Thursday, November 19, 2015

Castle of Horrors Session 8

Thursday is GURPS day!

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

Well, That's Creepy

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

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

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

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

Undead: Sometimes dangerous, always tedious

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recognizing Danger

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

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

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

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

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

Evaluation of Play

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

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

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

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

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

Technical Notes

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

What Next?

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

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

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Castle of Horrors Session 7

Thursday is GURPS Day!

Another Wednesday, and another session of Castle of Horrors. This was a good session, but not as much was accomplished as I might have hoped: the opening fight with the skeletons bogged down a bit, and there wasn't enough time to accomplish much else. The PCs mostly finished exploring the basement, though.

"These are fast skeletons, then!"

The session started in the middle of the fight from last session: the undead erupting ooze was merrily burning from multiple alchemist fires, but some of the PCs could just barely make out some animated skeletons rising. People shifted position a bit, and wondered aloud if the skeletons were going to be fast or slow.

The answer was fast: very fast. The skeletons had a move of 11, and quickly a horde of twenty were racing through the piles of burning alchemical fire and into melee range. Gunfire slowed them, but it took multiple rounds to actually stop them. +Uhuk of the Guard's character Ryan was more successful with his machete and bony fists, generally eliminating a skeleton a round. +Kevin Smyth's character Raleigh ended up casting Sound Missiles on +Eric Schmidt's character Yusef's rifle, and after that, Yusef was capable of blasting through two or three skeletons per burst, since the crushing follow-up damage of the missiles did double injury to the skeletons and tended to evaporate some important bones.

Raleigh also built up and threw an explosive Blight Ball, which didn't destroy any of the skeletons but did damage several of them. This was actually an interesting bit of action mechanically: Raleigh had to lob the ball over several of the skeleton's heads, and even with Luck ended up missing. The scatter roll had it landing short, such that the front line of the PCs would be effected, and no one wanted to eat 1d+4 toxic damage (DR does not protect). +Theodore Briggs argued that since the scatter roll affected his character Thomas, he should be able to use Luck to reroll it, and that seemed valid to me. The best of three rolls wasn't great, but it was good enough to scatter the blast to get several of the zombies and none of the PCs.

Around this point, the erupting ooze glob that was on Thomas' plastic riot shield finished eating its way through the shield and soaked through his shirt. There was an argument as to whether or not I had adequately warned him and whether or not he would have had time to do anything about it even I had, what with the attacking hordes of skeletons and all. As it turned out, he only took 1 injury, so I told him to suck it up. Thomas discarded his shield and play resumed.

Jamie got beaten up again to establish
the skeletons are dangerous
Eventually, I called the fight on the grounds that it'd been two and a half hours and I wanted to do other things in the session. The PCs won, but had to immediately retreat up the stairs due to all the smoke generated by the alchemical fire. In the hidden passage, they bandaged up and Raleigh cast a healing spell but failed her calamity check. Nothing too bad, but now the cost of Major Healing is doubled and she probably won't be casting it again.

As a side note, at some point Eric got a critical hit on a skeleton, and hit it in the funny bone. No real effect in game since skeletons are immune to stunning, but everyone though it was a hilarious effect.

The basement of no loot

An hour or so later, the PCs returned to the basement and searched the place. The skeletons had no loot aside from rusty broadswords of tetanus and unpadded chainmail in equally awful condition. Searching their rooms discovered about half a pound of corroded copper coins and some random bits of metal: everything organic within two feet of the ground had been destroyed.

A fist-sized lump of ooze was eating Thomas' shield, but it was easy enough to burn away with the resources the PCs had available. Thomas now had a somewhat smaller and frailer shield, but the thing only cost him $90 to start with and could be replaced in the Real World.

The PCs moved north, into the empty great room which was now filled with burnt undead ooze ash. Nothing useful came out of searching that, so they kept moving on, to another set of empty rooms in which everything had been eaten by the ooze. Past that was another half-eaten doo

Duel to the Death

Thomas peered under the door and saw that the next room was an armory, filled with rusty weapons. The area in front of the door had been repeatedly gouged by a jackhammer or something and scorched, too. Also, there was a man in full plate harness carrying a halberd. It's possible I buried the lede in that description.

There was a quick confab about what to do about a guy in the basement, and eventually Yusef was delegated to knock on the door and try to talk to the guy. Which he did.

