Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Dwimmermount with Middle Schoolers - V

While RISK, Catan, Citadels (a Fantasy Flight card game), and my daughter's Isle of Dread B/X campaign game occupied other tables in our school library, five players eagerly assembled to launch our latest exploration of the Dwimmermount megadungeon.

We handled a bit of bookkeeping first: Hakka and Grim had each failed two death checks last session as the party battled beastmen.  I house-ruled that this would leave each of them with long-term injuries: Hakka's right eye was damaged by a nail-studded club, reducing his Wisdom by two points, and Grim had suffered a mace-blow to the back, reducing the rogue's base speed by ten feet per round.

Nobody has inquired yet how these effects can be reversed, which is just as well because I haven't yet figured it out myself.  A high level cleric spell could do the trick, but one of the interesting things about Dwimmermount is that the spells (and high level NPCs required to cast them) are quite rare.  Perhaps something in the dungeon itself could do the trick ... if they can find it.

Next the party devoted some time to spending treasure to acquire new weapons and a bit of gear in the fortress community of Muntberg.  Grim mused over having a fancy double-crossbow commissioned, but that would be well beyond the party's current means.  I've down-graded the traditional flask of oil to very standard lamp oil ... nothing like the firey doom-splosion juice that dungeon crawlers have depended upon for ages and lifted "Alchemists Fire"from the 5th edition equipment list -- pricey stuff which was still beyond the group's price range.

I was eager to move things out of Muntberg and back to the dungeon, by Vale and Hakka were keen to try and find any fellow wizards who might be willing to swap some trade secrets or sell a few scrolls.  Though they failed in this respect, they did happen upon The Five Delvers, a rival adventuring party who was laying out plans for their own expedition into Dwimmermount.

At first, interactions with this other party were tense and Vale, backed by the towering NPC swordswoman Hethla, went so far as to warn the Delvers off under a veiled threat of violence.  When the Delvers made it clear that they didn't want any trouble, however, negotiations warmed.  Vale bragged a bit about having discovered that the beastmen encountered by the party were afraid of the visage of Turms Termax, that ancient sorcerer whose followers once ruled from Dwimmermount, and cautioned the other party away from interactions, "with the hairy, little naked men."  Y'draneal sold a copy of a partial map of level one to the Five Delvers for a song, ensuring good relations for at least the short term.

With only an hour of club left, I segued to the Red Gate and the explorers decided to strike off toward the northeastern portion of level one to investigate some blank spots on their map.  Taking no particular precautions to move quietly, a wandering monster check indicated that the party had drawn the attention of some kobold watchers.

image by Stefan Poag
Crazed, "failed dwarves," in the Dwimmermount setting, these creatures are an interesting departure from the small, scaly, yapping beasts that have been a staple of D&D since the 80s.  Though they loosed a few arrows at the group, Vale confidently strode forward to meet the wild-bearded, degenerate, little men with gifts of food and iron tools.  Her Comprehend Languages spell also helped her discern that these fellows were charged with driving off intruders, but would be willing to avoid mentioning the party if they were given more gifts ...

Meanwhile Grim discovered some ancient Thulian war masks and began tugging them from their settings on the wall, heedless of the corpse sprawled nearby.  In five sessions, I don't think this party has checked for traps a single time ... I've mentioned it a time or two, but it seems to be a pretty alien concept ... so one saving throw vs death later, and Grim doesn't seem any the wiser (though he now sports a fierce mask as a souvenir).  While Vale continued to negotiate with the kobolds at the rear, Grim pushed ahead to join Y'draneal, who had ranged ahead to discover a locked, iron door.

Hakka edged into the hallway with Vale, Hethla, and the kobolds and, using his chalk, began drawing pictures of pig-faces on the wall.  The kobolds became wroth and, from what Vale could make out, associated these images with hated "trespassers," even attacking the marked wall with furious fists, bare feet, hurled stones, and arrows.  Vale was beside herself with delight, "Yes! I now have an army of angry little naked men to do my bidding!"

