Sunday, October 9, 2016

DCC session report - Blackrock Brothel #1

The basics

This is the first session report from my new Dungeon Crawl Classics campaign, which I have dubbed the Blackrock Brothel campaign.  The concept behind this campaign is pretty simple: first, we play the funnel adventure Hole in the Sky.  Then, any survivors from that decide to continue together and form an adventuring guild. I told you it was simple.

To get things started, one of the players is a member of a distant branch of a long-declined noble house, and that player, out of the blue, inherits an estate in a suburb of Punjar called Blackrock.  This estate was sold by the family a long time ago as fortunes turned sour, and as the surrounding district also declined, the so did the estate.  In one of its most recent incarnations, it was a brothel in Blackrock, so named because it catered to miners in the nearby basalt quarries.

Once these quarries ran dry, so did Blackrock, and now the estate is in a state of a shocking disrepair, fit only for rats.  The surrounding district is home almost exclusively to bands of squatters and stray dogs, both of whom can be occasional hazards.  The brothel-become-guildhouse has three rooms that a human could comfortably live it, and a heavy safe set into a room on the ground floor.  

In the setup, I tell the inheriting player that not three days after his character (Archimedia the Thief) laid claim to the place, the tax collector showed up with two thugs to demands 50 gp.  When his character protested that she had no money and just showed up, the collector said he would be back within the year, looking for twice that.

Campaign goals

The point of this framework is that I want to run a DCC campaign that leans heavily on published materials, especially those from Goodman Games.  I've developed a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for what they are producing, and I've noticed that I'm not alone in this appreciation.

I still see myself very much as a novice GM, so what I want to do here is use these materials to develop a better understanding of what works and what doesn't, as a gamemaster.  I've only GM'ed DCC twice so far, and already I've learned a lot by playing with the core rules and the official adventures.  Some people think it's lazy to rely on published materials...and they're right.  But it can also be very educational, and if the materials are top-shelf, it's going to help you have a good time.

With a simple campaign framework like this, I have an easy way to create hooks for adventures, and I can keep things pretty open-ended.  I set the game in "Punjar," which is the name of the primary city in most DCC settings, but I made very little use of Goodman Games materials for understanding my Punjar, and the surrounding world.

To be honest, I feel their setting is a little vanilla (though nowhere near as bad as the Forgotten Realms), and my setting really isn't super-specific, anyway.  For now, I haven't even drawn a map of the area, although I've described the major local features.  The main thing I wanted to do was to have my own take on demi-humans, because I really can't stand the bland demi-humans of most FRPG settings.  I won't really get into that right now, because it's not important at this time.

Getting ready

Anyway, we played through the Hole in the Sky, and I asked the players to choose one of their surviving characters to become a leveled character, and to give that character a class.  From there, my plan was to get them to give me a single top level motivation for their character, and I would give them one or more adventure hooks.

Well, as gameday approached, a number of players had to drop out (two of my players in NC were distracted by a little hurricane problem).  Down to three players, I decided that we didn't have enough characters for these DCC adventures, so I created three characters to fill in the blanks, and had each player run two characters.  I'd never ordinarily condone this sort of thing, but running The Funnel has made me more casual about players running multiple characters.  Besides, they are first level, and I expected at least one or two do die.  Like I said, DCC.

So here's who showed up for game day, and who they were able to play:
  • Stan: Stan played Courve the Thief, and Grognard the Dwarf.
  • Brendan: Brendan ran Greg the Warrior and Sizarius the Wizard.
  • Xavier: Xavier controlled Archimedia the Thief and Dar Shasta the (neutral) Cleric

Motivations and adventure hooks

There was a quick discussion of motives, and we kept it very basic (I said "getting rich" is 100% fine), although there were a few nice ones the players came up with (Grognard's desire to find a lost tribe of dwarfs was a standout for me).  

In return, I gave the players three hooks.  First, a wizard had sent a servant over with a letter requesting a meeting in the private room of one of Punjar's opium dens (Elzemon and the Blood-Drinking Box).  Next, they heard tell of a band of northern barbarians in town looking for champions to investigate problems in their sacred lands (Frozen in Time).  Finally, I let them know about the famous Cave of Secrets, where donation of a sizable treasure to the cave's strange hermit would earn you the answer to any question you asked (The One Who Watched From Below).  

I emphasized that the latter entailed donation of significant wealth (1000gp+), hoping desperately that they wouldn't go for it first (since I had prepared for that one the least).  They spoke with the barbarians and Rhalabhast, and decided to take both jobs; since the barbarian mission required a long boat trip there and back, they figured it could wait a few days for the blood-drinking box.  Sound logic, and what I expected, but I was prepared for them to take any of these baits.

