Friday, January 29, 2016

Castle of Horors Session 16

Precis The PCs meet the gnomes on the 3rd floor again and discover they're bound to a vampire! The vampire attacks and is forced to flee, but the PCs still need to find the lair and finish it off.

I ran the sixteenth session of Castle of Horrors Wednesday night. It was a good, fun game, without any major rules arguments or discussions, and I feel better about the system than I did last week. I might still end up taking a hiatus, because +Kevin Smyth has an awesome campaign idea that I want to play in, but it won't be as much because I'm burnt out on the current game.

I'm experimenting a bit with this write-up, to better match +Peter V. Dell'Orto's sensible suggestions about what he likes to see in a write-up and to add a precis for Doug Cole's GURPS Day! scripts. The exact formatting might change over the next couple of weeks as I get a feel for it.

Cast of Characters

Doug couldn't make it this session, so I ran his character as an NPC.

  • +Uhuk of the Guard's Ryan, a male troll working as a nature guide / scout / petty thief.
  • +Kevin Smyth's Raleigh, a female doctor and amateur wizard specializing in illusions and light/dark magic.
    • Raleigh's Ally/Dependent Jamie, an orc former jock and metahuman rights activist.
  • +Eric Schmidt's Qanah, an Native American orc mystic and shaman.
  • +Theodore Briggs' Thomas, a dwarf engineer and craftsman.
  • +Douglas Cole's Neil, a human private investigator.
    • Neil's Ally/Dependent Angela, a human web programmer and extreme fitness enthusiast.

Well, I Guess We'll Keep Doing It Wrong, Then

I posted earlier this week about table talk in response to Peter's post about forbidding rules arguments. The consensus from the internet at large was that I should forbid rules arguments and discussions at the table and possibly be prepared to kick people out of my game if they wouldn't stop. So with heavy heart, I brought up the topic, stating that I didn't really want to be the conversation monitor and wasn't adverse to rules discussions at the table. Much to my surprise and pleasure, the players mostly agreed with me: talking about the game is nearly as good as playing the game. So we'll just keep doing what we've been doing, for better or for worse.

That little bit out of the way, we had a quick rant about the fact that GURPS Magic sucks and is only made less unpleasant by extensive house-ruling and then we started play.

An Unexpected Reception

At the end of last session, the PCs were in the dungeon level and had just found a spiral staircase that went up. They climbed the staircase through an unknown number of levels until it ended in a blank wall. Not being stupid, they searched for and found a secret door and opened it.

The door opened up into the Crowspire library, currently occupied by a number of gnomes. Raleigh had tried to use mind control magic on the gnomes the day before, and the PCs had left with some bad blood between them, but this time the gnome leader Calardin was welcoming and apologetic. Instead of being suspicious and nasty, he invited them in, said he was sorry for the incident the day before, and offered them food and drink. He even offered to let them search the library, something he had been against in the past, though it did seem as though the words were forced out of his mouth. Something strange was happening, but the PCs weren't sure exactly what was going on.

The gnomes were clearly in bad shape - ashen complexions, sunken eyes, general listlessness - and the PCs at first thought they were starving. But I assured them that the gnomes had food, and enough to trade with them. Thomas took out his smartphone to take some pictures of the library books, and then started showing it to the gnomes. Kevin's character Raleigh took advantage of the distraction to sneak off and look at the gnome healer Ieill, who had been in a coma for days.

Raleigh cast Body-Reading on Ieill, and her wounds were about what you'd expect from someone who got shot in the vital bits by a powerful crossbow, then had some healing potions dumped on her, and then had been under bedrest for a few days: still in bad shape, but nothing suspicious. Meanwhile, the other PCs were eating food with the gnomes, and all of them failed a Vision check as Calardin slipped sleeping potions into their food.

A Short Bit of Violence

Neil, Angela, and Jamie all failed the HT check and fell asleep, and the other PCs were immediately and violently suspicious.  Ryan started smacking gnomes around, and Thomas pulled out his shotgun and blasted one of them. Calardin used another sleeping cloud potion on Ryan, Thomas, and the created warrior. This caused a quick discussion: do Created Warriors have Immunity to Metabolic Hazards or other traits of non-living things? We quickly agreed that Created Warriors are conventionally alive (some jokes were made about the ethical implications and the fact that they were Fallout 4 synths) and then the Created Warrior fell asleep. Thomas and Ryan were unaffected, but very irate. Ryan grabbed Calardin and Thomas took out the last of the gnomish warriors, leaving only a pair of gnomish crossbowmen active.

