Thursday, October 1, 2015

Castle of Horrors Session 1

I'm very excited to say that Castle of Horrors has gone from idle musings to a campaign wiki to a completed first session, and it was glorious! Everyone involved had a lot of fun, and there was laughter and fear and tension and running away like scared little bunnies.

Castle of Horrors is my modern day hunters become dungeon crawlers campaign in GURPS. The first session was last night, and this is my recap. Douglas Cole wrote his own version here, so you compare the player view to the GM's view.

You wake up in the courtyard of a creepy castle

The protagonists of Castle of Horrors consisted of 5 PCs and 2 NPCs:
  • +Nathan Joy as Yusef, retired military civil affairs agent
  • +Douglas Cole  as Neil, a former cop turned private investigator
    • Angela, his fitness bunny girlfriend/Ally/Dependent
  • +Kevin Smyth  as Jamie Raleigh, academic and wannabe wizard
    • Raleigh Jamie, her orc boyfriend/Ally/Dependent
  • +Uhuk of the Guard as Ryan, troll street person
  • +Theodore Briggs  as Thomas, dwarf inventor
As an aside, I'd like to thank Kevin for giving his characters androgynous names and swapping the gender expectations. I had Raleigh's and Jamie's names switched in the first draft of this document, until Doug pointed out the error.

The "Real World" of Castle of Horrors had 10% of the population undergo Shadowrun style goblinization in 2013, which is why several of the protagonists aren't human.

The game started with our heroes going out on a camping/hunting trip. I like to start my games in media res with minimal backstory, because I think getting the actual plot going as quickly as possible makes for a better experience. So I glossed over the hunting trip in about two sentences and moved immediately to Yusef crawling out of his tent and noticing they were no longer in east Texas woodlands, but instead inside the courtyard of a big black stone castle. I didn't use the words creepy or spooky, but the players did almost immediately.

Everyone woke up, and after establishing that they were either in the courtyard of a big black castle or sharing a hallucination, starting packing up the campsite and loading their guns. Whatever was going on, they were suspicious of it.

You feel a tug to the east

Somewhere around this point, I sent a note to Kevin, telling him that Raleigh felt a compulsion to head east. Since the front doors of the castle were to the east and several other people wanted to see if the place was inhabited, that was easy enough to do. They stopped at the entranceway to marvel at the odd writing and strange emblem mounted over the door, but didn't really know what to do with it.

One of the doors was ajar, and the heroes stepped in, pulling out flashlights (or turning on gun-mounted tactical lights) as they went. The interior was dark, with mold on the floors and thick cobwebs on the ceilings. There was another set of massive doors across the room, so they went and opened those, too.

The next room was a huge octagonal chamber, with more doors to the east and a large set of stairs rising to the north. More cobwebs on the ceiling, though strangely not on a collection of leering gargoyles. The moldy carpet also had several disturbing brown patches near the east doors and by the south archway to another hall. Most disturbingly, there were several crossbow bolts buried in the back of the door they had just come through.

The players took another ten or fifteen minutes to explore this room and role-play the increasing strangeness they found themselves in. It seemed pretty obvious to everyone that violence had occurred in the room recently, and that whatever had attacked came from the east. They were even more bothered when they pulled one of the crossbow bolts from the wall and realized it was entirely organic, with a chitin-like head and insect-like wings growing out of the shaft in the place of glued feathers. Eventually they decided to open the east doors, and though Ryan took cover when he did, they weren't particularly careful about clearing the center of the room.

Run like scared bunnies

The doors opened into a long hallway - so long that several of the flashlights didn't have enough range to illuminate the far end. Ryan and Thomas have infravision, so they could see some massive, 4-armed shapes at the far end, leveling weapons at them. Ryan frantically tried to close the door while the shapes requested a password (speaking in a mix of Middle English and Early Modern English that Uhuk claimed would sound like a Yorkshire accent). When no password was returned correctly, the shapes opened fire.

My initial rolls were hilariously bad: a critical failure and an out right miss. However, Jamie and Raleigh were in the center of the room, right in the line of fire, and though Jamie had the presence of mind to dive for cover, he still took a crossbow bolt to the gut.

