Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Castle of Horrors Sessions 14 and 15

I'm beginning to get a little burnt out on Castle of Horrors. I still enjoy the game, but I don't look forward to running it anymore and I am reluctant to do prep work for it, which is why it took so long to write up these two sessions. That makes me sad, because I think the concept is good.

Session 14 itself wasn't a particularly good session, for a variety of reasons that I'll get into below. Session 15 was much better, and renewed my hope in the game. I still expect I'll need to take a short break soon to recharge my batteries and get back in the habit of doing prep work.

And Now There's More!

Session 13 ended with the PCs in a desparate battle against the ghoul pixies: a battle the PCs were winning, though slowly and with some difficulty. The ghoul pixies were tough, hard to hit, nearly immune to buckshot, and strong enough to do significant damage to unarmored foes, plus their touch slowed the PCs (DX penalties) even through armor. +Kevin Smyth's character Raleigh had detonated a massive Explosive Thunderball at her feet, and the pixies hadn't been able to dodge out of the blast, and were slowed and much more vulnerable.

We went through another round or two of combat, and then I activated the ghoul pixies in the next two rooms who had heard the noise of combat and their allies' cries and were coming to investigate. Another fifteen ghouls flew in at 30 mph, followed a round or two later by their leader, Swan Starlight. Swan was late because it was a wizard who had prepped an Explosive Ruin Ball to get rid of the PCs' armor.

The PCs were not pleased with the approach of reinforcements and took steps to deal with them. That, in turn, caused one of the big arguments of the night.

Retreating From Unknown Attacks

+Theodore Briggs' character Thomas quickly pulled his grenade launcher from its sling and fired a salvo at the ground in the middle of an oncoming flight of ghoul pixies. The pixies promptly dodged and retreated, moving out of most of the worst of the blast and avoiding the napalm entirely. Ted immediately called foul, saying that there was no way the pixies would know to dodge the grenades.

This quickly devolved into an argument. I had two counters to him: first, the pixies were familiar with explosive spells and thought of the grenade launcher as a weird looking magical staff, so they knew to dodge out of the way. Second, I let the PCs retreat from area effect attacks with the precise knowledge of whether or not the attack would affect them, and if he insisted on the pixies being unable to dodge, it would come back to bite the PCs repeatedly in the future.

Ted continued to hold his position, and I eventually snapped at him to stop rules lawyering and move on. It was not one of my proudest moments. I was probably out of line and it soured the entire session for me, and I assume Ted and the rest of the players.

At any rate, the PCs were soon being overwhelmed by a horde of pixie attacks. +Eric Schmidt's character Quanah decided to turn and run, which exposed him to three or four pixies attacking his unarmored legs and shredding him.

Things Go From Worse To Awful

At this point, Swan showed up with her Explosive Ruin Ball and dropped it on all the PCs except +Uhuk of the Guard's character Ryan (who was fortunately just out of the blast radius). And suddenly everyone had to look up the damage to equipement rules and figured out the HP of the armor, guns, and miscellaneous gear. And we also had the second argument of the night.

My position was that Explosive Ruin Ball was an area effect spell that ignored DR, including cover DR (because DR is DR), and that therefore all of their gear was ruined equally, even the stuff inside packs. Everyone else's position was that I was completely wrong, and that the spell expended energy destroying stuff and items in packs were protected by the now badly damaged packs, etc. At the time, I mostly thought I was right but conceded to the table consensus to keep the game moving. Later, Kevin pointed out that my ruling meant that adventurers who bought expensive protective gear like potion belts didn't get any benefit from them, but everyone else's ruling did, and that convinced me that the table was probably correct.

At any rate, the armor and guns mostly survived, but backpacks were destroyed and a lot of spare ammo and miscellaneous gear was lost. Everyone grumbled quite a bit but continued fighting.

Reversal of Fortunes

Around this point, +Douglas Cole  had an inspiration: it was hard to hit the pixies in an attack, but parrying them with an edged weapon had a good chance to auto-hit them. His character Neil stopped using his nearly useless pistol, pulled out his katana, and started all-out defending with it. He managed to cripple two or three pixies with this technique. Meanwhile, Raleigh and Swan engaged in a magical duel: Raleigh used Sun Breath to blast Swan (though Swan dodged most of the effect), and Swan replied by throwing a massive Stone Missile at Raleigh. Luckily for Raleigh, I ruled that ghouls have Low Pain Threshold against Sun attacks (it makes sense to me) and it narrowly missed Raleigh. This is about when we ended session 14 and started session 15.

