Monday, May 11, 2020

Play Report: Zoom Conferencing in the Tower of Zenopus

Holy crap, it feels good to be playing D&D again.

With everyone in lockdown, I've been having a lot of Zoom conferences for work, and while I was zoning out in the middle of one I had the thought that it would be a really good way to play on-line D&D.  I've looked into Roll20, but I'm not all that interested in the fancy mapping tools and the dice rollers and all that.  What I really wanted was an easy way to set up video chat with a whole bunch of people, and Zoom fit that bill.

I'm not all that tech-savvy though, and I figured that running my first ever on-line game would be complicated enough, so I opted to run a simple system: Moldvay's D&D Basic Rules.  Of course, I spent a week drilling down into them, house-ruling a bunch of stuff, bringing in things from other editions, and filling in gaps in the rules, so it's not quite Moldvay Basic.  It's still pretty simple at the table though, especially in comparison to 3rd edition onwards.

I also wanted to opt for a simple adventure.  My plan is to run a continuity-light campaign, which will consist of a series of classic D&D modules, most of which I've never played or run.  Originally I was going to do a combination of the classic modules In Search of the Unknown and Keep on the Borderlands, but there was a fair bit of prep involved with merging those, and I was concerned that Keep would eat my players' characters alive; I've never played or run it, but it looks to me like you need a decent number of PCs to survive it at 1st level.  So I went even simpler, and chose to run the sample adventure from the Holmes Basic Set: the dungeon adventure often referred to as "The Tower of Zenopus".  I combined it with some ideas from Zach Howard's excellent Ruined Tower of Zenopus, which is a conversion of the original to 5th edition.  It has some good background material though, and some ideas for additional encounters that I liked.  I've used most of those additions, including the map of the area surrounding the tower.

I was mega-excited to be running D&D again - I barely slept the night before - but we had quite a lot of problems.  One of my players couldn't connect at all, due to some bad internet at his end.  Another of my players was on long enough to create a character, but then his connection dropped out for good.  One player had a prior Zoom commitment that ran way longer than expected (and I berated him mercilessly about it afterwards).  So I was left with two players in total, to tackle a dungeon using old-school rules...

One created a thief, and the other played an elf.  The second of those was a great choice for a small party, and he had sleep memorised, so I liked their chances of getting through at least one encounter and possibly claiming some treasure.  Alas, they turned left at the first junction, and came to a room where they were attacked by four skeletons: enemies that are sadly immune to sleep.  They were also resistant to every weapon in the players' arsenal, so the skeletons were taking half damage from every blow.  The players were quickly surrounded, but did pretty well all told, managing to defeat two of the skeletons.  Then the elf went down, and the thief decided to get the hell out of there.  The remaining skeletons failed their attacks as he fled, and he made it out alive.  (He was fleeing during a round where I was supposed to check for wandering monsters, and he got lucky on that roll as well.)  So not a total TPK, but not exactly a rousing success either.  They would have done better if the elf had remembered that he had some holy water in his backpack, so it's not entirely my fault.  Still, I probably should have advised them to hire some men-at-arms.  I even had some rules for that in my notes, but it completely slipped my mind.  My bad, I'll definitely correct that for next time unless I get a lot more players.

Everyone had fun though, and the actual play went really smoothly (as it tends to do with a small group).  Playing over Zoom worked well aside from the connection issues, and I was able to use its screen sharing and private chat features to good effect.  It helped with one of the biggest issues that I was worried about, which was visualising the dungeon for mapping and combat.  It's been ages since I've played purely "theatre of the mind", and I like to have at least some kind of map.  I decided to use Excel for the purpose, as you can see below:

The site of the PCs' downfall. Most of the action happened
in front of the top left alcove.

