Saturday, March 23, 2013

Lost City of the Elders: Out-of-the-Box play with Rob Kuntz

At the most recent Gary Con, Robert J. Kuntz refereed three separate groups through part of his Lost City of the Elders environment. I had the pleasure of participating in the second of those three groups, and it gave me new insight to what Rob has described as "out-of-the-box" or "open form" play.

Lost City of the Elders is most certainly not a typical "monsters in a dungeon/wilderness" environment. Rob is a unique referee. This particular union of referee and environment was a bit of a shock to the system … in a good way. It pushed us, as players, in ways we had not been pushed before. At times, it was uncomfortable or jarring. A couple players left the session early, possibly because of how different it was from their typical sessions. The following day, two other players from my session made comments like, "Can you believe that session? Were we just in a train wreck?"

But I did not echo their consternation. I enjoyed the play session; I certainly learned a thing or three, and I think all the players are better for the experience they had at Rob's table. Given a bit of reflection, I think even the early-leavers would agree.

Depiction of the Lost City of the Elders (from WG5 Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure)
From here, I will try to highlight some of the out-of-the-box situations and techniques Rob used during play. I'll avoid direct spoilers (mostly), but because so much of the play was about us (as players) adapting to the changing play environment and trying to stay level-headed, some indirect spoilers are inevitable; many of the out-of-the-box techniques were the changing environment we dealt with.

Player Interpretation of a Visual Aid

After briefly framing our reason for adventure (often a necessary evil at convention games), Rob presented us with a visual aid that offered a clue about where we were to begin our adventure. The illustration was somewhat ambiguous, certainly mysterious, and yet tantalizingly semi-concrete. The nearby NPCs had no information that would help, so it was up to us as players to interpret the illustration using our real-world knowledge and form a plan accordingly.

The obvious ramification is that we used player skill to navigate the situation (which is great), but the less-obvious ramification is more interesting: It forced us as players (many of whom had never met one another before) to communicate, offer ideas, and listen to each other. And because Rob presented the illustration in a "safe" spot in the game world, we got to break through the wall of social pressure without the added stresses of trying to save our own skins. (That added pressure would come later, lol!)

Leap of Faith

Upon viewing a portal unlike others we had seen, our party faced the decision of whether, and how, to go through it. (This was conceptually similar to the "green devil face" from S1 Tomb of Horrors, but not nearly as ominous.) The visual characteristics of the portal gave us no confidence that we would be able to get back through it from the opposite direction, and some physical experimentation confirmed our suspicions.

The simple fact that we could physically experiment with the portal also bears consideration. It immediately showed us that careful thought reaps rewards. And since experimentation means interaction with the referee, one player received a firm lesson in How to Ask Questions of the Referee and How to Clearly State What Your Character Does™.

Finally, because we ultimately concluded that proceeding through the portal was indeed something of a leap of faith, we players learned who among us were the brave players, and who were the cowardly. Or from my perspective: Who were the prudent, and who were the foolhardy.

Get Out of the Box

At one point, the entire party became stuck at the bottom of … well, the specific place doesn't matter. What matters is that only some of the characters had ways of moving vertically toward the exit. For our group, this turned into a "come together" moment. It afforded us a chance to help each other out, to learn the basic capabilities of each others' characters, and to form a plan. It was easily within our means to extricate ourselves, but the potential unfriendliness of the environment gave us an opportunity to ensure we had mutual support among the characters that exited early, and those that exited later.

Add Stress, Change the Environment, and Invalidate Planning

Rob's Gary Con V report (linked down at the bottom) mentions "time compression," so I don't feel bad spoiling this one a little bit. Time worked differently in the dimension containing the Lost City of the Elders. It seemed to change speeds, proceeding at a fairly normal speed for a while, and then suddenly shifting from midday to the middle of the night, or vice versa, and then moving back to a normal speed again. Sometimes there were several day-to-night shifts (or vice-versa) in rapid succession. (Some of the variability may have just been my perspective as a player, because resolution of combat rounds takes more real time than most turns of overland travel, for example. Even so, the rapid day-to-night shifts definitely occurred, even in the middle of a round.)

This was both detrimental and useful. On the one hand, our spellcasters recovered their spell capability just as suddenly as the day-to-night shifts occurred. On the other hand, after some of the shifts, we were stricken with extreme hunger and fatigue, as though we hadn't eaten or rested in days at a time. All this combined to shake up the typical adventuring logistics (what spells do you take, how much food do we bring, etc.), and to encourage us pay more attention to what was going on in the heavens above. It also introduced doubt as to how long we'd be able to survive in this dimension, given that time seemed to be increasing in aggregate speed the further we travelled.

Note that the time compression was only one of several manifestations of an environment change. We faced several other physical or supernatural changes that affected how we interacted with and navigated through the environment. Each such change was virtually a game in itself: Figure out what was going on, figure out if it was beneficial or harmful, figure out if we could alter it, and figure out how best to carry on.

A Figurative Tidal Wave

At one point, we encountered a disturbing-looking denizen of the dimension. Rob's initial utterance indicated that the lone individual intended to harry the party, but by the time his sentence finished, there were so many creatures appearing that they began forming something akin to a living tidal wave, ready to crash down upon us, or climb upon their own collective bulk to reach us at great heights.

