[Spoiler-free, player-safe section]
One of the fun things about The Ryth Chronicle – perhaps the single most useful document of early OD&D play, and more useful than some actual OD&D supplements – is seeing the campaign take shape through the actions of multiple different adventurer groups. Ryth had an enormous player roster involving guests and regulars, apparently even going as far as to lease out some characters on expeditions where the players could not be present. The earliest listing from March 1975 counts 26 players and 17 characters (not counting the recently dead), the highest-level being Pontius, a 5th level Cleric, and Felsord, a 5th level Dwarf. The last one, from October 1976, counts 50 players and characters… three 9th level Magic-Users (Fazzlefart, Sondin and Kodiak), two 8th level Fighters (Ragnar Lodbrok and Grobard BenGon), and two 8th level Clerics (Benelux V and good old Pontifus).
You get a good idea about how things went when you read the earliest expedition reports – brief snippets along the lines of
- “Morbundus, 2nd level. John Van De Graaf led 15 players, losing 3, in a search for passages to lower depths. They defeated a wyvern, gnolls, toads, zombies, bandits, giant snakes, giant rats, and giant ants. They found a magic toad statue of unknown properties, and cleaned out the remainder of the Troll Room treasure.”
- Or: “Weir, 2nd level. Paul Michaud led 14, five died, and two high-level characters (a hero and a curate) were at death’s doorstep. They defeated 3 giant snakes, but met their match with 2 manticores and left without treasure.”
One of the fun things about Castle Morthimion is seeing a similar thing play out, even if on a much smaller scale. Morthimion operates as an occasional campaign – there is no planned schedule; it goes on the menu when we can’t organise one of our regular sessions, or on special occasions. As such, expedition parties are organised on an ad-hoc basis – whoever is present can bring a previous PC or roll up a character (one 2nd level or two 1st level PCs). More than that, Morthimion’s guest players are a prestigious lot: as of the last post, we had Zulgyan visiting us from Argentina; the next session, Lord Metal Demon came by from the frozen lands of Canada. What is even better, I am hearing both are now entertaining the idea of running an OD&D dungeon of our own – hope we will hear about them in due course! I don’t usually do open table games (my attempt to do so with Helvéczia back in 2012 triggered an immediate player revolt), but this comes reasonably close.
As it always goes with OD&D projects, there is a trick to all this. As envisioned, OD&D is a game without boundaries. It is meant to expand; not just through the continuous vertical and horizontal expansion of the dungeons, or in the incorporation of new “stuff”, but often in the scope of play as well – from dungeoneering to wilderness exploration, castle building, airborne and maritime combat, and “more”. Meanwhile, recreating an LBB-only game today is inherently laser-focused and based on setting limits – a specific mindset and specific rules (fortunately, it does not require LARPing 1970s hipsters) But the game will, inevitably, be something different. We can’t remake Ryth with today’s tools. But we can learn from it and adapt it to our current needs.
Our third July game was again conducted in English, with Lord Metal Demon dropping by for an afternoon.
- L.M.D. brought Balta the Axe, a 2nd level Fighting Man (the character’s name would translate as Axe the Balta). He was joined by Tumak the Shaman, 2nd level Cleric of Chaos; Brother Tivold, 3rd level Cleric of Law; Tycho the Ascetic (Cleric 1 of Law) and Weirlord (1st level Magic-User) returned from the first expedition, and Ravenheart (who runs Vorpal Mace) brought Grimly the Poor, a 2nd level Dwarf who rolled particularly badly for starting money. They brought two light footmen (Rudolf and Ragnarr), a bowman (Robin), a porter (Ale) and a torchbearer (Chort); as well as a cart for all the treasure!
- This time, we could actually start in the wilderness, as I had a player map and some basic notes ready. Starting from King Donald’s Wall, the company immediately went off track and scouted a collection of burial mounds from the time of the Faerie Princes, encountering a host of elves exploring the valley.
- They also found a hidden way into a valley ruled by the castle of Lord Moltgaard, who, seeing they could neither just nor pay a toll, had them run off with the threat of siccing the dogs on them!
- …as well as a second valley with a pool of comely naked ladies close to a grove of trees. Balta was charmed after a botched altercation, and had to be physically dragged off before he would join them beneath the water surface.
- …and a small lake with an island, a troll bridge, and a gazebo where they avoided a trap, learned of an imprisoned princess, and found some treasure.
|Domains of the Faerie Princes|
- Arriving in Morthimion, the company descended to the dungeons and continued exploring the southern passages of the first level. This did not go very well: Brother Tivold was paralysed by a ghoul and taken out for most of the action, and disturbing a nest of centipedes, Grimly and Balta were both bitten with only 2d6 turns to live! After a mad dash for the exit, they sought an audience with the Wizard Wörramos for help. Balta was saved in due time with a potion, but poor Grimly died a horrible death. In exchange for saving Balta’s life, and the second vial of poison cure, Wörramos bade them via geas to find the Chantry of the Centipede Lord, and find therein a small brass statuette.
