Dungeon World Under the Microscope

Our weekly Pathfinder-to-Dungeon World game continues apace, but that is not enough! I must have more Dungeon World! That feeling started back in July, when I was just starting to get into DW and was looking for ways to cram more play into my life. In my constant daydreaming about DW, it occurred to me that it might be cool to play a game of Ben Robbins’ Microscopewhich I had been wanting to try after backing the kickstarter campaign for his next game, Kingdomand use the resulting world as a setting for a Dungeon World campaign. I came up with the idea independently, but of course it turned out I was by no means the first person to do so.

So I knew that I wanted to experiment with combining the two games, but I don’t have enough free time each week to fold a second multi-hour rpg session into my life, so I decided to run it as a “play-by-forum” game at brokenforum, one of the handful of gaming boards I frequent. In a play-by-forum game, you don’t have to adhere to a tight schedule (we’ve averaged a post roughly once a day per participant since we began), and players can check in when they have a spare moment here or there. It was open invite, and I capped it at four players. Once we had our group, I started a thread for the Microscope game, and about two months later we had our setting. You can read the original thread here, or just skip to the summary via the Google doc I set up to record our history. As we went along, I started to pull together a Pinterest board of visual reference so we would have a foundation upon which to build our common understanding of the world.

After we had a rough outline of our world’s history, we chose a period in which our game would be set. I threw together a list of potential classes, and each player chose one to play. The idea was to have the race and class options evolve out of our setting, and then adapt them to Dungeon World, customizing as we went. DW is eminently flexible, as the profusion of hacks and mods for the system can attest, so with a little tinkering we were up and ready to run. We ended up with four characters who ran the gamut of customization levels, from a Telani Preserver who hews pretty close to the stock DW Druid, to a Wik Deadspeaker, a class we created pretty much from scratch. All of the resulting character sheets are viewable here.

I had it in my head when I started the game that I would make character portraits for the players as a way to get them further invested in the game, and as a little reward for taking the time to indulge in the experiment. So before we could start play I needed to whip those up. I’ve enjoyed drawing rpg character portraits since the 80s, when I would often spend more time developing a campaign than my high school buddies and I would spend playing, so it was fun for me to do, especially as a way to take a break from the sort of drawing I do for the comic book that comprises one of my day jobs.

So here are the four characters, as developed from scratch to final colored portraits:

Kalil Ru’Hana, Wik Deadspeaker

Tek’Utl, Telani Preserver

Saul Odelo, Archivist Finder

Amulus, Searcher Scout

We started playing the game proper last week, and it’s been a lot of fun so far. Two great things I’ve discovered about GMing a PbF game are that I can post images to supplement the story if I feel like it; and I have more time to consider how the story is going to unfold. What a PbF game lacks in terms of excitement and off-the-cuff improvisation, it makes up for by allowing you the time to think things through. And that leads to a different kind of story, less theatrical and more like a book being read one page at a time.

If you’re curious about how the adventures of these four intrepid souls will play out, you can follow the thread here.

Pathfinding in a Dungeon World

Apologies to the three of you who read the first two installments of my session reports of Adventure on a Dungeon Planet — the scant few free minutes I have to do things like write blog entries about RPGs are easily eclipsed by any number of other things that can suddenly seem more important. To wit, most of my spare time over the past month has been spent adapting my 1.5-year-old Pathfinder campaign to Dungeon World. Since we had our first DW session of the adapted campaign last night, I thought it would be a good time to post about the whole process.

For several years I ran a weekly boardgame night at the school where I teach, introducing the youth of today to tabletop fare like Cosmic Encounter,  Battlestar Galactica and Fiasco, among many, many others (including a prototype of my own design). This was a great way for me to both get to know some of my students outside of class, and to play games on a regular basis. Twice in the past we took detours into RPGs, once to run through G1: Steading of the Hill Giant Chief using AD&D rules, and once to start Masks of Nyarlathotep using Call of Cthulhu rules. Although everyone had a great time in both cases, neither lasted more than six sessions due to the usual reasons: people moving away, persistent scheduling difficulty, etc.

Several years after the Call of Cthulhu game ended, some time in early 2012, a group of five students expressed interest in playing an RPG (specifically, they said they wanted to “play D&D”). Three of them had played computer RPGs but had never played a “real” one, and there are few things I love more than introducing new folks to tabletop roleplaying, so I couldn’t resist the opportunity. And because I have difficulty doing things in half-measures, I couldn’t just run a one-off adventure using rules I already knew. I decided to look into recent versions of D&D, and ended up going with D&D 3.5 as embodied by the Pathfinder system. I did a fair amount of research before I took the plunge, reading about how Pathfinder rules had been extensively playtested, and I was impressed by the sheer quantity of polished product that was available. Due to time constraints and a desire to minimize prep work, I decided to go with a published “Adventure Path,” which is essentially an entire campaign that plays out over six 96-page modules/chapters, taking characters from level 1 to level 15. The best-reviewed of the many available Adventure Paths was Kingmaker, which is designed more as a “sandbox” than a linear narrative, and includes rules for the PCs to found and develop their own kingdom in a wilderness.

The initial group consisted of a Half-Elf Druid, Halfling Monk, Gnome Sorceror, Half-Orc Rogue, and Human Fighter. Everyone fell hook, line, and sinker into the game, and for about the first year of roughly weekly meetings we had a great time. Eventually, though, rules fatigue started to plague me. The Pathfinder rules are so detailed, filled with so many specifics and exceptions, that even though we were constantly looking stuff up online or in hardcopy, we were always discovering new little wrinkles that called into question things we had done in a previous session. Now, I have no problem just moving on from the fact that, for instance, the “color spray” spell that stunned a shambling mound the last time we played actually would not have affected it at allbecause, of course, shambling mounds have plant traits, which make them immune to charms, compulsions, morale effects, patterns, phantasms, paralysis, poison, polymorph, sleep, and stunbut the regularity with which we missed this or that tiny but important twist on an existing rule led me to feel like we were constantly in danger of getting things wrong. And the Pathfinder rules create a kind of feedback loop with that feeling, because they try to encompass every eventuality and possibility. For every unexpected situation that arises, for every in-game action the PCs want to take, there is likely a rule that describes it. So you have to hunt it down, and make sure you’re getting it right, because sometimes the life of a PC might hang in the balance. On top of this, the kingdom-building rules included in the second Kingmaker chapter are dry to the point of being boring, overly-complicated, and don’t appear to have been playtested much, if at all. Over time, although everyone continued to enjoy themselves, my job as GM began to feel oppressive and exhausting.

On off nights, when we were short players, we sidestepped into the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, which I had heard about through a friend. DCC RPG was a tonic to merefreshing, exciting, and even relaxing, thanks to rules that rely heavily on GM fiat. The experience took me back to that sense of possibility I felt playing D&D when I first discovered it in 1979, and the desire to document those super-fun sessions (which you can read starting here) led me to create this blog.

Now, of course, I am totally free to employ GM fiat in a Pathfinder game, and throughout our campaign I have done so. But the rules themselves, in their attempt to mechanically model every narrative detail, hamper and discourage it. When situations are “hard-coded” and searchable online, my players can look them up on their iphones and point out that any given ruling I make might be “wrong” according to the official rules. They do it to be helpful, not because they’re jerks, and they willingly go along with whatever my final ruling is, but the mere existence of those rules out there creates the niggling feeling in all of us that, again, even if we move on, we did something wrong.

Playing the DCC RPG coincided with investigating the “story game” community, which I had been doing already thanks to my interest in Jason Morningstar’s terrific game Fiasco, and a kickstarted comic book project that grew out of that interest. Within that community I quickly learned of a little game called Dungeon World, which in short order replaced the DCC RPG as the off-night game for my group. I was only able to write up two sessions of our initial experience, but not for lack of joy. Dungeon World proved just as thrilling and fun as the DCC RPG, but whereas adapting our Pathfinder campaign to the latter was inconceivable, DW is so eminently flexible that the possibility of adaptation immediately occupied all of my gaming brain cells. After more than a year, my players were fully invested in Kingmaker, but I was at the end of my rope with the system, so I was looking for a way to make all of us happy. Adapt to survive!

So that’s what I did. I consulted the Dungeon World Tavern Google+ community, and read as many hacks of the DW rules as I could find to see how other people had altered the rules to suit their needs. I built a custom playbook for each of my six players (the Halfling Monk had moved on, replaced by a Dwarf Rogue, and we had gained a Catfolk Ranger), translating the Druid and Sorceror’s Pathfinder spells into DW parlance, then doing the same for their gear and magic items. I experimented with adapting Pathfinder’s equipment pricing to DW, but realized it would be too much of a chore since I was working with a published campaign, and would have to convert too much stuff, so I decided to stick with the equipment costs of Pathfinder.

Without exception, the characters ended up feeling like cooler characters, instead of the aggregations of stats and abilities that makes Pathfinder feel closer to a computer RPG than a tabletop RPG. The alignment moves and bonds in particularbecause of the way they allow you to earn XPreally help the characters feel tied to their world and companions. You can see a sample converted character sheet, the Druid’s, here.