Each of those tabs is a different room of the dungeon.  As soon as the players entered a room, I switched to the correct tab, shared my screen, read the room description, and there was an instant visual for them.  If anyone wants to map they can do it without me tediously explaining the room dimensions or drawing it myself, and in combat you can use letters, number and symbols to show where everyone is.  Excel is great, I use it for mapping old-school CRPGs as well.  The only problem with it is that it can't draw rooms with irregular walls.  There are a couple of circular rooms in this dungeon, and some caves as well, so I'll need to figures out a solution for those before the next game.

I'll do a run-down of some of the house rules that I'm trying out.

  • I'm letting the players roll 4d6 for ability scores, dropping the lowest number and arranging as desired.  I hoped it might offset the numbers disadvantage.  Besides, we've been doing it that way for decades, and it generally results in good characters but not necessarily amazing ones.  Even with this system, the elf still had a Charisma of 4 (I guess nobody will mourn for him too much).
  • Clerics in Basic don't get spells at 1st level, but I did a quick rejig of their class table to allow it.  Seems a bit ridiculous to me.
  • I'm using ascending Armor Class and attack bonuses, as in 3rd edition, but the math is the same as Basic.  As much as I like descending AC, the 3e system has been working like a charm for so long that I can't justify not using it.  And I've never missed explaining how THAC0 works.
  • I also dropped clerics, magic-users and thieves to one level below fighters in combat.  As it is, Basic starts with everyone having the same chance to hit in combat.  I changed it so the fighting classes start with a +1 bonus, and everyone else fights at +0.
  • I'm using the level limits for dwarves, elves and halflings, but I'm allowing their prime requisite modifier to allow them to advance a level or three over what the book says.
  • I also gave fighters their mook sweeping ability from AD&D, and I'll let them have some extra attacks as they advance.  Although I'm thinking of maybe just rolling that into the mook sweeping ability, and letting it be dependent on the monster's Hit Die and the character's level, so that a 4th level fighter could sweep two 2 HD creatures (for example).  Not sure if that would be too powerful though.  I just feel like Basic fighters are a little vanilla.  I don't know why you'd play one instead of a dwarf, except for flavour purposes.
  • Oh yeah, I upped the hit points for thieves, clerics, fighters and dwarves to their AD&D equivalent.  I also let them start at full hit points at level 1.  Sorry old-schoolers, I like to give my players at least some sort of a fighting chance.  I'm certainly not fudging die rolls in their favour at the table, so they need it.
  • One of my players wanted to play a dwarf wielding a two-handed pick, so I house-ruled that up.  I didn't want it to do 1d10 damage, so I gave it 1d8, but I needed a reason for it to be a worthwhile choice.  I gave it a +1 to hit armored foes, to simulate its penetrating power.
  • We did some house-ruling on the fly when we saw the absurd price for a grappling hook in the Expert Rules.  25 gold pieces?  What the hell?  It's worth more than a two-handed sword!  We all agreed to knock it down to five, and while we were doing that we knocked down the crowbar from 10gp to 5gp as well.
  • I've overhauled the encumbrance rules, as I detailed in this post last week.  As I suspected, it's a bit of a bitch to set up and explain, especially over video chat.  It's no worse really than calculating regular encumbrance though, and we had accurate movement rates for both players.  It was dead easy to see the effect on the elf's encumbrance when he dropped his longbow.  Unfortunately the game was too short, and they didn't find any treasure, so I didn't get to really test how it works at the table.  The jury's still out, but I'm optimistic that I've cracked it.
  • I also overhauled the combat sequence, using something similar to the one from Chainmail.  I kind of got sick of the way initiative works in 3rd edition, where one player runs a full move and then a monster makes a move, and everyone can watch while this happens and react to it.  It works, but it's a bit unrealistic, so I want to try something else out. To summarise, both sides roll initiative on d6.  There's a missile phase, a spellcasting phase, a movement phase and a melee phase, and the side with the winning initiative goes first in each (although movement happens simultaneously, which I'm iffy that I can pull off with a large group).  I've already changed this slightly based on play.  We had a situation where a skeleton burst out of an alcove to attack the thief, but he didn't get surprise.  So the elf got to fire an arrow, everyone else got to move, and then the skeleton made its attack.  I'm adding in another melee phase at the start, for those who are already engaged in melee.  I think it will work a little better, but it could overcomplicate things.
