Sunday, January 31, 2016

Dwimmer-Game 9 - Bart the Door!

Cast of Characters:
Bud, a level 2 dwarven cleric
Utor, the elf enchanter (level 2 Mage)
Marthanes the Summoner, (level 3 Mage)
Tancrede, a level 3 cleric of Typhon
Wulfengard, a level 3 dwarf fighter
Jarvis, a level 2 fighter
Drev, a level 3 bard
Bart, a level 2 fighter
Mumford, a level 1 fighter (former henchman, now a new player)

There are some key things to making a megadungeon 'come to life' and create drama and interest with the players.  It's important to give them interesting options each game, provide a few compelling quests and rumors, and news on rival activity so there's time pressure and opportunity costs to the player's choices.

This session, we started with them learning about rival activity in the dungeon while hanging out in Muntburg's tavern.  The Fists of Typhon had started exploring level 2A, killing some orcs and freeing dwarven prisoners.  The Delvers had gotten really beaten up on level 2B by Throgrim, and were out of the dungeon a few weeks to heal.  But the Delvers had found stairs to level 3B, and the players offered to buy a map from them so they wouldn't have to keep searching for stairs on their own.  Finally, the Seekers, a more powerful group, had gotten a Knock spell to help with the elevator doors, and had started exploration of the deep shaft (all the way to level 4).  The shaft was filled with slimes and similar horrors, so it was slow going for them.

From the Secret History the players had gathered a few game sessions ago, they knew about a Pool of Life and Essence Machines on level 2A.  One of the big discussions was whether they should compete with the Fists of Typhon on level 2A, or use the Delvers' map to 3B and get a jump on the Delvers.  In town, they sent the Curate of Typhon after the Fists of Typhon to pester them with his quest to find the Temple of Law on level 2B, hoping this would keep the Fists out of their way while the players searched for the Pool.  As fellow Typhonians, how could the Fists say no?  Don't underestimate the fun and shenanigans some rivalries can add to your game!

This game saw the players pocket the map to 3B for now and instead focus on covering as much ground on level 2A as possible.  Armed with a number of level 2 fighters, they were able to quickly clear a whole series of rooms inhabited by the fragments of the orc tribe on the east side of the dungeon with workmanlike efficiency.  Cleave and damage bonuses turn ACKS fighters into death engines versus low level humanoids.

One of their fighters, Bart, is obsessed with getting to the largest treasure hoards as quickly as possible; they frequently skip detailed searches, and they don't listen or sneak around (and they don't care about the increased wandering monsters, either).  They've definitely missed some goodies, only getting 'saved' by having multiple dwarves and an elf who sometimes find secret doors through their demihuman senses even though they skipped a formal search.  Meanwhile, Bart has 'dungeon bashing' proficiency which makes him an expert at forcing open doors, leading to another signature phrase from the players when he charges from room to room - "He Barts the door."

One source of drama while playing with teens, and Bart is the worst, is the mad scramble over magic items.  "In this room, you see a bunch of boxes…"  Before I even finish the room description, Bart's player is saying, "I open all the boxes.  Before anyone else.  I'm taking any magic items, and putting the gems in my pockets…"  I frequently have to remind them that D&D is a team sport, and their party agreement involves sharing treasure and a fair distribution of magic items.  I can empathize with school teachers and coaches who see their mandates as part education, and the rest civilizing a bunch of 'Lord of the Flies' hooligans.

There was a terrifying wandering monster encounter with a Gelatinous Cube that sneaked up on the players while they were involved in one of their treasure \ item squabbles, but the Summoned Hero of Marthanes ended up putting in good work against the Cube and no one died.  The highlight of the night was when they found an arch and short flight of stairs leading down - still part of level 2A, but to earlier construction featuring precise architecture and alien doors - the Eld sub-level!  The players descended to the Eld section of level 2A, discovering eldritch technology (Glow Bulbs) beyond an adamantite hatch.

By this time, it was getting late, so we wrapped up.  Marthanes loves the idea of the Eld, and has everyone excited to explore the Eld sub-level and find the Pool of Life.  They were already looking forward to continuing this exploration next game.

I'm really enjoying Dwimmermount and running it with the ACKS rules.  The players are a little overpowered for the current dungeon areas, but they're working quickly to get deeper, and having plenty of fun.  The depth of the dungeon background, and stories that are emerging from the player's exploration, is shaping this into a very memorable campaign.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Dwimmer-Game 8 - The Brad Pitt of Elven Salesmen

Characters for this game:

Utor, the elf enchanter (level 2 Mage)
Marthanes, a desert sorcerer (level 3 Mage)
Tancrede, a level 3 cleric of Typhon
Wulfengard,a level 3 dwarf fighter
Jarvis, a level 2 fighter
Bart, a level 3 fighter

This game was on a weeknight where we had a smaller group again - my kids have been petitioning me to run pickup games midweek for them and a few of their friends.  It's very cool to see our local gang of middle school and high school kids jumping on the RPG bandwagon and discovering the fun in the hobby.

At the start of this game, both Tancrede and Bart had need of the city; Tancrede was cursed with disbelief in the gods (a real problem for a cleric), and Bart had a maimed leg due to injuries.  Furthermore, the players had nearly 100lbs of rare metals salvaged from the dungeon.  They finally voted as a group to visit the city of Adamas.

