Thursday, October 29, 2015

Caslte of Horrors Session 5

Thursday is GURPS Day!

My online group met for the fifth session of Castle of Horrors. +Nathan Joy had to drop out due to work issues, so we're looking for a player to replace him and in the meantime, I'm running his character Yusef as well as +Douglas Cole's character Neil's dependent Angela. I'm beginning to get a little overwhelmed.

Despite my issues, this was an interesting session. The characters learned the consequences of sleeping in the Castle and ventured into the basement, despite their earlier plans to go up instead of down. They survived and prospered, but now they need to decide where to go next.

The Obvious Problem With Sleeping In a Haunted Castle

As usual, we started the game where we left off session: the PCs were bedding down for the night in the area they believed to be most secure: the hallway between the octagon room and the chapel. It had some advantages: there were only two exits, and nothing had attacked them in the hallway so far.

We had a rambling and somewhat disjointed discussion of watch schedules. +Kevin Smyth's character Raleigh claimed that casting magic was draining and she needed her rest, so she was off the watch, and everyone else was kind of "meh" about the matter. They finally decided on three watches of three hours each, with the guards looking past each other and most everyone else bedding up against the walls. There was a brief discussion of the possibility of Neil and Angela sharing a watch, but everyone agreed that would just get everyone killed while the two lovebirds stared into each other's eyes.

The second watch was Jamie (Raleigh's dependent) and Neil, and +Theodore Briggs' character Thomas was sleeping in the middle of the hallway. About twenty minutes after midnight, four indistinct, barely phosphorescent blobs phased through the west door, followed every second by another four. Jamie shouted an alarm which woke up everyone but Angela. Thomas woke up, but was so overwhelmed by the sight of the mass of ghosts that he stayed on his bag in shock. +Uhuk of the Guard's character Ryan grabbed him and pulled him out of the middle of the hallway before the ghosts trampled him, and Neil did the same for Angela. The ghosts kept coming, rank after rank at a walking pace.

Raleigh was curious, and dug a tupperware container out of her pack and tried to get some ectoplasm. She failed, as the ghosts were entirely insubstantial, but she did brush one of the ghosts in her attempt and had a little bit of her soul sucked out - nothing too bad, but it did reinforce the idea that no one wanted to be trampled by the endless waves of ghosts. The other PCs pressed up against the walls and sucked in their guts to avoid that fate.

(Anyone who has read the original I6 Castle Ravenloft will recognize this encounter: it's the straight text of the ghost march from E7: The Cemetary, modified slightly for how I intend to run ghosts in Castle of Horrors. This module is really the gift that keeps on giving in terms of inspiration and encounters I can use with little modification.)

We Are Not Sleeping Here Any Longer

Eventually, all the ghosts exited the hallway through the west door. At which point, two arguments broke out: Angela was curious about the ghosts and wanted to know what was going on, while Thomas wanted to relocate the base camp to someplace safer. That spawned a third argument, about where a safer place would be.

Angela won her argument, with Raleigh's support, and Ryan and Jamie removed the barricade from the west door in time for Angela to just barely spot the last of the ghosts leaving the chapel to head up the great spiral staircase. She wanted to chase after them, but Neil persuaded her that running after a horde of ghosts into unexplored territory was not the best plan.

Thomas and Raleigh contended a bit about relocating, but Neil weighed in on Thomas' side and Angela supported him, so Raleigh's plan to continue camping in the hallway was abandoned. Yusef nixed Neil's idea of sleeping in the courtyard, and eventually everyone trumped over to the dining hall and made camp there.

"They Tried to Turn This Into a Pantry"

Yusef and Thomas were on the third watch in the pantry when someone tried the door. The barricade held, and Thomas crept over to the door while Yusef quietly woke everyone up. There were some muffled thumping sounds against both doors, and then silence, so Thomas cleared the barricade and tried to open the door - and failed! Someone or something had tied a rope to the doorknob on the other side, and Thomas wasn't strong enough to break the rope. Ryan stepped up and opened the door easily enough.

The doors had been secured by 1/4" thick strands of spidersilk. Everyone was pretty upset about that, except Yusef who wanted to call it quits as quickly as possible. He was overruled, and since Ryan and Thomas could see fading trails of giant spider foot prints on the ceiling with their IR vision, the decision was made to stop trying to sleep and to go hunt giant spiders and/or spider-centaur things instead. I believe at this point Neil made a comment to the effect of "might as well, since I am never sleeping again." Apparently, the Castle of Horrors was stressing people out.

Into the Basement

Ryan tracked the spider trail back to the Leprechauns' door and Raleigh knocked. After a few minutes, one of the leprechauns opened a smaller door and asked what they wanted. As the PCs wanted to kill the spider-centaurs and the leprechauns didn't care about that, the leprechaun said "door's unlocked" and retreated back through the north door. The PCs turned to the south staircase.

Yusef does not want to deal with the giant spiders.
This was their first good look at that staircase, and they immediately saw it was blocked, wall to wall and for its entire length, by thick spiderwebs made from gigantic strands. Yusef, who dislikes spiders and had been opposed to this plan from the beginning, retreated into a wall of "nopes" while Ryan pulled out his huge machete and went to work, hacking out a path. He was strong enough to slash through the strands and to pull himself out when he accidentally touched them, but it was slow going and not very quiet. Everyone else followed behind him.

Let's go provoke the spiders and see what happens!
The stairs opened onto a hallway that headed west and had several entrances and exits nearby. Thomas heard some muffled words and saw a flicker of flames from near the ceiling in a room to the east, which was all the warning the PCs got as three driders attacked. The first one ran across the ceiling and fired an arrow at Ryan which split into three midflight - and Ryan was too busy chopping web to notice and took one of the arrows painfully to the chest. A second drider stepped into sight and through an explosive fireball at Raleigh's feet. Ryan jumped into the uncut spiderweb to avoid it, but almost everyone else was badly burnt and had their clothes set on fire.

The driders apparently started to take pity on the PCs, or at least decide that they wanted fresh meat, because they started slinging masses of web gunk at the PCs and generally missing. This turned out to be a poor choice for the driders, because Neil wasn't badly wounded and had his rifle ready: three rounds rapid of 7.62mm into what he thought would be the wizard-drider's vitals did 165(!) injury and rather excessively killed it. The remaining two driders swarmed toward him, firing arrows and swinging swords, but his trauma plate held. Yusef put another three rounds into the scout-drider, killing it, and Neil hit the last drider with a pair of bullets that stunned it and caused it to fall off the ceiling next to Ryan, who proceeded to put it out the PCs' misery.

Patching Up and Finding Loot

Raleigh spent the next hour performing first aid on everyone, and when that wasn't enough, casting Major Healing to cure most of Angela's burns. Thomas pulled the mail hauberks off two of the driders, patched them up to close the bullet holes, and gifted them to Angela and Jamie. The PCs also recovered a lot of silver and copper coins and a few gold coins, as well as some other interesting stuff.

The first thing they looked at were some vials on the driders' belts: two small ones on one side, and a larger one on the other. Thomas opened one of the smaller ones and gave it a sniff test to no effect, and then opened the larger one. That one immediately foamed up like a shaken can of coke and then the foam started burning, so it got labeled the "willey-pete can of coke" and tossed away. At first, Thomas failed his DX check, but his Luck had just refreshed and he exactly made it on the reroll. He secured the other willey-pete can and decided the others were probably healing potions but didn't test them.

Then the PCs tried the bow. Surprisingly, it was comfortable to Angela's draw strength. Jamie also tried it and found he could draw it but it was hard. Finally, they passed it to Ryan and again, it was just within his draw strength. Since Ryan curls about six times as much as Angela, they agreed the bow was very magic, especially when they discovered it fired three arrows even though Ryan had only nocked one. As useful as that bow might have been, only Angela had any training in bow, so she kept it.

The session ended a bit aimlessly as the PCs finished searching the immediate vicinity. The driders had made nests on the floors of two of the rooms, and Raleigh recovered a grimoire that she couldn't read from one of them. It was running late, so we ended there.

Too Long, Didn't Read

Uhuk posted the following summary to the mailing list immediately after the end of the session:
We saw ghosts and determined they don't stay in tupperware. Also, do not touch, they are cold. We fought driders. They use swords and FIRE SPELLS. Player characters burn merrily, we need to remember to pack more burn ointment next time. Ryan also shouldn't take Ibuprofen, or at least not that generic crap. We found not nearly enough gold coins, a few swords, and some mail armor. We found a magic bow that shoots x3 arrows and is really strong! We found some potions of mysterious provenance, some of which are ON FIRE. And we found some kind of book, which Raleigh is crazy about.

