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…

The Kids are All Right

Friday and Saturday I ran the D&D game that I talked about earlier, using D&D (actually LL/BFRPG) with a bunch of house-rules that took it a bit closer to Mac’s house-rules.  I could have run it straight, I suppose, but where’s the fun in that?  I did keep it close enough that I could use material published for D&D and retro-clones with only such conversion as I could do in my head on the fly, which let me use Amityville Mike’s Stonehell as the dungeon.  I even kept the name, explaining it in game a corruption of “Stone Hill” (which the PCs figured out by casting Read Script on one of the tapestries in the ruined banquet hall).

Overall the sessions went extremely well.  We got off to a slow start Friday when the youngest spent a bunch of time finding a place to buy and then purchasing a war dog.  I have no idea where he came up with the idea, but since that kind of creativity is something I want to encourage, I went with it…though it cost him all his starting money plus borrowing some from the party.  It turned out to have been a good purchase, saving their bacon at least twice Saturday when they finally found some non-empty rooms in the antechamber: first against the giant rats and then the Orcs attracted to the sounds of the fighting.   The kids were a little frustrated at first, I think, with how much of the area around the entryway was empty, but since a big part of this exercise was to get them used to the idea that there was not a single right way to play D&D (coincidentally the way their GM, who’s also their mom, runs things) I stuck to the key as written and just used their encounter with the Dwarves examining the Architectural Masterpiece to tell them what general direction to go to find trouble.

The party consisted of:

  • Umbry (played by the mom), a Rogue (Mage/Thief),
  • Hermia traveling under the name Horatia (played by the eldest daughter, 12), a Charlatan (Priest/Thief).  Charlatans are genuine Priests, but not of the false god they pretend to worship in order to bilk people.
  • Revenge (played by the middle son, 9), a Fighter
  • Oxy-lock (played by the youngest son, 7), a Mage
  • King, the war dog…Oxy-lock’s pet

Two of them “died”, reduced to 0 HP, but were saved by timely miracles from Hermia/Horatia.  Basically I scrapped the whole clerical magic system and replaced it with the ability to make saving rolls asking the god for blessings and miracles–so the equivalent of Cure Light Wounds counts as a “miracle”; the intent was to make clerical magic feel more miraculous and not just an alternate spell list for a different flavor of mage.  This worked really well in play, and the two characters who were saved from death by Cure Light Wounds were sufficiently impressed that they are now converts to Hermia’s make-believe God of Good Fortune, Horatio (yes, her god is Horatio, and her nom-de-guerre is Horatia, after the god).  She managed to cast it twice because she rolled really well the second time.

Another thing that pleased me a lot was the way the Morale rules (bog-standard D&D) ended the combats without always fighting to the death, and the way they negotiated with a captured Orc to get useful intelligence about traps up ahead and then didn’t slaughter him out-of-hand.  I did decide that the critical hit rules I was using were still a bit too deadly despite the fact that I deliberately avoided creating any kind of insta-kill or damage multiplier, so I’ve toned them down a bit for the future.

Everyone had a good time, and the mom was particularly pleased at how the kids were catching on to the differences between the way we handled things, despite many cries of “You’ve got to be kidding me!” from the youngest when rulings didn’t go the way he expected–but since he sometimes said that for things such as the fact his 7 STR Mage couldn’t wield the battle axe they got from the Orc chief, which wouldn’t have flown in his mom’s game either, I didn’t let it bother me.

I’m looking forward to running this again in the near future.