Tomb of the Iron God: Post Mortem

We just finished playing the third and final session of Tomb of the Iron God last night, and I thought I’d write a bit of a retrospective of the game from my perspective as a GM.

The Big Picture

This was an old-school dungeon crawl adventure using the Swords & Wizardry Complete rules. There were 5 players for the first session, and 4 for the second and third, with each session lasting 3 hours. We played on the G&BS Discord server, and used Owlbear Rodeo for the map and Google Slides for the character sheets. The characters were a mix of pre-gens and player-rolled, and all started with 2,000 XP and a minor magic item.


Osberd the Pious was played by @Farty.

GMing Style and Mechanics

I prefer to have mechanics take a back seat, at least from the players’ perspective, so they can engage with the world rather than the rules, or what’s on their character sheets. I’ve very happy to make the game as simple as “Tell me what your character does. I’ll tell you what happens next, or maybe ask you to roll some dice.” However, doing that requires building trust with the players, because otherwise it’s very easy for them to think that you’re being arbitrary or unfair when things don’t go their way.

It’s also quite an adjustment for players who are, uh, passionate about mechanics. And especially if you’re known for holding somewhat… idiosyncratic opinions about things like descending armor class, sometimes you’re going to have to show your work.

  • “You rolled a 12, and the homicidal baboon has an AC of 6, so that’s 18. You need a 19 or more to hit.”

Or maybe you have players who aren’t used to the GM making certain rolls…

  • “Yeah, there were killer monkeys behind the door you just listened to. I rolled a 5 on your listen check, so you didn’t hear them.”

With this group, the grumbles were (I hope) in jest. But just remember to always be fair, and be ready to offer an explanation when the outcomes are surprising.


Here’s what I had going on (more or less).

The Players

When you’re doing a dungeon crawl, especially with newer players, there’s a tendency to just treat it as a series of rooms to loot. That wasn’t the case here. Everyone in this group is an experienced GM, many of them with more years of experience than me. That changes the game, in a good way. I didn’t have to do anything for to get them into character. They all knew who their characters were, what they were doing, and why. And they talked about it, to each other, in character! That made it so much easier on me as a GM, because they were self-motivated to engage with the fiction.

One thing that I was happy with and will continue to do is ask players to select an MVP after each session, using whatever criteria they like. That player’s character gets a 10% XP bonus, or 100 XP (whichever is greater). Once or twice it was suggested that the award should go to whichever character it would be most beneficial to have level up, but the discussion always ended up being about which player did an exceptional job playing their character.


Always give the players a little something when they make the game fun.

Two Not So Great Things

  • I pitched this as a 2-3 session game, but the module was big enough that we could have easily gone to 6. The players ended up seeing about 1/2 of the dungeon, but I think we wrapped it up well at least. Maybe there will be a followup at some point, after the current gaming queue empties a bit.
  • I chose the wrong combat system. S&W has a lot of options, and I picked the phased combat system based on Holmes Basic, just to try it out. The first combat encounter in session 2 was rough, and in particular the players were thrown off by movement happening at the end of the round after melee. We got the hang of it in session 3, but I think I should stick with simpler combat rules in the future. @Harrigan will certainly have more to say about this.


Well, it was worth a try.

Anyway…

Overall, I think the game was a success, and most of the credit for that has to do with the players. If you’re on the fence about trying your hand at GMing for this community, my recommendation is to just go ahead and do it. You will have a good time, and you will learn things.

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Great synopsis and analysis, Jim – and fabulous job running the game. I had a great time.

…and the GM. Jim is about as impartial, fair, and even-handed a GM as you will ever find. I generally don’t buy into the concept of the GM as an “impartial judge,” but Jim is as close as anyone is going to get, I think.

To add to the conversation here, I’ll state my biases first: I love the OSR, or at least big chunks of it, but my preferred jam absolutely does not include:

  • Descending AC
  • EXP for Gold (we called it EXP back in the day, dammit, not XP!)
  • Multiple saving throws
  • Whiffy combat
  • Multi-session dungeon delving
  • Retroclones
  • %-based thief skills
  • Vancian / classic D&D magic and spell slots
  • Gygaxian Time Tracking
  • Movement rates that require a calculation / conversion to real distances

And so S&W Complete includes a lot of these. So why did I play? I’ve played with Jim before and trusted he’d run a solid game. (He did.) I’d played with several of the players before, and knew they would be aces too. (They were.) I also really like the simpler version of S&W, Whitebox, so I knew some my more minimalist jonesings would be satisfied. And lastly, I haven’t actually played D&D, as a player at a live table, more than about three times in my whole life. So I just wanted to stretch and see how I felt about a true old school, 0e experience.

Surprise surprise: I loved it – but mostly because Jim had that ‘engage with the world rather than the mechanics’ approach. It’s my preferred way of playing all RPGs, and it felt very natural and comfortable in S&W Complete despite a bunch of the warts I mentioned earlier being present. (Warts to me; beloved features to others.)

