A post I made on Dragonsfoot (as an example of one of the things that happened in older versions of D&d that the rules of D&D 3+ seemed designed to prohibit) included an example of total party death from the second or third game of D&D (original LBBs and Greyhawk) I ever played back in the fall of 1975:
We were a group of first level (OD&D/Greyhawk) characters exploring the first level of a dungeon. We turned a corner and came face to face with a couple of trolls (a wandering monster encounter). Fortunately, we surprised them. We turned and ran. They gave chase. We got a bit ahead of them and out of their immediate sight and ducked into a dark alcove. The floor fell away and we went sliding down a long slide. We ended up in a small debris-filled cavern with a red glow coming from three passages near the ceiling. Peering through the holes we saw dragons. Three large red dragons. All appear to be asleep. We picked the one who looked “most asleep” and tried to sneak by. Err, unfortunately, we did not sneak very well (all that armor, I guess). I’m not sure we even managed to damage the dragon before we ended up dragon food. Well, all of us but a thief character who managed to hide in shadows (only to be become vampire fodder as he tried to sneak out of what turned out to be the fifth level of the dungeon).
This example has generated a poll thread over at the Knights & Knaves Alehouse asking Was this DM to tough or just a fluke of party bad luck?. This is a question that never occurred to me in the 30+ years since this memorable (but disastrous) adventure. As I’m not a member of K&K and don’t really want to join another board just to reply, I’ll discuss this adventure in a bit more deal here and try to answer some of the questions raised in the thread at Knights & Knaves.
When I posted the description at Dragonsfoot, I wasn’t trying to describe the adventure in great detail as the purpose was only to be an example for my point. I also limited by description to what happened, not the things we learned about the dungeon from later expeditions with different parties, let alone things I learned about the dungeon when I took over DMing it because the original DM got into grade trouble after midterms and decided that studying to avoid flunking out of college was a good idea. I will not so limit myself in this post.
Background on the Adventure: There were eight or nine players, most of whom had a freshly rolled up 1st level character. Everyone was first level. We had been hired by a noble fop (he would tip characters a copper piece for knocking spiderwebs and such out of his way in the dungeon with a “That’s a good man, always look out for your betters” type comment) to accompany him into a dungeon so he could talk the goblin king into buying cattle (or maybe it was sheep — some farm animal anyway) instead of stealing them from area farms. Hey, he paid gold up front with a promise of more when we returned him safely to the surface, so we didn’t care that his plan sounded silly.
The Adventure (with more details): We had been wandering through the dungeon and had probably killed a few minor critters (and may have already lost one party member, I can’t remember) and bribed a goblin we cornered into leading us to the goblin king. We were on our way to the goblin king when we turned that corner and came face to face with those trolls. Some posters on KnK have wondered if they were real trolls. I can’t answer that. They were described to us in general terms (big humanoids with clubs or the like), but our noble employer screamed “TROLLS” from the back of the group as he turned and ran back the way we had come. That was our cue to run too.
I don’t really remember what happened as we ran except that we somehow lost our way and were separated from both our employer and our goblin captive. From later exploration and my stint as DM of this dungeon, I suspect we were confused by some corridors that magically switched around (I don’t remember the specifics, sorry). When we believed we were out of the trolls’ sight, we ducked into what we thought was just an alcove off the corridor. As we were fleeing, we did not notice the writing on the wall next to the alcove, but we found it on a later adventure. It read something like “Danger: Dragon Food Chute” in goblin.
It was a chute. As already described it dumped us all in a small cavern room full of bones and other debris. Small is relative, however, the cavern was about the size of a living room and the only ways out that we noticed were these tunnels that sloped down to three huge caverns, each with a sleeping red dragon at the far end. The dragons looked relatively small to us and why they did not have a lot of treasure as dragons go, any one of them had more gold than any of us had ever seen. One of our thief characters wanted to play Bilbo and try to steal some of the treasure. We wasted a lot of time talking him out of it. We looked around for secret doors both in the cavern and in the tunnels, but did not find any, so we finally decided to try to sneak past one of the dragons. More discussion about which dragon, whether everyone wearing metal armor should take it off to avoid making noise, etc. Finally we try to sneak out past one of them (everyone in their armor), we were doing fine until we are near the dragon and its treasure, when the dragon suddenly woke up (or stopped pretending to be asleep?) and attacked us. We put up as good a fight as first level OD&D characters can, but did not survive.
We later discovered that we missed an easy way out. Had we made any attempt climb back up the chute we would have found a staircase paralleling the chute that went up to a mostly deserted temple complex on the second level — headquarters of the evil cleric and his MU henchman who were raising these dragons. The stairs were not visible from the cavern floor looking up the chute and we never even thought of trying to climb it as it was steep and slick. (We discovered this when another party found the other end of the stairs on the second level.)
While we were led to believe that some noise woke the dragon, the player of the thief character who survived by hiding in shadows latter admitted that his character was hiding in shadows because he was going to try to grab some of the treasure. I personally believe that “was going to” was actually “had grabbed” as that would probably wake dragon and explain why the dragon attacked immediately instead of first talking to an obviously weak party. However, this is just my guess.
We rolled up new characters while the thief tried to sneak out (having no idea he was on the fifth level) and then continued play. The noble fop had even survived and returned to town, never again to go anywhere near a dungeon. LOL.
Was the dungeon too tough? In hindsight, with years of experience and lots of example dungeons to go by, it probably was a bit too deadly. However, it was a well-thought out and designed dungeon for the fall of 1975 for a group that had never seen a complete published dungeon. None of us had Blackmoor yet — I doubt we even knew it was out. There was nothing like “snick wire” (monofilament wire — totally invisible as it was only one molecule wide) strung across doors to slice anyone walking through the door into many pieces as one DM was all too fond of, mini black holes in chests, or the like.