Death Crypt of the Ultralich – Crypt (Level 3)

This is the final level of the no-prep dungeon for the mini-campaign I just finished running. The keyed notes below are what I had in front of me when I ran it.

Level 1: The Buried New Chapel
Level 2: The Original Abbey
Level 2 North: The North Library
Level 2 South: The Artificer’s Workshop

Dungeon Level 3 - Crypt

  1. Wall of Shrieking Bones. Attacks if close. Draws wandering monsters unless turned.
  2. 1d6 ghouls, 5k cp, 1k gp
  3. Same as 1
  4. 4 fonts (empty). If filled with water from the well, becomes holy water.
  5. 2d4 zombies w/maces. Each wears a gold necklace (100 gp)
  6. Several ossuaries. 4 turns searching will turn up skull with gold teeth (100 gp)
  7. True Tomb. Mummy: 19 HP, AC3 1d12+ disease. 2000 in jewelry. 2 Skeletons. 4 jars of gold (500). +1 sword inside the mummy.
  8. False Tomb. Corpse in Sarcophagus. Iron (gilded) jewelry, gorgerine, bracelets. 4 jars of oil. Coffer of 5000 copper (gilded) and 50 glass gems (50 cp total)
  9. 4 Zombies touching a glowing pink orb. Orb may be used to cast ESP. Orb links to Least Lich in 27. Worth 10k gp if removed.
  10. Body in hooded robes, pale face. 1d6 if punctured. b) zombie has ring worth 100 gp
  11. Shelves of bones
  12. 15 assorted skeleton parts. AC3 1 HP
  13. Shelves of bones; 4 silver torchiers (100 gp)
  14. Basin of water w/strange fish. Jump out to be a 3HD AC 6 skeleton fish monster 1d6 dmg; 20 pp in basin
  15. Shelves of bone
  16. 4 pillars that look like people writhing in agony, adorned with gems. HD3, AC4 1d6. 40 gems total, 30 gp each.
  17. 2d4 ghouls, will investigate if party is loud in 16. There is an ornate boat in this room. Stave-ceilinged: 10k gp [if it can be removed]. 4 canopic jars. Map to the tomb. +1 Short Spear.
  18. “You tread where no man dares. A powerful seal has been broken. Do not raise up what cannot be put down. He knows what you have done.” [hole under capstone on 2nd level leads here]
  19. Empty Room
  20. 10 inanimate skeletons. Skeleton Knight HD4 AC3 2-handed sword (1d10)
  21. Slanting floor with grates in wall, metal pressure plate on floor. Spear trap 1d6 Save vs. breath.
  22. 1 Thoul; 8 skeletons (may investigate 16)
  23. Basin. Body wearing plate armor, holding ax (both +1). Skeleton is bleached white. Basin is full of acid. 1d6 splash. Fall in, 3d6 damage + 1d6 per round until it is rinsed off.
  24. Two pedestals with silver gilded gazing balls (250 gp each). 1d4 electric damage, 1 charge each.
  25. 500 -1 spears, 1 +3 spear*
  26. 1280 skeletons wearing chain, standing in rank & file at attention. Inanimate unless attacked.**
  27. Throne room of the Least-Lich. E5 – 20 HP, AC 2 (Elfin Plate +1), 1d8+1 (+1 sword of control undead). Knows: Read Magic, Charm Person, Mirror Image, Phantasmal Force, Haste. Spellbook. All 1st level scrolls. Necromantic Standard. Goold Skull (500 gp), Endymion’s Plan-Book, Griffon Throne (2000 gp), 3 tapestries (350 gp each)
  28. Piles of bones. After 1 turn, whirlwind of bones, attacks as 6HD, 1d6. Protection from evil or turning both have effect.***
  29. 500 -1 swords, 1 +1 sword*
  30. 300 -1 short bows, 1 +1 bow*

 

* The -1 weapons aren’t cursed, just poor quality.

** The skeletons are the unnamed Least Lich’s “seed army”. He’s a lieutenant of Endymion the Ultralich, and if left alone after the seal has broken, he’ll eventually lead this army down into the valley and use his magic sword to amplify the curse and raise additional undead. Things dying on this dungeon level and returning as undead is part of the curse that the chapel/abbey was built to contain and not directly tied to the Least Lich himself.

***I handled this a bit differently in play. I came up with almost all dressings and secrets on the fly, so I had the handle to the secret door be a large key-crank hidden by one of the piles of bone. Also, after the initial whirlwind, touching the bones would activate the whirlwind again, and I had players roll dex to not touch bones.

