Wednesday, July 29, 2020

"T1 - The Village of Hommlet" Review Part 2

Into the Dark Depths of the Moathouse Dungeon 
In case you didn’t read the first bit of this review, I’ll be diving into my thoughts on “T1 The Village of Hommlet” by Gary Gygax. Check out the first part of this for, well, the first half of the adventure! But you can expect my conclusions at the end of this one. 

We left off with our dear wizard Merlot alone with the shady fighter Koport. As soon as he had the chance, Koport left with the dosh that the party had gathered thus far. The wizard was powerless to stop him, so he didn’t. After a long day of back and forth travel, the party returned to find that all of their stuff was gone. They sought revenge against the Koport. A pretty reasonable idea, being that they all nearly died for that meager treasure. 

An Impressive Show of Strategy
Through a very tense series of encounters, the party managed to track Koport and his cohort down before they could leave town. Long story short, they forced them back into their service in exchange for sparing their lives. I’m speeding ahead here because I don’t think you all need a play by play of the dungeon crawl. And I don’t want to give away any spoilers if any of you nefarious DM’s want to run your party through this particular grinder. 

They fought their way through the long slog of enemies and they did so skillfully. Undead, bandits, crawfish (yes really), and ghouls fell at their hands. They scouted for traps, funneled enemies to key positions, and were generally pretty impressive. I was happy to see my friends embrace their inner wargamer, for you need that kind of attitude to even stand a chance in any Gygax module. 

Ending spoilers ahead: Expertly, the party made their way to the final encounter. What do they face-off against? A dragon? A beholder? Oh, no. They face off against something far more deadly: a cleric. The final battle pits the party against over a dozen cultists and their fanatic leader Lareth the Beautiful. They fought tooth and nail for every inch of progress. The wizard burned over half of the low-level cultists alive. The fighter cut through the commanders. The rouge pinged away at the HP of larger opponents while the cleric rushed to keep everyone on their feet. 

The Final Push for...Victory?
Battered, broken, and bleeding the party gathered around to face Lareth as he strode down through the dead. He was unfazed by the bloodshed. He carved through Koport and his companion. He struck down Rhyne the gnome cleric. They were whittling his HP down, but it was getting dicey. Only Erric the rogue and Kallum the fighter remained. They held their ground for three turns, getting a crit in the process. With 8HP left, Lareth seemed beatable...but the dice were not on the party’s side. Lareth struck them down. It was over. They had lost. 

I didn’t know what to do. I had played and DMed for my friends for nearly six years now. This was my first TPK as a DM and it did not feel good. I closed up the game with some awkward apologies and sat back to think about what had just happened. Thankfully, my players are great friends who claimed to have a blast despite the whole, you know, losing bit. 

I thought perhaps it was my ineptitude with the system. I’m sure there were rules I forgot or skewed at the moment. Now, I’m sure that had its place, but I don’t think that was the nail in the coffin. 

The Deck is Stacked
Looking at other AD&D modules to compare, I’ve come to think that the deck is stacked. The DM has much more up their sleeve than the players do in this edition, particularly when you compare it to 5e. Now, these aren’t any earth-shattering or unique conclusions. AD&D difficulty is mythic at this point. They go hand in hand. I’d also hazard a guess that this is where the player vs DM mindset originates for some people. 

This was a game where the DM always had an ace up the sleeve that could guarantee a win. It could be an instant kill trap, a hidden item, or anything else. This time it was Lareth’s -1 AC. Unless the party went and started uprooting floorboards in barns, then they weren’t going to have the weapons necessary to hit consistently. In fact, most of my players couldn’t hit unless they scored a 19-20 on die. That’s insane for a level 3 dungeon where they’d already been weakened by the scores of enemies within. 

The way that T1 is written makes it seem like players fail if they don’t go and do things that likely wouldn’t naturally occur to their characters. They need more allies. They need to steal. They need to play the system in a meta way, which is something I generally discourage in all of my regular games. 

Final Thoughts

None of the above has stopped me from wanting to play AD&D, but I feel like I’m looking at the system with fresh, more objective eyes. It’s brutal. It’s unfair. You certainly need the right group of players to have an enjoyable experience. D&D has evolved as a game, especially during these last few years. It shouldn’t come as a shock that the idea of fun and challenge doesn’t quite line up with the current attitudes. 

Look at it as an old-school arcade cabinet: you’re going to throw a lot of lives and time at the game before you get decent enough to “win.” There’s a lot to love about the AD&D system. Hell, there are some features that I wish they’d carry over in the future like secondary positions, rear-attacks, exceptional strength, THAC0(yes I’m serious), and weapon specializations. But, overall, I think most AD&D modules should be approached with caution. But, who knows, perhaps I’ll run into one that blends difficulty, cohesiveness, and role-play in a seamless way—T1 was not that module.

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