Lunchtime Dungeons: in praise of mix-and-matching game rules

My office Lunchtime Dungeons game stopped in the middle of a fight this week. Tomorrow, the players will face two high-level priestesses of Lolth who planeshifted on them to free a prisoner. And I have no idea who will die.

I know, you can never tell in advance how a fight will go in an adventure game. Those chancy d20s, right? But even then, I have no statistical idea of who will win, and that’s mostly because I’m mixing rules systems all the time. 

The characters are made with Lunchtime Dungeons, and armed with items and spells from across the old school galaxy, old worn books and spiffy new PDFs. The opposition is straight from a Spelljammer adventure. And I am not doing any conversion work.

This makes me the ultimately fair referee. When the players ask me “how powerful would this dragon be?”, I can only answer in in-world terms. “Well, it razed a couple of villages, and the party of knights that was sent to kill it never came back.” Of course, I can compare hit dice and levels, but I never know the way I would if every element of the game was written in the same system.

I saw interesting power level discrepancies when I was running old modules in Macchiato Monsters, but I blamed freeform magic. You can trust clever players with level 5 magic users to get out of White Plume Mountain with a friendly, momentarily shrunk biggest giant crab anyone’s ever seen in a bucket of water.

The giant crab from White Plume Mountain, by Erol Otus. Not seen in Lunchtime Dungeons... yet.
Who needs a sentient trident when they can have this guy for a pet?

In my present game, magic is of course a factor. It’s like an enclosed Flailsnails campaign, if you will. It’s an open table, ongoing game; people drop out for long enough for me to forget all about their abilities and the items they picked up. When they come back, looking everything up is not an option, so I make a ruling. Same with those AD&D spells the dark elves have – I’ve read over them when prepping, but I probably won’t check the exact procedure at the table.

So shit will happen that no one could have foreseen – not the players, who mostly aren’t into rules anyway, and certainly not me. For all of us, the world is this unpredictable, dangerous, believable mess. Will a minor potion save the day? Will the toughest fighter in the party be turned into dust? Will the campaign setting be set ablaze by a barely controlled spell?

I don’t know. And that’s the way I like it.

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