Next, I had to adapt the kingdom building rules. It was a bit daunting, but I was so unhappy with the kingdom building as it was that I needed to get my hands dirty and see if I could make it more enjoyable. Here’s what I ended up with. It’s far more involved than anything in DW, and is still too dry, but it’s a start. We need to see it in action before making more tweaks, and ultimately I want to make it mesh with DW’s steading rules. Right now it’s still somewhere in between.

The final step of conversion, and the part that will be ongoing, is converting Kingmaker’s NPCs, monsters, and magic items. This part is relatively easy on a case-by-case basis, thanks to DW‘s elegant and open approach to the “stat block” problem, but all told it’s still a lot of stuff. Based on what I’ve converted so far, I expect that I will probably need to devote an hour or so a week on this stuff, although it is fairly easy to do on the fly.

So I did the conversion work, but I wanted to kick off the first DW session in styleboth to sell my players on it and to get them re-energized about playingso I took the opportunity to make the campaign more my own.

The first thing I did was remake the campaign map in a style that I liked. Pathfinder’s maps are fine examples of digital cartography, but they resemble satellite photos more than maps of fantastic lands. Really, they do nothing to spark the imagination. So I looked back to some of my favorite RPG maps, those that Pete Fenlon drew for Middle Earth Role Playing back in the 80s, such as this:

Here’s what the map for the fist two chapters in the Kingmaker Adventure Path looks like:

And here, after far too much fiddling with Illustrator and Photoshop, is what our revised campaign map looks like:

Next, I reworked the map of the home settlement that the PCs had founded and built up over the course of two years of in-game time. The previous map I had made looked like this:

And here it is after I added the stuff they built in recent months:

My last “marketing” move was to put together some portraits for the major NPCs the players had come to know. I usually like my NPCs to live in the collective imagination, but the cast of secondary and tertiary characters has grown so large that attaching visuals to them helps me keep them organized, and gives me a concrete starting point when I find myself having to roleplay one of them unexpectedly. And because I’ve done so much similar work for my boardgame over the years, I can throw together these portraits pretty quickly.

Now, I feel compelled to point out at this point that all of this prep work is somewhat antithetical to the Dungeon World philosophy as presented in the core rules. DW is a game designed to be played with little to no prep; it fosters the idea of world creation on the fly, as an ongoing collaboration between the players and the GM, something to be brought to life in the moment at the table, not bought off the shelf. This is one of its greatest strengths, and unfortunately our greatest loss in the translation of Kingmaker. If it were my choice to make alone, I might throw Pathfinder completely out the window and start a new campaign from scratch, hewing to the DW philosophy. At this point I’ve run several shorter adventures that way, and they rank among the most fun I have ever had running an RPG. But I have my players to consider, and if this transition works, the DW rules stand a chance of breathing new life into the world of Kingmaker.

As I mentioned at the start of this long post, I ran the first session last night. I handed out the custom playbooks and explained what was different, the main point I emphasized being, “Don’t worry about the mechanics, just put yourself in the story and think about what your character would do. Leave the mechanics to me.” Then, we picked up where we had left off at the previous session.

A cursed, ravening owlbear assaulted their settlement, and they fought it off with much derring-do. They tried to track it to its lair, but got drawn in a different direction when they caught wind of possible bandit activity on their frontier. They searched for a rabble-rousing bard who had been stirring up unrest among their subjects, following a lead on his whereabouts to a dead-and, and then fought off a shambling mound that assaulted their camp at night. The session ended with their return to Freagol, their home steading.

The whole time I was anxious, not least of all because I had done so much prep work. It was ultimately fine with me if they decided they didn’t like it and wanted to go back to Pathfinder, but I hoped that my work would help them see what I saw in Dungeon World. The fights went about three times faster than the same fights would have taken in Pathfinder, but I worried that people were feeling shorted on the opportunity to act; I discovered that juggling six players in DW can be a challenge. By the end of the session, I was so insecure about the way things had gone that I was convinced that they had not had a good time. So to give them the easy out, I said, “So, if you guys want, we can totally go back to Pathfinder next week. I would be totally fine with that.”

All at once, they said something to the effect of , “No way, this was awesome!”

And I heaved a sigh of relief.

Earlier, when the cursed owlbear attacked their town, the PCs confronted it atop a watchtower. Wounded and near death, the creature wanted to flee. An idea popped into my head, and I said, “The owlbear turns and leaps from the parapet, back toward the forest from which it first emerged.”

Everyone was shocked. “It’s jumping off the thirty-foot-high tower?!”

“Right as it jumps, it spreads its feathery arms and you see the vestigal owl wings reaching from either side of its ribcage to its elbows. Miraculously, the wings catch enough air to allow it to glide, slowing the hurtling descent of its massive weight toward the ground.”

“What? Owlbears can’t fly!”

There was a pause as I considered the relative truth of this assertion.

“Fuck that. We’re in Dungeon World now.”

___________________________________

Addendum: I’ve had a few requests for the rest of the custom playbooks. You can see pdfs of them here: Mitharrna the Half-Elf Woodswarden (Druid/Ranger), Kervantes the Human Loremaster (Fighter/Wizard), Mawgrah the Half-Orc Poisoner (Thief), Bilabous the Demonborn Gnome Sorceror, Professor Bismuth the Dwarf Rogue Alchemist (Thief), and Nadara the Catfolk Ranger.

Danger Patrol on a Dungeon Planet: Episode 2

When last we left the Danger Patrol, they were trapped on a narrow promontory, on the verge of being forced into a vast pit by the silver spears of the Saturnine Guard. Mylock, the Mutant, had stumbled over the edge, and was plummeting toward certain doom!

Gorebot 5000 makes immediate use of his “extendable limbs,” one of the options he chose under his Automatic Systems starting move, to telescope all three of his remaining three arms into the void of the pit to grab Mylock. The description of extendable limbs says only, “add reach and near to your melee attacks,” but it makes sense that he can also just grab things at range, so I ask him to defy danger with Dexterity. His total is 11: Mylock is snatched from certain doom and returned speedily to the promontory, accompanied by the hiss of retracting hydraulics.

I tell Doctor Morrow that, from his position at the very edge of the promontory, he can look straight down into the rumbling abyss, and that he would feel dizzy with vertigo were it not for his cold, calculating intellect. He perceives a churning in the darkness, and a sudden flash from the electrical storm illuminates the depths, revealing a great ring of sharp teeth as wide as the chasm itself, rotating like a gear; and within that, a second ring of teeth rotating in the opposite direction; and within that a third, etc. — concentric rings of death rising slowly toward our heroes: the God of the Pit!

Doctor Morrow chooses this moment to spout lore, saying “It’s funny, but here at the brink of doom I recall something useful about the rare gems that brought me to Saturn in the first place — you know, the ones I have hidden in the secret pocket of my coveralls…” and I allow it because, cool! He rolls 2D6 + 2 (his INT modifier) for 8, within the 7-9 result that reads, “the GM will only tell you something interesting—it’s on you to make it useful.”

“Yeah, those gems, they are indeed very rare, and you know that they’re ingestible, too. You don’t know what they do, but they’re sort of like oversized, multicolored sugar crystals. Called, um, ‘sucron.'”

“Quick, everyone! Swallow these rocks!” shouts Doctor Morrow, pulling the gems out of his secret pocket and, because his wrists are still bound, scattering them accidentally at his feet. Gorebot 5000, being the doctor’s creation (one of his bonds reads “I was programmed to help Doctor Morrow”), follows the order immediately, sweeping up three of the crystals with one extendable grabber, and dropping them into the grinding chute installed where a mouth would be. After a moment’s hesitation, Curry Cashews and Mylock scoop up one gem each and choke them down.

There’s no time to wait for the sucron to take effect (whatever that effect may be). The Captain of the Saturnine Guard barks orders to his spearmen, and they advance in a double rank, forcing the Danger Patrol to the very verge of the Pit. Now it’s either push back or be forced over the edge!

Mylock acts first, using his kangaroo legs to leap over the heads of the spearmen, but he fails his defy danger roll, gets caught up in the bristling spears, and suffers 1D6 damage as he falls right into the midst of the enemy ranks.

Curry Cashews says, “How many guards are in the front rank? Six? I use my shield to protect me as step between two the spears in the middle, putting myslef in the midst of the first rank with three guards on either side, then use my shield to shove the guards on the right off the edge and into the Pit!”

Defy danger using DEX to maneuver between those spears: his roll total is 8. His choice: take damage from a spear tip and complete that step of the move, or recoil from the pointy sticks and abort the move. The heroic Earthling completes the move, and his arm is pierced by a spear for 5 points of damage. Letting out a bellow of fury and pain, he throws his full weight behind the shield at the three guards now lined up between him and the precipice, and rolls an 11 (defy danger using STR).

The Saturnine Guardsman that receives the blow staggers back into his comrades, neither of whom were prepared for this sudden and unexpected blow from the side. They lose their footing and topple, screaming, into the void. Doctor Morrow watches them disappear into the darkness at the center of the whirling rings of teeth. He notes with scientific interest that the teeth do not pause in their churning.

