Thursday, December 17, 2015

Castle of Horrors Session 11

Thursday is GURPS Day!

I ran another session of Castle of Horrors last night. It was a pretty good session, with a bit of exploring, a little combat, some role-playing and social interaction, and a rare display of good sense on the part of the PCs. It also had one of the more amusing reactions to a trap I've ever seen, and ended with a good discussion of what is and isn't working in the game.

Behind the Scenes

The PCs returned from their second expedition last week, and there was some lively email traffic about improving characters, making better armor, and the like now that the characters were back in the Real World. Inevitably, the emails reached a crescendo just before the game started, with something like 30 messages in the last thirty minutes before the game started to clarify last minute issues. I was slightly perturbed, because I was trying to finish up my own last minute preparations like updating my GM tracker spreadsheet with the newly updated character stats, but it all went well in the end. It was just a little more chaotic than I would liked at the last minute.

One interesting thing that came out of all that was a link to two auctions for Hawk MM1 40mm grenade launchers - which are civilian weapons in the United states. +Theodore Briggs' character Thomas snatched one up, and I expected I would regret letting him do so, and it turns out I was right. As high explosive rounds are NOT civilian weapons in the US, he ended up making some of his own, and I warned him that there was a slight possibility that the things might explode in the tube.

A couple of other people armored up, and +Eric Schmidt retired Yusef in favor of a character of his own design: an Orc-strain Native American shaman who really believed in the power of prayer named Quanah. There was some pre-game discussion about how that name was even pronounced, and we were good to go.

Fortifying the Dungeon

The PCs transported over into the Castle Courtyard a few hours before dark. They immediately (well, after some gentle prompting) headed into the dining room and made camp. Thomas had brought a huge amount of stuff: cordless drills, car batteries, extra ammo for his grenade launcher, wireless cameras, door locks, etc. which he dropped off in the room and used to make it as secure as possible. I noted that the wireless cameras would be fine for seeing who was on the other side of the dining room door but that getting signal from elsewhere in the castle would be difficult. As it turned out, they had an uneventful night.

Talking to the Neighbors

The next morning, they decided to start by talking to Wiremu the goblin merchant. Sadly, Wiremu's tribe wasn't around, so they decided to talk to the gnomes instead. The gnomes were around.

The conversation was pretty brief: the gnomes were secretive and mildly surly, and while they might have needed the PCs' help, they didn't want to pay the necessary price to do. +Kevin Smyth's character Raleigh kept pushing the issue, and finally tried casting a Command spell to force the gnome leader to "Tell me." I ruled as how that was a valid Command ("at most two words", as per GURPS Magic), but the gnome won the quick contest and resisted the spell, and also noticed that Raleigh had cast some kind of mind control spell on him. In my games, I treat the use of mind control as a hostile act, so the gnomes slammed the door in Raleigh's face.

Moving On Up

Next, the PCs decided to climb the south tower stairs from its entrance in the chapel. That meant climbing a lot of a spiral staircase, winding around a central shaft wall, in a tower with no windows. After a while they started making chalk marks to determine they weren't trapped in another endless staircase, and went back a couple of times to make sure that nothing was erasing the chalk marks. Eventually, they made it to the top of the tower: a walkway around a deep shaft, some arrowslits looking out onto the surrounding countryside, and a carpet of rotten crow corpses. was somewhat creepy, but it got creepier as the crow corpses began sliding across the room like iron filings being pulled by a magnet and assembling into a man-sized figure. +Douglas Cole's Neil failed an easy Fright Check (despite Doug having improved his Will between expeditions) and really failed the Fright Check when the crow-monster used its powerful Terror ability. Most everyone else fired away at the thing to little effect, but Neil was forced to Do Nothing in order to remove a crippling -6 penalty. Thomas used his grenade launcher to good effect, dropping a round at the thing's feet and destroying some of its component crow parts.