I think that about sums it up.

Evaluation of Play

This was another good session, and people were appropriately scared by the ghosts and the massive spiderwebs. I think the PCs bit off a bit more than they could chew by attacking the driders, but it worked out alright in the end. Modern guns really do a number on anything vulnerable to bullets, but the PCs continue to be underarmored. Though they're slowly fixing that: Raleigh took a maximum damage arrow hit to the torso, but thanks to her nifty full suit of heavy plate, shrugged it off.

Everyone continues to be a bit unfocused, and there's often dead time unless I prompt people to do stuff. A fact that was actually discussed: this group isn't terribly curious and impulsive, which keeps them from doing too many dumb things, but does mean that the action drags a bit at times. Well, I'll keep prodding them and maybe a new player will change the dynamic.

Technical Notes

This week we had mike problems. I accidentally hit the physical on/off switch on my mike just before the game started, and no one could hear me for ten minutes until I realized what I'd done. Doug's mike inexplicably failed several times, causing him to effectively drop out for five minutes each time. As these things go, it wasn't too bad, but it was a little annoying.

MapTools mostly worked, though we had the problem that it doesn't handle multiple levels very well. Some of the PCs were at the top of the stairs during the drider fight, and even though they could technically retreat into the first floor room, it wasn't easy to show that. Sometimes I really want a true 3-D virtual tabletop, though I recognize what a pain in the ass that would be to program and use.

I took some screen shots of the areas that the PCs have explored so far, so that readers can better follow the action. They're not really to scale with each other.
Ground floor and courtyards; mostly explored

Second floor, with only the chapel, great hallway, and
throne room explored.

Third floor and the tops of the parapets. Only the
gnomes' chambers are explored.

The basement, filled with spiderwebs, and barely explored.

What Next?

I'm not really sure what the PCs are going to do next. They weren't going to go into the basement until they'd cleared the rest of the castle, but here they are. Fortunately for me, I've got most of this basement level mapped and stocked and it'll be easy to finish the rest before next week. The sub-basement is less finished: I mostly know what I want to do, but I haven't written up all my notes and there are one or two encounters that are a bit vague in my mind. On the plus side, I'm not sure that the PCs can even get through the monster guarding the stairs going down, so it may not be an issue.

Call for a Player

If you're interested in joining our little group, we have a slot open! I posted in the SJ Games forum at this handy link with all the details.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Reading Rappan Athuk: Level 2

Another Monday, another level in my read-through of Rappan Athuk: Reloaded. Level 2 is bland and uninspired, but bad not bad in the way the previous levels were: it's not completely linear, has no inexplicable death traps, and doesn't involve toilet humor. It doesn't really have anything going for it, but it's still an improvement.

Rappan Athuk's level design has advanced
all the way to "not obviously bad." They
need to do better.

Boring and Pointless Hallways

Level 2 is officially titled "Marthek's Place & Ambro's Base," but that doesn't amount to much. It's mostly a square made from long hallways, with several complexes of a few rooms off one side or another of a corridor. The map itself is dull and I doubt these would be memorable levels of a campaign.

The rooms themselves feel unconnected to each other: Marthek is avoided by the other creatures, the moody skeletal warrior lair stays in his crypt, and Ambro the ogre doesn't go on patrol. Some dungeons have an organic quality to them, and a sense that things might be happening behind the scenes. Rappan Athuk doesn't have that quality or sense, even though the text refers repeatedly to the evil priests on level 4 who are supposed to go around resetting traps and using charm spells to produce new minions. Instead, every area is its own encounter, and there's no sense of what the "Dungeon of Graves" was before it because a monster infested hole in the ground.

There's nothing in this level that really ties it to any other level of Rappan Athuk or to the dungeon as a whole. It could easily be replaced by something better if a GM wanted to put in the work, or it could be painlessly removed and inserted in some other dungeon, though why anyone would bother is beyond me.

Marthek and Ambro, Unremarkable Antagonists

Given that the name of the level refers to these two, you'd think they'd be impressive or memorable. They aren't. They're completely forgettable. The most interesting thing about either of them is a map which is a pointer to a different adventure by the same people. If the most interesting part of a published encounter is a suggestion that the party go someplace else, then that encounter has real problems.

Marthek himself is a barbarian, once chaotic good and now cursed to be chaotic evil by insanity. He can be cured, but since he attacks on sight and there aren't any rumors about him, I doubt most players are going to try to cure him. More likely, he's going to get hit by a Color Spray or Hold Person or just beat down thanks to the action economy. Without a lot of work from the GM, no one is going to remember him by the end of the session.

Ambro is an ogre, leading a group of 4 other ogres. There's a little bit of pointless color in his room (coins lined up heads or tails as the ogres sort them) that I can't tell is amusing or slightly crass but either way doesn't add much to the encounter. It's nominally a fairly high level encounter but I would expect most PC groups that got this far into the dungeon to handle it with ease.

Saracek the Badly Boxed Off

Saracek is the previously mentioned skeletal warrior. The module text frankly states that low level parties shouldn't enter his crypt, but the lock is only DC 30, so a reasonably competent 3rd level thief should be able to open it. I assume this is more of Rappan Athuk's general difficulty in converting to D&D 3rd edition, but it's still a bit sad that they couldn't even manage to prevent a low level party from getting into it.

Also annoying is that there's a warning at the door, written in such a way that a character needs to know both the Celestial and Infernal languages to read it. Depending on the campaign, that might not be combination of languages that anyone in the party can manage, in which case the warning is useless. Even if the party can read the warning, "in death a dark warrior-king" is probably not sufficient information for a party to determine that there's a skeletal warrior beyond the door and evaluate whether they're good enough to defeat him. So the entire warning is most likely a waste of time.

Some Stuff That's Incomplete

The map shows that rooms 10 and 20 have exits to the surface. I had to read through the room descriptions twice to find the text for the relevant tunnels. Room 10 exits to "a cave" but doesn't specify where the cave is on the surface map, and the text for the wilderness section doesn't mention this entrance either. Room 20 also just exits to the surface with no location specified, but has the added benefit of having a second tunnel descend to level 4 without specifying where on level 4 it goes. The level 4 map has a tunnel that goes to room 20 on level 2, so that's answered, but the room description for the area near the tunnel doesn't mention the tunnel or the passage to level 2. It's just shoddy.

Opinions So Far

This isn't a terrible level, which as I said, makes it better than the previous couple of levels. But it isn't a great or even fairly decent level either. It's nothing that any GM couldn't come up with in a couple of hours of work with a random dungeon generator, a copy of a Monster's Manual, and a sheet of graph paper. There's not a single interesting setpiece, trap, or random encounter in the entire mess.

Hopefully, the rest of Rappan Athuk will be better. At this point, I really think Keep on the Borderlands is a more interesting dungeon to play in, and more useful for a GM as either inspiration or a learning tool. Rappan Athuk has nothing going for it.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Castle of Horrors Session 4

Thursday is GURPS day!

My online group met last night for another session of Castle of Horrors. +Nathan Joy had to stay at work late, so he couldn't make it, and +Douglas Cole was preparing for surgery after his abortive career as as a gasoline powered launch vehicle, so the game was a little unfocused. Still, we managed to deal with the gargoyles, do a little exploring, meet some friends, and figure out where people were camping for the night. It was a decently productive session.

Last Stand of the Scared Little Bunnies

As usual, we started where we had left off last session: with the PCs kiting the gargoyle's from the octagon room to the chapel. Almost everyone had a rifle out, and fired away at the gargoyles. Thanks to Aim actions and rate of fire bonuses, they generally hit, but the hollow gargoyles didn't have vital organs so the bullets weren't particularly effective. +Uhuk of the Guard's character Ryan was fleeing into the chapel and being overtaken by the gargoyles, who would try to hit him as they flew by, but he mostly ignored their hits.

Things changed when +Kevin Smyth's character Raleigh threw an Explosive Sound Ball - something of a misnomer, since the spell is really just an area effect spell at a distance. Still, it did decent area of effect crushing damage, so it actually hurt the gargoyles a fair bit, and more to the point, it knocked them back. Gargoyles are clumsy flyers, and though they are heavy, they don't have much resistant to being tossed around while in the air. Two of them face planted for minimal damage. Since some of the gargoyles had been slowed already from previous damage, it meant that the gargoyles were now strung out and arriving one at a time at the PCs' firing line, instead of hitting en mass.