The crossbowmen very obviously tried to resist a mental compulsion, failed miserably, and moved to attack. Raleigh started shouting to not kill them (not hurting them was clearly out of the picture) and Ryan smacked one of them with Calardin, knocking both of the gnomes out. Raleigh used the Awawken spell to force Ieill awake and I ruled that the last gnome could trivially be defeated by the combined forces of Ryan, Thomas, and Raleigh.

Puzzling Out the Problem

Ieill woke up fairly confused, and not at all pleased to see a bunch of crazy people beating up her allies. She came around as the PCs explained the situation, but admitted she didn't know what was going on. She negotiated for a healing potion from the PCs (and was rather miffed that Calardin didn't have any) and paid them for it, even though Ryan at least was willing to be charitable. She then went around using her Faith Healing to stabilize the gnomes.

Someone finally put some clues together and suggested that maybe the gnomes were under the influence of a vampire. Examining their bodies found a bunch of bite marks, and when Raleigh tried to use Mind-Reading on Calardin to dig out the location of the vampire, all she got was a pair of glowing red eyes. Thomas, Ieill, and Raleigh turned to the library to research local vampire myths, and Ryan and  Quanah made a tentative exploration of the area.

The first door they tried led to a hallway. Footprints in the mold on the floor suggested that someone had been through there recently, but more to the point, Ryan broke two tripwires, setting of a noisemaker trap and a crossbow trap that hit Quanah. Luckily for Quanah, his armor absorbed the glancing shot, but he and Ryan decided to investigate elsewhere. They searched the rest of the rooms that the gnomes had been in without incident, but also without finding the vampire.

After four hours, Neil and Illy the Created Warrior (short for Illusion, apparently) woke up, and I pointed out it was about an hour before local dark. After some discussion, the PCs decided to fort up in the dining room against the inevitable vampire attack, and the bloodbound gnomes were taken downstairs and ducktaped. Raleigh cast Vigil, so as to stay up all night and maintain Illy, Thomas set up some napalm traps outside the door, and everyone took watches and prepared.

More Brief Violence

All the PC prepations in the world matter little in the face of the vampire critically succeeding on her stealh roll. No one noticed as the vampire misted in through the top of the door, but Ryan and Raleigh started shouting when the vampire solidified and jumped down on Ryan's shoulders, getting a pretty good grapple on him. The leech proceeded to bite him, suck his blood, activate her Altered Time Rate, and then try to take over his mind, but Ryan critically succeeded on the resistance roll so that failed. Ryan's attempt to break free was parried by the vampire and Raleigh cast Explosive Sun Blast, anticipating having to hit a rapidly moving target. Most of the rest of the PCs started waking up.

The vampire, not wanting to let Raleigh throw that spell, jumped off of Ryan's shoulders, slashed the heck out of Illy, and made a Move and Attack to grab Raleigh's hand, slash up her chest, and slam into her. Multiple attacks during a Move and Attack are generally a low percentage move in GURPS because they're all capped at a 9 or less, but the vampire's dice were hot and she hit with all three attacks. Kevin's dice were equally hot, and Raleigh managed to dodge all three attacks and watch as the vampire slammed into the wall. On her action, she shoved the Explosive Sun Blast into the vampire for maximum damage.
The vampire kicks Raleigh before taking some rifle rounds to the gut.

The vampire retaliated on her turn by clawing the crap out of Raleigh and knocking her over, but missed the neck bite and so failed to establish the leech she needed to heal her wounds. Then Neil managed to critically hit with a volley of 7.62mm rounds, slowing her down. Ryan used a potion to heal up and was approaching, and Quanah, Ieill, and Thomas were waking up, so the vampire turned back into mist and fled the scene.

The PCs opted to heal and stand guard again, and not go after the vampire during night time. So that's the point I ended the session.

