Shadow over Alfheim, Part One – Sigyfel’s Tomb –

I kicked off my B/X game on monday. It’s been the first time in several years that I had DMed, and the rust was apparent, though I feel like I did a lot better than I’d worried I would.

I only had two players, which in a B/X game that was going to primarily use OSR modules dropped into a custom campaign setting made things difficult. We were supposed to have at least a 3rd person, which would’ve been significantly improved the party’s chances against tougher foes, but she forgot that we were gaming(despite the fact that we held the game monday to specifically accommodate her, as she is leaving the country soon, to the expense of two other potential players) on monday/had a nasty argument with the host about the benefits, or lack thereof, gluten-free foods possess for individuals who do not have coeliac disease and was too butt-hurt come over and play. This made having Sigyfel’s Tomb a real blessing, because as piddly as this Labyrinth Lord one-sheet is, it is almost perfectly balanced for a party of two.

The guy whose first game it was as B/X played as a fighter. It took a bit longer to roll up a character than I initially thought, but he was ultimately impressed with the simplicity of the system, especially when compared to a 3.5 Gestalt build. The older gent decided to play as a Cleric, because a party that small needs two decently capable fighters and some spellcasting/healing ability. Plus turning. Of course, being a medieval scholar of history, religion and language makes him both a natural choice for a party cleric, making him the intellectual and moral center of parties much in the same way that he is the intellectual and moral center of our town’s larger gaming group. So, Sven and Cynewulf make their way into the wilds of Alfheim under the patronage of Lord Kadesh Richmond.

One of the first things I discovered was that despite the detail I’d put into my world, it was still a bit too shallow in some regards, namely in terms of local cults and religions, so I had to come up with a number of things on the fly as best I could.

While I wanted my world to be a sandbox, I made the mistake of introducing too much, too soon, including things I was not really prepared to cope with, given the party’s makeup. The setup for Sigyfel’s tomb involved a run-in with the wife of the victim, lamenting her husband’s fate in the farm fields just outside of Alfort (in most but name). The hook worked both too effectively and somewhat ineffectively. Their initial instinct was to go straight to the tomb at nightfall, but they decided to check in at town first. This worked out, because it gave the widow a chance to collect her thoughts and approach the cleric in the morning with more coherent information about the tomb and a request that someone help put an end to the evil that plagues the farmers.

My new fighter learned how to map OSR style. He had some trouble at first, but I was patient, helped him and even corrected him in a few places. In this, Sigyfel’s tomb was good because it was a simple and more or less symetrical map. They came in, got hit by the pendulum trap for minor damage. I made a few rulings about it, since it’s not well described in the module, that it could either be spiked or they could simply walk under it in the future.

While they were messing around with a door on the west wing, a pair of skeletons showed up. They did some very minor damage, and the cleric turned them. The skeletons ran and got clocked by the pendulum. It was a nice moment. They found the secret door with the stash of silver, but poked around long enough that rats appeared in the bolts of rotting silk; they failed to do any damage and after two of them were squished, they ran off (“I don’t think they’re going to run and warn anyone”). I hesitated to have the skeletons in the sarcophagi animate immediately, and maybe I shouldn’t have, but it worked out nicely; the PCs said “There’s nothing worth fighting for in here”, so they spiked the door shut, sealing the angry skeletons inside.

When they tried the locked door toward the tomb in the central tunnel (there are two locked doors and no key in the module; this could have been a bigger problem than it was), the fighter decided to bash the door down. I decided that this loud bashing attracted the attention of the evil cleric’s two orc body-guards from the east wing, who attacked and were promptly dispatched (one killed, the other fled and got an arrow through the neck) after doing minimal damage. The module says that if the Cleric’s body-guards are killed, he should try to flee. The problem with this is that he really doesn’t have anywhere to run. So, I decided that after his body guards were killed, the players find him kneeling in supplication, begging for his life. This gave me an interesting and fun roleplaying opportunity.

