About takeonrules

I'm an avid face to face gamer (RPGs, Boardgames, and Card games), though I'm contemplating using hangouts for gaming. I work for the Univeristy of Notre Dame. Sometimes I blog about work more often I blog about games. I have three children, a step-daughter, and a loving & lovely wife.

Facilitating better RPG combats

The best sessions I’ve ever played involved player characters bringing an agenda and reaching for it. They take their situation, charge forward, and set events in motion.

Characters often achieve their goals through conflict. In most games, that means combat. Characters will also quest for relics, knowledge, boons, etc. Or through subterfuge, try to avoid overt conflict.

For now I’m focusing on combat.

Combat

The best combats have had one or both of the following:

  • A goal other than “destroy the enemy.”
  • Multiple paths of engagement

If the characters want a physical object, assume they will execute a “smash and grab” plan. They must bypass the opposition. Let the players choose and plan how they do that.

Provide multiple paths to engage in the combat – a main entrance and a side entrance if you will. I personally enjoy when characters agree to attack a common point, but one group goes this way and the other goes that way. The players can make meaningful choices and plans; And they will discuss this in front of you. Listen to what they say. Build on that in the future.

You’ll also want to consider the following procedures:

  • Morale – in meeting heavy resistance, do we want to continue?
  • Chase – with the opposition routed, do we want to give pursuit?

Morale Procedure

Adding Morale checks into combat helps show that outcomes can vary. Morale checks also telegraph information to the players:

  • We can back down from a fight
  • Our opposition has yet to crack, perhaps we should reconsider our approach

Morale provides another strategy the players can use: strike hard and gamble on triggering a morale check. Surprise and planning become very important.

I find morale harder to remember when I use a set initiative for a combat. I have adopted either group initiative or re-rolling initiative each round. This creates another natural point to check morale.

I also enjoyed the “bloodied” mechanic of 4E; a clear indicator of the toughness of the opposition.

Chase Procedure

The chase procedure facilitates transitioning out of combat-mode and back to exploration or role-playing mode. Without a chase procedure, you either hand-wave the retreat or remain in initiative order, with characters moving tens of feet at a time.

By staying in initiative order you remain longer in the combat-mode – a more “precise” blow-by-blow mode that requires more time to play out. Combat-mode also reinforces slaying the opposition as the primary goal.

The 5th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide has procedures for chases. As does Labyrinth Lord. They have different approaches, but are useful in considering how you think about chases.

At present my procedures for chases are ad hoc. If the PCs choose to flee, I let them get away. But I want to tighten that up.

Update: Take a look at David Black‘s “Snakes & Swords” chase procedures. I’m adopting this!

Conclusion

In a future post, I’ll expand from the conflict to the character agenda.

Meanwhile, I encourage you to take a look at Burning Wheel’s “Range and Cover” subsystem. It has group initiative, morale, and chase all baked into a dangerous skirmish-style subsystem.

Raiding the Ziggurat of Dis Pater

Previous session report

Preamble

As with each open game table session, I never know the roster of players, nor the specifics of what I will run. In my preparation, I scrounge for random tables, write generators, procedures, and rumor tables.

To prepare for anything I did the following:

With a rumor table and the fallout from carousing, I knew I’d have fodder for this session.

Two of the characters leveled up:

  • Yeasty became a Bard (from Crawl #6)
  • Dave became a bow wielding Ranger (from Crawl #6)

Joan checked Ahm-al’s Trauma score of 1, and passed. Ahm-al still has energy to continue adventuring. (See here for more details on Trauma and Retirement)

The Cast

Character Class (Profession) Level Luck Alignment Player
Ahm-al the Witness of Cthulhu Cleric (Guild Beggar) 1 12 Neutral Joan
Ungo the Beggar Thief (?) 1 13 Neutral Joan
Obexo the Agent Dwarf (Stonemason) 1 13 Lawful Aidan
Strove (Rutabega farmer) 0 13 Neutral Aidan
Spike the Acolyte of Ramat Cleric (Herbalish) 1 12 Lawful Greg
Fredora (?) 0 14 Neutral Greg
Tink (jeweler) 0 14 Neutral Greg
Albert (?) 0 13 Lawful Sam
Dave Ranger (Woodsmen) 1 12 Neutral Sam
Badger’s Bane Thief (?) 1 10 Chaotic Marlene
Yeasty Bard (Baker) 1 15 Neutral Marlene
Mainge (Beggar) 0 13 Lawful Marlene
Robin (?) 0 6 Lawful Luke
Mason Stone Dwarf (Stone mason) 0 10 Neutral Luke
Shear Madness (Barber) 0 9 Chaotic Luke
Al (?) 0 6 Lawful Erin
Boo (?) 0 6 Chaotic Erin
Cap (?) 0 14 Chaotic Erin
Dog (?) 0 10 Neutral Erin

Carousing

I offered the players a chance to carouse. Six opted to carouse (Tink, Ahm-al, Obexo, Ungo, Dave, Strove); The following failed their DC 15 Will save:

  • Ahm-al stumbles into a minor misunderstanding with local authorities. Roll a Personality check. Success indicates a fine of 2d6 x 15gp. Failure (or inability to pay the fine) indicates 1d6 days in the pokey.
  • Obexo, the teatotaler dwarf, burns carouses while going to theater performances, makes lewd advances at a witch or conjure-man. Succeed at a DC 15 Will save or they turn you into a pig. Pick a character played by the player on your left. That character can understand you; For everyone else it’s squeals and oinks.
  • Ungo, despite his best efforts, you found love in your latest dalliance. 75% chance they’re already married.

