Sunday, March 23, 2014

Back to the dungeon

For me, running a role-playing game feels a lot like taking a case to trial: I'm thinking on my feet, remembering obscure rules, and trying to juggle a half-dozen events at the same time.  I enjoy that feeling when all is going well--but when things don't go as planned, I start second-guessing myself; wondering what I could have done better. 

This past weekend, the stars aligned and I had folks over to do some more dungeon crawling, two months after my first attempt at DMing the Holmes basic D&D rules.  I had five players this time: Coach, Rickey, John, and Chris took part in the first session, and Chris brought his friend Jon, who was visiting from out of town.  After taking about 60 seconds to roll up a character for the newcomer (a dwarf called Evard Barrelbrain (favorite song: Barrels of Beer)) to join the rest of the group (Fred the fighter, Colnis the fighter, Acronus the cleric and Evaro IV the elf), the adventurers proceeded back into the dungeon. 
Heading down an unexplored corridor, the adventurers came to a room with nightmarish, Bosch-like murals that caused nearly everyone to flee in fear.  I liked the players' creativity in getting past the terror-inducing illustrations: They extinguished their torches and had the dwarf and elf use their infravision to guide the party through the room with the hellish murals. 

They then went through another corridor to a large room, an evil shrine of some sort.  Lured to the black altar on a dias on one wall, waves of palpable evil caused the elf to run from the room as the dwarf (with a wisdom of 3) decided to examine the non-Euclidan geometry carved into the object.  Touching the altar caused three ghouls to appear.  They quickly shredded the hapless dwarf and began feasting on him as the cleric attempted to turn the undead creatures.  Unfortunately, the roll of 10 was 1 shy of what a first-level acolyte needs to turn ghouls.  The rest of the group moved in and managed to dispatch one of the carrion eaters, but the sharp claws and teeth of the remaining pair of undead ripped the two fighters and the cleric to pieces.  The elf, who came to his senses at the base of the stairs to the surface, hightailed it out of there.
A few minutes and a few dice rolls later, Evaro had recruited a new group to tackle the dungeon: the fighter Fred II played by Coach, Jon's cleric Father Pius, Rickey's thief Alaric, and John's dwarf Derric Elderbeard.  Determined to recover the bodies (and loot) of the slain adventurers, they made their way past the fear-inducing murals and back into the shrine.  The chamber now contained four zombies (one noticeably shorter than the others--these were the bodies of the characters; corpses left in this dungeon tend to get up and walk off).  The group stayed in the doorway and used missile fire and flaming oil to dispose of the undead (and any items their former comrades had left on their bodies).  They wisely decided to avoid the evil altar this time.
Heartened by their success, the group pressed on to explore more of the dungeon.  But they made a couple of mistakes: They didn't bother to listen at a door before trying to open it.  And they didn't get it opened on the first try, alerting the five orcs waiting on the other side.  With surprise and numbers on their side, the orcs quickly dropped the dwarf, as well as the elf (who so far had been the longest-lived character of this campaign, if you can call it that).  The remaining three adventurers fled, with the orcs chasing them (I rolled that they would not even bother to stop and loot the bodies of the elf and dwarf).  Luckily for the fighter, cleric and thief, the orcs stopped at the door to the shrine.  Unfortunately for the survivors, the elf had been carrying scrolls of Sleep and Charm Person that the elf made using the Holmes scroll rules.
So the group returned (with Evaro V and Derric Elderbeard Jr.) and took out the orcs with a memorized Sleep spell.  They even defeated some reinforcements, got a few coins from their vanquished foes, and recovered the spell scrolls.  But instead of sticking around to search for treasure (who knows what they would have found), they retreated to the surface.  It was mainly because the players needed to go, so we ended the session there.  Everyone said they had a good time.  So why am I not satisfied with this session?

I'm bummed that there was the equivalent of a total party kill.  Everyone lost at least one character over the course of the day, and one player lost two.  Seeing the dungeon inhabitants take out the PCs so easily makes me feel bad.  Most everyone has at least a 40 minute drive to get to my place, and one guy drove for way more than an hour.  I don't know how much fun it is to put all that effort to join a game and then have your character killed so easily; and I hope I haven't run anybody off.  I didn't think I was running a killer dungeon, and I hope I didn't come across as too much of a dick with my DMing style.  I want my players to come back.

Maybe I should have rolled for reaction from the orcs, even though I figured that when they heard multiple attempts to bash their door in, they'd fight (and I did have some orcs flee after their fellows were cut down).  If there's a next time, I'll try to do better.  I hope that just like players (or lawyers), DMs can learn from their experiences. 


Colgar6 said...

Sounds like somewhat tough opposition for a starting party of 1st levels, from what I can remember of D&D?

Anonymous said...

Three ghouls against 5 1st level PCs is a little brutal, especially when the elf runs off. But then, I've had 3 1st level PCs beat 2 ghouls without a scratch...sometimes it's just the luck of the dice.

Also, the players may need to tighten up their game a bit: be more cautious, listen at doors, run away from fights they can't handle (or learn which fights they can't handle), hire some henchmen as soon as they are able to do so, and so on.


Coach K said...

eh party wipes happen, don't beat yourself up. On the way home, I laughed to myself realizing that you probably put the fear murals in there to prevent 1st lvl characters from adventuring in that area of the dungeon lol. But in the end, everybody got to game and roll some dice. And dead figures always come back out from the box for the next game.

Collin Schrader said...

For a one-shot dungeon romp with non-established characters, I think this sounds just right. I'd prefer tough encounters from the get-go rather than coddling through level 5, say, and then throwing in serious enemies.

Chris Kutalik said...

I wouldn't second guess it too much, I had a great time miraculously surviving certain death only to die a half hour later. The surprise rounds on both encounters were the real grinders IMO, we were done really before we got our round in (at least that fact was recognized on the second near TPK

Gonsalvo said...

You could always just give them an extra hit die, or a "saving throw" when they reach 0 HP to see if they're dead or "just restin". That would also give the past an incentive to retrieve bodies.

A friendly cleric back at base who can do Resurrections for a price (valuables or a quest, fee increasing as the character's level increases) is another staple idea.

Regardless, level 1 characters a are fragile!

Desert Scribe said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone.

The ghouls were a tough encounter, but that's what I had written down for the evil shrine.

While I'm trying to play as by-the-book as possible, I do rule that if a hit brings you to exactly zero hit points, you're unconscious, not dead. They brought back one of the characters this way.

And I should give the players credit for their good decisions--in addition to getting past the mural of fear, they decided *not* to go down the stairs to the second level. And with the orcs, they took out one group with a sleep spell and chased off the reinforcements as well.

I'm glad everyone enjoyed the game, and I hope to play again soon.

Stu Rat said...

Lately I've been thinking a Death and Dismemberment table at 0 hit points might be the way to go. i.e. Hit points are just the "Whew that was close", "Just a scratch", fatigue effects of combat and injuries only start once you hit 0 hp. Also hit points can come back more readily. Heres just one example of a D&D table.

Jon Hiesfelter said...

I actually felt pretty bad about bringing forth the ghouls. Though I'd intended to actually push the altar over; it's a wisdom 3 move either way.
The survivors of the first round could still have tried to run, but chose to stay.
I'd certainly be back if I wasn't in a different state!

HoldFast said...

Your dungeon is not too difficult. Do not rewrite the encounters! The party wiped because Crecentius the Mighty was not present! This 'problem' shall resolve itself in the next session.