Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Tower of Zenopus, Session 1

Our intrepid band gathered again this week to further their explorations of the strange, winding underhalls beneath Portown. Their gobin captive Gorfus was eager to join the group as 'Gorfus the Torchbearer!' as he and the halfling babarian Skit Runalong bonded, doing hand stands while hold up in the goblin room. Meanwhile, the rest of the group made the short trip back into town for some extra supplies, and food.

There, they met an Elvin Wizard named, Sulien, who had made the journey to Portown for reasons of his own. The wizard's research having led him to believe an elf wand of power and repute was lost within the catacombs beneath Zenopus's tower. The folks at the Green Dragon Inn were almost happy to see the party return one party member short, as it seems a 'dead pool' of sorts had begun, as to how many of the intrepid band would be lost to the dread halls. There was actually some groaning as the bard, Killian Sweetongue informed everyone that none had yet been lost, and the wizard was actually eager to join their party, as they were already exploring the very place he wanted to go!

Soon, explorations resumed, with an elven wizard in tow. As the party reentered the goblin room, their 'captive' jumped off his chair, held a torch aloft like a sword and proudly exclaimed, "I am Gorfus the Torchbearer"! Confused, worried and indifferent looks were exchanged, and the group returned to the room that had formerly contained a spider and mimic from last week. The spider's hidey hole in the ceiling seemed to be worth investigating, and Skit was just the right size for such work, so with a bit of effort, he crawled into the dark hole, discovering a rocky, refuse filled little tunnel leading back into darkness. With only enough room to crawl, and pushed on, barely avoiding a collapsed section of the floor that lead far below, the sounds of pebbles finding the water giving evidence to the depths of the shaft.

Carefully navigating around the 'pit', Skit went even further back, wondering if perhaps their weren't more spiders within this foul place.... but no, the little tunnel ended in a small chamber, that was open enough for the halfling to find his footing, and stand. What greeted his gaze was quite gruesome, however. A few goblins had clearly run afoul of the spider, as little web cocoons dotted the floor, and one dangled from the ceiling, a clenched mummified hand extending from the thing, the only evidence that there was something trapped within.

Most of what was found was rotted, or pitted with rust, but, from within the ceiling hanging cocoon, the goblin's prized possession was pressed uselessly against his body, in a desperate death grip for salvation... a shiny, jewel encrusted dagger! Skit happily liberated the dagger from its fate, and emerged from the tunnel pleased with his find, despite the danger.

At this point, the group was a bit flummoxed, though, Killian pointed out there was still the unexplored western passage of the entry hall, and everyone agreed that perhaps they should tackle that before trying to figure out the puzzle of the demon statue room.


The western passage quickly opened up into a larger room, with niches on the north and south walls, obscured by a thick mass of webbing, "On no, not more spiders" cried the half-orc Tempest, clearly his experience with the mimic causing a bit of PTSD.
Cautiously, the group entered the place, but a few steps in revealed that spiders were the least of their worries as the webbing began to move towards them... revealing....
Skeletons!! Four of the boney undead lurched forward, trailing stings of webbing, and attacked. The group was really starting to coordinate their skills at this point, and the skeletons gave them little trouble.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

West Marches sessions 10, 11, & 12

Three replacement characters were created at the start of session 10. Wolfe (elf), Samantha aka Sister Sam (cleric), and Anton (specialist).

The party decided to do some exploring and make their way again to Thistleblack. Along the way a Satyr in a magical grove offered up wine and food, and conversation. The party was suspicious, and declined the offer. A sleep spell later and all except Mira lay unconscious and the Satyr again offered wine and food. Mira, concerned for every one's safety, accepted. After some time passed the Satyr departed and the party awakened to continue their journey.

As a boon the Satyr had granted a Mira a minor one-time bonus in combat.

Returning to Thistleblack they continued exploring the under-city. Entering previously bypassed areas they located a shaft leading down to where they expected to find another way into the crypt with the well armed and armored zombie had been standing guard. Indeed, at the bottom of the shaft was a secret door to the expected location. Having been noticed by a zombie guardian, the door was quickly closed and the shaft ascended.

