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Monday, September 1, 2014

Blades Against Death - Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG

Before I jump into tonight's Dungeon Crawl Classics adventure, I just want to recommend that you check out Bryce Lynch's scathing review of Hoard of the Dragon Queen for 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons. While I do not agree with everything he says, I like his reviews because he just puts it right out there and is pretty insightful. The poor guy is suffering through each of those wordy 2e Dungeon Magazines, and it's not like he gets paid. I'd be crabby too.

Last week I was able to inject life into my mighty World Tour Dungeon Crawl Classics game through a long-awaited jaunt to 1986 New York City. After that session, I sat down and went over my notes from the last ten adventures and tried to put together ideas for the future. I mostly just wanted to give my players a better sense of continuity, as it felt like I'd neglected the game a bit.
But the most important thing that happened this week is that I finally took the advice of readers - I downloaded the Crawler's Companion. I am not an app guy. I have a tablet and I use it a bit, but I have never really tried to use an app like this before. All I can say is that this thing completely changed my game for the better and pumped my enthusiasm up about 100%.

The companion is completely free. It rolls dice. It gives me info on every spell (which completely saves me from the thing I like least about DCC - flipping pages looking up spells in the middle of a session). It has rules notes. It has all of the critical hit, corruption and fumble tables. In short, this thing has everything and makes running the game much, much easier.

So tonight I made the acquisition of The Balance Blade a very big deal. It can, after all, sway the balance between law and chaos. There was also a lot of little stuff involving their home and their NPC allies.

I had prepared the first section of an adventure called Blades Against Death for tonight. It is written by Harley Stroh, an author who I haven't had much success with. He wrote Fate's Fell Hand, which I had a hard time running and had lingering questions about even after it was over (I still don't know what the wizards wanted the deck of fates for to begin with). He also did Doom of the Savage Kings which I didn't like much, either.

I think that Harley Stroh has good ideas, but I don't like the way his adventures are organized. His work is also very dense. One of the reasons I like Michael Curtis so much is that his stuff reads quick. Harley has whole paragraphs in this adventure that are flavorful but unnecessary, and despite all the extra text, crucial details feel omitted (or maybe they're there but I just get lost in the wall of text).

As an example, the heroes are supposed to kick this thing off with a tarot reading. It is cool. The heroes even get to pick one card, and it gives them a boon (useful ones! My players gained 7 hit points for the duration of the adventure, and will get to keep 3 permanently if they complete the adventure).
Jim Holloway... just had to make it goofy.
This adventure is about the heroes going after an item that can bring an ally back to life. But the tarot reading is so vague that there is a good chance the players will have absolutely no idea where to go or what to do next. Here's part of the reading: “Death laughs at the ploys of the Raven and the Maid, one with portal, the other blade. Before your quest is done you shall gamble your lives with the hoary king.”

OK.. well.. where are we going? What are we doing? That's just too vague, at least for my players. And the entire adventure hinges on figuring out what this lady is talking about. The module says if the PCs can't figure it out, then a two-headed raven gives them a note with a symbol of the goddess of the moon on it. See, the item they seek is in the moon temple, appearing once every full moon. So.. yeah. Maybe your groups would have no problem with this, but I knew my heroes would not have clue one.

Not that this is a bad adventure. It is awesome. The scenario here is that our heroes need to infiltrate the moon temple and steal an artifact that appears once per month in a ceremony - a really cool ceremony. I suppose the heroes could try to hack-and-slash their way through, but I don't think it would work. With 10 guards, 5 priestesses and 40-80 devotees all in the chamber during the ceremony, your PCs are almost certain to be over-run and tossed into a 150 foot deep pit.

This adventure requires planning on the part of the adventurers. Clever tricks, disguises, fast-talking, all sorts of fun stuff. It is really great.

I tried to warn the players that this was a different adventure. We've been doing nothing but mindless dungeon romps for a long time now, and they were completely lost in this. They found the temple. After lots of hemming and hawing, they got some devotee robes and went to the temple on the night of the ceremony. Then they watched the whole ritual unfold. They saw the artifact appear. They saw the main priestess take it into a back room. The ritual was over. The eunuchs asked everyone to leave. Then our heroes.. stood there.
They could not think of what to do next. All of the other devotees left the temple. The priestesses and eunuchs started poking the heroes, ordering them to leave. Finally the adventurers were about to attack, only to realize that they had all anointed themselves with holy oil which magically prevented them from attacking the priestesses (Added vagueness: this extremely important fact is not listed in the section on the oil... it is buried in the two pages detailing ways to handle stealing the artifact).

So they went home.

Hoo boy. Rough one! They took it with good humor. They decided to sleep and then break in the next day to steal the artifact (More vagueness: The artifact slowly fades into nothing over the course of the month. How long is it usable for? Does it have to be used on the first night to sever the chain in part two of the adventure? Isn't that kind of important to know?!). The trusty NPC familiar helpfully suggested that the heroes see if they could get into the temple through the sewers.

The sewer entrance into the temple is a nifty little encounter. There's a grate 15 feet up to a room where there's these little plague rats. They bite your hands as you try to open the grate. No big deal, right? The room's got blood and gore from dead sacrificed people, it's a neat little area to show that this cult is definitely bad news and that stealing from them might actually do some good.

Quick, tell me how many attacks the plague rats get.
These plague rats slaughtered my party. Not kidding! They are a special sort of encounter/monster/swarm. For each point they hit you by, they do d3 damage. So if you have an AC of 17 and I roll a 25 to hit (I rolled two natural 20's in this fight, with +5 to hit, so that's 25 total plus the crit chart) that means I do 9d3. Remember, this is a game where PCs have 15-25 hit points. It was brutal. One guy got critted and fell back into the sewer tunnel, breaking his ribs. He lived. A party wizard got critted. She went down. The party decided to abandon her. They fled from the plague rats. She was devoured.

The plague rat entry is very confusing to me. First off, if you just glance at it, you see the stat block there and you go "oh, 13 rats." Then you "see above" and you might skim to the "d3 damage per point above the AC" part. It is very easy (for me, anyway) to miss the very important "Every round make a single attack roll against any PC within the chamber" part.

That should be listed concisely below the stat block, worded differently! It says "Make a single attack roll against any PC". Does that mean they collectively get one attack? Or do they attack each PC in the room one time!? What about if they spill into the tunnel? If you look at the stat block, it's listed as if each plague rat gets its' own attack. The entry says that the rats climb onto a PC and bite them, which doesn't jibe with the whole "single attack roll against any PC in the chamber" well.

The wording didn't cause this encounter to be deadly - my dice did. Two crits, and a handy monster crit chart courtesy of the Crawlers Companion laid waste to our heroes.

So tonight's session was a fiasco. It was not a negative experience at all. The players took it in good humor. But to sum it up: The adventurers went into the temple to steal an artifact and never actually tried to steal it, then they left the building when asked. The following day, they tried to sneak in through the sewer and were chased off by a bunch of rats. Unreal.

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