One of the house rules we're using is the new damage table from Pyramid v3.84: instead of thrust damage being roughly half of swing damage, thrust damage is now only 2 points less. And given that the 4-armed shapes were actually variant siege beasts with ST30, that crossbow was doing 5d-1 damage. I offered Kevin the chance to lessen the hit (before announcing how much damage it would do), but he declined, since Raleigh was an orc and had lots of HP and could take the hit. 34 injury later, Raleigh was 2 injury away from dying and lying on the floor in a heap.

Panic ensued, but Ryan got the door closed before any more fire could be exchanged. Raleigh was pulled to the south side of the room while Thomas, Neil, and Yusef covered the doors. Kevin spent a couple of destiny points to make sure that Raleigh could successfully cast a Major Healing spell, and Raleigh miraculously recovered. But the PCs wanted OUT of the spooky castle, and fled west for the courtyard.

The Dragon Statues Awake

Just as Thomas was stepping across the threshold to the courtyard, the 4 stone dragon statues that were perched overhead came alive and started breathing fire. A couple of people freaked out: most noticeably Ryan, who failed a fear test but threw a clumsy punch anyway, and then a general melee broke out. Thomas' beard got lit up, but house-cat sized dragonettes are no match for 7.62mm rounds or 3" 12G buckshot. The combat was literally over in seconds, and everyone fled into the courtyard.

They reloaded their guns, applied first aid to Thomas, and generally hyperventilated for a bit. After some discussion, everyone agreed they wanted to go home NOW. Yusef suggested moving around the courtyard, trying to find a sally port or crack in the wall or something. Since no one really wanted to go back into the castle (except the two Greedy PCs, who wanted to recover the silver blood of the dragon statues), Yusef's plan was accepted.

Meet the neighbors

They found a group of small, green men, clearly goblins, in the southeast corner of the courtyard. Hostilities were averted, and friendly communication quickly established. Neil almost queered the deal by aiming at the goblins, but was eventually convinced to lower his gun since though the goblins had bows out, they didn't have them up or drawn.

My notes for Wiremu, the goblin leader, have him as something between a used car salesman and a mafia wiseguy, and I think that came across. A couple of people were muttering "these aren't goblins, they're Ferengi!" and the PCs definitely caught on that Wiremu's questioning about whether or not they were warriors was not just idle curiosity.
Wiremu: "So only the troll is a warrior, huh? The rest of you are... academics or something?"
Yusef: "Something like that."
Wiremu: "Interesting. Say, did you guys hear some thunder earlier, or did you show up after that?"
Ryan (flatly): "That was us."
Wiremu: "Oh! Okay then. Good to know."
Meanwhile, Raleigh was wandering around the courtyard, triangulating the source of her compulsion as somewhere in the chapel to the north. That chapel had mostly boarded over stained glass windows, and honestly did not remind the PCs of the kind of last stand bastion against zombies you see in horror movies, no sir, you can trust the GM when he tells you that! For some reason, my attempts to reassure them failed.

Raleigh and Ryan peek into the chapel and do not like
what they see.
Peaking through the windows, Jamie and Ryan saw three things of note: the interior of the chapel was in disarray, as though there had been fighting; another one of the four-armed monsters was in the room; and there was a silver crow statue on the altar. Not being entirely stupid, Kevin reckoned that the statue was the Icon of Crowspire, one of the great treasures that were worth extra CP when recovered.

The PCs had another quick confab, and then asked Wiremu about going into the castle. Wiremu said he and his tribe didn't do that, that the interior of the castle was dangerous, and that he'd strongly prefer that if the PCs wanted to break into the courtyard, they did it from somewhere else. He generously offered to help raise the portcullis to the next courtyard, as a matter of fact, but the PCs decided they didn't trust the little weasel and declined.

Once more into the breach

With something resembling a goal in mind, the PCs went back into the front door. The greedy people scraped silver off the walls, and everyone else discussed tactics: they'd dismount one of the inner doors, and then use it as cover when they opened the door the siege beasts. Rifles from behind cover should beat crossbows in the open. It was a good plan, and they started to to put it into motion, when they all came down with a case of gamer attention deficit disorder.

