So today I want to share an anecdote. A story, really, of the pivotal event that set me on the road to being the GM that I am today. It’s from the days of 2nd Edition, with all of the silliness involved with restrictions around races and classes trying to keep everyone from being a Wicked Cool Sun Elf Paladin With Holy Vorpal Sword. Those involved will not be named, although they may recognize themselves if they come past this post; and if they have any sense, they will strive to remain anonymous, as the only defense for anyone in this story is that we were all fresh from high school.
It began, as these stories often do, with character creation; the three players, who I will refer to as Smash, Pony, and Stick for the rest of the post, were informed that I was planning a new campaign where the first adventure would see them sent off to a kobold warren to look for someone kidnapped from Generic Village (not the actual name, as nothing was actually named.) and to plan their characters accordingly.
Smash made the sensible character; he made a half-elf ranger/cleric with a mace, to ensure the group both had muscle and healing. Of course, he rolled an 18 for his Strength and promptly broke the rules by rolling exceptional strength for himself; in those days anything over an 18 was reserved solely for fighters. After hearing the other two characters, I let him slide on the exceptional strength rule-breaking; the reason will be come obvious.
Pony decided that, after hearing about how she was going to be sent into the cramped, twisting, narrow, lightless warrens of a kobold tribe, she would play a centaur fighter specializing in archery. Let that sink in a moment – going into twisty little kobold-size tunnels, she wants to play a huge horse-person with a bow. Clearly we’re going places here, right?
Stick decided he, like Smash, wanted to make a half-elf ranger. Sensible choice – two-weapon fighting, sees in the dark, and with something like a 17 Dexterity he’d have a good chance of not getting hit too badly on the front line. And then… He picks his weapon, and chooses a glaive, because he’s a Sailor Saturn fanboy and imagines her giant sharpened G on a stick when what he’s actually buying is basically a great big knife-on-a-stick. It’s a polearm, not something you take into a tight, cramped, twisty-turny kobold cave.
At this point, because I’m still the kind of GM who caters to xer friends at this point, I revised my estimate of the kobold encampment so that they lived in a dormant volcano, with lava tubes large enough for the centaur to walk down and fire her bow down. I didn’t give her anything to alleviate her absolute lack of ability to see in the dark, that was on her to solve. These days I’d get the characters first and construct the game from there, but that wouldn’t have helped this game at all.
So they head out with their mission from the townsfolk to rescue those kidnapped, journey for a day or so, and arrive at the entrance to the kobold warren – a large, circular passage leading into a looming, jagged peak with a broken top. They head inside and find a branched path; one slopes up and to the right, with nothing standing out about it; one goes straight, with water trickling out of it (since then, I have come to a better understanding of geology and why this wouldn’t happen, I swear.), and one to the left that slopes down, with stains from smoke and soot along the roof.
When I’ve presented this over the years to others, most pick the path to the left because the soot stains suggest signs of something civilized. Most of the rest pick the middle way, straight ahead, because most life tends to go for water, right? A very few decide what these three must have, which is that the right path – something I had added because I had a blank space on my map paper – was so boring and thus conspicuous because it wasn’t conspicuous.
So off they go; I’d drawn a chamber with a pit, and so had to think fast about what it might be (other than a chamber in the heart of the dormant volcano) – and I came up with the idea of it being used by the tribe for waste disposal. I told them they smelled something foul in the air, like a lot of rot and decay, and so Pony declares that her centaur – who has just the one solitary torch that she needs to see – is going to throw that torch up ahead. Stick, in his one reasonably wise decision the whole session, declares that he’s making an attack roll to block it and gets his one good roll the entire game, a natural 20 that lets him smack the torch down.
Pony spends the next several minutes confused, asking why he did that, until they sort things out and keep going to emerge in a large chamber with a huge pit in the middle, filled to about 20′-30′ below the rim with all kinds of rotting waste and a horrible odor. These days, the torch would’ve started burning blue quite some time earlier, but at the time I didn’t blow them up for bringing a lit flame into the presence of a giant chamber full of methane and oxygen.
