Friday, March 18, 2016

Dwimmer Games 16 and 17, Magic Carpet Rides

When I last discussed the Dwimmermount game, the characters were picking themselves up off the floor after getting horribly beaten by a tomb with mummies, at least until they rallied and destroyed the horrors.  This session began with the injured (and infected) characters dragging themselves to the surface with all the loot they recovered from the tomb.  Their first order of business (after burying the dead guys) was to head back to Adamas and try to get the curses lifted from everyone suffering Mummy Rot.  There's no healing while cursed, with Mummy Rot.

The players recovered some amazing magic items from the mummy's loot - a magic carpet, a flaming sword, and a helm of teleportation.  Drev, their Squindian Pirate Bard, now rides everywhere on a magic carpet.  Wulfengard calls his new flaming sword, the Kylo Ren sword.  Marthanes got the helm of teleportation working in Adamas… his player remarked, "Can Marthanes get any cooler?"  Oh, and Bart hired an expensive animal trainer to train a bear for him, in Muntburg.  He wants to own an armored bear that he can send into battle.  I guess it's like the D&D equivalent of those rich boxers that keep pet tigers around.

Here's how all the characters look after spending time in the city, selling stuff and leveling up:

Marthanes the Summoner, (level 4 Mage)
Tancrede, a level 4 cleric of Typhon (henchman)
Wulfengard,a level 4 dwarf fighter
Sloth the Mook, level 1 fighter (new henchman)
Drev, a level 4 bard
Bud, a level 3 dwarven cleric
Bart, a level 4 fighter
Mumford, a level 3 fighter
Malthena, a level 3 thief (henchman)
Arethusa, Mage 3 (henchman)
Utor, level 3 Elven Enchanter

Before the new dungeon stuff got rolling, the players returned to Dwimmermount (level 3) and went through the portal to Volmar, to try and convince Arethusa to come adventuring; last session, her friend Collothus, died in the mummy tomb.  It had been some weeks that they left her stranded in Volmar, and she was starting to adopt their ways.  But a good reaction roll and  the promise of a hefty share encouraged her to return with them to Dwimmermount.

The emperor was irritated they'd been gone so long without a report, so they needed to make a full accounting.  The emperor was very irritated to hear the Eld had returned and invaded "his dungeon", so he declared war on the planet Aeron.  Since the players had pacified most of level 3A, the Volmarians would start moving in and taking over the Eld portal.  On some level, I think they'd like to see a Volmarian army march out of the front gate of Dwimmermount at some point, just for the chaos and craziness of it all.

With Arethusa back in the fold, and assurance that Volmar would conquer level 3A, the players returned to the dungeon.  They knew there was no apparent way from level 3A down to level 4  - they had searched the level with 'Locate Object spells' - so they deemed it was time to return to level 1 and start messing with the elevator shaft.  They could use that to get down to 4.  No one had figured out how to use the elevator, but they had a magic carpet.

However, rather than going down, the players went up - the shaft went in both directions, implying there was a level up above level 1.  In the Dwimmermount book, this is a special level 0, the "Divinatarium".  It was both older than anything else they'd explored, and more "high tech" as well.

It was clear to me the players were seriously outclassed, but they persevered regardless.  There were battles with slurping algae men, who incapacitated swathes of characters with brutal mental blasts (algoids).  They fought muscular grey men, with wickedly spiked plate armor and large two-handed swords (Astral Reavers).  There were obviously bad rooms holding slimes and acid monsters the players astutely avoided, and a few rooms infested with terrible fungal monsters, where only a lucky saving throw (and a quick retreat) avoided a gruesome infection.  Without a Cure Disease spell available, it seemed that every other encounter was a roulette roll with death.

As usual, the game had a series of interludes that only the kids can author.  We may have seen our last "I Bart the Door" from Bart.  One of the rooms had a rune covered door, which Bart triggered (explosively) due to his impetuous nature, before anyone could get the chance to warn him that runes could be bad.  He staggered back, dying.  "Medic!"  In ACKS terms, the system is fairly forgiving of characters that end up near death, as long as a cleric can get to them quickly and perform first aid and magic.  But Bart would be stuck at 1 hp and bandaged for a few weeks.

Tancrede, their balding and asthmatic cleric with the 8 constitution and the combat death wish, started wearing the armor of an Astral Reaver, spiked shoulders and gauntlets and a crazy helmet.  They now call him their "death metal accountant" - the most dangerous accountant in the world.

