The tldr for the lazy: Very successful first session with lots of encounters.
I'm writing this after spending a long day driving back from the game followed by a cold night in front of the fireplace. I got home about 7 PM Monday to discover my furnace had died while I was gone. Please bear with me if this article sounds a bit frazzled. Since you've been patient enough to read my ramblings about this campaign I thought it only fair to share the fruits of the preparation.
Friday Afternoon & Evening
After a quick bit of organizational work (we dealt with most of that before the session in email) the entire 18 man party plus two mules set off for Moria, loaded with gear, food and grain. Their intent was to first verify the map, left to Darren, Digs and Dahryl by their somewhat deranged uncle, was actually accurate, then find a secure campsite relatively close to the entry, then start their delve, leaving part of the group on watch at the base camp. The trip was relatively easy, the only sour note the sight of three or four riders shadowing the party along their route. After discovering a promising cave leading into the mountainside the party established a base camp and headed in.
The group spent the better part of a day exploring a series of natural caverns centered around a huge, watery, maelstrom in a central chamber. They ran into a pack of diminutive humanoids that set traps for them along a cliff-side trail, discovered a massive millstone door that they haven't figured out how to get past, traveled through a fungus-filled cavern, discovered a pair of skeletons beneath a pair of obsidian spires, and rescued a deranged old man who was apparently the survivor of a previous expedition. After backtracking and leaving the old man at the camp, the party finally found a (relatively) safe route to the Dwarf-made wall mentioned by the 3 D's uncle.
Further scouting by the party's thieves revealed a fortified wall occupied by goblins beyond a broad stepped passage over 200 feet long. The party, a bit itchy for action, decided to harass the wall guards to see what the reaction was. With a bit of shuffling around in the dark the party managed to get the jump on the guards, killing most of them, but not before one sounded the alarm. The party started to fall back, only to be blitzed by a pack of swift running wargs. Realizing the beasts would easily run them down, the party used their elevated position on the wall to their advantage, and made pretty short work of them. The fight delayed them long enough for the warg's handler, a bestial goblin with glove-mounted blades on his hands, to attack. They eventually killed him too, and beat a hasty retreat from the additional forces approaching across a fairly open cavern beyond the wall.
After an uneasy night at camp the party returned, intent on assaulting the remainder of the goblins. They discovered they were up against a moat protected fortification with an elevated balcony providing cover fire over most of the approach. The party started an assault, but realized they were not prepared to face a determined adversary in a fortified position and fell back. This ended Friday night's gaming.
From the GM perspective, the entry area was a bit too complex. There were quite a few physical obstacles and I think the players got a little frustrated. I had anticipated the goblins would have been defeated by the end of Friday night's play, but it was late when the party got there. The players decided not to force a major encounter when everyone was tired, which was, in retrospect, a very good choice. I also rolled exactly zero encounters for the party camped outside.
The party's first attempt at the fort was side-tracked by a group of orcs, who were waiting to ambush the party near the entrance to the fort area. After a bit of indecisiveness, the party attacked in force and wiped the orcs out in short order (all hail hold person!)
Using some clever tactics, spider climbing a fighter and cleric supported by thieves onto the balcony to take out the archers while the main force went for the main gate, they got through the defenses and pretty much wiped out the goblin force. Their leader, a tougher goblin wearing a fine shirt of Dwarven mail, challenged the party's ranger to a one on one duel, quickly knocking him unconscious. The party's paladin was going to take the next shot at him, but the others were less patient and attacked en masse. Seeing he was going to die no matter what, the goblin leader turned and jumped off the parapet, plunging over 500 feet to the cavern floor far below. The party secured the gates leading further into Moria, and searched the fort, uncovering the goblin hoard. After some debate they decided to use the fort as a base of operations and move the camp inside, uncomfortably aware that at least one goblin had escaped the fight. The party also left their mules in the care of the crazy old man they rescued from the caverns above. Apparently he was able to communicate with them somehow.
The rest of the morning was spent securing the fort and exploring beyond the two gates leading further into the depths. The south gate led to a cavern with a huge bubbling pool in the center. A pair of frog-like humanoids retreated into this pool after being surprised by the group, and the paladin spotted something very large and EVIL in the depths. That, combined with the trio of exceedingly lifelike 'statues' near the pool's edge convinced the party they should go the other way, at least for now.
The other gate led to a stable or stall area, where the party found the remains of three dead creatures, an over-sized wild boar (long dead), an orc skeleton, and a tiny elven figure with lime-green spots all over its skin. Beyond was a huge arena-like area with bleachers around the periphery. Several passages led away from this area and the party followed several, discovering a complex of residences and workshops taken over by a giant ant colony (which almost lead to a huge fight), a fortress held by more orcs, and a switchback descent guarded by iron drawbridges that led to a miles long passage leading further into the depths.
