A couple of weeks ago, some of our regular players couldn't make our daily D&D session. I decided that this was an opportunity to start up the episodic megadungeon campaign. This is my long-planned set-up for spontaneous play on just such occasions. There was just one problem: I hadn't yet designed the dungeon.
That, I decided, need not detain us. I procured a highly rated free adventure from the web (I won't give its name here as we aren't yet done with it, but it might concern a sepulchre of sibilant segmented slitherers ...). And off we went.
This gave me the opportunity to test out some of the mechanics I've plotted out for episodic games - notably the last lantern-bearer. I had every player roll up three characters each beforehand, but instructed them to equip only one with the conventional 3d6 x 10 gp.
That was the only time that a gold piece was a gold piece. Taking a tip from Little Odo, I've rebased the currency to silver for the purposes of treasure and XP - so that equipment is much more expensive after the initial kitting out of a character. I don't mind a starting character showing up in plate armour - but I want it to be worth prying from his corpse if he comes to harm.
Players also have to choose between spending silver pieces looted from the dungeon or using them for XP. I've made the same switch in our regular D&D campaign (still on the gold standard), and I like it. The advantage for higher-level characters is that all living and travel expenses are hand-waved as "in the XP" - but the players are still left hungry for loot.
Anyway, the first session went nicely. We were using the Swords and Wizardry rules, which I really like. We had four players, and the party consisted of an assassin, an elf fighter, an elf thief and a magic-user. They decided to hire some extra muscle, so recruited two additional fighters - one first level and the other second. That meant that treasure would be split seven ways, with Carla the Clumsy (the second-level fighter) taking two of those shares.
For this adventure, I decided that the mules and porters/lantern-bearers would remain outside the 'dungeon'. My megadungeon will chiefly consist of spacious hallways and wide subterranean roads, but this outing involved caves and a tomb. The map, however, allowed me the conceit of having the porters within earshot at first, so that potential reinforcements were at hand.
The players advanced cautiously and overheard some orcs talking. The elf thief realised that the party had been overheard. During a period of indecision, one of the orcs crept round to the party's rear using other tunnels and began shooting arrows. They drove him off with missiles and managed to make short work of his two comrades. But when they were beginning a rope descent into a lower level, the orc archer returned and shot dead one of the NPC fighters holding the rope. That led to chaos, with some of the party getting into trouble on the lower level while one was left on the upper level to deal with the orc. A well-placed arrow eventually did for him, but two of the party had died below and Carla the Clumsy was badly wounded (0 HP). The lantern-bearers were summoned from outside, the wounded Carla was carried out, and two new PCs replaced the fallen from the ranks of the hired help. These two were unequipped, of course, so they had to scavenge gear from the fallen - less than ideal given the mismatch of character classes.
Two players had to go at that point, so one original PC left with the wounded, but one of the original characters and a replacement made their way a little deeper into the lower level. Only one came back - but with a fair bit of XP and a little loot for her pains. Next time, the two surviving starting PCs and their new comrades can aim to get further in and deeper down.
All in all, the game went as I'd hoped. After the higher-level escapades of the regular campaign (approaching its first anniversary this weekend after what must be around 340 sessions), it was nice to be cause fear with a single orc arrow out of the darkness. And I was happy with the lethality level (three survivors out of a total of seven adventurers, starting and recruited during the session).
What I liked most was the feeling that the adventure was a raid on a dangerous locale - and a fairly unrewarding one at that, especially when the recovered Carla claimed her share. That sets the stage for a second expedition next time - and perhaps this time, the players will recruit all the NPCs they can!