Sunday, July 19, 2020

GM Notes - Morgansfort Session 14 - Death Frost Doom - Part 2 of 2

So, here stands the final chronicle of my two-year Basic Fantasy campaign. It ended a year ago and I'm just now getting around to finishing off the write-up. I'll save the campaign summary for the end. For now, let's dive back into the adventure.

The party find themselves in the tomb of one of the Greater Repugnances, the Crypt of the Exalted Interrogator, Aetheldredd Aleph. She begins to question and taunt them, particularly Nyphus, the paladin, who carries on his person the purloined, cursed dagger from the altar in the ice-skull chapel. The paladin and Renic the dwarf take up the attack while Mel, the elven cleric, and Pater, the halfling thief skirt around the melee to check the front door. Nyphus struggles in fight before realizing the mummy is taunting him about the dagger which keeps him from landing blows (due to disadvantaged attacks, see previous post on Knowledge Checks). After Mel and Pater give up on the door, which is barred from the other side, they all join in the fight and best Aetheldredd damaged mostly from bone hooks caused by responding, "I don't know," to her questions.

The crew head back up the air shaft to the kitchen and return to the chapel, finally examining the east door and the basins requiring a gift of a tooth to pass. Once they figure out what is required, Nyphus wrenches out a molar and they proceed. The droning of the Sacred Parasite unnerves them as does the embalming station, the hall of memory, and each of large crypts they briefly explore as they make their way down the hallway. When they get to the Sacred Parasite, they see through the creature's body and realize their quarry, the Miter of Tah, sits upon the altar. Intense (largely fire-based, missile) combat ensues resulting in the death of the creature and the group a bit worse for the wear, two having been paralyzed by liquid time vomit, and all escaping with only a few hit points each.

That's when the crypts started opening releasing the living dead, beginning with the children next to the Parasite. They high-tailed it out of there trying to secure doors as they went.They made it up and out of the cabin before the dead were able to follow. Nyphus used his bridge arrow given to him by the elven deity in the medusa's shrine which created a straight, though narrow shot down the mountain. Zeke Duncaster was likely a goner as would be the village at the foot of the mountain, but the party had to get back to Nemesine's acolytes to take them back to his skyfortress over Ravenstone and give him the Miter of Tah so that he would leave the Western Lands and disband the Green Mark's slave trade.

They make it back through portal and deliver Nemesine the miter, his ticket off of this plane. He thanks the party who then ask what will happen to the undead hoard they now unleashed on the world. He shows them the seaport town where they had sent the freed Mothers of the slave pits. Nemesine explains this small village is just due south of Demonfrost Mountain and will be crawling with zombies within a week's time. Before the party can object to the trick, Nemesine places the miter on his head and the sidhe disappears.

Immediately the fortress begins to crack and slowly fall from the sky. The party follow the stunned acolytes of the Green Mark outside to the portal connected to the chapel. Within the space of a half hour, the fortress crashes into the bay of Ravenstone demolishing ships and buildings. A riot of slaves revolt against the cult and the town. All is chaos and the party climb up into the hill with others to survey the carnage that was partly of their making.

Campaign Epilogue

This campaign was epic compared to the exploits of my youth and a good way to get back into gaming. Although I used the Morgansfort module as the setting I re-wrote and re-worked most of it. Basic Fantasy is a terrific system that I would recommend to anyone looking for a good neutral OSR game. As I've said before, it's like the mix of Basic and Advanced D&D that I had played as a kid if only I had thought of some of the changes Chris Gonnerman made. Going forward, it's what I would use if I want to play a standard fantasy B/X-style game. One of the reasons I haven't bought Necrotic Gnome's Old School Essentials is because it is just a (very good) restatement of a game I already own. I like the changes Basic Fantasy made to that game and I don't think I'd ever want to go back.

However, in running the campaign, I discovered my tastes for the kind of game I wanted to run started to change. I found myself not as thrilled to just play elves-and-orcs/Keep on the Borderlands D&D anymore. I wanted something darker and weirder. It's easy to tweak Basic Fantasy to do what I wanted, but I longed for something I didn't need to tweak. I didn't want demi-human PCs anymore. I didn't want to re-skin humanoid monsters to humans anymore. At least not all the time. When I feel like running that kind of a classic game again, this is the one I'll turn to. I could easily see using something like Titan (Advanced Fighting Fantasy) as a setting, or even Necrotic Gnome's Dolmenwood.

