Curse You, Morgus!
Last night, I got to play in a Halloween themed Labyrinth Lord game run by my good friend BJ. It was a fairly straight forward dungeon crawl, but heavy in horror themes, and he had replaced the player demi-human races with more Halloween themed races. For example, instead of dwarves, we had a huge hulking homunculus (think Frankenstein-esque flesh golem). I realized that this is the first old school game I've gotten to be a player in since really getting into the whole OSR scene. Usually I'm on the other side of the screen.
It was a blast. We had only three players, so I suggested we play the more specialist classes (wizard, cleric, thief) and each bring along a fighter type henchman. I ended rolling absolutely dreadfully for my stats. My only scores that didn't come with penalties were my 11 Con and 9 Int. I decided to play an inept hunched old wizard (hurray for no actual penalties in playing a low Int wizard!) I then proceeded to the local watering hole where I gathered as many potential body guards as I could, and insisted they arm wrestle to prove their strength, before hiring the winner.
I think old school D&D already encourages less than heroic characters, and with the horror theme our characters ended even more morally ambiguous. I really had a great time playing up the master/servant relationship between my wizard and his fighter henchman. Ezekiel the Younger (called 'easy-kill' by another player's character, which I had to concede was a fair assessment) would regularly assert his authority after Floyd had valiantly defended him with lines like 'Well, dinner isn't going to prepare itself.' Though occasionally I would play out Floyd as well, for example after defending the old man from a werewolf with a borrowed silver dagger, Floyd returned it saying 'This most definitely does not count as the pick of magic weapons I was promised for my service.' Between letting the randomness shape my character, and playing out my own henchmen, I think I was really channeling Mr. Collins, and finally really appreciating his style of play.
If I could point out one flaw in the game, and I presume when reading this BJ will take it in the constructive way it's intended, the ending of the game did kind of fizzle. Our final encounter had a great build up. It was with another adventuring party, whose leader was a wizard that BJ noticed had very similar spell selection to my own. He decided we were old rivals, which I think was fantastic, and I quickly began plotting against him with my companions. We had become aware of them ahead of time, and thus I convinced the thief to sneak up and backstab the wizard, using my invisibility spell to aid him. Unfortunately, the thief flubbed his move silent, and the backstab didn't take quite as well as we had hoped.
Finally the battle was joined, and as the sides were fairly evenly matched, it looked like it would be a drawn out bloody affair. It was also getting late at night, and though I was more than willing to play out as long as it took, I think others at the table may have been flagging. We negotiated a truce with the enemy who only really wanted to find a way out of the dungeon, and as we led him out he revealed a large treasure we had missed. Greed filled our eyes, and we attacked again, but not wanting to play the combat out BJ quickly narrated how everything went to crap when the charmed werewolf we had with us broke his enchantment and we all fled for our lives.
I suspect BJ was trying to steer the game away from combat and into negotiation, either because he felt bad that we missed the big treasure, or wanted an outlet to detail the interesting back story of the other party and how they came to be trapped down in this dungeon. I understand both situations, I've been there myself, but I think once the GM starts trying too hard to push the party in any direction that's when the game starts to feel railroaded and unsatisfying. So we missed the big treasure, so we missed the interesting back story of my rival, as GM I think you have to be willing to just cut huge swathes of what you prepared and just run with where the players take it. If we had simply played out the fight with Morgus's band, either we would have exulted in his destruction, or witnessed the final pathetic downfall of our motley band. Either outcome would have been an exciting finale to the story in my eyes. Instead, although the final outcome of everyone fleeing for their lives is ammusing to relate, playing it wasn't particularly satisfying.
Of course, as I said, it was pretty late at night, and energy levels were dropping. Despite the final 15 minutes of the game, everything prior was a huge amount of fun. In fact, I'm a little surprised to have gotten so much out of a game that really was not much more than your basic dungeon crawl. There were plenty of great moments with all of our characters, and though my story above revolves around Ezekiel the Younger, I'm sure either of the other guys could relate just as many funny and exciting stories about Grar the Warrior and Vann the Holy Man.
So thanks, BJ, for running that. I can't wait to play the next one.