The first gargoyle reached the firing line and grabbed (but missed) Yusef's gun. The gargoyle behind him managed to dodge the "Endor" trap made from a throne dropped off the balcony above the door, but the next one tried to dodge under it and clipped the floor and then nearly had its wings torn off by the throne-pendulum. Meanwhile, concentrated gunfire from the firing line finally killed a gargoyle, and it shattered into a pile of worthless rubble.

Raleigh cast another spell at this point, imbuing the bullets from Douglas' character Neil's gun with an energy sheathe that did decent damage to the gargoyles. He started lighting them up, and the next batch of gargoyles streamed toward him to try to steal his gun away. One of them got a decent grip on it, only for Raleigh's boyfriend Jamie to start hacking away at it's arm, while Neil himself used the fact that Technical Grappling grapples are two-way: he put the gargoyle in an arm-lock, using his captured rifle as a lever. (Doug claims that he's trained in his martial arts classes to do a similar trick when someone grabs the short staff he's wielding.) That gargoyle got hacked to pieces before it could do much else.

From that point on, the battle shifted pretty decisively in the PCs' favor. Raleigh got punched once, but her refurbished plate harness absorbed the blow (though she herself got knocked on her ass from transferred momentum). The badly wounded gargoyles, even with HT 14, started critically failing HT checks to stay conscious, and I just marked them as dead. We were quickly down to one nearly unwounded gargoyle brawling with Ryan and a pair of heavily shot up ones at the gun line, and I called the fight: the PCs won without taking much more damage.

"I'm Anxious to For You to See the Rest of This Ginormous Death Trap"

The reason I called the fight was because the outcome wasn't in doubt and finishing it would take up too much time. And honestly, there are so many strange and bizarre things in the Castle of Horrors that I want the PCs to interact with. Every minute that they spend dealing with a nearly played out encounter is a minute that they're not dealing with the other dangerous oddities. It's the same reason I cut the role-playing short last week.

Where Do We Go Now?

After bandaging themselves up, reloading, and resting a bit, the group had a decision to make: where to go next? They decided to return to the octagon room, now that they could safely move through it, and investigate the doorway to the south, opposite the stairs they'd used to flee from the gargoyles in Session 2.

In the guard's hallway. The secret door doesn't
directly on the map.
That doorway led to a dusty and cobwebbed dining room, lined with grimy mirrors. There was a brief discussion of stealing the silver backing from the mirrors (it was a large room) but since silver isn't worth anywhere near as much as gold, they backed down from that. +Theodore Briggs's character Thomas did meticulously search some old china cabinets, and found a large case of silverware beneath a false bottom in one of the drawers. They eyeballed the 20-30 pounds of sterling silver as worth somewhere between $4000 and $8000, and figured that was a pretty good haul.

Thomas also found a secret door behind one of the mirrors that led to a guard corridor. The corridor was lined with rusty and worthless weapons and went around the outer perimeter of the keep before ending at another spiral stairwell. Since that stairwell stunk of rotten eggs, they avoided it. After a bit more discussion, they went up the grand staircase on the north side of the octagon.

"That's definitely Harbinger assuming direct control"

The stairway led to an intermediate platform between levels 1 and 2, guarded by another pair of sharkfaced Void Brutes. Once again, a fight didn't break out, somewhat to my surprise. One of the void brutes grunted at the PCs for a while, before suddenly standing up straight and inviting them upstairs in a much more cultured and polished voice. After that, it reverted to a slightly hunched, looming and went back to grunting.

Kevin (or maybe Raleigh?) noted that they'd just seen a clear case of mental possession, and no one was happy about going into a possible mind controller's lair. But they also didn't want to turn their back on the void bruttes, so up they went.

The mind controller's lair was the castle's throne room: a huge room with a massive gilt throne on the south side, surrounded by weird mystic circles. The mind controller himself, a robed man named Donald, asked them what they were doing in his castle. He claimed to be the Keeper of the Castle, but was mostly focused on his research. He believed that the throne was an artifact that gave its controller immortality, based on the fact that the accountant in the next room didn't sleep, eat, drink or age.

I'm not sure how the PCs felt about Donald, but he was clearly obsessed with the throne and unconcerned with the rest of the castle. He also offered the a 1 ounce gold coin to go down to the goblins and buy him some rations, since the goblins refused to do business with his void brutes and he didn't want to disrupt his research to do it himself. The PCs took his money and gave him their own rations, because it's worth being hungry for a day or two to earn $1000. When Donald had nothing more to do with him, the PCs excused themselves and headed back to the first floor.

Stop For The Night

I'd pointed out in email that the Icon took about 50 hours to recharge, and it seemed most likely to me that they'd activated on Friday afternoon with a plan to return to the Real World on Sunday evening. As such, they'd spent about four hours exploring and fighting gargoyles, and needed to think about where they were going to sleep.

No one wanted to stay in the courtyard for some reason, and the poorly fortified chapel was ominous and hard to secure. Someone suggested the dining room, but in the end they went with the hall between the chapel and the octagon: plenty of space, but only two doors and both opened inwards and could be easily blocked. Thomas spent some time stringing noisemaker traps around the chapel entrances and Ryan blockaded the hallway doors. Both of them saw a leprechaun in the chapel courtyard, who proceeded to turn invisible when he saw them looking, and both of them noted that his footprints were disturbing the grass in a path heading east toward the overlook, but neither of them decided to deal with it then. Instead, we closed up for the night.

Evaluation of Play

The fight in the chapel went surprisingly well for the PCs. The gargoyles had a surprising number of critical failures on defense rolls and rolls to maintain consciousness, but they also never failed an attack roll to grab a weapon, even though they only had a 50% chance of doing so successfully. So I guess that balances out. I had really expected the PCs to have flee again, and was looking forward to turning the gargoyles into some kind of near mystical threat, but it didn't happen.

The rest of the session went well enough. One thing that I'm appreciating is that this game isn't Dungeon Fantasy, and the PCs have quite the same adversarial attitude toward the dungeon's inhabitants. They've been willing to talk to anything that wasn't actively attacking them, which is nice. Later conversations show that they don't trust any of the dungeon's inhabitants, which is wise. But it really does make a nice change of pace from the "kick down the door, attack anything that moves, only negotiate when the odds are bad" method that we got used to when we were playing a conventional Dungeon Fantasy game.

I'm still a little disappointed that no one is stepping forward to keep the group organized. I'm finding myself asking "what are you doing NOW?" a bit too often. Some playgroups manage to keep focused and some don't, and I think this current one is one of the latter groups. It's not a huge problem, but again, there's all kinds of encounters that I am anticipating them experiencing and that doesn't happen when they're all silent and not moving forward.

Technical Notes

For once, Skype and MapTools behaved themselves for most of an entire session, though Kevin was disconnected from MapTools randomly at one point. Fortunately, it wasn't an important part of the game, so no harm done aside from some confusion.

What Next?

The PCs have forted up for the night, and they managed to pick a pretty decent location. Veterans of the original Ravenloft module might recognize that their location isn't perfect, but really, no location is. Assuming they survive until morning, I think they're going to move on to exploring the second and third floors. They've already been through parts of those levels, so that may go fairly fast, and then they're going to have to decide if they want to go up the towers or descend into the basement. Given that the basement is already known to be either stinky or filled with spiders by giant spiders, I suspect they'll go up before they go down.

For myself, I need to finalize my plans for what happens to them overnight. The rest of the castle is mostly stocked and I just need to clean up a few places. Stocking a large dungeon is never done: there's always something else you can polish up a bit. Still, I'm in good enough shape for now.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Reading Rappan Athuk: Alternate Level 1A

I'm continuing with my read-through of Rappan Athuk Reloaded. The next level is the Temple of Final Sacrament, level 1A, an alternate entrance to the dungeon that is part of the new content in Rappan Athuk Reloaded, as opposed to just Rappan Athuk.

Once again, this level is a mess of questionable design decisions and shoddy mapping. On the plus side, it doesn't include toilet humor or questionable instant kill traps.

Finding the Temple

The temple entrance is above ground, north east of Rappan Athuk itself. A 5th or 6th level party, which could probably handle the Rappan Athuk main entrance, could just stumble across the Temple while mapping the surrounding wilderness: it's less than 5 miles off the road. There's no indication that the temple entrance leads to a particularly deadly dungeon, so the first sign of danger might be the bone crawler in the first room.

The bone crawler looks like a pretty nasty closet troll to me, capable of delivering 4 attacks on each of 3 different PCs and doing 1d8+5 per attack, and hidden behind an illusionary wall. It's probably not too difficult for a 10th level party, but it might be a nasty surprise for a 5th level party.