“I pick up my fallen arm,” says Gorebot 5000, seizing the moment, “and manually activate the retractable blade that comes out of the hand.” Wait, what?

“Yeah, so remember I have this starting move called Automatic Systems? I get to pick three systems at the beginning, off of a long list. I chose ‘extendable limbs,’ which I used already to save Mylock’s ass, and I chose ‘force field,’ which gives me 2 points of armor when it’s turned on, and the last one is ‘weaponized,’ which says, ‘with metal fists and implanted blades, you do +2 damage in melee.'”

“Okay, you pick up your arm and press a button at the wrist, which causes a crescent-shaped blade the size of a dinner plate to pop out between your ring and index fingers…”

“… and I hurl the arm with all my mechanized might past the spearmen at their leader, the Captain guy. I’m trying to hit him in the head with the blade.”

“Okay, that’s a volley. Roll and add your DEX modifier.”

“Volley? Okay, wait, I picked Seek and Destroy Unit as my starting specialization, which says, ‘when you use your built-in weapons, you can roll with STR to volley instead of DEX.'”

“Okay, cool! Roll and add your STR, then.”

Double 6s. +2 for STR is 14. Much laughter and clapping of hands.

“The detached arm flies liked a missile over the heads of the Saturnine Guard, pulling with it the adamant chain still attached to it, which in turn yanks Doctor Morrow after it, since you forgot he was still attached to the chain. So the surprised Doctor is hurled along with your arm over the guards.”

More laughter and clapping of hands (despite the lack of believable physics).

“So the crescent blade, with Doctor Morrow in tow, strikes the Captain of the Guard. Deal your damage.”

“My base damage is a d10. But being weaponized gives me +2 damage, right?”

“To melee. Since this was a volley attack, I’m going to say a melee damage bonus does not apply.”

He rolls a 10. Much more laughter and clapping of hands. I tell him that’s more than enough to kill the Captain, and ask him to describe the end result of his move.

“Okay, he’s in the middle of shouting an order, and the blade hits him right in the open mouth, and, like, shears off the top half of his head, which spins end over end through the air with his helmet still attached while his body stays standing. But then Doctor Morrow catches up to my arm and hits the guy’s body square in the chest, knocking it over backwards and cushioning the Doctor’s fall. And there’s lots of blood, because they don’t call me Gorebot 5000 for nothing.”

So Doctor Morrow finds himself on the far side of the Saturnine Guard, who are visibly shaken by the sudden and unceremonious execution of their commander at the hands hand of a killing machine. Mylock is still crouched in the midst of the 10 remaining guardsmen, with whom Curry Cashews is now thoroughly engaged, while Gorebot still stands, three-armed, at the end of the promontory.

“Where’s the Duke guy? Where’s the Princess?” asks Curry Cashews. I don’t know. Um…

“There’s a wide, sweeping balcony along the second story of the Palace, overlooking the promontory. You can see Princess Anu up there, her eyes still glowing blue, and Duke Damadu still lurking behind her, sternly observing the fracas. He maybe looks a a little worried.”

“PRINCESS!” shouts Doctor Morrow (and he actually shouts, we all kind of flinch in surprise), “You must not allow Curry Cashews to die! CURRY CASHEWS IS YOUR BROTHER!”

How exactly a Saturnian princess and an Earthling transported only recently to the far reaches of the solar system are related by blood is not immediately clear, but whether it’s a bluff or some as-yet-unrealized truth, it’s shocking enough to have some potential effect. I ask the Doctor to make a parley roll, which uses his Charisma modifier of -1 (the Doctor is… not a people person). He rolls an 11, -1 is 10.

The official result for a success with parley is “they do what you ask if you first promise what they ask of you.” In this context, I just decide that the Princess snaps out of her trance for a moment, befuddled, and says, “What? How can this be true? Prove it to me!”
“Er…” Doctor Morrow says, and before he can cobble together a believable story, Curry Cashews interrupts:
“I have this move called Stick to the Mission on my character sheet. Can I use that now?” Sure! “Okay, it says, ‘when you commit to completing a mission, state what you set out to accomplish,’ and I’m going to state that my mission is to ‘thwart the plans of Duke Damadu to kill the Danger Patrol,’ because he’s clearly trying to do that. Each time I declare a mission I need to pick an ‘ideal that drives me,’ and I’m going to pick ‘courage,’ because it’s life or death here — and that comes with the restriction that I can’t ‘shrink from a fight or challenge’ during the course of the mission. And then it says you have to pick the boon I am granted for the mission.”
This is so cool! I look over the possible boons, and choose, “None who witness your dedication can fail to be impressed, and they react accordingly.”
“Okay, resolving that as my mission, I hurl my magic shield like a deadly discus up at the Duke.”
He makes a volley roll using his Dexterity and gets an 8. On a 7-9 volley result, the character deals damage, but then has to choose:

1) You have to move to get the shot placing you in danger as described by the GM.
2) You have to take what you can get: -1d6 damage.
3) You have to take several shots, reducing your ammo by one.

I tell him that if he chooses #3, the shield won’t return to him, but he’ll still be able to recall it later. He doesn’t want to lose his shield, and he doesn’t want to do less than his base 1d8 damage, so he chooses #1 and looks to me for a response.

“You leap back from the ranks of spearmen in order to get a clear shot over their heads at the balcony, stepping back to the utmost edge of the tongue of rock to hurl your shield. The Duke ducks and the shield zips past his head, which elicits an evil, self-satisfied grin. The shield smashes through a window behind him, ricochets off a couple of things inside the Palace, and flies back out, catching him unawares from behind. Deal your damage.”
Curry Cashews rolls 1d8 for 4 points.
“The Duke lets out a loud hiss as the shield cleaves through his right arm on its return trajectory. As he grasps at the stump of his arm, his outward appearance flickers and suddenly fades, revealing a lizardlike humanoid whose scales ripple prismatically. An instant after you glimpse this, the creature disappears completely from view.
“Your shield returns to your uplifted arm, and you see a look of sheer terror cross the faces of the remaining members of Saturnine Guard as they see something over your shoulder. A shadow falls across the promontory and a hot, otherworldy wind blows past you in a vile gust, whipping your golden hair about your face.
“Curry Cashews and Gorebot 5000 turn to see what has already struck fear into the hearts of Mylock and Doctor Morrow: the vast, lamprey-like maws of the God of the Pit, poised to engulf the promontory and all upon it like a child’s mouth on a lollipop!”

Tune in next time for another episode of Danger Patrol on a Dungeon Planet!

Danger Patrol on a Dungeon Planet: Episode 1

Once all four players were present, I handed them each a character folder. Each folder contained the playbook for one of the replacement classes in Adventures on a Dungeon Planet: the Earthling, who replaces the Paladin and is set up to play like John Carter, Warlord of Mars; the Technician, who replaces the Cleric and fills the role of the classic mad scientist; the Mutant, who replaces the Druid thanks to his transformative nature; and the Engine of Destruction, who replaces the Fighter and plays exactly like his name says. Within 20 minutes everyone had chosen stats, alignments, bonds, and whatever optional moves were available to them at the outset. Our party was Curry Cashews the Earthling, Dr. Morrow the Technician, Mylock the Mutant, and Gorebot 5000, the four-armed Engine of Destruction.

Adventures on Dungeon Planet is designed to accomodate a pulp sci-fi setting of your choice. I opted for the one loosely outlined in John Harper’s Danger Patrol: in the far future (as imagined circa 1930), all of the planets in the solar system are habitable and home to indigenous races, except Earth, which has been reduced to an asteroid belt by some unnamed cataclysm. With that as a starting point, and following the Dungeon World directive of running an adventure with as little prep as possible in order to let the story unfold through the playing of the game, I sketched out a Front that was a little under two pages of 10-point type. The Reptilord Empire is poised to strike at the Free Planets, waiting for the signal from its Skinshifter Agents, who have infiltrated the major planetary governments, in order to sabotage defenses and sow dissent.
Once character creation was complete, I read the following intro (cribbed in part, again, from Danger Patrol):
In the Jeweled Courts of Saturn
The four members of the Danger Patrol, bound together by chains of adamant, stand before the Sapphire Throne of Saturn. The beautiful Princess Anu sits on the Throne for the first time, eyes ablaze with a strange blue light. Behind her, lurking in the shadows, the evil Duke Damadu mutters under his breath. His lips seem to mimic the words spoken by the Princess, who stands and shouts to the assembled throng.
 “You have been found guilty of espionage against the Crown of Saturn! And the sentence… IS DEATH!”
The courtiers lining the majestic hall gasp in horror as the wall behind the Throne dissolves, opening the Palace to the rocky landscape outside. A tongue of rock extends away from the Palace out over the Great Pit, a void of dizzy breadth and impossible depth.
The silver-armored Saturnine Guard, a dozen strong, forces our heroes onto the promontory at spearpoint. The rings of Saturn curve across the sky directly overhead in an overwhelming arc. Electrical storms crackle and across the gray, rocky landscape that encircles the Pit. A hot wind suddenly gusts up from below, whipping clothes and hair about with abandon. Within moments, the Danger Patrol finds itself at the precipice, with nowhere to go but down.
“I’m sorry it’s come to this,” shouts the Captain of the Saturnine Guard over the howling wind, “but we are bound by blood oath to obey the Princess! May the God of the Sky bless your passage…”
A great roar, like that of a thousand starving beasts, rumbles up from below, causing the rock to shudder underfoot.
“And may the God of the Pit devour you swiftly!”