Technical Notes

We're still using Discord. At the start of the session, I commented that it was weird but nice to have a voice chat system that just worked (and where we didn't have to "start a call" but could just start talking) so of course Uhuk's system was completely off for the rest of the night. It's still better than Skype but it was plenty annoying.

Evaluation of Play

There was one word which I was very, very careful to not use when describing the gnomes, and that was "anemic." I knew as soon as I said it that everyone would realize the gnomes were being drained by a vampire. Instead, I kept describing how they were getting more and more ashen and tired looking. I don't think the PCs caught on until the gnomes were visibily resisting the mind control, but I think they knew something was up and that there were clues that they hadn't put together before then. Oftentimes, in a role-playing mystery, that's the best you can hope for. It was pretty good in the end.

I expected that the vampire (an improved mature vampire from Monster Hunters) would do a little better than it did, but the dice were really just against it. Still, it managed to put Ryan, Raleigh, and Illy in the negatives in just a few seconds before being driven off, so I don't think the PCs think of it as a pushover or an easy fight. The next session will involve a desparate search for a wounded vampire in a haunted castle, and that's also pretty cool.

What Next?

Kevin has been playing X-Com, and wants to run a couple of tactical scenarios: 100-point hunters accidentally encounter sectoids and get murdered, 200-point police investigate the sectoids and get chased off, and 450-point X-Com agents deal with the situation. It sounds like it'd be a fun couple of sessions, so I'll let him run it as soon as he's ready.

In the meantime, I've buckled down and started stocking the lower caves, trying to do 3-4 rooms a day. So far, so good. The PCs are justifiably distracted for now, so they won't encounter these rooms for a bit, but it's better to be prepared.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Table Talk: How Much is Too Much?

+Peter V. Dell'Orto at Dungeon Fantastic posted on his approach to rules arguments in play, and I received some email feedback on my last session. And that got me thinking about the various gaming groups I'm in, and how much time we spend talking about the game, or arguing about rules, or just shooting the breeze during the time we could be gaming. It makes me wonder how much is too much? Should any off-topic talk be forbidden?
Edit: Joe at the Collaborative Gamer shared his views on this topic, too, and +Christopher R. Rice at Ravens N' Pennies talks about dealing with rules lawyers.

Types of Off-Topic Talk

I have a feeling that not all types of off-topic talk are equal, and different types should be tolerated at the table in different amounts.  Rules arguments are different than rules discussions are different than meta-game discussions are different than general chatter.

Rules Arguments: Repeated back and forth between player and GM about the rules for the game is generally unpleasant for the actual participants and any bystanders. Peter has a firm "hell no" rule against it, which seems to work for him, I guess. Rules arguments aren't something I like at my table, but I empathize with a player who wants to understand how the rules work and have them consistently applied so I'm not firm about cutting off rules arguments.

Rules Discussions: My online group has a bunch of rules tinkerers in it, and when the rules don't work right or unclear, there's sometimes a discussion of what to do about them. Often times, its "hey +Doug, how is Technical Grappling supposed to handle THIS," followed by a lamentation that the Technical Grappling playtest didn't spend enough time dealing with Spheres of Madness grappling SM -1 quadrapeds when the whole fight is happening at the bottom of a lake. Sometimes, this kind of discussion is necessary and fruitful, and sometimes it's a big waste of time that should be revisited in email. I don't have an easy way to tell which way the discussion is going (or if its going to turn into a rules argument), so it's hard to say whether I should cut this kind of stuff of earlier than I do. Peter's blanket rule makes more sense to me as I reflect on it: it's a bright line in a murky area.

Meta-Game Discussions: Talk about play style, or scheduling, or other things outside the game but related to it. I generally try to clamp down on this stuff, since it's better to use limited play time to play than to talk about playing, but I also think it's better that people are engaged and talking about the game rather than watching a movie or whatever. Sometimes I deliberately end the game a little early and initiate a discussion about this kind of stuff. It's helpful to get feedback in real-time.