There were a few signature discoveries on this visit to the Dinivatarium.  In the office where Bart blew himself up, they found a centuries old library of conjectural works on the Ancients and the origins of the gods - like the Dwimmermount equivalent of von Daniken's "Chariots of the Gods".  There was a Book of Infinite Spells in the library, too.  But the most mind-blowing discovering was in a large observatory chamber - a full-sized space ship!  Assuming the characters can figure it out, they potentially have a way to travel to the stars and planets.  The players really want to own a space ship.  Dwimmermount continues to push the bounds.

We had to end the session here, as it was getting late, and a half dozen or more slime-covered zombies slurped to their feet and started slowly shambling across the large hangar towards the characters, blocking access to the space ship.  There was an intense table debate whether to fight or retreat; the younger kids usually want to fight everything.  "You've found the absorbatory, Marthanes, now let us fight these zombies - this is a demarkusry, so we get to vote", said one of the 9 year olds.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

5E: Fear and Loathing in Fifth Edition

I've been playing a lot of the video game, The Darkest Dungeon, when I get some free time.  It's an addictive little skirmish game with a great Lovecraftian horror theme.  As a player, you're constantly trying to manage the stress and insanity of your squad, which compounds with the length of an expedition and the mounting horror.  Most versions of D&D have some kind of mechanics to enforce rests and exhaustion during exploration (with wandering monsters as another mechanism that creates pressure).  Very few of them have actual horror mechanics (even LOTFP, with all that great horror artwork and scenarios, is about tone and referee style over mechanics).  Surprisingly, 5E has a set of simple but evocative horror mechanics.  (These are cleverly concealed in the depths of the DMG).

5E has two groups of related rules - Sanity Rules and Madness.  Sanity is a 7th 3d6 attribute.  If you're using Sanity, you add another "11" into your array for assigning attributes.  Sanity is there mainly as a source for Sanity saving throws and skill checks against Sanity challenges.  Failed Sanity checks can lead to being frightened (a status) or short, long, or indefinite madness.  Long and indefinite madness also causes the loss of a Sanity point.  There are a few tables with effects for the different types of madness.  Indefinite madness represents a permanent personality issue for the player, much like the "negative quirks" characters pick up in The Darkest Dungeon.

5E also suggest a few basic spells to interact with madness: Calm Emotions, and Lesser and Greater Restoration to recover from longer term madness and recover lost Sanity.  Dispel Evil and Remove Curse still remove magical sources of madness.  I don't think it would be hard to also add a few camp or town-centric mechanics, like carousing, as alternative ways to recover lost sanity and put some choice into downtime activities.  The major missing piece in 5E is a list of example situations (or sanity destroying monsters) that would trigger short or long term madness Saving Throws; the referee that wants to run a 5E horror game has to figure all of that out on their own.  It doesn't sound like Curse of Strahd covered this type of stuff.

The discovery of Madness and Sanity rules tucked away in 5E is intriguing (and speaks to the foresight of Mearls and Co., too, in supporting alternative styles of play right in the core.  Sanity is adjacent to the Laser Pistols and Muskets in aisle 15.)  Anyone who has played 5E knows how hard it is for characters to die in the game.  They're like the old Chumbawamba song - I get knocked down, but I get up again, you're never going to keep me down…  5E characters are remarkably resilient, physically.  One short rest, and they're ready for the boss fight in the next room.  Pretty much the opposite of antagonists in a horror game.  But their brains are vulnerable!

The Sanity mechanics offer an alternative angle to wear characters down over time.  Fear, as a status effect, forces Disadvantage while the character is Frightened.  Disadvantage doesn't rob agency the way "old school fear" makes the character run away, but it's irritating as hell for the players and can be safely overused.  Sanity is an attribute that will degrade over time, which means the character's Sanity saving throws will get worse, and they'll become more susceptible to future fails.  This is the classic Call of Cthulhu death spiral - we're all doomed in the end.

I picked up a copy of Torchbearer to read through; after some internet search, it looked like there was even some talk between Burning Luke and The Darkest Dungeon guys about making a mash-up for table top, but that was a while ago and there hasn't been any news.  The gothic horror megadungeon is still available as a project (Bueller, Bueller?)  In the meantime, I'm going to scan some other editions on how well they anticipate things like stress and madness, versus light, food, and exhaustion.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Dwimmer-Game 15 - All Mooks Die in the End

Cast of Characters:

Bud, a level 3 dwarven cleric
Marthanes the Summoner, (level 4 Mage)
Tancrede, a level 3 cleric of Typhon (henchman)
Wulfengard,a level 4 dwarf fighter
Drev, a level 4 bard
Bart, a level 4 fighter
Mumford, a level 2 fighter
Malthena, a level 1 thief (henchman)
Akmed, a level 1 fighter
Collothus, the Thulian (mage 1)

"The Investors", the name the players have given themselves, had discovered a portal to the Eld homeworld of Aeron on level 3A of Dwimmermount near the end of the last game session; they defeated a patrol of Eld and Bugbears, and captured the Eld leader.  We ended that game outside the dungeon, with the players in the woods outside of town figuring out what to do with the Eld leader.

