Monday, April 28, 2014

HelgaCon VII – Shrine of the Kuo-Toa

At the recent HelgaCon VII I continued my annual check-in with the classic D&D G/D series modules, now for the fifth year in the sequence -- so that means we're up to module D2, Shrine of the Kuo-Toa. Like anything else, I now run these games using OD&D with my OED house rules. (The first two years I was running module S1, Tomb of Horrors, under regular AD&D rules. Use the search bar if you want to read previous year's writeups.)

Due to the growth of HelgaCon, I was pleased and excited to have fully seven players sitting in on the game. For the first time, there was some lead-up interest in players picking their PCs in advance and doing some amount of party organization and planning (equipment, spells, etc.) prior to game day. Dave G. took the lead on this and helpfully set up a Google Docs spreadsheet for this and my other games, that players could use to claim a PC of their choice in advance -- very efficient. I offer the same PC list I've used in prior years, so some players have grown familiar with certain PC personalities already (link). 

This game was set for the first slot that occurs on Friday night. I spent the early part of the day traveling, and re-reading H.P. Lovecraft's Shadow Over Innsmouth along the way -- later that night, I tried to communicate as much of the smelly, cold, wet, ancient frog-fish-man community as I could. The car ride from New York was actually delayed past our scheduled start time, so when we arrived I pretty much had to jump out of the car and run to the table and start rolling dice. (I walked in the house greeting people with, "Hello, now save versus poison!").