In *World games, there’s no initiative or other way of formalizing turn order. Players can speak up and act whenever they want, and scenes unfold organically according to what happens as the result of character actions. After setting the stage I inform my players of this fact, and Gorebot 5000 steps up immediately with, “I break the adamant chains with my great strength.”

The hulking machine-man makes his bend bars, lift gates roll, which, like all non-damage rolls in Dungeon World, is 2d6 plus the relevant stat’s modifier (in this case, Strength). All such rolls use the same scale of results: on a 10 or higher, you succeed as desired; on a 7-9, you succeed with a cost; and on a 6 or lower, you fail, but “mark XP” (gain 1 experience point). I love two things about this approach to rolling: you only ask for a roll in a situation that really demands it (i.e., if something is not truly demanding or dramatic, you just do it without rolling); and the result spread never changes.

Gorebot rolls a 7, plus his STR modifier of +2 = 9, so he succeeds with a cost. Most “moves” (DW parlance for character actions governed by game mechanics) call for the GM and/or players to interpret a 7-9 result, but a 7-9 result for bend bars, lift gates specifically allows the player to choose 2 effects from the following list:

1) It doesn’t take a very long time
2) Nothing of value is damaged
3) It doesn’t make an inordinate amount of noise
4) You can fix the thing again without a lot of effort

Gorebot chooses #1, because he wants to rip the chains off immediately, and #4, because he thinks he might need to make the chain whole again for some reason (?). He did not pick #2, so I take that as my cue to tell him that in his Herculean effort to break the adamant chains, he actually rips off one of his four arms at the shoulder joint.

Mylock the Mutant pipes up, saying that he’s going to slip the end of his monkey tail into one of Curry Cashews’ boots, grab the Earthling’s concealed dagger (a detail created on the spot), and use it to pick the lock on Cashews’ adamant cuffs. Mylock is acting on one of the bonds he established during character creation: “Curry Cashews has been a friend to me when others were prejudiced.”

I rule this is a single defy danger move. Defy danger is a kind of catch-call for performing actions under threat, which uses a different one of the six stats depending on the action taken. In this case, it’s Dexterity. Mylock gets an 6, +2 for his DEX modifier, = 8. The 7-9 result for defy danger reads, “you stumble, hesitate, or flinch: the GM will offer you a worse outcome, hard bargain, or ugly choice.”

This is the first time I have to deal with one of the more challenging (but also more fun) aspects of GMing a *World game: the hard bargain or ugly choice. The GM comes up with options for the player relevant to the action at hand, and the player decides which option to take. So I tell Mylock, “you slip the dagger out of Cashews’ boot, but as you start picking the lock, you feel the blade giving. You can either pry it open and break the dagger, or stop prying and leave the dagger intact.”

Not the strongest hard bargain, but I’m just learning how this all works. Mylock wants to be free immediately, so he apologizes to Curry Cashews and pops off the adamant cuff, which falls to the ground along with the two pieces of the dagger. The Earthling is free!

So the focus naturally shifts to him. The Earthling’s sole piece of starting gear, besides the clothes on his back, is a “magic shield.” The Adventures on a Dungeon Planet rules do not define the properties of a magic shield, but the Earthling’s player doesn’t hesitate. “I hold up my free arm,” he says, “and call my shield back to me.”

Everyone’s taken it as a given at this point that they had been relieved of their starting gear before the intro, and that it’s being held somewhere in the Palace. Wherever Cashews’ magic shield lies within, it thrums in response to his wish, and I ask for a defy danger roll using Wisdom (“mental fortitude”) to call the shield. His total is 11: “A stained glass window on the second floor of the Palace shatters as the shield punches through it and hurtles over the heads of the Saturnine Guard, then slips back into its rightful place on your left arm.”

“I bring the energized edge of the shield down with enough force to break the chains holding Mylock.” That’s defy danger using Strength, and he rolls less well: a 7. Instead of offering him a choice, I just go with “a worse outcome,” and say, “Miraculously, the magical energy of the shield cuts through the adamant, but Mylock’s weight was pulling against it, so when the chain breaks he lurches suddenly away and over the edge of the precipice. Mylock, what do you do?”

Tune in next time for another episode of Danger Patrol on a Dungeon Planet!

Discovering Dungeon World

Since discovering DCC RPG, I’ve been wandering from one modern rpg system to another, buying pdfs here and there, sampling the field to see what looks good. I’ve been running a Pathfinder campaign for over a year now, and in that time I’ve grown… disenchanted with D&D 3.5. Too many rules, too many exceptions, to much need to look stuff up when you just want to be playing. So I’ve been wanting to see what else is out there, and how current rpg design might address my issues with Pathfinder.

I got excited about FATE Core, since it streamlines the overly-detailed system used in Spirit of the Century, and ordered the hardback. It’s a tight little package that does a great job of boiling the FATE system down to its, well, core, but even in its currently concise form there’s too much jargon for my taste (“aspects,” “compels,” “boosts,” etc.). What I love most about FATE is how much say the players have in the game world, but the language is off-putting. I don’t think the designers of FATE could have done anything differently — when you create a new system, you need new terms to define it — but I was looking for something that I could grasp quickly, and, more importantly, a system I could communicate to my players in 5 minutes.

Enter Dungeon World, by Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel; a “hack” of D. Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World that reframes those rules in a classic D&D context. Here appeared to be what I was looking for: super simple rules that put story before mechanics, instead of the other way around. I read the pdf, session reports, and some great tipsheets about how to run the game. I also bought the pdf of Apocalypse World and read that, in order to understand the origins of the system, and laid my hands on Adventures on Dungeon Planet, a pulp sci-fi hack of DW by Johnstone Metzger. In my worm’s-eye view investigation of what turned out to be one of the hottest indie titles of 2012/2013, I was delighted to discover that the creation of DW was inspired in part by Tony Dowler, an old Seattle acquaintance. Tony is an incredibly creative guy and a total mensch, who helped me playtest early versions of my pulp adventure boardgame, Thrilling Tales of Adventure! His involvement in DW was the synchronistic straw that broke the rpg camel’s back — I had to try the game.
And so, on an off week when two of our Pathfinder players were AWOL, we did. An account of that session will follow, hopefully within the next few days.  

Campaign Setting: The Village of Hovick

I’ve been fleshing out some of the world for my current DCC RPG campaign using the methods outlined here. This has been happening concurrent with our weekly play sessions, and since the PC’s would be heading back to civilization after the first adventure wrapped up, I had been wanting to get a handle on Hovick, the PCs’ “village of origin.” I had some notes about the heroes’ welcome they would receive upon their return, and the family and friends with whom they will be reunited, but I really wanted a clear idea of the village itself. I enjoy winging things, but I am also a stickler for immersion and verisimilitude, and I didn’t want Hovick to feel like a generic D&D village (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

I’m a cartoonist and illustrator by profession, but I hadn’t drawn a map of a pseudo-medieval village since my days in high school, so I was a little rusty. But after thinking about it a lot and sketching a little, the old instincts came back. I realize now, in retrospect, that big two things affected my imagining of Hovick: the settlement maps from the Hârn rpg, over which I pored endlessly back in my high school days; and a class on city development that I took during my junior year at art school. Hârnmaster, as the rpg system was called, was nearly unprecedented at the time in its detail and realism, and the maps, such as this one, reflected those qualities. The class on city development was great because it gave me a basic understanding of how human settlements were founded, and how specifics like geography and access to resources influenced their development over time.

From the regional-level worldbuilding I had done, I knew that Hovick was a fishing village on the eastern shore of Blacksalt Lake, that it was near Wildthorn Wood (where my group’s first adventure, Harley Stroh’s Halls of the Minotaur, was set), and that it was roughly 60 miles from the provincial seat of Assalom’s Rest, to the east.

Starting with this basic info, my next step was to use Chaotic Shiny’s city generator to create some flavor hooks. By “hooks” in this case, I mean generator output that strikes me as interesting or applicable for one reason or another. When using generators like this, I keep the subject (“a fishing village”) in mind while glancing through the results, writing down anything that my brain catches on — anything that I respond to at an intuitive level — and discarding the rest. In this case, I’ve since misplaced my original notes, but one thing I remember from the output was the line “Buildings: resemble insects.”

How can the buildings of a pseudo-medieval human village resemble insects? I don’t know why I latched onto that one, but I did, and the first thing I thought of was that the huts of the fisherfolk could be clustered along the shore of the lake like grubs or larvae. Modest, rounded daub-and-wattle huts. Not very insect-like in the end, but a nice visual that helped me start to see the village.