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Wrapping up the Deathcrypt Game

My players finally wrapped on the B/X Deathcrypt game I was running. We ended up with only 3 players on Friday, but since we needed to bring the game to a close for various reasons, I let them brute force the ending a bit with some extra hirelings.

The Deathcrypt was always meant to be run as a mini-campaign, just something to be run for a few weeks to a few months until our regular DM moves out of town at the end of the summer and the group most likely breaks up for good. Still, it ended up much higher casualty rate than any other games I’ve run.

I think one of the major reasons why PC death was so high in this game was the drop-in nature, as many of our players have had things going on during the summer and weren’t able to make every session. A few really bad plays combined with a few players taking their character sheets with them ended up sucking a lot of XP and treasure out of the adventure. While I wasn’t running a Monty Hall dungeon by any stretch, the players should’ve gotten plenty of XP and been well equipped. Except the following stuff happened:

  • One character managed to be the sole survivor of a particularly brutal session and walked away with an entire wing of the dungeon’s XP all for himself. And then he died in the next session because he didn’t wait for his 7K XP to get banked and converted to levels.
  • The player who took the +1/+3 vs undead sword only showed up for 2 of the 5 or 6 sessions this game ran for.
  • The player who had the magic user who could read magic and had a ton of scrolls and a +1 ring of protection DID make it back for the final session, but he’d taken his character with him and subsequently lost the binder in the intervening weeks.
  • The players with fighters who’d gotten the top-notch gear (a set of +1 plate and a +3 spear) last session were absent from this.
  • A few fragile, high value objects were smashed instead looted.

We ended up with more lost characters and equipment than just about any game we’ve run. Partly, I think, because we did not strictly enforce the “leave your character sheet at X’s house” policy that we normally employed. Also, the lady who generally quarter-masters for the group has been busy over the summer and only made 2 or 3 sessions of this game, so party loot was much more prone to getting lost.

There were three ways party could reach the final dungeon boss. A counter-clockwise spiral that took them past some pretty gnarly stuff and straight to the throne room, a secret shortcut through the well that would bypass some of the gnarliest stuff, and a clockwise spiral that put them at the back-door of the boss’s chamber.

They’d actually reached the back door in the previous session but decided to call it for the night there and go back to town instead of finishing the dungeon. Armed to the teeth and with almost all of the players there, it probably would’ve been a cakewalk.

Instead, two characters enter the chamber with the necromancer, while the other characters hung back on the far side of a room with a swirling bone trap for a couple rounds before following. The player had his characters in the room try to stall for time, feigning obeisance and bowing—it proved something of a mistake to genuflect while asking how they might serve an undead necromancer; one of them got a sword through the back and the other ran after a round or two of ineffective combat.

The characters who’d hung back initially ran back the way they’d came while the fighter ran the other way, hoping that at least some of the party would get away. The fighter did get to see some interesting stuff on his way out:

  • Ran through the room with some skeleton guards and a Thoul
  • Ran through a room with gem encrusted living statues that got a swipe at him
  • Hit a dead end with ghouls hanging out on a very nice funerary barge
  • Smashed a glowing orb of ESP that a bunch of zombies were connected to

Between having plenty of armor, undead being fairly slow, and finding the well-path, he actually managed to make it to the well and climb out to meet his friends who’d gone back the other way. Fortunately, he did not choose the path that would’ve had him running down the corridors of shrieking and grasping bones.

The party came back to the dungeon armed to the teeth with holy water, and though the necromancer had martialed some of his nearby forces to make a stand, only the Thoul was able to do any real damage to the party. The tanks tanked successfully (AC 2 and 1 are VERY hard for 1HD monsters to hit—something to think about), the necromancer got blinded with a light spell, and got a ton of holy water dumped on him.

Holy water may be kind of OP if you used it the way I allowed. I figure that throwing the vial of holy water across the room at a monster and hoping it hits is dumb, so I kind of assumed that what you do is unstop the vial and shake it on the monsters like they do in the exorcist movies. Yeah, you have to be in melee range with the undead, but it’s not hard to get something wet when you’re trying to shake water on it from 5 feet away. So, my least-lich went down like the wicked witch of the west with a bucket of water thrown on her.

Anyway, the players averted the regional crisis. The least-lich was part of one of many cells left by Endymion the Ultralich to make preparations for his eventual return. With a small undead army at his disposal, this minor lieutenant could’ve flooded the valley with undead and started a blight upon the land. Think of it like an ambitious air-drop operation—each cell has various objectives it needs to achieve, possibly covering for other, less successful cells, for the operation to succeed. This information is lined out in one of the items in the least-lich’s possession; had this been planned as an ongoing campaign, rather than a summer time killer, that would’ve been the springboard into a region adventure with wildernesses, lost towers, the hunts for ruins and powerful macguffins, etc.