Marthanes insisted on keeping the Eld prisoner alive for debriefing; the Eld were basically immortal, and he surmised they'd be able to learn "Eld secret history" if they could get him to talk.  If you've read my review of the Dwimmermount book, you know that piecing together "secret history" is one of the great mechanics that's been added to the dungeon, and a few of the players have really focused on it as a motivation.

This objective, getting information from an Eld prisoner, forced the players (most of them teenagers) to work through a number of alternatives and options on the best way to get what they needed.  Some of the options, like intimidation or torture, you don’t exactly want your teenagers getting too excited about or describing in any detail, but the larger context of the problem forced them to do critical thinking, weighing alternatives, and strategy.  This is where tabletop gaming is such a great medium.

For example, would it be better to camp in the deep woods and do their 'nasty business' far away from town, or smuggle the Eld into Muntburg surreptitiously?  If they decided to smuggle the Eld, how could they get him into the town without the guards and authorities finding out they had a living Eld?  Could they charm the guards, or scale the walls at night, Sleep some wall guards, or hide or disguise the Eld somehow?

I enjoyed the debate and thought they came up with a clever solution all around.  First, they decided an ESP spell would be a better way to get information (from mind-reading) than torture or intimidation; there's hope for their ethical growth yet.  Second, they decided the best way to get the Eld into their cottage basement would be to smuggle him in the front gate, hidden in a wagon.  They Charmed and bribed a simple peddler out on the road, hid the unconscious Eld in a barrel, and got him in that way.  Drev, their Bard, started an impromptu musical performance near the gate on the way in, distracting the guards with his charisma (and stories of the party's latest exploits) to make it easy for the peddler to slip through the gate without much scrutiny.

While a few new players have joined, we haven't seen one of them in a long time, meaning his character is a near-permanent resident of Muntburg and the cottage.  So Parquas the Elf has been tasked with keeping the Eld prisoner secure and fed.  The rest of the players planned a journey to Adamas to buy an ESP spell for addition to Marthanes book.  They had a treasure map to the Adleigh Woods, something they've been sitting on since the first game session, and decided this was the time to go find the lost treasure, while they were near Adamas.  (A number of characters were close to leveling up, so they figured recovering a sizable treasure would push them over the top).

I don’t know if I've mentioned it before, Simon Forster (fellow blogger and ACKS-phile) published a book of lairs for ACKS on RPGNow (Book of Lairs); it's nicely done and is a handy tool for wilderness lairs and treasure maps.  I love these kinds of supplements for quick use at the table.  I pulled a lair to use as the destination right from the book, an old tomb filled with mummies on a misty island out on a pond.

In theory, the players only had to fight a mummy at a time, if they explored carefully, posted guards, and kept their wits.  Mummies are pretty dangerous to low level characters, since their paralyzing fear can (and did) take out huge chunks of the party.  In this case, they defeated the first mummy fairly easily, then allowed their Protection from Evil spell to lapse, started bickering and fooling around, as they're kids, and thus were completely surprised when another 2 mummies shambled out of the darkness behind them, paralyzing just about everyone.

Drev, the bard, ended up dragging Marthanes away from the mummies, who were stooped and rending falling characters, spreading mummy rot and death.  Marthanes ended up summoning two heroes and a squad of berserkers, and sending them in to fight the mummies.  "Pick up any weapon off the ground", he exhorted, "It was probably dropped by one of our frightened guys and is enchanted".  Meanwhile, Drev continued to look for openings to drag other guys out of the room so they could recover from Mummy-Fear and attempt to re-enter the fray.  This one was clearly pointing towards being a full on TPK until Drev (one of the adult gamers) settled on the plan of saving Marthanes first, getting Marthanes to send in some level 4 heroes and occupy the mummies, so he could pull more guys out of the fray.  They owe that guy big time, and he single-handed prevented a restart to the campaign.

This game ended with two dead henchmen (Collothus, the ancient Thulian they freed from a stasis tube), and Akmed, the Volmarian mook that went from zero level mercenary to first level fighter over the past few sessions. All mooks die in the end.  The survivors were beaten badly and suffering from Mummy Rot.