Temple Layout

The temple consists of fifteen rooms, laid out in a spiral. There's no real choice: move on to the next room or don't. Each room consists of a nasty guardian: some kind of fairly powerful monster usually backed by a trap.

There's a poem outside the temple that very vaguely alludes to each of the guardians, and the text says "perspicacious characters may realize this to their advantage" but I'm not really sure how. Even looking at the poem and the GM text for each guardian, I can't see how it helps. The stanza for the third guardian reads as follows:
and the third guardian (flesh) is an ebon ooze, a new variant of the black pudding. It takes full damage from fire and force attacks, is stunned by cold attacks, and doesn't split when attacked by slashing weapons like black puddings do. It isn't specially vulnerable to worms and I think a party is supposed to blow through all 104 HP with weapon attacks. Nothing about the stanza suggests ooze to me, and nothing about the stanza tells me how to defeat the ooze even if I know what it is.

Later on, there's a riddle "what is the third sacrament?" that can supposedly be answered by the fourth stanza of the poem. The poem is the Epitaph of the Final Sacrament, so there's no particular reason to think it's relevant to answering a question about the third sacrament.

Final Battle

The climax of this level is a 5th level Sorcerer that is also a Crypt Thing, protected by a lesser globe of invulnerability. I'm not sure how much of a challenge that is for a 10th level party, but I suspect its not that challenging. There's some confusing text about how its magic throne revives it after a few days unless the throne is destroyed and the room is hallowed by a spell, but also that the throne loses its magic if removed from the room. I suspect that's an editing error in that the "all magic" refers to the throne's constant defensive spells, not its vaguely defined ability to revive the Crypt Thing.

There is an option to communicate with the Crypt Thing, which I note mostly because she has perhaps a paragraph of backstory.  If this were a Paizo product, the backstory would take up a page and a half and would displace other, more useful information.

Opinions So Far

This is a terrible level. There's some justification for why it's a simple linear trek through a bunch of challenges of varying difficulty, but time spent coming up with that justification could have be spent making a more interesting design. It's just boring.

And given that there's no evidence of a time limit, there's no reason for a moderately intelligent party to not take it one room a day, and alpha strike with all their best spells on each room. That's another piece of bad design. I'm sure the designers of Rappan Athuk would have some kind of hostile GM response to a group of PCs approaching it that way, and even though I would loathe that response, I wish they had gone ahead and put it in the text of the adventure.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

"Possessions Under Control" and Magic

"Possessions Under Control" (PUC) is a nifty article from Pyramid v3 #83 that rewrote the rules for possessions and mind control. Instead of a one-time only quick contest, possessions became a series of rolls based on Technical Grappling's control points. Despite generally positive response on the forums, there's some oddities in the rules and I want to explore using the concepts of PUC with magic.

First, I'm going to present some suggested house rules for using PUC with GURPS Magic. Then, I'm going to do an example of play using the standard rules for mind control and possession, followed by the same scenario using PUC.

House Rules for Possession Magic

Control Person, Possession, Dispel Possession, Permanent Possession, Exchange Bodies, Loyalty, Charm, and Enslave are Possession spells for these rules.

All Possession spells have half their normal casting time, and when successfully cast, allow the caster to make Concentrate maneuvers while performing a mental grapple. The time spent in the mental grapple does not count against the spell duration, but the caster must make a Concentrate maneuver at least once per turn to continue the spell. If the caster does not, the spell lapses and the mental grapple fails.

Mental Grapples
Mental grapples follow the rules on p28 of PUC under the heading "Technical Possession." The attacker rolls against his effective skill in the spell (modified by casting time, gestures, target distance, etc) or technique and counts as having full bought up the Possession technique. He may use any other Possession based technique normally.

Most Possession spells use the Average or Meditation track for Trained Will.

Dispel Possession is a form of Exorcism. It can only be used to remove a Possession and uses the Fast or Exorcism track for Trained Will.

Example of Play: Our Combatants

I'm using the stock Dungeon Fantasy templates from Adventurers and Henchmen. Anything that isn't mentioned below uses the standard template values, so Singeon (for example) has IQ 10. There are two teams: Singeon and Sir Albrect, versus Mad Donald and his guards.

Singeon is a standard Dungeon Fantasy Swashbuckler with Appearance (Handsome), Enhanced Parry 2 (Saber), Extra Attack, Two Weapon Fighting (Saber/Saber), ST +2,  Saber-20, Knife-Throwing-16. He carries 2 balanced, fine, weapon bonded sabers and wears Lightened 25%, Fortified +2 Heavy Leather Armor. He is, in short, a very offense focused DF swashbuckler.

Singeon's buddy Sir Albrecht is a standard Dungeon Fantasy Holy Warrior with Blessed (ST), Blessed (DX), DX +1, ST +1, Shield-Wall Training, Thrown Weapon (Axe)-17, Axe/Mace-21. He carries a Fine Large Shield, a fine, dwarven axe (with hammerhead and top spike), a Blessed Holy Symbol, and wears Lightened 25%, Fortified +2 Heavy Mail. He's a pretty typical DF Holy Warrior.

Their enemy is Mad Donald, a standard Dungeon Fantasy Wizard with IQ +1, Energy Reserve +3, and various mind control spells, most importantly Enslave-16. He carries a bejeweled quarterstaff with the Staff spell (it's worth $25,000 and is a 25 point Power Item) and wears Fine, Lightened 50%, Fortified +3 Heavy Leather Armor.

Mad Donald's guardsmen are 3 Guards with HP +1, Striking ST +1, Sacrificial Block, Sacrificial Parry, Shield Wall Training, Broadsword-13, Shield-12. They carrying Large Shields and Broadswords and wearing Lightened 25%, Fortified +1 Mail.

Example of Play: Standard Rules

Singeon and Sir Albrect encounter Mad Donald and his guards in a 10' wide corridor. The guards form a shield wall with Mad Donald 2 yards behind them. Singeon and Sir Albrect start 10 yards away.

Round 1
On his turn, Singeon runs forward 7 yards. Sir Albrecht follows and runs 4 yards. The guards take All-Out Defense (Block) maneuvers but don't move. Mad Donald steps forward and takes an All-Out Defense (Dodge).

Round 2
Singeon wants that staff! He makes a Move and Attack to close with the shield wall and attacks a guard, rolling a 9 versus Saber capped at 9. The guard blocks with a 10, rolling against a 14. Sir Albrecht also chooses to Move and Attack, slipping past Singeon to shield rush the same guard with a -1 deceptive attack: he rolls a 7 against a 15. The guard's neighbor takes advantage of Shield-Wall Training to block for him and also rolls a 7, blocking easily.

Mad Donald is now 2 yards away from Singeon, and thinks that a skilled swashbuckler would make a great minion. He swings his staff forward and casts Enslave, rolling a 9 versus a 16 (no distance penalty thanks to his Staff spell) and succeeding by 7. Singeon resists and uses his Luck, rolling a 9, an 11, and a 13: success by 1 is not enough to beat Mad Donald, and now follows Mad Donald's commands. The guards continue to All-Out Defend (Block).

Round 3
Singeon does what Mad Donald wants, and Mad Donald wants Sir Albrecht dead. Singeon is already behind Sir Albrecht, so he uses an Attack maneuver to make three telegraphed attacks against Sir Albrecht's. He rolls 12 three times, easily succeeding against a net 21, and does 2d+4 cu versus DR7, for 12, 6, and 0 injury. Sir Albrecht isn't dead immediately, but he's in really bad shape.

This was not exactly the most engaging combat ever, was it?

Example of Play: Possessions Under Control

Singeon and Sir Albrect encounter Mad Donald and his guards in a 10' wide corridor. The guards form a shield wall with Mad Donald 2 yards behind them. Singeon and Sir Albrect start 10 yards away.

Round 1
On his turn, Singeon runs forward 7 yards. Sir Albrecht follows and runs 4 yards. The guards take All-Out Defense (Block) maneuvers but don't move. Mad Donald steps forward and takes an All-Out Defense (Dodge).

Round 2
Singeon wants that staff! He makes a Move and Attack to close with the shield wall and attacks a guard, rolling a 9 versus Saber capped at 9. The guard blocks with a 10, rolling against a 14. Sir Albrecht also chooses to Move and Attack, slipping past Singeon to shield rush the same guard with a -1 deceptive attack: he rolls a 7 against a 15. The guard's neighbor takes advantage of Shield-Wall Training to block for him and also rolls a 7, blocking easily.

