Prelude to the Death Crypt of the Ultralich

I don’t have a better name for my current game yet, and it ultimately may not take the direction implied in the name (though the mass combat game I ran two weeks ago did serve as a “distant prologue”).

I’m experimenting with a dynamic exploration-focused dungeon, one which begins… almost empty!

The design concept ties into adventure hook that got the party there:

There’s a small town celebrating its founding day, which is normally a smaller affair, but this is the anniversary of the end of the Wizard War. There’s a stone marker outside of town on a hill, and it’s an “historical site” which Wizard War nerds might want to check out on the 500th anniversary. Between the end of the Wizard War and the founding of the town, there was a “rain of dirt” (possibly a volcano, possibly magic upheaval) that buried whatever was there. Folks didn’t want the spot to be totally forgotten, so they put up a plaque. The party found the ruin because a child playing on the hill fell down a sinkhole.

The complex is actually a small buried temple built on top of a previously buried monastery that was built over a series of crypts to seal up some of the residual evils of a Lieutenant of the Ultralich who was defeated on that spot. Below that are caverns and who knows what; I haven’t even fully keyed the crypt area.

The top level is mostly empty, stripped bare, and even the purpose is somewhat of a mystery until the players find the chapel. There are a few collapsed tunnels at the edges of the map, and a room with bats indicating that the room is near the surface of the hillside. Eventually, these tunnels may become excavated as more adventurers and possibly clergymen and historians begin to explore the upper ruins. These empty rooms will serve as future sites of minor archaeological base-camps or refuges for vagrants and bandits. But for now, the party has the ruins to themselves.

I remembered how much I hated the Bruce Heard game I was in because, despite all of the cool fair and carnival stuff around, I didn’t get a chance to interact with it, so if my players decide to do some carnival games, I’ll let them. We’re going to Millennium Fair it. I’m also allowing them to create a bit of the town themselves, picking what they need to have in the town, letting them name places and people. We’ve already ended up with an awesome tavern keeper named Crazy Jim, whose specialty is Owlbear stew. Over the course of the evening, it was established that Crazy Jim is a retired adventurer of ridiculous level.

My DM (a player in this game) is on a Delicious in Dungeon kick, and I’m happy to oblige. Turns out, the secret to making top-notch Owlbear Stew: you gotta make em good and angry. Most animals if they’re all riled up, the meat can get tough and gamey. But Owlbears are different—when an owlbear gets mad, their muscles get all loosened up, like they’ve done a bunch of stretches and then gotten a massage; makes em move all fluid-like. So, if you want the best Owlbear meat, you’ve gotta get em real good and pissed off before you kill them—the meat’ll just fall off the bones.

So, for now, my dungeon chef is contenting himself with frying up centipedes and mice with the wild green onions he’s picked.

Interestingly, my three players have all opted to run Thieves. They reason that this way they’ll always be able to be sneaky and at least one of them will always get a backstab. They have a fighter and Halfling for hirelings; we’ll see how all of this will work out. The halfling’s probably better at hiding from things than they are at this point, but there’s been very little to hide from so far.

The downside of everyone playing thieves, I can’t use this as an opportunity to really go for broke on sticking to the book on Moldvay magic rules. I went out of my way to stock the dungeon with scrolls to reward someone who picked “Read Magic” as their one first level spell. There’s an NPC elf lady whose spell is read magic, but the party didn’t pick her as a hireling, so she very well may end up as part of a rival adventuring party.

The second level of the dungeon, once they reach it, has two mini-side dungeons off of it. One is a workshop with a few high-loot-value mechanical monstrosities that are terrifyingly out of depth. The other is the original monastery’s library, which has been taken over by Aranea.

A lot of the treasure will be hidden in the crypt below the 2nd level, but opening the vault to the crypt will trigger some stuff that will turn much of level 2 “active”. This could upset anyone trying to set up shop on the first floor, definitely a corner of the 2nd floor, and maybe even the rest of the town.