This guy has no motivation or story or even name given in the module, yet unless the dungeon is being run for a single hero, there’s no reason he won’t promptly surrender. A level one evil cleric by himself is hardly even a cleric at all. So, I decided that he was actually a mad-man, who had been instructed in a dream to come here and pray for the return of the big-bad’s lieutenants. It involved lots of mad ramblings and was a lot of fun. It also let me get away with not having the overall plan fleshed out yet; this guy is too low on the totem pole to have any idea what the big-bad is up to. He’s taken prisoner, tied up, and given a key (so the players can unlock the doors) on his person that wasn’t from the module.

They open the first locked door. And here’s where I had one of my first real dungeon problems: how to describe a room that stepping into triggers a trap. Do I describe the room first or activate the trap and then describe the room? They clearly would see the room before they went inside. It’s kind of a flow-thing. Anyway, the room is oddly shaped, and though it has some description to it, nothing in it is important, except for the trap. So, I just sprang the trap and treated it like a normal hall.

They opened the second locked door and entered the burial chamber. There are three really evil looking statues here, and it was fun to watch the players panic thinking that they would surely spring to life. They ultimately decided that opening the sarcophagus would be a bad idea (and it probably would have; I’m not sure they could have survived the ghoul unless I ruled that it would not use paralysis with its attacks) and made a pretty cool roleplaying choice. They dragged the evil cleric back to Alfort and turned him over to the Magistrate. The Magistrate thanks them for their service, informs them that the cleric will be tried for murder, attempted murder, assault, diablerie and Medism, and will dispatch a company of local constabulary to investigate and cleanup the crime scene. The next day, the party heads to the tomb, and are pleasantly surprised to find that everything is under control. Two guards are posted outside, the dead orcs have had their equipment seized, and the party finds a few of the guards smashing the evil statues, burning what’s left of Sigyfel, and tending to the two wounded guards who are suffering from ghoul paralysis. The cleric uses his one spell (I let them start at level 2, since it would be cruel to run a game for two people at that low a level) to heal one of the two guards. My older player remarks happily that in all of his years of playing D&D, he’d never been in a game where he’d been able to call the cops before.

My problem was that I didn’t do a chapter end right away (partly because I wasn’t aware of the time). I’d created too many things for them to be interested in checking out that I either was not ready to run yet or would need to significantly re-balance given the party’s extremely low cumulative hit-dice. Already they were interested in checking out the Zombraire’s Estate (undead farm animals was too juicy a rumor to pass up), and they were about to start exploring the Old Island Fortress (though they’d been instructed not to by their patron’s solicitor “You were just hired; the last thing Lord Richmond wants is for you to get yourselves killed before he gets any work out of you”), where they would’ve promptly been torn apart by wolves. I’m mad at myself for not giving myself a better out and for making my invisible walls too visible. I wouldn’t have had to do it if I’d ended my session sooner, or at least been able to do the time-skip to make things feel less rushed (the first letter said to expect orders in 5 days, the orders came the following day, delivered hastily by a messenger who basically said ‘the plot is over here, sorry but you haven’t got into sand-box territory yet’; i’m not proud of it). But, they wanted to keep on going, and really, I wanted to oblige.

They got their instructions to seek out Laws End so that they might run the Blueholme Maze of Nuromen module. Their instructions in the letter were to “Find a certain book” I had to come up with the contents of the letter on the fly, and really it wasn’t one of my finer moments. “What book is it?! The letter doesn’t say what book we’re even looking for!” The solicitor’s(my) oversight was thankfully forgiven, and the pair were off in search of Law’s End. This led to a fun encounter at a crossroads, where a bard was noodling and giving cryptic answers about the return of the elves. I don’t know if the fact that he was there at the crossroads to sell his soul to evil elves to play better lute was lost on my players or not, but it was still a fun encounter to roleplay. Another nice little set piece, and I don’t know if it was effective or not, but I liked it, was outside of Laws End, when a procession of ghost elves carrying a dead king on a bier marched past, through the valley and off into the mountains.

My players made it into the entrance of the dungeon when i realized that it was time that I had to call it a night.

I had a blast, and despite my mistakes, I think my players had fun too.