Off-Topic Chatter: Depending on the group, this can be a huge distraction or more important than the actual game. My boardgames group, made up of some former co-workers that get together irregular at a Friendly Local Games Store, is much more about the chatter than the game: we're friends, but we don't see each other much, so games night is a reason to get together and socialize. My online group uses text chat for this kind of stuff, and that's pretty successful, and I don't feel bad about clamping down on off-topic chatter for that reason.

Changing the Table Style

So in the groups I run, there's a fair bit of rules discussion and (unfortunately) some rules arguments. I don't like the latter, but I'm torn about the former: I enjoy that stuff, and I suspect some other people do too, but it's also a distraction from the game that annoys some of the other people. I'm not sure there's a consensus, one way or the other, and I'm entirely sure that I don't want to have to be the conversation monitor for a group of my peers just because I volunteered to sit in the GM's chair.

I guess this one of those things that needs to be put into an explicit social contract, except that the act of writing down an explicit social contract seems to go against the implicit social contract of "we're all peers, adults, and friends, and shouldn't need to hire a lawyer to enjoy an evening." Assuming that's the implicit social contract and not just my projecting my feelings out onto the group at large.

I don't really have a conclusion. Every group is different, and everyone is going to have a different view about what to do. I'm learning more and more toward Peter's approach of "no rules arguments," simply because it's a bright line that's (hopefully) easy to enforce.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Castle of Horrors Sessions 14 and 15

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

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

And Now There's More!

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

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

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

Retreating From Unknown Attacks

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

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

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

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

Things Go From Worse To Awful

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

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

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

Reversal of Fortunes

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

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

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

We Like Loot!

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

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

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

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

Untrustworthy People Don't Honor Deals

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

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

Filling in the Map

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

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

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

Something's Dangerous

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

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

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

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

Technical Issues

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

Evaluation of Play

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Next?

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

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

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

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Castle of Horrors Session 13

Thursday is GURPS Day! When I'm not playing Fallout 4 obsessively, anyway.

I ran the thirteenth session of Castle of Horrors last night. It was a pretty good session: a couple of decent combats, a little running away, some friendly interaction with NPCs, and a bit of exploration. Plus, it introduced one of my new favorite monsters, the pixie ghoul.

Murder By the Numbers

We picked up where we left off: the PCs were fighting a pair of Spheres of Madness, who had grappled and beat up +Kevin Smyth's character Raleigh and +Eric Schmidt's character Quanah. The remainder of the fight went pretty much as expected: +Uhuk of the Guard's character Ryan would hit a Sphere with an enormous sword swung with troll strength and knock it into the negative HP range. Then everyone else would fill it with lead until it died.

Two bits stood out: one of the Spheres grabbed +Theodore Briggs' character Thomas' edged shield, and there was an extended out-of-character chat discussion about creatures that grappled and did damage in the same attack and also about whether it was realistic for a creature to grab an edged weapon (given that Spheres have DR6, I wasn't too concerned about this). The other bit was when the last remaining Sphere voluntarily dropped Raleigh on the floor in order to increase its movement speed to close with Ryan while keeping acceptable defenses. It eventually managed to grappled the troll, but then Ryan punched it a bit and Thomas put two slugs through it. The slugs were slowed enough to bounce off Ryan's armor with minimal damage to the troll.

After that, there was a round of first aid and healing magic. Raleigh burned Destiny Points to perform a Great Healing on Quanah, and Quanah and +Douglas Cole's character Neil burned Destiny Points to avoid a critical failure when Quanah used Faith Healing on Neil. Unfortunately, Neil doesn't have any Luck or Destiny Points normally, so he had no recourse when hit critically failed the recovery check for his crippled left arm. Apparently his dependent Angela's bullet destroyed the bone and Great Healing didn't fix it, so Neil now has the One Arm disadvantage. Raleigh has made some vague noises about casting Instant Regeneration at some point in the future, but she's well past her Threshold and would prefer not to explode.

As an aside, I'm probably going to rule that while you can use Destiny Points to critically succeed on spell-casting rolls out of combat and thus cast the spell for free, doing so will still trigger a Calamity check if you would have gone over your Threshold. It will keep things slightly more in line as opposed to letting Kevin cast one or two huge spells per session.