One of my players was a disappointed with the way the campaign ended. He was bummed they had unknowingly unleashed a hoard of undead upon the world. He wanted to know if that had been inevitable. Was there a way that they could have "won," meaning gotten the quest item, not awoken the dead, and not caused the city of Ravenstone to burn in the fires and chaos of a slave revolt. It wasn't inevitable. They could have declined Nemesine's offer since they weren't affected by his Geas. They could have fought him or joined his ranks and freed the slaves from within. They could have left the Miter of Tah where it was. But no, as a party of 3-4 levels, they was no chance for them to beat the dungeon within a couple sessions. He felt that was somehow unfair and had hoped for a campaign end with closure around the various story arcs that tied up all loose ends. To me, that's a narrative story, not a role-playing game. I don't blame the module or the player choices, it's just a mismatch of expectations.

This is biggest hurdle I face going forward. Finding players that are willing to be challenged, not afraid of character death, and open to a system that doesn't have a lot of mechanical player options. I'm willing to hang in there in order to get what I want though. This campaign was a learning experience playing with people used to more modern play styles. There were disconnects sometimes, but mostly the sessions were just really fun.

Thoughts on Death Frost Doom

Death Frost Doom was a satisfying way to end my campaign. Although it has a reputation as a campaign-ender (or maybe campaign-ruiner), I think it could be equally effective as a way to begin a campaign. I can easily see a campaign starting off by a group of hapless 1st-level PCs wandering into this evil cult tomb and unleashing doom upon the land. Okay great, now what are you going to do about it?

Even before I ran the module I considered it among the best adventures I'd read. I know some others disagree. Some find it too slow or too drastic in its outcome. More than this though, I think people take issue with it because they, like my friend above, don't see it as an adventure that is winnable. Personally, I take issue with the notion that adventures should have at least one outcome possible where the players kill everything, take all the treasure, and suffer no losses within a 4-6 hour session. Technically, "winning" is doable in Death Frost Doom. It would just take time, a lot of research, and some divination. The skulls will break, but if the Sacred Parasite is not be killed, the party can lock the doors, take the book of names down the mountain and start consulting sages, looking up rumors, etc. Once they divine the nature of the curse, they could bring a large scale clerical force to prepare to properly deal with the thousands of living dead. Then the Greater Repugnances could be dealt with. It's not impossible and would likely take years in game to do, but if you really want to deal with the evil once and for all, there is a campaign's worth of adventure to be had.

I have read the claim that DFD is a rip-off of an old White Dwarf adventure, The Lichway. There are only two real similarities between the adventures that I could find.

1.) The Lichway is a long corridor filled with 652 skeletons that lie dormant unless disturbed.
2.) The Susurrus (later compiled in the Monster Manual) creates a dronesong that can be heard through the dungeon.

Both of these elements have an analogue in Death Frost Doom, however, they are different enough to make claims of DFD being a rip-off a bit of a stretch. DFD's mass graves contain thousands of undead in separate huge, themed chambers. And they awake based on the ice crystal clock in the chapel and the defeat of the Sacred Parasite (the Susurrus analogue). Mass graves in tombs are pretty common in adventures. The Sacred Parasite's dronesong is the closest parallel between the adventures, but the Sacred Parasite is described as a dirty white balloon with a face like a twisted knot at the end singing its drone, whereas the Susurrus is a 7-foot tall headless gorilla-like beast whose breathing through pores is what makes its sound. Not alike.

There are a few other similarities - a giant spider, a violet strain of black lotus - but on the whole, there's not much there. To my mind the actual evidence of the claims of plagiarism are pretty weak. Maybe I'm missing something, but I don't see it. Not when there are countless B2 copies, S3 clones, and X1 hommages. The cabin in the woods as dungeon entrance, the liquid time element, the ice skull clock, the chapel organ, the Greater Repugnances - these are not in Lichway (as I could see). The Lichway has a lot of water elements and is packed with monsters including new ones like the gollum-like Svarts and toad-ish Spinescales, as well as bog-standard stirges, lizard men, and goblins.