They never got the halberdeer's name, but they quickly established some things about him: he was crazy, he wanted to duel, and his halberd's name was Vengeance. He would duel any of them, one at a time, axe or polearms versus his halberd, to the death. The winner (which would be him) would keep Vengeance, or in the unlikely event that one of them one, take it.

It worked for Indy, so it must be a valid solution!
Almost everyone was moving toward the "leave the crazy guy alone in the basement" when Yusef brought his rifle to his shoulder and decided to kill the guy. The halberdeer screamed "cheaters!" and turned out to be a variant Sword Spirit, with Higher Purpose +4 to "Defeat Cheaters." There was various and sundry whining about how this was unfair, blah blah blah, but I ignored them. Yusef and +Douglas Cole's character Neil tried firing at the guy, but he was quick and close and had a long reach weapon and parried their attacks, knocking their rifles out of line. Then Thomas nailed him with a pair of rifled shotguns slugs that blew through his armor and killed him outright. It was a bit anti-climatic.


At this point, another argument broke out: Raleigh wanted to know why her friends had turned into a bunch of murderers, and upon reflection, no one really wanted to pick up the halberd because they were afraid it was cursed. I sat back and laughed and laughed. This is the kind of role-playing that advances the plot, so I was fine with it, and it was really funny.
Finally, Neil's girlfriend Angela decided she wanted to know what it was and went to pick it up, but Thomas blocked her and eventually picked it up himself. Nothing particularly bad happened to him immediately: the halberd resized itself to a dwarf-sized hand axe, which was convenient, and Thomas improvised a blade cover for it.

Further Downstairs

Neil searched the room and found a secret door, which led to a set of stairs descending down a level (or as Yusef dourly pointed up, possibly to some other level of the castle entirely). By that point, it was time to end the game, so we wrapped up there. The PCs now had two obvious choices: continue down the stairs and explore the sub-basement, or take some stairs up from the empty rooms, which would presumably put them on the first floor at the base of the north tower. It should be an interesting choice.

Evaluation of Play

The skeletons were nasty foes, but the narrow corridor made it hard for them to bring their weight of numbers down on the PCs. Instead, they ended up getting shot and smashed to pieces. That's been my general experience with mook rushes in dungeon fantasy style games: although the maneuver economy implies that three to one odds should be good for the mooks, the mechanics of actually getting all their units into place and attacking at the same time never quite work. Mooks in the front line get killed too fast, and their replacements end up with the unviable options of Move (and not attack) or Move & Attack (and miss) or use some kind of Attack maneuver with a Step of 2+, which exposes them to deadly counterattack on the next turn, thus repeating the cycle. All of which lets the PCs heroically stand against a tide of mooks pretty successfully, as long as the PCs stay together in a mostly anchored line so the mooks can't envelope them.

Reviewing my notes, I screwed up on the encounter with the Axe Spirit. He would have dodged at least one, and maybe both of Thomas' shots, and shouldn't have gone down so easily. I suspect he still would have gone down pretty quickly and without really damaging the PCs, so I'm not too bothered by it. As I have mentioned, encounter balance in Castle of Horrors is something of a wild guess, and an easy boss encounter can only be expected sometimes. There will be other things to run from soon enough.

What Next?

I'm still working on the sub-basement. There's one room that I just can't figure out what to do with. I'm getting closer, but the original encounter is subpar and everything I thought of so far is nonsensical. I have a temporary work-around in place, but it's definitely something I need to resolve soon.

Of course, it may not matter. Now that Eric is embracing his inner murder-hobo, the PCs may decide to go on a bandit murder spree against the goblins, leprechauns, and gnomes. That'd be pretty harsh, but it would have the advantage that I have all those encounters prepared.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Castle of Horrors Session 6

Thursday is GURPS Day

My online group met for the sixth session of Castle of Horrors. +Nathan Joy had been replaced by +Eric Schmidt, which reduced my NPC load somewhat, but then +Kevin Smyth was sick last night so I ended up having to run his PC and his PC's Ally/Dependent, so I was back to being busy. Still, it was a good session, and though there were some teething issues, we had a lot of fun and got through a fair bit of exploration.

+Douglas Cole wrote up this session on his blog if you want the view from the player's side.

Delvers Versus Ooze, Round 1

Picking up at the point we left off last time, the PCs were in the castle basement, hacking away at huge spiderwebs and looking for loot. They decided to move west along the north side of the hall, aiming for the passageway in the northwest corner and then move to the scorched and damaged door in the west wall.