Welcome to the Neighborhood

Kevin was the designated decided, so after healing up, he decided the group would search the cave. Poking around, they spotted a barnacle encrusted form under the water, and Ryan was dispatched to examine it (being the best and strongest swimmer). That turned out to be the missing fifth drider: a knight of some kind who had apparently drowned in his heavy armor. Ryan looted his coin pouch to get a wealth of gold and silver and the group moved on.

The river they were in led west to another cave. This cave was apparently on a ledge of an enormous cavern, and beyond some incongruous buildings, they could see a bit of a floating castle. There was some daylight coming from a shaft in the cavern roof. They took that all in and decided to cross the river to explore a building to the south which was oddly labeled "Rebus Publi": some joked about needing to murder Donald Trump if showed up were made.

Inside the building, they found four spectral guards and a spectral clerk behind the counter. Thomas began frantically laying anti-ghost barrier cord across the doorway while the clerk addressed Raleigh's ally Jamie, demanding payment of late taxes. Jamie tried to bluff his way out, but the spectral guards attacked him, freezing him a bit as their insubstantial hands went through his corporeal body. Jamie retreated past the cord.

There was a quick discussion, and the consensus was that they didn't have the right abilities to fend off ghosts. The ghosts were forcing their way past the ethereal barrier, but Raleigh reckoned that ghosts couldn't cross running water, so the group quickly evacuated back across the stream. The ghosts chased them to the stream edge, couldn't cross it, eventually forgot what they were doing, and returned to the tax office.

Undeterred, they checked the other buildings. To the northwest, they poked their heads through a window into the room of a remarkably self-aware ghost sage, standing in the burnt ruins of his former library. He yelled at them to get out, or to at least come in properly through his front door, and demanded reference books to replace his lost tomes. He didn't attack them, so Raleigh counted it as a successful encounter.

Crossing the street to the east, they got a good view from the cliffside. Below them were the mist shrouded ruins of a city, a sight not nearly as interested as the huge black skull to the southwest. Clearly, this was an excellent place to explore. Kevin dithered for a bit, because the cliff was possibly climbable, but Ted argued they should find a way back to the Castle before exploring places that didn't include a way home.

They also found a dead body with a silver necklace. Thomas put down the last of his anti-ghost cord around the body, expecting a ghost to pop up when they stole the necklace, but it was wasted effort. The necklace identified the ghost as a "Publican," which prompted Raleigh to remember that was the ancient Roman word for tax collector. Sadly, they didn't find the tax payment under the body - just a mangled key that Thomas took, assuming it would have opened the door on the other side of the counter in the tax office.

Crossing the street again, they entered the sage's office through the front door, and he agreed to answer two questions for them. That's how they learned they were in the sunken city of Zak Saloth, and that the way back to the Castle was to the north. He also promised to answer more questions, if they gave him some books already.

To the north, they found a rough cave that sloped up steeply to west, and a ruined bakery with a massive drain pipe smashed through the roof. Raleigh elected to not search the bakery, because there was too much mold on the floor and she was afraid of triggering some yellow mold or equivalent. There was a brief discussion, and then they climbed the pipe.

They Did This To Themselves

The pipe eventually emptied out into a ruined temple, with large portions of the floor missing. They also saw a spiral staircase, some 70 yards away past the missing floors, which looked like the smaller staircase from the Castle catacombs - and indeed, they could see Thomas' ruined glowstick lying on one of the steps.

With the way home in sight, if not obviously accessible, the PCs turned to their other desire: treasure. Entirely without any prompting from me, they reasoned that priestly types bury their treasure beneath altars, and that therefore there was treasure in the stinking chapel to the south. Ryan was dispatched to investigate while everyone else took covering positions.

Ryan hadn't quite reached the altar when several lumps of garbage on the floor revealed themselves to be ghoulified pixies. A half-dozen or so 12" tall winged monsters took flight for Ryan, and while their claws failed to penetrate his armor, their icy cold touch start slowing him down (gave him a DX penalty).  Raleigh cast Explosive Thunder Ball and critically succeeded, and the pixie ghouls started screaming and advanced on the firing line. Guns were fired, to little effect (it's realistically hard to hit highly evasive small things that are moving fast) and Raleigh ended up spiking the Thunderball at her feet, counting on everyone's armor to protect them.

