A few weeks ago, I committed to running Dungeon Crawl Classics for International Tabletop Game Day at Better World Books - Goshen.
Not knowing who might be there, I kept my options open, bringing:
- Barrowmaze by Greg Gillespie
- DCC Core Rulebook’s Portal Under the Stars by Joseph Goodman
- Hole in the Sky by Brendan LeSalle
The table had 4 new faces and a returning player. I went with the standby of “Portal Under the Stars.”
Jose was jilting his weekly group, that was playing in the room next door, to instead play in DCC. He is a 9th grader, and plays with the insight of a veteran OSR gamer.
Christina and Joe were new to tabletop RPGs and interested (asking if they could speak in accents, to which I said “Absolutely!”). Tim had prior experience years ago; And I believe EJ had also played awhile ago.
Spoilers for Portal Under the Stars
A portion of “Portal Under the Stars” by Doug Kovacs
The Cast: Kathulu - chaotic jester, luck 13; Kahn - neutral cheesemaker, luck 8; Carlos - neutral weaver, luck 10; Mark - neutral mendicant, luck 9; Dave - neutral parsnip farmer, luck 11; Steve - lawful caravan guard, luck 5; Medic - lawful healer, luck 12; Randy - chaotic rice farmer, luck 7; Rick - lawful potato farmer, luck 16; Frodo - chaotic halfling chicken butcher, luck 14; Gimli - chaotic dwarven rat-catcher, luck 8; Beorn - neutral woodcutter, luck 10; Riddick - neutral guild beggar, luck 11; Trinity - chaotic halfling dyer, luck 16; Tim - lawful slave, luck 15; Ronin - lawful human, luck 15; Daphney - chaotic butcher, luck 10; Sparkles - lawful weaver, luck 10; Cup Cake - neutral cobbler, luck 9; Rainbow Sunshine - chaotic alchemist, luck 12
The characters are serfs for a local dirt baron, Lord Jacob III; In fact the 20 of them are the entire village. The village, Treehill, is south of Oakwood Mire and the King’s Way, tucked between the woods and the northern reach of the Barrow Ward.
Lord Jacob III is dying. With no heir he is releasing them from their toil and serfdom. He speaks of a portal he saw in his youth and grand treasure. And our adventurers are off.
They approach the menhir archway, and see a passageway to another locale. Lighting Steve’s lantern, Steve and Rick venture forward, seeking to bash in the door. A natural 20 on a Strength check, and the door bursts. The success is momentary as a jet of flame incinerates a Steve.
I have begun asking players to place yellow d4s on their character sheets to represent who has light sources. I may break out my Torchbearer Deck to give them torch or lanter cards.
Death Count: 1
With the door open, they see 4 armored and armed sentinel statues. Rick enters the room, and the statue throws a spear but misses. Gimli enters to retrieve the spear, and another launches and skewers him to the wall.
They hatch a plan, they’ll throw a grappling hook onto one of the remaining spears and hope to break or dislodge it. A throw, and its stuck and they can’t recall the grappling hook. With a healthy bit of luck Frodo sneaks over, and lodges the hook on the spear. And pull! The spear breaks.
Frodo then moves along the back wall, and climbs the statue, noting that the armor is not part of the statue. He climbs on the statue dislodges the spear. The arm springs, but the spear fires harmlessly hitting the door.
They loot Gimli, divvy up the 3 spears, and begin donning the scale male.
Death Count: 2
Spinning Statue of the Astrologer Warlord
They throw a goose into the room. Inside is a large statue with intelligent eyes. The statue spins and points to the goose. The goose retreats into a corner of the room.
With the statue hopefully distracted, Kathulu and Frodo attempt to sneak up to the western door. Success!
They fiddle with the door. Their luck runs out, and the statue spins. Initiative! The statue wins, but its flames fail to hit as Kathulu and Frodo dive into the corridor. The flames continue to burn and they press further down the passageway.
The others begin planning how to blind the statue, and as they begin setting their plan in motion, the flames die out.
Ronin goes to retrieve the goose, and heads to the eastern door. The statue spins, points, and clicks. No flames.
Frodo and Kathulu open the door. Frodo, with infravision, sees the demon snake, and both hear the cursing. Initiative! A quick thinking Kathulu slams the door shut. They head back to the large room, diving through the smoldering wooden door.
Meanwhile, Ronin is opening the eastern door, and the rest of the party are waiting. The room is shadowy, dark, and smells of death. Ronin throws the goose into the room. He sees piles of bones animate. Closing the door, he hears the death squawk of the goose.
Death Count: 2 + a goose
With one way forward, they open the door to a dimly lit room. In the room are several columns, a pool, and 6 crystalline creatures ambling around the room. With the door open, the villagers notice the creatures turn towards them.