As +Uhuk of the Guard's character Ryan hacked his way through the webs, everyone saw a faint phosphorescent glow move south from their target passageway through the webs and out through the south passageway. It was apparently another ghost, but since it wasn't interacting with them directly, they ignored it. When they reached the north passageway, it turned out to be a doorway into what was apparently the ghost's chamber: a cold but mold free bedroom. They tossed the place but didn't find anything, and moved to the west door.

That door was odd: the lower two feet of it were missing, and there were scorch marks on the new bottom and ashes and shards of glass in front of it in an area free of spiderwebs. +Theodore Briggs' character Thomas crouched down and peered under the door into the next room: a large chamber, almost entirely empty except for some broken stoneware, some random nails on the floor, and a bunch of tapestries on the walls that were missing their bottom two feet. It also stank to high heaven.

While Thomas was evaluating that, a weird gurgling noise came from the south side of that room, and he soon saw a huge mass of oozing pus and vileness creeping across the floor. He rapidly backed away from the door and passed the last "willey-pete can of coke" to +Eric Schmidt's character Yousef, as the only person with any skill at throwing things. The ooze started extruding tentacles that reached under the door, so Yousef threw the vial at it and everyone retreated back to the east while the ooze recoiled to the west. No one thought that they had any weapons that would be very effective against the ooze, so everyone decided to go someplace "safe". I pointed out that I, as the GM, couldn't make sense of that directive, since where was a safe place in the Castle of Horrors, and they clarified that they meant back up the stairs and out into the northeast courtyard.

Castle of MC Escher

After some discussion, the group decided to cut through the chapel and head for the stable, hoping that Wiremu's goblins might have some kind of magical fire weapon that could defeat the ooze. The only problem was that the stables were empty and the goblins were gone. There was absolutely no sign of them, even after the PCs spent two hours thoroughly tossing the place. It was another mystery. The stables themselves seemed spacious and reasonably secure, so there was some discussion of using them as a new campsite now that the goblins had abandoned it.

After that, the next plan was to take one of the spiral stairways down into basement, the one south of the octagon room that Raleigh and Thomas believed would exit on the south side of the spider-webbed hallway. However, when they went down the stairs, the next landing was clearly the T-shaped intersection that led to the rooms occupied by the gnomes - which were on the third floor! Climbing back up the stairs returned them to the first floor, and everyone was completely flabbergasted by this. Thomas tied off some string to some nearby dungeon decor and they thoroughly retraced their steps, going down past three landings to find themselves where they started. Going up the stairs had the same effect: these spiral stairs were a continuous loop.

Everyone agreed that was weird as heck, but there was nothing that they could do about it at the time. They abandoned the stairs and decided to try the outer set of spiral stairs in the hidden passageway.

Delvers Versus Ooze, Round 2

As they approached the stairs, I reminded them that the stairs stank to high heaven, and now that they had recently had a whiff of it, the stairs specifically stank of the ooze in the basement. Nevertheless, they decided to give them a try.

The stairs ended about a level below, and almost immediately, they heard the glurping sounds of the ooze moving toward them. A couple people got a brief glimpse of it, and then everyone beat feet back up the stairs since they still didn't have weapons that could defeat it.

"Who Puts a Death-Trap in a Shed?"

Yousef then proposed that they go investigate the overlook area to the east of the chapel, and since it was an empty area on their map, they did so. I pulled up the lovely picture of the castle exterior, and explained that they were on a cantilevered extension jutting out over the cliff. There were some giant spiderstrands hanging over the overlook and descending down to some windows in the cliff wall below, and from there down to the mist shrouded valley, which the PCs chopped up because they really hate giant spiders.

There were two sheds full of ancient, decrepit, rusty, and moldy garden tools and supplies on the north and south side of the overlook. Thomas and Yousef spotted some copper glints in the north shed that looked to be oxidized bronze or copper tools. After a quick discussion of economic realities (copper at $6/pound is not something that sensible people steal in less than quarter-ton lots), everyone pretty much decided it wasn't worth investigating.

However, Thomas eventually decided he'd steal one of the tools, and dug through the mound of old gardening supplies to get one of them. At which point a massive scythe slashed through the area over his head (neck high on anyone who wasn't a dwarf) and another at thigh level (knee high for normal people). He caught the one going for his legs on his polycarbonate riot shield, which got gouged and cracked, but everyone figured that was better than loosing a leg or two. Ted complained that he hadn't noticed the trap, and I pointed out that he hadn't said he was searching for traps before picking up the tool.

