Earlier this week was the 20th session of Chgowiz's Dark Ages OSRIC campaign. I've only played in maybe 12 of those sessions, but that's alright—Mike's running a drop-in/drop-out campaign along the lines of Ben Robbins' West Marches concept.
But last Tuesday's session was a real meatgrinder, almost from the get-go. We ventured into the abandoned dwarven mines, an area that we've mapped extensively and thoroughly cleared out over the previous 19 adventures. The thing is, the unfolding story of the Dark Ages meant that a tribe of goblins, bent on delivering genocide unto a nearby kobold tribe, moved in to occupy the mines.
We hadn't counted on this.
What started as a simple "OK, let's get back to those stairs leading down to level 2" turned into a 2-hour running battle with untold dozens of goblin warriors. There were five of us in the party—4 PCs and a hireling—and we absolutely exhausted all of our resources in a desperate attempt to keep those goblins at bay. We threw oil flasks down hallways, hurled javelins, tossed spells, smashed our way through cordons of goblins and finally escaped into the wilderness. It was daytime, so the goblins opted not to pursue.
But I think this session really illustrates how we have all become "better" players over the course of this campaign. Early on, we had a pretty horrific hireling casualty rate. But this most recent adventure saw everyone emerge alive—the cleric even used one of his precious healing spells to treat our wounded hireling!
We relied heavily on our map to navigate our way into (and out of) the goblin deathtrap. Out of all the oil flasks we threw, I don't think we killed a single goblin—but by setting doorways and corridors on fire, we made those pesky goblins think twice about pursuing us.
The party included a 3rd level cleric, a 2nd level ranger, a 1st level cleric and a 1st level elf fighter-mage, plus our hireling. During the ensuing combat, the two higher-level characters used their double-digit hit points with great aplomb, soaking up tremendous amounts of damage and barking terse orders at the other two characters. Mostly those orders were "Light a torch! Throw the oil!" I'm not really a big fan of having higher-level characters order around the lower level characters—but dammit, our survival was in the balance! My 3rd level cleric wasn't going to screw around when it came to saving the party!
One aspect of last night's campaign that really stood out to me was Chgowiz's pacing. During the frenzied escape, it would have been easy to gloss over some of OSRIC's rather tedious timekeeping requirements. Mike didn't, which meant that our combat rounds were very regimented and by-the-book. Everything took the time it took, no questions asked. Digging a flask of oil out of your bag meant that you couldn't benefit from your shield that round. Casting a spell meant you couldn't move—so do you want to run or cast? Several times our very survival came down to an initiative roll.
In the end, as Chgowiz notes on his blog, our deliverance came in the form of a single botched die roll that paradoxically saved our collective asses. We fled, lacking treasure and a measure of our dignity—but we were alive, and 13 goblins were dead. In this campaign, that's the greatest reward.