Thursday, November 19, 2015

Castle of Horrors Session 8

Thursday is GURPS day!

Most of my gaming group met for another session of Castle of Horrors, though +Douglas Cole wasn't able to make it. This was another fun and interesting, but not necessarily terribly productive, session. Fighting undead may or may not be dangerous, but it tends to take up a lot of play time.

Well, That's Creepy

At the end of the previous session, the PCs were in the castle's basement after having killed a mad ax man and secured the magic ax Vengeance. Doug's character Neil and +Eric Schmidt's character Yusef had explored down some stairs and found a locked door. After some discussion and further recriminations on the subject of murder, the PCs decided to climb some nearby stairs that led to the base of the north tower.

When I first mapped and stocked the dungeon, I noted to myself at one point that there were only two ways to the base of the north tower: down the spiral stairs from the upper levels, and up the stairs from below. For reasons that will shortly be obvious, I thought it was very unlikely that the PCs would be coming down the spiral stairs and thus they'd have to be coming up from below. Nevertheless, I staged the encounter under the assumption that the PCs wouldn't see in the stair well and had the monsters hiding there. I'm not really sure why I did that.

At any rate, the new room was a roughly 60' across circle, with the PCs coming up a square flight of stairs on the west side. Roughly a dozen bodies of dead adventurers lay strewn on the floor, obviously dead from hideous wounds. The stairs themselves were shrouded in mist. Looking up above (with the aid of +Theodore Briggs' character Thomas and his tactical flashlight's 100 yard beam), the PCs saw the hollow interior of the tower rising around 160', nearly empty aside from the spiral stairs. And a huge beating heart hanging from the ceiling at the top of the tower.

I ruled that huge beating hearts are eerie and a little scary, and called for Fright Checks. Neil and his girlfriend Angela both failed them, as well as +Uhuk of the Guard's character Ryan. Neil ended up throwing up for about fifteen seconds, while Ryan and Angela were stunned. Since I was running Neil in Doug's absence, I was pleased by these results since it meant I didn't have to deal with them. Meanwhile, the mists in the stairwell were flowing into a pair of the dead bodies (despite the lack of a breeze) and the bodies were starting to animate. The PCs drew weapons and a fight was on.

Undead: Sometimes dangerous, always tedious

Rifles and shotguns are good for killing living things, as has been previously noted, but not particularly efficient at disabling things that are already dead. The PCs shot and blasted the bodies as they climbed to their feet, and dropped one of them after a barrage of bullets. The mist flowed out of the body and into another one, which proceeded to animate and return to the attack.

With only two zombies attacking at a time, the PCs weren't in too much danger, though one of the zombies managed to get behind +Kevin Smyth's character Raleigh's Ally/Dependent Jamie and give him a solid punch to the back of the skull that knocked Jamie to the floor with a concussion. But the zombies were resilient (they had bonus HP and needed to be dropped to -5xHP before the mists were forced to abandon) and the mists that were animating them were only briefly vulnerable when they were out of a body, and even then, rifles and shotguns aren't the best weapon against diffuse mists.

At one point, Thomas decided to drop his shotgun onto his sling and pull out the magic axe Vengeance and go to town with that. Sadly, Thomas didn't actually know how to use the axe, and even though Vengeance created a couple of shockwaves that were capable of damaging the mists, Thomas couldn't hit with them. He dropped it about the same time that Jamie was knocked to the floor, so Jamie picked it up. Jamie is significantly stronger than Thomas and knows how to fight with an axe, so the zombies started getting carved up pretty quickly.

Also around this time, Raleigh had an idea. I'm not saying it was the worst idea of the session, but it didn't do much to improve the situation. She aimed at the huge heart above and eventually shot it. Her slugs bounced off the heart and apparently angered it: it began filling the tower with pulses of red light, and a dozen or more halberds began animating and swinging wildly on the spiral stairs. Since the PCs weren't on the spiral stairs, it wasn't an immediate danger, but Raleigh freaked out and everyone decided that was a clear sign not to attack the heart or climb the spiral stairs.

Eventually, Jamie managed to down a zombie. Yusef had just drunk the potion of fire breathing, and expelled a lethal burp at the mist. Jamie's next attack created an explosion that blew the mist into nothingness. At that point, I called the fight: the remaining mist wasn't going to better alone than two mists working together, and Jamie with Vengeance was sufficiently skilled at killing the mist as to make the outcome more or less inevitable. Spending another three hours running the fight wasn't worthwhile.

Much to my surprise, that fight ran 14 rounds of game time: long enough for Neil to recover from his vomiting and rejoin the fight. It wasn't the longest fight I've run, in terms of time spent fighting, but I think it's one of the longest in terms of in-game time.

Recognizing Danger

The PCs weren't willing to try making their way up the spiral staircase in the face of a dozen animated halberds, but they did take the time to loot the bodies for some minor coinage. Then they decided to explore the third exit from the room: a hallway running east on the north side of the castle.

As Kevin predicted, it went into an octagonal tower, because castle defenses tend to be symmetrical. The tower itself was similar to its sibling to the south, except that the ceiling was bare of cobwebs. The PCs decided that was a bad sign and stopped at the threshold to examine for potential problems. The tower walls were littered with small black half-disks, which turned into swarms of stone butterflies under prolonged examination by high powered flashlights. Neil, Thomas, and Yusef backed up as the swarms flew forward and began cutting at their clothes and skin.