Rumors

Each player rolled on the Rumor Table that I setup for Steelhart. They got the following results:

  • “Last month, one of the caves had an explosion. To this day, you can hear the howls of the dead.”
  • “The other night, I was drinking and this elf came in. Someone had mugged him, his ears clipped and bleeding.”
  • “I heard that the Guild Elders are forcing the old Master Guilder, Gentle Steve, to step aside. He may still lead the Guardians Guild.”
  • “Yesterday, or the day before, I heard a guy talking about finding a cache of old silver coins in the cliffs.”
  • “I heard that someone to the west found treasures from a buried king.”
  • “Hey, you’re new here…you looking to get rich? I need to know if this interests you? Any concerns about legality?”

Two of the players rolled the same result.

Further Details of Steelhart

As players wrap up their character advancement, reviewing rumors, and thinking on their carousing results, I added bits of information about Steelhart.

Map of city, river, lake, cliffs, streams, and mines

Steelhart – with mixed perspective because I couldn’t decide

The guilds rule Steelhart. And in the four days of carousing they learn aspects of Steelhart.

The Gods with temple in Steelhart are:

  • Tses the Arbitrator who Waits – Lawful, responsible for contracts of Steelhart
  • Dis Pater – Lawful God of Death, the Underworld, & Riches
  • Brigid – Lawful Triple Goddess of Fire, Water, Poetry, & Craft

Up beyond the cliff, active mines produce ore. Workers pole the ore along the Sludge Trails by pole and rafts. From there it careens over the water fall into the Sludge; Workers further sift and sort the ore in the Sludge.

The smell of sulfur permeates the city even as it buzzes in anticipation of next month’s Metal Faire.

Dealing with Carousing

Ungo had fallen for Anga, a married woman. “And what was it about Anga that Ungo fell in love with?”

“Her flowing green and purple hair. And her radiant emerald eyes.”

A Swine Time Was Had

Obexo worked with Dave to track down the witch. They came to her urban three story shop, with herbs and meats hanging in the window and throughout the shop. The witch, a 19 year old woman with a walking stick, greets Dave. She goes for her butchers knife, slamming it on a chopping block, asking Dave if he came for bacon.

Obexo, through Dave, pleads for her to lift the curse. He will give her the Star Crystal if she restores him. Her eyes light up with recognition, and she restores Obexo.

In the Jailhouse Now

While in jail, Ahm-al strikes up conversations with followers of Dis Pater. A moment of doubt passes for Ahm-al.

Should Ahm-al be following Cthulhu? A god that so often disapproves of any and all his requests.

Ahm-al would need to shift alignments. Joan, Ahm-al’s player, weighs the decision as the other players talk about a heist against the temple of Dis Pater. Would Ahm-al convert? If so, what would he do about the planned heist? Ultimately, Ahm-al feigns interest in learning more about Dis Pater to aid in the heist. And Cthulhu turns a bit in its sleep.

Following up on the Rumors

Robyn and Mason Stone expressed interest in the heist; and pressed on with some role-playing.

A noble, with airs of superiority, wanted someone to strike at the wealth of a rival merchant. In the Ziggurat of Dis Pater the merchant had deposited his wealth. During the funeral ceremony of the Lesser Priestess Pelendra, they could break in and steal it.

The noble tells them to look for the wealth in the vault on the main floor (in a lapse of judgement, no one asks how to identify said wealth; but I can always inject that later). Their co-conspirator wants to bankrupt his rival; He does not even want the rival’s wealth.

The noble then gives them a description and directions to a safe house (a two story, tile roofed house with a flag that has a squid emblem).

Here we introduce Erin, playing her first RPG session. Her characters know that the top level of the ziggurat houses the Blessed Helmet of Dis Pater. They have also worshipped in the lower level of the Ziggurat of Dis Pater; A large open room with support columns, tapestries, and braziers.

The Heist

A multi-hour funeral ceremony and procession through the large city park outside the ziggurat will honor the Lesser Priestess. The participants walked to slow drum beats, each naked except for a helmet.

They plan to sneak up behind the ziggurat, on the other side of the procession. Then cut through the box wood labyrinth and enter the temple while the majority of priests and priestesses attend the funeral.

Some of the characters opted to not join. The following characters went forth to loot the temple: Ahm-al, Ungo, Obexo, Strove, Fredora, Dave, Badger’s Bane, Yeasty, Robin, Mason Stone, Shear Madness, Al, and Cap.

