Friday, July 28, 2023

ACKS Game Report: The Beatings Shall Continue Until Play Improves

Fantasy life has been rough for the Temple of Elemental Evil crew.  They lost several henchmen in these sessions.  The beatings shall continue until play improves!

Their first loss was difficult to avoid.  They've been camped near the river in the Gnarley Forest, emerging from the woods to explore the Temple of Elemental Evil.  They use canoes to cross a small river on their way to the Temple.  River encounters are always in play.  This particular river encounter involved a Naiad, surfacing in the early morning when Cormac and Dunne went down to the river to fetch water for the camp.

A beautiful half-garbed waif broke the surface of the river, water dripping from her silky tresses.  Cormac's jaw dropped open in amazement as he fell victim to her charms.  Dunne was further back, and rushed to the bank to help, but he succumbed to her whammy as well.  Cormac was bestowed water breathing as the Naiad lured him away into the watery depths (to serve her for a year).  The players pointed out there are worse ways to lose a henchman.  Not equipped or interested in pursuing a rescue, Dunne wrote a message for Cormac, sealed it in an empty bottle, and left it  stuck in some tree roots nearby, against the day Cormac returned from his year of "service" - whatever Naiads do with their handsome servants - washing the dishes and folding the towels and similar house chores, I'm sure.

Once the matter with Cormac's abduction was settled, the group decided they wanted to go back to town.  They had learned in a previous adventure someone named "Gremag" had hired brigands to seek out their camp, and the only Gremag they knew was an employee or partner at the trading post in Hommlet.  Time to go back to town and ask some questions.

By this time, they have accumulated plenty of horses and a few wagons in the camp, so they left with a wagon, draft horses, and a bunch of riding horses, making it to Hommlet later in the same day.  The players took care of  "town stuff" and also checked in with the lord of Hommlet, the magic user Burne.  (Lord Burne has granted them permission to rebuild the moathouse as a future base).  Burne reminded them Hommlet was a village of laws, and there would be no vigilante action - they could bring Gremag into custody and have him imprisoned, but they need to confirm they have the right man first.  Luckily, they had spared "Captain Stephen" the leader of the brigands, and he was working with the players - he could identify Gremag.  The players hatched a plot!

Dunne, who lives in Hommlet as a distiller of spirits, sold whiskey to the traders, was a known business contact of them, and was not known to be an associate of the adventurers.  They decided Dunne would be the one to pay a normal visit to the trading post, while an "invisible" Captain Stephen (under an invisibility spell) would identify Gremag from outside the window.  The other players, mounted, would be in the vicinity of the trading post as required.  Afterwards, everyone would regroup at Dunne's house.

The exchange between Dunne and the two traders, Rannos Davl and Gremag, eventually grew strained.  Dunne kept trying to pump them for information, and they were suspicious about why he's been out of the village so long.  He did learn there was a peddler in town (Bob the Peddler) and they were irritated because Bob was undercutting them - Bob was staying at the inn.  Eventually Dunne left and confirmed with Captain Stephen that Gremag the Trader is the same man who hired Stephen and the brigands in Nulb, and off they went to Dunne's house to rendezvous.  The other players quickly rode to Dunne's house behind him, and everyone dismounted and went inside.  There was no subtlety.

There was an awkward moment when the players realized Dunne's house was just down the street from the trader's.  The groomsman and guard in the yard had a clear line of  sight the whole time, as a large gang of heavily armored dudes descended on Dunne's place (undermining some elements of the story Dunne just told the traders).  Oops.

The players decided they needed to go the traders as soon as they had a credible attack plan and arrest Gremag - so they started scheming.  Spugnoir would throw a Sleep spell in through an open window and the players would go with the frontal assault.  When the players actually busted their way in, the minions were asleep (the groom and mercenary) but Rannos was behind the counter, looking irritated.  No sign of Gremag.  (I'm not even sure the players made the connection that Rannos wasn't asleep because he was too  high level…)

"Gremag left in a hurry, it was the darndest thing… almost like he was fleeing!  Has he been caught up in some nasty business?", Rannos asked innocently.  Anyway, the players just missed Gremag, and Rannos was a smooth operator.  As the players were leaving, the paladin asked if he could detect evil on Rannos… in ACKS, detect evil works on humans if they have a chaotic alignment and evil intentions towards the caster.  Rannos's aura flashed evil to the paladin!  A bad guy got one over on them.  The paladin deemed he had no basis to attack Rannos, but he'd be on guard going forward.

It was too late to go back to camp so the players got rooms in the inn (in most cases a player character split a room with his or her henchperson).  Shakti's room had a bed for her and Sana and a cot for Captain Stephen.  When they awoke the next day, Captain Stephen was dead!  He'd been murdered in his sleep - his throat cut.  They players started an investigation but didn't get very far.  They eventually bought a lot of stuff from the garrulous and easy going "Bob the Peddler" who was also staying at the inn; they buried Captain Stephen outside of town and left Hommlet for their camp, eager to return to the dungeon before the end of the game session.