Fun was had. Highest level character at the end was a level 3 Thief. If we’d tallied XP for the final session, the thief would’ve been level 4, at least one fighter would’ve been 2. [Other fighters who weren’t there last night but had been the previous session could’ve hit level 2 easily if they had been there].

Later this week, I’ll post the final level of the dungeon as it was run.

Critical Role, Character Death, and Inclusivity — Further Oncological Discourses in Dungeons & Dragons

I originally wasn’t going to weigh in on the whole Critical Role thing in a blog post, because it was easier to just make fun of it on Twitter, but some conversations yesterday have me thinking this is worth a post.

First of all, if you’re not familiar with Critical Role, it is essentially people LARPing as tabletop gamers.

Don’t watch too long, it’ll make you want to tear your hair out.

What they’re doing is basically Soap Opera with D&D trappings, and they have a following of both gamers and people who are just tuning in for their stories. The questions of whether or not people who don’t actually play D&D but listen to shows like Critical Role are “part of the community” ruffled a lot of feathers recently.

The current debacle stems from a “beloved” Critical Role PC dying in the game. The DM/Showrunner claimed he had been getting tons of hate from fans about how awful it was that this character died. While I didn’t see any of these threats on twitter, where there was mostly an outpouring of “we lurve u”, someone did link me to a now deleted Tumblr post [gone before I could even archive it], so I suspect that a lot of it coming from the D&D Tumblr crowd.

Black Leaf died

D&D is a game. It is a game where characters CAN and DO die. People who are unable to accept that fact, or worse, blurf about “muh favorite LGBT fictional character was murdered by a cis het DM!” are garbage.

But there’s more at play than just Critical Role having a character die.

There are two major reasons why character death has become taboo in D&D.

The first is something that’s always an issue for new DMs and people that are new to the game: people are scared of letting characters die because they worry how it will reflect on them as a person and as a friend because they can’t gauge the seriousness of the emotional reaction it may elicit.

The second stems from mechanics that make character creation a tedious and laborious process; if it takes over an hour to create a new character, any PC death means that the game either stops for the group or for the player for an extended period of time while they create a new character. It becomes easier to go along to get along, fudging to keep characters alive, especially since D&D has shifted away from “game” and towards “story”. Characters dying derails or delays the “story”, and many people have a hard time accepting that (and expectations set by D&D-grotesque online soap operas don’t help).

Black Leaf

These are both things that can be fixed, however.

The first PC death for a DM and a group is the hardest, but once it’s out of the way, everyone can breathe a sigh of relief after realizing that life, and the game, goes on. It’s cathartic. While I don’t advocate going out of your way to kill a PC as soon as possible, I do advocate letting the dice do their job. The sooner a new DM and their players realize “we’re playing a game, we’re not making a soap opera, and Marcie isn’t really going to hang herself because Black Leaf died”, and the sooner the new DM is no longer worrying about what their friends will think when the inevitable happens, the sooner the group can actually start enjoying D&D for what it is—a game of daring adventure.

Unfortunately, this is apparently a VERY controversial piece of advice.

It even got me attacked on grounds of “inclusivity”.

twitter spergout

Popularity and Inclusivity are two things, and I’ll address both. Popularity quickly, because I think it’s less important.

In the 80s, D&D:

  • Was selling over 750k copies a year
  • Was publishing multiple NYT Best Selling books
  • Had a cartoon show
  • Had two official magazines and countless fanzines creating community content around the globe
  • Was culturally relevant enough to scare reactionaries absolutely shitless
  • Was sold in toy stores

D&D today is still popular, and the internet allows for fan content to be created and shared more easily, but it’s hardly the culturally significant phenomenon that it was. Cameos in TV shows written by and for Gen-Xers may inflate the significance a bit, but the number of people playing D&D is harder to figure. Sales for the 5e PHB only reached 800K in total in 2017, according to what sources I could find. And that’s not a complete game the way that TSR’s Basic line (which sold better than AD&D because it was in the toy sections at retailers) was, so it’s kind of an apples to oranges comparison.

Inclusivity is the more serious issue that I think needs to be addressed. (The notion that B/X is racist, however, is so ludicrous that it merits no response.)