Mass Combat System Play Analysis

So, Friday before last, I got to test run my mass combat system. Essentially, I tricked my players into playing a hex & chit wargame with my by disguising it as Dungeons & Dragons, but it actually went really well! Much better than I expected, in fact.

The sides were comprised of about 40k humans, elves, dwarves, and halflings and just over 100k (mostly low-level) undead. The PC factions were led by 20th level Humans and max-level demihumans, while the undead were led by 9HD vampires and a level 30 MU lich.

Most undead units were 5k in size, each taking up 2 hexes. Smaller units (1000 or less) took up 1 hex and ignored facing rules, and a pair of 10k strong human infantry took up 3 hexes.

The undead’s objectives were to a)Cross the map with one of a various combination of units or b)kill a certain number of the PC heroes. The PC’s objectives were to either a)eliminate 6 units, b) destroy the lich’s siege engines, or c) force the lich to use half of his spells.

While I gave my players a few options of how they could set-up (envelopment, one-sided flanks, meeting engagement, or a prepared defense), they opted to run a prepared line defense in the middle, with cavalry on the flanks.

In about 11 turns over the course of 5 hours, the PC’s pulled off a stunning upset victory against the Lich.

Here’s why:

  • I forgot to put Permanent Fly on the Lich; I wasn’t going to pull a fast one after I’d already showed everyone the ins and outs of what I’d be running. This deprived him of his ability to do ranged spell damage as often as he should’ve been able to.
  • I allowed some of the smaller “special” units of undead to count towards the 6 unit count; I also forgot that I shouldn’t have allowed wights to take casualties from normal units.
  • The lich had no missile troops. My players did pretty well with their archers and skirmishers. While I did manage to collapse their left flank, many of my troops did so right into clerics who could blow up the weaker skellies.
  • Vampires are too weak to go up against the PC party I’d created pre-gens for; I should’ve used much more powerful undead, but I wanted to keep things simple.
  • Magic Missile was broken; I’ll fix it when I rewrite the rules; it should’ve been a fixed amount of damage based on the unit size (perhaps in relation to the target unit’s average HD) rather than multiplied by the die-roll. The elves were doing maybe 1/3 to half a brigade worth of damage per round.
  • Because I did not want to deal with 3 full levels of spells I didn’t have physical books for, the Lich didn’t have a number of abilities and additional reality-shaping spells that would’ve made this a cakewalk. As such, while he did death-touch a 20th level fighter at one point and began to rout PC units just by wading into the fray himself, he couldn’t have held his own if the PCs ganged up on him, in large part because of an absence of “contingencies”.

Here’s what worked:

  • The combat damage system. Once everyone wrapped their head around how easy it was to figure 10% of the highest two digits, calculating damage was a breeze. The rolls to hit and against armor class were simple enough that the players figured out how the system worked pretty quickly.
  • Leader Combat. Well, okay, it kind of worked. It needs to be improved maybe, or maybe implementing it on a smaller scale would work better. Really, the PCs cleaved through the Vampire colonels like butter; the unit regulars could only hit PCs on 20 and even the Vampires had a tough job of landing a blow on the heavily armored PCs.
  • Cavalry are weak in numbers but can do massive damage. They do the most damage with charges. It made me smile when the players came to the realization on their own that they were using their cavalry wrong; they realized what they SHOULD have been doing was, instead of leaving their cavalry in melee, withdrawing after a charge, regrouping far enough away that they couldn’t be attacked by a charging unit, then charge again from a flank to get the charge damage bonus.
  • Turning worked almost just as planned. 2d6 x 10% of a cleric unit divided by the defending unit’s hit dice. I required that the unit the clerics were attempting to turn must have line of sight on the cleric unit. This meant that cleric units staying behind other units, performing first aid, couldn’t turn; they had to come out where the undead could see them.
  • Giving the cleric units a 3 shot ability to prevent ½ damage to an adjacent unit, up to the total number of clerics in the unit, worked pretty well.