As the group was about to continue exploring the upper level a stone on stone grinding noise heralded the arrival, through the stone wall of a bizarre being with a skin of stone, three arms, three legs, and a mouth on the top of its head. In simple common tongue it requested precious metals. Uncertain of the risks involved in refusing the demand, the party gave up a quantity of copper and silver which the entity promptly devoured.

As a reward for their generosity, the creature answered questions about the existence and location of the sought after library.

Back above ground they encountered a pteranadon  and some giant ticks. The battles were difficult and very nearly cost the lives of two members of the adventuring band.

Eventually, after resting and licking their wounds, they opened a deep shaft hidden in a ruined tower and descended to the library entrance.

Friday, February 17, 2017

West Marches sessions 7, 8, & 9

Having fallen behind on session posts this will be a quick look at the activities of 3 sessions.

Two new players joined, adding their characters to the party. Rolfe (fighter), Lilura (wizard).

Rolfe and Lilura had arrived in town seeking to join an adventuring company and were accepted by the group. Safety in numbers.

The group decided that they would return to the scorpion cave and continue to explore. The cave no longer housed scorpions, though the other inhabitants were present proving to be a serious challenge. Blending into the surrounding stone and striking from above, the chokers grabbed at the explorers inflicting wounds on most of the party. After slaying two of the creatures and aware of at least one other still skulking nearby, the group retreated to seek the safety of the town.

The party agreed to venture to the surroundings of the Thistleblack Ruins to collect the unopened buds from the thistle plant that gave the ruined city its name, on behalf of Santhosh the local chirrurgeon and apothecary. The trip proved quite dangerous yet successful.

They encountered a large spitting cobra which temporarily blinded Mira. On their way back they discovered a small spring guarded by some large centipedes. They retrieved a black sapphire from the bottom of the spring, and two members of the party contracted an itchy rash which eventually went away. The spring is now called Blackstone Spring.

Their second trip to the ruins was prompted by their curiosity and at the request of Hart, high priestess of the goddess Vesta, to seek a rumored library which may contain knowledge of a divine nature that could greatly help the temple and community.

Reaching city center they began exploring the surface ruins, eventually coming under repeated attacks by ravenous beetles and lizards. Discovering a stairway leading below a partially standing building the party went below to investigate. A poison dart trap later and three members of the party were experiencing various stages of paralysis. This prompted a retreat back to their previous encampment outside the region of thistles.

While camped and with Rae paralyzed, a very young yellowish dragon attempted to extort treasure from the party. While some were willing to comply, Dorrak decided to insult the beast. One catastrophic reaction roll later left two party members dead, one dying, and another blinded from the scorching salt breath from the dragon. Dorrak decided to charge their attacker, against party wishes and paid for it with his life. The party surrendered 400 silver and begged for their lives. Mollified, the dragon departed.

Up till the dragon encounter that brought session 9 to a close there had been many close calls, but luck had prevented any casualties. This encounter resulted in 3 of the 7 party members dead and the others badly wounded.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Why the Tomb of Horrors is a Great Module

This article is in direct response to several posts I've seen lately critical of the classic AD&D adventure module the "Tomb of Horrors". Of course, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and as they say, 'opinions are like a...holes, everyone has one.' But, they also say, "You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant." So, with that in mind, I'm going to do my best to answer some of the criticisms, and inform as to why the 'Tomb of Horrors' is a great module.

Lets talk about the criticisms, point by point to get started:

1) The module's traps are too deadly

Deadly in relation to whom? The module was designed to foil exceptionally skilled characters, specifically those in Gygax's own campaign, Rob Kutz's character Robilar and Ernie Gygax's character Tenser. YOUR group may not be up to the same skill level as these players. This is an old school module, and one of the hallmarks of old school play is that many of the puzzles and traps were designed to challenge the PLAYER not the character. The solution to many of the module's traps and puzzles are not on the character sheet.