The Approach

They approach the ziggurat, Ahm-al and Robin scout ahead, noting two naked guards with helms and staves. A bit of discussion and they strip down, don helmets from the group, and approach. “We’re here to take over. You can go to the funeral now.”

The guards accept the order, and leave their post. The rest of the adventurers wait, and then flood into the entrance of the ziggurat.

Crossing the entrance they find a 10′ x 10′ room with a stone beaded curtain on the other end. One wall has etchings of the underworld. The other has etchings of dancing skeletons. The group moves through the beads and onto a landing and head downstairs.

Lower Level

They light a torch and a few braziers in the main area of worship. Splitting up they explore a few alcoves that appear to be the quarters for acolytes. Others approach and investigate the obsidian altar and large chest for offerings.

Obexo smells gold and silver both in the large chest and behind a tapestry. Ungo fails to pick the lock on the chest. Badger’s Bane tries, but snaps her thieves tools in the lock.

In one alcove, Robin finds a silver dip pen, some silver coins, and a foot locker with sandals, undergarments, a purple robe, and a purple cloak. He takes the robe and cloak.

In the other alcove, Fredora notes a small box. Inside she finds a gold band and a stack of letters written from a Lady Suzanne to Emory; The letters express Lady Suzanne’s pleading for Emory to come back. In the foot locker Fredora finds sandals, undergarments, a purple robe, and a purple cloak. She takes the gold band, robe, and cloak.

A pencil map

Ground Floor of Ziggurat of Dis Pater

Up to the Main Floor

Obexo’s nose leads him up the stairs and to the door right across from the stairs. Approaching, he knocks. A voice responds “Yeah? Who’s there?”

“Just checking if you need anything.”

“Nah, we’re good.”

Next Room

The party proceeds to the right and enter the next room.

Inside they find a bed, footlocker, a small table with lamp, oil, and a devotional book to Dis Pater. In the footlocker is the now standard sandal, undergarments, purple robes, and purple cloak. This also has a purple headband with an embroidered blue eye.

Cap looks under the bed and sees an etching on the floor. Above the etching, tucked under a support, Cap finds a small leather box. She pulls it out and opens it. Inside she finds a viridian pearl and a small obsidian goat figurine.

They take the pearl, figurine, cloak, and robes.

Moving the bed, they see four lines etched into the floor.

Stone Etching of Orcus

Stone Etching of Orcus

A clear sign of Orcus.

To the Next Room

They move further down the hall and enter a dorm room. Numerous footlockers and bunk beds. They grab the robes and cloaks.

Further down the hallway, they find stairs heading up. They double back.

Meanwhile, Outside

The Greater Priestess came back to the Ziggurat, engaging in a brief conversation with Ahm-al and Robin, before she went into the temple. Ahm-al pauses a moment and follows. The Greater Priestess stands past the beaded door. Hand outstretched touching a stone. She withdraws her hand. And asks “Yes?”

Ahm-al offers a quick apology and returns to his post. Robin and Ahm-al wait 10 minutes, then grab their gear, put on their clothes, and head into the worship area to follow where their friends went. See one of the tapestries by the altar somewhat astray, they push it aside, climb the spiral staircase and bump into their party.

Back to the Main Floor

A pencil map

Main Floor of Ziggurat of Dis Pater

They circle up and agree to bust into the vault. But they will need a plan. When in doubt, FIRE!

Into the Vault

Not feeling well, Joan left, taking Ungo and Ahm-al with her. We rationalized that they opted to return to the watch.

Fredora decides to smoke the guards out. She pours oil on the door and starts fanning the smoke underneath.

Minutes later, they offer to help the guards get out. They hear the bar to the door lift. As the door opens, Obexo says “I get out of the doorway.” Everyone else follows suit. The door opens and 3 crossbow bolts whiz by, hitting the stairs. They now hear the telltale ringing of an alarm bell.

Initiative! Note: For such large groups, I’ve adopted group initiative. Each round, each side rolls. The winning side goes then the losing side. The adventurers win out. Yeasty, Robin, Al, and Boo charge in. One of the five guards falls. They notice the fifth guard pulling on a rope ringing an alarm bell.

From the back ranks, Robin throws his torch into the melee. And rolls a natural 20. On his critical result he rolls a 3 – “Foe jabbed in the eye! Ugly bruising and inflict +1d4 damage with this strike.” The table erupts in celebration as the torch strikes flame end into the hapless foes eye socket, striking him dead.

The guards respond, inflicting minor damage (no one collapses). Three tense rounds of back and forth, most attacks missing, but a few hit their mark. On the fourth round, the five guards lie dead and none of the adventurers have fallen.

Alas, I forgot to check morale, meaning the guards fought to the death. Surrendering guards would have complicated the escape.

Further Exploration

Fredora heads down the other side of the floor. Exploring rooms. Again standard issue, footlocker, oil, lamp, table, bed.

Towards the end of the hall, they find a locked door. Fredora knocks, yells “Hey there’s a fire!”