Here’s what was a little iffy:

  • The Combat Order in general worked just fine, and I’m still sold on doing initiative per melee, though the players did say that it slowed things down a bit. BUT if you weren’t using initiative per melee, I’d probably go with the following order within the combat phase:
    • Declare unit combat pairings and splits
    • Unpaired attackers do their damage first
    • Paired/split attackers do damage simultaneously (i.e. use the unit sizes of all units at the beginning of combat to calculate damage, rather initiative-loser potentially takes losses and inflicts fewer casualties)Now what’s with split attacks? When units were being attacked by more than one unit, I allowed the defending unit to make attacks against all attackers, splitting damage proportionally.
  • Magic. Some of the spells worked out, others didn’t. The biggest problem was that I used 1d6+1 x 10% of the casting unit calculate damage for Magic Missile. While it was fine for the 500 strong MU unit, it made the 3500 strong elf unit a murder machine. Additionally, there are just some spells that either don’t really work for mass combat or would require some additional development

Here’s what could stand some further development:

  • Accounting for hit die differences. This isn’t something I did, in part because a) I didn’t have time and b) it would’ve bogged down an initial test more than I wanted. I DID have one unit of 100 bone golems where I had their HP as the true unit strength, and, because they were a small unit, each individual could inflict a kill. So, with 4 attacks, the unit could theoretically kill 400 per round while they had an effective HP of 2400 instead of 100.I treated the PC units as “elites”, using the 2nd column of the to-hit and saves, and the ability to cast spells as a 5th level MU x3. This didn’t mean that everyone in the unit was 5th level, just that the average quality of the troop was such that it had a to hit bonus and a save bonus. This wasn’t reflected in unit strength/hit dice.

    The starkest difference was between skeletons and zombies, 1 hit die monsters vs. 2 hit die monsters; in theory, the zombies should be twice as hard to kill. I didn’t treat it that way (except for Turn results). You could do some tweaks to kills, where there’s a base 10% damage then reduce it proportionally by the number of hit dice. For monsters with more than 3 hit die, I think it makes sense to treat them like I did the Bone Golems (a large group of individuals attacking and simultaneously, while tracking the collective HP, but not treating them truly as a regular unit per the system). Because really, when the bone golems attacked, I was rolling 4 attacks for each one once rather than 100 times, and therefore assumed that those attacks all succeeded against individuals in the defending units rather than an attack against the unit itself using unit to unit resolution. This may actually be the best fix, as it can account for smaller numbers of large monsters (ogres, owl bears, whatever) fighting against mass combat scale units. The entire unit may not be attacking monsters, but all of the monsters are attacking someone in the unit.

  • Morale. The morale mechanics ended up not being used or tested, in part because I didn’t really write them down, so meh. Also, being undead, the Lich’s units weren’t subject to morale per-se. The players didn’t quite figure out just HOW killing the Vampire colonels affected the undead units. Being undead, they didn’t break and flee; they kept fighting, though they didn’t pull back or move further. I noted each time a vampire colonel was defeated that they dropped a sword that glowed black. These were +1 swords of control undead; if any PC had picked one up, they could either command or dispel the brigade the Vampire had been leading, but no players bothered.
  • Fleshing out the system for purposes of accounting, to better tie it to your B/X game. There are book prices for mercenaries but I think it would be worth crunching the numbers for custom equipping units, as well as figuring what “elite” means for both cost and ability (especially for casters).

I really think that there’s some potential to this system. It would absolutely work great with fewer units and at lower levels, I think, but hey, we wanted a stupid-high level battle against a lich.

Some More on Barbarian Rage

Last week GitaBushi tried to troll PCBushi and me into getting into another lengthy discussion on the origins of Barbarian Rage in Dungeons & Dragons.

Fortunately, I saved us all a lot of time and trouble by finding this, which has some great answers on the subject.

