Thursday, August 11, 2011

Gencon Play reports: The Spire of Iron and Glass (x2)

Here was an interesting experience at Gencon - I got to run the same adventure for two different groups and compare play styles.  One of the groups was mostly new-schoolers, and the other group was dyed-in-the-wool old-schoolers.  It could have been a social experiment.  Which group would you think "did better" in the module?

Let me reiterate how totally awesome is the Spire of Iron and Glass.  I gave it a good review some months ago, and getting to run it twice during Gencon did nothing to diminish my enthusiasm.  It's a fun exploration in an unusual dungeon environment with plenty of physical elements for experimentation and tinkering, and it rewards out of the box thinking.

This was my first time DMing Swords & Wizardry, too; it's a charming rules set, really stripped down.  Only a single save value, no thief class - just fighters, magic users, and clerics.  The ability scores are flattened to a mere +1 (as opposed to Moldvay's +1, +2, and +3).  Otherwise very similar to Moldvay BX.

The New-Schoolers
We had a small group on Thursday, just 3 players, so I let them run 2 characters each.  The group consisted of Dennis, Brian and Adam.  They were all 3.x or later players, except I think Brian said he had some 2E experience.  The adventure supplies the party with henchman, men-at-arms, mules, a wagon and equipment; they chose not to make much use of it other than to bring a man-at-arms to the entrance to hold a rope from the walkway.  (After the walkway disappeared an hour into the module, the man-at-arms was left clinging precariously to the outside of the egg by the rope; they thus named him 'Cliff').

I don't know how familiar you are with the Spire of Iron and Glass; the adventure involves exploring a sequence of gigantic, egg-shaped crystal domes that have stood unexplored for ages.  The only way into the topmost egg is via an invisible causeway that appears once per year over a 3-day period (I placed it at the summer equinox).  Once the characters cross the causeway, there's a tunnel down into one of the eggs from the top, and then they're on the first dungeon level.

The dungeons themselves have no roofs; instead, a ceiling of coruscating electricity flashes overhead.  There is a lot of machinery and other things for experimentation throughout the levels, including ways to turn off the lightning ceiling, allowing the characters to climb the room walls and access other areas from above.  It's awesome!

For the new-schoolers, it was all about getting as deep into the dungeon, as quick as they could.  I'm talking reckless abandon.  If they found a teleport circle, everyone else typically  followed the first person in.  Levers were for pulling, buttons for pushing, downward tubes that resembled gigantic drain pipes were meant for jumping and sliding down - bottom's up!  They made it to the bottom level fairly quickly and actually fought the boss.  I couldn't believe it.  The dungeon is quite large for a 4-hour convention slot.

They definitely had fun along the way, there was plenty of humor and they had fun with their guys.  Typical moment: when someone tripped a teleport circle near an alien statue, Adam's cleric began beating the statue with a wooden staff: "Curse you evil horse-headed man, why did you take my friend away?"… followed a moment later with, "Thank you, beloved horse god for returning my friend to me…"  Gamers.

The Old-Schoolers
The old school group took a far different approach.  Careful and circumspect, they checked for traps everywhere, listened at doors, approached things warily.  There were a few times I was tempted to say, "It's just a gazebo."  You get the idea.  While the new-schoolers merely scouted the first level and skipped most of the rooms, the old-schoolers methodically mapped every room, exhausting every door and passage before considering a descent.

They brought a lot of fun to the table, too.  They took a henchman and a number of the men-at-arms with them to use as resources, and much of the humor involved the henchmen.  One of the recurring shticks was when Dave bequeathed a mace to his henchman, Derk; every time something needed to be tested, he called Derk back over.  "Hey Derk, let me hold your mace a second, buddy", and Dave's fighter Hurak quickly tossed the mace into whatever needed testing.  The mace was teleported a few times, thrown into the lightning field, plunged into goo, all sorts of stuff.  "Thanks buddy, here you go - you can have it back.  Oh, don't pout - I'm sure that stuff will wipe off."

Treasure was the primary scoring mechanism if you used the module tournament style.  The new-schoolers only ended up with 2060gp after breezing through all four levels.  But they got a huge bonus score by discovering a new way out of the spire.  The old-schoolers, with their careful searching, actually scored 3,130gp from the first level alone.  Unfortunately, the module scoring recommends you lose -8000 points for not finding an alternate way out, and time ran out.

Two members of my home group sat in with the Friday night old-schoolers, and afterwards we talked about the different approaches.  Mike remarked, "All I'm saying is, those 3xers don't play Raggi modules, where you touch the door handle and get killed by a poison bite via save or die."  The numerous instant death dangers of old school play reinforce cautious and methodical play.  Is the converse true, that the more powerful characters and greater degree of balance in 3.x or 4E encourages players to act boldly and recklessly, not expecting any serious harm without adequate warning?  Hard to say with such a limited sample, but it's fun to conjecture.

The main thing is, both groups really seemed to have a good time and enjoy the challenges of the adventure and it was fun meeting a bunch of new players.  If any of you find yourselves north east of Philly, we've got a weekly game that can accommodate a guest appearance.


  1. This is indeed a great write-up. I'm shocked that ANYONE managed to get to the boss during the course of a convention time-slot. That's pretty impressive playing! And it must have taken a fair number of lucky decisions.

  2. Glad you all had fun. Thanks for the write-up.

    "...that the more powerful characters and greater degree of balance in 3.x or 4E encourages players to act boldly and recklessly, not expecting any serious harm without adequate warning?"

    I think this is true, and it's a feature, not a bug. As I understand it, the new school grew out of players tinkering with the game in order to create a faster-paced, biggger, bolder, and less paranoid kind of adventure.

  3. Very interesting comparison of the two groups.

  4. Glad you all enjoyed the write up. What's awesome, I can't really say either play style was right - both groups had a hoot and came away with a great sense of achievement. The old schoolers were careful, and it totally worked, and they scored the most gold, and the new schoolers were bold, and it totally worked, and they beat the boss. Since it was a one-shot, I'm sure it would have been fine for the new schoolers if there were deaths; there was even a point versus the boss, where had they lost an initiative, they would have gotten a 10d6 fireball from the boss, and they figured a few folks would die (despite their efforts to disperse and/or take cover - or in Adam's case, cower in an empty stone tub). So even the final fight was a bit of a coin toss. Edge of your seat fun.

  5. I don't think either style was "right," but I think I would have had more fun with the "new schoolers," even though I've been playing D&D since '75. A convention game is meant for gonzo play, as opposed to the logic of a continuing campaign, and it sounds like the NS'ers "went gonzo." Regardless, it sounds like you did a fine job of giving both groups a good time. :)

    BTW, "Spire..." is one of my favorites among the Old School adventures I've come across. Absolutely brilliant science-fantasy.