Brezim ’77 Retrospective, Part Two
I quizzed Zach and Clair a bit last week while writing up part one of the Brezim ’77 retrospective. They had some great stuff to say on a variety of topics and I wanted to pass along their thoughts. The whole thing’s been edited and arranged for legibility. Jared also dropped in at the end!
Old School Playstyle
Clair: I think after we got just blasted in that first game I played [this was session 2, the TPK], I started playing a lot more cautiously. I’m also more used to a character-interaction type of game, and I had to work to reorient my brain to a more crunchy dungeon exploring, inventory management system. But I did like the “here’s an objective, we work together to get to it.”
I think Zach and I talked about how different playstyles are complemented and rebuffed by this type of game, so people who like more interpersonal wandering games often don’t have the plot hooks they might want and people who are more objective-focused might have a hard time if we try following plot hooks that may or may not be there.
Zach: Yeah I will say this setting ends up leading the party into a pretty concise way of operating if you don’t want to be killed — always taking your time, always take time to explore room, always leave a canary in the coal mine, leave when inventory full. It felt as if this setting heavily punishes literally risk taking — which felt bad after a while. And when you can’t take risks in a DND setting — then it’s quickly just a gear and dice roll simulator more so than most settings.
Clair: I did occasionally wish that there was more forgiveness for risk taking. If I opened the wrong door, this system almost guaranteed that you just died unless you’re really high level.
Zach: I think a little more refining and this would be a top-tier module for minimal thinking DNDesque adventures.
Heike: A big rhetorical thing in OSR is the idea that the game is designed for challenging gameplay that includes puzzle solving, investigation, and risk management rather than risk elimination. I found things a little samey once we all understood the core gameplay, and hearing you mention “minimal thinking”–I’m wondering if you’d push back on that attitude.
Zach: To me, it’s minimal thinking once you understand how the setting and module operates, more so than most modules. To me, it was not particularly challenging, but I think punishing is the right word. It was relatively easy to choose what the correct actions would be (take it slow, leave once inventory full, always get specialist, etc), but that when you swerved into risky actions (walking into rooms quickly, NPCs getting one shot, unfortunate enemy target rolls in close range), you will simply be punished and is not worth it overall. Not necessarily hard, just straight up punishing if you don’t check the right boxes.
Heike: I know Gygax got frustrated with his players for playing it safe and adopting very specific dungeoneering techniques, but he was the one who encouraged those habits in the first place.
Zach: I think when you make a module that is punishing, you sort of have to trade that with players being more careful. It’s hard to improv and be risky as a player when the chance to die is very high.
Zach: I wish the HP generation was better. I loved the freedom and how gear was chosen — so I understand how d6 HP plays into that and appreciate it — but being at constant one shot health felt bad after awhile — especially when you’re attached to your character like I was for Ivan.
Into the Odd’s character generation inventory tables are based on high stat (3d6, in order) and starting HP (1d6). When you take damage that goes through HP, it overflows to strength damage, forcing a stat check to remain functional. If strength ever hits zero, death is instantaneous. Zach’s character for most of the campaign was Ivan, who had extremely low HP and Str. Though he advanced a bit over our sessions, a mere four points of damage would’ve killed him instantly during his first session.
Clair: HP felt low. I know that rolling under strength was stressful for ME and I had like a 12. For Ivan? That had to be sooooo fuckin stressful.
Zach: Yeah I literally just brought up the rear and only ranged shot — which I was fine with but alternatively having to completely toss a character just because one vitally important stat — health — was low felt bad so I never did it. However, that did generate good content and roleplay — so was it really too bad? Naw.
Cold and Inventory Management
In Into the Odd, players generally carry whatever items they wish, with specific limitations on bulky items. Longwinter has a more complex inventory system divided into soaps, stones, and sacks at a 100:10:1 ratio. Players manage inventory stone by stone, and carrying more than one sack of inventory reduces HP to zero. Warm clothing, which can absorb cold fatigue or prevent cold checks completely, is competing pretty closely with weapons, torches, food, and treasure. In the hopes of decreasing inventory management burden and increasing compatibility with Into the Odd, I eliminated soaps as a unit and included two extra sacks, one of which would always contain Into the Odd‘s default items. In compensation, I increased the cost of items like weapons and warm clothing. I’m satisfied with the mechanics of this experiment, but the actual play was another matter.
Heike: The struggle to balance warmth, gear, and treasure was meant to be an interesting case of resource management. I got the impression this was mostly just frustrating, right?
Zach: For me personally — frustrating in its current iteration. When inventory is already in short supply (IE often only able to partially loot a dungeon), anything that imposes itself on my inventory space is annoying and feels like it limits my gameplay in unfun ways. However, that’s not saying I don’t want the cold mechanic in some form, even inventory. I just think a better iteration is to be found.
Like okay it’s deep winter. We still want treasure. [Zach gave a few details of mechanical headaches here.] It feels like I’m just removing inventory space to negate it altogether and forced to rest to refresh it.