However, if you are running this module, and you think that many of the traps are too deadly for YOUR GROUP then, by all means change them! That's right. Go ahead. Where it says, "no saving throw" in the module, as DM you are fully authorized to alter it to say, "Make a save versus 'fill in the blank'. If you run this module as is, and your group is not up to the tasks as presented and something bad happens, that's YOUR fault as the DM, not the module's. Own it.

2) Character Death isn't Fun

That's a matter of opinion. Once again, it comes down to style of play, and in old school modules character death was a rather common thing. The specter of death was considered (and is still considered by many) one of the more enticing aspects of the game. The 'Tomb of Horrors' is about a creature who has designed their final resting place to lure souls to their doom. Its SUPPOSE to be horrible (its even in the title). Its okay if that's not your cup of tea, and not the style of your group. Don't play it. That doesn't make the module itself 'bad.'

3) That Fucking Mouth

Yes, John Wick, I'm calling you out. Spoiler Alert! I'm going to talk about this:
First, its important that the DM reads the description, and describe it to the players correctly. Players can only make informed decisions based on what the DM tells them.  In the description is reads:

 "...The face has a huge 0 of a mouth; it is dead black. The whole area radiates evil and magic if detected for. The mouth opening is similar to a (fixed) sphere of annihilation, but it is about 3' in diameter - plenty of room for those who wish to leap in and be completely and forever destroyed".

At this point, it might behoove a DM to look up 'sphere of annihilation', in the 1E DMG, page 154 to get an idea of what this thing is, as that might prove insightful in its description. When one does so the first few sentences read:

"A sphere of annihilation is a globe of absolute blackness, a ball of nothingness 2' in diameter. A sphere is actually a hole in the continuity of the multiverse, a void. Any matter which comes in contact with a sphere is instantly sucked into the void, gone, utterly destroyed."

Now, picture that in your head for a moment. Matter touches it and is "IMMEDIATELY SUCKED into the void...". Clearly, this would not be a subtle effect. No 'crawling into blackness' and disappearing. As soon as one iota of a person's body touches it, they are sucked into the thing. This would look rather violent, and unpleasant to the observer. "Woooosh!" then the person is gone. After witnessing such a thing, if someone, or an entire party decides to follow the unfortunate fool's example, then they get what they deserve.

Furthermore, this entire sequence can easily be avoided by simply prodding the thing with a 10 foot pole, which would immediately be violently wrenched from the character's hands as soon as it touched the sphere.

What? You're 14th level and no one in your party has a 10 foot pole? Have you learned nothing in the previous 13 levels? Perhaps its best if you try something safer, clearly this module is beyond your ken. I hear the palace of the 'Bubble Princess' is a challenge. *cough, cough*

Wait... what? You as DM didn't describe it this way either? Well, that's YOUR fault, not the module's. Own it.

Now, lets take a brief look at the map *big spoiler alert*

The place is not haphazardly drawn. I'm not going to go over every place, but point out that Gygax spaced things out carefully to reflect the various challenges provided. The map MEANS SOMETHING. You couldn't just find some random map someone drew online and plug the encounters in, as they wouldn't make any sense. The text, the traps and the actual drawing all come together as a cohesive whole, each complementing the other. Pits have secret passages, one hallway stretches overly long, a clue on its own, so that it ultimately 'tilts' into a fire pit, and so on. Clearly, this place was designed by a mad man, a genius or both!

Next, lets look at the nature of the traps themselves. Most of them show the characters what's going to get them. The players think, "Oh, that's a trap, its not going to get me", and then it gets them. Or it distracts in some way to lure the characters to their doom. In most cases, the traps can be avoided by simply ignoring them, and moving on. However, admittedly, some are pretty brutal. A tapestry of fungus in front of a door, that when touched collapses on the character, emulsifying them immediately, no saving throw. Its cruel, yes, but touching it with a 10 foot pole avoids it as well. As DM you might be kind and give them a Dex save, or something. Either way, the trap is avoidable if proper caution and care is taken.

And that's the key. Ingenuity, and caution will get most people through the tomb with only minor injury. These are 10th - 14th level characters after all. That is, until the encounter Acererack himself, and then all bets are off.

