Game Day: Return to the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth

After many months away from the game, my group is returning to Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition for an old school dungeon crawl through the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth using the D&D 3.5 version released in 2007.

I’ve got mixed feelings about this.

While I owned the Lost Caverns as a kid and read through it cover to cover several times, I never had a chance to run it. Moreover, with this module we’re going to continue what we started with our White Plume Mountain run by travelling back into our D&D campaign’s history to the founding of the Blackrazor Guild. In White Plume Mountain, guild leader Brant Bladescream recovered the infamous soul-devouring sword Blackrazor (but lost most of his adventuring companions in the process). In The Lost Caverns, he’s taking a new band of heroes into the depths of an infamous dungeon in search of even more powerful magical relics.

The Blackrazor Guild is one of the cornerstones of my gaming group, but in truth they’re more of late 1990s and early 2000s phenomenon. The guild’s intrigues, chaos factor, and shear destructiveness was a lot of fun, but in time it gave way to other subcampaigns with less collateral damage.

That’s the upside. The downside, well, it’s dungeoncrawl. In the last year of Star Wars: Saga Edition, we haven’t had a single dungeon crawl with all its associated traps and one-encounter-per-room setups. It can be fun, but it can also be grueling, and it’s what killed our Maure Castle subcampaign.

There’s also the D&D 3rd Edition rules themselves. D&D 3E is a good game but it’s got it’s warts, and after playing so much Saga Edition, those warts are even more apparent to me. Things like the myriad conditions that can affect a character (sickened, nauseated) which inevitably require rules lookups and slow down the game as well as tricky mechanics like incorporeal, which never seems to mean what people think it means. Plus, we’ll be playing 10th level characters, which means iterative attacks and arcane/divine spells that can really pack a potent punch (or at the very least, throw off everyone’s math with buff spells).

My goal with Friday’s game is to keep things focused and moving, avoiding the problems of Maure Castle and focusing on what worked in White Plume Mountain. Here’s how:

  • Skip the prologue: Lost Caverns has a lengthy wilderness component; we don’t have time for that. I’m cutting to the chase, summing up the battles the PCs fought to get to the start of the dungeon, and highlighting any villages they can fall back to to rest and recover.
  • Give them a purpose: Why are our heroes there? They’re looking for the fabled Daoud’s Wondrous Lanthorn, last seen in Lost Caverns. Why are they looking for it? Because the Blackrazor mages need it for an upcoming expedition to the outer planes. It’s not an earth-shaking hook, but it’s something.
  • Keep things moving: There are a lot of combat encounters in the Lost Caverns, but that doesn’t mean that a) I have to run them all, b) that I have to fight every battle to the last hit point and c) I have to run them as written. If it looks like things are turning into a boring slugfest, the battlefield will change.
  • Reign in the rules: I want make sure the “save vs. do nothing” spells and abilities of many of the monsters are kept in check; no one’s going to sit on their hands for an hour while they wait for their sanity to return.

Of course, I always work to keep combats moving, and keep the rules debates online and not at the table, but with D&D — any flavor of D&D — it’s harder because it is so crunchy, and people do love digging into the rules so much.

But knowing about the trap is half of avoiding the trap, and apprehensions aside, I’m looking forward to it. It’s old school D&D, served with a slice of pizza and Mountain Dew, set in one of the all-time classic Greyhawk dungeons. How could I not?

Post-Game Report

The game went well. Really well. We blew through 5 or 6 encounters — I can’t remember exactly how many — and from what I could tell, everyone had a lot of fun with the dungeon. I’d been about the Lost Caverns encounter-per-room setup, but through a combination of good party tactics and the occasional down-sizing on my part (did we REALLY need half-golem darkmantles AND a dragon turtle attacking the party? I think not…) things moved quickly. In about 4 hours the party was able to make their way through the Lesser Caverns, defeated the gorgimera guardian at the entrance to the Greater Caverns, and now stand poised to delve deeper.

No one left frustrated (even though we played until about 1 a.m.) and I’d say everyone’s looking forward to part 2 next week.

So why did it run so well? A couple things. First, I did scale back on one or two encounters that I felt were challenging enough as is. The party took a number of good lumps, and had to pause frequently for healing, but the battles weren’t so intense that they felt they needed to withdraw to truly rest. Despite playing new 10th level characters for the first time, everyone was on top of their game. We did have the occasional rules look up, but nothing that bogged down the game.

On my side of the screen, I experimented with doing some simple rounding (to the nearest 5s or 10s) while tracking hit points. (e.g. instead of 70 – 24, I just made it 70 – 25). It’s a little thing, but I found working in multiples of 5 speed things up for me. I always rounded in the party’s favor, and while I didn’t do it for every hit, I did it enough to make a difference.

I nerfed the nauseated condition; by default the nauseated condition reads:

Experiencing stomach distress. Nauseated creatures are unable to attack, cast spells, concentrate on spells, or do anything else requiring attention. The only action such a character can take is a single move action per turn.

So imagine this lasts for 6 rounds … suddenly you get to do nothing for most of the combat. I changed this to a -4 penalty on all actions (skill checks, attacks, etc.) and I think it made a big difference in combat. I’m not above disabling a character in a fight (like say, trying to turn someone to stone with the gorgimera’s gorgon breath weapon) but that’s a fairly rare occasion. Nauseated, on the other hand, had the opportunity to show up several times during last night’s game.

And finally, I think that a year playing Star Wars has done us all good, me particularly. As a GM, I’m even more focused on keeping the game moving, making sure that everyone’s engaged, and avoiding the “do nothing for 1 hour” trap that we seemed to fall into with D&D. It makes me optimistic that we really could return to D&D or Pathfinder as our full-time game after Star Wars. We might not — I’d love to see if I could talk the guys into a Rogue Trader campaign — but I think it’s a stronger possibility than it was before.

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