Stonehell: the Joys of Megadungeons

We had a very good session with the kids exploring Stonehell last night, and it was gratifying to see that one of the primary features of a megadungeon that you return to again and again has started to pay off, namely that they are remembering and taking advantage of their knowledge of the places and creatures they’ve run into before. When they killed a wandering giant ferret that attacked them on level one, they headed over to the Kobold marketplace to sell it, figuring the hide must be worth something (and it was). Later on, on the way out of the dungeon, they used their knowledge of the layout to duck out of the way of a group of hunting Neanderthals… the Neanderthals had come close kicking their asses several times before and now they give them a wide berth when they can.

During the session they almost lost a party member to the haunted straight jacket, and unwisely sat down to party with the Piskes whom they mistook for their benevolent relatives the Pixies; they survived that encounter, thanks to a lucky roll by the party cleric in smiting the Piske shaman, but it was a near thing. They also got some interesting magical loot that I threw in, a potion that granted 10 minutes of unkillability (damage taken while the potion is in effect regenerates) and some random magic lollipops (these were licorice, cure poison).

A good time was had by all, and three of the party leveled up (which reminds me I should make a cheat sheet to make that easier next time).

Introducing New Players to D&D via Stonehell

Last night we brought my wife’s college roommate and her two kids, ages 14 and 9, to our Sunday night Bumblers gathering, and introduced them to D&D.  None of them had ever played RPGs before, so I decided that a straight-on dungeon delve was the ticket.  The kids were enthusiastic to try, the mom was at least willing.   We rolled up characters, using my D&Desque homebrew rules, before the game started and they created Hippolyta the Fighter (mom), Dorian the Fighter (14 year-old daughter), and Little Father Muffler (9 year-old son).  My wife Elyssa also rolled a new character, Ranger Joe-Bob.  Yeah, I don’t bother trying to encourage campaign-world compatible names, not for this sort of thing anyway.  Doug and Dan were the only other regulars, what with it being Valentine’s day, and they brought Tomato the Fairy Witch and Hurlon the Dwarven Thief.

For a dungeon, I used Michael Curtis’ Stonehell, the same one I’ve been using with the other set of kids.  (I’m using the free version, though the link it to the more polished and complete version you can purchase from Lulu.) It’s a good beginner’s dungeon with a variety of things to encounter, architectural features, and old-fashioned traps.   I’ve found that I like to beef it up a bit, adding stuff so that almost every room has something interesting to investigate or fight; a lot of the rooms are empty, particularly right around the entrance, presumably so you can more easily tailor it to your taste this way.  There are probably arguments to be made along the lines of naturalism and discouraging too much caution (by making it boring to search exhaustively)  for having a fair bit of empty space, but since it violates the King Kong principle (get to the f*ing monkey), the heck with it… players go into the dungeon to encounter stuff, so let’s have them encounter stuff.

An example: in the Feast Hall I put a niche behind one of the rotting tapestries.  In the niche are a swarm of carnivorous moths; they won’t do any actual damage, but will painfully bite exposed flesh (similar to the bit of a horsefly). They are thickly gathered on a small leather bag that’s been coated with a waxy substance.   After Joe-Bob the ranger found the niche and got badly bitten for his troubles, Father Muffler (the 9-year old boy) came up with the idea of luring the moths away from the bag with the light of his lantern; this worked and they retrieved the bag with no further problems… though they did end up abandoning the lantern; fortunately they had a spare.  In the bag they found a necklace of amber beads, each containing an insect inclusion.  Tomato cast Detect Magic, and found that it was indeed magical, and after some hemming and hawing about whether they should try it out and if so, who should take the risk, Tomato draped it over her(him?)self as a kind of sash.  Nothing bad happened immediately,  and later on in a random encounter with some fire beetles they discovered that it allowed the wearer to control insects.  It also dealt Tomato a 1 HP stinging wound after Tomato had made the beetles fight until there was one left, when Father Muffler smashed the last beetle.  The party speculated that this was some kind of feedback effect.  SPOILER (Doug don’t read): [spoiler name=”Spoiler”]actually, it just deals 1HP sting damage whenever the spell wears off, after one ten-minute turn; otherwise it has no charges or limit on times it can be used[/spoiler].