The creature retaliated by throwing a bundle of dead birds at near super-sonic speeds at Thomas, putting a crack in his shield. Thomas responded with a barrage of grenades, including napalm, that blew the thing to pieces. An anti-climax little battle, all things considered.

There wasn't anything else in the tower top, so Thomas dropped a chem light down the central shaft. Some 200' down below, they caught a brief glimpse of the bottom of the stairs - and of another, smaller set of spiral stairs descending deeper below the castle. That seemed interesting, but rappelling down a 200' shaft seemed problematic (especially the part about getting out) so they went back down to the chapel and told +Uhuk of the Guard's character Ryan (an inhumanly strong troll) to pound through the wall with his sledgehammer.

Napalm is Not a Good Fire Extinguisher

Gameplay stopped for a bit while we tried to figure out how long it took a super-strong man to smash a 3' by 3' hole in a 2' thick stone wall. GURPS actually has numbers for this, which is nice, but it took a while to figure out how to use them and in the end, I just eyeballed it at 3-4 hours.  The PCs set up watches, because, as they noted, this was not going to be a subtle or quiet operation and would attract the attention of any wandering monsters in the vicinity.

Now, for various reasons, there actually aren't a lot of wandering monsters in the Castle proper. However, there was one, and he heard them. The first warning anyone got was the crazy axeman running into the chapel and screaming "Cheaters! Thieves! Give me back my axe!" and Vengeance flying off Raleigh's boyfriend Jamie's vest. Neil and Thomas were on watch in the chapel, and responded with grenades and semi-automatic weapon fire. The axeman mostly dodged the grenades, though he did catch a bit of napalm, and Neil nailed him twice in the heart. Some 200 points of damage later, the axeman fell to the ground.

A long and slightly confused argument ensued. Some people wanted to burn the body and scatter the ashes, and it was pointed out that the body WAS burning. At which point people looked up the difficulty of putting out napalm, and apparently the second item in the Google search was "". Raleigh and Jamie wanted to return the axe in hopes that would make the crazy person stop coming after them, and Neil wanted to keep Vengeance but dump the body off the overlook. Jamie didn't want to keep Vengeance, either way, eventually Neil's girlfriend Angela claimed it under the logic that her boyfriend had shot the guy this time and it was hers as spoils by proxy. Good enough, and Neil and Quanah ended up dumping the body off the overlook.

Into the Crypts

Eventually Ryan finished making a hole, and people rapplled down about 40' to the bottom of the stairs. There was the second, smaller set of spiral stairs going further down, and an archway to the west opening up into catacombs: a series of halls and small 10' square tombs and crypts. There was some writing over the archway, which Raleigh used Gift of Tongues to translate to "Here lie the children of Crowspire. Disturb not their rest, lest you join them in damnation and slumber eternal." She also noted that there was a huge magical charge in the catacombs.

People were curious, but not so curious as to want to suffer whatever horrible curse might hit them. They cautiously poked at one of the crypts, where it looked like someone had disturbed one of the bodies and left behind a silver ring. The greedy people resisted their greediness and left everything alone, displaying some rare common sense.

Further to the west, some stairs descended past two huge bronze statues (Doug dourly noted "these are the statues that are going to animate and kill us" but nothing happened at the time) and into a large crypt that was apparently up against the cliff wall: there were windows, some with strands of giant spider silk hanging from them. The PCs realized that these were the windows they'd seen beneath them from the overlook. They also noticed that someone had rigged a leather sheet to collect rainwater into a keg, and immediately began shouting out if anyone was home.

Meet Ted Kazynski?

A rough looking fellow approached from the north and started talking. He was soft spoken and reasonably friendly, though he admitted to living in the crypts because it was "nice" and "he liked it here" and "no one bothered him." At one point, he even claimed that while he knew they were powerful wizards, and he didn't wish to give offense, he could defend himself and they shouldn't start anything.