GM notes: Hero points saved at least three character lives during last night's and this morning's battles. We use a deadly critical hits chart, and the players all used hero points to avoid getting hit by one. The goblin fight was a tough one, but the players did a great job of coming up with a plan and actually implementing it.
The party spent some time arguing their next steps. Some wanted to explore further, others wanted to clear out the ant colony, while another group wanted to hit the orc-held fort. Eventually the third group prevailed, leading to a major battle. The fort consisted of a pair of walls surrounding an inner bailey, the inner higher than the outer. A stone bridge led from the top of the outer wall to a barred gate that gave access to the inner bailey. There was also a heavy timber in place that connected the two walls.
The party managed to stealth some members to good firing positions outside the wall, then began the assault. Surprisingly most of the orcs retreated, releasing wargs to attack the party as they tried to penetrate the gates. With the party's primary combatants tied up with the wargs, the thieves and clerics were free to engage in the prime activity of the night, falling off high spots. No fewer than five characters plunged off the walls at various times, and the party's many clerics (six total) were kept busy keeping people alive. Even the poor halfling thief managed to fall off the same wall no fewer than three times.
Eventually the party defeated the defenders, but not before they discovered the wargs were actually some sort of demi-human/wolf shape-shifters. They also encountered a gaunt and pallid human who had the ability to form weapons from his hands and fold himself into the shadows and move without being seen. At least one of the orcs disappeared beyond the interior gates, and the party, pretty banged up and almost out of spells, decided to retreat. On the way back they ran into a lone Dwarf with an obsidian staff who pretty much ignored them and disappeared into the darkness. Back at camp the night's rest was disturbed by a weird black blob-creature that disappeared in a cloud of rainbow light when slain (?).
From the GM point of view the afternoon dragged a bit. The party got a bit tied up figuring out where to go and what to do, wasting about an hour before deciding to hit the orc fort. One of the hazards of such long sessions is we tend to not take breaks when we should and people get tired and grumpy. The fight at the fort was both hilarious and overly long. We all had a cold streak on dice and spent a couple rounds missing each other. Everyone falling off the beam between the walls was really funny, especially when the cleric actually saved someone by breaking their fall with their own body. The folding man really threw the party for a loop too. At the end of the fort fight everyone was done for the night, so we took the rest of the night off to socialize.
Sunday sessions are generally short, as everyone generally heads for home around noon. The party bypassed the 'pool of evil' and explored the tunnels beyond, discovering a huge lake-filled cavern with yet another fortress within, a collapsed cavern full of rubble, and a nest of carrion crawlers, which they easily defeated. When they explored the nest they discovered a paralyzed but still-living Dwarf among the victims and rescued him.
Backtracking they eventually found a natural granite shelf leading out and down into the gigantic cavern beneath the original goblin fort. They wanted to recover the nice mail shirt the goblin leader took with him so they followed this down to a hilltop covered in ruins. A pack of undead Dwarves jumped them among the ruins, leading to the final big battle of the game. With so many clerics and two paladins the party managed to kill many of the undead with those turned revealing several paths down into the cavern below. A search of the ruins turned up a very nice stash of coins and several magic items, leftovers from a previous expedition slain by the undead.
With time running out the group retreated all the way back out of the depths and headed back to town to cash in their loot. When they returned to their original base camp they discovered the old man and their mules had vanished (hey, what do you expect if you leave your stuff in the hands of a madman?) The trip back to Hollin was uneventful, and everyone returned alive.
GM notes: Everyone lived. Not one party death. Clearly I need to step up the deadly factor a bit. Combats with 12-18 characters are SLOW, even with a relatively quick system like 1st edition. I think the players are likely to reduce the active characters in use next time we play.
Reading back over this, it doesn't seem like we did much, but that might be deceiving. Some of the encounters were huge. The goblin fort, for example, was protected by over 60 goblins and wargs. The fight there ended up being three or four separate encounters. This group is big on tactical challenges, and I accommodate them, so even simple encounters tend to be pretty deep when it comes to the actual battle.
My only disappointment with the game was that I didn't get to expand on the story elements touched on in the game. It's kind of a mixed blessing in that I have plenty of material ready for next time, but I think the story people in the group felt the lack. Hopefully I can address that next time.
I view the game as a real success. It was initially proposed as a one shot game, and by the end of the weekend everyone was talking about 'next time'. One player suggested everyone chip in some cash to defray my travel costs so they could play more often (they're all in the greater Washington DC area, I'm in Indiana). With that kind of enthusiasm, I can't wait to play again.