Next, I thought a little bit about why the village exists. It’s a fishing village, so fishing is the primary form of industry. Is it just subsistence fishing, or do Hovick’s fisherfolk play some part in the larger economy? I feel like it would be good to have some connection to Assalom’s Rest for story purposes, so let’s have a trade relationship between Hovick and The Rest (as I now decide the locals call it). But Assalom’s Rest is a port town, in all likelihood with its own fishing industry, so why would they want more fish? I decide that it’s not the fish per se, but the particular flavor of the salt in Blacksalt lake that sets the fish of Hovick apart. In fact, at some point an enterprising trader from The Rest came to Hovick and established a facility for salting and smoking fish to sell at market; and, more lucratively, to process and package “blacksalt” itself as a luxury spice.

So that’s the anchor: Hovick started as a subsistence fishing village, but now it exports smoked fish and blacksalt, via a weekly trade mission to the Market Quarter in Assalom’s Rest. You can smell the smoked fish from within a mile of the place. And this sensory detail calls back another line from the city generator’s output: “Famous for: an abundance of cats.” Indeed. Another great setting detail to give the village some character.

So with a pretty basic idea, it’s time to start sketching. Unless a more important geographic feature is demanding attention, I almost always start with the bodies of water, so the shoreline goes in first. Next, I think about fresh water sources. The lake is salt water, so there has to be a different source of fresh water, or no settlement would exist here. Looking at my regional map, I see there are no major rivers in the vicinity, so the water source is going to be smaller, let’s say a big stream coming out of the Thornwood to the southeast. That gets sketched in next.

Most settlements grow up right on the fresh water source that they depend upon, so working with that idea I choose an area on the stream but close to the shore, where the fishing needs to happen. Draw in where the grub-like fishing huts will be arrayed, at a point where the shore comes in a little, and then rough in where the town center will be, closer to the fresh water. Then I draw a road from the town center off the map to the northeast, toward the biggest regional settlement, Assalom’s Rest, and dub this thoroughfare Asslaom’s Road; then a secondary road to the fishing center (“Fisher Beach”), and from the fishing center to Assalom’s Road. Those would be the main routes, the ones most heavily traveled: provincial capitol to village center, village center to industrial center, industrial center to provincial capitol. Other roads will build off of that main triangle.

Is Hovick fortified? My mental image is of a pretty small place, and there are no military threats in the area, but I remember that in the introduction to the first adventure, I told the players that the minotaur had smashed in the village gates. So I guess it is fortified. We’ll say against potential monster attacks, since Hovick lies on the outer edge of Bramic civilization. Everybody loves a palisade. Sketch that in. It’s too big, tries to encompass too much. A palisade that big is beyond the means of a small village to maintain. So I scale it back, leave some stuff outside the walls. Put a gate where the main road comes in, obviously, but that means adjusting my underlying road triangle so the road from Fisher Beach passes through the gate instead of going straight to the village center; but that’s great, that’s the kind of shift that starts to make a place feel organic. Another gate leading to the saltery and smokehouse, which have been left outside the walls. And a third gate to the south, to allow more direct access for woodsmen and trappers heading into Wildthorn Wood. What happens to people who live outside the walls if there’s an attack? They run inside. Make sure there are direct paths to the gates from any populated area.

Because a couple of the PCs started the game with holy symbols and some degree of religious belief, I had already come up with Arimar, God of Peace and Truth, and had decided that he was the primary deity of Hovick. A temple is obviously a big focus, so I put it right at the head of the main road, where it ends in the market square. Arimar’s symbol is an oak leaf, so I guess his adherents like oak trees. Let’s put a nice semicircle of oaks around the back of the church. Hovick is too small to support any other temples of size, but I place a shrine to Assalom (God of Travel, Trade, and Good Fortune) at the main gate, and decide that all Bramic cities have shrines to Assalom at their most well-traveled gates. The only other deity actively represented in Hovick is Jeneva, Goddess of Strife, Sorrow, and the Sea, but she is worshiped in private by the fisherfolk.

I also put the town hall on the market square, and some other buildings I’ll sort out later. In fact, I pepper the streets with buildings of varying shapes and sizes, planning to assign some of them functions later on.

When horses are a the main form of transport after foot travel, there need to be sufficient facilities for the horses, and they need to be conveniently located for people coming and going. So I put an ostler right inside the main gate (now called Assalom’s Gate, in a stunningly creative move) and another one outside, on Assalom’s Road. Boarding horses there will obviously be a little cheaper, since it’s not protected by the palisade.

At some point I decide that a mill was built on the stream, and the building of the mill led to upper and lower millponds, so I add those in. The lower pond is where the villagers do their laundry (on flat stone slabs brought in for that prupose), and the upper pond is tapped for the main well, located in the adjoining square.

By now I have a refined sketch of the village and immediate surroundings:

At this point I switch over to my notes and start to write down some stuff about the village’s history, riffing on ideas that have bubbled up over the course of sketching the map. After I do that for a while, and I feel like tackling the map again, I scan it it into Adobe Illustrator and start to play around with drawing stuff. I own Campaign Cartographer 3, but the learning curve is too steep for me, and I have gotten too frustrated too many times to want to try to use these days, when my time is at a premium. I’m somewhat familiar with Illustrator, though (mostly by using it professionally, and in the creation of a pulp adventure board game), and although I’d never used it to do much drawing, I wanted to see if it would work.

After a little experimenting, I had he water and roads drawn in, and had created a tree “brush” that I could use to start laying in the forested areas.

Some more experimenting with the pencil tool, and outlines and fill, and I had a pretty good system down. Here’s what the final product looks like:

I am continually finding things that need fixing (for instance, the residents of Fisher Beach probably need a more accessible source of fresh water), but overall I’m happy with the current state of things. The PCs have a clearly defined home base, at least until they pull up stakes and move on from their humble origins, and I now have a firm grasp on why the place exists, who lives there, and the basic socio-economic situation.

If you’re curious about any of the details, you can read the Google doc I’ve created to develop Hovick in detail. It’s still very much a work in progress, but feel free to use the village in your own game, if you’re so inclined.

Halls of the Minotaur – Session 3, Part 5

In which the funnel comes to a close.

Gareth looks to the rest of the group for confirmation, then takes a step and kicks the double doors open. Sure, he’s a little guy, but I allow him the dramatic entrance instead of asking for a STR check.

They peer into a hazy, nearly octagonal room, the ground floor of the last of the citadel’s towers. In the center is a blazing firepit, full of debris and shards of timber, black smoke billowing up into the rafters. Something moves on the far side of the pit — something big. The ground shakes as a huge hoof stamps the flagstones. Out of the haze it comes from the far side of the room, 10 feet tall and full of fury, shaking its massive horns side to side, wielding an iron greatsword with one hand. A badly damaged scale hauberk hangs off of its muscle-bond torso, and Gareth can make out the broken end of a blade imbedded in the creature’s chest. Its body below that point is covered in thick, dried blood.

The bull-man reaches into the fire with its free hand and pulls out a flaming timber, then opens its mouth and lets out a mighty bellow that sends a shudder through the party.

Illustration by Doug Kovacs.

Initiative is rolled: Esma, Minotaur, Oswald, Perry, Gareth, Thelma, Finmunni, Daisy, Sigbert, Durwin, Wilfred.

Esma, in the front rank, charges boldly into the room to within 10′ of the creature, spins Pierce’s fishing net over her head, and tosses it. The minotaur has AC 16 and she rolls a 17, landing the net across its head and horns, obscuring its vision. Entangled!

Enraged, the creature takes a step toward Esma and swings its greatsword at her head. The greatsword is +6 to hit, does 2D6+4 damage, and Esma’s AC is 10. But the minotaur rolls 1D16 instead of 1D20, because it’s entangled. I roll the minotaur’s attack in full view of the players: a 1.

I know the DCC RPG rules say that enemies don’t have to play by the same rules as the PCs, but at my table if the dice can screw over the players, they should have the potential to screw over their enemies as well. Plus, I love unexpected turns of events. So yes, the minotaur fumbles.

Even though the scale mail it’s wearing is damaged, I rule that it still restricts movement, so it has to roll 1D12 (for moderate armor) on the fumble table. I roll a 7: “You drop your weapon. You must retrieve it or draw a new one on your next action.”

Esma ducks under the heavy iron blade and it clangs mightily into the stone wall behind her, with such force that it is jarred out of the bull-man’s hand. It bounces back onto the floor and slides to the far side of the fire pit. A whoop goes up. He’s entangled and he just lost his weapon!

Perry runs in, around the firepit to the creature’s rear flank, takes a stab with his spear, and misses. Oswald, Thelma, and Gareth rush into the fray, weapons swinging, but between the haze and the minotaur’s tough hide, all three miss. Finmunni finally scores the first hit for the team, cracking the creature in the knee with her hammer for 5 hp (1D4+1), eliciting another enraged roar. Durwen follows up with another miss. It’s such a mob in there now that there’s no room for the other four PCs to get close.

Top of the order, Esma takes two flasks of acid (obtained earlier in this adventure from the wizard’s lab) off her belt and throws them both at the same time. I use the two-weapon fighting rules to figure that out: her AGI is 12, so her main hand attack will be at -1D, and her off hand attack will be at -2D. She rolls a D16 and a D14 against AC 16 — no surprise, the flasks bounce off the minotaur and smash onto the stone floor, adding sulfuric fumes to the mix. Hopefully, Esma has just learned something useful about two-weapon attacks.