If you recall from a couple weeks ago, I’d found that yes, there was a possible “ur example” of Rage in Moldvay’s stats for Stark, but it was not a feature of Gygax’s original Barbarian class, which was more an outdoorsy fighter (really more akin to a high-HP Ranger than what most folks think of as a D&D Barbarian today).

Although the barbarian was introduced in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1st edition) in the Unearthed Arcana supplement, they were tribal wilderness warriors more akin to rangers, and didn’t have anything resembling the rage ability. It wasn’t until Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition that barbarians appeared with an ability with the actual name “Rage.” However, there were earlier versions of the Rage ability that just had different names.

In The Complete Barbarian’s Handbook (AD&D 2nd edition) there is the Brute class kit which provides a barbarian with the “Wild Brawl” special ability, which is introduced with, “When fighting without weapons, the Brute can propel himself into a berserk frenzy.” However, “Wild Brawl” is mechanically entirely unrelated to Rage.

In the same book, the Ravager class kit provided the barbarian with the “Become Enraged” special ability, with which the “Ravager may work himself into a fighting frenzy, increasing his effectiveness in combat.” Mechanically, an enraged Ravager hits easier and does more damage, is hit easier, is harder to damage, and is harder to charm.

Also in AD&D 2nd edition there is a Warrior class kit exclusive to dwarves in The Complete Book of Dwarves called the Battlerager, which is “a fearless warrior, able to create an insane rage within himself which increases his fighting ability and distorts his physical features,” and therefore a dwarven barbarian in all but name. A Battlerager in “the Killing Rage” receives bonus hit points, bonuses to attack and damage, and an AC bonus, as well as being immune to charm-like effects, but may not stop fighting until there are no more enemies standing.

Similar to the Battlerager is the is the Berserker class kit for fighters in The Complete Fighter’s Handbook (AD&D 2nd edition). A Berserker takes a long time to “Go Berserk”, but once Berserk gains similar benefits and also can’t stop fighting until every enemy is down. Notably, a Berserker isn’t allowed to know their own hit points while Berserk!

The Complete Book of Dwarves was published in 1991, four years before The Complete Barbarian’s Handbook; but The Complete Fighter’s Handbook was published two years earlier in 1989, making the Berserker the first barbarian-like† character with an ability that is recognisable as a “rage” ability.

†Bear in mind that before D&D3, the actual barbarian class was restricted to humans, so fighter class variants like the Berserker and Battlerager was the official way of playing a non-human character that fulfilled the same class role despite not bearing the name “barbarian.”


Skeletons Need to REEEEEEEE!

I feel like skeletons have kinda lost their luster in a lot of games, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. They’re often used as obvious tableau monsters–skeletons at a table playing cards? They’ll get up and attack you; skeletons laying down in beds? They’ll get up and attack you. At one hit die and easily turned by priests, they just never seem like that big a threat unless they can get economy of action on you. And even then, they’re often mundane mooks; players aren’t really scared of them. Then I remembered…

Skeletons are supposed to REEEEEEEEEEEE!

Skeleon Reeee

None of the games I’ve been in have done this, and I’ll admit I’ve failed to include it myself. But when skeletons attack, they are supposed to shriek for up to three rounds. And during each of those three rounds, there’s a 50/50 chance that a wandering monster will come check out what the hell is going on.

So, you go from a blah encounter with a few skellies that the clerics turn and the fighters hack to bits to a cascading nightmare as the dungeon’s alarm system has just alerted half the dungeon to your presence.

Edit: Oops! Looks like I screwed this up! The picture for skeletons are under the entry for Shriekers. No wonder! But hell, why not have skeleton shriekers?


On Eric John Stark and the D&D Barbarian Class

I’ve realized that one of the reasons why you don’t see as much gaming content here as you once did is that much of my energy now goes towards having discussions on game and Appendix N theory with Cirsova Contributor PC Bushi (whose story Antares will appear in our Fall issue) instead of blogging.

So, for those of you who mostly just follow the blog, I thought it would be worthwhile bringing the discussion over here to share some of our insights.