Mad Donald is now 2 yards away from Singeon, and thinks that a skilled swashbuckler would make a great minion. He swings his staff forward, chooses to prioritize the mental struggle, and casts Enslave, rolling a 9 versus a 16 (no distance penalty thanks to his Staff spell) and succeeding by 7 and then steps back. Singeon attempts a mental parry using Trained Will and rolls a 9 versus a target of 8; he fails and Mad Donald inflicts 1d+2 MCP or 5 MCP. Singeon is now at -2 to IQ, DX, Per, and Will. The guards continue to All-Out Block.

Round 3
Singeon shouts "He's in my head!" He knows he's going to eventually lose this struggle, but he can fight back physically if he can just get through to Mad Donald. He elects to prioritize physical activity and makes a Committed (Determined) attack and chooses to make two steps for a -2 on attack rolls. First, he steps into a guard's hex and Acrobatically Evades: he's at a net -7, and uses Luck to roll 12, 9, and 16 for a success by 0. The guard rolls a 12 and fails by 1, so Singeon gets past him and steps again to get within reach of Mad Donald. Singeon slashes 3 times for Mad Donald's face, rolling against a 15: 11, 15, and 6 are all hits. Mad Donald retreats and dodges the first blow and retreats and performs a dual weapon parry against the dual weapon attack, but with a -4 this will be hard: he rolls a 12 against the dodge and a 5 for the parry, so he takes a sword blow to the face for 7 injury. That's a major wound, and he rolls HT-5 to avoid stunning: a 15 fails so badly that he falls unconscious and releases his mental grip on Singeon.

Sir Albrecht had been about to use his Blessed ability to perform an exorcism, but he thinks Singeon has it under control. He steps back and grimly begins beating up Mad Donald's guards.

That was not exactly a titanic struggle, but it was a little more interesting and could have easily gone differently. PUC makes mind control a slower and less certain process, which is probably a good thing: mind control is very powerful, and it shouldn't be a single roll to decide the outcome.

In Review

I like Possessions Under Control, but I'm really dubious of the rule that possession attacks and defenses are distracting and require focus. It effectively means that even not very successful possession attacks stun the target. I think I'm going to abolish that rule, and now I want to see how the combat would play out without it.

Example of Play: Possessions Under Control with a House Rule

Singeon and Sir Albrect encounter Mad Donald and his guards in a 10' wide corridor. The guards form a shield wall with Mad Donald 2 yards behind them. Singeon and Sir Albrect start 10 yards away.

Round 1
On his turn, Singeon runs forward 7 yards. Sir Albrecht follows and runs 4 yards. The guards take All-Out Defense (Block) maneuvers but don't move. Mad Donald steps forward and takes an All-Out Defense (Dodge).

Round 2
Singeon wants that staff! He makes a Move and Attack to close with the shield wall and attacks a guard, rolling a 9 versus Saber capped at 9. The guard blocks with a 10, rolling against a 14. Sir Albrecht also chooses to Move and Attack, slipping past Singeon to shield rush the same guard with a -1 deceptive attack: he rolls a 7 against a 15. The guard's neighbor takes advantage of Shield-Wall Training to block for him and also rolls a 7, blocking easily.

Mad Donald is now 2 yards away from Singeon, and thinks that a skilled swashbuckler would make a great minion. He swings his staff forward, casts Enslave, rolling a 9 versus a 16 (no distance penalty thanks to his Staff spell), and then steps back. Singeon attempts a mental parry using Trained Will and rolls a 9 versus a target of 8; he fails and Mad Donald inflicts 1d+2 MCP or 5 MCP. Singeon is now at -2 to IQ, DX, Per, and Will. The guards continue to All-Out Block.

Round 3
Singeon shouts "He's in my head!" He knows he's going to eventually lose this struggle, but he can fight back physically if he can just get through to Mad Donald. He makes a Committed (Determined) attack and chooses to make two steps for a -2 on attack rolls. First, he steps into a guard's hex and Acrobatically Evades: he's at a net -7, and uses Luck to roll 12, 9, and 16 for a success by 0. The guard rolls a 12 and fails by 1, so Singeon gets past him and steps again to get within reach of Mad Donald. Singeon slashes 3 times for Mad Donald's face, rolling against a 15: 11, 15, and 6 are all hits. Mad Donald retreats and dodges the first blow and retreats and performs a dual weapon parry against the dual weapon attack: he rolls a 12 against the dodge and a 5 for the parry, so he avoids everything.

Sir Albrecht chooses to Exorcise Mad Donald, and rolls Exorcism (at -2 for distance and +1 for his Holy Symbol), succeeding with a 13. Mad Donald parries with Enslave, rolling an 11 and cancelling the attack.

Mad Donald steps back and sustains his Enslave attempt, attacking Singeon again with a 15, while Singeon mentally parries with a 6, somehow successfully defending! One of the guards takes a Move maneuver to reposition himself next to Mad Donald, while another Waits to step into Sir Albrecht's way, and the third makes an attack maneuver. He drops his sword, turns around and steps into Singeon's hex, and grabs him with a telegraphed Wrestling attack: a 9 is sufficient to grab Singeon, and Singeon cannot defend since his back was to the guard.

Round 4
Singeon is in trouble, but when has that ever stopped a swashbuckler? He performs an All-Out Attack (Double). First he uses an attack to Break Free, rolling a 9 against the guard's 12, and slips out of the grapple. He moves up to Mad Donald and launches three attacks to the face, rolling 11, 12, and 10 against a 15. The guard next to Mad Donald performs a sacrificial block and parry, rolling a 10 and an 11, and intercepts one of them. Mad Donald dodges the other two while retreating, rolling a 10 and a 7, dodging both.

Sir Albrecht steps closer to Singeon (and ends up in the same hex as the guard trying to intercept his movement) and tries another exorcism. He rolls an 8 and succeeds easily, and Mad Donald attempts a parry with a 13 against an 11, failing. Sir Albrecht rolls 1d for MCP, getting a 6 and breaking Singeon free of Mad Donald's grip!

From this point, the fight is mostly over: Mad Donald doesn't have enough energy to try another Enslave, and Singeon and Sir Albrecht can deal with some guards in a few seconds.

Final Evaluation

I think these rules can work and make for interesting combats in the mind. I do think getting rid of the distraction rules really helps, but other people might have a different opinion.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Castle of Horrors Session 3

Thursday is GURPS Day!

My online group continued exploring the Castle of Horrors. It was a fairly productive session, though it could have gone a little better. They did finish their first expedition and find their way home, and restocked and set out again.

As usual, +Douglas Cole wrote up his own version of this session, for a player's view of what happened. I didn't read it until after I wrote my own version.

Siege Beasts in the Chapel

We picked up where we left off on the previous session: the PCs were outside the castle's chapel, planning to shoot the huge, armored, four-armed guardian inside, and the guardian was challenging them for a password and preparing to shoot them.

There had been some confusion at the end of last session about whether people were in position when the guardian started talking to them, and how long people had to aim before the fighting started. I decided that the question was basically insolvable, and a random roll of 1d-4 seconds was the simplest solution. Unsurprisingly, most people weren't in position, and only +Nathan Joy's character Yusef had a chance to aim.

The PCs opened fire, with Yusef slamming three shots into the guardian's leg. It dropped to the ground, and returned fire wildly with its crossbow and calling for aid. Other PCs fired onto it or watched the doors. A second later, another pair of guardians (the ones the PCs had briefly tangled with earlier) opened the doors on the ground level, and a second pair came in through doors on the balcony, some 20' overhead. One of the ones one the ground level got shot immediately by +Theodore Briggs' character Thomas, who got near maximum damage on his first 3" 12G high powered rifled slug, and that guardian died instantly. The other two on the ground floor didn't last much longer.

Gold Glitter is Good

The two guardians on the balcony didn't last much longer, as both Yusef and +Douglas Cole's character Neil critically hit with snapshots. As luck would have it, both of the guardians ended up 1 injury away from death and failed their major wound checks, so I had them dramatically tumble over the balcony railing (a good 3.5' tall, but the guardians were 12' tall so it didn't help much) and splat on the floor.

The bodies were quickly searched: their armor was thick cow hide and useless, but each of them had a heavy gold coin on a string around their neck, and a sledge hammer nailed to their right hand. Yusef and +Uhuk of the Guard's character Ryan appropriated some sledge hammers as tools. There was nothing else of value on the bodies, but the gold coins were worth serious money on their own.