As it turned out, the PCs' armor mostly did protect them, but the knockback sent everyone flying and only Thomas remained on his feet. The pixie ghouls were knocked out of the air and badly injured enough to slow them down. Everyone started getting to their feet and shooting the pixies, but it turned out that they had good supernatural armor against bullets and were Unliving to boot, so even a blast of buckshot wasn't enough to stop them.

Still, they weren't dodging very well, and Kevin figured that it was mostly a mathematical exercise now: the PCs would hit every now and then, the pixies couldn't dodge, and the fight would be over. I responded that it was cute when the players thought like that.

At this point, it was late and Uhuk had already dropped the session. We broke for the night and planned to continue next week with more pixie antics.

Evaluation of Play

The pixie ghouls were pretty easy to put together: take the Guard temple from DF15 Henchmen, apply the Pixie template from DF3 The Next Level, and add the Ghoul template from GURPS Horror and change the Paralysis Touch from a straight incapacitating condition to a layered DX penalty to make them less unfun to fight. Of course, that ended up with SM -6, ST 9, HP 10 pixies with DR 4 versus piercing and Injury Tolerance (Unliving), which made them surprisingly resistant to bullets. There was some talk of scaling bullet damage to the target's effective size, but I resisted that. Anyway, I was really pleased with how easy they were to stat and how dangerous they worked out to be. Kevin suggested them a few sessions ago (for reasons unknown) and I grabbed the idea and ran with it.

I gave Doug a Destiny Point for free because I forgot to roll his Danger Sense before springing the teleport trap last session. Ted pointed out that I should have given him a roll when they sent Ryan off to explore the chapel, but I disagreed: Doug wasn't in immediate danger at that point, Ryan was, and Danger Sense is pretty self-centered.

We continued to use the Decider concept. There was more explanation, and it worked out okay. I still had to prompt Kevin a couple of times, but at least there was someone to prompt.

We also continued to try to use the shot clock. My suggestion that the previous player be in charge of the clock was heartily accepted and completely ignored, so I started counting off whenever I felt a player was taking too long. We still need to work on that.

What Next?

Next session will continue the fight with the pixies, and explain why the current set of pixie ghouls are numbered "ghouls 16-20". Also, a bunch of bad stuff will happen to the PCs, and they'll find some loot, if they're lucky. I'm really looking forward to it.

I'm a bit behind on my dungeon stocking: if Kevin had decided to descend the cliffs instead of looking for a way up, I would have been caught short. I know roughly what's down there, I just haven't statted and placed everything. Of course, there's the larger problem that there's three or four additional D&D modules worth of content down there, and a lot of it I haven't even started on. I mean, there's no way they're going to reach Skullcap or the floating castle in the next session, so I haven't done anything with them yet. But I will, soon.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Castle of Horrors Session 12

I've been playing a lot of Fallout 4, which is why this session write-up for Castle of Horrors is so late. No apologies.

Adding Some Clues

After last session, I took to heart my players' complaints that there weren't enough clues about where to to and what to do in the dungeon. The first action in correcting this was to claim, retroactively, that they had picked up the ghost butler's diary from his room in the basement and that the grimoire had some journal entries in it. Given that +Kevin Smyth's character Raleigh had to translate both of them, and she's obsessed with magic and not with the mundane details of life in the castle, they didn't have a lot of details, but they did get these hints:
  • The castle has a treasury, with lots of gold in it, but only the Master had access to it.
  • There are guest rooms in the southern tower, and at one point some witches stayed there (and hadn't left, as far as Raleigh can determine, at the time the butler stopped writing). 
  • Residents of the Castle were often buried with precious jewelry - notably, Radu Cardei was buried with his champion fighting rooster and a golden trophy.
  • Vuzas and her pals came up from the caves beneath and had to flee from "ghosts and golems" after trying to filch a a silver sword from a burial site. At some point Filrar and Baryn disappeared and the remaining three moved into the basement and stopped exploring.
Predictably, the same people who were very hesitant about looting the catacombs and possibly being hit by the curse were suddenly very enthusiastic about looting the tombs after they knew there was some gold there. Still the same curse, but now there was loot to be gained. I suppose it makes sense.

