AD&D: A Useful Cliche

One of the features of my Dungeons & Dragons campaign is that there is a major dungeon conveniently located directly beneath the main city. This is, of course, a well-worn cliche – see Waterdeep and Undermountain, for instance, and the dungeons underneath Blackmoor and Castle Greyhawk respectively were within a convenient distance of a nearby town.

However, as I recently discovered it’s a cliche which can help out a lot. Two players couldn’t make it to our most recent session, but as Dan pointed out there are advantages to pushing on and playing anyway under such circumstances – most notably, it means people don’t feel obliged to turn up to any session. (That sounds like a bad thing until you realise that making a game feel like an obligation is the first step to it feeling like a chore – plus if you do feel that obligation, missing a session feels like a disaster and so when you inevitably do miss a session you can end up feeling less invested in the game as a result.)

That said, I’m not usually up as a GM for having absent players’ characters present in a session, even as mute cardboard cutouts who stand at the back, for several reasons:

  • I don’t like the split in IC/OOC knowledge it makes; it’s enough of a job holding back stuff you know OOC but not IC, but if you end up knowing stuff IC you didn’t actually experience OOC that is just a headache.
  • I’d feel bad as a GM if something happened in such a session and a player was like “oh, man, my character would have had a major response to that, it’s a shame I wasn’t there” – for the same reason I dislike it when that happens when I was a player. (Worst case ever: coming back after a break of a few sessions where I couldn’t make it to discover that my character now had a magical hand due to various stuff he did under the GM’s control.) Better to have them saying “It’s a shame my character missed that” than “It’s a shame that my character was there but didn’t react in the way I would have wanted to because I wasn’t there”.
  • I just don’t like risking people’s PCs in their absence, but I don’t want to give them mysterious temporary plot immunity, so keeping them offstage is easier.

This policy meant that the party was two characters down, which meant that the party’s skills set and numbers were at a point where exploring the main dungeon would have been very unwise. So, I put an offer on the table: either we postpone, or I run a brief one-session side quest for the remaining players based around one of their characters’ interests. (As it happened, I was able to weave in links between the side quest and the party’s main investigation, so that helps.)

Here’s where having the dungeon conveniently close to a major population centre: cities are excellent sources of side quests and adventure hooks. You can have pretty much any sort of institution there and it’s expected that there’ll always be something to do. Small rural hamlets are expected to have quiet days where there just isn’t much going on of note, but cities never sleep, it’s kind of a celebrated feature of theirs. Having one of the city’s institutions send an urgent request to the PCs is a side quest possibility that will never get old thanks to the sheer number of institutions that could possibly exist in a city. In addition, the large marketplaces mean that players can believably kit up for a side adventure before heading out.

As fun as your Village of Hommlet may be, sooner or later it’s got to either dry up as an adventure source or start feeling unusually and especially unlucky when it comes to crises which farmers are willing to pay gold to solve. Not so your city! I begin to suspect that Gygax’s placing of the City of Greyhawk right next to his megadungeon was no mere exercise in Fritz Leiber appreciation (though that would be reasonable enough in itself), and was more than a mere concession to IC convenience when it came to travel time and finding somewhere to spend all those copper pieces dredged up from the depths: it was actually a conscious and deliberate placement of one bustling and inexhaustible adventure location next to another.

AD&D: When Is Defeat Rewardable?

So, in the most recent Dungeons & Dragons session the player characters purged an underground chapel of undead.

They did so with somewhat more daring and expenditure than I’d actually thought they would apply. The skeletons in question only seemed to respond when they entered the relevant room, and were fairly slow compared with people. (The one who created them had left them with fairly simplistic commands to follow.) The PCs had, in fact, sussed out the pattern to the skeletons’ behaviour (after careful observation and going away to talk to some experts) so they could have got rid of the skeleton without much of a challenge simply by stand in the doorway and throwing shit at them.

Midway through the session, after considering even more elaborate ways to eliminate the skeletons (such as having the party’s thief climb onto the ceiling with the use of a Spider Climb spell and drop holy water vials on the skeletons from there), one player hit on the notion of using the “AI exploit” (as someone termed it) to eliminate the skeletons. At that point I ruled that the players wouldn’t get any experience from doing it, so they opted for the OOC more rewarding and IC much, much faster option of just fighting the skeletons again.

In retrospect, I’ve queried that ruling to myself, because I’m fairly sure I would have given them the full whack had they hit on the solution when they first encountered the skeletons – and after all, 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons specifically gives you XP for defeating opponents and finding an exploit to wipe a bunch of skeletons without personal risk is both a clever plan and a good way to defeat skeletons.

Having ruminated over it, though, I think I was justified in making the call the way I did. Firstly, the players had gone off to get the advice of experts on the undead before coming back, and had mentioned this behaviour of the skeletons to said experts, and the experts had concurred that the skeletons probably wouldn’t leave the room, so crediting the players for a plan handed to them on a plate feels against the spirit of things. Secondly, the players only hatched the plan after they’d already engaged half the skeletons in direct combat, so the big advantage of the clever plan – getting rid of the skeletons without wasting resources, spells and blood – was already mostly wasted anyway. At that point, a clever plan starts to cease becoming a clever plan and starts to resemble l’espirit de l’escalier.

What do you think?