As for Sigyfel’s Tomb, I give it a 4/5. There’s really very little substance to it, and it will take some work adding your own details, unless you’re running it as a board-game style encounter, but it worked really well for a tiny party and someone almost completely a novice to old-school style tabletop rpgs. The main changes I would recommend would be removing the pendulum trap altogether, naming the cleric and give him some sort of reason for being in the tomb, and adding an encounter in room 4. In some ways, the tomb itself is too small to justify having random encounters; the tomb itself is at most two-three times as big as a house and is actually set up kind of like a tomb, rather than a crazy non-sense dungeon maze. Overall, though, I was happy that I had something that I could run that wasn’t too hard for new players to map or for two pcs to fight through.

After I run Maze of Nuromen, I’ll do a write up about that one as well. While i initially loved it upon reading it, I’m now feeling a bit wary about actually running it. A lot of the rooms have a LOT going at once, and my fear is that I’ll fail to describe some important aspect of a room because it is buried in the description. The one advantage of having block-text is that it give you an idea of what your players see vs. any mechanical interactibles in the room. It’ll be a tour de force, but I think if I study it hard enough and do some highlighting, I can run the module with a decent modicum of competence.

Update: Note that the module’s actual name is “The Tomb of Sigyfel”.

Looking for Art for Towers of Dream + Campaign Prep!

Well, I’m finally on track to getting Towers of Dream play-tested. I’ve got my first player and we’re looking  to round out the rest of the group. It might not be the best test environment, since I’m incorporating it into a bigger campaign, but it’s better than nothing!

In the meantime, I might be looking for two or three pieces of original artwork for a published version, so if anyone might be interested in that, let me know, and maybe we can work something out.

As for the campaign I’m looking at running, I’ve cobbled together a hodge-podge of OSR modules, created a subway-system style map of how the hubs dungeons/modules are connected in a vague geographic sense, and a flimsy meta-narrative to drive the plot.

In summary, the adventure region was once an ancient, and very evil, elven empire where Necromancy and debauchery were the watchwords of the day. Necromancy seems to be coming back into vogue, a local wizard is thought to have become a lich (he hasn’t), tombs and towers of old elven necromancers seem to be stirring again, and no one really knows why. Turns out, a particularly wicked elf figured out how to surmount OD&D’s level cap: Become a vampire. I figure that as much as I love liches, they’re kind of played out (yeah, I know Vampires are pretty played out, too, but definitely not in high fantasy). Having a 10th level elf become a vampire will definitely pose some unusual challenges and create a truly unique and dangerous foe. I feel that a vampire’s powers make him an even more formidable enemy than a lich, if for no other reason than he can so easily come and go (combine living appearance & charm vs shambling skeleton wizard) and is harder to destroy (unless he’s Voldemort, a lich will have one phylactery, whereas a Vampire may have crates of earth hidden all over the place, especially if he is planning something big.) I might post some more high level vampires later.

So far, what I’m looking at is:
Morgansfort (Basic Fantasy Roleplaying) – as a hub city, plus some nice dungeons to act as time sinks while the enemy puts his plans in motion.
Sigyfel’s Tomb (Labyrinth Lord) – A nice warm-up, I think
Nuromen’s Maze (Blueholme) – See evil + elves + necromancy. I don’t think it’s stated if Nuromen’s an elf, but hey, why not?
Towers of Dream (ME!)
Gibbering Tower (Labyrinth Lord) – A crappy dungeon with no real way to win or worthwhile treasure? Well, that’s because the big bad already hit the place first and found what he wanted!
Merilla’s Magic Tower (BFR Adventure Anthology) – Either the bad guys get some legendary weapons, or the good guys get the means to stop him.
The Zombraire’s Estate (BFR AA) – A fully operating undead plantation totally fits the necromancy theme. (This is probably my favorite mini-adventure from the BFR Anthology)
Deathcrypt of Khaldhun (BFR AA) – High level undead monsters + a high level macguffin? I think this fits.
Night of the Necromancer (BFR AA) – Just need to tweak it so the necromancers in question are subordinate to the big bad.
Crooked Rock Tower (BFR, Fortress, Tomb & Tower) – This one is a maybe. I don’t know how I feel about incorporating the Lizard men, but it’s a cool dungeon that could be played a lot of ways in this setting.