They bought horses and gear in Muntburg, and traveled with one of the merchants that had a weekly route between Muntburg and Adamas, to increase everyone's safety.  None of the wandering encounters were such that they'd threaten or bother an armed merchant train, so they made it okay to the city.

I busted out the ACKS trade rules and had the chance to consider the player's request to auction their precious metals in the market square.  Of course, the fun part was making Utor's player practice his sales pitch and drum up interest as a infomercial style pitchman;  "Step right up and check it out!  Rare Azoth, Aeronite, Adamantite, and more, straight from the legendary Dwimmermount!"  Between his 16 charisma, and his character's additional +2 due to "glamour", one of the teens quipped, "Utor is like the Brad Pitt of Elven used metal salesmen".

I still wasn't sure how much gameplay I wanted to happen in the city, so I let the players create what they wanted to do and where it would happen.  For  instance, the guys that needed magical healing ended up going to a temple of Typhon called the Church of St. Wasabi the Disciplinarian; some of the player's new-found wealth was quickly spent at Goode's Magical Goods; the merchant that finally agreed to buy all the Dwimmermount metals was simply called "Oswald the Merchant"; they bought a pack animal called Sparky the Donkey.

After the kids blew a lot of cash in the city, they journeyed with the next merchant to Muntburg, and quickly found their way back to the dungeon as well.  "Skyrim Fast Travel" has altered the landscape of table top RPG's; 'Can't we just fast travel back to Muntburg and fast travel to the dungeon?  Walking seems so slow.  Oh, and we're not taking any mercenaries or mooks this time, because they just sponge XP from the players.'

Back in the dungeon, the players worked their way back to dungeon level 2B, the Reliquary, and resumed exploring the eastern side of the dungeon, following a broad, cavernous twenty foot wide hall.  The Reliquary  level is filled with monumental architecture, temples, colonnades, and ceremonial structures from the time of the Thulians.  The players were hoping to find stairs down to level 3; the Curate of Typhon had implored them to seek the great "Temple of Law" lost in the Reliquary, but that didn't interest them.  "Lawful is boring".

The players searched up and down the main hall, not finding stairs down.  They interrupted a room full of Eldritch Bones and quickly defeated them.  No stairs.  They discovered a room full of Shadows, and then an amazing hidden shrine of healing.  Boring, still no stairs.  Time ran out and the players had to head back to Muntburg.

"I need to get Locate Object", schemed Marthanes.  "That'll really help us find things.  I'm going to hire a merchant to find one in the city".  I've never ran a game where the players looked for help in the spell lists and decided only Locate Object could save them; it's interesting to see how the size of the megadungeon (and the desire to delve deeper) drives planning.

After the wealth the players got from selling the salvaged metal, most of them are level 2 and a few guys are already level 3 (such as Marthanes and Bart).  Low level fighters jump up in power in Adventurer Conqueror King once they get to 2nd and 3rd level - the combination of higher damage bonuses and cleave lets them take over fights against weaker monsters.  It was clear during this session they're ready for level 3 challenges.  The players relished being able to destroy the Eldritch Bones in melee combat, after being terrorized by them for the half dozen game sessions, so I'm glad they got to savor some success.  Meanwhile, Marthanes chose another new spell from the ACKS Player's Companion, Summon Hero, as his 2nd level spell.  The Summoned Hero was employed against the Shadows.   "I have a new name… I'm no longer Marthanes the Sorcerer, I am Marthanes the Summoner!  Muhaha."

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Hell Freezes Over in Finland, and other 2016 Things to Watch

Since I've started blogging again, and the calendar turned to 2016, there have been a whole series of announcements on things I didn't expect to see this year.

Jim LOTFP is Going to Gencon
I was really surprised to see the news that LOTFP is going to Gencon.  I ran some LOTFP at Gencon years ago, and there were controversies a few years back where some prudish Gencon organizers didn't want the LOTFP games or modules on display in the dealer hall and whatnot - can't have gore, horror, and boobs on display in Indianapolis!  I never expected to see an announcement that Jim LOTFP is making the long haul from Finland to Indianapolis.  I'd love to make it out there - get a bunch of missing LOTFP stuff in person.  My teenager is looking to play some "edgy" D&D with his friends, and LOTFP's early stuff (Tower of the Stargazer, Grinding Gear, Hammers of the God) strikes a good balance between classic dungeons, weirdness, and horror, so I have him checking out Stargazer (he played through all those, plus Death Frost Doom, back during a game I called "Gothic Greyhawk").

Does that mean the long-awaited Referee Book is getting done this year?  That one's been kicking around a few years now.  That seems like the kind of product and release that would warrant an appearance at gaming's biggest convention.

Delta Green Trail of Cthulhu?
I like the Delta Green world, but haven't played BRP in a long time; any recent horror games have been Trail of Cthulhu.  One of the bits of news coming out of the recent Delta Green kickstarter is that Pelgrane Press is doing a 1960's Delta Green setting book (written by Ken Hite, naturally) called The Fall of Delta Green.  That one is going right to the top of the pre-order list.  Maybe we'll see a full-blown Gumshoe Delta Green book at some point, too.