The minotaur, a mountain of fury now staggering from the blow to its kneecap, puts its head down and tries to gore Finmunni. It’s still at -1D for having the fishing net around his head, and Finmunni’s AC is 16 (10 + 2 for AGI + 3 for hide armor +1 for thornling buckler), but it does get a +8 to hit with its horns, so it has about a 50% of scoring a hit for 2D4+4 points of damage.

I roll a 5. The minotaur snorts in outrage. I’m pretty sure it’s directed at me.

Wilfred strides into the fray with his greatsword and slashes the minotaur across the torso for 8 hp, ripping through its ragged scale mail. The beast is completely surrounded by six other PCs, but they all miss their attack rolls.

Esma spends her action readying her spear, and the minotaur spends its action ripping the fishing net angrily from its head.

In a whirl of glancing blows, smoke, acid fumes, and confusion, no one manages to land a solid hit except Sigbert, who swings the thornling witch doctor’s morning star and rolls a 20, then 1D4 for a 4 on the crit table, to smash the same knee already bloodied by Finmunni, for 1D6+1D4+1 for STR = 9 hp of damage. The minotaur only has 6 hp left, out of a total of 28! And the crit result indicates that it will suffer -2 to its next attack roll, plus -10′ to its movement rate.

But those things won’t even come into play, because at the top of the next round, Esma raises her spear with both hands and plunges the tip deep into the monster’s lower back, piercing through into its vitals, for 7 points of damage.

The bull lord lets out a last, disbelieving GRARRGHL before toppling over into the firepit in a burst of embers that sends sparks flying and the PCs stepping back to a safe distance.

Esma says, “Ha!”

Everyone looks around at each other, and Oswald says, “Hey, isn’t this what we came here to do? Did we do it? We did it! Yeah!”

They defeated the module’s final enemy without taking a single point of damage.

W T F

I actually don’t have any problem the way it went in the end. It makes sense that the flipside of the funnel is that, if the players can manage to bring 10 PCs to the final battle, they stand a good chance of overwhelming a single foe by sheer numbers. It helped that, in entering the dungeon via the underground stream, steering clear of the thornling warrens, and avoiding any areas that looked too dangerous, the PCs actually only explored about 40% of the total module. As a result they missed a heck of lot of loot, but they also faced far fewer threats than they would have faced if they had taken a more direct approach.

At the end of the session last week, we left things with the minotaur dead and his quarters ransacked (for a whopping 311sp, 25gp, and 6 bloodstones @ 30gp), but the PCs are still at the top of the spire. This week I may just skip over the descent and let them get back to Hovick, so they can experience the thrill of reaching level 1, or we may play out their descent back through the spire.

But in any case, I did read the great closing paragraphs that Harley wrote for the module aloud to my players (edited slightly to suit them):

The citadel stands in silence, the corpse of the Bull Lord is at your feet. You and your companions began this adventure as frightened commoners: swineherds, woodsmen, and fisherfolk. How long ago and far away your old lives seem. Now your weapons are bloodied, your eyes have stared into the heart of evil, and your scarred bodies bear testament to the ordeals you have overcome.

Now you stand as champions.

Looking down from atop the high citadel, the land stretches out before you, wild and mysterious. Dark valleys, rolling dales, and high mountains: a world of adventure. A raw fire burns in your belly, a hunger for danger, triumph and rewards, hard won. Grinning, you shoulder your sacks of treasure, tighten your grip on your weapons, and step into a new life.

Isn’t that awesome? What a great way to kick off an adventuring career. I wonder who’s going to die next.

I will continue to post about the careers of he Heroes of Hovick and the gradually-developing land of Bramica, but be warned that I may not be able to maintain the level of detail I put into the session reports of this first adventure.

Thanks for reading!

MAY ARIMAR BLESS THOSE WHO FELL TO THE FUNNEL:



Halls of the Minotaur – Session 3, Part 4

In which a little bat-winged man leaves the party.

Before our intrepid crew proceeds, I ask everyone to choose alignments for their characters. I like waiting until the end of the funnel for folks to choose alignment, but skimming the module text for this next section reminds me that there will soon be some alignment-specific features in play.

THE LAWFUL


Perry is a town watchman and he started out with a holy symbol of Arimar, God of Peace and Truth, so it lines up. One of his random character traits is “boring,” too, which is of course true of all lawful folk (I kid).

Sigbert started off with the “helpful,” and has behaved in line with that throughout the adventure. He even tried to befriend Horpt after the homonculus threw acid at him.

Durwin rolled “lawful/religious” as a starting trait, so his alignment was pretty much determined at the outset, and he has been played accordingly. We have a devout Cleric of of Arimar in the making here, even though he only has a 7 Personality.

Finmunni is lawful, as demonstrated over the course of the game by her fairness, methodical scrutiny of all things architectural, and concern for her fellow villagers. She loves gold and gems, but always divides the spoils fairly.

Daisy is the good daughter, raised by her parents with discipline and love before they passed away. Which gives me an idea for her NPC sister being the “bad daughter,” to be interacted with upon the return to Hovick.

THE NEUTRAL

Oswald is dark-skinned, and is an outsider to mainstream Bramic culture (either descended from immigrants or a first-generation immigrant himself, tbd). He doesn’t trust the dominant power structure, and is suspicious of the motives of people around him, but is not a bad buy by any means.

Wilfred has been relatively quiet over the course of the adventure, defined mostly by occasional flirting with Daisy and stroking his weaselly moustache. He has acted neither selfishly nor selflessly, so he’s right there in the middle. And also looking like a good candidate for a Thief.

Esma is the closest we have to a chaotic character (although Gareth is a close second). She treated her pigs cruelly early on, and has repeatedly called for the execution of Horpt, but she hasn’t committed any acts that could be called truly chaotic. She is indifferent to the laws of society, abiding by them as much as she needs to, but believing herself smarter than any fool who makes or enforces rules (despite being illiterate).

Gareth is self-confident and proud, despite his diminutive stature, and maybe has a little bit of a Napoleon complex. He thinks of himself as above the law, because laws are for the weak-minded, but he’s not power-hungry.

Thelma is “hot-tempered,” as per an initial trait roll, which leads her to bridle against any external limitations, grow impatient with others, and charge into battle. But she does not savor blood. At least not yet.

After alignments are resolved and recorded, the party steps through the circular portal into the entry hall of the citadel. The hall is 20′ wide and 35′ long, dimly lit by sunlight reflecting in from the courtyard, with doors to the left and right immediately within the entrance. The description in the module reads:

A thick rug molders on the floor, and the scent of rot hangs in the air. The far end of the hall is decorated with a bas-relief that stretches from floor to ceiling. The relief depicts a human head adorned with ram’s horns and serpent’s fangs. The head is thrown back, as if about to roar in triumph.


The walls of the trophy hall are decorated with heads – human, elf, halfling, and dwarf. The preserved heads watch the hall with dull, dead stares.

Before venturing too far into the hall, they turn their attention to the right-hand door. Sigbert examines the door carefully, and there is in fact something to notice. He makes a DC 15 INT check and rolls a 17, -2(!) for his INT Modifier = 15. He notices a crack in the stone lintel, and calls it to the attention of Finmunni. The dwarf stonemason applies her professional knowledge to this sign of structural weakness, specifically asking if she can deduce the extent of the crack’s effect on the surrounding masonry. She rolls a 20, and I tell her that the wall above the door will likely collapse if the door is opened, but the structural impact does not appear to extend beyond that area. Finmunni warns everyone against opening the door, and they all back away, respecting the dwarf’s wisdom. The left-hand door is similarly inspected, but nothing untoward is discovered.
Oswald begins moving cautiously toward the bas-relief at the far end of the room. Figuring he’s worked out a new, if decidedly unsexy trap-detection technique, he proceeds by tossing firewood onto the floor in front of him as he goes. At this point, even though there are no pressure plates to discover in this room, I decide (keeping it to myself) that they got lucky with the rust gas trap, and most pressure plates in their future will need to be triggered by something heavier than a 16″ long hunk of maple.
I have them show exactly where they are moving on the graph paper. Sigbert is following a few steps behind Oswald, with Horpt perched on his shoulder, while everyone else remains near the entrance.  
The creepy bas-relief head is, of course, more than just a bas-relief head. It’s a representation of  the chaotic Beast God Ngraugl, once worshiped by the citadel’s original inhabitants. And it’s also a trap that triggers as soon as any lawful character moves within 15′ of it. So when Sigbert reaches that threshold, the face’s mouth suddenly opens with a terrifying groan, revealing an endless black void, and everything within 15′ begins to get sucked into it by a powerful force. Oswald and Sigbert both have to immediately make DC 15 STR checks or get sucked 5′ closer to the void. Oswald fails, and gets pulled right up to the gaping maw. Oswald succeeds, and resists the pull. Horpt digs his claws into Sigbert’s shoulder and flaps his wings against the pull. Three pieces of firewood get sucked off the floor and into the void.