Lastly, we get to the Demi-Lich himself. Acererack is one tough BBEG, and probably something that no party can reasonably be prepared to encounter. That said, Acererak can be defeated in a single round, the solution of which I will not divulge here, but needless to say that Gygax himself was surprised by it at a convention... and that highlights my final point.

Player ingenuity knows no bounds, and there is no upper limit. The Tomb of Horrors is definitely a very tough challenge for any group. Most players and their characters will simply not be up to the challenge. Does that make it a bad module? Does that mean you shouldn't attempt it? I think not. Setting one's standards to accommodate the lowest common denominator is a recipe for boredom and stagnation. D&D is an amazing game, and the only limits on it are imagination. The Tomb of Horrors is a master class in trap and dungeon construction, and demonstrates the upper limits of D&D challenges. Even if you never run it, combing through these 14 pages of module lore will benefit any DM with an open mind.

For a further analysis and evaluation of this module I would invite you to also take a look at a video I made for my Youtube channel. Game on!

RPG Retro Review: Tomb of Horrors 

Thursday, October 27, 2016

West Marches session 6

We only had the Friday session this past weekend. While everyone was keen to play again, a moment of lucidity came upon us regarding having things that needed to get done in the real world.

Rested and resupplied, the party set out to meet the farmers to see if the thefts had stopped, and of course to ask about the reward. There were several farmers together having a lively discussion as the party arrived at Grint's. With reward in hand, the farmers expressed their thanks for tackling the problem. For several days no livestock had been stolen. Then discussion turned to the reward.

Grint asked if the party would consider donating some of the reward to the families of the volunteers that were slain by the giant hornet. After a short discussion it was agreed that the full amount of 50 silver would be given.

Announcing that they were going back to the goblin cave for a further look, the party journeyed west. Arriving at the caves in the evening without incident, the investigation began. The cave was busy with flies and other insects, many feasting on the giant hornet corpse. The smell of decay in the air proved no deterrent for the explorers and they delved further into the cave.

Deeper within was a flowing stream amid stalactites and stalagmites. Cautiously the group moved along the path of the flowing water. The stream led them to a descending stepped area, the water tricking down into a pool. Between two small Stalagmites they stumbled upon a small pouch containing a vial containing a cloudy blue liquid which Rae pocketed for later examination. Ahead and to the side was another opening leading to a narrow crevice.

While Dorrak and Rae explored the pool, Zena crawled head first into the declining fissure while Mira prepared to follow in the event of trouble. Zena's senses were assaulted with horrific smells and the awareness of insects everywhere. Dorrak tried to get a clearer view into the pool and noticed some odd lumps on the bottom. Rae determined that the basin was nearly 4 feet in depth and it was decided she would wade in to try loosening and moving the larger lump.

Zena stood up into a larger space foul with the smell of sour milk, rotten meat, urine and feces. A mass of disgusting goo filled the cavern floor before her. Calling up the shaft Zena informed Mira of her findings then began rummaging through the bone strewn, sticky accumulation. Moving aside bones, thousands of maggots, and flies, she reached elbow deep seeking anything of value that might lie hidden beneath the midden. Despite the description given by her companion, Mira ventured into the narrow opening.

Retrieving the marble trophy from the water, Rae passed it to the dwarf. The back of the statuette was thick with a mineral crust, the front revealed a humanoid in robes though the face had been vandalized beyond the possibility of recognition. Dorrak regarded the find, noting that even in its current state there may be some value to justify keeping the figure, a point to which Rae agreed.

Fox had been keeping watch and grown bored. Calling to the others she suggested they explore toward the source of the stream. The party, split into different parts of the cavern agreed to try to meet up after Zena and Mira finished exploring the chamber above the waste. Climbing up into a makeshift bedroom Zena examined the dried grass mats about the floor. She discovered a small, cut diamond of some obvious quality.  Fox decided to move a short distance upstream and noted that the passage curved to the left. Not wanting to be any further separated from the group she waited and watched for activity.