The new players were a bit confused and tentative at first, but started to get the hang of it as we went along.  I did all the rolling for them (usually I let the players roll for everything except searches and the like where they’re not supposed to know whether they’ve failed or there was nothing to find) and just told them the results.  They had the fairly typical fear that they were “doing it wrong,” but the experienced players really encouraged them to go with the flow.  One thing that I do, which I think helps new players get the hang of the role-playing aspect of it, is encourage them to roll on a random table of motivations: once each for their primary drive and primary aversion.  So, for instance, Father Muffler happened to roll that his primary drive was Religion, and that his aversion was also Religion, so he decided that the was a fanatic about his faith and opposed to other faiths.  Dorian rolled that her primary drive was Knowledge, and her aversion was Danger.  This made for (imo) for a rather interesting character, though I think she was particularly concerned that she wasn’t “playing well” because she was avoiding the fighting that the others were doing (with great enthusiasm on some of their parts.  Elyssa in particular loves hacking away at things as a Fighter).  After the game we all reassured her that as long as she was having fun, playing true to the character’s personality rather than optimally for the party’s goals was playing well.  At least by my group’s standards.  Certainly Doug never lets optimum party strategy or groupthink get in the way of his characters’ outrageous personalities, and as long as he manages to be entertaining about it that’s one of the fun things about playing with Doug.

The evening ended with the poison-gas fish-fountain claiming all three of the new players (everyone had to make a save, they were the only ones who failed).  It was getting late, so we ended there, but we’re going to play again tonight, probably with just the kids and Elyssa…the mom appreciated it as a new experience, but wasn’t as taken with the whole thing.  As they were heading out the door to go visit the museums they have planned for the day, the 9 year-old was busy trying to come up with a name for his next priest…

Hand-waving Dungeon Travel

The party that’s been exploring Stonehell has reached a point where getting back to the yet-unexplored part of the dungeon and then out again is taking too much of the play-session, at least if I roll for wandering monsters as they travel and restock the likely places like the Orc’s guard-post.  In the old days, we used to freeze time in-between sessions… the party wouldn’t overnight in the dungeon, but we’d break in the middle of things and resume there next time.  This was pretty much a necessity when you were squeezing a few minutes play in at lunch-time or in study hall, but it carried over into our Friday night games as well.

I’m a little reluctant to go that route with the current game, preferring the party to start and end outside the dungeon–both because the line-up of characters changes when one kid or the other has a sleep-over or Elyssa is away performing or something, and because even if we froze, so far every session at least one character has been knocked around enough to require rest and recuperation even if nobody except Revenge has been injured  beyond the ability of one of Horatia’s miracles to revive.  So I’m considering just hand-waving their entrances and exits unless they’ve got monsters in hot pursuit.  For one thing, now that most of them are second level and considering the damage they’ve caused, the number of times the Orcs’ morale checks have sent them fleeing, and the psychological warfare they’ve been employing (they’ve actually taken the time to gut many of the Orcs they’ve killed in order to reinforce the impression that Horatia’s god regularly does this to their opponents)  it would be fairly easy to justify the Orcs starting to give them a wide berth.

If you run dungeoneering expeditions, how do you handle this?  Do you let parties camp overnight in the dungeon?  Do you make sure there are shortcuts so they don’t have to traverse lots of explored areas?  Or do you just do what I’m contemplating and say, ok, twenty minutes later you’re back at the closed portcullis…what do you do now?

Exploring the Contested Corridors

Friday we had a good long session of the game with the kids, where they explored more of Amityville Mike’s Stonehell dungeon, in particular the 1C section: The Contested Corridors.  The game continues to go well, and much enjoyment is being had by all.  There was one more character death this time, Grace’s character Horatia, but a succesful dying prayer (natural 20) restored the character to life in a spectacular fashion, though much in need of rest and recuperation.  The party continues to be more and more impressed with Horatia’s make-believe god Horatio, which Grace plays to the hilt.  It will be interesting to see if they ever do figure out that the god she claims to be worshipping isn’t the one she’s actually devoted to.

They also leveled up, all except Charlie’s new character (replacing the deceased Revenge) and Elyssa’s new-to-the-campaign fighter, Biff.  Mostly that involved getting another dice worth of Stamina points, since nobody opted for trying to increase any stats, and choosing a new Talent, plus selecting new spells for the Mages.   I’ve replaced the specific effects of spells  like Magic Missile, Burning Hands, and Shocking Grasp with more generalized versions where when you learn the spell you pick the element (from a list of available elements) along the lines of Trappings in Savage Worlds.   Mac’s Rogue (Thief/Mage) decided to specialize in Electrical magic, in return for the vague promise of future benefits for having done so;  Tommy’s Mage decided to branch out, so he can now cast either the Ice or Poison versions of the two elemental spells he knows: dart and fan.