Oswald asks if his spear is longer than the mouth is high. It is. Grasping the spear with both hands, he holds it vertically in front of him, hoping it will keep him from getting sucked in, and tries to step away, but fails the DC 15 STR check to do so. Durwin moves quickly into position just behind Sigbert and, holding the coil of silk rope, hands Sigbert one end of it. Finmunni runs up next to Durwin to assist with anchoring the rope. Sigbert tries to step outside the range of the suction, and makes the STR check. He lets the rope play out through his hands, drawn through the air by the vaccuum until the end of it is within reach of Oswald.

Oswald needs to make another STR check to resist the pull, and this time he succeeds. He decides to try to grab the end of the rope with one hand, and I tell him to make a STR check to keep the spear from getting sucked into the mouth. He makes it, grabs the robe, and wraps it around his forearm.

Then, something totally unexpected happens. Characters have been taking actions in turn around the table, with those on the safe side of the room just waiting to see how everything turns out. But this time around the table, Esma‘s player says, “Is it Esma’s turn yet?”

“Yeah, you want to do something? What do you want to do?”
“I try to grab Horpt and throw him at the mouth.”

Shocked silence. Looks of befuddlement and disbelief. A nervous laugh. Sigbert’s player is wide-eyed.

“Okay, make an attack roll to grapple Horpt.” Esma makes it, and says she’s just pulling Horpt off of Sigbert’s shoulder and letting go of him, allowing the suction to do its work. I rule that that is one action. But I also allow two chances for Horpt to avoid certain doom.

First, he gets a STR check like Oswald and Sigbert to resist the pull. Monsters don’t have full stats in DCC RPG, so I apply his Fortitude modifier of -2, and let Sigbert’s player make the roll. He rolls a 6. Since Horpt is so small, I say he’ll be pulled into the void instantly, instead of just 5′ closer each round, but he has one more shot at survival: If Sigbert makes a Luck check, Horpt will hit Oswald on the way out, giving Oswald a chance to grab him.

Strained silence as the D20 is taken up. Sigbert notes that his Luck is 9. He rolls an 11.

Horpt disappears screaming into the void.

“He was going to betray us! He was going to give us up to his Master!” Esma shouts over the roaring wind.

Sigbert recovers enough to drag Oswald free of the suction zone, with assistance from Durwin and Finmunni. As soon as Oswald crosses the threshold, the maw snaps shut with a boom that echoes through the chamber.

There is real tension at the table. Everyone else had become attached to Horpt, and they are shaking their heads at Esma’s player. But it was in character for her to do what she did, and it was an awesome, dramatic turn in the story. Over time I believe everyone will appreciate what the player did here, but if Esma ever needs anyone’s help, she may find herself surrounded by reluctant companions.

After everyone recovers from the shock (though not from the tension), they open the door in the south wall. It reveals a smallish chamber lined with six mosaics, each of different beast-man (you know the drill by now): dragon-man, lion-man, horse-man, hawk-man, snake-man, spider-man. Below each face is a stone basin stained with brown residue, and in front of each is a stone bench.

Thelma enters the room, and I tell her that she feels the ground vibrate slightly. She hears a distant rumble, somewhere to the southwest. She notes that the trail of blood continues on the floor here, and that it leads in that direction.

The PCs examine everything and test various aspects of the room for traps or hidden functions, and come up dry. Finmunni inspects the basins and determines that the residue is from burning oil. They have no oil to burn, though, and although they briefly consider burning some of Thelma’s straw in a basin to see what happens, they decide not to. Each beast-man mosaic has a special effect that is triggered by burning oil in its basin (including, in one case, opening the secret door to room 3-10A, which contains magical artifacts), but the PCs will never know what those effects are. They write off the room as some sort of worship space and move on.

They enter a connecting passageway, dark enough to force the lighting of a makeshift torch or two. A rancid smell fills the air. On the wall opposite is a wooden door and, further down to the left, an open doorway framed by an elaborate bronze arch cast in the form of two dragons facing each other, heads entwined and pointed down toward the floor. Another rumble, accompanied by what sounds like a snorting exhalation, is heard coming from somewhere beyond this archway.

Oswald inspects the archway and surrounding floor, and discovers what looks like a pressure plate directly under the arch. He warns everyone to watch their step. Sigbert, ever helpful, takes up position next to the arch to remind anyone who comes near. Two party members venture through the wooden door and up a crumbling stairwell beyond to emerge onto the collapsed second floor, which is open to the blinding sun and elements. A cursory search of the rubble-strewn “roof” turns up nothing of note, so they return to the interior of the citadel.

One by one, with Sigbert assisting (and looking the other way as Esma passes), the members of the group step over the pressure plate and through the arch. They find themselves in a dusty chamber that is slightly warm, the only other exit being a set of double doors in the south wall, from which the rumbling and snorting now clearly emanates. The blood trail leads to these doors.

Weapons are readied and the companions organize themselves into ranks as best as they can manage, given the close quarters. Gareth puts an ear to the door and hears the crackle of a fire and the shuddering, labored breath of some great beast. Everyone agrees that the bull-lord — the object of their quest — must lie beyond.

Halls of the Minotaur – Session 3, Part 3

In which great caution proves its benefit.

Finmunni throws open the trap door, startling Gareth, Sigbert, and Esma, who spring to the ready, weapons drawn. Horpt the homonculus flies up into the roofing beams for safety. Then, jubilation as old friends are recognized and reunited. Everyone piles out of the chimney, panting and sweating, and the trap door is slammed shut to prevent any accidental falls into the 500′ deep shaft.

As the new arrivals take in the astonishing view from the tower’s arrow slits, and waterskins an food are passed around to those who are famished, Gareth outlines the situation: a wooden bridge arcs away from the double doors on the west side of the tower they currently occupy, crossing a 40′ deep rocky chasm. There’s a stone gatehouse on the other side of the chasm, the entry of which is blocked by an iron portcullis, the bars of which have been bent apart to allow something big to climb through. “Oh, and watch your step near these double doors, because there’s a tripline — see here? — a foot off the floor. We don’t know what it does, but let’s not mess with it.”

Horpt shyly rejoins the group, flapping down to land on Sigbert’s shoulder. Sigbert explains the little winged man’s presence to the newcomers, and Esma interjects that it can’t be trusted — “It’s “Master” is out there somewhere, and as soon as that Master shows up, this evil thing will surely betray us!”

Shifting attention from that tense exchange, everyone agrees that the bent portcullis must be a sign of the bull lord’s passing. The wooden bridge looks in rough shape, worn, weathered, and rotten with the passage of time, but it’s the only way out of the tower besides back down into the thornling warrens. A plan is concocted to pass safely across the bridge.

One end of the silk rope is tied around Horpt’s waist, and he flies out through the double doors, above the bridge, as Sigbert plays out the rope behind him. Suddenly, a great shadow passes over the homonculus, and everyone looks up to see the silhouette of the great eagle against the sun. Horpt hurries along to the other side, either unnoticed by or beneath the attention of the giant bird of prey.

Horpt passes through the portcullis, around one of it’s vertical iron bars, and flies back across the bridge. The tail end of the silk rope has been tied to the hemp rope, so as the PCs reel in the silk, it is replaced by the stronger hemp. Soon, they have a double rope line stretched between the portcullis and one door of the tower they occupy, where it is firmly secured. Horpt reports that there is a heap of rope piled up just on the other side of the bridge, blocked from view by the arc of the bridge itself.

Gareth is the first to cross, using the hemp rope for stability, and trailing the silk rope, which is tied in a harness about his torso. I ask him to make a Luck check to see if the bridge holds, and he fails; a plank gives way beneath him. Given their safety precautions, I’ve conceived of the bridge crossing in three steps: Luck check to see if part of the bridge collapses underfoot, then a DC 10 Reflex save to keep a hold on the guyline, then a DC 15 Reflex save to keep from smashing back into the base of the tower (and taking 1D6 damage) when the safety line swings back. Gareth makes the DC 10 Reflex save, keeps his grip on the guyline, and makes his way across to the other side.

He examines the heap of rope that Horpt mentioned and sees that it is really thick, about twice as thick as the party’s hemp rope. He starts to unwind it, figuring it will make an even stronger guyline, and discovers that it’s actually a rope ladder, secured to an iron ring set into a flagstone. Interesting. He and Sigbert discuss this discovery across the windy gap, and they revise their plan. After 10 minutes of tying, untying, pulling, and retying, they’ve replaced the double line of hemp rope with the rope ladder, hoping it will somehow provide a safer crossing.

To make things go faster, and taking into account their attention to detail for this obstacle, I now tell them that each PC just needs to make a DC 5 AGI roll to cross the chasm safely using the rope ladder and safety harness. Everyone makes their roll except Daisy, who slips but recovers, and Oswald, who has the heaviest and most unwieldy load (his big sack, slung across his back and secured with some jury-rigged strapping, full of firewood and the chest containing the pewter-bound “book”). He recovers also, but I rule that the sack slips off his shoulder and hits the bridge, the last blow that it can sustain. The remains of the bridge collapse into the chasm as Oswald clings frantically to the rope ladder, his sack now hanging beneath him. Struggling against this weight, he makes it to the far side without losing any belongings. All told, this cautious crossing has taken up a little over an hour of in-game time.