  • As a part of the above sequence, I've come up with a house-rule for casting times that makes it a little more unpredictable when spells go off, and gives a chance for spells to be interrupted.  Basically, the level of the spell is the chance on 1d6 that the spell won't be cast during that phase.  So if someone casts a sleep spell - 1st level - they roll a d6 during the spell-casting phase.  If they roll a 1, the spell doesn't happen yet.  Anything else, and it goes off.  If they rolled a 1, they roll again at the end of the missile fire phase (provided they don't get shot).  It goes on down the line like that until the round is ended, and if it still hasn't been cast it happens then.  It still makes low-level spells fast, and high-level spells slower on average.  I've also tied this in to the elf's ability to cast in armour: heavier armour gives a penalty to the spell-casting roll.  So the spell will still be cast in the same round, but if you're casting in plate there's a good chance that it'll happen at the end of a round.  It makes magic armour and especially elven chain more desirable (actually, the entire encumbrance system should do that).
  • Basic characters die at 0 hit points, but that's too deadly for me.  I thought about just going with the AD&D "death at -10" rule, but I figured this was my chance to try something else out.  I'm using something similar to death saves in 5e, where someone dropped to 0 makes a save.  If they succeed, they're unconscious, and if they fail, they're dying.  Once dying they keep rolling saves until dead, so it's still pretty lethal.  Bandaging can save them though, as can healing magic.  I used the Death Ray/Poison saving throw category, but I think I'm going to have to change that, because Dwarves and Halfling have absurdly good saves in that category.  I quite like it that higher level character don't die as easily, but I'm not really down with a 10th level character only needing a roll of 2.  I might have to add a separate Death & Dying category to cover this.
  • Of course I'm using the standard double damage on a natural 20 rule.  It ain't D&D without it.  I've gotten rid of 3rd edition's stupid confirmation roll though, it took all the excitement out of a natural 20.  I just say that if you need a natural 20 to hit, you can't score a critical.
  • Unarmed combat isn't covered much in Basic.  I made unarmed strikes do 1d3 damage plus Strength bonus (with different die rolls for creatures of different sizes; Small creatures do 1d2 for example).  The damage is non-lethal, but the only difference that makes is if you drop someone below zero hit points: you can't kill someone with non-lethal damage unless you drop them to -10.  This allows a strong person to kill a weak character with a single punch, which I'm down with (or for a character to pummel an unconscious foe to death).
  • I also covered grappling, which I'm doing as a hugely streamlined version of 3rd edition grappling.  It's just a series of opposed attack rolls, basically.  Monster's don't get a Strength bonus, but they get hefty size bonuses (or penalties if they're little).  A halfling, say, would be at -4, and an ogre would be at +4 (plus another 4 for Hit Dice).  The halfling might get a win here and there, but on average he's going to get creamed by that Ogre in a grappling contest, unless he's higher level.  (Actually, a halfling tops out at 8th level, with +6 to attack.  Factor in that penalty, and the maximum Strength bonus of +3, and the best bonus he's going to get is a +5.  He'll never be good enough to grapple that Ogre without magic or extra numbers, and that works for me.  After years of 3e, it's nice to go back to a system with a flatter progression.)

There's other stuff, but those rule changes are the bulk of it.  It's stuff I've been thinking over for years, while I've been digesting other D&D clones, old-school blogs, and the original D&D rulebooks.  My ultimate goal would be to have a ruleset that can be expanded or contracted  to mimic every D&D edition up to 3rd - the fabled "D&D Nth Edition" that I've written about before - but that's probably a design goal that's beyond me.  For now I'm happy enough to try out the ideas I've been working on for years, and give them a proper road test.  And more than anything, I'm happy to be playing D&D, and not just pontificating about it.

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