The Auran Empire for ACKS
The guy(s) over at Adventurer Conqueror King are making some moves; the president of a video game company joined the management team, they just had their Lairs & Encounters kick starter clear $25,000, they're publishing articles via a decent-sized Patreon, and now news that the Auran Empire setting is coming this year.  I've played ACKS intermittently since it came out in 2011, and I thought the Auran Empire was going to be the company's "Castle Greyhawk"; that product that was talked about since the early days but never managed to see print.  2016 could prove me wrong!

The Return of Strahd
It's been all over the blogosphere, the next 5E sourcebook \ adventure is a return to Barovia (The Curse of Strahd).  Love it!  Looks like it's going to include more about the lands of Barovia and an updated delve into Ravenloft in an adventure for levels 1 - 10; I guess they need something for those low level guys to do before they can fight Strahd.  My players had a lot of fun beating that guy a few years ago in Gothic Greyhawk.

I'm doing school on the weekends so there's no chance I'll be working on any grandiose 5E megadungeon this year.  I eagerly await the efforts of an enterprising 5E designer with old school sensibilities who creates a (good) epic 5E megadungeon - I've got some money right here.  5E doesn't play out the same as the old school clones because of the power levels and wahoo magic stuff, but it's a really fun game and I hope this OGL brings some good things to the market.  Splatbooks and rules bloat need not apply - although I could be persuaded by an updated setting like 3E's Midnight, or a well done Asian-themed setting.  Speaking of which, I need to pick up a copy of Yoon Suin this year and check out Stonehell 2 - those were a few old school products from last year that slipped by while I wasn't blogging.  I may get my first Indie game this year too, something like Dungeon World (after some recent recommendations here).

Now if someone could announce they got a Traveller license for Star Wars or Star Trek, 2016 would be completely bananas.

What are you looking forward to this year in the RPG game-o-sphere?

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Wandering Monsters, You Will Serve Me

Wandering monsters are an important component of the megadungeon experience.  From a  story perspective, they create the illusion that the dungeon is an inhabited place with an ecosystem of monsters that have their own agendas and missions - they don't just lurk in the dark, waiting for adventurers.  Conceivably there are tombs and smaller non-living dungeons where the monsters do just lurk and wait, lurk and wait, but the megadungeon is giant, and has a panoply of critters.  Wandering monsters set the thing in motion and ensure the dungeon remains a hostile environment.

From a game perspective, wandering monsters exert positive pressure on the action.  They ensure players don't endlessly search without consequence; they drain party resources; they are  a principal tool you have as a referee to create problems for the "15 minute work day".  The 15 minute work day refers to entering the dungeon, visiting a room, expending all the party's resources at once, immediately leaving, resting overnight, returning to the dungeon, and doing it all over again…  Your players might still have to abridge their delve for legitimate reasons (such as having their keisters handed to them) but wandering monsters ensure it's not a great strategy.  Resource management and planning is one of the skill aspects tested during extended dungeon exploration.

In very large dungeons, the irritation factor of wandering monsters also increases the worth of elevators, secret stairs and short cuts, and alternate dungeon entrances.  Anything that cuts out superfluous encounters has value.

However, with my current campaign, I am noticing a few things I don't like due to our constraints.  First, I'm trying to run shorter pickup games here and there, sometimes only 2 hours or less.  Hitting one or two wandering monsters while trying to reach the unexplored areas can lop off a fair percentage of table time when the sessions are so short.  Similarly, if we're targeting a specific end time (like 8:30 for a school night), the players want to keep exploring right up until 8:29 and 59 seconds…  not leaving any time in case they hit wandering monsters on the way out of the dungeon.  (I could certainly make them stop 15 minutes early each night to account for travel, but that's not entirely satisfying, especially if I don't roll encounters and they could have used the time).

With these concerns now expressed, I'm considering some adjustments to the standard approach for our short games:
  • When traversing areas that have been cleared by adventurers (and are slowly re-stocking), the incidents of wandering monsters is greatly reduced - 1 in 6 per hour instead of 1 in 6 three times per hour, for instance.
  • When leaving the dungeon at the very end of a session (to meet our time constraints), the wandering monster rules are abridged.
  • When leaving the dungeon at other times, roll checks as normal.

However, I'm not suggesting to ignore the dice if I don't like a wandering monster result… dice fudging is verboten.  If it's worth using the dice to determine an outcome, it's worth rolling them in the open and letting the dice fall.  Dice create drama and consequences, and using them temporarily shifts the referee into a spectator of the unfolding story much like the players - none of us know what's going to happen when the dice are rolling, and that's exciting.  Dice are the neutral arbiters of fate.  If you don't want to the possibility of a negative result, don't even roll them.  Make a ruling instead.

Monday, January 18, 2016

A Review of Dwimmermount

After writing a few blog posts about Dwimmermount, and running over 10 sessions of the adventure for various local players, it's time to pull it all together into a review.  The short version:  Dwimmermount is very, very good.

The hardcover of Dwimmermount is a hefty tome, weighing in at 428 pages.  It represents an entire campaign and setting in a single volume; the contents include a sprawling 13 level dungeon, surrounding lands as a hex crawl, a nearby settlement and home base, and tons of supporting materials - new monsters, magic items, other planets, detailed histories, and plenty of supplementary rules.  Dwimmermount comes either in a Labyrinth Lord compatible or Adventure, Conqueror, King (ACKS) compatible version; for reference, I've been using the ACKS version at the table.