I had hoped to spend some time RPing the interaction with the Adventurer’s Guild and with Rowena the Healer, an NPC they just met and daughter of Contus the boat-man, who ferries them to the island with the dungeon as needed. But the kids were getting a little antsy, and needed some good hack-time.  One of the things I’ve found about GMing Stonehell is that there are really more empty rooms than the kids will put up with.  Part of that is Mike leaving plenty of space for GMs to insert their own stuff, and part that there’s a certain logic to not having everything cheek-by-jowl to everything else,  but I’ve been sliding more and more towards having something to do or think about in every room.   Some of the time I’m just shifting the location of a random encounter so that it’s either  in the room or comes upon them while they’re checking it out, but I’m also starting to just wing extra stuff, like the giant crab pretending to be a table, or the secret compartment beneath the broken statue containing a copper bracelet that grants immunity to the lightning that the trapped suits of armor cast.  I’ll be interested to see what they do with that, once they figure it out.

The orcs continue to be a source of great amusement; making them comically stupid has worked out really well.  The highlight of the session was when Tommy (the youngest) managed to fool a big crowd of orcs who were attracted by the sounds of them fighting the giant crab by shouting through the door in orcish “They went the other way!”  It’ll also be fun when they meet the bogeys (shemped goblins) and find out that not all monsters are that gullible.

One thing they’re not very good about is running away when the odds aren’t good.  So far, it’s worked out ok for them, but so far they’ve been quite lucky with some of Horatia’s miracles.  On the other hand, at least one of the miracles wouldn’t have been necessary if they hadn’t been really unlucky with one of the orc’s damage rolls. I’m wondering if I should tweak the rules for extra damage hits slightly; I had thought that I made really bad hits rare enough, but now I’m not sure.

Names and Language in Nonesuch

Anything the players want.  That’s what they do anyway, and I know from bitter experience that once I start in on listing appropriate names for cultures and races it’s just a short step to a naming language and then a full-blown death spiral into conlangs.  So Umbry, Auxi-lock, Revenge, Expendable 1401, Tomato, Hermia/Horatia, Caboose, Hurlon, Poden Persas, welcome to the Land of Nonesuch!  Hope you survive the experience!

Well, except for you Revenge, better luck next life.

One thing I haven’t really settled is how many languages there are and how many the characters know.  Originally I was allowing each character one extra language per INT bonus, so pretty much all the characters had one or none. Everybody in the kids’ game wanted Orc, because that was the first group of humanoid monsters they ran into, and they were fun to talk to.  Now I’m thinking that will be kind of dull when they run into other monsters, unless they speak common, and I’m also wondering if I’m taking too American a view of foreign languages.  In a setting where you’re exposed to them regularly, it probably shouldn’t be so hard to pick them up.  Maybe one extra spoken language per point of Int over 9, and one dead language per Int Bonus?  It would be something to do with Int for non-Mages, given the system doesn’t really emphasize skills.  And I want characters to be talking to the monsters, even the hostile ones, because that’s where the RP is.

Thoughts and suggestions?  How do you handle it in your games?

Humanoid Monsters of Nonesuch

Here’s a sketch of the various humanoid monsters common to the Land of Nonesuch.  The goal is to make them, not unique, but distinctive and recognizable…if they’re mooks, they’re not generic interchangeable mooks.  On the other hand, I want to avoid the “in this world, Orcs are descended from flightless birds, and are the proud descendants of an ancient and cosmopolitan culture, more like feathery elves” that I’m sometimes prone to.  I want them to be reminiscent of common fantasy and folklore, if slightly skew. Some of these have already made an appearance in the kids’ game.