Everyone switched to Doug's defensive attacks, except for Ryan, who was grabbing wounded pixies two at a time and squeezing them until they stopped moving, and Quanah, who was mostly trying to stay conscious. Thomas used the tactical light on his shotgun to blind a pixie (Ted: "He doesn't know it's not sunlight!" Me: "Yes, yes he does.") and then shot it in the back as it fled. As it turned out, pixie ghouls are mostly immune to buckshot, but 3" 12G slugs do a number on them. Neil's girlfriend Angela was wielding Vengeance, which was did insane amounts of damage to the pixies that had attacked her, and she put down another two or three on her own.

Raleigh threatened Swan, claiming the PCs would fight to the death if the ghoul pixies didn't surrender immediately. Swan lost morale and fled, throwing a Stone Missile at Raleigh as she went, and the surviving three or four pixie ghouls went with her. Thomas fired at them to little effect (unaimed shots at 12" tall flyers moving at 25+ mph just aren't likely to hit) and the combat ended.

We Like Loot!

The PCs did what they could to bandage themselves up. Quanah was nearly dead, and Neil and Ryan had taken some hits, but everyone else was mostly unwounded. The DX penalty wore off after a few minutes, too. After they were done with that, they sent Ryan back into the south chapel to continue his search for the loot that they assured me was hidden under the altar, becasue that's what you do, apparently. Sadly, someone had already looted that chest.

They moved onto cautiously explore the temple level: they could see stairs going up to the west, about seventy yards away, but there were huge gaps in the floor between the stairs and them. They found the enormously stinky ghoul lair to the south, in a room covered in gold leaf. Raleigh went through Swan's tiny spellbooks while everyone else scraped 12 ounces of gold off of the walls. They also found a stash of coins and a lot of gnawed bones; they took the former and left the latter.

They could see another similar room on the north side, but there was a 15' gap in the floor before the only entrance, so they decided not to go there. Instead, they attached a rope to Angela (she had a climbing harness on under her armor) and sent her to scout ahead on the unstable floors. She found a winding but stable path to the stairs, which led back to the crypts, so the PCs climbed the ropes back to the first floor, went back to the dining room, and called it for the day, exhausted.

That night, Quanah dreamed of being in a room, high over the castle, that contained a silver statue of a weeping woman. Later observation suggested the room was at the top of the north tower, the one filled with magical animated halberds and an invincible crystal heart. The players asked me what I expected them to do with this information, and I told them that they wanted more clues and I was trying to deliver. They now had a good guess as the location of a silver statue and it was up to them to figure out how to get to it.

Untrustworthy People Don't Honor Deals

The next morning, they bummed around until the goblins appeared (Thomas tried to videotape their arrival, but his camera feed failed just as the goblins arrived). Raleigh and her boyfriend Jamie went to collect the various potions that they'd pre-ordered from Wiremu.

Wiremu, to the surprise of no one except apparently Kevin, didn't remember making the deal. When he was reminded in specific terms, he claimed to have already given them their potions: all pink-skins look alike to him. Raleigh tried to cast Truthsayer without using words or gestures, but couldn't do it. Finally, the PCs accepted that the money they'd given to Wiremu was lost and negotiated a new due for some vials of Alchemical Fire and a variety of healing potions. Raleigh also gave Wiremu a radio controlled truck, which so pleased the goblin leader that he remembered he had a fourth vial of Alchemical Fire that he threw in for free.

Filling in the Map

Ted was decider for this session, and he remembered they had a blue-gray metal key and a blue-gray metal lock in a door in the dungeon level. Everyone tromped down into the basement, unlocked the door, and very cautiously examined the new room.

It was a large square hall, with twelve gargoyles on perches along the walls, two huge metal statues of warriors in alcoves by the walls, a magical brazier burning in the center of the room, and three other doors just like the one they'd come in. The floor in front of each golem was damaged, with cracks and large depressions in it. That was weird, but they weren't sure what to do with that information.

