Today, I played a session of old-school D&D. The Red Box, to be precise, or Labyrinth Lord, its retroclone. We had both the Red Box books and the Labyrinth Lord hardcover at the game table and used them more or less interchangeably. The adventure was the famous B9 Castle Caldwell and Beyond, the iconic Christmas calendar dungeon (you open a door and something completely random pops out). The module holds a special place in the Finnish gaming culture, because it was one of the few modules that got translated into Finnish and some elements of it are completely ridiculous. A few years ago, some people associated with the Roolipelaaja magazine got together and played several sessions of Castle Caldwell and Beyond in different rulesets and game styles. They posted game reports on the forum, which is unfortunately gone now.
The game was advertised as a one-shot, but seems to have already spawned a loose campaign-like structure. It’s connected by the Mekanismi wiki to a fairly large player pool. The name of the campaign is “In the Shadow of Hatheg-Kla”. As may be determined from the name, there’s a strong Lovecraftian influence to the game world, Celaeno. However, in a surprise move, it’s not so much the Cthulhu Mythos as it is the Dream Cycle. Other inspirations are R.E. Howard’s Almuric, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars and Venus novels, Leigh Brackett’s Skaith Trilogy, and Supplement V: Carcosa. It’s sword and planet and sorcery type stuff, weird fantasy that gives a context where even the reason-defying inhabitants of Castle Caldwell make sense.
I hadn’t actually played Red Box D&D before. It was an interesting experience. The game has a lot fewer rules than the D&D I’m used to, and is a great deal faster, especially in combat. That said, it’s also a bit inelegant, with the downward-counting Armour Class and to-hit chart, and the lack of a unifying core mechanic. Then, it is also a system that doesn’t really get in the way, and even the Armour Class thing just needs getting used to.
I played Alidan, a brave 1st-level elf, fresh from the Elflands, taken by wanderlust, searching for adventure. The other members of the group were Jado the Robin, a thick-skulled halfling and former slave, and Esteban, a noble fighter from a place he called “Spain” that nobody else had ever heard of. He kept going on about bad opium in a den in Macao. The DM was Navdi, who writes the blog Blowing smoke. He and another one of the players have also been playtesting Lamentations of the Flame Princess’ Insect Shrine of the Goblin King, which probably has something to do with the idea of running Labyrinth Lord.
A Cordoba Spaniard in the Yellow King’s Court
A common concept in the sword and planet genre is that of the adventurer transported from our world to another planet or world – John Carter and Gullivar Jones to Mars, Randolph Carter to the Dreamlands, and so forth. Thus, Esteban and his henchman, Burt, were a nobleman and a sailor from 17th-century Earth. This kept coming up during the session. Clifton Caldwell was an Englishman, and one of the traders in the castle talked about Edinburgh.
This trick allowed the DM to do something interesting in the narration. Usually, at least in my experience, it’s a good idea to avoid cultural references reaching outside the game world, because they are damaging to the atmosphere. In narrating the events of a game set in the Forgotten Realms, you don’t say that the architecture looks like Ancient Egypt or that the bar is like the Mos Eisley Cantina. In my opinion, the narration and description of the game should be delivered to the cultural context of the PCs. I even criticised one of the papers (Hendricks) on the RPG course on this very topic. However, since it was established that one of the PCs was a Spaniard, with an Englishman as his henchman, Navdi could describe the architecture as “roughly Turkish or Ottoman” to Esteban, and all the players would understand it.
Making Making No Sense Make Sense
The other nifty trick in the game was that since the world is derived from Lovecraft’s Dreamlands and the sword and planet genre, where weird things happen, the sky has a strange tint and the Mona Lisa was painted by Erol Otus, it doesn’t have to make sense, as such. The weirdness brought by some oddities of the ruleset or idiotic module design is not unusual and doesn’t even need to be remarked upon. “This is the blackest kind of magic!” was actually Alidan’s explanation for a lot of things in the castle, and I feel it worked a lot better in the pulp setting than it would have in, say, Greyhawk, or in 3E.
That said, Navdi did cut out the dire shrew, because there’s weird and then there’s just plain dumb.
Another, bigger change that he wrought dealt with the three traders in Rooms 3, 4 and 5. In the original module, they’re three traders with no names who have identical stock for sale and are just resting. Now, they turned out to be identical triplets, who had no memory of coming to the place and who were overtaken by frothing rage when they laid eyes on one another. The first we recruited as a henchman, the second we tied up after he attacked the first one, and when we met the third one, our henchman charged him, while the other guy shook off his bonds and came to join in the fray. Then we had three identical traders, all named Charles, wrestling on the floor, and they started melding into one another, turning into some sort of monster straight out of a David Cronenberg film that attacked us. Overcome with revulsion, Alidan, Esteban, Jado and Burt hacked it to pieces and burned the foul goop that it melted into.
Also, the cleric in the last tower room worshiped Yog-Sothoth, which I clued into when Navdi described her holy symbol as looking like a key. The shrine itself was originally dedicated to Nodens.
He’s Dead, Jim
Another aspect of the Red Box, compared to newer versions of D&D, is that it’s a lot more lethal. Esteban, at full hit points, failed a save vs. poison and died immediately, to be replaced by the thief Jevgeni, a henchman he’d hired from the village in the shadow of Hatheg-Kla. Jado was chewed up by a fire beetle, and replaced by Dimitri, a cleric of Nodens who had heard of the evil plaguing Castle Caldwell and showed up just as we were done burying Esteban.
Alidan mostly survived because of luck. His AC was low, but monsters, when their attacks were randomised, rarely chose to strike at him and when they did, still missed. He took a total of three points of damage during the whole scenario, while fighting at the front line with his scimitar. And one of those points was when Jevgeni accidentally shot him.
Since I spend most of my time in a different town from the rest of the gang, it’s not likely I’ll get to play Alidan again, but it was great fun.