- For the second expedition, Grimly was replaced with Joe Average, hobbit Fighting Man of no remarkable stats. Right near the entrance, they encountered yet another fellow, a handsome man wearing plate and a mace. Introducing himself as Milius, he joined the company despite suspicions of being up to no good, and managed to stay in the back without doing anything useful.
- This time, they went to explore the northeast. They found a passage that turned into a 90-degree horizontal pit trap. Descending with the aid of a rope, Balta found himself in a new level with deep pits and shafts, but they collectively decided this place was located too deep for the Chantry, their primary objective.
- They encountered a Stone Hero who challenged them to single combat to let them pass, and Balta completed the challenge! These passages brought them to an area of stone doors (which they decided were fake), pit traps, and mysterious chambers with brass bowls on pedestals. Robin and Ragnar fell into the pits and died. Three black gemstones retrieved from one of the bowls proved useful in conjuring a spirit of the Underworld, who agreed to transport them to the Chantry of the Centipede Lord, which was located right below their feet on the second dungeon level!
- Now in unknown territory and only a vague direction of where their exit may lie, they set to explore the nearby area. The entrance to the chantry was easy to find, but before, they decided to prod a nearby stone door, releasing a gelatinous cube from an overhead chute! The chute, in turn, lead to the hidden Diamond Laser Room, containing a fabulous 5000 gp diamond suspended in the air between several laser beams and a system of mirror walls. Choosing the brute force approach, Balta chucked a stone against the gem and knocked it out of place, triggering the lasers which cut poor Joe Average into ribbons. Since the hour was late and L.M.D. would have his flight back the next day, we called it a day with the company stuck down in the dungeons, and went for a few beers in a nearby pub.
|Level 1 Player Map|
Our next game, in August, included three players, of whom only Premier had previous experience with the dungeons (or OD&D). Since the previous crew were stuck down there, we generated a new set of characters (two per player, all 1st level), who had bought the previous party’s map off of a weaselly character who had somehow “acquired” it.
- Premier brought Axbjard Bjardax, a Dwarf; and Hijo de Emirikul, a Chaotic Magic-User. My PhD student (whom I had known much longer as a gamer before our paths would cross professionally) brought Bandar, a Cleric of Chaos; and Tomrik, a Chaotic Fighting Man who did not speak a single word during the game. His wife (also a veteran gamer, as well as PhD in regional studies) brought the elven sisters Erien (operating as a Fighting Woman) and Glerien (operating as a Magic-User), who lead most of the expedition. They hired two spearmen, Sam and Jack (who was extraordinarily capable), and the porters El Mulo and Owl.
- This expedition also started in the wilderness, but the company did not go off track and struck right for the dungeon, only stopping at a seedy roadside tavern in the woods, where they learned of the previous group’s disappearance in Morthimion about a week earlier. They decided that a rescue operation could net them new, generous allies.
- In Morthimion, they headed straight for the second level stairs, found by the earliest expeditions but never taken. Erien and Glerien’s elven senses, along with Axbjard’s knowledge of construction, came quite handy; and they found first a hidden stairway leading upwards from the first level, and then a second set of stairs going down north from the second level landing, but choked with generous fungal matter. These would be left for later expeditions (“Castle Morthimion, Department of Construction” sign / inaccessible).
- Here, the expedition almost ended with annihilation. Exploring a sequence of abandoned barrack rooms marked with the sign of a yellow beak, the company was cornered in a room by an enormous number of orcs. Only Hijo de Emirikul’s sleep spell allowed them retreat from the ambush, but their escape was cut off again by a group of orcs and an ogre who had blocked their path through another route. Soon to be caught by mustering forces from both before and behind them, a desperate fight was won with the aid of flaming oil, which they spilled in great quantities behind them to give the pursuing orcs a fiery surprise. So they escaped with their lives, but no loot at all.
|Level 2 Player Map|
- For the second expedition, they planned more carefully, investing their funds into generous quantities of flaming oil. Back on the 2nd level, they explored a series of dank storerooms with fungi and peaceful giant lizards, and found a place called “The Shrine of Doors”, where a sinister man named Thassaro the Theurgist was guarded by a group of squat halberd-wearing humanoids (tromes). Tassaro agreed to reveal the mysteries of the Underworld for 200 gp.
- Further exploration helped them avoid a deahtrap, brought them to an underground garden of dragon statues and a faerie pool they did not dare to mess with, a group of neutral bandits guarding an elevator down to the deepest level (blocked with a “Castle Morthimion, Department of Construction” sign), and a slimy section of pipes, downwards stairs, and a pool with a mysterious statue. Beyond careful tactics, the characters were aided by no random encounters, and lucky reaction rolls; however, Sam died when he fell into a pit.