The dungeon itself was just awesome – the fact that there’s an element of mystery and investigation really helps draw the players in, and I really enjoyed spending three sessions below ground, in the dark. I could have done more, though to do that we’d have had to fall back and then delve again. We’d disturbed too many of the place’s denizens and escaped narrowly with our treasures as it was.

So – dug it tons. But let’s talk about some specifics:

(E)XP for Gold
And for good / interesting play, it turns out. Didn’t bother me nearly as much as I thought it would. Might even run a game myself that way if I run something like the White Box Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game. (My preferred version of S&W.)

Old School GMing
Jim rolling for sneaking, listening, wandering monsters, trap detection behind his screen… loved it. Proper way to do it.

Descending AC
I understand that Jim can do the required gymnastics in his head, but there’s just no reason to use it beyond nostalgia. It needs to sit in the corner and face away from the other RPGs. Bad, descending AC, bad! (Jim and I have argued this before and I like his perspective, but in the end it just gums up a process that you want running as sleekly as possible.)

Speaking of…

The Holmes Styles Combat Sequence
Hilariously bad. Jim made it work and we all rolled with it and got faster as we went, but dear lord – what an impediment to slick and smooth-running combat rounds. Not having an initiative roll robs the game of a dramatic moment. The weird phasing can then rob the game of the uncertainty that puts people on the edges of their seats. There were a couple of specific cases (like the first room with the rats where Lefaf just closed the door due to her having high DEX) where a test or roll would have added great tension… but instead we followed a pre-baked recipe and just kind of arrived at an unsurprising result. The end. Sad trombone.

I’m being critical here – this kind of phased combat just isn’t for me. I don’t like it in B/X or OSE, I don’t like it in HERO… it’s just not my bag.

Anything else I have as a criticism or area for improvement would just be a quibble. (A couple of house rules could have made things a little more interesting in combat for things like crits and fumbles, but that’s about all that comes to mind.)

Overall, it was a fabulous game. I’ll admit to being curious about how someone like @Gabe or @LaramieWall would run things, and I guarantee that I’d run White Box pretty differently… but big giant thumbs up for the GM, the group, and the game.

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Jim, you were brave to run Holmes combat, and, now that my character is out of combat, I’m grateful for the experience! :grin:

Otherwise, you run a solid game, obviously, and I’ll show up for Return to the Tomb of the Iron God!

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This time with two bags of holding!

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A 5e GM’s Experience in OSR
First off, I’d like to thank Jim for a great game. I had a lot of fun. I know I joked around more than I should have. I apologize that I was being annoying. I tried to correct myself at time, but I was just over-excited to play. That mid-game break (scotch) doesn’t help.

All RPGs have that same underlying focus. We as a group are getting together and building a story. That is the same whether it’s 5e, OSR, Call of Cthulhu or any other game I’ve played. To be truthful, that’s my favourite part of the game. We went to that temple to find out what happened to the priests that lived there. Some of the rules were not that different from 5e. You roll a skill check to listen at the door and either pass or fail. The roll behind the screen was very cool, but it was still pass or fail. I rolled a dice to see if I hit, and a dice to see what damage I did. There were subtle differences like THACO, but in the end it was a hit or miss. It’s a slight change that provides a very similar result.

Probably the biggest difference was combat. We talked about that a few times. I wasn’t a fan of the alternate version of combat rules. It was very clunky. Osberg is standing at the door staring at a dozen angry Barghoons and somehow he is slower to react than Lefaf who is halfway down the hall and unaware of what’s going on. I felt like it took a long time for my turn to come. Missiles - no, spells - no, melee -YES … no wait, I have the lowest Dex. Okay, everyone else go first. Finally! It’s my turn. “I close the door.”

How we as a group handled combat is very different in S&W than it would be in my 5e games. Let’s review that first room with the Barghoons. The ‘meat shields’ would have charged into the room leaving the spellcasters and ranged PCs firing from the doorway. At 1st level, 5e PCs would have had more tools in the toolbox to help with the battle. The Paladin and the Cleric would have had healing to save anyone that went down. We’d all have 3 death saves, so there’s plenty of time to get to a downed player. Push come to shove, we could have done a Medicine check to stabilize the downed PC at zero HP. Realistically, we probably would have bought one or two healing potions in town - or be gifted a couple by the priests that sent us to check on the temple. The focus on the character sheet and how to maximize those tools are very important to my 5e players. The worry about death would be there in a 5e game, but it wouldn’t really be a concern unless the battle wasn’t going our way.

