It wasn’t technically a total party kill because there was never a point where all of us were lying dead on the dungeon floor. More like a total party replacement; by the end of the session almost none of us were playing the character we started with. Here’s my post-mortem analysis of what went wrong:
– Jumping to conclusions. Our plan was to visit Sebastian, one of the necromancers in the Caves of Chaos with whom we’d previously made a treaty. When we arrived no one was waiting at the mouth of their cave, it took a while for them to respond to our hail, and there were noises of things moving around inside. I interpreted this as evidence that the necromancers were under attack and that we could take advantage of the situation to kill and loot them. It wouldn’t have taken much intelligence-gathering to prove this assumption wrong, but I sailed in with blind faith in my assessment of what was going on.
– Roleplaying. Self-preservation is a top priority for rational beings, so arguably it’s poor roleplaying not to act with that in mind. Or, in the “what’s my job in the party” sense rather than “what’s my motivation”, a guy whose romantic ambitions cause him to run into a cave known to be full of zombie guards in order to rescue a medusa who has already betrayed him twice is playing the role of Suicidal Lunatic to the hilt. Good or bad, roleplaying killed Era the Elf Captain of the Dragoon Lancers, the only Red Box character I’ve ever rolled who died in their second session of play instead of the first.
– Beer. Some of the mistakes we made were stupid enough that we need an external factor to blame them on. For example, in the first successful (pre-alliance) raid we made on the necromancers, we took two kinds of badges from their slain apprentices. We knew that one of them protected us from the zombies, but went in wearing the other kind of badge. Oops! It was also a big group of players and the place where we play was unusually noisy, so difficulty in communicating and inattentiveness made things worse.
– Numbers. When we did establish contact with the necromancers, they offered us 2,000 gold to capture a hawk-bear dwelling in the Caves and 3,000 to bring them a bull-man. Our first-level characters shied away from these, suspecting those monsters would have ample hit dice. Instead, we decided to go after the bugbears in the hopes that their numbers would have been thinned out when we defeated their patrol that attacked us while we parlayed with the necromancers. This was foolish not only because the chieftain of those goblinoids probably had as many hit dice, but also because we allowed ourselves to be outnumbered by his forces. If we’d gone after the hawk-bear, we would have been the ones swarming over it – more troops almost always have the edge against a single powerful critter in old-school D&D. We also failed to bring any henchmen, having let the previous ones go over a dispute over whether they deserved full shares on the next expedition. We got hardly any treasure and the henchmen probably would have died before they could claim shares in any case, so in retrospect this was also foolish.
– Lack of profit motive. The hawk-bear might have killed as many of us, but the survivors would have gotten paid. We got no cash from our raid on the bugbears. This relates to survival both because making it to second level would dramatically improve our longevity, and because keeping our eyes on the prize would encourage more caution.
– Born to die. The loss of Francois, the founder of the Crossed Swords mercenary company, was bitter both because of his vivid presence in the campaign and because he died with almost enough XP to level up. Characters who’d just been created had less to live for, and so having fun rightly took precedence over saving their newly-minted PC’s skin at all costs. One of the two new players we had last night rolled a dismal set of ability score rolls, distinguished by a dismal Constitution and a pretty-good Charisma, and decided that his PC would be an enormously fat and jolly elf. What better destiny could such a character have than discovering the sign on the entrance to the bugbear lair promising a hot meal; running in full of enthusiasm, trust, and gluttony; and being promptly skewered to death? Survival is a drab thing compared to such glories.
In retrospect, one of the things this proves to me is that knowledge is power only when the players are invested in it. Eric writes great session summaries and answers to our questions about what’s happened in the campaign. (I’m relying on his summary to supply all the names of the dead; if I don’t mention your fallen hero, it’s because I can’t remember what they were called, not because their passing wasn’t noteworthy!). Details about things like which amulet repels the zombies are probably in there, but reading the summary didn’t get it in our heads where it’d be useful in play. Writing our own summary would help rehearse that knowledge, and the process of recording events in play would likely also foster insight into wise strategic approaches for future sessions. (For example, Oban came up with the idea for the Express Elevator to Hell while thinking about what map symbol to use for the rising-and-falling statue.)
Another thing last night reminded me of is that we need more handouts. The other one of our new players was a pure drop-in, having wandered over to our table when his Pathfinder Society game didn’t materialize, and we should definitely have had stuff to get him up to speed (a one-page guide to character generation, another on how to use the basic Red Box rules – as a 3E-era player knowing the mechanics was important to him – and finally the one-page distillation of Matt Finch’s Quick Primer for Old School Gaming that I found somewhere) and plugged into the larger network of gaming (something better to point to our online presence than the napkin scrap on which we wrote the New York Red Box URL, and a TARGA flyer once such exists).