In the out-of-character chat, there was a bit of speculation about this guy: was he a were rat? maybe he had stolen something from the crypt and was now cursed to stay? Or maybe he was Ted Kazynski and would eat them soon. As it turned out, whatever he was, he wasn't hostile, and showed them to a iron reinforced door that was unlike the other doors in the catacombs.

Follow the Leader

The doors were barred from the far side, but Neil managed to slide his katana through the gap in the doors and lever the bar off. Opening the doors revealed a long and somewhat uninteresting hallway. which the PCs decided to explore. About halfway down, Thomas and Ryan - in the lead - heard a click beneath their feet and then the floor dropped away and they were sent hurtling down a magically slick shaft to someplace else.

Neil and Quanah tied a rope harness to Raleigh and sent her ahead (with plans to pull her back) but as luck would have it (and Kevin did use Raleigh's luck to reroll the necessary Dodge and failed badly every time), the trap got her too. At which point Neil, Quanah, Angela, and Jamie looked at each other, sighed, and resignedly walked into the trap. I guess it was a better choice than splitting the party.

In the Drink

Everyone found themselves in a 10' by 10' cell with the floor covered in 3' of water: a mild inconvenience to 9' tall Ryan, something of a worry to 4'6" tall Thomas. Fortunately, most everyone had wrapped their sensitive electronic goods in plastic bags, so nothing too vital was lost, though probably a good bit of ready ammunition got wet.

Ryan still had his maul, and somewhat rusty iron cell bars were no match for troll strength. The PCs left the cell and found themselves in a cell block of eight similar cells: most of the others were empty, but one had a drider corpse in it. There was an open archway to the south leading to another flooded hallway, and they moved in that direction.

I was tempted to end the session on a cliff-hanger, but I restrained myself for once. We stopped just before they entered the hallway and dealt with the next set of difficulties. Which was good, because it gave us some time to talk about what was and was not working in the game.

The Catacombs and Dungeon Level, as explored so far.

Things That Aren't Working

I initiated the conversation, and a couple of things came out immediately. First, Fright Checks were annoying because they sometimes meant your character couldn't do anything in combat. Second, there was a lot of dead time in the game where nothing was happening. Third, gameplay in general felt directionless because no one was sure of what to do, which was probably the cause of the dead time but I want to address it separately.

People Don't Know What They Want Until You (Don't) Give It to Them

The first issue was Fright Checks. Now, Castle of Horrors, despite the name and the use of Castle Ravenloft for inspiration, is not a horror game. It's a non-escapist, non-gritty game of dungeon exploring. I personally didn't have a strong opinion on Fright Checks, but +Nathan Joy and Doug had specifically requested that the PCs have realistic reactions for people encountering strange and dangerous situations for the first time, and that meant Fright Checks. (I thought it was fishy at the time that Nate's character had a Fear Check vaule of 16 and was unlikely to fail Fright Checks, but I went with it.) As it turns out, being scared of a monster means you're less effective against it, and this is not fun.

I was slightly bemused that people were upset that they'd gotten what they'd wanted, but I pointed out that sometimes the dice meant that you were scared and unable to take action, and sometimes the dice meant you got to snapshoot someone three times in the vitals and end a combat almost before it began, and Doug allowed as how that was true and maybe this wasn't that large a problem. Especially as since in the encounter with the crow-monster, Neil hadn't been too incapacitated by the first Fright Check, but only had problems when the monster used its Terror ability. As since if it hadn't used its Terror ability, it would have rushed the PCs and Thomas wouldn't have been able to use his grenade launcher and the resulting fight would have been a long, brutal slog - well, the point is, Fright Checks are probably going to stay in the game.

We'd Like Less Dead Time

The players all agreed that they would like less dead time in the game, and I agree with them. Sadly, I don't know what I can do about it: I can't make them take action quicker, aside from giving them less time to think about what to do before saying "Okay, and what are you doing now?" My opinion is that no one has a strong opinion what do when exploring, and everyone is friendly and accommodating and no one wants to step on anyone else's toes. So when they hit a point where their isn't an obvious thing to do, everyone waits for someone else to step up first and normally no one does.