Examining the mechanism on the scythe trap showed that it had been maintained sometime in the last year, and for a bit, that was all the interest anyone showed in the issue. I was a little frustrated, because this was the third or fourth Clue! that people had been ignoring, but it's not the GM's job to draw conclusions for the players. Fortunately, Thomas eventually got suspicious: who puts death traps in garden sheds? He tossed the shed, and spotted a small chest buried under the mound of gardening supplies. He then dug it out and moved it into the sunlight.

It was locked, but as far as Thomas could tell, not trapped. He quickly picked the lock, and discovered he missed a trap that sprayed an acid cloud in front of the chest. Thomas and +Douglas Cole's character Neil took some damage, mostly to their armor, but Raleigh patched them out pretty quickly.

Inside the chest was a small pot of gold and a pile of silver: 57 gold coins weighing an ounce each and around ten pounds of silver, roughly $60,000 value all told. It was quite a find, and I eventually noted that it was the Leprechauns' Pot of Gold. Everyone rejoiced, and then tore apart the south shed in case there was more loot in there. There wasn't.

Meeting People, Making Deals

The new next plan was to climb the grand stairway in the chapel, the one that went up the south tower and also the one that the ghost procession had gone up. However, on the way back through the chapel courtyard, people spotted a bunch of Wiremu's goblins lounging in front of the stables. Everyone went back and after a brief discussion, Yousef was delegated to see if Wiremu had any fire weapons. As a side note, the plans to use the stables as a base of exploration were also nixed, because apparently people didn't believe me when I said the goblins probably had great respect for property rights.

As it turned out, Wiremu did have some fire weapons: five vials of alchemist's fire and a potion of "fire breathing," which could totally turn a man into a pillar of ash. He wanted 500 silver pieces - about two pounds of the stuff - for them. There was a brief discussion of the fact that no one knew the market value for any of this stuff nor how highly Wiremu valued silver versus gold or anything else for the matter. Thomas stepped up and negotiated a bit, cutting the price down to 375 silver pieces, but no one could tell if they'd gotten a good deal for the stuff or not.

They also managed to establish that Wiremu would buy silver and pay in gold at a 6:1 ratio, so it looked like there was a way to make a lot of money by buying cheap silver in the Real World and selling it for cheap gold to Wiremu. I said that I wasn't going to discourage them from doing that - in fact, I encouraged it if they wanted to get expensive gear - but that doing so didn't count as finding treasure for experience purposes. And it's not like there'd be any downside to letting someone like Wiremu know that they had a lot of money. Doing so would be safe as houses, really.

Delvers Versus Ooze, Round 3

The alchemist's fire vials were handed out, and everyone trooped back down the southern spiral staircase to face off against the ooze again. This time, they found out it was an erupting disgusting ooze, as pustules of yuk fired out and splashed against Thomas' shield, which started smoking. Thomas, Yousef, Ryan, and Neil chucked alchemist's fire at the ooze, and mostly hit it and started it burning. The ooze retreated up the corridor while spurting more gunk at people.

Everything looked mostly under control, when Ryan, Neil, and Yousef spotted some skeletons in a nearby room start to stand and grab weapons. That was clearly bad, and Neil freaked out a bit, but it was getting late, and that seemed a perfect place to stop for the night.

Evaluation of Play

This was a good game, and I had a lot of fun. I loved the looping staircase: I'd initially put it in the castle to conceal the fact that I didn't have the basement or the tower levels completed, but I kept it because it's just hilarious. My brief description above doesn't do justice to just how confused, indignant, and baffled everyone was by those stairs.

The group remains a bit unfocused, but Uhuk was definitely making an effort to get everyone to do something instead of waiting for me to ask, "Okay, now what are you doing?" I still had to ask that a few times too many, but things are improving.

This was a combat light, role-playing and exploration heavy session, and I think that was good. I really don't care too much about most of the combat, aside from some of the monsters being crazy things to encounter. I just want people to hurry up and run into more weird and strange things. This session had the ooze and the endless staircase, as well as more shenanigans with Wiremu, so that was great. And because I had expected them to take some alternate routes, I'm better prepared if they end up going deeper into the dungeon.

Technical Notes

Skype was disappointing, as usual, costing us about 15 minutes of play time as we restarted calls to clear out some echoes. It was especially exasperating because everything had been going fine, until suddenly it wasn't.

MapTools remains a mixed blessing. I don't have to explain the maps, because people can see them, but it also means people have an authoritative and absolute idea of their position. This makes certain traps and puzzles really difficult: it's hard to get lost on a set of endless stairs when you can look and see that you're on the "Castle 3rd floor" map. I could give the maps less descriptive names, but then I wouldn't necessarily know what's going on. It's probably an inevitable limitation of the online format.