As an adventure,Dwimmermount does some things really well.  The setting of Dwimmermount draws direct inspiration from early 20th century pulp fantasy authors like Abraham Merritt and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and it hearkens back to the free-wheeling fantasy settings of the 1970's.  The campaign is a fantastic vehicle for experiencing pulp and science fantasy adventure, and seeing the many inspirations of 1970's Dungeons & Dragons realized in a modern setting.

Dwimmermount is the Axis Mundi, the mythic center of the world of Telluria.  All the major historical events of the game world involved the dungeon, and exploration of the dungeon is exploration of the secret history of the world.  There are enough secrets, twists, and reveals, to sustain an entire campaign centered on exploration of the dungeon.

Not only is Dwimmermount practically textbook-sized, it can function as a textbook example on how to conceive, create, and run an old school style mega dungeon campaign.  There have been larger dungeons in terms of maps and rooms, but none have brought Dwimmermount's literary sensibilities, depth, and execution.

However, there are some issues to consider before running a game there.  First, the campaign is heavily tied into the world of Telluria, the setting of Dwimmermount. Telluria has a unique view on elves, dwarves, the planets, and the gods.  The history of the world is specific, and this specificity is striped through every aspect of the dungeon.  This tight integration between the dungeon and setting is fantastic if you want to run a full Dwimmermount campaign on Telluria, but would generate a lot of work for a referee trying to insert the dungeon into a preexisting setting.

The inspiration, vision, and draft of the campaign came out of the notes and home campaign of James Maliszewski, and the actual book was then developed, embellished, and produced by the staff at Autarch.  Dwimmermount demonstrates the challenges inherent in transforming raw game notes from a lengthy campaign into a fully realized and published game book.  For various reasons, the project ran late, and utile features like an index didn't make the cut.  It can be hard to find obscure references in a 400 page book while using it at the table.  I've found myself employing sticky notes and tabs to keep track of frequently referenced pages.  One item that's improved the table experience is the Dwimmermount "Dungeon Tracker", an add-on product that makes Dwimmermount easier to run at the table by providing handy versions of the maps and level keys.

My overall stance on Dwimmermount is that it is very impressive.  I love the literary allusions and pulp fantasy vibe, and the campaign has fired the imaginations of the kids and dads in my local play group.  I've had more fun running this campaign than any game I ran in the past year, and that's perhaps the best praise I can give any game book.  I highly recommend it.

If you want to know more, here are other recent blog posts (at the Lich House) involving the dungeon:

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Dwimmer-Game 7 - He Rolled a Door

We had a large crew for this game.  The first order of business each night is for the players to figure out what to do…. They always start back at headquarters (they own a base in Muntburg), and I'm never sure exactly which players will show up, and whether they'll want to carry on from the previous session.  Since Father Tancrede became an atheist last session after grasping a cursed brooch, one option was to travel to the big city of Adamas and beseech the church to fix him (Remove Curse).  But no!  Cities are boring, and we must go back to the dungeon!  The dungeon-lovers won the vote this session, and the party decided that giving up Turn Undead or Cure Light Wounds was worth losing to get in more dungeon action.  Tancrede, with his 10 strength and 8 constitution, would just have to earn his keep as a fighter for the night.

Cast for the Night:
Bud, a dwarven priest
Utor, the elf enchanter
Marthanes, a desert sorcerer
Tancrede, a cleric of Typhon
Wulfengard,a dwarf fighter
Jarvis, a fighter
Parquas, an elf magic-user / thief
Drev, a bard
Bart, a fighter

The major action for the night occurred along the western side of dungeon level 2B where there's a large room with various metal pillars.  The players (through the dwarves and some of their metal-working proficiencies) figured out that the metal plating on these columns was really valuable, and removable.  The players set up a camp and spent many hours salvaging rare metal plates - Azoth, Adamantite, Aeronite, and more.  Over the course of the hours, they ended up facing numerous wandering monsters attracted by the noise; lots of zombies, some hobgoblins, and even a group of thouls.  During one of these fights, Jarvis complained about rolling low, "I rolled another door…" - I think he meant to say I rolled another two, but the slip stuck, and now every time a fighter rolls low on an attack, "he rolled a door".  It's very common to hear the kids chant, "Invest, invest… Oh, he rolled a door.  Who's next?"  I'm experiencing the invention of a bizarre jargon - Kid's Cant.

By the time they got done with the salvage, even the Five Delvers came along.  (Once again, the players that were calling out for NPC blood were outvoted by the members that wanted to talk to the Delvers; this time they suggested to the Delvers to go on ahead, and the players cut out and went in the opposite direction).

Traversing over to the eastern side of the dungeon, the players ran into multiple (wandering)  groups of zombies and started to drain party resources (hit points).  The reality that 'wandering monsters don't carry treasure' has started to sink in and the players are learning to loathe the wandering monsters.

As happens so frequently with dungeon jaunts, the players went "a room too far…"  They stumbled into a large group of hobgoblins and were quickly under duress.  Marthanes brought in the summoned berserkers, but Bart, one of the main fighters, was knocked below zero hit points.  Tancrede's lack of spell ability came back to haunt them!  Using the ACKS rules, zero hit points is not always death; there's a good chance a downed character is just severely injured (and healing magic can improve the odds).  Bart was stabilized after the hobgoblin fight, but he his leg was severely injured and he'd have a limp for life, barring a powerful cleric spell (Restore Life and Limb).  The party now had another good reason to consider that trip to the city - to fix Tancrede, and to heal Bart.