A male acolyte, in purple robes and cloak stumbles out. Perspiring, with blood-shot eyes, confusion, and slurred speech he does his best to help put out the fire. I lost track of this NPC during the extreme chaos of the session; Even though he wouldn’t have done much to disrupt the heist.

Back to the Combat

Having dispatched the guards, they turn their attention to the three stone chests. I clarify everyone’s location on the map. During the fight, Obexo and Fredora had started exploring the other passage. Strove, Badger’s Bane, and Al standing watching the hallway by the stairs, keeping watch.

Dave, Yeasty, Robin, Mason Stone, Shear Madness, and Cap decide to loot the stone chests. Robin opens the chest and blast of poisonous gas erupts. I grab 4d6, roll an 11, and call for a DC 15 Fortitude save. Dave, Yeasty and Robin fail their save (and each take 11 damage).

I explain that the poison cloud continues hanging in the air. They pause and discuss a plan. I help narrow down the options:

  • If you leave the cloud now you won’t get hurt
  • If you stay (or pull a friend out) you’ll need to make a check

Mason Stone leaves the cloud. Shear Madness tries to pull Robin out but fails their save, and dies. And Cap pulls out Dave.

A Bit More Side Exploration

Obexo and Fredora head down to the locked door. They bust it open and see a narrow hallway with paintings of naked helm-wearing men and women, each standing in that pose reserved for the nobility of the Middle Ages.

The high priestesses room has a large bed, armoire, writing desk with lamp and oil. In the corner of the room they also see a small statue of a medusa. Opening the armoire, they find three helmets:

  • A plain steel conical helmet
  • A round steel cap with cat ears
  • A helmet with rams horns curling down and back

Looking for secret doors, Badger’s Bane jabs a dagger into each painting, hitting stone in all but the last one. The last one feels like wood. She looks around and finds the secret door and the release. Cracking the door, she sees the stone beaded curtain of the main entrance.

Recovering Some Bodies

Cap rolls Dave’s body over. Dave lets out a cough (losing a point of Stamina, and gaining a point Trauma). Mason Stone, wanting the magic short sword from Robin, goes back in. As does Cap, trying to rescue Yeasty. They take precautions, but Mason Stone fails his save. Cap pulls Yeasty out, rolls her over, and sees death has claimed Yeasty.

The rest of the party leaves the room and lets the cloud dissipate. They loot the stone chest. Grabbing a dozen or so small leather boxes.

Obexo starts laying out options to get out of there. They settle on a plan. They will go to the high priestesses room, wait for the guards to come into the temple (going downstairs), then sneak out through the main entrance.

To the Safe House

The guards come, lead by the high priestess. She leads them through the stone-bead door and down the stairs. The adventurers stumble out, all dressed in purple robes and cloaks. Fredora scampers out saying that people attacked the temple. Then Ubexo with a believable tale. Badger’s Bane, Cap, and Al then come out with Dave between their arms.

The gathering crowd, partially clad in sheets or whatever they could find, looks to help Dave. With a bit of coaxing 4 towns people offer to help get Dave to a doctor. Badger’s Bane leads them to the safe house; Asking one person to fetch some water.

At the safe house, they ambush their rescuers. Two fall, but the third flees into the streets, surviving two failed attacks. Fredora throws a spear at the fleeing person in the city street. The players ask if anyone sees it. I call for a Luck check (roll under). Fredora’s character rolls a 1. Nope. Not a soul saw what happened.

We draw the session to a close on the evening of the 18th of Spring’s Laugh (Setday).

In Memoriam

  • To Yeasty, Robin, and Shear Madness who died in a cloud of poison.
  • To Mason Stone who attempted to recover the body but inhaled the lingering cloud of poison

Resources Used

Aside from the Dungeon Crawl Classic core book

Observations

Again, I had a large table (7 players and 19 characters). Through most of it, players opted to play a subset of their characters. Six characters abstained. Two more kept guard. Leaving 11 to explore the ziggurat.

I ask everyone to flip over the character sheets of characters not present in the current “scene.” It helps as a visual cue.

Blending into a crowd of naked people ran contrary to equipping for a bank robbery style heist. The single random aspect (a naked religious procession) from the Tome of Adventure Design help imprint this session on my mind.

From the second session the players have heard “Beware, beware the eyes of green.” They keep finding emeralds, viridian pearls, and now Anga the married love of Ungo.

Group initiative continues to shine. I noticed some confusion as most of the players come from the individual initiative systems and assume I will call them to act. I may adopt the Veins of the Earth rule about whomever holds the torch calls out when other characters act.

The Heist system provided a solid framework for an impromptu session. Throughout the session, I incremented the Heat die, and rolled it with regularity. Most of the time rolling below a 4. Regardless, the Heist system helped frame an evening of adventure.