The PCs assumed there was going to be a gargoyle ambush. They planned to trigger it while they were still in the hallway, so they could close the door and flee up the stairs. Thomas fired an concussion grenade at one of the gargoyles, which mostly exploded. It didn't animate, though. I think another gargoyle might have been ruined before the PCs decided the statues weren't a threat and crept into the room.

Something's Dangerous

After some discussion, Thomas tried the key in one of the doors on the north wall. At which point, the two metal statues animated and started swinging their swords like helicopter blades. The PCs jumped out fo the way as the statues began walking around the room, smashing new cracks in the floor.

Somewhat controversially, I didn't go into combat time for this sequence. My feelng was that the statues were 12" thick steel and completely invulnerable to anything the PCs could do to them. Avoidance was the name of the game, and going round by round, player by player would have taken forever. I think that was the right decision, but it was more confusing then it needed to be because I didn't indicate when the golems finished moving and when the PCs needed to move in response. At any rate, the PCs ran away from the golems (Thomas sacrificed his shield to protect himself) and eventually ended up hiding behind them. After ten or fifteen seconds, the golems returned to their original positions and the north door opened.

(For those of you familiar with the original Ravenloft, this is my interpretation of K78 "The Brazier Room." The original version has the two iron golems repeatedly attacking and a weird and confusing riddle involving multiple colored stones needing to be placed in the golems' hands to open the doors. My version is less awful, but I'll admit still not very good.)

That door led to the long hallway that led to the crypts, the one with the pit trap that fed the sunken dungeons. The PCs didn't want to go that way, and went through the golem sequence again (this time everyone started hiding behind the golems in the alcoves, which made it simpler) and opened the northeast door. This led to a set of spiral stairs that went up, and that's were we ended the session.

Technical Issues

We switched from using Skype for voice chat to using Discord. Two sessions in, this has been a nearly painless switch: voice quality is much improved and there haven't been any weird drops. There was a little hassle at the start, since Discord suggests using a web browser interface when their app is just superior in every way, but it took less than 15 minutes to resolve that. So good-bye and good riddance to Skype.

Evaluation of Play

Obviously, these two sessions brought up a lot of issues. Some of which I discussed in the review but I'll expand on some of them anyway.

Equipment destruction, for me, is a weird thing. Kromm's comments on the SJ Games forums make it clear that he intended it to be a fundamental part of Dungeon Fantasy, but it always seemeda little unfair or something to me and I was very reluctant to use it in the past. In this game, with ready access to gold and a modern economy and limited magical items, I'm planning to use it more. Still, it was a huge pain in the ass and next time I'm going to limit myself to stuff like rust monsters or annihilating weapons with simpler effects. Not because I think the idea of everyone losing a lot of their stuff is bad, but just because tracking all the damages is a pain up the tail.

Kevin was irked, I think is probably the best word, with the fact that Truthsayer has a -4 default penalty in CRBM. Truthsayer is a trivially easy spell to learn under the standard GURPS Magic system, and he thought that meant it should be easier to cast. My feeling is that Truthsayer, on the one hand, has the potential to destroy a GM's plots by making easy lie detection a thing, and on the other hand, lets the mage easily step into other people's niches, and I'm not inclined to reduce the difficulty. My players acknowledge those as valid points, but they don't have a diplomat character and think that one of the wizard's niches should be to fill in for missing niches. I don't agree with that at all, and even if I did, I don't think I'm smart enough to design a magic system that lets the wizard fill in for missing niches without making the wizard capable of stealing them. It's a hard problem.

Kevin was also fairly disgruntled that Wiremu cheated the PCs. He (semi-jokingly, I hope) took the attitude that from now on, all interactions with NPCs should be of the form, "kill them and take their stuff." That's certainly not what I intended, but I do think having one or two obviously untrustworthy NPCs is acceptable and doesn't warrant a kill on sight attitude for the pyramids.

The Brazier Room didn't work out very well in play. As I noted, it was a stupid design in the original text. I spent weeks thinking about it (if you go back, you can see my puzzling over it through sessions 6 to 8) and my version is possibly better than the original but still not very good. The location of the room makes it a key part of how the castle is tied together, but there's just not a lot that can be done with the original idea of the room and I never came up with a very good alternate concept.