At this point I made a spot ruling: Vale could order the kobolds to do her bidding, but with each order given the player would have to make a Charisma check: roll well and they would obey; roll poorly and they would be offended, attack, and seek to consume her flesh.

Against long odds, Grim succeeded in picking the lock on the sealed iron door, though a bitter draft leaked through the keyhole, leaving him shaking and causing his heart to miss a beat.  Y'draneal blithely pushed the door open, revealing a long-forgotten treasury and a terrible guardian!

Withered flesh, twisted into wood-like knots, showed between the gaps in ancient Thulian armor and the guardian held a sword of admantite in its bony grasp, but its gaze was by far the most troubling for in place of eye sockets were black pits that burned with hellish cold!  The wight advanced upon the adventurers.

Grim sprang forward and dealt the wight a solid stroke with his axe, but to no avail!  Though he followed with a sword thrust and an arrow, none of his attacks harmed the hateful creature.  Y'draneal used his superior speed to dash from the encounter and things looked tough for Grim (with his injured back he stood no chance of escaping by flight), but the dice favored the wily thief and the wight missed his modest AC 13 (that's a 7 for old timers) with four consecutive attacks!

By this point Vale had brought her kobold troops forward and she ordered them to charge -- but upon seeing the horror that the adventurers had unleashed the degenerate dwarves turned tail and fled! Seeing that mortal weapons were worthless, Vale and Hakka blazed away with Magic Missile and offensive cantrips until the wight finally crumbled into a mundane corpse, but not before it was able to seize Hakka and drain away the wizard's life with its terrible touch!

The battle was won and we had our first PC casualty of the campaign!

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Dwimmermount with Middle Schoolers - IV

We had only two of our four regular players on hand when we began our latest session of Dwimmermount, but it was easy enough to recruit two fresh players from the ranks of our after-school club -- one taking the role of Ivor of the North (an NPC henchman) and the other taking control of Hakka, the wizard who aspires to discover the deep secrets of Turms Termax and perhaps restore the Tellurian magocracy.

Though I don't like the continuity breaks that having more than one player control a single character can cause, I went this route because the group had made headway in exploring level one and I didn't want to sacrifice that momentum for a long round of character generation (which isn't terrible in 5th edition, but it's certainly longer than anything in the D&D line prior to the release of Oriental Adventures).

Having detonated a few azoth bubbles (basically raw magic seepage) via a clever use of Mage Hand, a pack of beastmen, spooked by two earlier encounters but drawn to the noise, closed in on the party.  They overtook the adventurers beneath the marble statue of Saint Mavors, Patron of War, in the center of level one and a fierce fight erupted.

The explorers concentrated spell and missile fire on the largest of the beastmen, a big brute wearing an antique shirt of mail, bringing it down before the melee was joined.  However, rather than flee when their captain fell, the squealing, pig-like humanoids charged with renewed ferocity.  Outnumbered two-to-one, and cut off from the Red Gate, the adventurers dealt sharp blows, Grim the rogue felling three enemies before a mace blow to the back dropped him to the passage floor.  Y'draneal disengaged from the fight, leaving Ivor surrounded, and used his elven speed to fall back and fire his bow with considerable effect.  Soon the beastmen broke and fled again, but not before Hakka was hit by a thrown club and felled.

Both Grim and Hakka succeeded in their fifth and final death check -- Grim's player in particular was a bit white-knuckled as he made the final toss.  The party did a quick, cursory looting of their dead foes, stripping the reeking chain shirt and taking a buckler, before withdrawing with their unconscious fellows to a side room and spiking the door shut.

Hours (and many wandering monster checks) later, they moved out again, chancing a glance into but two more rooms.  In one they found, to their delight, that beneath heaps of smashed furniture and broken pottery there were several handfuls of tarnished coins, struck during the long-ago fallen Thulian Empire.  They gathered these eagerly -- the first treasure haul of the campaign!