Bushi muses that Stark may have been a more likely inspiration for the Barbarian Rage trope than Conan. The most interesting highlights, though, are that I dug up both Tom Moldvay’s stats for Stark (15th level Fighter), which predates the official Barbarian PC class, and the first official writeup for a Barbarian class in AD&D. While the ur-Barbarian PC class does not feature a “Rage” ability, Moldvay’s Stark does, in which he ‘reverts to N’Chaka’ and gets crazy stat bonuses for a short period of time.

Bushi: So not that Conan doesn’t get pissed and kill people/things, but it strikes me that Eric John Stark is a more likely inspiration for the tropey barbarian rage.

HP: If you’re going to use “barbarian” as a distinct class in an RPG, Stark is the better source material in general.

Bushi: An interesting thesis. Tell me more.

HP: I sort of touch on it here.

Bushi: I don’t think any of that is wrong, but it doesn’t exactly make the argument that Stark is more of a barbarian than Conan. At least the literary Conan.

HP: I’m not saying he more of a barbarian, just better grist for a barbarian class.

Cirsova: I mean, I have made the argument in the past that Conan is what you get when you have 16 STR and 18 CON and say “Think I will roll a Thief then Dual-Class over to Fighter at some point so I can wear heavy armor.”

Gitabushi: Y’all might be overthinking this. D&D draws upon European history (or bad history) as much as fiction. And it draws upon fiction that draws upon fanciful variations of European history. That’s why the Cleric and Paladin are based on Catholic priest-warriors rather than Muslim. So rather than the Barbarian class being based on a literary figure, the class is best seen as based on the legendary Scandinavian Berserker that the literary figures are also based on.

Bushi: Sure. I’m just specifically thinking about the “barbarian rage” thing, which I think D&D probably made ubiquitous. I didn’t mean to imply that barbarians came from D&D. Was talking about “barbarian rage” as a game/media trope. Which I’m sure in part comes from historical berserkers, sure.

Cirsova: I somehow have the sneaking suspicion that most folks playing Barbarians wouldn’t know this and at best would picture Fafhrd & book Conan and at worst picture movie Conan.

“I am playing a barbarian. Basically he’s just a dude who is not Greek.”

And the game probably takes more inspiration from fantasy BS barbarians than actual Norse or Celtic warrior cultures. But it would be interesting to work some equivalent of the Ragnarok passion plays. It would make a great funnel.

Youth of the tribe go to collect their gravegoods, meet with the grave-maiden, fight the “werwolves” in the symbolic world’s death battle around winter solstice, then surprise! Something vaguely Fenrir-like shows up and starts killing people for realsies!

Count Donku: I’ve been beating this drum since forever, but Conan is definitely more of a fighter who dipped a few levels of rogue early in his career, which isn’t really optimal as a PC but he makes up for that with insane stat rolls.

Cirsova (aside): Actually, it would be good at early levels, because with the high con bonus and how quickly thieves level up, he’d have Fighter HP and decent thief skills by the time most folks were reaching level 2.

Bushi: I mean it kind of depends what we mean by “barbarian.” Conan is basically a tribesman who’s accumulated all sorts of different martial and leadership experiences, but Howard always stresses his disdain for civilization. In that regard I’m not really sure he’s any less barbarian. His sharp, primal instincts are often called by by Howard. What I’m referring to is more how Stark seems to fly into legitimate berserk rages and Conan doesn’t. Sure, but Stark also goes to cities. Not like he hates civilization so much that he’s become a hermit, either.

Cirsova: Stark also has PTSD from being left alone on hell world as a child having to fend off giant lizards with a stick until a space cop found and adopted him.

Bushi: Yeah, that could be a big contributor. Anyway my main point was that Stark seems to me like a likely genesis of the sterotypical barbarian flying into a fit of blind rage and killing everything. And yes, as [Gitabushi] says, that can go back further to berserkers.