After "limping" out of the dungeon, the players asked me to look up how much gold they could get for selling all the scrap metal from the pillar room.  The dungeon text indicated players could recover 15lbs of each type of metal from the pillars.  My head exploded when I saw how much money the stuff was worth!   45,000gp!  I made it clear the players would need to go to a larger market (like Adamas) if they wanted to get top prices from wealthy merchants.

Aside on Dwimmermount:
Dwimmermount is made of money.  I've noticed that treasure is aggregated on each level in a few large hoards; there are modest sums distributed throughout each level, but successful groups will find the hoards and make big jumps in experience. You'll see in later sessions the players gained an appreciation for Locate Objects in the mega dungeon context, and these treasure clumps would also make a Wand of Metal Detection really helpful.  Overall, the pace of advancement has been fine and the players are moving along at a good rate for maintaining interest.

However, even I wasn't  expecting the players to get a 45,000 go windfall!  If I granted the full amount, it'd be enough to push some of the group up to level 3 (skipping level 2) entirely.  I gave the players most or all of the full amount, but stopped them at 3,999xp, for instance - not allowing them to skip multiple experience levels.  I'm usually fine letting things roll (like giving the players too much) and seeing how things play out naturally.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Dwimmer-campaign Game 6

Now that the campaign is in full swing and the players have returned to town a number of times with loot, there is more activity happening with rivals.  Since each session begins back in town, they get a brief news update on rumors they're hearing about rivals, as well as some new quest opportunities.  (I'm still working through a good procedure for the town activities at the beginning of the session; I appreciate all the recent dialogue here on the blog about towns.  Our next game will be session 11, so you won't see new ideas incorporated until later game reports since I'm only writing up game 6 now).

For this session, the players learned that the Delvers were working directly for the Castellan of Muntburg and were the first adventurers to enter Dwimmermount before the player group started serious operations here.  Another group, called the Fists of Typhon, have arrived in town, at the behest of the high clerics in Adamas. Finally, a higher level group called the Seekers have also arrived, and they are completely uninterested in the upper levels.   The map the players sold to the Delvers was copied and resold to the Seekers, who are mainly interested in the workings of the main elevator on level 1.

The players also picked up a couple of new quest opportunities.  The curate of Typhon  said that the level 2 Reliquary once held the legendary "Temple of Law", and offered a quest reward if the players found it.  The Fists dropped a hint that they'd be operating on level 2A to find the source of the orcs and beastmen .  I'm giving the Church of Typhon a pro-human sect that opposes humanoids and barely tolerates demi-humans, and the Fists are aligned with this militant sect.  However, the players didn't show much interest in either quest.

Finally, the players also pieced together that there was a conjunction a few months ago, that conjunctions could open portals into the mountain, and the conjunction  was near the time when the defenses of the dungeon dropped.  They have correctly guessed that someone got into the dungeon during the conjunction, traveled deep enough to learn about how the dungeon worked, and turned off various wards.  More hints at a larger story are emerging, as well as foreshadowing of future  foes!  The players are also aware, from their previous alliance with the orcs, that a Mage named Varaxes is on a lower level; he created the orcs, who rebelled, and now is creating hyena-headed beastmen - the gnolls.  The players are hypothesizing Varaxes entered the dungeon at the conjunction.

Cast for this Session:
Marthanes , a desert sorcerer
Tancrede, a cleric of Typhon
Wolfengard, a dwarf fighter
Obsidian, a thief
Mulan, a fighter
Mercenaries:  Ed, Owenheim, Mumford

After picking up the rumors in town and rubbing shoulders with rivals, the players went back to dungeon level 2B, The Reliquary.  They had 3 new mercenaries on this jaunt - Ed, Owenheim, and Mumford - because it was a smaller session.  The kids spent some time puzzling the Hall of Truth (and did not learn the secret of the pillars - they have little patience for puzzles).  After searching a series of nearby rooms, their biggest find was a secret room adjacent to the ruined library - it held boxes and boxes of books dating from the time of the Thulians.  Unfortunately, while the main PC's huddled in the secret room confirming the contents of the boxes, they heard yells back in the library - poor Ed was killed by some zombies that wandered in from the east.  It was a quick fight once the PC's got involved.

They loaded up the books, and checked one more room - this one featured a statue (a gargoyle in disguise).  Marthanes deployed the berserkers via Summon Berserkers, and the players quickly left, returning all the way to the surface.  I had previously briefed the players on the importance of Dwimmermount's Secret History, and the teens were very excited to see that they had recovered some secret lore.  Later that night, I put together a document with the information they discovered (basically pasting the entries from the secret history to a word doc for easy consumption).  You'll see in later sessions they know about things like the Manufactory, the Pool of Life, and the Essence Machines - all from reading the Thulian archives.  I like how that aspect of the campaign is coming together!