Adventure modules prove themselves in the playing. I found it to be easy to run and my group had a good time with it. You want to know what makes an adventure one of the best ever? The test is not how fondly people remember it or how much money it goes for on eBay. The proof is people still play it after 20 or 30 years. B2, X1, S1, Thracia - people still play these and will continue to play them. I can easily see people running DFD 20 years from now, no problem.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Knowledge-Check Cheat Codes

* This post was written a year ago. I've fallen off the blog, but here I am getting back up again.

This will be a bit of a rant. Since coming back to role-playing I’ve largely played with modern, new-school players – people who began playing with 3e or later. Although there have been a handful of playstyle discrepancies I’ve had to work around, the one that drives me nuts more than any other is what I refer to as knowledge-check cheat codes.

The best I can articulate this phenomenon is when a player asks for a chance for their character to know something that they as a player don’t know, and that their character doesn’t have an in-game reason for possibly knowing. This isn’t, “Can my dwarven fighter, who grew up in the mines, tell us the value of these gems?” or “Is there any way being an assistant pig-keeper before I became an adventurer help me identify these tracks?” These are reasonable, in-game justifications which I as a referee can deem acceptable on their face or call for a roll.

The type of play that I object to is when a player requests to roll for things like: “I want to roll to see if my high Intelligence would let me figure out this riddle,” or “Can I roll to tell if the NPC is lying?” or “I want to make a check to figure out this monster’s vulnerability.” Leaving aside the big no-no of players requesting to make a roll rather than waiting for me to call for one, my issue with this type of play is that it’s intended as a shortcut around the obstacle of the mysteries in the game. Rather than role-play, use player skill, or hire specialist NPCs, the player would rather trust to a high stat and dumb luck than to interact with the adventure.

I realize this style of play has probably always existed to some degree, but since returning to gaming, I’ve noticed it more. Modern systems, like 5e, have these kinds of mechanics built-in with player-side checks for Insight, Investigation, Arcana, and History. These innate powers give characters an objective, true answer to any question they have like a kind of divination spell on the order of Know Alignment or Locate Object. It seems to not just support, but encourage this kind of play.

I realize as a referee this is all under my control, but I get tired of constantly fighting it. The other night, one of my players (a good friend) was getting frustrated by the taunting interrogation the undead antagonist was using against him during the fight. He wanted to know if his character could determine an underlying pattern to what she was saying to him. Playing Basic Fantasy, I told him to make an Ability Roll using BF’s optional rule. He rolled a 20. I told him, “You put it together that her taunts are focused around something you are physically carrying on your person which is hampering your combat ability.”

He didn’t feel this answer was adequate considering he rolled a 20. What I didn’t tell him was that the reason his attacks weren’t effective was because his paladin was carrying a cursed dagger and necklace he stole off an altar of a death cult four rooms ago. That’s the information that he thought he deserved. One of the other players figured it out for him. He was still griping about it at work today, commenting, “I guess it’s just different DM-ing styles,” which felt like he was inferring I was being unfair.

He explained that the fun part of the game to him was rolling crits and feeling like it was possible to win, not necessarily through player skill, but through lucky dice. When he can't figure something out, he wants the option to enter cheat codes. It’s an approach that is fundamentally different than mine, one I’m not sure is reconcilable. My favorite part of the game is in the mystery of the unknown and the risk involved in the discovery of those secrets through interaction and role-play. My friend’s preference is to circumvent all of that with powerful characters and lucky dice. This style of play shortcuts what I feel is the central part of role-playing, the back-and-forth dialogue between a referee and the players.

I’m trying to objectively assess my own bias about modern play styles and wondering if I should just loosen up a bit. I’m not one of those simulationist wargamer grognards who expects players to have a working knowledge of battle tactics and combat formations. I think one can find a middle ground, and I hope I can find mine while still finding people I can play with.

GM Notes - Morgansfort Session 14 - Death Frost Doom - Part 2 of 2

So, here stands the final chronicle of my two-year Basic Fantasy campaign. It ended a year ago and I'm just now getting around to fini...