They could just barely see, in the south hall, a glint of metal. Someone went down to look and found a full harness of rusty steel plate on a manikin, and then everyone else trickled down to investigate. The statue didn't attack them, so they stripped off the helmet and tried it on: it obviously didn't fit Ryan or Thomas, but as it happened, it perfectly fit Raleigh. Some jokes were made about how duct tape could replace the absent arming doublet, and in a fit of misplaced enthusiasm, Raleigh was soon swaddled in 55+ lbs of ironmongery. Since she was the protected one, she was also tasked with opening the door.

Although they could see a spiral stairway to the east, they managed to return to focusing on their plan to kill the siege beasts. As a group, they walked back into the octagon room, and shouted in frustration as the gargoyles came to life, unfurled their wings, and moved to attack. It was getting late, and that was the perfect place to stop, so that's where we quit.

Evaluation of Play

I have been anticipating this game for weeks, and it turned out to be even better than I expected. The players were mostly on the ball, and though there were a couple of distractions, everyone was involved in the game as they could be. There was a lot of great role-playing, with everyone giving the real feeling of people trapped in a strange situation and trying to get through it.

Doug noted that in a lot of ways, this campaign would be a better introduction to role-playing games than typical D&D fare: the tropes of being a castaway with guns, forced to investigate something mysterious, are much more familiar to modern minds than the weird tropes of D&D. That wasn't intentional, and with everyone in the group role-playing for 2-3 decades it wasn't necessary, but it was an interesting point.

There really wasn't anything I would have changed in the game. Everything went very smoothly, the rules never got in the way, and the challenges were (surprisingly) appropriate. We had a short discussion after the game ended, and the players all felt the same.

Technical Notes

We play online, using MapTools for the map and dice-rolling and Skype for voice chat. This works for us, reasonably well, though there are usually some technical problems (Doug didn't have Java installed when we started, and Uhuk's computer couldn't find her sound card so she had to switch to her tablet). Nothing too bad.

The entry way, with information token highlighted
and the shield handout on display.
MapTools has a feature that we haven't used much in the past: the GM can put down little informational tokens with text descriptions, and the PCs can just refer to them with a mouse click. I was very deliberate in putting room descriptions EVERYWHERE, and putting a fair bit of detail in them, especially visible exits from each room. This didn't work nearly as well as I hoped, because I think the players forgot to click on them. I was constantly being asked "hey, is this patch of wall a door here?" and although I mentioned an incongruous and jury-rigged crane perched high on the keep and had it clearly written up as such in the room descriptions for the courtyard and keep, none of the players actually knew where it was and a couple of people thought it was a bird. I'll keep working on this feature, because I think it has a lot of potential.

Another feature that we hadn't used much in the past was handouts: the GM can push a picture to all the players. This worked a little better, but it's not persistent, so the players can't look again on their own time. Still, I'm using Ravenloft for the physical floorplan of the castle (modified in places), so I could push them some pictures to give them a better idea of what I was describing.

We're using an alternate system for fright checks: instead of randomly stunning people, failed fright checks in combat situations give penalties when interacting (attacking, defending, resisting mind control attempts, etc) with the source of the fright check. I like this system better because it doesn't take people entirely out of play, an important consideration when playing online, and it generally gives people more control. Ryan was the only person failing fright checks of any significance, so it didn't come up, but it worked well when it did.

What Next?

We're going to continue Castle of Horrors next week. I have a couple more levels of the castle to map and stock. I did have some ways to discourage the PCs from entering the unmapped levels, but they never got to the relevant staircases. I'll quietly remove those discouragers as I finish mapping.

I'm really looking forward to next week. The gargoyles are much tougher than the dragon statues, and I suspect the PCs may end up having to run like scared bunnies again, but with worse options for the retreat. Peter Dell'Orto talks about clearing your six and making sure you always have an escape route, but the gargoyles are between the PCs and the door. It should be interesting.

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