What Next?

I still need to finish the sub-basement. It's mapped, and the accessible parts of it are described and stocked, but not all of it is accessible yet and I need to fix that. And the PCs are (theoretically) getting close to an entrance to the Caves Beneath, so I need to prepare that, too. I expect the PCs will continue working through the basement, which leads to plenty of weird stuff. More good times ahead!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Reading Rappan Athuk: Level 3

I'm continuing my read-through of Rappan Athuk with the third level, "Beware of Purple Worms!" It's another level that doesn't quite manage to be competently written, but isn't noticeably awful, either. It has a moment or two that is fairly decent, and maybe an idea that could be reused in another, better dungeon.

Beware of Purple Worms

That warning is inscribed in glowing runes just before the entrance to the dungeon level proper. As warnings go, it's a little vague: the purple worms attack people in the center of the cavern that is the first major room, and also are attracted to light sources. Another line or two about staying near the cavern walls and/or not using light sources would probably have been useful, but it's a warning that explicitly names a threat in the dungeon. For Rappan Athuk, that's pretty good.

The description of the level itself claims there is a delicate food chain: the purple worms feed on giant rats and are hunted by umber hulks. Exterminating one of the elements of the food chain changes the presence of the other elements, and the GM is directed to "adjust the wandering monster table accordingly." That's the kind of directive I might write in my own campaign notes as a reminder to myself, but I think it's a bit lacking in a published dungeon. It's basically an instruction to make something up, and if the GM had the time or desire to make stuff up, why buy a published dungeon?

Pointless Treasure

There's a very well hidden tomb of an unknown mage in the purple worm cavern. There's some extremely nice treasure: staff of power, robe of the arch-magi, and roughly 10,000 gp in jewelry. All that treasure is also cursed if stolen, with a curse that is extremely hard to remove, requiring multiple high level spells and then inflicting a secondary curse on the thief. It's possibly realistic, but it basically means that the PCs either can't take the treasure, or get punished heavily for doing so. It works out to about half a page of text that might as well not be there.

Maybe Interesting, Definitely Complicated

A description of a rakasha's lair and his multi-layered illusions takes up two or three pages. The rakasha has different illusions depending on how dangerous he thinks the PCs are, and each of his three rooms gets different descriptions depending on which illusion is in place. I can't really tell if this is a hint of brilliance or more humdrum stuff, because the set up is just too complicated. Still, it seems better than most parts of Rappan Athuk.

Level Layout

The purple worm cavern is on the
middle left, and the rest of the level
is on the middle right.
This is a surprisingly short level, with only 9 named rooms and another six subrooms. As is usual for Rappan Athuk, it's a fairly linear level. There's a total of three branching points, and it's otherwise a straight shot. The map makes it look slightly more complicated than it is.

There is a subcomplex of rooms that loop and branch, but since they're all explicitly empty except for random dungeon dressing and random encounters, I don't know how useful or interesting they are.

One of the branching points is a river passage to level 3a. As usual in Rappan Athuk, there's no text in this level describing the passage, and the text in level 3a vague about this passage: there's certainly a rapid currrent in level 3a that will carry people to level 6a in twenty minutes, but there's no suggestion of how long it takes to get from level 3 to level 3a. Somewhat bizarrely, the level 3a room description alludes to the river in level 3 splitting, so it's possible to go straight to level 6a as well as go through level 3a on the way to level 6a, but there's no text in level 3 about it. The description of level 6a barely mentions the river at all, and says it comes from level 3 only. It's endemic of the slap-dash, half-assed way that Rappan Athuk is put together.

Opinions So Far

Rappan Athuk isn't a very good dungeon. It's very linear, both in its design for individual levels and for the connections between levels. It's uninspired, with underdeveloped encounter design. It's not put together very well, as I've noted about the few alternate level connections like the river above.

I don't think I'd enjoy playing in Rappan Athuk. And as a GM, I'm annoyed that I paid money for a not very polished, not very well designed adventure. Fixing the problems with Rappan Athuk would take nearly as much effort as creating my own dungeon (because that's basically what I would have to do). It wouldn't even provide much inspiration for a redesign, since the individual levels are so bland and badly put together.

I'm going to go through a couple more levels to see if some part of it starts to hang together. If not, I'm going to give up and try doing a read through of something that isn't so uninspiring.