The options for adventure

A quick aside for those readers who aren't familiar with both adventures: Elzemon and the Blood-Drinking Box is a pretty simple if weird adventure, where the party is hired by one wizard to steal an artifact from the lair of an absent rival. The catch is that they are told that the box holds a dangerous entity inside, and to keep the box locked, it must be regularly fed the blood of a living Lawful character. Another catch is that the lair is deep underground, reached by walking for two days down the world's largest spiral staircase.  That's the premise, but of course there are other surprises.

Frozen in Time starts with the PCs being hired by a tribe of barbarians to investigate the caves in a glacier which are taboo for the locals to enter.  These caves are supposedly home to ice devils, and the recent collapses in the glacier suggest the devils may be gone.  If the PCs can insure that they are, then the tribe can hunt on the ice beyond the glacier.  That's all they know about it so far, since they are still questing for the blood-drinking box.

Anyway...back to the adventure...

Considering their options

We played out the negotiation with Rhalabhast for the box, and he was actually quite generous.  The new guildmaster Archimedia wanted a (much) nicer guildhouse, and Sizarius wanted a new spell, so Rhalabhast offered to teach Sizarius the spell called Zellex's Marvelous Domicile.  This spell would transform a designated spot into a comfortable and secure place of rest, for a period of time.  Another character wanted money, so he'll get 250 gp.  Another character wants a magic sword, so Rhalabhast will make him one.  This was pretty generous, but I won't make it too powerful, and I'm rationalizing that the wizard just happens to want to test a couple of theories he has on magic sword manufacture.

That's all I recall any of the players bargaining for.  I think some of the character may have forgotten to ask for something, and I think Archimedia got a bit of a raw deal, since her prize depends on Sizarius being around and using it constantly for her benefit.  He might get tired of the accumulating corruption from nightly castings of this spell.  Still, two-fifty crowns, a magic sword, and a new spell are pretty good rewards!

Oh yes, there was one more thing: Rhalabhast promised to provide the party with an illusory treasure that could be used for payment at the Cave of Secrets. This wouldn't cost him much, after all.

For good measure, Rhalabhast cast the spell on the guildhouse before the party returned.  The characters who hadn't come along, were shocked as the gutted ruin transformed into a well-appointed villa.  "The rats turned into lanterns!," exclaimed one of the characters.  Some of the players proposed selling the fine brass lanterns in the market before they turned back into rats, but they were concerned about the repercussions from unsatisfied customers.

Entering the lair

The first portion of Elzemon is the door set in a cliffside, which the PCs are told will open when "the dead look to the sky."  Beside a waterfall, the party finds a dead bear and six dead hunters, mauled but unnaturally preserved.  By turning the corpses to gaze at the sky, a magical secret door will open by pivoting a boulder from the cliff.

I thought this was a bit of a weak puzzle...there's a curse that does a little bit of damage to characters who touch the bodies, but otherwise, it seems a little easy and arbitrary to me.  Nevertheless, I think it does a good job of conveying the weird creepiness that underlies a lot of the DCC content.

Top of the shaft

Once the group enters the cave, they are quickly confronted with the aforementioned giant cylindrical staircase into darkness.  I could instantly see how this presents the players with a bit of conundrum.  How deep does this go? They can't hear their test rocks hit the bottom, which convinces them that it is either super-deep (correct) or that there is some kind of magic trick going on like an illusion or portal (incorrect).

Before they start the trip downwards, they think to look upwards, which made me proud of my little group of players.  Upon doing so, they spotted a ledge 30' above them, upon which waited five Tirgefrabs out of sight.  These Tirgefrabs are a pretty weird creature: man-sized hairless cats that lack claws and teeth, but cling to walls and attack with poisonous projectile vomit.  Although they are intended to be used to harass the party over the course of two days, my group inadvertently took the fight to the...weird vomit-cats.

Encountering the Tirgefrabs

The Cleric used his Second Sight spell to decide if it was a good idea to climb up to the ledge.  He rolled a good spell check, but a rolled a bad percentile check for the answer accuracy, so I ended up giving a vague but innocuous answer. So one of the thieves (I forget which) scrambled up the rope and got vomited on a bunch of times, taking significant Strength and Stamina damage.

The thief slid down the now-slick rope, while two cats followed and two others fired their vomit from over the ledge.  The party was in a bit of a conundrum, now, because the players had neglected to outfit their characters with missile weapons, and the Tirgefrabs refused to come into striking range.  Several other characters got vomited on in a futile effort to slay one of the cats, and there was a lot of talk about pulling back to buy a bow or two (though the group was really low on cash).

However, with half the party in retreat, Greg the Warrior managed to pull off a Mighty Deed and critical hit with a 10' pole, braining one of the vile cats with a single blow.  The Tirgefrabs retreated with the death of one of their own, and the other four fled back above the ledge.

