Role-players are a tough crowd. If you make a strongly worded claim about the medium, someone will surely point out that it’s a-okay for other tables to do things differently with just as good results… for them. If you post a negative review of a gaming product, someone will comment with how it was the best thing ever back when they tried it. If you post a rant, someone will scold you for not creating content that people could have actually played. If you post a picture of a newly arrived rpg on your social feed, someone will chide you for not posting a session report instead. (Bro, do you even play?!) And if you post a session report of a module, well… in that case, you’ll get someone posting how they had a totally different experience from you when they did it, which naturally is waaaaay better that whatever you managed to scrape together.
That’s what happened when I wrote about my experiences running Sinister Stone of Sakkara, anyway. This guy’s game really was awesome, though:
I had four players, and I let each of them start off with 2,000 XP (meaning that some of them were Level 2 and some of them not quite so). The spend the first couple of hours meeting the NPC’s and talking to them, and then eventually figured out there might something in the Viaspen forest. Between the Elven Enchantress’s magical music abilities and the Cleave ability of the Fighter (to say nothing of a very timely use of Summon Berserkers) the PC’s managed to make it all the way through their first foray into the dungeon, in which they fought a lot of kobolds, wandered through the largely unguarded zone originally possessed by the recently exterminated goblins, and got to meet a [SPOILER]. They made it back out alive (but only just, and the Enchantress nearly suffered a mortal wound) and headed back to get the Mage of Turos Tem to take a look at the magical items they had found.
Now that is an unbelievably epic outcome. It’s just fantastic, really. And if the players had some close calls, I am sure that not only did they get their adrenaline pumping, but they could just plain taste the glory. Nevertheless, there is no way that something like that could have happened in my six hour convention slot. Just no way.
In the first place, I would have rolled for wandering monsters. And that “unguarded zone” he mentions…? There I would have followed the instructions in the module and rolled for wandering monsters every single turn there instead of the normal every other turn thing. (Given that the party would have at least one dude in plate, that would be every 60′ feet of movement and again if they take the time to rest after an hour of game time.) And instead of them turning up on just a 6, they could show up on a 5 or 6 there. This could lead to one group shadowing the players, another covering the dungeon exit, and another group potentially charging the party head on. (There are hardly any nuisance monsters on the table either, so this sort of intelligent monster mash is much more likely.)
If the players are surprised by an encounter in that section and if these essentially loot-free monsters roll high on initiative… and then end up getting a couple of lucky hits, the party could find themselves in deep trouble. If I remember to let the monsters take their bonus cleave attacks when they drop a PC, then the players may find themselves in even deeper trouble. In any case, if you you’re taking about a party of four and even one player character is mortally wounded, then the players’ excursion is basically over. If they have burned their spells and other party members are down on hit points, then they are going to be praying that they don’t run into another group of wandering monsters on the way out.
Now, I’ve seen people that are really, frighteningly good at D&D. They know how to come up with brilliant plans that reduce the impact of the dice on their chances of coming out alive. They are cunning, brutal, and downright mean. But I’ve also seen parties where they worked at cross purposes to such an extent, players ostensibly on the same side provided more of a challenge than the dungeon itself. I’ve seen players debate the most moronic plans for half an hour while other people wait to play their freshly rolled up characters. (I could tell them point blank that what they trying to do was futile only to have them shush them as they continued to weave an insane plan to carve goblinoid obscenities into a dead kobold’s body and then somehow use it to instigate tribal warfare between neighboring monster groups. I mean I want people to be creative, sure… but some of this stuff is just nuts.)
And yes, I’ve seen players get completely worked up over the simplest obstacles. I’ve seen them take golden opportunities and then figure out a way to turn their epic quest into an episode of the Three Stooges. And most perplexing of all to me, I’ve seen them decide to try to sleep in the dungeon when they were only a two hour stroll from a fortified keep or secure safehouse. I’ve seen them try to catch a nap in a Hill Giant’s Steading, where dozens of powerful monsters could rally and then easily put entire throngs at every exit from where the players were. (Note: low hit point magic users just aren’t going to last long when surrounded and when high move dire wolves are charging in from every direction.)
I’ve played Keep on the Borderlands with people where every choice and every die roll goes their way and the players wipe out an entire faction and take a sweet amount of treasure home like it was nothing. I’ve also seen groups of daring adventurers fail to make it more than 10′ into the lair of the wimpiest monster group of the bunch. I’ve seen players face setbacks and then pull together to achieve great things. And I’ve seen them get cocky after a minor windfall and then come extremely close to a total party kill when they didn’t have to.
A lot of things can happen in these games. Some of it depends on the dice. Some of it depends on completely arbitrary choices the players end up making. A lot of it depends on the players’ ability of work as a team, how effective they are in coming up with sound strategies, and how good they are at extracting every conceivable advantage they can from a fairly elaborate rule set.
The guys in my game? They couldn’t consistently apply the special abilities of the Dwarven Fury that I’d carefully written out on the character sheet and took the time to explain at the beginning of the game. No one at the table would have known to take the Magical Music proficiency. (I make ’em roll for proficiencies in any case.) And heck, it just took me ten minutes of searching to come across the first level Summon Berserkers spell in the Player’s Companion. (Doh!) Seriously, a random group of people at a small con just isn’t likely to have much in the way of system mastery or party cohesion– especially when you have someone at the table that’s never even played before.
Yeah, different people are going to get different results when running the same module. But if you want to be sure to get people to have something like the same scope of adventuring that you managed to convey… then you could go so far as to make sure the party had five second level player characters– including henchmen for everyone and at least one cleric with a staff of healing. You could also start the players off at the dungeon entrance in such a way as to skip the investigation stage altogether. And you could skip all the wandering monster checks, too, I guess.
My experience running Sakkara is, I think, comparable to Isle of Dread or Dwimmermount where it would take a couple of sessions before things could click and then things suddenly get really exciting really fast. Sometimes it takes the hours of exploration and trial and error for the really good hauls to even register as being a significant accomplishment. Different game masters and different players are liable to get different results, of course. But straight up, I’m really jealous that this guy’s group got to [SPOILER] the [SPOILER] in the first session. That’s something I’ve always wanted to play out and it’s crazy that so many modules fail to deliver anything remotely like that. (Yeah, I prepped that very situation carefully and high hopes of it working out. Maybe some day…!)
But yes… it goes without saying, with a game like this… your mileage may vary. Of course, the fact that no one can predict how a particular module will play out is part of the charm. And for a game master like me, just seeing what happens in a more or less faithfully run game is the most fun thing about it– even if the players aren’t exactly attaining legendary levels of gaming glory.