So, it’s a pit full of trash. Anyone with sense would see this and leave, right? Not these three – they take leave of what collective sense they have as Stick declares he wants to go trash diving and they promptly lower him down; I require a Constitution check that he passes, only losing a few HP and the contents of his stomach due to the absolutely atrocious odor. I let him scavenge a couple copper coins – a mistake, I realize now, as it cemented the idea that the pit had Treasure in it – and they haul him up.
Smash decides to repeat the diving experiment, makes his Con check, and gets a few more cruddy copper coins. Then Pony – the half-ton three-quarter-horse-half-human – decides that she needs to go dumpster diving, too. They spent the next half-hour working out how to arrange a pulley-like system with their ropes and the stalagmites (Yes, I know, magma chambers and stalagmites don’t coincide. I didn’t at the time, that’s my only excuse.) in order to lower her down, and then only Smash’s exceptional Strength score kept them from dropping her straight into the filth.
Honestly, these days I’d have had rot grubs attack Stick the moment he went diving. Instead, she got a couple of arrows covered in flaking paint, warped and bent from all the damp and decay; she decided the paint meant they must be Magic Arrows and resolved to use them when it was important. They managed to haul her up without giving anyone a hernia by grace of Nice Guy GM power and finally leave the trash behind to continue their explorations.
At the three-way fork, they turn down the central passage, eventually coming to another split; one way is the direction the water is coming from, and they can hear kobold voices coming from the other direction. Naturally, they decide to keep following the water, because there might be treasure they’ll miss if they go do the kobold part of the adventure first. What they find is a chamber blocked off, mostly, by large rocks, with a kobold-size hole near the top and water flowing around the small gaps at the bottom.
They hold up the torch, even though two of them can see in the dark, and they see three half-starved, mangy giant rats huddled on a dry spot, surrounded by stones that are slick and shiny with splattered water from the trickles splattering from cracks in the roof. Stick, naturally, hears ‘shiny’ and misses ‘because the rocks are wet’ and declares that he’s going to wriggle through the hole to go get that treasure.
He then fails his Dexterity check to keep his balance on a bunch of wet, slick stones, falls down, and gets torn into by three very hungry rats that drop him to 1 HP; Smash says he’s staying outside the hole, while Pony says she’s shooting the rats with her Magic Arrows. Being cruddy, half-rotted, warped wooden arrows, she takes a sizable penalty and misses the rats completely; Stick spends his round scrambling frantically out of the hole.
Smash uses one of his two spells for the day (the character had a high Wisdom, even if Smash might have been a little lacking) to heal Stick and they decide the kobolds might be safer than three starving giant rats. They head back, take the fork with the voices, and head down until they see the dim glow of a cookfire and see some shadows moving.
At this point, they have the drop on the kobolds. Pony could easily charge in and got wild, kicking and stomping while Smash comes in with his dual light maces and Stick follows with his knife on a stick. Instead… Stick declares that he’s going to yell a warcry and charge in, rolls a natural 1, trips over his glaive, and falls on a sleeping kobold. Smash follows him in and puts his exceptional strength to use, clubbing kobolds left and right, while Pony…
…Pony stands in the passage and dithers, because she’s an archer and she shoots things and she can’t see because the cookfire is too dim. She’s half a ton of horseflesh and kobolds die if you sneeze on them, quite literally the weakest creatures in 2nd Edition. She could trot in and shoot things at point blank inside the circle of light cast by her torch. She could go in, grab a sword from a kobold that Smash has killed, and stab things with her new dagger. She doesn’t, she just prances around in the passage and chooses not to do anything but call out to the others.
They manage to defeat the kobolds – or rather, Smash defeated the kobolds while Stick repeatedly tripped over himself, rolled natural 1s, and otherwise continued to fail to contribute anything but a target for the kobolds; beaten, somehow, down to half his HP by angry flailing kobolds, he roots around the trashed mini-camp to look for treasure, turning up only the four kobold-size short swords; rather than decide to wield them as daggers, or Pony taking them up, Stick and Pony decide to sling them from Pony using the same rope they used to lower her into the trash as treasure and trophies.
By this time, I have begun quietly scratching out portions of the map that would clearly be too much trouble for these adventurers. Things like mazes would no doubt result in them circling for hours. As a result, they make it to the next post – originally on the far side of a trapped maze – right down the next passage. Here’s a chance for them to learn from their mistakes!