Raleigh quickly cast Thunder Breath, and belched a deadly sonic attack that shattered half the swarms and sent the rest flying into the far wall fast enough to crush the rest on impact. In the process, she also sent Yusef tumbling to the ground, badly injured, but some aspirin and splints (aka first aid) resolved the worst of his problems.

At this point, Raleigh was regularly failing calamity checks whenever she cast a spell, and was so far past her Threshold that she wouldn't recover all her Tally that night. Everyone was also short on sleep and yawning. After a brief discussion, they elected to make an immediate camp in the courtyard: they were doing well for treasure with roughly $70,000 in gold coins alone, and no one wanted to take more injury while tired.

Since it was already after 9pm, we ended the session there.

Evaluation of Play

My players are convinced that every monster has a weak spot, in its vitals or in its skull, and if they just shoot it there, it will take massive damage and/or be easily stunned. They persist in this belief even after I point out that they're fighting a zombie that started with half it's head blown off, and that  after a couple of rifle shots to the forehead, the zombie doesn't meaningfully have a skull or head and is still fighting. I'm not really sure what's up with that.

Castle of Horrors is turning into an extended playtest of my College Ritual Book Magic system. +Nathan Joy and I were both using it in Uhuk's Chaos Scar game, but Nate was only available intermittently and there's a limit to how useful it is to playtest your own stuff. I'm pleased that it's working out fairly well, and that Kevin feels safe in risking calamity by going over his threshold. Kevin's character is possibly a little over-powered, though not more than any other wizard would be. We had a good discussion about it after the game, which will probably be turned into a blog post or two later this week.

One thing that I've started doing is using Angela to break tedious debates. As has been noted, my players are a cautious bunch, and will sometimes waste ten or fifteen minutes arguing about taking some course of action that I know, from behind my screen, is perfectly safe but that seems risky to them. Since I know it's safe, I've started having Angela just go ahead and do whatever they're debating to break the logjam and move the game along. It's worked well so far on the two instances I've used it, and I'm going to keep pushing it.

Another thing I didn't mention in the write-up is that Vengeance is starting to change Jamie's personality. He's now more irritable (Bad Temper) and reckless in battle (Berserker). It's not a huge thing, but it's a side effect of the weapon. However, Vengeance itself isn't cursed, at least not in the modern post-D&D gaming parlance meaning of the term: Jamie can put down Vengeance at any time. This is a deliberate choice on my part: I think a weapon that will potentially harm the user is more interesting if the user has the choice to give it up whenever they're ready to give up a weapon that is very useful against a large category of hard to hurt foes. That way, it's Jamie's tragic choices that will eventually cause many of the PCs to get hacked to pieces by an ally, instead of some kind of compulsory hex that prevents him from putting the weapon down.

I was really pleased that the PCs realized that the lack of cobwebs on the ceiling of the tower meant danger. It's been a subtle but consistent theme in the room descriptions, and I'm glad that effort paid off. Of course, that also means its time to subvert it soon. I think I know how that's going to happen.

Technical Notes

The new version of MapTools 1.4 has a feature for isometric views. I've ranted on the group that I'm not very impressed with this feature: it requires a lot more art assets and doesn't really improve clarity very much. This session was one of the few times it would have helped: the layout of the stairs at the tower base is obvious in an isometric view and a little confusing on a flat map.
The location of the stairs flat, top-down view in lower left is confusing.
The isometric view in the upper right is clear about the stairs.

What Next?

Next Thursday is Thanksgiving in America, and people are traveling Wednesday night so I'm not running a game next week. That gives me two weeks to contemplate the consequences of the various decisions the PCs have made so far. They're wreaked a fair bit of havoc throughout the castle, and various people are going to respond in various ways. I think that's also an important part of the story of this game, and I'm looking forward to seeing how it unfolds.

Beyond that, I finally figured out how I wanted to stock the last room in the sub basement, the one that had been giving me problems for the last two weeks. I still need to finish stocking the crypts, but I mostly know what I want to do there and it's just a matter of writing down the details. I've also started drawing the map of the first of the Caves Beneath, which I'm adapting from Xak Tsaroth in DL1 "Dragons of Despair". I probably won't need that for several months, but better to be ahead while there's time.


  1. My players are convinced that every monster has a weak spot, in its vitals or in its skull, and if they just shoot it there, it will take massive damage and/or be easily stunned.

    Mine too. I think it's partly the "if you have a hammer" syndrome. My weapon is best vs. hit location X, so everything must be vulnerable in X.

    We joke that the written test for Swashbuckler School always has these answers to the questions:

    A) stab it in the vitals!
    B) stab it in the eyes!
    C) It's too tough, we're all going to die.
    D) Both A and B.

    I find it equally odd when players persist in ignoring known vulnerabilities for equally obscure reasons. There is a deeply seated "Zombies have No Brain automatically so they aren't vulnerable to head shots" thing in my group. Lo and behold, basic zombies animated by the Zombie spell have Unliving and No Blood but do have brains. I've flat out said, "they lack No Brain" but they won't believe my clear disinformation campaign.

  2. My excuse is that these characters have been trained by zombie movies and Left 4 Dead. Of COURSE they shoot the zombies in the head.