Here's the second half of the game report from this past weekend. I'm going to round out part 2 with some play observations on this session since the death toll was so high - there are some things I'd do differently as the DM. DMing is a skill best honed through trial, error, and bit of reflection afterwards on.
Part 1 was yesterday; the basic situation was that the party surfaced into an area of the ruins far too dangerous for 1st level characters, and encountered an alien ghost. The ghost destroyed two party members by possessing their bodies and running them down a street into a death trap where they were incinerated; two other party members were fiddling with an alien device, which exploded and sprayed their bits all over the rocks; everyone else was running for their lives at that point.
In other words, same stuff, just a different week.
Mustafa, the desert warrior, sprinted after the fleeing characters to help them regroup in the next hex over; he marveled at their wrinkled faces and age lines, since many of them aged 10 years after seeing the ghost. The others caught up, and once everyone calmed down, they decided to sneak back into the starting hex and try to slip down the hatch without the ghost noticing. By the time they got back there, they could see the body of the NPC Agdi off in the distance, being marched stalwartly towards his death while under the influence of ghostly possession. Since the ghost was temporarily occupied, they slipped back into the "safety" of the dungeon and locked the hatch behind them.
This has been their longest foray in the dungeon, spanning multiple sessions of play; they were on their 5th day of rations in-game, frequently needing to fill their water in the dungeon, and it was probably a good time to start heading back to the entrance at the Well of Woe, which would be at least another 8 hours through the subway tunnels - meaning another overnight encampment was necessary. Besides, since 3 player characters were greased by the ghost encounter, some of the guys were keenly interested in rolling new ones. In the meantime, there were enough retainers alive that everyone continued to play.
The party started south, safely passing the lair of the Winged Terrors, and approached the Mist Dungeon. It was theorized the orange door in the tunnel north of the Mist Dungeon might align with a domed structure on the surface - the dome was encountered a few sessions ago - so they decided to see what was behind the door. It was a shaft upwards with a ladder. The shaft did indeed lead to the interior of the great domed building on the surface.
The interior was a 60' dome, illuminated by an intermittent purple light, with a number of alcoves containing pedestals and glowing podiums with alien control beds. The floor was sunken a few feet below an elevated walkway that circled the room. A calcified alien cadaver, with bulbous oversized head and brain, sat in an a massive 'brainiac throne' in one of the alcoves.
Shortly after entering, the dust was disturbed and Brick the Halfling was pushed into the open shaft by an invisible assailant; he grabbed onto the ladder and avoided falling to his doom. This was followed by other ghostly attacks against various character weapons, as the invisible force tried to snatch weapons out of the character's hands. The group tried a few different tactics to identify the location of the invisible attacker (like throwing dust into the air and looking for a shape) but ultimately someone thought maybe the alien corpse was somehow to blame, and Mustafa sprinted up there and started smashing it with his scimitars.
All the telekinetic attacks around the room retracted and started attacking Mustafa defensively, and other characters joined him on the walkway where the alien corpse sat on its throne. Within a few minutes, they hacked it to pieces, but Bottvild was knocked below zero hit points during the fight, when her own weapon was wrested away and used to stab her. She was successfully stabilized with first aid before dying (bind wounds house rule).
In the dust and rubble of the desiccated alien corpse was a spectacular indigo gem, a blue passkey (5,000gp value). There were also numerous orange passkey gems all over the floor, 100gp each. One of the players theorized that each gem was probably embedded in one of the creatures, which meant that each gem sitting on the ground is where one of the ancient creatures died and crumbled to dust.
We try to end around 11pm on Saturdays; this was closer to 11:30pm, so we stopped right there. Next week they'll finish exploring the interior of the dome, and then head back to Trade Town and their encampment with a worthy haul of treasure and experience, and a chance to make some replacement characters.
Any time 4 characters die in a session, it’s probably a good time to step back and analyze if this was bad dice or bad luck, mistakes during play, bad design, and so on. Not that my players were overwrought; this isn't their first old school game, and the death toll in Gothic Greyhawk was frequently catastrophic, especially during Ravenloft. They take wide scale character death in stride.
The surface of the Black City is a ruined city, cut in half by a flowing glacier. The area north of the glacier is obscured by mist and clouds. The further north in the city you go, the more dangerous it gets, and the common belief is that no one in Trade Town has survived a trip north of the glacier (most folks in Trade Town are zero level men, or levels 1-3 if they have a class). These are all facts that have been made available in the game. So the players knew the area above ground was a dangerous area; they just didn't know how dangerous, and they were hoping to score a cool find in an untouched area, and scoot back into the dungeon. (Note that no one actually went into the small cave that was teased!)
But I question whether the 1st level of the dungeon, which extends under both halves of the city, should have *any* egress points into the ruins north of the glacier, considering it's possible to jump from a 1st level of difficulty to encounters with golems and ghosts and whatnot - serious high level fare. Note: most of these dangerous encounters are bound to a specific location, which explains why they don't wander down into the first level of the dungeon and crush all the weenie monsters and low level guys.
I've also broken the paradigm of dungeon level = risk level in the sense that the 1st dungeon level is huge, such that the south part of the first dungeon level is mostly 1st level challenges, and the north/north east section of the first dungeon level contains 2nd level challenges. The next level down follows a similar pattern, with the southern section of the caverns as level 3 challenges, and the north section of the caverns as level 4. I'm wondering if it would have been better to have 4 smaller levels (stacked one on top of another in a more traditional megadungeon design) versus having these massive, sprawling tunnels and caverns, covering multiple character levels of danger. One of the great opportunities in designing a megadungeon, and playing in one, is presenting a degree of control over the risk versus reward that the players choose, so a degree of transparency is important. I'm second guessing a bit if this approach has undermined some of the utility - I'll have to talk to the guys.
I have no qualms about how the alien ghost encounter turned out; the players had plenty of time to flee the ghost, and the fact that it possessed an NPC first was a bit of a gift; had they abandoned him to a gruesome fate, they might all have gotten away without a lost character, although it would have been a bit cold and uncaring. They've fought ghosts before, and experienced the body-hopping magic jar phenomenon first hand, and know full well that knocking out or disabling a host just encourages the ghost to snag a better ride in the next round.
I will adjust the Unstable Hyperborean Artifact™ however. It fired a 30' disintegration ray, with a 1 in 6 cumulative chance of exploding for 3d6 damage after the 1st shot. However, I really wanted to foreshadow that there was a mounting risk by having it grow progressively hotter with each shot. Since it blew up after the first shot due to an unlucky roll, that prevented any chance to learn about the risk. Going forward, I'd tweak the text so any such device won't start rolling to blow up until after the 2nd shot, so the players can experience it getting hotter. I don't think a dungeon needs to be fair or balanced, but the players should have a chance to learn about risks and make intelligent decisions based on facts. That's the "game" part of the dungeon crawl, the player skill part of it.
The two encounters featured in last game session were actually written about here on the blog ages ago when I was brainstorming and thinking out loud about such things; you can read about them below. (I will ask that my players, if any are reading along, go ahead and skip these links).
Plaza of the Watchers, Featuring the Alien Ghost
Psionic Ghost of the Hive Mind