Consequences to Consider

  • The High Priestess goes looking for the people she saw
    • What befalls the bodies of the adventures that the party left behind?
    • What does the temple say happened?
      • Will they acknowledge the robbery?
      • What will they do behind the scenes?
  • How will the wrath of Dis Pater manifest?
  • How does the city respond to the attacks?
  • Will Anga’s spouse respond with jealousy? vengeance? relief?
  • What will the cultist of Orcus do? Do others in town worship Orcus?

Things to Do

I asked the following in the DCC RPG group on Google+ before posting this session report:

In last night’s session, the characters robbed the temple of Dis Pater. They broke into the safe room and absconded with 12 or so leather safe deposit boxes (of 200 or so); The boxes measure 6″ x 5″ x 2″ (about the size of Veins of the Earth). The safe deposit boxes each varied in weight. Please help me create a random table of “What’s in the safe deposit box?” Need to find a random encounter table for Steelhart.

Going Local

It has been almost 6 years since I first attended GenCon with Jenny (my spouse).

We played in Games on Demand; what was then a small operation. Each of the following 4 years, I became more involved. Helping organize and host Games on Demand at both Origins and GenCon. I met several friends, too many of whom live far away (snif, snif Albuquerque snif, snif).

Two years ago, I stepped away from Games on Demand to redirect the vacation time I was spending to instead help grow Jenny’s business.

A blonde haired woma, in a gnome conical hat, smelling flowers.

She is the sole proprietor of The Soapy Gnome, a bath and body care business specializing in bringing cozy to your everyday moments. Since 2015, we’ve had a retail shop in Goshen, a small thriving northern Indiana town.

For the last four years, we have had a booth at our local farmer’s market. More often than not, I am the one selling our handcrafted buttermilk soap at the market. And I love it; Each Saturday I see friends and neighbors, have a delicious breakfast at Anna’s Bread, and catch up with Taproot Tees (my booth neighbor).

Some people stand up a Patreon to support their blogging; I’d like you to instead consider ordering your next bar of soap from the Soapy Gnome. Each sale helps fuel our creative endeavors, one of which is this blog. Another is Goshen Women’s Mastermind, a local network of women entrepreneurs founded by Jenny.

Postscript

I may get to GenCon or Origins again; I know I will feel them calling. For now, I am content to spend time organizing local public RPG sessions and ensuring that my local gaming scene continues to grow.

A Slow Path to Dungeon Crawl Classics

While out visiting my brother and sister-in-law, I bought Dungeon Crawl Classics in Lawrence, Kansas in October 2012. The art was captivating (and I should’ve bought the Easley cover). But the rules were not yet for me; I was deep into Dungeon World and felt the DCC book to be rather intimidating.

The game lingered on my shelf for years. I’d pull it out to look at the art, but it never took hold. Then in August of 2015, something changed.

Fate-based games were tiresome and predictable (see Fate Point Economy: All the Glories of Accounting and Fiduciary Obligations). Dungeon World’s shimmer and shine as a new GMing approach had worn thin (It took 18 more months to outline in a blog post a primary issue I have with Dungeon World.)

I was looking at running a new campaign, and DCC made the short list (but was still a dark horse, I think because of the funky dice). But 5th Edition hit and I wanted to give that a spin. I even set up rules for a 5th Edition Character funnel (and should revise those rules based on my observations.)

That campaign fizzled due to scheduling conflicts amongst the players; Also, Out of the Abyss is a hot mess and requires a lot of organizational effort.

A few months passed, and I started playing in a 5E game at Better World Books in Goshen. The group was rather large, combats moved at a glacial pace, and the campaign style was not for me. But it didn’t matter who showed up, the DM ran regardless.

During this time, I was listening to the Save or Die podcast, and I couldn’t help but not GM Jim’s exuberant praise of DCC.

I stopped going to those 5E sessions, as a perfect scheduling storm occurred. I had a chance to start a Burning Wheel campaign based on an idea I had been noodling on for years. We set the group, cleared schedules, and then life shifted and the campaign stopped.

During that short-lived campaign, I saw the Road Crew kits that Goodman Games provided. I decided to run a game to get some swag. On one of the Thursdays when the D&D group wasn’t playing, scheduled and ran a DCC Funnel. At this point, I had never played nor judged DCC.

I left that session energized and excited. My 5th Edition funnel was a pale comparison to the DCC funnel experience. The session felt part Looney Toons and part B-Horror film (abbreviated session write-up for Portal Under the Stars).

As winter passed, I was delving further into OSR options, working a modified Whitehack and writing my own FLGS Quickstart Rules. By this time, I had listened to all of the Save or Die episodes, and moved on to Spellburn. I love Jim Wampler’s podcast energy and enthusiasm.

And that’s when DCC clicked. I re-opened the books, and saw the game for what it was – an intriguing and energizing paradox.

A rules light system in a book that could maim a person. A game that eschews balance in favor of judgement calls and wild randomness. Where death is memorable and an inevitable stepping stone in the campaign story arc. And how a simple mechanic, the Might Deed, can obviate all of the feat chains of other game systems. Where players can get anything they want if they are willing to quest for it!

Now, I am running a regular DCC drop in campaign. I write up session reports, session preparation, and other procedures for the game. I am enjoying it. If the revolving and returning players are any indicator, so are the other players.

