During my recent Google+ game of OD&D with Brendan, one of my biggest surprises was how little the system surprised me. Prior to that game, the oldest form of Dungeons and Dragons I’d ever played was 3rd edition. So when I logged in to Google+, I thought I was about to encounter something unlike anything I’d ever played before. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent the last year reading OSR blogs, but the truth is, the game worked pretty much how I suspected it would. The mechanics were simpler than Pathfinder’s, but in exchange the game got off of the ground quickly and still had a lot of depth and action.
None the less, I have some things to consider. I’ve already mentioned how I was taken aback by the elegance of the initiative system we were using (which, as it turns out, is actually from Chainmail, not the OD&D booklets themselves). Today I’d like to briefly discuss something else which surprised me: how entertaining it can be to move at a snail’s pace.
If someone had told me a month ago that they’d played a 3-hour game where the party only investigated 5-ish rooms of a dungeon, I would have assumed the game was very boring. Unless those 5 rooms had an immense amount of things to do in them, I couldn’t have imagined enjoying an average of 36 minutes in each room. I was familiar with Game Masters who expected their players to treat every little thing as potentially lethal, and in fact I have a lot of respect for some of those game masters, I just didn’t think it was something I could enjoy myself.
Yet that’s exactly what we did, and I loved every minute of it. I not only prodded things that looked dangerous with my 10ft pole, I also detailed how I prodded them. When I opened the door, I didn’t say “I open the door with my 10ft pole.” I said “The door opens into this room, right? Alright, I stand 10ft away from the door, against the wall on the side with the hinges. Then I use the hook on my 10ft pole to latch onto the door handle and pull the door open.” I played that way because I was easy to hit, had 1hp, and didn’t want to die. And when I didn’t die, it felt like a god damned accomplishment.
I’ve been puzzling over why something which sounds so boring was so much fun, and I think the serious lethality of the game was a major factor. Most of the party had more survivability than I did*, but for my own part, any damage whatsoever would cause my death.** Finding ways to participate while still keeping myself relatively safe was a real challenge, and one I enjoyed. And as I said above, when the adventure was over and I had actually survived it, I felt special.
Another reason I think this style of play worked is that there were very few die rolls to speak of. The last time I ran a dungeon for my Pathfinder group, the rogue commented that he found checking for traps to be tedious. Rolling a D20, adding his modifier, comparing it to a number, over and over again. I talked about this and the problems with it way back in my skills overview. However, the other day was the first time I really saw the alternative in action, and it was beautiful. We only encountered a single trap—a pressure plate which activated a hidden crossbow—but we didn’t find it by rolling any dice. We found it because we said we walked around the room carefully, testing the ground with our 10ft poles as we went. Had I not done that, and found the body on the floor, I fully suspect Brendan would have shot me dead right there.
I also wonder if the simple process of character creation has anything to do with it. The characters were created almost entirely by rolling on tables, and my character sheet was literally written on an index card. Perhaps we were able to enjoy the lethality which necessitated our slow movement because we knew that even if we failed, and died, we could have our next character ready to go within minuets. In a game of Pathfinder, players have already invested so much in even level 1 characters, that a dungeon lethal enough to kill them in a single blow seems like an insane place to enter until much higher level.
It’s funny how something can sound extremely unpleasant until you actually give it a try. I don’t think this is something I could implement in a Pathfinder game. Player characters are too durable for a spike trap to terrify a Pathfinder Wizard anywhere near as much as it would terrify my OD&D Magic User. Still, I wonder if my players would enjoy this as much as I have. I may need to run an OD&D session or two sometime in the future!
*By ‘more survivability,’ I don’t mean much. Everybody started out by rolling 1d6 for their HP, with no bonuses to it based on constitution. On top of that, all weapons dealt 1d6 damage. So yes, any damage at all would kill me for sure. But any damage they took still had a potential to kill them as well. It’s not as though the fighter could be confident that he would be able to survive a few hits.
**I should note that my constitution is high enough that I am allowed to roll a saving throw to be unconscious, rather than dead. But that’s not exactly a safety net I want to rely on.