+Kevin Smyth's character Raleigh went for the crow statue, which turned out to be glowing faintly under close inspection. When she put her hands on it, the eerie tugging sensation that she had been feeling shifted from the statue to the west north-west, basically in the direction of their campsite. After some discussion, everyone agreed to return to campsite through the courtyards, but first they wanted to check out the balcony. Unfortunately, the stairway to the balcony was past a pair of alcoves, and there was a statue in each alcove.

After the previous experience with statues, no one wanted to walk past them. Fortunately, Thomas and Yusef each had about 10 yards of 1/2" synthetic rope, and it would be easy to climb a rope to the balcony. Except no one had a grappling hook (Doug: "Who takes a grappling hook to hunt deer?") so they ended up piling up some of the church pews to form a platform so that Ryan could lift someone high enough to secure the rope to the railing. I pretty much handwaved the effort.

There was nothing dangerous on the balcony. There were a pair of thrones, slightly rotten, and covered in gold leaf, which the PCs made note of, and a ladder to another room above the chapel. Everyone climbed back down the rope, tromped through the courtyards to the campsite to confirm the hypothesis about where Raleigh's tugging was leading her, and then went back to scrape off the gold leaf before possibly being returned to the Real World.

In a case of excessively stupid GM, I'd forgotten to note how much gold there was on the thrones. As it turns out, an ounce of gold can be trivially beaten out to cover 300 sqft, so my initial estimate of 200 lbs was off by three orders of magnitude. A little bit of work and the PCs were happily in possession of another 2 ounces of gold. With all their loot in hand, they returned to the campsite and were transported back to the real world.

In Texas, the statue stopped glowing, and its eyes instantly changed from green to red. Over the next two days, the eyes slowly changed in color back to green, and the statue started glowing very faintly, like phosphorescent paint. The PCs correctly picked up on the fact that the statue had a recharge time of at least two days, and that they'd need to pack for at least that long for their next trip.

Okay, Enough Roleplaying, Guys!

The players were doing a good job of role-playing everyone's happiness and excitement at getting back to the Real World, but I wanted to move the game along so I cut it short. Everyone was quite amused, as observers have called us on moving from tactical encounter to tactical encounter instead of role-playing more. Which isn't quite fair, I think: I'm happy to see a lot of role-playing that advances the plot, or even goes nowhere, as long as it occurs at the Castle of Horrors. The Real World, at least for now, shouldn't be a big part of the game.

Earlier in the week, I had sent out an email estimating how much loot and experience the PCs were going to get and asking everyone to make plans to spend that so we could move on quickly. I don't think people took it quite to heart, and there was a bunch of hemming and hawing about what to do. I was worried that we were going to have to end an hour and a half early just so people could update their characters, but I bullied them into making some choices immediately with the understanding that I'd be generous in letting them revise those decisions before the next session.

Exploring the First Floor

The PCs had previously agreed that they were going to clear out the first floor of the castle, and then move up until they reached the gnomes' lair. After that, I think people were undecided as to whether to continue up the towers or go into the basement. From the GM's side of the table, I have my doubts about how well they're going to be able to stick to this plan, but it's the thought that counts.

Everyone agreed that they didn't want to tangle with the gargoyles immediately, so they tried a door they'd seen in the north east corner of the keep. That door opened into some old servants' quarters, currently occupied by a trio of surly leprechauns. There was a dialogue, mostly of the leprechauns warning the PCs off and threatening to cut them down if they tried anything, but the PCs did learn that some driders lived in the basement and the leprechauns wouldn't mind if the PCs killed them. Nate immediately pointed out that the plan was to NOT go into the basement, and since the stairs into the basement was visibly blocked by giant spiderwebs, everyone agreed.

With that door explored for now, there were only two other options left: enter through the front doors and pass through the octagon room (and its gargoyles), or go through the chapel and down the long hall to the octagon room.  Either way, the gargoyles were going to be a problem.

Apparently the plan was only to kite one gargoyle, but
the gargoyles didn't the message about that.
There was a lot of planning and discussion and over-thinking, which I firmly squelched. Eventually, everyone piled up some benches near the altar to make a barricade and shooting stand, and Ryan was sent forward to open the doors to the octagon room. Thomas also balanced one of the thrones on the balcony railing, hoping to use it as a swinging weight trap and "Endor" one of the gargoyles. Raleigh prepped an area effect missile spell and everyone waited.

Ryan hit one of the gargoyles in the face with his hammer and ran away, and everyone else opened fire. Hammer blows and gun shots chipped away at two of the gargoyles, slowing them substantially, but they didn't die. We ended the night after the first round of combat, with Ryan kiting a string of gargoyles toward the chapel.

Technical Notes

My wireless router completely dropped my connection for no obvious reason about halfway through the game, and we wasted about ten minutes re-establishing the voice chat after that. Skype sucks.

MapTools was a mixed blessing throughout this session. It doesn't have multi-level support, so rooms like the chapel with a second level balcony opening onto empty space are hard to represent. I know exactly how I think MapTools should handle this correctly, and I think it has 90% of the components necessary to do what I want, but no one has written the necessary code to glue it all together. I should learn Java some time and nerd wrestle it to do the right thing.

The group is trying to figure out what the GURPS stats should be for modern steel and kevlar brigadine armor. We're using a version of Better Fantasy Armor with TL8 options, including "TL 8 Scalar" armor to represent the controversial Dragonskin modern ballistic scale. For now, I'm treating home brewed versions as cheap TL8 Scalar, but there's some discussion and I may end up creating a new armor type.

What Next?

We're going to continue playing next week. The PCs are going to keep shooting at the gargoyles, but gargoyles are fast and tough to kill, and I suspect it's going to go to melee again. They've got slightly better body armor and slightly better melee skills this time, but I suspect they may have to run away again. It'll be interesting to find out.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Reading Rappan Athuk: The Ground Level and the 1st Level

So I never really did much with my read-through of Rappan Athuk. Now that I'm running a small mega-dungeon, I've decided to try to pick up on the read-through, adding a little more every week.

Ground Level: The Mausoleum

This entire area shows a continued lack of familiarity with 3rd edition D&D mechanics: the handy sidebar puts the Difficulty Level at EL7, but the some of the wandering monsters include dire rats, the locked doors are DC 20 (which a 7th level rogue without equipment should be able to open by taking 10), and there's a DC 8 Spot check to find a hidden compartment (search focused characters shouldn't be able to NOT find that compartment at 7th level if they look for it).

There's an enormously hokey bit where there are some freshly dug graves of famous adventurers, alongside an empty grave with a headstone bearing a PC's name. I get that Rappan Athuk is supposed to be a total bloodbath, but that's the kind of trick that works in Scooby-Doo, not when dealing mid to high level adventurers who can cast Divination spells and are going to wonder "how did that happen?"

The crowning glory of the Mausoleum is the nigh-inescapable quick kill death trap for anyone that didn't search a random (though admittedly, prominently placed) statue to find the compartment and the hidden key. Using any other method to get into the Mausoleum sets off a rising floor trap that crushes the PCs into the ceiling and kills them. There's a possible escape via a secret door which is actually easy to find (if the PCs search the right area), but gets blocked by the floor after a minute, so the PCs need to get lucky in their search.

Frankly, the entire thing seems like a dick move for a killer-GM. It's not entirely as bad as it could be, because there is an easily available key that circumvents the trap, but the fact that the statue isn't mentioned in the read-aloud text means that PCs aren't necessarily even going to find it. The fact that the trap seals the secret door four minutes before the trap kills the PCs is also poor form, because it means that through little fault of their own, PCs can get killed even though they've found the secret door. The entire thing seems like a recipe for player metagaming, using the knowledge that their dead characters' gained in a TPK to circumvent the trap the next time around. As I mentioned in my last review, all this would be less onerous if the rumors at least mentioned a deadly trap at the door and the need to find a key.

Alternately, the entire thing is just an aggravating example of pixel-bitching, and could just be replaced by a door to the first level of the dungeon.

Dungeon Level 1: Lair of the "Dung Monster"

There's really no other way to put this: Rappan Athuk is a published adventure that deals with toilet humor. I'm not really sure what to think about a GM who would put toilet humor like this in his personal campaign, much less one that would keep it for publication. It's just really juvenile.

At any rate, level 1 of Rappan Athuk is schizophrenic. It's nominally an EL 3 zone (which can only be reached by fighting your way through 8 gargoyles, an EL6+ encounter), but the titular monster is invulnerable to non-magic weapons and has insane magic resistance (SR 100? really?) and 140 hit points and can grapple and engulf anyone foolish enough to fight it at melee range. The rest of the foes are mostly minor trash monsters like dire rats or lone ghasts.