It’s a bit chaotic digging through my binder full of characters, never quite knowing what the session will look like, but I enjoy those challenges and improvisations. I’m running from a mix of modules, my own procedures, and improvisation.

Making Their Way to Steelhart

Previous session report | Next session report

Preamble

I went around the table, asking for character names, luck scores, and alignments.

As per my preparation and beginning session procedures:

  • I asked the unluckiest character to choose a number between 1 and 16. He picked 9. I then rolled a d16 and got a 9. I’m all smiles – but more on that in future session reports or planning documents.
  • I rolled on the Guess Who’s Coming to Bitterweed Barrow, and rolled a 21; Sylle Ru and Kreig, one of the Jarl Henrick’s thegns, are paying a visit to Bitterweed Barrow. (Upon reviewing the session, I decided that they would arrive on the 10th of Spring’s Laugh).

I also explained two new house rules:

  • Dwarves see in grayscale, except for gold, silver, and crystals (e.g. gems)
  • Halflings may spend 30 minutes eating (one day of rations), drinking, or smoking pipeleaf to regain 1 point of Luck.

The Cast

7 people gathered around a table with character sheets, books, and dice.

The game table ready to venture to Steelhart

Character Class (Profession) Level Luck Alignment Player
Ahm-al the Witness of Cthulhu Cleric (Guild Beggar) 1 ? Neutral Joan
Ungo the Beggar Thief (?) 1 ? Neutral Joan
Obexo the Agent Dwarf (Stonemason) 1 ? Lawful Aidan
Strove (Rutabega farmer) 0 13 Neutral Aidan
Spike the Acolyte of Ramat Cleric (Herbalish) 1 ? Lawful Greg
Fredora (?) 0 14 Neutral Greg
Tink (jeweler) 0 14 Neutral Greg
Argyle (Tax-collector) 0 ? Chaotic Nick
Ralph (Radish-farmer) 0 9 Neutral Nick
Marcus (Mercenary) 0 9 Neutral Nick
Albert (?) 0 13 Lawful Sam
Dave (?) 0 12 Neutral Sam
Badger’s Bane Thief (?) 1 10 Chaotic Marlene
Yeasty (Baker) 0 15 Neutral Marlene
Mainge (Beggar) 0 13 Lawful Marlene
Robin (?) 0 6 Lawful Luke
Mason Stone Dwarf (Stone mason) 0 10 Neutral Luke
Shear Madness (Barber) 0 9 Chaotic Luke

The Session

Before the action starts, the adventurers that cleared the Tower of the Stargazier, traveled to Bitterweed Barrow to recruit help on the 7th of Spring’s Laugh. On the 8th they recruit some villagers, get supplies, and travel with them to Steelhart. They returned to the tower on the 9th. They agree to pay the hired hands – 0-level characters – 50 gp. Twenty-five before and 25 on arrival.

Looting the Tower

The session starts on the 10th of Spring’s Laugh (Amunday), as the adventurers begin looting the tower.

Emptying the tower. Everyone rolls percentiles going in and coming out. Lightning crackles around but does not hit anyone.

Follow the River to Steelhart

They encounter another marionette, a woman, standing on the lake shore looking at an island. The adventurers engage in a bit of conversation; As is usual, the language choices of the woman are awkward. Her name is Alice, and her shoulder keeps sticking up in a partial shrug. She asks for a ride as she hops on the wagon. Note: The first hex had a random encounter.

Continuing their travel along the riverbed and they see a triangle of menhirs up ahead on the bluff. As the wagon continues, they see a wild-haired creature standing amongst the stones; she is wielding a short sword. Note: The second hex had a random encounter.

At this, Alice, hops off the wagon and starts walking back the way they came, muttering “Welp, that’s enough for me.”

The adventurers draw closer. A raven roosting on one of the menhirs, takes flight. It heads in the direction of Steelhart.

The adventurers hail the woman, and strike up a conversation. The wild-haired woman grabs a walking cane and slowly approaches the wagon. As she draws close, they see twigs and brambles in her hair …and was that a mouse scampering out of her hair?

She introduces herself as Esther. She is performing a ritual to Mielikki in hopes of bringing rain to the neighboring village of Sunville. Paranoia is running rather high amongst the adventurers.

The characters ask questions about what she sacrifices; “Oh animals or other chattel of this world” responds Esther. She relies on the rain to wash away the blood.

One of the players asks if he can make some kind of check to see if she’s lying. I say “What do you think? Is she lying?” I don’t allow for any kind of check, and the players allow Esther to draw close.

They strike up a further conversation, asking her about Alice, the woman that left. Esther tells them that the village of Sunville banished Alice.

Alice was once normal, but about 3 months ago, she changed. Over the next 2 months, 3 children were stillborn. Instead of eyes, that had small tentacles. The village agreed and exiled Alice.

Esther asks if she can travel with them for awhile. They accept. And ask why Esther might be staring at the island on the lake?