Clair: Clothes taking 2 stone did seem weird to me too, just in the fiction of: why do these gloves or a scarf take up more inventory than this repository of glass bottles I’m carrying.
Zach: On weight too — why does having the 3rd bag in use basically make you insta killable? You might as well not even have a 3rd slot if it’s going to be that punishing cause when you can already die so easy, no one will ever go over into the 3rd slot. I don’t think any of us did. I would have preferred just straight up dice roll modifiers for overweight and that would make it more tantalizing.
There were zero cases where anyone used the third inventory “sack,” even if it meant leaving gear or treasure behind! Pack animals and vehicles, along with extended dungeon crawling concerns ie. torch burnout, water supply, and resting, were technically available but never affected the game–a missed opportunity from my perspective.
I talked a bit about how the system was meant to forgive smaller amounts of chill, and that I’d been hoping they’d take more risks with the cold rather than getting fully bundled up as soon as autumn hit.
Zach: My feeling on reading this is “almost anything can kill me if I fuck up, I will not risk being body heat sapped” is my mentality. Especially since it will literally mean the end to your character.
Players REALLY liked Steve Kilian’s Old School Revival and Under Anisa’s Tower, two modules we played later in the campaign. I asked specifically about the Tomb of the Serpent Kings, which was a favorite of mine but players never returned to.
Zach: I disliked the circular tomb [Tomb of the Serpent Kings] a bit cause it felt like I could potentially choose a wrong door just because and be fucked. It also felt bad to take out some enemies and be like “u got a polyester blanket tehe” idk lmao
Heike: I thought the interaction was very interesting, but I think it’s also designed to fuck you around a little bit–things like the mummy hands in the pool. There was also treasure in that pool, but who would want to go down there after seeing those hands???
Zach: Another thought on why we never returned to a location really (cept one time maybe) (and this thought is just my own) but — I felt like if we went back to a location our characters hadn’t been — little bit meta for me to like. Otherwise, it felt as if our time would potentially be wasted depending on how much dungeon would be left — i didn’t want to spend our 3 hours potentially exploring 1/4 of what’s left of a dungeon.
We wrote a bit more about the dungeon, with Zach commenting on some rooms “with a clear mechanic and unclear solution”–pointing especially to a room full of statues and a sealed door. They were heavy but slideable, but there was no indication of where or why. Zach also mentioned that a playtester, Theo, had already visited the dungeon and looted some of the rooms.
Zach: On that topic, I didn’t really enjoy going to places someone else already had been and if I had properly understood (my own fault) I would have likely pushed to not go there harder. When part of the dungeon has been explored and partial party had maybe more info, it felt like second hand serving to go into a dungeon they partially looted AND not having the info they gained.
Clair: I actually thought that session was generally not a bad one—we were focused as a party, started to really learn how much we like to have lantern keepers lmao, but it felt like the potential danger in each room was so huge and I was feeling so cautious that I didn’t even want to open potentially compelling doors. So the tomb complex was bumpy but I think it helped us solidify our routine and strategy of:
- thoroughly check rooms
- surround the doors
- keep Ivan in back for ranged attacks
- take a decent amount of help
- work through a dungeon as methodically as we can manage
- accept that there are some puzzles we just won’t solve
- be content to escape with the loot we have and our lives rather than dive too deep and die
Hirelings and Items
Zach: Too many actual weapons can hinder you weight wise in cold weather (two weapons + heavy clothing) but don’t sleep on 1) specialists 2) lighter boys and mercs and 3) consumables such as acid and fire oil. I was scared to spend some shillings . . . but our loot and safety vastly improved splurging on those things. I felt like I’d be “gaming” the dungeons a bit if I had hella contracted people, but as the game went on, it seems the game encourages you to spend (wisely) on specialists and mercs to safely survive.
Clair: And it’s fine to load up on stuff that’ll help (fire oil, etc) bc those are things you can then shift out of your inventory.
Heike: Hirelings were really crucial. They took bullets for yall a LOT. If I ran this again, I can’t tell if I’d try to limit their prevalence or embrace it.
Jared: I know I haven’t added much to this convo and I feel bad about that, but my major contribution will be to remind Heike the one time we took no hirelings, Captain Morgan [Jared’s first character, a thespian pretending to be a pirate] and his friends all died. TPK.
I want to note a few extra elements that didn’t make it into this discussion, but were mentioned briefly:
- Into the Odd’s combat (no attack rolls) won a ton of praise from players.
- Casual attendance policy and open-ended sessions made showing up easier and less stressful
- Players pretty much never touched the setting book after the first session, but the 19th century historical milieu was very well-received and the players enjoyed situating their characters historically, including playing out some historical rivalries
That’s about it! Even though risk and harsh outcomes are important to old school play, I hadn’t realized how far forward they were in my players’ minds–a real learning moment for me, as I expected we’d discuss the fiction and GM-player dynamics quite a bit more (these had both been things we tended to come back to when playing previous campaigns).
My next post should conclude this Brezim ’77 sequence by collecting some statistics and giving suggestions for future old school games.