The level itself has a fairly linear flow, with only two real branches among fourteen rooms and no loops. The corridors also flow straight into the rooms, so there isn't much choice as to what to avoid and what to encounter. About half the encounters are traps, placed more or less randomly and with little warning. Treasure is either minimal (22 cp in one room, 200 cp in another) or ridiculously hard to retrieve (dig for a week to find a +1 keen short sword; there's a 25% of encountering random monsters every 15 minutes while digging).

The climax of the level is a fairly well designed ambush by a group of wererats. There are some notes on how to modify the ambush so it's less of an automatic TPK for low powered groups, but it seems like the entire encounter could be better written to either provide a level appropriate challenge or better warning of the potential danger. And then the level could have been rewritten to be less linear and provide more than one way to reach the next level. I mean, there's an underground river to level 9, but I meant something that most parties would consider taking.

Opinions So Far

This is a fairly awful entrance and first level: maybe fun for sadistic killer GMs and players that don't take the game seriously at all, but inconsistent about the difficulty level for no real reason. Also, it involves some really puerile toilet humor. There's really nothing here that can be easily repurposed for another game, either, and most of it would need to rewritten (and in the case of the map, redrawn) before being used.

One of the many reasons why Castle of Horrors started with Castle Ravenloft, and I didn't even consider Rappan Athuk, was because Castle Ravenloft had lots of encounters that could be used more or less as they were written and the maps provided a lot of branches and level changes for exploring. Rappan Athuk provides none of that, and is worse for it.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Technical Grappling: How does a Disarm work?

In Wednesday's session of Castle of Horrors, there were two instances where a gargoyle grabbed a PC's weapon. In both cases, the PC's surrendered the weapon rather try to fight for it. There were a bunch of reasons why they made that choice, but I'm curious about what might have happened if things had gone the other way.

Our Combatants

Ryan is a Troll. Relevant abilities here are ST 20, Arm ST +4, DX 13, Guns (Pistol)-14, and Wrestling-13. He has Combat Reflexes, and his Dodge is 10 and his Wrestling Parry is also 10. He inflicts 4d CP on a successful grappling attack and has a one-handed grip CP of 12. It takes 4 CP to give him a -1 DX penalty. He's holding a cheap .357M revolver.

The gargoyle has ST 16, DX 11, Wrestling-14, and the disarming technique at +4. It has a Dodge of 9 and a Wrestling Parry of 10. It inflicts 2d+2 CP on a normal grappling attack or 3d CP when grappling to disarming.

The Play by Play

Round 0

Ryan uses an all-out attack to shoot a gargoyle, and does nothing effective.

A different gargoyle uses a Committed (Determined) Attack to double-step into Ryan's hex and grab his gun. The gargoyle successfully makes his attack roll at -7, and since Ryan can't defend, rolls 3d and inflicts 11 CP.

Round 1

The gargoyle has 11 CP on the weapon, giving Ryan a -3 DX for using it, and reducing Ryan's effective ST to 19. Ryan wants to keep his gun - he's Struggling, and guns are expensive - so he's going to try to break the gargoyle's grip. He selects an Attack maneuver and uses Retain Weapon, defaulting from his Guns skill of 14, rolling a 9 to hit versus a target of 11. Normally he'd have to use his Wrestling skill, but since he's resisting a disarming attempt, he can use Retain Weapon instead. The gargoyle attempts a parry, but fails with a roll a 9 versus a target of 8 because Committed attack gives a -2 penalty to defenses. Ryan rolls 4d-5 for inflicted CP, and reduces the gargoyle's grip to 3 CP. Ryan doesn't quite have his gun back yet, but he's no longer at a DX penalty and is only at a -1 ST penalty, so things are looking up for him.

The gargoyle wants to take the gun away, but it's in a hurry, so it goes for an instant disarm. It spends 1 CP and rolls an ST based contest of Disarm versus Retain Weapon: 16+7+1 (24) against Ryan's 24-1+1 (24). The gargoyle rolls a 12 and Ryan rolls an 11: Ryan wins, but barely, and so the pistol is no longer ready. If the rolls had gone the other way, the gargoyle would have pulled the pistol away. As it is, the pistol isn't ready and Ryan has 9 CP on it; the gargoyle has 2 CP left and is still maintaining a grip.

Ryan probably should have spent some CP from his grip CP to keep control of the gun - he only needs 1 CP to hold it and 6 CP to keep it ready, and even spending 3 CP would have been enough to keep the odds in his favor. On the other hand, spending grip CP increases the chances that the gargoyle would take the gun away from him, and does nothing to break the gargoyle's grip on the gun.

Round 2

Ryan makes another Retain Weapon attack to get control of his gun. He rolls an 11, and makes the attack roll easily, but the gargoyle gets a 10 to parry and cancels out Ryan's attack.

The gargoyle wants to improve its position before going for another instant disarm. It attacks with Wrestling, rolling a 13 against its skill of 14 (no target penalties since it has already grabbed the gun), and Ryan blows his parry by rolling a 16. The gargoyle rolls very well on its damage, and inflicts 13 CP, getting an excellent grip on the gun! If the gargoyle had just attacked to reduce Ryan's grip, it would have reduced his Grip CP below 0, and Ryan would have lost the gun at this stage, so this might have been sub-optimal for the gargoyle.

Round 3

Ryan still has 9 CP on the gun, but now the gargoyle has 15 CP and is giving him -7 to ST and -4 to DX. He decides to add a second hand so he'll plenty of CP for the next contest. He attacks with Wrestling, with a -2 penalty for referred CP, and fails with a 14.

The gargoyle tries another instant disarm and spends 12 CP; Ryan will spend 6 CP of his own. The gargoyle is rolling versus 16+7+12 (35) and Ryan is rolling versus 24-7+1+6 (24); the gargoyle rolls a 12 for MoS 23 and Ryan rolls a 14 for MoS 10. The gargoyle wins handily, and tosses the weapon on the ground behind him.

Lessons Learned

In a 1 on 1 fight, Ryan might have been able to keep control of his gun - or he might have spent several seconds struggling to hold onto it, only to lose it anyway. So maybe +Uhuk of the Guard  made the right decision in not even bothering to struggle for Ryan's gun. At the time, Ryan was being surrounded by multiple gargoyles, and all of them were grabbing for his weapon or punching him, and only deft retreating and burning lots of Fatigue for extra effort defenses kept him from being bashed into pulp. He wouldn't have been able to retreat and dodge while spending several seconds stationary to struggle over the gun.

That said, the rules for disarming worked reasonably well. There was certainly a struggle, and it wasn't a forgone conclusion: if Ryan had been a bit better at grappling, or if the gargoyle hadn't been an absolute master of disarming, Ryan might have been able to retain his gun.

I still find Technical Grappling to be confusingly written in places: it took me a couple minutes of searching to figure out the penalties for Ryan trying to put his second hand on his gun and for the gargoyle to attack to increase his CP. It's manageable, but I wish there had been a step by step list of the components of a standard grappling attack and the possible modifiers. Something like this:
  1. Attack your foe with a grappling skill.
    1. If you are establishing a grapple, hit location modifiers apply. If you already have at least a 0 CP grapple on your foe, hit location modifiers do not apply.
    2. (some other modifiers)
  2. Your foe may defend if he chose a maneuver that lets him defend.
    1. If your foe is not grappled, he may retreat.
    2. Referred control or whatever.
    3. Who can spend CP how and why here
    4. (other defense modifiers)
  3. If your foe failed to defend, apply CP.
Obviously, that needs more detail. But it would be great to have all the conditional modifiers in one place.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Castle of Horrors Session 2

Thursday is GURPS Day!

Last night was the second session of Castle of Horrors. We started nearly on time, despite +Douglas Cole having accidentally ignited a fuel air explosive the day before and thus being on painkillers and a little distracted. It was a pretty good session: not quite as good as the first session, but still quite fun and fairly productive.

There's No Shame in Running Like Scared Little Bunnies

We started this session by resolving last week's cliffhanger: as the PCs were returning to the octagon room, the eight gargoyles woke up and began attacking. Doug reminded me that his character Neil had Danger Sense, and I allowed that he'd shouted enough of a warning that no one was surprised.

+Uhuk of the Guard's character Ryan started by firing a .357 magnum into the gargoyles, but their rocky skin pretty much bounced the hollow-point round. Everyone else opened up with rifles and shotguns, and while a couple of their bullets penetrated, the gargoyles were homogeneous stone and reasonably impervious to gun shots. It would be possible to take them down with gunfire, but it would take a long time. At while the gargoyles were lousy at dodging gunfire, they were strong and fast and fully capable of grabbing weapons and yanking them away from their owners.