Oh, there’s a legend that two lovers would meet under the cover of darkness on that island. For a year and a day, their rendezvous continued. They would meet amongst the columns and pillars of the ruins. Then one day, the man decided to come to the island early.

The man saw that what he thought were columns and pillars were infact statues of men and women, some eroded from time.

The characters continue, and Spike strikes up another conversation, asking about folk songs of Sunville. During this time a small contingent ascends the bluff to see if Sunville exists.

Sure enough there is a small village about a half-mile further from the river bed. They can see people toiling in the fields.

The party discusses spending the night in Sunville, but agree a wagon loaded with gold is too tempting of a target. So they continue for a few hours and break for camp.

Around the camp, Esther offers to make the soup. She springs into action as a grandma preparing for Easter dinner. Mixing both herbs from Spike and her pouches.

Some of the characters gather their own food, others opt to eat rations. I ask everyone that is eating her cooking to flip their character sheets over.

When he receives the bowl, Spike (a former herbalist), smells an unusual added herb – Mosshade. He comments and Esther responds “It’s to improve your fortitude for the travel.”

With the food eaten and watches set, I call for a Fortitude save on all characters who ate the soup and were taking first watch. Those that fail fall asleep.

Ahm-al and Argyle are the now awake on watch. Esther, biting her pinky finger tip clean off, reveals her curse, to those that did not eat her meal, she cursed with blindness until the next full moon of Ahurzda. The others will see their fortitude increased (+1 to Fortitude saves).

I call for saving throws from everyone that didn’t eat her food. Four characters end up blind. During this, Esther approaches Spike and with her bloody finger, draws a crescent on the left side of his forehead. Spike wipes the blood away, but a new mark remains.

Esther announces she’ll be returning to Sunville and departs. No one gives pursuit.

Both Spike and Ahm-al chant several prayers, beseeching Ramat and Cthuhlu to remove this blindness. Ahm-al cures one and Spike cures another. Cthulhu, less pleased, demands a follower and Strove is ready and eager to commit.

The Writ of Orcus

Over the next bit of travel, Argyle asks if anyone can read the Writ of Orcus from his dead friend (found in the Barrow Ward)? He unfurls the scroll, and Spike can read the ancient Ramati used to write the Writ of Orcus.

As Spike looks at the writ, the sun dims and he gains a distant vision of death and suffering. He closes the writ and asks that it not come out.

A Foreboding Cave

Note: I was not interested in having 7 players all rolling initiative and jumping focus around the table. I had the player who’s character had the highest initiatve roll for the entire group.

As the party continues along the riverbed, they come upon a powerful stench and a cave about 100′ away. They halt the wagon, and approach with caution. They see bone fragments, and see dung with the powder sign that part of the creatures diet is bones.

They assess that something is in the cave, and begin to set an ambush. Ungo and Badger’s Bane sneak up beside the cave entrance. Obexo and Ahm-al will move to about 20′ out from the cave, where Ahm-al will command the creature to come.

I spend a bit of time establishing the positions of every character. The players know something big is going to go down.

I call for a stealth check, and they fail.

“Ahm-al and Obexo, you move into position. And Obexo, as Ahm-al begins to commandthe creature, you see with your infravision what is a large troll moving and preparing to attack”

And Ahm-al commands the troll to come.

The troll wins initiative, but I give Ungo and Badger’s Bane a chance to ambush. The troll, roaring past the ambush (everyone misses), fells Ahm-al with two brutal claw strikes. The players look with a bit of astonishment and concern. Yes, this game is not balanced nor do I intend to balance it.

Spike calls upon Ramat to Paralyze the troll; His weapon and hands glow with a radiant holy energy. But he’ll need to wait until next round to strike.

A desperate battle ensues. Led by Obexo, the 0-level peasants muster the courage to charge in with daggers, pitchforks, and scissors. Superficial damage, as they realize that piercing the troll’s heavy hide is challenging.

Ungo and Badger’s Bane pounce with surprise, both burn a bit of luck ensuring a successful backstab. Troll sustains major wounds, but keeps fighting. They watch in horror as the most serious energy stitches back together.

A tense moment, as I again call for group initiative. The adventurers take the initiative and continue to press their attack.

In hopes of paralyzing the troll and making it easer to hit, Spike charges with his spear; Missing by 3 points. He anguishes but burns the 3 luck to hit. The troll rolls a natural 20 for its save.

Some of the less valiant (or perhaps more pragmatic) begin lighting torches to burn the troll. Other peasants and thieves swarm delivering the final blow. They begin burning the troll.

The party then looks to Ahm-al. Rolling over her body, she gasps. A massive scar runs from forearm to the back of her left hand (-1 stamina). Ahm-al’s Trauma increases from 0 to 1. When she gets to Steelhart, Ahm-al will need to check for retirement.

I believe this is the first time I’ve used group initiative. And I loved it. There was a bit of planning during the round, looking to optimize effects. There was tension when we rolled for the second round.