So, yeah: Escalation. High-level AD&D characters are pretty powerful. But I don't care what level your characters are, you simply don't survive in combat against literally thousands-upon-thousands of enemies doing what these critters were doing. This was not a single (but very tough) dragon that we can "manage" by forcing it to melee our fighters while the magic-users and clerics concentrated their spells upon it. This was so many creatures that we'd be wiped out in a round or two if we tried to combat them physically. Suddenly our "we are so cool because we have limited wish" characters appeared surprisingly fragile, and it us was up to us as players to come up with ideas to save our characters' skins.

We moved into a survival mindset, not unlike our extrication mindset from the Get Out of the Box example, but this time with a deadline. We had to think fast, and we had to get everybody moving out of there now, which allowed the more experienced AD&D players to impart important knowledge of spell and magic item effects to the less experienced players. It also forced a good bit of naturalistic thinking, as we visualized the imaginary game environment to come up with a plausible way out of our predicament. The naturalistic elements of the game world really mattered, and could mean the difference between characters living and dying. A couple of the players were so affected by the situation that they offered to sacrifice their PCs, obviously to help give the rest of the party a chance to escape, but I believe also because they (as players) were getting stressed out by an escalation the likes of which they had not seen before.

Sadly, this taught one player harsh new lessons in how AD&D spell components work, that wands (and the like) are a magic-user's best friend in times of extreme stress, and (maybe) how hubris can be fatal to PCs.

Pull No Punches!

Quite reasonably, Rob held our level of play to a standard commensurate with our PCs' high levels. This manifested in a variety of ways, the most obvious being that PCs could (and did) die during the adventure. But also, he expected us to be ready with relevant information about our spells and magic item effects, to be straightforward when asking questions, and to not coddle fellow players by supplying answers and advice when the referee asked direct questions of the fellow. The stress level was sometimes high, and part of play skill is the ability to perform well under pressure; a couple of us (myself included) received a deserved slap on the wrist for trying to help another flustered or floundering player.

"Monsters" Transcend Stats

During our exploration, we encountered three types of creatures. I suspect Rob had stats for each such creature type behind his screen, but in only one case did the typical combat stats come into play, and only because we were playing somewhat poorly. (q.v. A Figurative Tidal Wave.)

Rob's use of creatures showed that stats can be thought of as just a tool, subservient to the creature concept itself. The existence of combat stats do not imply that the combat stats are "to be engaged" (through typical combat), any more than inclusion of a creature's height & weight implies that the game is about who has the biggest monster.

More concretely, Rob's use of creatures during the expedition illustrated a concept-first design approach. Presumably, he thought of a situation with sentient beings to be included in the environment, figured out what the sentient beings ought to be like, and then put appropriate stats to them (as a necessary evil, because after all, PCs might take the fight to them). Note the difference between that and the common rpg sub-hobby of "coming up with a new monster."


Hopefully the above techniques and situations aren't entirely new to you. A fair number of referees do these kinds of things already, and that's great. While the specific examples above are from an other-dimensional high-level AD&D environment (12th-14th level, with any three magic items we desired; potency was not restricted), any of the ideas can be applied various ways in lower-level play.

But the important thing is not simply (re)using the above examples or their subcomponents. Certainly there are infinite possibilities; Rob used a number of other techniques in the session beyond those I listed above. The point is feeling the freedom to inject much more than monster-room-treasure in your adventuring environments, and feeling the freedom to flip the play experience on its ear.

Notes and Bibliography

Robert J. Kuntz's designer entry and author credits:
(rpg stuff)
(rpg stuff)
(board games)

Grognard Games' video interview with Rob, including some discussion of "open form" play:

Some of Rob's comments on "out-of-the-box" play:

Rob's Gary Con V report, which includes some of his comments on the Lost City of the Elders sessions:

Rob's character building guidelines for his Lost City of the Elders sessions:

Gary Con convention site:

Finally, the small print: I had two very nice drinks over the course of the last half of the session, delivered by the fine wait staff at the Geneva Ridge Resort, so my memory may not be 100% perfect on all the details above. I may have mixed up a detail or two, but that's not really pertinent to the point of this article. So there.


  1. A very fine rendition, Guy!

    Might I point to more comprehensive links regarding my game design that you could substitute for the lone, sparse one as noted above?

    RPG Design:

    Board Game Design:

  2. I finished this and am glad for having read it, even after hearing much of this first hand at the North Texas RPG Cons I attended.

  3. An alternate explanation for the players who left early: I was there on one of those occasions, standing by the table and listening for a minute or two -- or trying to. Over the din in that huge room, it was almost impossible for me to make out what Rob was saying from across the table and a foot away. Any players with worse hearing than mine might have found it impossible to keep up with what was being said.

  4. Actually only two people left in one game, the husband/wife combo, and i spoke with them before they left and the lady affirmed that she had a giant headache which had been oncoming before the game; which might be another reason why they, as a team, offered to sacrifice their PCs (per Guy's notation above) in the initial escalation. The room has low ceilings and the noise bounces around; same thing NTRPGCon suffered under until finding a great hotel with large conference rooms plus high ceilings.