Cirsova: Stark makes more sense if you look at him as more nuanced version of the Angry Black Man trope; he was marginalized himself, and is an outsider even in the world that took him in, so he sympathizes with and is angry for other marginalized peoples. Sometimes that anger boils over.

Gitabushi: I still think y’all are overthinking this. Appendix N is supposed to be inspiration, not source documents. The authors draw upon Euro-American legend to make stories, just like the game does. Europeans were barbarians to the Greco-Romans, but the Norse were barbarians to Euros. Hence, barbarians are norse/scandi berserkers. And Brackett, REH, et al, drew upon the *Euro* legend to make their barbarian characters.

Cirsova: Except that’s not the case for Stark, at all. He’s closer to either Mowgli or a sub-saharan african.

Bushi: Also Conan is basically a proto-Celt, no?

Cirsova: Yeah

Bushi: I’m sure the Norse berserkers were an inspiration for these guys, even if they weren’t the only ingredient.

Cirsova: Also, Tom Moldvay has Stark as a 15th level Chaotic Good Fighter in AD&D.

Bushi: Did AD&D have the barbarian class?

Cirsova:  Stark’s stats apparently pre-date the Official inclusion of the Barbarian class. And Moldvay’s stats for Stark include “reverting to N’Chaka” ability, which is basically Rage. Dude, we are “an hour or two’s more research than I have time for” away from a major breakthru in proving you may be right! There is literally now evidence that would support the theory that “Berserker Rage mechanics as it appears as an ability of the Barbarian Class directly descending from some BS Moldvay cooked up to stat Stark.”

Okay, now to burst your bubble. Original AD&D Barbarian class didn’t have Rage. It was originally an outdoorsy, high HP Fighter/Thief/Ranger mix.

Bushi: My question is when did they pick up rage, and was there any cited or suggestion inspiration?

Cirsova: Well, I linked the original official class. I don’t know when Rage was introduced. I don’t have time to research it right now, but I’ll try to aggregate some stuff for a post next week.

Also worth seeing how Rage stacks up to N’Chaka Beastmode: +5 to hit +7 to damage +5 AC penalty +8 save vs. empathic spells/charms 2d4 rounds

There’s an interesting digression on the nature of Civilization vs. Barbarism, but I’ll save that for tomorrow!

ARPG-Con DCC Session Report (Pt. 2, Evening)

The second DCC session I was in on Saturday at ARPG Con was a run through the level 0 module The Arwich Grinder.

Unlike other DCC modules I’ve played, this one was rather story and role-play heavy, but that wasn’t a bad thing at all!

We had three players and were allowed 6 characters.

The Arwich Grinder is a bit of a fun-house module that is bigger on building atmosphere than instant kill traps. A local family is your typical Lovecraft villain family: reclusive and prolifically inbred with a penchant for the occult. But they’ve got some good will in the town because during a famine they provided everyone in the town with foodstuffs. Well, it turns out they were breeding meat-men; a couple meat-men got out, including one who had the bonnet of “Bessie”(the one young pretty member of the family) in its hand before collapsing dead in the middle of the tavern.

There were a few things that were odd about this session:

  • We were playing as about 10% of the town’s populace, going to check in on the Curwen family to see if everything was all right, in turn-of-the-century America, but none of us had any fire-arms with us. This made it a bit hard to suspend disbelief.
  • It was always a strong point of discussion among the players about meta-gaming vs. roleplaying. While we always opted for the latter, it was funny, because we were all “The obvious solution would be to burn their house down, but we’re here to check on our neighbors and we’re convinced that they need to be rescued from something”.
  • While we “Lost Characters”, they didn’t die—in wargamer parlance, they “successfully exited the map”.

Even for DCC, we had pretty impressive manpower, but we used our resources wisely, treating our characters as the normal townfolk that they were trying to do a normal townfolk thing in the face of otherworldly horror.