It's possible some of my players scan the blog from time to time, so I won't say how Captain Stephen was murdered.  DM's secret.

Later that game session, tragedy struck in the dungeon.  They entered a room where a portcullis trap fell at the entrance, splitting the party - the first two ranks of characters (the fighters) were in the vaulted chamber, while the support guys stuck on the far side of the portcullis.  Two of the player characters sprinted towards a door in the south of the vaulted chamber, to quickly see if there was a winch or lever in the room - whoops, it was full of ghouls.  The next round, the harpies up near the ceiling started singing.

So here's the situation - two fighters are standing in the doorway of a room containing 6 ghouls; the ghouls are alert because of the sound of the crashing portcullis.  Two more characters are still by the portcullis.  The other four characters are stuck on the far side of the portcullis.  Everyone had to make saves against the harpy songs, and half the group failed.  Both fighters in the doorway with the ghouls completely forgot about the undead once the harpies started yodeling… they turned their backs and started looking for the sound of those heavenly voices, somewhere lost in the columns high above.  Those two fighters fell quickly to a ghoul assault.  Ghoul paralysis is rough.

Some quick thinking by the players on the other side of the portcullis kept this from becoming a partial TPK.  Spugnoir, lost in the harpy-infused delirium, had two scrolls of protection vs undead (ward vs undead in ACKS terms) and a cooler headed character retrieved one and stuck it through the bars to Kayden, the thief on the other side.  Kayden was able to create a magic barrier against undead and push the monsters off the downed bodies of the fighters by moving into a defensive position near them.  He was joined by Killian, another henchman.

The ghouls were penned in their room by the ward vs undead, which now blocked the doorway, but the harpies fluttered down and attacked Killian and Kayden from the air.  Some of the characters back at the portcullis tried to shoot through the bars.  Kayden went down, the magic circle disappeared, and the ghouls were back in action, but the harpies were driven off or killed in the meantime, and the charm effects evaporated.  The trapped characters worked on lifting the portcullis.

Eventually, the second protection from undead scroll needed to be used to conjure a second barrier.  The henchman Killian had unwisely chosen to "rage" with the ACKS Berskergang feat, and he pursued the fleeing ghouls into the darkness against the player's better judgment.  He would eventually be slaughtered by the ghouls, outside of the safety of the magic circle.

Kayden was stabilized by the cleric, and the survivors decided to beat a retreat and regroup.  Mistakes were made this evening.

This was a tough one for the gang - 3 followers or henchmen gone.  Let's see how they bounce back next time!

Friday, July 21, 2023

LOTFP Review: Just a Stupid Dungeon

Everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted a mission James Raggi Dungeon, and for my sins, they gave me one. Brought it up to me like room service. It was a real choice mission James Raggi Dungeon, and when it was over, I never wanted another.

There shall be spoilers.

I'm working backwards through the Lamentations of the Flame Princess catalog, and Just a Stupid Dungeon is the most recent adventure from James Raggi IV, the OG founder of the Flame Princess.  I have a great affection for those early Lamentations adventures like Death Frost Doom, Tower of the Stargazer, and Hammers of the God.  They rewarded intelligent play, confronted the players with mortal danger and real stakes, and blended rational designs with absolute weirdness.  Most of all, they treated your campaign world with reckless disregard.  Those OG Lamentations adventures hit me like a diamond bullet right through the forehead.  The genius of them - the perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure.  (With apologies to the excellent movie Apocalypse Now…)

This adventure isn't one of those diamond bullets to the skull.

The hook for this one is… well, there's a door in the side of a hill and no one knows what's behind it.  Go.  There are some stats provided for the neighborhood children and hapless villagers who may follow to look at the door… just in case murder hobos gotta murder?

Beyond the door in the hillside is a simplistic 10 room dungeon.  The encounter key stretches things to a 24 count by having distinct entries for the doors and corridors.  Each room is one kind of nonsensical character trap or another.  The sea room that drops you into the middle of an ocean, drowning, unless you drop your heavy gear and swim for the exit.  The fire room that burns up all your stuff.  The blinding light room.  And so on - you get the idea.  There are also infinite rats.  The hillside has been perfectly tunneled and prepared to supply the dungeon with infinite rats.  InfiniteRats.  I had plenty of friends who made dungeons like this when we were in middle school, but none of them approached the task of player disablement with as much seriousness and grim purpose while still offering limited paths to victory.

Lest I leave you with the perspective this is all hateful, there are some fun elements.  There's an illusionary demi-lich character that pops up in one of the rooms like a call-back to S1 Tomb of Horrors.  Aha, we're in a mad funhouse dungeon!  There's a room where a wish can be granted… but the wish involves time travel and 450 years of world-changing labor to grant the wish.  That is a brilliant re-interpretation of how to grant a wish to a player.  The chord of a half-remembered tune blossoms back into a full song -  you feel like you're seeing the real JR 4 band get back together.