The ghoul pixies, upon reflection, were an odd fight. There were a lot of them, they were hard to hit and resilient to damage, and they didn't necessarily do a lot of damage. I think I could have made it work if the PCs had lost to them: almost no one would have been killed, so they would have been transported to the pixie ghoul lair and we could have had a prison breakout sequence. Except PCs hate prison break-outs. The PCs eventually managed to adapt their tactics and eke out a victory, so I suppose it's for the best.

I told Kevin I'd give out their stats after the fight was over, so here they are. They really are a straightforward merging of the DF3: Next Level Pixie template with the Ghoul template from Horror. The only big changes are swapping out Sense of Duty (Nature) for Vulernable (Steel x2), which is a house rule I inherited from Uhuk but that I find really makes sense, and changing the Affliction from straight-up Paralysis to a DX penalty. Slowly losing DX is better than just losing your character.

Pixie ghouls
ST: 9HP: 10Speed: 7.25
DX: 16Will: 10Move: 14 (flight)
IQ: 10Per: 10
HT: 13FP: N/ASM: -6
Dodge: 11Parry: 11DR: 4 vs piercing
Traits: Bad Smell; Damage Resistance 4 (Piercing Only); Dependency (Constant Mana); Disturbing Voice; Doesn’t Sleep; Flight (Winged); Illumination; Injury Tolerance (Unliving); Night Vision 5; Immune to Metabolic Hazards; Silence 1; Vulnerable (Steel x2).
Claws-18: 1d-2 cu + Affliction (Resist by HT-4 or lose MoS points of DX)
Skills: Stealth-16
Notes: Hungry and nasty.
Class: Undead, Faerie.

What Next?

I'm going to force myself to stock some rooms every day this week. Hopefully it will be enough to keep ahead of the PCs. And I'm going to ask Uhuk if she can run a session or two of Chaos Scar so I get a chance to recharge and get back to being excited about preparing this game.

One of the problems I'm running into now is that I'm having to stock Xak Tsaloth, from DL1 Dragons of Despair, and not as much as the adventure as written can be used for inspiration as I could with Castle Ravenloft. It's not a huge problem, but it slows things down, and since I'm not hugely interested in doing the work, every bit of friction counts.

On the play side, I know exactly where the PCs are going to end up and what happens to them next. I'm actually looking forward to that next bit. It should shake things up just a bit and maybe let the PCs move forward on some of their own goals.


  1. I have a "no rules arguments" rule at my table for just that reason. You're welcome to argue later, but not during game. You can point out I might be doing something wrong, but that's it. No one person in the history of gaming has ever said, "Wow, that was a great argument about rules that session!" so there is no reason to do it.

    I pretty much do the same, though - the NPCs do stuff like the PCs do stuff, I give them the same benefit of the doubt (If you reflexively dodge stuff that is out-of-game known to be a threat, the bad guys can, too) and if the players don't like it, we'll change it next time. Not this time.

    It's not a magical solution or anything, but it's the best I've got. Players arguing with the GM over rules and rulings is just pure loss of game time. Arguing during email between sessions? Great time to figure out what everyone expects and wants done.

    As for equipment destruction, every single player I've played with hates it more than anything. The guy who had his character's hand bitten off and destroyed last session has only complained that he lost a magical glove, too. Equipment is like the ultimate prize - lost an eye, a hand, 30 HP, and you gained a new disadvantage? That's okay. Your potions break when the giant ape spikes you to the ground? This game sucks!

  2. "I eventually snapped at him to stop rules lawyering and move on. It was not one of my proudest moments. I was probably out of line and it soured the entire session for me, and I assume Ted and the rest of the players."

    From my perspective, you don't do this enough. I left the game "table" once, since there were several having a metagame rules discussion. I came back at least 10min later to find the same discussion ongoing. It seemed everyone else was having fun with the metagame, but that's not really where I want to be with my time.

    FWIW, I don't recall objecting at all to the "your stuff is destroyed" thing. I just waited for the decision to be made, went to my character sheet, and crossed off everything less then 2.5-3 lbs.