The other thing that we decided to try was designating a "decider." This isn't the old school "caller", a player who conferred with the other players and then relayed their consensus decision to the GM. It's a person who has the responsibility, on a rotating per session basis, of deciding where to go next. The hope is that instead of having everyone wait for someone to speak up, the "decider" has that responsibility and play will go a little faster. As it turns out, we didn't get much opportunity to see how well the concept worked, but we'll keep trying it.

Avoiding Watery Tarts

At the end of last session, the PCs were in a water dungeon and looking for a way out. They went south into a hallway, and saw stairs going up to the east and a water filled torture room to the east. They also saw a couple of undines - unearthly beautiful women made of water - in the torture room. +Douglas Cole started making comments about how he'd be sleeping on the couch, which I eventually understood were meant to be in character for his PC Neil, and not meaning that his wife (Doug says his family often ends up in the room with him) was mad at him.

At any rate, the undines wanted rescuing and the PCs were willing to take mild steps to rescue them. The undines were somehow trapped by the stone walls, and +Theodore Briggs' character Thomas offered to carry them out in a bucket. The undines didn't think that would work, and more to the point, were just messing with the PCs' head anyway and trying to get them into a different part of room. The PCs were sliding toward the staircase, and eventually the sadistic brats lost patience and attacked.

The undines' primary attack was a water cannon, causing knockback and potentially drowning if someone got hit in the face, and their secondary attack was leeching the water out of people's bodies. Fortunately for the PCs, they weren't particularly good with either, but Kevin's ally Jamie got knocked around a bit and +Uhuk of the Guard's troll Ryan took a couple of blasts. Thomas laid down some covering fire (literally) with napalm rounds from his grenade launhcer, but the undines just merged with the water to put themselves out and re-emerged elsewhere in the room. Some other people tried attacking with guns, but bullets just went through the undines to little effect. Neil tried firing into the wall to create rock fragments, hoping that would do more damage, but it was a tricky thing to do.

Raleigh eventually got tired of the fight and cast a big illusion spell, making it look like the walls were closing in. She threatened to crush the undines unless they let the PCs go. The undines immediately retreated into the water and the PCs immediately retreated to the stairs, then ran like hell for the dining room. They were not pursued.

That is Not a Fighting Rooster

+Eric Schmidt was the decider, this week, and he decided that they were going to pack into the catacombs and loot Radu's golden trophy. People rested, restocked, and descended into the catacombs, then searched around until they found Radu's crypt. At which point there was a sudden outbreak of "no, I'm sure you wanted to be the one who opened the crypt, I'll hang out in back."

Eventually Thomas was forced to the front. He set down some anti-ghost rope he'd pulled together, in hopes of containing any undead, searched for traps, and opened the (unlocked) crypt doors. Inside was an embalmed body, a black iron book, and something else.

Raleigh had been maintaining, up until this point, that while "fighting rooster" was the literal translation of the words on the page of the diary, that it had to be an untranslated idiom because nothing about Castle Crowspire suggested that the inhabitants were the type of people buried their pets with them. Everyone had mostly humored her, but also thought that some people like rooster fighting and might have buried a prize, champion rooster with them. People are weird, right?

As it turn out, Radu had buried a prize, champion rooster with him. It's just that this particular prize champion rooster was a 9' tall chicken-bear thing. There were some cries of "that explains it!" and "that had to have been against the rules!" but both of Radu and his chicken-bear thing started moving. Raleigh darted forward and grabbed the presumed grimoire, and it looked like a fight would be on.

Good Curse

As soon as Raleigh touched the grimoire, there was a flash of light and everyone briefly found themselves hanging in mid-air over a lake in a cavern. Then gravity took over and people had to make Swimming checks, which they mostly failed. Raleigh had luckily succeeded (Kevin spent Destiny points like mad) and started swimming for shore before her plate armor dragged her under, and Ryan started using his long arms to help fish other people out of the water.

Meanwhile, the three Spheres of Madness that had been minding their own business were very surprised by the sudden appearance of lunch in their little lake. They recovered from surprise at about the same time that most of the PCs managed to get their heads above water, and floated over to fish the PCs out of the water, snip them to bits, and eat them. A fight broke out.