It's a player dynamic issue. I don't experience it as much in Emily's Chaos Scar game or in the face to face game I'm playing in, because I don't like dead time and will put forth a suggestion of what to do next at the first hint of it. Eric suggested that maybe someone should act as the group's leader, and I think that would really work, but I don't think it's a solution I can impose on them. Or maybe I can: maybe I'll just randomly assign a leader each session and tell them it's their responsibility to decide what to do unless everyone else overrides them. It might work, and it's definitely worth throwing out on the mailing list to see what everyone thinks.

There Aren't Any Clues

I felt very ambivalent about the general consensus that there wasn't enough direction in the game. It's a wide open sandbox dungeon exploration game, there isn't supposed to be a mission controller telling you what do, that's part of the point! And when I said that, the players allowed as how that was true, but they were still having less fun than they could be having. Fortunately, the discussion quickly segued into a statement that they didn't feel like they had enough clues, and so they didn't know where to go.

That was a more concrete problem, and one that I agree with more. I mean, I'd done things like create lists of "Great Treasures" to get them pointed in the right direction, but Doug noted those were out of character knowledge and not something they could easily use. That sparked more discussion, such as my pointing out they'd seen at least two of the Great Treasures and not done anything about the, and some private reflections about how if they'd done more with some stuff, they'd be in a better situation. But honestly, there was a very valid point: they hadn't gotten a lot of clues to help them decide where to go in the Castle. And while some of the suggestions for rectifying that annoyed me, such as adding some characters that could give quests (though ironically, there are already such characters in setting), the general ideas were sound.

As a first step, I retroactively noted that they'd stolen the ghost butler's journal from his bedroom and that Raleigh had found some diary like notes in the grimoire they'd looted off the drider wizard. That was enough to spark some discussion, and now they're apparently prepared to go back and loot the crypts again: they weren't going to poke through random crypts in hopes of finding gold, but if they can just go to the right crypt, they're entirely willing to risk the curse. Players, what can you say?

Evaluation of Play

So aside from some general issues, this was a pretty good session in my opinion: a little combat, a little exploring, a little role-playing. I still really like that this isn't a standard Dungeon Fantasy game, where every NPC is there to be killed, and I can introduce potentially worrisome people and the PCs can have a conversation with them. The change of pace and attitude is really liberating.

I knew when I let Ted buy a grenade launcher for Thomas I would regret it, and I did. Checking over the weapon's stats, it turns out it has a minimum arming distance of 10 yards, which is going to drastically cut down on the weapon's effectiveness. So maybe I won't regret it as much as I thought. And with the grenades weighing 0.5 lbs apiece, ammo is going be a concern, especially when they reach the Caves Beneath.

What Next

We're not playing next week, because of Christmas travel plans, but hopefully we'll play again on the 30th. That gives me two weeks to finish mapping and stocking the major portion of the Caves Beneath, which should be plenty if I can do a room or two a day.


  1. My players are equally leery about Fright Checks. The 14+ fails cap on rolls doesn't make them especially happy either. But I think this is balanced by the fact that every time we've had them come up, the results have been really amusing.

    1. It's doubly weird to me because we don't use the Fright Check table anymore, so you're never involuntarily stunned: you may have to take action with a -6 in penalties, but you can do stuff if you want to. And again, they asked for this.

    2. I've been playing with a houserule allowing players to take a worse result on the Fright Check table if desired, allowing them to forego 20 seconds of vomiting or being Stunned in a lethal situation, if they're willing to take on a permanent quirk or mental disadvantage (for example) in exchange.

  2. I forgot to say that visions, dreams, weird ghostly visitations, etc. are a great way to give out-of-game information in-game. A moaning voice that mentions the great treasures, a dream about the crypts that shows a great stock of gold, etc. - it works.

    1. Huh. They've been sleeping in a haunted castle - that's a really good idea.