Having identified the passage out of the sleeping chamber as the place where they slew the injured goblin, they hurried to rejoin the group moving through the entrance chamber and back around to the stream, and the others.

The party moved upstream, across slippery rocks, to the source. The water flowed in through tiny cracks and holes in the cavern wall. Another recess loomed beyond the tiny falls.

Moving to explore the dark corner, Fox met with a hungry large spider. The fight was tense with both the party and the spider unable to connect with their attacks until Fox brought it low with a magic missile spell.

Exhausted by the investigation and lateness of the hour, they set camp in the passage between the stream and the entrance chamber. It was restful until the last watch when Zena noticed movement of the giant hornet corpse and quickly woke the others.

Bursting from the hornet's abdomen several giant centipedes rushed toward the groggy crew. Zena and Mira held them at bay, slaying two of the venomous insects and casting sleep on the writhing remainder. The companions grabbed their belongings and ran from the cave into the early morning light before the other centipedes could fully emerge.

Avoiding pursuit the party marched back to town. Fortunately Zena and Mira made their poison saves to avoid disease from their exposure to the midden goo.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Game Session Three: Encounter of the Riddle Column!

Thought I'd share a fun encounter we played out Sunday. It was of course inspired by the 'Riddles in the Dark' encounter from 'The Hobbit'.. But of course I added a twist to it. The set up can be seen in the first Pic below.. the 'U' Hallway section. This encounter also demonstrates one of my signatures as a DM... I like to SHOW the PCs the means by which their demise will be occurring before it happens and use a combination of terrain obstacles, role play, and monsters to make things interesting. In this case, its the innocuous drainage grate in the hallway section is the 'peek' at what's to come. The players can HEAR the waterfalls, and running water in caverns below, especially when they take the time to stop and listen.

What they don't know is that a gelatinous cube lies in the caverns below, and will be attracted to the dungeon halls by the vibrations of the character's passing, entering the hallway by oozing through the bars of the grate.

The next part of the set up is the 'Riddle Column'. Set up by the Priests of Nerul to guard access to the 3rd level, and further protect the secret passage, this column is quite insidious. The souls of those who have failed the challenge can be seen, as countless heads 'floating' in the red substance that makes up the column. There is also one evil, large head, and this is the 'Riddler'.

Anyway... As the characters make their way down the hall, they will first hear the chatter of whispers. Once they can SEE the column, the large head will 'float' to the side of their approach, and pose a riddle. The first riddle the column asked was:

“ I have rivers without water, Forests without trees, Mountains without rocks Towns without houses.”

Of course rather than trying to answer the riddle, they all decided to turn back and try a different way. Problem... because, as you can see in the pic, by this time the Gelatinous Cube was making its way towards them. Kind of an, “Oh Shit” moment when they turned back down the way they came, and their perception allowed them to see the thing.

Okay.. plan B.... lets try this riddle thing... They didn't know for sure, but they know me as DM and knew there would be consequences for just trying to 'walk on' without answering the riddle. The problem was... this one stumped them. I think they tried, “A desert' when the answer was, 'a map'. So, DC 12 con saves all around, and 4d6 necrotic damage. OUCH! The good part is that the column then posed another riddle, the bad part is, the Gelatinous Cube is getting closer. The barrage of missile weapons and spells really had had only minor effects to this point, and the thing was baring down on them.

Second riddle:
“Ten Men's Strength, Ten Men's Length, Ten Men can't break it, Yet a young boy walks off with it” The most experienced player got it almost right away, “A rope!”

The column replied, “Good. Now, give one and you may pass.” Which meant, give a riddle back.... they had to think about it for a second... the gelatinous cube double moved and almost engulfed the wizard (which would have been certain death with his measly 12 hit points) but he managed a nat 20 on his dex save.

Thinking quickly the Bard replied with the riddle of the sphinx, to which the column replied, “Good, you may pass.”

So, moving quickly they managed to get ahead of the thing, and finally took it down with combined missile fire and spells.

Afterwards, everyone changed their shorts.