As the party picked their way back toward the statue of  Saint Mavors, something in the tunnel ahead reflected Hakka's Light spell back in a queer, twisting, pinkish sheen.  When the group halted they saw a heap of beastman bodies, sprawled in death, slowly hovering toward them along the tunnel floor.  Hakka consulted Y'draneal's map and quickly picked an alternate route back to the Red Gate ... the adventurers fled before whatever this strange new foe was, and made their escape down the long stair and back to Muntberg.  Their first expedition to Dwimmermount was over!

--------------------------------- DM Notes ------------------------------------------

  • I continue to struggle with how to narrate hit point loss, injury, and recovery in 5th edition games.  What kind of ax blow or spear thrust can take a character out of a life-or-death fight, only to have him back to full fighting capacity (though not necessarily unwounded) 8 hours later?  

  • There is definitely a "John McClane" factor here ... maybe the characters are pretty torn up with sprains, cuts, and bruises, but they can still function at full capacity until they make it back to town and crash for a couple weeks.

  • When a character drops, how do I narrate his status when neither I nor the players know the outcome for at least 3 rounds?
  • I am going to use the following house rule for death checks: 
0 fails = stunned, back in action with D4 hit points
1 fail = unconscious, back in action with 1 hit point after a short rest
2 fails = maimed, the character is out of action until after a long rest and suffers some permanent side effects (loss of an eye, limb, D6 points of a stat, etc.)
3 fails = dead (no Raise Dead in this campaign)

  • I am going to use the optional xp for treasure spent rule -- this is my first time trying this.  I'll really have to expand the equipment lists for this to work!  I think it makes sense for magic scrolls and potions to be available (I'll use production cost = 500-1000 gp / spell level) as long as the PCs are in the good graces of the spell casters offering them.  I'll need to go beyond that with exotic animals, custom armor (enameled with colors, heraldic designs, wolf-headed helms, etc.).
  • Player-generated maps have continued to play a big role in navigating Dwimmermount -- this is very satisfying and I know lines up with the intent of the designers.
  • Older editions of D&D are really interested in the resource management aspect of play -- torches, hit points, spells, limited use magic items, retainers, etc. -- if you don't plan your expedition carefully you can end up very dead, very quickly.  5th edition is specifically designed to remove this aspect of play through mechanics like at-will cantrips, hit die recovery, recharging magic items, and a vastly increased healing rate.  I was rather fond of the tactical resource management part of D&D, and so I'm puzzled about how to incorporate those aspects of play in a 5th edition campaign.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Dwimmermount with Middle Schoolers - III

Crouched once more on the doorstep of Dwimmermount, a party of 5th edition characters (played by four of the 20-odd middle schoolers in this year's after school club) prepared for their second descent into James Maliszewski's megadungeon.

Rogues Grim and Y'draneal (an elf whose skins always smells faintly of cinnamon), along with Ivor the northman hireling, probe into the western halls of the first level, and passing a ruined throne they stumble upon yet another squad of porcine beastmen!

Seeing that they are outnumbered, Y'draneal once more shows himself to be canny in a way befitting a much more seasoned dungeon crawler, and he dashes back toward the Red Gates rather than risk battle.

Meanwhile, Grim has lingered a bit while exploring a side passage and the dice take a turn, indicating that a wandering monster has crept up upon him.  A giant spider springs from behind a statue of Mavors and delivers a nasty bite, but Grim's thick leather glove turns its fangs and he isn't poisoned.  A quick stroke with his newly acquired handaxe -- a 20! -- and the creature is dispatched.

Grim turns and sprints off behind Y'draneal, the beastmen in hot pursuit.  They chase him to the very threshold of the dungeon where a desperate contest begins: the beastmen trying to heave the doors open and drag Grim, grasped by his ankles, back into darkness while the remaining party members try to pull the former soldier free and heave the doors shut.

Several lucky attack rolls thin the enemy ranks and Grim is saved.  The dungeon dwellers fail a morale check and flee shrieking back into the halls below.