I believe that inclusivity is more than just “muh representation”. It’s about accessibility. A game that is inclusive is a game that almost anyone can pick up and learn to play and can teach to others.

why bx

Is 5e accessible? To run a game of 5e, you need to buy about $90 worth of books. If you want to just be a player, you could get away with the Player handbook, which costs $30ish (apparently you can “rent” a copy for $20?!?), though everyone who knows the game knows that the best way to play and find people to play with is to be able to run the game yourself. But three thick-ass books that you’ve sunk nearly $100 into is a lot to digest. The size and cost alone may be daunting enough to discourage new players from entering the hobby.

Compare that to Holmes or Moldvay or Mentzer. You went to a toy store and for ~$5 you could get a box that had a short booklet with an easy to learn and well-presented set of rules for both players and DMs, an adventure that was written to teach players how to run a game and ultimately create their own campaign, and even the dice you needed to play.

So, which is more “inclusive”? The game that any kid could pick up with his allowance, that only cost a bit more than a couple of comic books, that he could read cover to cover in an hour and teach to his friends, or the game that costs as much as your utility bill with books so thick you could kill a man with them?

 

Holmes D&D: An Interesting Conundrum

Next month at a local RPG con, I plan on running the Holmes Basic sample dungeon, Tower of Zenopus, and I intend to run it using Holmes Basic/Blueholme rules. I’ve run it in the past before using B/X, and one of the reasons why I want to run this at the con is that I’ve run it before for a library program and know I can run it in a 6 hour timeslot.

Now, because I am a very busy person with a day job, a weekly column, a gig moonlighting as a retro-game reviewer, and will be shipping out a book I’ve published this month, I was hoping to find some reliable char-gen out of the OSR community so I wouldn’t need to roll up 20 characters by hand. I mean, it wouldn’t take me more than a couple of hours, but still, I wouldn’t mind saving the time.

What I found in the character generators I came across was interesting… While they had some really good features, particularly equipment generation, they either made the mistake of assuming Holmes used B/X’s magic system or they paid lipservice to the INT % modifier but did not calculate a list of known spells. Typically, they would just list one random level one spell that the MU/Elf knew.

I think part of it boils down to early D&D weirdness; the early games don’t actually work the way that most of us assume they work. Whether it’s giving all Magic Users “Read Magic” “because you need it to learn spells” or having B/X characters learn new spells from scrolls and having a spellbook containing more spells than the character has levels, DMs do a lot of stuff that’s not in the book. I’ve done it, too, sometimes from ignorance, sometimes for convenience. But we tend to make a lot of assumptions on how things works and cobble something together from memory and experience of multiple different systems rather than go by the rules.

I’ve never run pure Holmes before. In fact, this summer’s Ultralich mini-campaign is the first time I’ve tried running pure B/X [usually I’ve done weird alternate magic rules that are slightly more AD&D-esque, because those have a more Vancian feel].

I want to get that weird “this is not like D&D you’ve ever played” experience from the game I’ll be running, so I’ll be adhering to the following:

-No STR bonuses. Yes, that’s right, OD&D and Holmes did not have Strength bonuses. STR was purely a “roll under” stat.

-Magic Users will have their spellbooks with all 1st level spells, some of which they’ll know, others they will not.

-Dex-based paired initiatives.

-No Variable Weapon Damage

-Variable Weapon Speed

We’ll see how it goes! I’ll be brushing up on Holmes the next few weeks and see just how little I actually know about this edition!

DMing is Not the Same Thing as Writing Prose Fiction: This Should Not Be Controversial

The other day, some folks were discussing 5e’s Appendix E (the PHB’s “new” Appendix N) and how most of the new additions were not very good. I pointed out that while App E is bad, it is nothing compared to the DMG’s Appendix D whose “Dungeon Master Inspiration” list is actually detrimental to DMs, particularly inexperienced ones trying to learn the game, because they will see all of those books on fiction writing and assume that a DM must be a fiction writer.

appendix d list

That’s right, guy I stole your spreadsheet you tweeted at me.

Someone tried to point out that books on writing fiction only make up 25% of the list, but that means that 25% of a list of books meant to provide inspiration for DMs are actively sabotaging their understanding of what makes for good D&D, because it implies that DMing is writing fantasy fiction and storytelling. It’s not.

The DM’s job is NOT to write their fantasy story and have their friends live it out for them around the table. The DM’s job is to create game content within reactive environments for their players to interact with. The story that happens in D&D is not the story that the DM tells, it’s the emergent story that comes from the players’ interaction with the content that the DM provides.