The piece de resistance is the world-sleeping trap in the final room, the gas that puts the entire world unconscious for a random period of time.  Depending on your point of view, this is either the greatest gift to you as a dungeon master to screw with your own world and send your campaign careening into an unpredictable new direction, or you'll throw the book across the room.  On the other side of a keyboard, James is laughing and smugly saying, "You're welcome".  The classics treated your campaign world with reckless disregard.  He's remembering how the song goes.

How do you even rate this kind of thing?  It's a bit incoherent and awful like a kid's attempt at a fun-house dungeon, but carried out with the malign skill of a seasoned designer, whose jaw is set with grim resolve.  Pieces of it are brilliant.  There's some truth in advertising here, it's Just a Stupid Dungeon like it says on the cover.  It's downright punishing towards adventurers.  At one point the text defends the ensuing calamity thus:  "All because some busybodies couldn’t help themselves and just had to explore some stupid dungeon for no actual reason".  See that you players, you had it coming all along.

I'd love to hear if anyone has played Just a Stupid Dungeon with real players.  Are they still friends with you?  Did anyone throw their Doritos or flip the table or curse JR 4's name through clenched teeth, shaking their fists?

Well.  I might like to see that some day.  I think I just talked myself into putting this one into a sandbox campaign.  No one's going to make them go through that door in the hill, after all.  They'll have it coming to them.

You too can own Just a Stupid DungeonJust A Stupid Dungeon at DriveThruRPG.

Friday, July 14, 2023

ACKS Greyhawk 14: School in Session

I'm a few weeks behind on game reports.  My daughter graduated high school this spring, and I've been consumed the past few weeks with preparing for her epic graduation party, the gradpalooza. But gradpalooza is over, the relatives have all gone home, the house is back to normal and I can return to the trivial pursuits of life, like writing about roleplaying game sessions.

My players have had a rough couple of weeks.

For several weeks now they've been grinding their way through the Earth Temple flunkies on level 1 of the Temple of Elemental Evil.  They've had to deal with typical "Gygaxian defenses" - layers of foot soldiers with swordsmen backed up by polearms backed up by archers, with a few guys willing to throw flaming oil here and there.  You know deal, we've all seen Gary's style.  Gary was a war gamer at heart and his designs don't make it easy for folks whose only strategy is hack and slash.  (Me personally, I love the care he put into helping game masters with tactics).  However, a few well-placed Sleep spells can sure help tilt the playing field towards the players.

The player's fought their way through a literal gauntlet of human mooks, eventually penetrating a chamber with a few higher level lieutenants.  "Protect the clerics", one of them said, "Hold the line here".  The players knew they were on the verge of getting through to the bosses.

When the captain and lieutenant fell, the players warily eyed the barred door, beyond which presumably waited "the clerics".  Would they be high priests or skittish under clerics, unable to mount a serious defense?  A fierce table top discussion ensued.  The loudest voice was the one that said, "Let's retreat and rest, get all of our spells back, heal, and pick back up here when we're ready - on our time table".

Yeah, this is not a video game or a 5E dungeon.  The opponents are intelligent and are going to respond to incursions (or in this case their small army of mooks being slaughtered by invaders).  When the players returned after resting and healing outside of the dungeon, the cleric quarters were stripped clean - all their treasures and magic items taken away with the fleeing priests.  All that XP from gold escaped as well, making the mook battles even more pointless.

There was a gnashing of teeth and wailing.  Some recriminations amongst the players may have been spoken, and they had the taste of ashes in their mouths.  Large yawning chests mocked them with their emptiness, other than a few stray coins left behind in the hasty retreat.  A hard lesson was learned.

On a succeeding night, they cleared a large swath of the eastern portion of dungeon level 1.  The most interesting "encounter" involved a tomb door warded by glyphs.  Their NPC magic user was willing to knock the door (from a safe distance) but had no answer for the glyphs.  Shakti, the war priestess, convinced one of her NPC mooks to open the door, and he was blasted by cold magic and knocked unconscious.  They were able to stabilize him but his face and jaw were messed up.  (Since we're using ACKS for this one, there is a table of 'mortal wounds' to consider any time a character is rendered below zero hit points).

The tomb was full of niches with moldering, infected looking corpses.  Their paladin mused, "Hmmm - would a spore infection be a disease or a poison?  I haven't gotten to use my immunity to disease ability, so I'm going in…"  The corpses ended up being inanimate, not monsters lying in wait, although they were all diseased and would infect characters with a virulent respiratory illness.  The paladin was quite satisfied he was able to search the niches safely (protected by St Cuthbert's grace) while everyone else stayed safely away.

Game reports are caught up, at least until this weekend's game session, and next up we'll be taking a look at James Raggi's "Just a Stupid Dungeon" as I continue reviewing the LOTFP catalog.