There was time left in the session for the players to return to the dungeon for a brief jaunt; this time they visited the gargoyle again, prepared, and defeated it with magic.  The last battle involved an Ossuary haunted by a Necrophidius.  Necrophidius is one of those oddball monsters from the Fiend Folio converted to ACKS; it gets an A on the creepy factor, and has a hypnotic dance that wrecked most of the party and almost caused a TPK.  They were down to one PC standing (the rest were swaying hypnotically with goggle eyes) before they got it.  There was a treasure room near the Necrophidius, so the players greedily loaded it into sacks.

Oh, this was priceless. - one of the items in the treasure was a brooch; Wolfengard put it on (failed a saving throw), and got sad.  They asked him why, he said "I don't believe in anything any longer, not even the gods".  So Marthanes put on the brooch, and made his save.  Then the player with Tancrede had the cleric put it on!  Of course he failed his save, lost his faith, and can no longer Turn Undead.  Players are awesome - their own worst enemies.

This game saw enough treasure for more guys to start leveling up to 2, including Tancrede (who can't cast spells because he's now an Atheist).  The surviving mercenaries went from 0-level men to 1st level fighters.  At the end of the session, they decided they'd have to go to the city and get his faith restored sometime soon - via a Remove Curse.

Monday, January 11, 2016

For the Dungeon Campaign: Are your towns safe?

I've seen some campaign discussions through the years where the referee has declared that towns are safe zones for their dungeon or wilderness campaign, and adventure only happens "out there" - perhaps outside of town, across the river, or in the dungeon itself.   Can anyone who's run this kind of game discuss how the experience went?

It seems like encounters in towns and cities can provide relief and contrast with the tactical world of the dungeon, so I'm wondering, even for a megadungeon campaign, whether I'd actually want to declare towns and cities 'safe zones' or not, and limit a facet of the game.  On the other hand, I can see benefits in making towns purely transactional places that quickly get the focus back to a specific locale.

I'd love to hear perspectives from folks that have gone with the 'town is safe' approach, or some guidance toward blog posts or other writings where the discussion has been expressed already.  Thanks much!

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Dwimmer-Game 5 - Invest on their Blood!

My wife does this thing every New Year's where she invites anyone she's ever met over to the house for a New Year's Day potluck.  It's good for me to have some forced mingling and small talk on topics other than work and gaming, so I can continue to function as a normal human, at least once a year.  However, by evening, all the neighbors that play D&D had heard my kid's rave about the Dwimmermount game, and a number of them engineered to come back over for an evening dungeon romp.  We had 9 people packed into the upstairs study for a New Years Day jaunt into Dwimmermount.

Cast of Characters for Game 5:
Marthanes, a desert sorcerer
Tancrede , a cleric of Typhon
Wolfengard, a dwarf fighter
Utor, an elf enchanter
Bud, a dwarven cleric
Drev, a swashbuckling bard
Parquas, an elf magic user\thief
Big Bart, a fighter*
Jarvis, a fighter*

*Bart and Jarvis were the mercenaries Ploppy and Fluffy; they earned enough experience to go from zero level man to 1st level fighter, and have since been taken over as characters by new players.

This Dwimmermount campaign is shaping up to have a component of "passing the torch" to younger gamers.  We had 3 dads and 6 kids in the game, with kid ages ranging from 9 to 15.  One of the precepts is that the kids do the planning; the adults can offer advice, but kids make the decisions (for better or worse).  When it comes to planning, there is a strong bias towards fighting, action, and getting back into the dungeon as quickly as possible.  After getting the new players up to speed on the 'story so far', the kids decided they wanted to try and find the Moon Pool on level 1 once and for all.  (The other options they discussed were going to level 2, or breaking their alliance with the orcs of level 1 so they could loot them.  There was a certain bloodthirsty contingent that wanted to beat up the orcs.)

Once they reached the caverns again, they tripped a kobold ambush and ended up fighting a room full of kobolds.  Dwimmermount kobolds are small, misshapen dwarves, closer to kobold folklore, not the reptile headed dog men of traditional D&D games.  As a group, they charged the kobolds with weapons swinging.  When the kids get into these types of scrums, there is only one rule - "everybody fights, nobody quits".

Over the next few caverns, the major finds included the Moon Pool, a secret exit out of the dungeon (the hidden Dwarf Door), and a cavern with a pod of Shrieker Mushrooms; the players created a tactical position after dealing with the Shriekers, and then ambushed a large gang of kobolds coming to investigate the sounds (and they leveraged the high armor fighters to form a strong defensive line).  As an aside:  the Moon Pool has mind-expanding powers, and the players scooped a ton of Moon Pool water into flasks; sadly, they learned at the end of the session, back in town, that the water loses its Moon Pool properties when taken out of the pool, and is worthless outside of the dungeon.  They're considering an alternate way to monetize access to the Moon Pool.

After another round of voting, the kids decided it was time to head down to level 2.  They knew about two sets of stairs - an eastern set leading to a level called 'The Reliquary', and a western set leading to 'The Laboratory'.  The orcs (their erstwhile allies) guarded the west stairs, so the players chose the eastern stairs.  A "hall of memories" led to the stairs down, where the players viewed brief magical holograms showing pivotal moments in the history of the Thulians.  This was the player's first introduction to the idea that the dungeon is full of history, and the kids were very interested in seeing that dimension of the dungeon - good!  This first historical exposure was a big moment in the game, as I believe unraveling Dwimmermount's history is a satisfying goal for any Dwimmermount campaign.