After a pause to catch their breath and establish marching order, the party proceeds back through the Red Gate, reasoning that should they meet more beastmen all they need to do is impersonate legendary wizard, Turms Termax, scream a bit in high Thullian, and surely the degenerate creatures will go packing.

Hakka the wizard's player, well aware that so far the party has recovered no treasure apart from a strangely-inscribed, cylindrical, leather container, also voices that perhaps looting the bodies of the vanquished beastmen might reveal something of value.  While this suggestion meets with the party's approval, they soon discard it, striking out instead to explore new halls to the east side of level one in hopes of finding a set of stairs that will lead them down to level two ... which they assume will hold far better plunder.

When they encounter a strange, brass machine, Vale the wizard decides to smash it.  I don't think that this was simply because her player views any imaginary world much like the landscape in a Lego console game ... where everything exists simply to be smashed ... but rather because of anti-Termaxian sentiment combined with her prophetic knowledge that something is stirring and waking deep within Dwimmermount.  Given the heavy techno-magic motif throughout the dungeon, we'll just have to see how this plays out over time.

Picking their way across a oil-slick chamber, soon the group is confronted by a small, angry, wild-haired man who screams at them in an unknown language.

"It's some kind of dwarf."

"Maybe it's Turms Termax?"

"I don't think so."

"What if that is what Dwimmermount transforms you into?"

"I think he's angry because he doesn't have any pants."

"He doesn't want us here, does he?"

Grim's remarkable luck, which has carried him through more than one encounter, stays true, and he rolls a natural 20 on his Charisma check while trying to make friendly and non-threatening gestures to mollify the angry dwarf, so avoiding an attack.

In an effort to sustain the peace, and perhaps negotiate for passage, Vale presents the little fellow with the gift of a shovel.  Instantly the darkness of the cave sprouts identical, hairy little men who begin to fight for possession of it, one even drawing a sharp knife and turning upon his fellows in his rage.

"Oh no!  I've destroyed their entire, once-peaceful society!"

After a brief retreat from the violence, Vale casts her Comprehend Languages spell and learns that these strange dwarven creatures serve someone they call "Father Guran" ... but that mystery will have to wait for another session.

DM Notes: 

1. Though I've run 30 sessions of 5th edition D&D (well, technically 33 now), I still struggle with how to narrate hit point loss ("The spear point bites the wall just beside you, take 3 hit points."  "Wait, but you said the spear missed ...").  I tend to narrate hit point loss as increasingly severe injuries ... but that just doesn't hold up in 5th edition where an 8-hour rest restores ALL lost hit points.  I may have to house-rule this just because I can't seem to get the hang of the purely abstract hit point that goes and comes so swiftly.

2. Managing light and similar resources (notably oil) is a big part of what I think of as old school style play.  I though that inclusion of Light as an at-will cantrip would wreck sense of darkness as the ultimate enemy when entering the underworld.  Thankfully, that hasn't really been the case.  Even with two different Light spells running simultaneously, Dwimmermount is still brooding, mysterious, and threatens isolation and death at the hands of unseen assailants.

3. 5th edition orcs are crazy.  In pre-3rd edition terms they are basically modest hit point ogres.  Rather than change the numbers of foes, I've swapped stats for lesser critters ... in this case goblins swapped in for orcs.  As the party advances in level I guess I will need to do this less often.

4. I still forget all the fiddly monster feats and such.  I can't explain it really.  I wouldn't forget about a ghoul's paralyzing touch, but a goblin's ability to disengage as a bonus action or whatever ... ?  Nope, those odd little tactical quirks
A.) aren't intuitive,
B.) aren't especially rational or consistent within the game world (shouldn't an elf be just as slippery as a goblin? What about a satyr? Why not a leprechaun?)
C.) don't seem to make encounters all that much richer when I do remember to include them.

5. Leveling up: I thought that the absurdly fast advancement rate of 5th edition would be a stumbling block, but here we are at the end of session 3 and nobody is really close yet.  I'm guessing five sessions will be required before surviving party members reach 2nd level.  That doesn't seem to be all that far off the pace of the original Dwimmermount campaign if I'm reading the posts on Grognardia correctly.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Dwimmermount with Middle Schoolers - II

Observe the orcs.

