Thursday, April 8, 2010

Surviving Old School Dungeons: Be An Odysseus, Not An Achilles

One of the complaints I’ve often heard from people is that old-school or classical dungeons are just too danged lethal. OK, so Tomb of Horrors isn’t the most novice-friendly module ever created. But the lethality of many dungeons may be greatly reduced, assuming you’re in the right mindset.

Let’s look at approaching a dungeon through the personalities of two ancient Greek heroes, Achilles and Odysseus. There’s a good reason why these two are seen as the antithesis of one another in The Iliad.

Being an Achilles won’t work, if you want to survive many old school creations. Achilles represents battle fury, untempered passion, one who came to his doom drawn by emotion into another fight. Achilles is guided by these emotions, which always seemed to dictate when he would and would not fight.

In an old-school dungeon, you don’t pick your battles by emotion.

You want to be an Odysseus. The legendary king of Ithaca was nowhere near the warrior the other famed participants of the Trojan War were, but he was a clever bastard. You want to talk about fighting an enemy on your terms? This is the guy behind the Trojan Horse. He took everything the gods could throw at him, and made it home. Every challenge he had, he approached with forethought, wit, and cunning (and not a bit of deceit, I suppose, one of the reasons the Romans didn’t care much for him). He blinded a friggin’ Giant Cyclops, for crying out loud, and you can bet that wasn’t a stand-up fight.

Sometimes, the gods send you into unfair situations. You don’t survive the whims and petty fancies of the gods by bellowing rage and charging in to certain, defiant doom. You survive by assessing each challenge, working on a solution, knowing when to retreat, avoiding combat where practicable, and ensuring any combat that does happen happens on your terms.

There’s no glory in dying to a kobold spike trap on the 2nd level of a dungeon because you only knew how to press forward. Getting the loot and getting out with minimal bloodshed is how heroes are made—heroes that live and get to go home.

So the next time you want to try your hand at some classic-style dungeon crawling, ask yourself if your approach lines up as an Achilles or an Odysseus. Dice are still dice, fate is still fate, but ask yourself: which of those two would be more likely to survive the Tomb of Horrors?

13 comments:

Jayson said...

Well put.

David said...

A timely post as I'm in the middle of reading the Iliad!

Mack Eye said...

Great article! I'm running a group through 'Keep on the Borderlands' next week, and one of them has sent this out as suggested reading.

Frost said...

Fantastic post. This should be mandatory reading for any player.

Zachary The First said...

@Mack: I'd love to hear more about how it went--tel your player thanks for the nod! Good gaming to you & your group!

@ All: Thank you very much for the recommendations and the comments! I’m very pleased if it hit the mark.

Carpe Guitarrem said...

What, in your mind, would be a good example of an Odysseus ploy?

Zachary The First said...

@ Cool question. Odysseus was painted by the Greek as the epitome of wiliness and cleverness. I think he would definitely make use of dungeon terrain, but moreso, look at avoiding encounters until enemies were less watchful or asleep, and make advantageous deals with the dungeon’s denizens rather than fight. Use trickery or disguise to bypass enemies whenever possible.

Tim Shorts said...

Great Post Zack. Never thought about the comparision and it is spot on.

Zachary The First said...

Thanks, Tim!

Swordgleam said...

You're forgetting that Odysseus got his entire crew killed, while most of the Myrmidons lived to fight again. Which hero would your party rather have? =P

Zachary The First said...

See, worrying about henchmen. You're still not in the right mindframe here. :)

Ryan said...

Getting the loot and getting out with minimal bloodshed is how heroes are made

Excellent... and, you know, the older editions almost seem to have this built into the rules; treasure is worth waaaay more experience than monsters. Hell, as I mentioned on my blog recently, the medusa in B/X is only worth something like 125 xp, and she has two save or die attacks!

Zachary The First said...

Well, there have been multiple posts made at other blogs (especially Jeff's Gameblog) about how if you take the XP values of classical D&D at face value, a less combat-centric, exploratory game seems to come to the forefront.