It was at this point, the descent to level 2, that things took a turn for the zany.  The first room on level 2 was inhabited by a handful of those "Eldritch Bones", the metal skeletal Terminator-like destroyers that terrorize level 1.  The bard started doing his once-per-day Inspire Courage to improve the group's chance at surviving, when George (the 9 year old that plays Wolfengard) jumped in to do his own pep talk and "show the bard how it's really done".

"This is the day, my brothers, get ready to fight, my brothers, get ready to destroy them, brothers, we will INVEST ON THEIR BLOOD !"  George is English-as-a-second-language, so sometimes he gets his words wrong, plus he's the youngest guy (9 years old).  Maybe he was trying to say "we will feast on their blood?", I dunno.  From that point on, the gang of kids implored their compatriots to 'invest the monsters', roll really well and 'invest the dice', they'd even chant "invest, invest, invest, INVEST !" while pounding on the tables in advance of key dice rolls.  It was funny and endearing that they got so excited by George's speech and adopted "Invest" as their battle cry.  By the end of the night, they changed their company name from Muntburg Broncos to The Investors.

The Eldritch Bones were threatening enough that Marthanes summoned his berserkers to join the fight and get in on the "investing".  Because the berserkers last for 3 turns, the kids are focused on immediate action after a fight.  It's the polar opposite of the careful adult players.  The kids finished their combat with the EBs, concluded a mandatory turn of rest, and quickly tried to find another chamber with monsters before the spell ended.

The next room was a large vault with multiple wights.  The remaining berserkers perished quickly, and the players had to finish the wights themselves.  Everyone that could use a silver dagger or holy water had one at this point in the campaign (wealth was no barrier to this type of gear) but any hit by a wight is still instant death for a first level character, so the monster attacks were very tense.  No one died, but the drama made for a fitting end to an exciting session.

Leaving the dungeon, the players ran into the Five Delvers on their way out.  There was a brief debate whether to attack them - Marthanes implored his companions, "what happens in the dungeon stays in the dungeon…", but they settled on Plan B, which was to offer to sell the Delvers their complete map of level 1 and coax them into facing that demonic spider voice the party had deliberately by-passed.  The players had no intention of staying on level 1 anyway, so they cashed in the map.  With a heavy bag of gold, and the hopes that they've sent their rivals off to face a horrible demon spider, the players returned to Muntburg.  Happy New Year!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Dwimmermount: Exploration and Mapping as an End in Itself

Dungeon exploration games like D&D (or ACKS, the rules set I'm using for my Dwimmermount game) splits the table activity between combat, exploration, and roleplaying.  Player advancement in the game comes from experience points, earned from treasure, and combat experience, earned by defeating monsters.  Furthermore, the ratio of experience-from-treasure vs experience-from-combat is recommended at a ratio of 4 to 1 (83% of the party's experience comes from treasure).  Dwimmermount has some interesting alternatives on expanding treasure and experience in the dungeon by monetizing aspects of their exploration, some things I've never done before.

There are two ways players can "monetize" the exploration of Dwimmermount.  The first approach is to sell maps of the dungeon.  Dwimmermount is the most important place in the world, the Axis Mundi, and much of the specific knowledge of the place was lost 200 years ago.  Now that Dwimmermount is reopened in the campaign, scholars, mages, rival adventurers, and political leaders all have interest in the place; maps have become extremely valuable.  The book provides guidelines on the value of player maps based on the number of doors and rooms, and these scale with the depth of the dungeon level from hundreds to thousands of gold pieces in value.

I like this mechanic because it puts a dilemma on the players.  Do they sell a valuable map for enough gold (and experience) to level up, allowing them to delve deeper, or do they withhold the maps because they offer a competitive advantage?  In order for this choice to have consequences, though, it'll be important to have rival adventurers nipping at the player's heels, so there's a degree of risk or irritation in sharing a map.  Likewise, many of the levels have resources that are valuable to control, and sharing a map creates the risk that control will be lost.  Knowing that maps have such value, I'm going to have the bad guys try to steal a map at some point!

The other way the players can monetize exploration is by recovering the secret history of Dwimmermount.  There's a thorough discussion of the secret history, organized numerically, and these key facts can be gleaned throughout the dungeon from a range of sources.  There are over 80 of them!  Bringing evidence corroborating the secret history facts back to the surface allows the players to sell this information for exorbitant amounts of money when they accumulate enough facts to answer key questions about the world.

My players have just started learning bits of the secret history of Dwimmermount - it'll show up in game reports 7 and 8, when I catch up with posting them.  It's doing a number of interesting things.  First, it's making the dungeon back story mean something.  We (referees) frequently complain about having to read pages and pages of dull background that doesn't affect game play, or which the players have little chance of discovering.  Dwimmermount provides pages and pages of background information on this secret history - but in Dwimmermount, this stuff does affect game play, the players can directly benefit from it, and there are many interesting ways to learn pieces of the secret history throughout the dungeon.