There are seven of them confronting the wizard and the rogue who've ventures far from the rest of the party ... one has been Charmed, but since Haka the wizard doesn't speak their language he doesn't really know that ...

Furthermore, and to my great delight, based on my description of hunched pig-faced bipeds with small pink eyes and long yellow tusks, the players don't actually know that these are "orcs," nor will they use that name at any time over the hour and a half of play that follows.

Instead, the grunting, pig-faced horrors in antique Thulian armor are dubbed "beastmen", and so they remain.

Looks like Skyrim orcs are just angry green elves who need orthodontia
This of course is a DM's dream ... players who are so new to fantasy RPGs that, despite a layer of Skyrim in their background, even the most basic monsters are experienced as shocking, unique and new -- there are no expectations or assumptions -- all is as new and titillating as that first dive into the weird depths of a Molvay boxed set.

In the face of all this uncertainty, 1st level Rogue (Thief) Grim, whose player tends to be extremely impulsive, does the most rational thing possible: he runs as hard as he can to stay ahead of Haka as the two flee for their lives.

Naturally, the upraised beastmen give chase -- it's what they were bred for after all.

A good five strides ahead of Haka, whose glowing hat has been lighting the way, Grim makes a critical choice: he throws open the first door he comes to and dashes inside.  Haka follows and they bar the door against the pursuers (first trying to wedge it shut with a dagger until they realized that they were carrying iron spikes ... so that's what those are for!).  The beastmen promptly begin breaking through the door.
Image result for here's johnny

"So they are doing a 'Here's Johnnie?' " one player quips.  Nice.

Ignoring the psychic-echo apparitions of a pair of long-dead Thulian legionnaires (arguing over a phantom board game), Grim leads the dash through another unexplored door ... and back into the hallway just behind where the beastmen are gathered.

Cue Benny Hill theme music.

A lap or so later, and Grim and Haka barrel back toward the Red Gate, creatures still in pursuit.  With the entrance to the dungeon just coming into sight, Grim makes another daring move: he flings himself to the right and through another unexplored dungeon door.

It should be clear by this point that the idea of trapped doors does not yet exist for these players ... these guys have never experienced The Keep on the Borderlands, where practically every entry tunnel in The Caves of Chaos is trapped ... in fact I bet the single most common first encounter across 40 years of D&D has probably consisted of explorers falling into that stupid kobold pit trap in "Cave A"!

As Haka dashes onward, leading the beastmen back toward the rest of the party, Grim shoves the door closed and stamps out his torch!

That's right: human thief in unexplored dungeon chamber in complete darkness with monsters in pursuit.

However, a quick Wisdom (Perception) check for the lead orc favors Grim, and all seven thunder past in pursuit of the wizard and his glowing hat.

Squealing, Haka dashes toward where 1st level wizard Vale and her pair of hired men-at-arms wait, weapons at the ready.  Fortunately for the novice explorers, the dice are reasonably kind and within the next four rounds several beastmen drop or are injured before Ivor the fighter falls to an ax-stroke that creases his helm.

Meanwhile, elven rogue Y'draneal hasn't been idle and, not liking the odds of a 5-to-7 fight, he had slipped away in the dark to tug open yet another door ... only to find a second patrol of orcs moving steadily toward the commotion!

A total party kill is clearly in the off-ing, when Y'draneal makes a critical choice: he flees away from his party and into the darkness, leading this second band of grunting, murderous creatures in a merry chase through the northeast quarter of the dungeon (5th edition elves have a 35 foot base speed, making them more fleet of foot than many dungeon critters).

With the second patrol having been led away, again the impulsive Grim shows his worth.  Creeping from his hiding place, he follows the sounds of battle past the entry hall and down a narrow corridor.  Springing from hiding he backstabs an orc-ling and its dying squeals from the rear trigger a general rout!

The party survives its first foray into Dwimmermount and lives to fight another day!