+Kevin Smyth tried casting spells again - and succeeded, with the expenditure of a Destiny Point and a roll on the calamity table when his Tally exceeded his Threshold. Nothing too bad happened, and so Jamie the orc boyfriend became strong and got a good hit against a gargoyle with his hatchet. Of course, the next turn the gargoyle got a firm grab on it.

The gargoyles were also throwing punches, and occasionally connecting. They weren't doing huge amount of damage: indeed, Raleigh in her armor absorbed a couple of hits without hurt and Ryan's bony plates were reducing the hits to a manageable amount. Neil wasn't quite so lucky, but since the gargoyle's claws were blunt, he was more "hurt" than "mangled."

I warned the players that the balance of the fights was pretty uncertain, because they were "eggshells armed with sledgehammers": high damage from their guns, but they weren't good at defending in melee and had no armor and almost no capability to recover from injury. In the fight with gargoyles, they were just eggshells, and they quickly realized that running away was the only option. Unfortunately, the gargoyles had formed a solid line between them and the front door, so their only useful retreat was to the spiral staircase to the east. So they ran, and luckily, the gargoyles didn't chase them.

"Those gnomes on the top floor"

These are not the void brutes you are looking for.
The staircase went up and down, and the PCs decided that up was safer than down. The next landing opened up to a book filled room with a man writing at a desk - and a pair of massively muscled, green scaly skinned, shark tooth men with pupil-less white eyes standing guard. There was about a moment's discussion, and then everyone kept running. They weren't sure what that was, but they wanted no part of it.

The next landing led to a T-shaped room with a closed door in the west wall. It wasn't obviously hostile, so they decided that was a good place to stop and rest. A faint trail of brown splotches coming from the staircase showed that someone else had come to the same conclusion earlier. At any rate, people reloaded, rested, and let Raleigh patch them up.

While all that was happening, Neil and +Theodore Briggs's character Thomas heard some hushed voices and movement from beyond the door. Everyone tensed, but after a whispered conversation, decided to wait for Raleigh to finish and then hope that whatever was beyond the door was friendly. They put that plan in motion, and Neil and Thomas sneaked toward the door - only to notice a tripwire leading to a bunch of noisemakers just before they tripped it. Thomas tied off the trip and then he and Neil set up an ambush by the door and Jamie opened negotiations.

The people on the other side of the door weren't hostile, but they weren't friendly, either. Fortunately, Jamie is a good negotiator and quite charismatic, so eventually the door opened to reveal a quartet of heavily armed and armored, red-skinned gnomes. They let the PCs in and closed and relocked the door.

"Something's Not Right Here"

The gnomes were inquisitive about the PCs and their intentions, but not willing to answer much in the way of questions themselves. They did reveal that they weren't allies of "the madman downstairs" and had fought and ran from the gargoyles earlier, but were now staying in these rooms for "gnome business," which a couple of the gnomes were a bit confused about. Carlardan, the gnome leader, eventually negotiated a payment of 6 ounces of silver to take the PCs through the gnome controlled area and out onto the castle parapets, where the gnomes had a crane and could lower the PCs into any of the castle's four or five courtyards.

He proceeded to show the PCs two more of the rooms the gnomes controlled: a library or study with a massive, open fireplace with a fire burning on the stone despite a lack of visible fuel, and a massive, ornate bedroom turned into a RenFest chemistry lab and convalescent room. A sixth gnome was lying on the bed, with a head wrapped in bandages. Raleigh tried to negotiate a refund of some of the silver in exchange for providing medical services, but Carladan strangely refused, insisting that he'd finishing brewing up some healing potions (this time they'd work!) soon. The PCs were confused by his behavior, and Raleigh pressed the issue long enough to examine the patient and cast Major Healing on her, triggering another minor calamity (by this point, Raleigh was having problems casting Healing and Body Control spells, and was looking to start exploding if he kept casting spells). Carladan wasn't pleased by Raleigh's spellcasting, but honored the deal and took the PCs out onto the parapets.

Strange and Creepy Things

The Castle of Horrors has four courtyards: the west (main) coutyard that the PCs started in, the southeast courtyard where they found the goblins, a northeast courtyard that they hadn't been into that was unremarkable, and a central east courtyard behind the chapel.  As per the agreement, Carladan took the PCs to the central east courtyard, but in a round-about way: instead of cutting through a visible entrance beneath one of the keep's two tall towers, he stayed on the curtain walls.

Carladan explained that the tower was dangerous: stepping into it risked being attacked by the tower walls themselves, which would turn red and pulse and start animating halberds and attacking. The PCs pretty much said "thanks for the tip", rolled to resist Curiousity, and stayed out of that particular death trap.

As they approached the central courtyard, I realized my notes were inadequate. I'd made a last minute change while stocking part of the keep, and though I'd changed my notes on the ground level, I'd forgotten that this particular change would also be visible from the walls. So there was a little confusion when I belatedly mentioned there were several 1/4" thick strands of spider web running from the ground to the parapet on the north side of the wall separating the northeast courtyard from the central courtyard, and again on the south side.

+Nathan Joy does not like spiders, and his characters almost always have a quirk that they don't like spiders either. So his character Yusef panicked, and pretty much tried to scrap the plan. There was a long discussion about the fact that the PCs still couldn't beat the gargoyles and there weren't any spiders or spider holes visible and that it really seemed like the silver Crow statue was important for getting home so they needed to get into the chapel somehow and so on and so forth. It was mildly amusing from the GM's perspective, but also something of a distraction.

Finally, Yusef bowed to the inevitable and everyone descended into the central courtyard and moved around until they spotted the four-armed monster in the chapel. There was another brief discussion of what do, and then some people started moving forward to the chapel wall so they'd have cover against the monster's crossbow attacks. The monster spotted them and challenged them for a password, and when they couldn't provide it, moved to attack. But by then it was after 9 pm, and Doug and Uhuk were losing focus, so we called the game and ended on another cliffhanger.

Technical Notes

I waffled a bit on how tough to make the gargoyles, and ended up buffing them slightly from my original design: some minor increases in skill (from mediocre to professional, with some focused disarming abilities) and a little more HP. I ended up fairly happy with how they played out: the gargoyles were dangerous, but in a predictable way. They outnumbered the PCs and were mostly resistant to their best attacks, and had tricks to remove the PC's best attacks, but the gargoyles striking damage was relatively weak and no PC was going to get murdered for a failing a single defense roll (unlike the 4-armed monsters, that do 5d-1 impaling and are thus swingy as hell). Fighting the gargoyles was a battle of attrition that was stacked heavily against the PCs, and the players realized it and ran.

It's pretty obvious that the gargoyles can be defeated: a typical DF party with a Weapon Master Knight backed by a healing cleric would cut through them at a pretty good pace. Any given gargoyle might stay up for a few seconds as the knight cut off hands and feet, but the outcome wouldn't be doubt. The PCs were heavily handicapped by their lack of armor, mook level melee skills, and lack of healing magic. At least some of that is going to be remedied if the PCs can ever complete this expedition and go home, so now they're relatively focused on doing that.

Most everything else in this session went well. I worried slightly that was overplaying the gnomes, but as I think about it, subtlety is not a virtue when presenting a possible mystery to PCs. Players get a lot of information and have a lot of distractions and things to think about, so if you want to impress a point on them, you might as well hammer it in. They don't quite know what's up with the gnomes, but they do know that something is up, and that's good enough for now.

I was annoyed with myself for forgetting about the spider strands on the third floor map. I mentioned this in the play by play above, but the actual description was even worse than I described. I had told the PCs all about the central courtyard and the view from the castle walls and the portcullis winches, and they were deep in discussing the merits of opening the portcullis to make a fast retreat versus paying the gnomes more to stand by to lift them with the crane, and then I say, "hey, oops, here's this important detail that you probably would have noticed much, much earlier." Not my proudest moment in GM'ing.

What Next?

I expect the fight against the siege beast in the chapel to go poorly for him: he's a flesh and blood monster, and being as big as a water buffalo doesn't help much when several people are firing 7.62mm into you. There may be some surprises, but nothing that the PCs won't be able to cope with. So hopefully that will no more than half the next session. And then if the players can manage to avoid being distracted by something shiny, they'll be able to get home, complete the expedition, and earn CPs.

I'm not sure what will happen after that. Ryan lost one of his guns to the gargoyles, so he may want to recover that, but everyone needs better armor and melee skills before they try that. The PCs will also have earned at least some real money, so they'll definitely be coming back to the Castle. I'm just curious as to where they'll want to explore next.