The open question I had was whether the players would even care.  My rotating group has a few dads, some older kids in the 14-15 years range, and a few boys (and girl) 9-12.  The kids are motivated by looting and crushing monsters.  However, I put together a "secret history tracker", in checklist form, and a list of the major questions that could be discovered as they explore the dungeon - things like the nature of the gods, or the origin of the dwarves.  When they found their first cache of "secret history books", deciphered them back in town, and started checking off items on their 'history tracker', the light bulbs went off.  These are quest items they can search for through the dungeon, and having a checklist that shows all the nuggets of knowledge that are out there; it created a "gotta collect them all" mindset.  Now the kids are looting the dungeon, crushing monsters, and keeping their eyes open for secret history clues to fill out their checklist.

So what if your players blow off this aspect of the game and just stick to monsters and treasure?  The referee notes indicate there's about 550k in treasure in the dungeon.  Assuming the 25% ratio for monsters, there's another 135k or so in monster experience in the dungeon.  That's enough to put a 5-person party up to around 7 level  or so, if the group is pretty diligent about completing each level and doesn't leak a lot of experience to player death or henchmen.  The overall value of the secret history is also valued near 550k, putting the dungeon haul up to a lofty 1.2M if the party focuses on answering the big questions by collecting all the pieces of secret history!  A group that doesn't exploit "dungeon archaeology" in Dwimmermount is leaving a lot of loot and experience on the table.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Dwimmer Game 4 - The EB's Attack!

Game 4 of our exploration of the legendary Dwimmermount.

As usual, we started the game back in town - in this way, drop in players can always join a session.  At the beginning of this one, a summons appeared from the Curate of Typhon, requiring the presence of the party's cleric, Father Tancrede (a fellow Typhonian).  "It's time I explained why a luminary such as myself was willing to accept a post in such a dismal backwater", the curate began.  From there he explained how a sect within the Great Church has always kept an eye out for rumors that the Termaxians, a cabal dedicated to resurrecting the cult of Termax, might resurface and threaten the church and the true gods once again.  Herynt, the Curate, is convinced Termaxians are behind the opening of Dwimmermount.  He exhorted the party to be ever vigilant for evidence of strange wizards or mages as they explore the ruins.  He also reminded Father Tancrede that the church expects its tithe!

Here is the cast of characters:

Marthanes, a desert sorcerer
Tancrede, a cleric (henchman)
Malgrim, a fighter
Wolfengard, a dwarf fighter (henchman)
Priscus, a paladin
Ploppy and Fluffy - two new mercenaries (real names Bart and Jarvis)

The Curate had heard about a bronze head on the wall that could answer questions like an oracle; the players remembered seeing the head on a previous journey, and accepted the Curate's offer to find the head and try it out on their next delve.  Returning to the dungeon was the next activity, and visiting the bronze head was their first stop; it wasn't hard for them to figure out to oil the joints of the large, rusted fixture (one of the kids said, "like the Tin Man!") in order to get it to work.  I think they asked the head something about whether there were any large treasures (more than 2,000gp)  left on the level.

After visiting the head on the wall, they went to see the orcs that were on guard near the cavern.  It was still in the player's minds that they wanted to find the moon pool somewhere in the caverns.  (This would be a quest stretching over multiple nights).  With the Thulian war masks, and a few high charisma characters that speak Bestial, the players haven't had issues parleying with the orcs and getting insights on the cavern denizens.  They learned that there were many more kobolds, despite the death of the kobold leader a few sessions ago, and the uneasy truce between the kobolds and orcs was over, forcing the orcs to barricade the door into the cavern.  The orcs were only too glad to hear the players would be clearing out the kobold caves.

This session was all kids, no dads, and I've observed that even teenagers don't do a great job with tactics.  For instance, running into a large cavern of kobolds, which were armed with torches and oil flasks, led to a bunch of burning player characters, at least until Marthanes' summoned berserkers showed up and wrecked the place.  Both Priscus and Malgrim were saved from zero hit points or near death.  Meanwhile, the summoned berserkers were given a few torches and sent ahead to slay any additional kobolds, indiscriminately.

By the time the players caught up, the berserkers had already cleared another room of kobolds.  They still didn't discover the moon pool, but they found a spring of oily black silver liquid (unrefined Azoth) which they scooped up into flasks instead.  It was getting late, so they started to leave with a large sack full of unrefined Azoth.

In one of the main corridors on the way out, a patrol of "Eldritch Bones" found them.  EB's are the alpha monsters of Dwimmermount level 1; they have good armor, resistance to edged weapons, they can't be turned, and they have hideous claw attacks.  I picture them like Terminator skeletons, metal and relentless (and they absolutely never will stop, ever, until you are dead.  They can't be bargained with, they don't feel pity, or remorse, or fear).  The last encounter with EB's in the chapel left Grimson maimed, and this one saw the death of Malgrim and Priscus, the two fighters that were injured in the caverns.  Tancrede got knocked out too, and the fight would have turned completely against the party if Marthanes didn't go nuts with the wand of magic missiles, firing double shots at each skeleton.

Back in town, they collected some extra experience due to finishing the Curate's quest (finding the head on the wall) and they sold the Azoth to the Great Porfirio (the Alchemist) for about 200gp; he claimed he'd be able to take it back to the great city Adamas and refine it into pure Azoth.

"Dwimmer Death Count" is now Grimson (killed by a spider), and Malgrim and Priscus, killed by EB's.  They lost a few mooks to spiders, too.  Wolfengard has been promoted to PC for next game.