  • Orcs – magically evolved pigs (totally swiped from Grognardia’s Dwimmermount).  Evil, comically greedy, quarrelsome, and easy to trick.  The Three Stooges of humanoid monsters.
  • Kobolds – magically evolved dogs.  Neutral, generally traders and merchants in the dungeon economy (Rat on a Stick, anyone?), some actually live peacefully in some surface cities.  Something along the lines of Nessie from Too Many Curses or the kobolds from Suikoden.
  • Hobgoblins – mischievous house-sprites.  I know that I just got done saying I didn’t want this to be another “well, in my world” setting, but folklore trumps Tolkien and D&D here.  Good, although tricksy.  Puck is a hobgoblin.
  • Redcaps – these replace the D&D militaristic, organized, larger-sized goblin troopers.  Evil, sadistic buggers who dye their caps in human blood.  Iron boots, iron pikes, and faster than anybody can run away.
  • Goblins –  I’m really torn here.  On the one hand, I have this vision of them as these nasty, deformed little mushroom men out of Goya that use human corpses for compost.  On the other hand, I’m also attracted to the Labyrinth version of goblins (also one of the sources for the feel of this setting), with each one a unique Henson-esque critter.  I could combine the two, I suppose, or have them both be true in different parts of the setting.  Or I could split them into two different kinds of monsters and call one of them goblins and the other… I could call them wirry-cows, I suppose, which would be good folklore but be unintentionally silly to my players.  Ooh.  Bogeys would be a great name for the mushroom-type.
  • Bugbears – more the creepy bear in the woods sort than a generic bogeyman. Definitely not an oversized Hobgoblin war-leader out of Baldurs Gate: Dark Alliance.
  • Trolls and TrollwivesThese guys.  The males are big and hairy, with huge noses and ears; the females are slight and beautiful.  Trolls are one of the PC races in the setting, though you have to roll really well to qualify.
  • Ogres and Giants – Haven’t really given a lot of thought to them yet.  Probably straight out of the Book of Wierd.

The Land of Nonesuch

I’ve been working a bit on the setting for my game with the kids, which is also my backup game for the Bumblers, possibly a play-by-forum game in the future if I get my act together,  and finally an example setting for the system (tentatively titled The Majyc System).  So it needs a name, and possibly a hook.  I’m a little leery of the “elevator-pitch” approach to game settings; too often they end up sounding like something out of They Fight Crime: “He’s an all-American white trash shaman haunted by an iconic dead American confidante She’s a beautiful antique-collecting femme fatale from a secret island of warrior women. They fight crime!”  On the other hand, there’s certainly something to be said for being able to succinctly state what the game is about, and give the players an expectation of the tone and kind of adventures they’ll be playing.  And bog-standard dungeon bash doesn’t sound all that thrilling, even if you’re confident that playing it will be a blast.

For now, I’m calling it the Land of Nonesuch, and working on the premise that (unknown to the current crop of characters) they’re inhabiting a land described in a book of odd and somewhat macabre fairy tales called The Land of Nonesuch, by the mysterious George Jester.  Both the book and the author appear both in our world, and in the land the book describes.  My overall plan, if something so vague and inchoate can actually be called such, is that this setting will let me scratch several itches that I’ve had for quite a while now: running a game in a setting inspired by The Book of Weird, and by the Oz books; getting some use from various cast-off pieces of prior settings (such as the settings of the games with the Three Paladinos, and the one-shot To Rescue the Sun) and swiped from other people’s settings (like Thool, or Dwimmermount); to do some bottom-up setting design, where I haven’t worked out a whole map of the setting and a thousand years of history before I begin; and finally, putting that all together, to do some gaming where I haven’t systemetized everything and there’s not a way that magic or religion works, and I’m not pinging the players with info-dumps.  Naturally, I have ideas on things I want to see in the setting, and spring on the characters, but I want to be much more encouraging of letting the players make up crazy stuff too, and just rolling with it.  I want to recapture, at least for some of the time, some of the much more free-wheeling GMing I did in my youth, where a lot of stuff was decided on the basis of either “Yeah, that sounds good!” or “roll a die, high is good.”

Unlucky 13

I generally like the idea of fumbles in games, being both true to life and literature, although they can be a problem if they’re too frequent or severe.  A fair number of published systems would have a tenth or more of an army incapacitating themselves over the course of a battle. Another thing that I think is a problem, albeit a minor one, is that most systems tie fumbles into failure, so it’s impossible to both succeed at a task but have something go awry.