  • The meat-man eating pig-slop and brandishing a human rib-cage? The poor retarded lad had to be put down, he was a danger to the community and our neighbors the Curwens!
  • The crazy lady locked in the upstairs? When she came running and shrieking at us, we subdued her, talked her down, put her on a cart and had a few characters drag her back to town for medical treatment.
  • The giant invisible baby in the attic? The characters who saw it were convinced it was a ghost, those who didn’t didn’t believe them or decided it was best not to muck with; we were there to save the Curwens!
  • The crazy old man downstairs? He’s hungry and senile and not a problem; we gave him some food and were all “We’ll come back for you.”
  • In the under-area we run into one of the Curwen couples. “Horrible stuff’s been goin’ on! We’re here to rescue you!” Husband attacks, gets killed because there are still a dozen of us after a few folks went back with the crazy lady. We subdue the wife, because it’s not gentlemanly to kill one of the ladies you’re trying to save. She tells us what’s going on, that the chanting we hear is the patriarch with Bessie and “he’s gonna fix it”. A few characters escort the wife into a room where she’ll be locked up for a minute; we’ll come back for her once we know Bessie’s safe.
  • Patriarch is gonna sacrifice Bessie, tossing her into a pit of boiling mud; a couple folks grab Bessie while we D’Onofrio the Patriarch.
  • Another Curwen couple shows up; we knock out the husband but were unable to apprehend the wife and toddler.
  • We continue sending Curwens back to town in waves, having “rescued” them. Our best characters stay to mop up and look for survivors. Characters going “off-the-map” run into the Constable and tell him they need to send a rider or telegraph to the city, get out the state militia, somebody who actually has guns.
  • We kill a couple of out-of-town cousins who didn’t believe that we’d solved the problem by not letting them summon a tentacle monster and calling up the militia.
  • While we’re unable to find the one woman who escaped or her child, we consider it a job well done that we saved most everybody, our neighborly duty was fulfilled, and G-Men could handle the rest. Also, it seemed like a good time to pack up and move out of New England.

Maybe this was an “easy” module? Or maybe we just “did it right”? The GM was impressed with our run, saying she’d never seen anyone play it the way we had; usually folks would either burn down the house, kill everybody inside, or mess with the giant invisible baby and get killed. I liked it, though, because even though it wasn’t hack & slash, the story emerged from the setting and things we could interact with; nothing felt forced. The GM rolled with our ideas of sending “rescued survivors” back with PCs for medical attention or to jail. The module had a story, but it was non-linear and could’ve played out any number of ways. For us, it played out with no PC casualties, minimal NPC death, and no eldritch horror “fixing” the problem. Ironically, had we NOT investigated, other than at the cost of Bessie’s life, the problem would’ve fixed itself.

It was a great Halloween horror module, even if it wasn’t a particularly good “Funnel”. I don’t think any of our characters would become Level 1 Adventurers following the escapade, but given that no one died, it’s probably the closest you could get to a “flawless victory” in a level 0 module.

Still, I’d like to see this with guns. “Giant nekkid deaf-mutes are shamblin’ into town? A bonnie lass may be in danger? Let me fetch the match-lock from me mantle…”

ARPG-CON DCC Session Report (Pt. 1, Morning)

Over the weekend I attended the inaugural ARPG Con and played in a couple of DCC games. Funnels, of course, since that’s what most folks are into and surviving a funnel is something that you can do in the time-frame of a con one-off and leave the table with a sense of accomplishment.

I don’t know the name of the first module, or if it was even a full module or a portion of a whole, but the second session was The Arwich Grinder. They were good sessions, and I had fun in both, but they were very different. Most significantly, one of them was a story-driven Call of Cthulhu module and I didn’t hate it!

Morning game was framed as a “Mystery” adventure. It was set in the Sutterlands or something. There’s a wedding, the PCs drink from a mystery jug, and they wake up on a haunted farm. It was less of a mystery and more of a puzzle; a puzzle that had to be solved before ghosts killed you.