Things Go Poorly

Raleigh, Neil, and Eric's character Qanah were the targets of the initial attack. The spheres' claws couldn't penetrate Raleigh's armor, but they could grapple her and pass her up to the tentacles and beak, which could squeeze her for a little damage and bite at the joints of her armor.  Raleigh attempted to cast Fumble at one point, but the Spheres have Magic Resistance 10 and she failed automatically. That caused a bit of an argument between Kevin and me: I wanted him to roll the dice to see if he critically failed, and he kept pointing out that you're not supposed to roll if your effective skill is less than a 2. Eventually he rolled and didn't critically fail, but he was still grappled and in a bad state.

Qanah wasn't wearing full plate, and while his kevlar mostly protected him from the claw attacks,it did little to keep him from being squeezed.

Neil's heavier armor also protected him, for a while. Angela had gotten out of the water on the south side of the cave, aimed her rifle at a sphere, and hesitated to shoot because Neil was in close combat with it. I asked Doug if he wanted her to take the shot (Angela is his character's Ally/Dependent) and he said yes, so she did, and predictably missed and put a 7.62mm round through Neil's arm, breaking it in the process. Neil was frantically trying to shoot the Sphere with his pistol, and it wasn't having any of that ("negligent parry" was the phrase used). Fortunately, Ryan was finished with his life saving duties and managed to connect with a punch that stunned the critter, and then Thomas finished it off with a shotgun slug.

We ended the night there: Neil rescued but badly hurt in the process, and both of the healers in bad shape and grappled by mostly undamaged spheres that were closing in to grapple the rest of the party. If the PCs manage to defeat the spheres, they're still trapped in a cave with no idea how to get back to the castle.

Evaluation of Play

We didn't see much use of the decider concept, as most of the play time was caught up in the two combats. I think it's a sound idea, and the next sessions should see more exploration, so we'll get more chances to try it out.

The other idea we had to speed play, the use of a "shot clock" to declare actions in combat, didn't work too well this time. As the GM, I tend to get caught up in adjudicating the action, and it's hard to remember that I'm also supposed to be enforcing the clock. I may end up making that the previous player's responsibility.

One thing I noticed is that my players tend to become more nit-picky as the combats get more difficult. The undines were annoying, but not particularly dangerous, and whatever rulings I made were pretty much accepted with much disagreement. The Spheres of madness were very dangerous, and I got a lot more arguments from people and sudden interest in exactly how the rules were written.

Aside from those three points, this was a pretty good session. I hadn't exactly expected the teleporter trap in the catacombs to go off, but I thought it might. (And by the way, a hat tip to +Peter V. Dell'Orto for the inspiration.) I am more amused by the players' attitude about the curse now, as it's "sure, that was a surprise and a tough fight, but next time we'll be ready for it and it's a small price to play to be able to loot the catacombs." To which I can only shake my head at their naivety and foolish belief that things are going to be that easy.

The undines were something of a let down as far as foes go. I'd somehow envisioned the PCs actually going into the torture room and getting bounced off the walls amusingly, but instead they were between the undines and the stairs and the undines could only push them closer to the stairs and freedom. The undines had a Dread of stone walls, and they could barely enter the corridor to the stairs.

On that note, it's not clear to me as to whether the Dread disadvantage includes a supernatural sense to detect the object that you Dread. The consensus was that it doesn't, and that illusions of a Dreaded object work (and conversely, you can walk right up to an object you Dread if it's pitch black). I'm not sure that was the right way to go, but it's what we went with.

Technical Notes

Skype continues to suck. I'm hoping that it'll improve this week, but if not, we'll have to move to some other voice chat system. I've tasked the MMORPG players to figure out an alternate system: I don't care what it is, but I don't know about any of them so they can decide based on their own experience.

What Next?

The PCs think they have a solution for fighting the spheres (have Ryan punch them until they slow down and then shoot them) but we'll see how well that works in play. After that, there's going to be a lot of exploration: it's possible to get back to the Castle from where the PCs are, but it's also possible to get lost in a lot of different ways.