Most of my 5e games have been heavy on the battlemap. That’s not really a OSR vs. 5e difference because there are groups that play 5e in theatre of the mind. It does change the feel of the game. That last room when the Barghoons were storming in as we escaped would have played very differently. Tokens would have been laid out on the map. You can move 30 feet per turn. Some would make the door, others would not. There are up to 8 five inch squares around an individual token. Osberg and Elzae would have been surrounded by at least 6 Barghoons as they backed out of the temple (3 attacks on each PC per turn). Each turn would be carefully documented on the battlemap so each player knows how to react to the setup at their turn. I like this approach and I also hate it. I like it because it reduces the confusion around who is where and what is going on - we can all see it clearly each token on the map. I hate it because the game (no longer story) has devolved to moving tokens around on a map, searching your character sheet to see what you can do about it, and then rolling and calculating.

Overall, I enjoyed the game. Jim did a great job of presenting the story. It was very interesting and I would like to know how it ends. The Players were experienced and played their characters masterfully. I know that I was the dead weight in the group. That’s fine. My lack of experience helped add complications for the rest of you to solve.

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I’m glad you liked it. I don’t think you joked around too much, and I certainly don’t recall you being annoying. As for being over-excited, I take that as a good sign.

Yeah, it was a bit clunky. The mechanics didn’t really support the fiction, where those things would have all been happening in rapid succession. It might be possible for some people to keep that fiction in mind while going through the different phases, but it’s not easy, nor should that effort be necessary. The message I’m getting loud and clear is don’t use Holmes combat next time.

I think this is all correct, and lines up with my experiences with 5e. The other thing is, that combat would have been the centerpiece of the session, in terms of time and mental effort put towards playing it out, and the impact of the conflict between the party and the barghoons would have been felt immediately. And that sort of combat encounter can be fun.

As it happened in our game, the main effect of the brief encounter was that the party got away from their first run-in with the barghoons, but then (hopefully) had it in the back of their heads from then on that “They know we’re here now. That’s going to be a problem later.” And as a GM, all my wandering monster checks after that were to see when that other shoe was going to drop.

You probably had the biggest shift to make in terms of expectations about the game and system, but I don’t think you were dead weight at all. Actually, I thought you did a terrific job playing Osberd by bringing a a great mix of compassion zeal to the character. Trying to heal one of the iron priest statues by laying on hands? That’s great. Wanting to search everywhere for survivors? Absolutely, yes.

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Bartorn the Pale’s journal entry on his experience in the Tomb of the Iron God:

—Fortunately for my health I understand my place in the cosmos. I am not one to rush into combat or address a problem head on.Some may say standing idle while action is at hand is cowardice. I say nay. Ask the magic user in his grave about bravery or impatience. The mighty oak was once a vulnerable sapling. The mysteries will not unravel themselves. Someone must do what is necessary to know the unknowable.

Hurling steel tipped missiles though the air at the first sign of danger is a fool’s game. Yet the speed at which it can be accomplished is admirable. I could see the grimaces on the faces of my fellow delvers that felt the weight of their boots and their blades to be inadequate to score that first blood. The haste at which the bird can swoop through the air is always faster than the fiercest beast’s claw.

How shocked they were, when I too was able react to a threat before they could lunge at it. What they don’t realize is that harnessing and unleashing the elements of the arcane is no snap decision. Great contemplation upon the near future’s events must be undertaken and a path chosen before the path exists. I must then make a single calculated decision on when to coil and harness my energy like a serpent preparing to strike. Oh, but my strike will not just sting, it will change perceptions; warp realities.

Then and only then, the impatient and impulsive will be allowed to swing their sharp sticks and spill blood. I have noticed the ire that some of the warriors have with not having a near enough foe to engage with. They seem to struggle with the inability to competently come to blows with the enemy before more arrows may fly in their direction. But I should not be so condemning of their ilk. They are an integral part of my survival during my expeditions. Acting as body guards and distractions from the dangers lurking about.

I am pleased that the risk I had taken was not in vain. The coinage will help expand my experiments into depths I did not have the means to prior. The ability to utilize my new assistant Cliff for strenuous and menial tasks will greatly increase my efficiency. He has already been tasked with digging a new chamber in the root cellar . As for the iron tome, I have not yet unlocked it’s secrets. This is a delicate endeavor and should not be hastened.

I will be sure to pay attention to the goings on concerning the Tomb of the Iron God. I believe there is much more to uncover at the site and wish to acquire such knowledge. If a future expedition is formed for a return to the ruins, I will be sure to make sure Bartorn the Pale is on the roster.

Feelin’ Good about Magic-using

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I wish there were some way to like this twice, or super like this!

Challenge accepted. I’d love to run a one off. After that, you’ll REALLY appreciate how good Jim is :wink:

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Thanks a lot. I had a great time writing this. I wanted to legitimize the validity of Holmes’ combat sequence in a narrative way. In so doing, I think I have rationalized the intention of it’s action order, which resulted in putting my mind at ease about deciding if the method was good, bad, or ugly. I concluded it was none of the above. It was just “the rules”.

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