Table was myself, an experienced gamer who’d not played DCC, and two kids who were experienced players (parents were DCC Judges, and I think they may have been niece & nephew of the folks who organized the con). We each had 4 characters.

Deal was there were 4 farm-houses, a well, a graveyard, and a cornfield. One house had an instant kill death-trap that made no sense so could not have been avoided by smart play (seriously, who would have expected a ramshackle wood cabin would instantly fill with flesh-burning acid in a single round the moment you stepped inside it?). Another house was a “safehouse”, with sigils on the doors that keep the ghosts out, plus two halves of a broken hawthorn staff that you could actually hit the ghosts. Third house had a spellbook that would’ve been great if we were using this to launch an ongoing campaign. Last house had images depicting the puzzle’s story. Cornfield had a pile of corpses around a scarecrow, Graveyard had a pair of earthhounds in it, and the Well had a debris monster.

So, we wake up in the middle of these houses and are almost immediately set upon by ghosts from the woods. Not wanting to make things easy on the GM, we all sent our characters in different directions. Two of my characters got instant killed by the trap (was it a Trap House or an Acid House?) while the other two headed for the house with the sigils that seemed to hold. Other players’ characters ran around in all directions; some with me in the safehouse, at least one other killed by the trap, one triggered the earthhounds, others ran for the other two houses, while one found the scarecrow and the pile of bones. All over the course of a couple rounds.

So, the “story” of the site was that the people who lived there were evil (natch), and a priest had gone to visit them. They killed the priest, broke his staff, threw his holy symbol down the well and left the body as an offering before the Corn Lord.

The solution to the puzzle was to go into the well, retrieve the holy symbol (the debris monster was entirely optional), and place it in the out-stretched hand of the dead cleric. The cleansing rain would destroy the curse and dissolve the ghosts (but only after they got to attack for a couple more rounds). I got a “bonus” (free mini-dice bag!) from the GM for being the first to suggest improvised weaponry (I started with a mithril ingot that my dwarf fastened to his hammer); we were supposed to fashion improvised weapons from things like the hawthorn sigils, the broken staff and at least one silver key to fight the ghosties.

It was a puzzle and we solved it. There was some satisfaction to it, but not a lot of real resolution. Who gave us the jug of magic liquor? Why was there a jug of magic liquor that would take us to redneck Ravenloft? There was not a massive sense of accomplishment, but as a funnel to kick off a campaign, I guess it got the job done.

I did like its scale, however. It felt like the right amount of adventure that would take a character to first level. One of the things that bothered me about Sailors on the Starless Sea was that the upper-castle should’ve reasonably gotten characters to level 1, and level 1 characters would’ve stood more of a chance against the last set-piece encounter. All but the very end of Sailors could be smart-played, which damn near made it a cake-walk for our group, and therefore an ineffective funnel, other than the fact that it expected you to roll up on the last fight and just slug it out toe-to-toe with a(n admittedly weak) chaos avatar and his army of beastmen. With the exception of the instant-kill acid trap that could not have possibly been foreseen, this adventure could be smart-played to a degree where you’d only lose a few characters. Less experienced players would probably finish this one out with at least one character alive apiece, with some smart-plays mitigating character-death.

  • Go straight for the safehouse and wait for the ghosts to leave
  • Burn any corn-husk dolls; this should’ve been a no-brainer, especially as a one-off, but I kept my characters’, and, of course, they attacked me during the final fight.
  • Without pressure from ghosts (whose raids are intermittent), you’d probably only lose one character to the acid-trap
  • Earthhounds are a tough fight for someone who just stumbles into them, but you have economy of action on them like a mo-fo, especially if the ghosts aren’t attacking.
  • You don’t even need to fight the debris monster.
  • At worst, you lose a few characters in the final ghost attack.

All-in-all, much better than “here’s 40 guys, fight them and the characters who live are your level 1”, at least in terms of giving players as much agency as possible over the outcome.

Next, I’ll talk about our power-house, flaw-less victory run of The Arwich Horror!