For the first time in Gods know when, I showed up early to my weekly AD&D game, only to find that one of our players had let it be known that he was not showing up with naught but a cryptic text message.
I can only assume that he has been kidnapped by ninjas, or some other unavoidable and terrible fate befell him.
But these things happen. Anyone who's played a pen and paper RPG more than twice knows that it is a miracle if all the players show up for three sessions in a row.
So what is the rest of the party to do?
Enter Ravenloft: The Book of Crypts.
Despite not actually containing any scenarios involving crypts, the Book of Crypts is an excellent little book for situations like last night. Most all the adventures contained therein can be completed in one or two sessions. Also, because all the adventures take place on the Demi-plane of Dread (well known for it's player snatching abilities), the players can go to sleep one night and wake to find themselves in Ravenloft, or simply be walking down a forest trail when the Mist rolls in. After the adventure is completed, the players can be just as easily transported back.
My players completed one of the shorter adventures in the book in under three hours, and seemed to enjoy doing so. Ravenloft adventures tend to be less combat driven and more "uncover the dark secret". I think it was a great change of pace compared to the endless waves of bugbears and evil priests that infest the Temple.
I've even got a plausible explanation for the quick trip to "the 'loft" as well, involving a discovery the cleric made in the crypts below the player's keep.
A discovery that I hope will speed their progress through the Temple. There are some great moments in the Temple, but it's been dragging on for months now. The endless combat in the Temple is not epic enough to be high fantasy, and not quick enough to be pulp fantasy. It's almost the same as if the player just went to a mine, and instead of swinging swords, swung pickaxes. They spend a lot of time underground under dangerous conditions, and return with wealth. Repeat.
I can't help but wonder if the drudgery I'm experiencing is my failing as a DM. Older modules like the TOEE don't hold your hand as far as story. It's more, "Here's a place, get on with it." Ravenloft is much the opposite, it's more, "Now this happens! Roll to see if you freak out and poop yourself!"
It's the difference between a sandbox and a choose-your-own-adventure book. I think both have their merits, and I enjoy both, but I think sandbox style gaming might require more from the DM, and perhaps I'm not delivering. The games I've run in the past have basically been, "I've constructed this narrative, here's a hook to get you involved." My past games have been very story driven. So much so that I handed out levels as they were needed and ignored experience points completely.
...which in part is why I think hell is a place where I'm surrounded by players who constantly ask "Do I level?" as if it was the most important thing in the world.