Meanwhile, Gareth has been examining the gatehouse entry and portcullis. He has noticed a trail of blood leading from the place where the rope ladder had been piled, through the portcullis, to the right-hand wall of the entry passage, and from there out into the open, sunlit courtyard beyond. He figures that since the trail of blood hugs the right-hand wall, he should too. Once Oswald is safe on the gatehouse side, Gareth climbs through the opening in the portcullis and carefully follows the trail to the edge of the courtyard, which he scans for potential danger.

After catching his breath, Oswald decides to check the floor of the gatehouse entry for good measure, He unburdens himself of his heavy sack, and pulls out a couple of hefty pieces of firewood. Then, he starts tossing the firewood through the portcullis onto the floor beyond, in order to test for traps. Gareth, realizing what Oswald is doing, and seeking to avoid any potentially dangerous results of such reckless behavior, moves quickly out from under the cover of the gatehouse entry.

One of the pieces of firewood hits a pressure plate disguised as a flagstone, and a rust-colored mist issues with a hiss from some hidden outlet into the entry hall, filling the space between the portcullis and the courtyard. Gareth was smart. The PCs can only speculate about the properties of this gas as they wait for it to settle and disperse, but I know that it was created from the glands of the rust monster they found dissected in the totem cave, and that it could have destroyed any metal on the person of anyone caught within.

Once the gas settles, everyone climbs through the portcullis, and the party emerges into the courtyard. Ahead stands the main citadel, the upper floors of which appear to have collapsed over the years. To the north and south loom 30′ tall round towers, cracked with age but largely intact.

The trail of blood leads up to the main entrance to the citadel, which draws their attention immediately: the door is a great stone disc, some 12′ tall, encircled by a line of solid brass that, in striking contrast to the rest of their surroundings, could have been polished that morning. Carved into the door are six pictograms, depicting six animals: dragon, lion, horse, hawk, snake, spider. Gareth immediately recognizes these symbols as matching those on the golden scepter he found in the totem cave.

But before the adventurers attempt to breach this door, they spend some time checking out the courtyard and towers. Sigbert dispatches Horpt to the top of the north tower, and he returns quickly to report that the tower is open at the top, “full of webs,” and that “something lives there.” He doesn’t know what, but he saw movement in the darkness that caused him to flee. The party moves close enough to see that the ground-level entrance is an intact wooden door, framed by a stone carving of a spider presiding over three webbed victims. No one wants to investigate further.

The south tower is similarly open at the top, its interior floors having collapsed, and is full of branches, debris, and in some cases what look like entire dead trees. Its agreed that this is probably the nest of the giant eagle, and should not be disturbed. Scanning the skies anxiously for sign of the great bird, they return their attention to the disc-shaped portal.

Gareth considers ways in which the door might be opened, and suggests that perhaps the symbols must be touched with the scepter in a particular order. He’s too short to reach any of them, however, so he hands the scepter to Sigbert, and asks him to touch the horse symbol with it. Sigbert obliges, and with a shuddering rumble the disc separates down the middle into two half-circles, each of which rolls out of sight into a recess in the citadel wall. Easier than expected!

The party peers into the darkness beyond.

Halls of the Minotaur – Session 3, Part 2

In which items of value are inadvertently devalued. 

Brands are struck, and their feeble light illumines a circular chamber, near the center of which is a stone statue of an elf maiden holding a large urn at her hip. Water pours out of the urn and into the channel cut in the floor, which runs to the slot in the north wall and thence down to into the caves and tunnel the PCs just traversed. A careful examination of the statue determines nothing unusual; it appears to be an elaborate outlet for a natural spring somewhere beneath the chamber.

The group moves down the passage to the east, toward the glowing red light. They see the fallen bookshelf, and books and papers scattered everywhere. Perry examines the three pools and decides he’s going to test their effects, so he grabs three random books off the shelves and drops one book into each pool. I ask him to make a Luck roll, to see if he accidentally grabs one of the six things you can find if you search this room, and he rolls a 20. Rolling a 20 on a luck check has to be really bad luck, right?

He drops one book in the red pool and nothing happens to it. He drops another book in the middle pool, and nothing happens to it. He goes to drop the last book in the acid pool, and just as it leaves his hands he notices how the cover appears to have been tooled from some kind of scaley hide, how it is inscribed with golden runes in intricate patterns, how it feels pregnant with untold power. But it’s too late: the heavy tome plunges into the acid bath and is rendered useless in a storm of fizzing bubbles. There is much groaning and forehead slapping. From my description they get that the book was probably something valuable, but they don’t know it was a wizard’s grimoire that would have been the perfect foundational text for any budding wizard in the party.

Finmunni searches the room and discovers Sigbert‘s discarded, acid-eaten shirt amongst the debris on the floor. Their friend came this far! There is hope that he still lives.

Meanwhile, Durwen and Wilfred find the alcove, and notice that the two curtains meant to conceal it are drawn back. They speculate as to the presence of some sort of secret door. Perry takes the cue and begins pulling things off the shelves, thinking one of them might be a hidden trigger for the door. I have him make a Luck roll again to see if he finds one of the five remaining special items. He rolls another 20. I tell him that he goes to pull out a book and tugs on a piece of vellum next to a book instead, with such force that he tears it in half. It’s a translucent sheet covered with translucent, inscrutable writing. Perry shrugs and drops the pieces to the floor. Unbeknownst to him, it was a scroll of Eel’s Grasp, a custom wizard spell.

Durwen and Wilfred locate the stone that triggers the secret door, and it slides back to reveal a dusty stairwell, running up to the west and down to the south. Before they step out, however, Oswald gives the room one last once-over, wondering if there is anything that has escaped Perry’s inadvertent destruction.

He rolls a 16, and I tell him that, under a heap of miscellanea, he finds a massive square book, about 16″ x 16″ and 6″ thick. It is bound on front back, and sides by heavy pewter plates, hinged on one side, and secured with an intimidating lock. It’s icy cold to the touch, coated in a thin layer of frost, and engraved with an intricate ice crystal pattern. Hm.

Durwen happens to have a set of thieves’ tools (random starting equipment), and tries to use them. I grant that in his work as a tanner he uses fine tools to scrape and clean animal carcasses, so I allow a skill check against the lock’s DC of 20. He rolls a 19, +1 for his AGI,  and opens the lock. Oswald tells him to set the book on the floor, and everyone stands back as Perry uses his spear to flip open the cover.

The sound of howling wind issues from the open “book,” and a few scraps of loose paper on the floor are immediately sucked into it. The pull is strong, but not irresistible, and a few of the PCs take a step closer to peek inside. It’s like a window into a dark night, through which flurries of snow whip with great speed. They feel the freezing cold and howling winds of another, distant world. Perry levers the book shut, and everyone ponders this unusual discovery.

“Might come in handy some time,” says Oswald. He cuts a couple of strips of cloth from Sigbert’s old shirt, uses one to pad the lock (in order to keep it from locking inadvertently), and wraps and ties the other around the outside to hold it shut. Then, he carefully places the book into his chest (inherited from Colby the Butcher), and places the chest back in his burlap sack.

Durwen steps out into the stairwell and inspects the floor for signs of anyone’s passing. He picks out three sets of footprints heading up. The consensus is to follow them, since that’s clearly the way their friends went, but Finmunni wants to investigate the chamber she sees down the stairs first. So she, Durwen, and Oswald cautiously descend.

They step into a chamber that seems to have been untouched for ages. In the wall directly opposite is a closed wooden door set with an iron ring, but what captures their attention are the two humanoid skeletons, one dangling in each of the near corners of the room. They are wearing armor and holding swords, and appear to be suspended from the ceiling by wires. Closer inspection reveals that their bones, armor, and weapons are completely fabricated from papier-mâché; they’re oversized puppets. The wires holding them up run to a central pulley mounted on the ceiling, and then into the wall above the door.

Oswald ties the end of the rope to the iron ring, and returns to the side of the room opposite the door. The three companions take hold and pull. The door pops open, and as it does so the puppets leap forward in a clatter of limbs, weapons flailing, toward the open doorway, before reassuming to their limp attitude. Finmunni crosses to look through the door, and sees a set of very stairs descending away into the darkness. They surmise correctly that this bizarre puppet trap was designed to startle intruders into falling down the stairs. They count themselves lucky to have found their way in through the back door of this dungeon.

Despite the protestations of her comrades, Finmunni decides to take advantage of her dark vision and explore a little further on her own. She creeps down the steep stairs to a corner, and peers around. 10′ ahead, the stairs reach a level floor, which gives way to a dark chasm before continuing on the far side. The chasm is thick with webs, enough to discourage her from proceeding further. She turns back.

Finmunni, Durwen, and Oswald reset the the skeleton puppets by pulling them back into their original positions, figuring that if the dog men ever decide to come after them, they’ll get a nice surprise. The skeletons click into place, and the three return to the rest of the group.

At the top of the stairs, they find the iron rungs that ascend into the chimney. Everyone packs up their belongings, and Finmunni leads the way up.