Daphney steps up to push one into the water with her 10’ pole. She misses and the creature continues ambling towards the lantern bearer. Rick steps up to intercede, bashing the creature with his spear. It turns and backhands him, killing him outright.
The creatures continue migrating towards the light. Quick thinking Rainbow Sunshine takes the lantern and heads into the room with the statue. Once the creatures congregate around the lantern, she uses her ten foot pole to lift the lantern. With lantern in hand she quickly heads back to the pool, closing the door behind her.
Meanwhile three of the other villagers begin plucking crystals from the pool, noting an occasional air bubble that comes up after they free a crystal. After getting about 4 crystals free, they decide to explore the door in the corner.
It’s a spiral staircase heading down.
Death Count: 3 + a goose
The Miniatures Room
They take the stairs down and open a door. A quick cursory exploration, and the adventurers find 4 silver figurines. They make note of a room full of crude clay figurines and two tables depicting a regional battlefield. The region looks to be their local village.
Satisfied, they proceed to the door at the other end of the room.
Kathulu approaches the door, and opens it. Seeing a pulsing light, a throne with a sitting terra cotta warrior, 7 generals, and 70 foot soldiers. He stood in awe for a moment. Then he heard “Attack!”
The foot soldiers begin climbing out of the pit. The adventurers bard the door and plan to hold their position. The thought is that these soldiers will be brittle and easy to defeat.
They circle up to defend the choke point of the door. And the foot soldiers come. Daphne scores a quick and solid hit, but does not shatter the soldier (as they all hoped). Their concern grows, but the villagers insist on pressing the attack…to little effect.
Two warriors attack, and a villager falls. I stated that the warriors were able to push a third person into position to attack. Another adventurer falls, and a fourth warrior presses into position.
Another round of attacks, and the first warrior falls. But the foot soldier’s counter attack is grim, as the terra cotta foot soldiers slay 3 villagers. The group’s morale breaks and they begin to flee. Some cautiously, others in a panic. The lantern bearer takes off running, and a foot soldier cuts them down. The lantern drops, the soldiers kick it and the oil catches fire. The rout is on!
The foot soldiers charge and slaughter those that did not all out retreat (though one is missed and able to squeak away).
Death Count: 10 + a goose
Fleeing up the stars to the dimly lit, there is a panic. Speed is on their side, so they keep running. They get to the southern door of the pool room. Opening the door, they see the six crystalline creatures waiting to return to the pool room.
Not wanting to aggravate the peaceful creatures, they wait for them to issue into the pool room. All the while, in the dimness of this pool room they hear the foot soldiers battering at the door.
In a “Hears Johnny” moment, a foot soldier splinters a part of the door, he’s lost his arm to the battering. In another quick moment, the door bursts and the soldiers charge forth. The adventurers, wasting no time, run into the large statue room, close the door and rely on Frodo to guide them with his infravision.
Frodo notes that the eastern door shows signs of something forcing its way through.
Panting, they make it outside. They have a single a single crystal, a few silver figurines, and a fine enameled scale armor to show for their adventures and bloodshed.
I offered to keep the surviving characters and made sure that everyone knew about the regular Thursday night games. There was a definite interest.
Ten character sheets, each stamped with a “Death” and their cause recorded.
- To Steve, burned by a trapped door
- To Gimli, speared through the back
- To Rick, backhanded by a crystalline creature
- To Mark, Kahn, Beorn, and Kathulu, struck down in the first press of the foot soldiers
- To Medic and Rainbow Sunshine, struck down as they fled
The Portal Under the Stars may seem un-winnable unless the players are greedy murder hobos willing to take risks.
Both times I’ve run Portal Under the Stars, it has ended in a rout. My first running was a TPK (total party kill). In this session, the characters took off running.
In both play throughs, each group has plucked a handful of crystals from the pool. But none of them have been greedy, and instead stop after three or so. I do make sure to describe a surfacing air bubble or two coming from the dislodged crystal. I think this builds on the observations that players are always mindful of the passage of time. If plucking the crystal was a 10 second activity, instead of two minutes, they’d pillage that pool.
Also, the demon snake room is a quick “Shut the Door” encounter. Likewise, the burial room of the generals is a quick “Shut the Door” encounter.
Without greed and bloodlust, the final encounter is almost unbeatable. But everyone has enjoyed the bloodbath regardless.
Also, as we work through exploration and procedures, I’m enjoying drawing attention to their light situation:
- Who has the lantern?
- How long has it been burning?
- When the torchbearer falls, does the light go out?
It is clear to me that these considerations add dramatic tension to the session.