Here’s the system I’m currently using in my D&D-esque game:  whenever rolling a d20, a roll of a 13 means something unlucky potentially happened.  Roll a Luck save (luck is a Stat in this system, but you could substitute some other sort of save).  Success means nothing happened, failure means something bad but relatively minor or recoverable (weapon twists in your grip and you can’t attack next turn, sun gets in your eyes, etc.).  A second roll of 13 means something quite unfortunate happened, such as dropping your weapon or falling down.  Roll again and keep rolling if 13 keeps coming up, making the result more severe the more 13’s you get.

Obviously you can adjust just how bad it is to taste; I feel that dropping a weapon one in 400 times is probably bad enough, but you might prefer that to be the result of failing the luck save, and have the roll of a second 13 be more spectacular, such as a broken weapon.  You could also make it more severe, so that e.g. a weapon breaks on a failed save after the initial 13, if you want things to be more chaotic; I lean against that, in part because in most RPGs that sort of thing can really make the PCs seem like klutzes.  During a campaign players tend to make many times more roles than any individual NPC they encounter, so a 1 in 20 or 1 in 40 shot may well turn up for each character at least once a night; if the failures are particularly memorable that can be a problem.  1 in 400 is more like once a session or less for some PC or NPC…enough to add flavor without being overwhelming.

I like this because it’s an easy mnemonic, which can be important for something relatively rare.  It’s a pain to have to, say, check each roll to see if it missed by more than X if it’s only going to really matter 1 in 400 times.  I also like it because it makes it possible to both succeed (if 13 was good enough) and still have something untoward happen, such as hitting a target but having your weapon stick.

Random Exotic Traits Table

  1. Is a Shape-shifter
  2. Is a Were-Creature
  3. Inherited 1d10 * 100 times the usual starting money
  4. Has Random Magic Item
  5. Has an Unusual Pet
  6. Has a Magical Power
  7. Inherited a Noble Title
  8. Gets one Wish,which may be used before the start of play or saved
  9. Never fumbles (ignore rolls of 13)
  10. Savant: automatically has rating of 6 + 1d6 in starting Talent

You’re allowed to roll for an Exotic Trait if you have no Stats above 11 and at least one stat less than 9.  This is inspired by Mac’s campaign, where she has a similar rule where you can be a shape-shifter if you have no stats other than Charisma that are higher than 11.

Shape-shifters roll a d100 on a table of random animals, ranging from aardvark to zebra.  Were-creatures have the standard immunities to weapons except silver, and so on, but it’s a genuine curse, complete with attempting to eat people when the moon is full.  In both cases clothes and equipment don’t shift.

Refusal to mourn the death by Orc-blade of a child in a dungeon

For after the first character, there is another

Stonehell claimed its first victim in the kids’ game last night, as Charlie’s character Revenge fell to a mighty critical by an orc.  The dice weren’t particularly kind to him on his new character, either, which he promptly dubbed Expendable 1401, though really it’s pretty much average:

Expendable 1401: Human Fighter Str 8  Int 12  Wis 11 Con 7  Dex 12  Cha 11  Siz 14 Lk 9

King, Oxy-lock’s war dog also succumbed in that fight, though an impressive miracle from Horatia (Grace) brought him back (about a 1 in 1440 chance, if I calculated the odds right).  This cheesed Charlie off a bit, but it wasn’t as if Grace saved her miracle for the dog…

It was a fun session, with a lot of Orc and rat bashing thanks to a pair of random encounters right outside the orc’s watch-post in the Contested Corridors area.  Things might have gone much worse if the party hadn’t managed to break the Orc’s morale with some threats in Orcish conveniently backed by a lucky Smite from Horatia and her false god.  They retreated to the surface with a great sense of satisfaction, and then spent the last ten or so minutes of the session giving Charlie’s new character a hard time because of the suspicious and weaselly way he chose to answer their questions about why he was on the island and whether he was Good.  I’m not entirely sure what that was about; I’m not a big fan of D&D alignment but I’m using it in this game for continuity with Mac’s  game, and Charlie made his character Lawful/Good so he had no reason to be evasive.

I was a little concerned that I let the gore level rise a bit too high, but the kids really seemed to get a kick out of it, and Mac thought it was ok when I asked, since I didn’t dwell on the descriptions.  I more or less took my cue from her and her rather gruesome bluff against the Orcs (“Look! Your bowels are coming out!”).  While I’m not trying to teach any moral lessons, and in the context of the game killing Orcs is jolly good fun, my personal preference is not to make combat too sanitary.  I think I achieved a reasonable balance, but as I said I had some qualms.