Exploring the Cave

Amongst the dung the dwarves (Mason Stone and Obexo) find an emerald hilted short sword. Mason Stone pulls it from it’s nasty scabbard of feces.

Mason Stone feels a pull towards the river. Heeding the urge, he goes to the river. The sword urges Mason Stone to submerge the sword.

He obliges, the sword then urges him to move it back and forth under water. Again he obliges.

Intraparty Conflict

Spike, wanting to restore luck, asks how. I suggest converting followers or destroying the vile Writ of Orcus.

Spike preaches to Mainge about the virtues of Ramat. Convinced, Mainge converts (and declares an intention of being a Cleric of Ramat).

Spike later has a dream that evening, of the ancient scroll of Ramat rolling into a snake. Likewise, the Writ of Orcus rolls into a snake. They entwine, and the snake of Ramat consumes the snake of Orcus.

Intra-party conflict erupts, as Spike seeks to destroy Argyle’s Writ of Orcus. A bit of back and forth. The agents of Law seek to expunge this unholy relic of Chaos.

The tipping point is the party notices that the faces of Marcus and Ralph, who are helping Argyle preserve the Writ, are sunken and have thinnning skin.

In the end, Law triumphs, as Spike and his conspirators cast the writ into the campfire.

As the scroll burns, a plume of vile green smoke erupts. The sighted characters and Argyle, in his blindness, see a goat-faced creature in the smoke. It bellows in Ancient Ramati, “Avenge This Moment.” Argyle and Spike understand these ancient words.

I ask “Which characters are a follower of Ramat?” Spike and Mainge speak up; Everyone else is silent. “You each get 1d3 Luck.”

The session ends on the late afternoon of the 13th of Spring’s Laugh (Ramaday) with the party an hour or so outside of Steelhart.

The party is fracturing as ideology takes root. We’ll see where conflict erupts next session.

In Memoriam

None. Though Ahm-al must check to see if she will be retiring in Steelhart.

A hand drawn map of a river bed. Stamped with a

The map of the battle with the troll.

Observation

With 7 players and 18 characters, I wish I would’ve had a dungeon crawl ready. But the players had massive wealth they wanted to convert to something more portable. I chose to build on that thread. I also wanted to get the characters to Steelhart (having spent some time preparing that locale).

The session was a bit slower going than I had hoped, but the characters are discovering this is a world in motion; with localized customs and worshippers of different religions around every turn. Foreboding continues to be a central theme, and I hope they will use Steelhart as a chance to research and learn more about this area of the world.

Group initiative, I think I love you. We’ll see next time. I’ll make sure to communicate the expectations and procedures to the table.

Oh intra party conflict…it is not ideal, but I want to draw attention to the tensions between Ramat and Orcus. I want the players to see that alignment is important, and mixed alignments are in natural tension.

With this ongoing campaign, and it’s drop-in/drop-out nature, I’ve upped my organizational game. I’m holding many of the character sheets and trying to find each player’s previously played character.

Follow-up

Several characters advanced to level 1. They want to see:

  • Paladin (from Crawl)
  • Ranger (from Crawl)
  • Druid (from Hubris)
  • Bard (from Crawl)

One of the D&D groups that has been playing each week is considering shifting to every other week; The GM of that game wants to play in the DCC game.

The difference?

  • Dungeon Crawl Classic vs. 5E
  • Theater of mind vs. battle mats
  • Me asking “Do you think their lying?” vs. the player saying “I make an Insight check to see if they are lying.”
  • Fragile characters vs. robust characters
  • Random tables and adventure modules vs. adventure path stories

Regardless, I’m off for the next week – my daughter has a band concert.

The Campaign Timeline Thusfar

The campaign began in the 172nd year of the common calendar.

Sequence of Events

Spring’s Breath (5th month)

  • 17th (Ramaday)
  • 20th (Fyrday)

Spring’s Hope (6th month)

Spring’s Laugh (7th month)

  • 3rd of Spring’s Laugh (Amunday)
    • Villagers travel from Oakwood Mire to Bitterweed Barrow seeking fortune (Funnel #3)
  • 4th of Spring’s Hope (Ryday)
    • Explore the Barrow of Orcus’s Writ (Funnel #3)
  • 6th of Spring’s Laugh (Loeday)

Observations

Note: sessions that I ran are not in real world chronological order. They instead reflect my efforts to incorporate players with funnel survivors into the over-arching campaign.

In reviewing the calendar, I’m noticing that there are not enough farmers now in the fields, because people are seeking wealth and riches.

The Portal Under the Stars at International Tabletop Game Day

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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:

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

Session

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

Introduction

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.

Entry Way

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

Sentinels

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.

Demon Snake

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.

Skeletons

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

The Pool

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.

The Soldiers

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

Retreat!

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.

Conclusion

I offered to keep the surviving characters and made sure that everyone knew about the regular Thursday night games. There was a definite interest.

In Memorandum

  • 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 DCC RPG book open, character sheets, dice, and judge's screen

10 character sheets, each stamped with a “Death” and their cause recorded.

Observations

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.