They, of course, do no such thing. Stick once again charges in, Pony once again dithers about, and Smash clubs half a dozen kobolds because his illicit Strength gives him a hefty to-hit bonus. Stick goes down to 1 HP, Smash refuses to heal him, they collect the swords and fail to equip them as anything other than a fancy belt on the centaur, and I mark off most of the rest of the map because by this point I’m pretty much done. It has been hours and these three were still at the original beginning area, essentially.
So they go along and find a blatant trip-rope stretched in front of a blatant pit – the chieftain’s lair, because the chieftain likes to show how unafraid he is by not needing any cunning traps. Stick ignores this and walks right in, falling into the hole as he tries to insist I never mentioned it, only to be told by the other two that I had. He passes out, rather than dying, and Smash steps around the whole thing.
There are torches! There’s light! Surely this means Pony will finally do something, right? And so she does – she grabs a kobold sword off her new belt, cuts the trip rope, and uses it rather than the 150′ of rope coiled around her to try fishing Stick out of the pit. Smash, meanwhile fights the chieftain and the shaman, beats both, uses his healing spell on himself, and finds the treasure – three potion bottles, two identical red-orange syrupy fluid and one a fragile vial of oily transparent liquid waiting to be smashed. Stick and Pony each claim a colorful bottle despite having contributed literally nothing thus far, and they proceed out the other side of the cave.
Behold, an altar! With a young woman from town tied to it, bedecked in crude copper jewelry! Success! They just have to free her and leave, now – so Stick goes and tries to pry the jewelry off. Yes, confronted with a young woman tied to a sacrificial altar, alive and trying to beg for help through the gag in her mouth, he tries to steal everything she’s got on that might be worth a coin or two. A true hero, that ranger with the glaive.
Smash grabbed a kobold sword from Pony and cut the girl free, helped her up onto Pony’s back, and shoved Stick up after her, arranging the ropes to hold the girl in place on the centaur’s back. At last, we can conclude the adventure and be done with this farce.
Only… Pony says, as they head out the exit and find themselves at the three-way fork, that she’s going to tear a strip of her shirt loose and wind an arrow in it, then light the arrow from her torch; Smash apparently sees what comes next on the way and takes off running, while I listen to her declare that she’s firing a flaming arrow up the sloping path.
Up the path to the pit full of rot, methane, and so on, waiting to be set off explosively. She rolls a natural 20, so I describe, as she then takes off at a gallop, how there’s a moment of silence as the arrow flies, followed by the top of the mountain blowing off completely and the plug shattering, turning the quiescent volcano into a highly active one. Chunks of stone rain from the sky for miles around, the village folk try to hide inside, and the shattered volcano belches out a stream of molten rock flowing straight down the valley after the three fleeing heroes, because by this time I am done with being nice and this may have been the crowning moment of absolute nonsense on top of the entire game.
Stick falls off the centaur, limps along after with his glaive as a crutch, and throws caution to the wind, gulping down the potion he get as loot. Surprise, it’s a potion of extra-healing, bringing him back to full HP. He takes off running, keeping up with the others by virtue of it being a downhill slope.
Pony, in an attempt to double down on the sheer ridiculousness of her behavior, hurls her potion at the oncoming lava that she had just released. The potion disappears in a puff of steam and a momentary dark patch on the lava flow; when Stick asks why she did that, she shrugs. “I thought it might be a magic lava-stopping potion.” Because the kobolds, living in a completely dormant volcano, needed to be on guard against a spontaneous eruption, I guess?
The ground shatters open around them, leaving them on a crumbling pillar of rock and earth as lava flows into it and around them, sweeping down toward the hapless village below. Seeing the inevitable, Smash shrugs and smashes his designed-to-be-smashed bottle, triggering a teleportation effect that, originally, was going to take the three to their next adventure, but now it just deposits them somewhere in the Underdark, never to be seen again, safely sealed away from where they can do more damage to the rest of the world.
And that, dear readers, is the story of how I stopped being a Nice Guy kind of GM, and became one who will let you try most anything, but with consequences appropriate to the action.
The Night of the Kobolds, a gaming story that has never once failed to bring discussions of problem players to a screeching halt as everyone in the discussion stops to marvel at this horrific misadventure.
I hope you enjoyed it.