intended, reflecting a “gold rush” economy around a dungeon), especially since Megan had generously paid each of the goblins 2 gp to work for the party. The solution we came up with was for Megan to trek even further back towards civilization. I determined off the top of my head that there were villages just 16 more miles away and her PCs made that journey. For her troubles, she got rations for 1/10th the “standard” price.
In AD&D, you ‘re actually less likely to have an encounter the closer you get to civilization, as the encounter tables are geared towards wilderness monsters instead of farmers and shepherds. I described encounters with animals and villagers without rolling for them, but I did manage two lucky d20 rolls of 1 during that week of camping outside the village. The first wilderness random encounter (rolled out of the DMG encounter tables) was a midnight raid by giant rats. I rolled on the Monster Manual no. appearing range, but then averaged that with the number in Megan’s party and narrowed it down to 13 giant rats. Again, frequent morale checks were Megan’s friend. Half of the rats held back from the initial attack. A few reinforced the first wave, but some from the first wave also fled. Megan’s dice rolls were better, the rats weren’t able to hit anyone, and soon she had killed or routed them all.
The second encounter, rolled the same was, was for a warband of halflings. This turned out to be a roleplaying encounter and gave Megan her first chance to talk as Beau. I determined that the halflings had been conscripted to reinforce the keep and were heading there. They asked about the goblins and wanted them for target practice, but Beau refused.
The goblins I named Mag, Glub, and Yet (an inside joke of D&D trivia). I secretly rolled their loyalty scores, though I only took the time to skim the long list of loyalty modifiers.
When the week was up, Megan’s party returned to the goblin caves. They found three goblin guards waiting for them this time. The same two ran to alert the rest of the complex while one stayed behind to delay the PCs. The PCs made short work of that one and took off in pursuit of the goblin that had fled west.
This led to the very first room in the goblin complex. This would be my second big “cheat” too. The room description had called for 6 goblins, but I recalled this encounter being very difficult in my Blackmoor campaign and I decided to tone it down by rolling 1d6 to determine how many goblins were there. There was only one, plus the one the PCs had chased, and they were negotiating with the ogre behind the open secret door.
Megan’s PCs charged into the room with Mary and Jack in the front row and everyone else lined up behind. Only one of the goblins came with, though. The most disloyal of the three goblins, Yet, had immediately fled the other way to rejoin his old comrades. Glub had stayed by the entrance, his loyalties torn. Only Mag was fairly loyal.
By all rights, the ogre battle should have been a huge threat. But Megan’s dice were on fire. She could not roll below a 17 on d20. Beau scored two natural 20s in a row with his dagger (no criticals in AD&D, to Megan’s chagrin). The ogre was dropped in two rounds without having hit anyone.
One of the two goblins had fled west again, while the other tried to hide in the ogre’s secret cave. The PCs followed it in, killed it, and looted the ogre cave of their first serious haul of loot. They had enough gold to send some PCs to the keep, trade in three suits of chainmail armor, and come back with one suit of platemail for the fighter and two suits of banded mail for the clerics.
And that was where we stopped for the first night, after just under two hours of play. I had planned on each session being 4 hours, but we had taken too long a break in the middle of the first session and ran out of time. In the future, we’ll just play until we’ve hit four hours, then stop and convert to another edition of D&D.
It was difficult, even for me, adjusting back to the slower pace of XP gain in AD&D. I joked that Megan just needed ten more ogre caves before she reached 2nd level! While I had at first thought that the lack of bonus modifiers in AD&D was going to be a discouragement to Megan, I think the more she missed earlier in the game, the more she appreciated the times she hit at the end.