With this, the group pressed their victory, sending Greg, Grognard and Dar Shasta up the rope to ledge of the Tirgefrabs.  The fighting was tough, aided by the Choking Clouds of Sizarius, and the missile weapons of the thieves to pick off retreating cats.  I really should have had the cats retreat along the wall where the party couldn't follow, but I figured they would try to defend their primary lair.  Still, one got away, and it could make a return.

Seeking bottom

After the fight, the party was still wondering how deep the hole was, so they got creative in their investigation.  Sizarius cast Animal Summoning, using one of the feathers from the giant crows outside the Hole in the Sky.  His roll was good, allowing him to summon a 2 HD creature, and I allowed that the crow was a natural animal (no idea if this is true, but I wanted to see where this was going).  They got the crow for an hour, so the plan they devised was to send the crow down for 15 minutes with the dwarf, and then return.

So this is a pretty tricky situation to adjudicate.  How far will the crow descend in this giant shaft in 15 minutes?  The shaft is effectively about 3 miles deep, but I decided the bird needed to be careful in darkness, and would have to control its fall carefully with the dwarf on it.  I decided that he would make it most of the way, but there was no way this crow would be able to climb all the way back in that amount of time.

I could have let the dwarf go all the way to the bottom, but I decided that would separate the party to an excessive degree, and be hard to manage the play.  The separation probably would have done him in while ruining the surprise of what was to come for the rest of the party.

In retrospect, I could have let the dwarf get all the way to the bottom, and then return about 1/3 of the way back.  Then, he could have been attacked by the lone remaining Tirgefrab.  One of the thieves had scored a parting critical hit on it with a sling that destroyed its larynx, which would probably mess up its vomit attack.  However, it could have pounced on the lone dwarf and tried to ooze the poison in his face.  That might well have killed the dwarf, but it would not have been inexplicable in the face of events.

Due to the harassment from the sounds of screaming children and rolling boulders, the party was unable to get any benefit from their rest.  They were traveling single-file close to the wall, so nobody was killed when a section of the stairs collapsed.  Without further incident, the dwarf reunited with the rest, and they all subsequently made it to the bottom.

A strange place to keep your stuff in

At the base of the shaft, there is a lake of mild acid, occupied by three colossal leeches.  Suspended over this lake is a network of narrow circular bridges that can be traversed to reach a giant mound of guano in the center.  If this sounds strange, that just means you're paying attention.  The mound of guano being the only feature that didn't seem innately hostile, the PCs headed towards it over the treacherous bridges.

During the first narrow section of the bridge, the lead character, Dar Shasta, immediately plummeted into the lake due to a failed Reflexes save.  From there, he was quickly set upon by the three walrus-sized leeches, unable to grab the rope in time due to his armor and shield.  The first one struck successfully, while one of them made a near miss.  The third one fumbled, and I ruled that the stupid thing ended up turning towards him and accidentally latching onto itself.  It would get an Intelligence check each round to realize its folly.

The next round, something invisible struck Greg in the face with his claw, staggering the warrior but not knocking him into the drink.  He and Grognard made return attacks, but the unseen assailant chuckled and flew out of reach over the acid.

Meanwhile, Dar Shasta was fighting for his life, low on hit points and the only Cleric in the party.  He cast Paralyze on the leech that had latched onto him, successfully preventing its further feeding...but also complicating his ability to stay afloat.  Meanwhile, Archimedia the thief pounced upon the free leech, burning Luck and getting a backstab in the process.  The leech was slain in one, and with his help, Dar Shasta was eventually pulled from the lake (though his shield was lost and mace damaged by the acid).

But not before the plucky cleric laid hands on himself, saving himself from the brink of death just as he was pulled underneath the surface by the weight of the paralyzed leech.

Wrapping up the session

And that's as far as we got!  There's still an injured and angry Tirgefrab out there, a few challenges remaining to the party, as well as the deadly machinations of an unseen enemy.  So far, though, the party has done very well. Dar Shasta has made great use of his Second Sight (which he calls Future Vision...props to Garnet) and Paralyze.  Archimedia just discovered the joys of burning Luck and backstabbing, and everyone loves rolling on those critical hit tables.  Greg got in a sweet Mighty Deed along with his crit, speaking of the latter, and both he and the dwarf generally kicked ass with the deed dice. Sizarius and his Animal Summoning got a lot of mileage (no pun intended), but I was disappointed with the effects of Choking Cloud, which were extremely modest.

The nice thing about having each player run two characters is that we can easily accommodate more players next session just by using one of the characters already in play.  I wouldn't do this for well-established characters, but it doesn't have to be just for The Funnel.

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