As both a fiction writer and a DM, I understand that the storytelling skills involved in writing and structuring fiction are not the same skills that bring a story to life at the table.  It’s apples and oranges, and trying to use the approach of one for the other can be detrimental.

Though it’s a different medium, an excellent example of emergent story is the history of Boatmurdered. Boatmurdered was a succession game of Dwarf Fortress, where each player played for an in-game year before passing off the save file to someone else. Each player chronicled the history of the fortress of Boatmurdered as it played out. What resulted was an absolutely legendary story of murder, madness and rampaging elephants.

Take a bit and read it.

You don’t get that sort of story from using the tools that a writer uses to write fiction; you get that from the game-content components and the emergent events surrounding them. It’s the way you get “truth stranger than fiction” from a purely fictional setting.

So what IS the approach DMs should take? What IS “inspirational reading” for DMs? Honestly, one question does not answer the other.

A DM needs to first gain a good grasp of the system and mechanics. Once that’s achieved, it becomes easier to pull in outside ideas and inspirations. The question is not “what weird thing do I want to put in my game?” but rather “how do I put a weird thing in my game?” A DM’s ideas must be translated into game content that players can interact with.

The answer to the second question is “anything, really”. Sure, Appendix N has great stuff and helps answer “what were the literary antecedents of the mechanics used in D&D”, but a DM can get inspiration from just about anything. And with a grasp of system and mechanics, it’s easy to drag and drop content to your game.

Want combat robot maids?

4HD*, AC3, 40′ 1d6*/1d6. (*stun for one round)

They’re almost tough as ogres (4HD), hard to hit (AC3), quicker than encumbered humans (40′), and high output with flip-kicks and one-two punches (1d6/1d6).

Need a reason for them to be somewhere?

A mad scientist somewhere in part of the dungeon built them because he was lonely.

Do you need to have a grasp of the finer points of fiction writing to include weird stuff in your D&D game?

No.

 

Keep on the Borderlands (Sort Of)

At Free RPG Day, I got to game with a buddy who runs the local RPG con–B/X is his jam, and I love him for it.

He runs his somewhat uniquely, and there are aspects I disagree with (using a d8 base for semi-non-variable damage rather than d6), but there are others which I’ve stolen to make my own game run smoother (rotating initiative by side).

But the most important way he runs his game is that it’s fair–he’s not going to kick you when you’re down, but when you’ve goofed you’re done. PC death can and will happen in his games.

He’d run off some fairly wacky pre-gens from a site that gave stats and equipment that were all over the place. I ran a thief with 17 STR, 18 Dex, 8 Int, 18 WIS 14 CON, and CHA 4. Crusty Jim! I’ve learned from my own players and realized that Thieves have the potential to be the most stupid overpowered class, especially at lower levels. I cut my way through several orcs, bugbears, and giant spiders with my trusty Zweihander. With an AC of 4 and the potential to do over 20 damage in a single hit, I was a force to be reckoned with!

It’s also nice to play Borderlands without the moral quandaries that modernist gaming culture has tried to impose on it. We were told up-front: there are no orc babies; greenskins are creatures of evil that are born from, created by, and composed of evil and chaos taken shape. The goal was to kill them, rescue humans, recover treasure, and work to make the Borderlands just a little bit safer.

It wasn’t run straight from the module, but rather thematic, adjusted for a one-off. The keep was there, but we were given the choice to look for caves, small ruins, or large ruins (all home-made content). So I’ve still never played Borderland proper, but it was still a lot of fun cleaving through gobbos.

Death Crypt of the Ultralich – The Artificer’s Workshop

The artificer’s workshop is below the south end of the abbey. It can be reached either by the stairs in the annex behind the hidden door or via the well.

Dungeon Level 3 - Workshop

  1. Artificer’s Bedroom. Skeleton*. Desk w/notes–Read Language will reveal his attempts to build “Daughters”. +1 Plate.
  2. Inner workshop. All manner of tools & blueprints, cogs, springs. A desk, tables, half-assembled bronze constructs. 4x “Daughters” 4HD*, AC3, 40′ 1d6*/1d6. (*stun for one round). Scrap worth 6k gold.
  3. 2x Iron Living Statues. 500 steel ingots.
  4. Workshop supplies. 100 hammers. 25 screwdrivers. 50 wrenches. 25 unknown tools.
  5. 3 patrolling bronze walkers. HD2, AC4 30′ 1d6 (will flee if attacked and summon LS then Daughters.
  6. Anvils, barrels of springs (5x 100 gp each) and gears (5x 100 gp each).

*:active if seal in L2-26 is broken.