- Eventually, they found an enormous hall where a feast had recently taken place, and extinguishing their lanterns, saw a group of short-statured cooks clean up the long table. Not wanting to tackle a kitchen full of these strange beings, they went the other way, northeast into a section of side rooms identified as “The Vaults of Rabad the Fearless”. They were pursued by loud footsteps, and they soon learned by their own experience that turning to see who was behind them would bring invisible swordstrikes. Although a room of spiders brought some loot, they chose to retreat from this dangerous-looking place.
- With their loot, they sought out Tassaro the Theurgist in the Shrine of Doors, and learned that “They would have to overcome their fear” if they wanted to find the lost explorers. At first, Erien was furious Tassaro had cheated them with this non-advice, but they soon concluded it was a hint, and they’d have to return to the Vaults of Rabad, who was indeed Fearless.
- The vaults revealed yet another room of several gemstones labelled “The Gems of Pain”, which they carefully avoided. But here, their luck almost ran out as they faced to see two Thaumaturgists, powerful magic-users from the deeper dungeons! Most of the party fell to a sleep spell, only Bandar, Glerien and the torchbearers remaining standing. Bandar’s wits saved the way. “Behind you!” he shouted, and the Thaumaturgists reflexively turned back, immediately struck by the invisible swords, one of which cut off the first M-U’s head. Glerien threw a dagger but rolled a natural 1 and almost ended up killing poor Erien by friendly fire. The only character still to act, Owl, bereft of weapons, desperately rushed the second M-U and dashed his head against the stone until he was dead (critical hit; a natural 20 doing the full 6 damage – M-Us are squishy!) The dead had some personal treasure, and a lucky roll yielded a single piece of jewellery rated at the highest value category – an amulet worth a princely 7000 gp!
- From here, they quickly found the Chantry of the Centipede Lord, and the previous party, still stuck in the Diamond Laser Room and suffering from paralysis. Glerien pocketed the 5000 gp diamond, and the characters hauled the hapless adventurers out of the room. They could be returned to their senses, but were weak and basically useless – they were somehow paralysed by the treacherous Milius, who had left them along with their treasure to die as motionless statues.
- The last thing to tackle was the Chantry, which turned out fairly small. The idol was easy to retrieve, but the company was surprised by centipedes from down the corridor. In the melee, El Mulo went down under giant centipede bites, not even needing to save vs. poison. Worse, stealing the idol seemed to trigger a skittering sound from all around, and the characters decided to beat it – to their good fortune, finding the way out without further random encounters.
- This was a very successful trip: two major treasures were retrieved (Bandar decided they’d keep the diamond as a “rescuers’ fee”) along with miscellaneous loot. With monster experience (using LBB rules, these are fairly good at low levels), there was enough XP to advance everyone to 2nd level, and Bandar the Cleric to 3rd level (I disregarded the “only one level per session” rule). Furthermore, Jack and Owl, who had distinguished themselves during the expeditions and showed sufficient individual heroism, were each given 250 gp, the amount I require to turn them into regular player characters.
[Here ends the spoiler-free section]
[Players wishing to adventure in Castle Morthimion: STAY AWAY!]
And now for the current expansion. In the updated download, I am adding The Sideways Level, a vertical level crossing the horizontal ones. So far, only Balta has been down there, but the level has been discovered, and awaits enterprising groups to plumb its depths. Bring your ropes and spikes, because there will be climbing galore!
|The Sideways Level|
Beyond the unusual perspective and the navigation / combat challenges coming with it, the encounter chart also strays from the elegant although occasionally murderous LBB baseline. I quickly had to abandon the idea of filling the table from the “Flyers” lineup from M&T, since the selection is both meagre and focused on high-powered monsters. My design rule for Morthimion is to stay with the LBBs where possible, and come up with my own stuff where necessary instead of incorporating supplement material (like every rule, it has a few exceptions). Thus, say hello to avians, flitters, floaters, and their friends (gas bags were distantly inspired by Booty and the Beast’s silly gas bag neck people).
This is a “Level 2” equivalent place (OD&D’s dungeon level progression is a steep difficulty curve – by level 3, you will regularly be meeting hordes of wraiths, ogres, giant scorpions and 6th/7th level NPCs, with good chance for much worse), although with some tough lairs (I am quite fond of Hoddaful Hakabus and his brigand gang, who emerged from a series of random rolls, and the Pits of Cil, named after the venerable Chimaera postal dungeon. You can also roll boulders down shafts and drain enormous water reservoirs to flood the lower parts of the level.
I have also completed Level 3, The Crypts, progressed with the wilderness section, and written brief encounter ideas for some of the sub-levels the characters have discovered in the last two games. These will be explored in the next post, after we have a few more sessions under our belt! Until then… Fight On!