I quickly set up and walked players through my remaining preparation checklist -- read module background, pick leader-equipment-spells, arrange marching order and scouting protocols, hand out the long-range map -- and then play began. Based on events from last year, players began just past the module D1 area, with two mules carrying 60 man-days days of supplies, a lot of rope and spikes, some jugs of healing, and a few doses of mithridate (neutralize poison in my games). Here's how play progressed:
  • First of all, Dave G. had planned his use of the fighter/wizard Ezniak of the Myriad Rings carefully -- Ezniak has the polymorph self spell in his book and while I was traveling reading Lovecraft, Dave was poring through the AD&D Monster Manual (which I told him was acceptable), and had hit upon the Androsphinx as a great choice of form. It's within the size limit for the spell, has a human head and voice for spellcasting, AC -2 (better than anything in OD&D), very fast flight of 30", and two heavy attacks for 2d6 each. It also lasts all day under my Book of Spells rules (derived from the 3E SRD). So the plan was to have Ezniak transform into a sphinx and do all his adventuring in that form. I wasn't thrilled about this tonally for my game, but Dave had put the effort into exploring the written rule, so I had to honor that and say "yes" to it. (I'll write more about this later.)
  • The first encounter area is a wide underground river that the party must cross. Dave's Ezniak (in sphinx form) took the initiative to fly to the other side and take hold of the barge beached there. Unfortunately, the crazed high-level Kuo-Toan monitor burst out of the darkness in a frenzy, landing on the sphinx's back, and tearing out great and gory clawfuls of his body with 6 attacks in the first round. Ezniak leaped off the barge, and with his incredible flying speed, immediately landed with the frog-man on the other side, where the rest of the party started beating on it. Clearly at risk of death, I made a morale check for the creature to see if he would flee or sacrifice himself for spite -- and he made the check, continuing to tear into the sphinx and actually killing Ezniak on round 2! (Welcome to old-school.) Meanwhile, BJ's character Boris of Briansk rolled a "1" and missed his fumble-save, resulting in a slip and fall into the river in full armor. In the next round he dropped his shield and made a check to grab the riverbank; but meanwhile the whale-sized giant gar roared up out of the river and started biting off his legs. Fortunately, the rest of the party could rally and quickly finish off the first Kuo-Toan and his monstrous creature, and take stock of their situation.
  • The party used their one scroll of reincarnation to bring back Ezniak; the way my rules work, he gets a save to come back in his own form -- which he failed. Result: I said he came back as a Sphinx permanently (what I actually rolled behind the screen was a Griffon, but it seemed so close that I felt a "spiritual vibration" had been set for us to play out the sphinx-form for the rest of the game). Side-caves were explored, and with a magic sword that can detect metal, the hidden treasure cache was found, including gold, gems, healing potions, and a magic-radiating clock. Paul S.'s character Jurdan the Red Wizard put it on (Jurdan carrying a wand of fireballs, and frequently being the party hero in earlier games) -- well, it's a poisonous cloak, and by Gygax's rules in OD&D Sup-I or the AD&D DMG, that's instant death, no save. So Paul's artillery wizard was out of the game with no way for the party to bring him back. (Welcome Part 2.)
  • The second encounter was a deep tunnel nexus of 3 major connecting arteries and several smaller side-caves. At this point, there was some discussion about pushing on ahead as quickly as possible (many times just what should be prioritized), but Maggie's dwarven fighter/thief Bellinus Blueye insisted on at least a quick search of the side-caves. This brought him face-to-face with a group of some 8 Deep Gnomes who had been hiding, assessing the explorers. Peaceful gestures were made, although the party had no shared languages or way to talk with them. I felt that they hit upon a pretty clever solution: they gestured for the gnome leader to start writing letters in the dirt, cast read languages, and thereby started deciphering key bits of their language Rosetta-stone style. They negotiated a mutual expedition against the Kuo-Toan shrine, with gnomes receiving 1/3 of any treasure found. I handed the pre-made character sheets for Trosli Garnetgetter and the rest of the Deep Gnome brigade over to Paul, who started intently studying their special powers and capabilities.
  • A few miles past this point, the party was ambushed by a Drow Patrol of about a dozen male fighters. The wizard leader got in one fireball against the party, scorching about half of them and killing one of the party's pack mules. Lukyan the Trickster responded with a lightning bolt, but the Drow made their spell-resistance, and the stroke passed through them as though the were but dreamy images. The party fighters leaped into the fray, hacking down the low-level warriors left and right; Paul's gnomes threw their darts with deadly precision -- scoring a critical hit against the evil wizard with a follow-up "00" d% roll, i.e., a head hit for instant death! Then the party searched the bodies, taking several of the diaphanous faerie cloaks and weapons, and also considered consuming the pre-cooked mule meat before pressing on.
  • The party turned into a narrow side-tunnel which their map and the Deep Gnomes told them led to a secret side-entrance of the Shrine area. A few miles into this area, the front of the party walked onto a huge, hidden Trapper spanning the passage, which instantly folded up on them and started crushing them to death (MM rule: 3 rounds to insta-death for everyone inside). Fortunately the back-half of the marching order had sufficient muscle that they could chop the terrifying creature to pieces and free their comrades.
  • A few miles after that, and the party stumbled across a hulking figure apparently gnawing on something at the side of the tunnel. The remaining party wizard used Jurdan's old wand of fireballs to preemptively blast it -- which, being a Xorn, it was entirely immune to. (Weirdly, this was another creature that Dave. G had considered polymorphing into at the start.) The creature came angrily at the party for the interruption to its mineral meal -- but the Deep Gnomes could use their special earth-communication to pacify the creature. They attempted to negotiate an alliance, but instead (reaction roll failing) the annoyed Xorn passed through the tunnel wall into deeper, more inaccessible parts of the Oerth.
  • Then the Deep Gnomes showed the party the secret door that led into the back area of the Shrine complex. Within, the walls were intricately carved with ancient alien underwater scenes; the air was filled with a hazy, wet, bone-chilling cold mist; a dim greenness glowed from the roof above; and silence prevailed, except for distant wavelike splashing. On one side of the party's entry was an Armory with hundreds of shields, spears, bows, arrows, nets, etc. The party took a few of these, and used wall of stone to block off access to the whole room before exploring in another direction. 
  • In the other direction was a storage chamber filled to overflowing with bales, boxes, barrels, etc., and an overpowering, almost nauseating fishy odor. Two doors led out of the room, which the party checked and then listened at. Opening one, the party found themselves facing the barracks of the high-level Kuo-Toan monitor elites who protected and disciplined the entire complex.
  • Combat erupted. Some of the party fighters tried to bar the doors, but the ultra-strong Kuo-Toans battered them in and lashed out with claws and fangs. Thieves hid momentarily in the clutter and then lashed out for backstabs. Trosli threw his special poison gas stone into the next room at the bulk of the Kuo-Toans, only to find out that they're immune. A fireball was launched after it, scorching the creatures but not killing them (I struck out the book vulnerability to fire, as I don't think it makes sense for the permanently-wet creatures). When one Kuo-Toan got very injured, Deep Gnomes would jump on it en masse and smash it underfoot with a fury of hammer-blows. One of the fighters scored a critical, slicing off one Kuo-Toan's arm. After some hard hand-to-hand fighting, the elites of the shrine were defeated (not that the players knew this -- at this point they had the rather horrifying assumption that all Kuo-Toa were level 7+ mega-hasted-monks, and from the Deep Gnomes they knew there were several hundred in the overall Shrine complex).
  • The monitor's quarters were spartan. In the next room, one more monitor lay in ambush and struck by surprise from around the corner, but once the party rallied, they quickly slew him.
  • Time was running short, but the Deep Gnomes could deduce that based on their entry, one of the primary passages north out of the Shrine had to be close by (one of the game's victory conditions). The party used an arcane eye to scout out the next passage -- a cyclopean hallway 50' wide and high, leading in several different directions including northeast. All of the walls were ringed 20' up by dark arrow slits; and in the center stood a troop of 10 Kuo-Toan guards, these ones armored (!). (The magic also allowed the party to see into the throne area, glittering with untold gems and jewels and various skulking, robed figures.) The party put together a an all-out attack plan, with a whole barrage of missiles, spells, haste, and gas-clouds, using the Deep Gnomes' surprise advantage as a trigger. To their complete amazement, when the first member of the party threw an unknown globe as the first attack, it erupted into a fireball and blew the whole group of low-level guards to pieces. (Which was hilarious -- the players almost tripped all over themselves in chaos, with their attack plan disrupted due to unintentional overkill.) Alarms and croaking calls to arms could be heard, and the party beat a hasty retreat to the north, running away from the shrine area, off into the far darkness. And what occurs there will be a tale for another time.

 Commentary

  • Based on the victory conditions I gave the players, they scored a "major victory": (1) they successfully passed north of the Shrine area, (2) they discovered a black Drow medallion of passage in the river monitor's hidden cache, and (3) they allied with dissidents of the Drow (namely the Deep Gnomes). What they did not manage to do was (4) collect at least 25,000 silver pieces in wealth (g.p. for you non-silver-standard DM's). Well done!
  • Everyone seemed to have a really excellent play session -- there was a lot of excitement and satisfaction around the table. The scenes with the Deep Gnomes, Xorn, and Kuo-Toa seemed to be really appreciated and give a fulfilling sense of the really weird deep earth setting.
  • One thing that's been happening throughout the D-series is that we're actually spending more play time (like 3 out of 4 hours) in the advance long-range passages than the main encounter area map itself. On the one hand, in a limited convention format, we might consider skipping the random encounters and just presenting the highlight set pieces (the G/D series being a sometimes uncomfortable mishmash of tournament and campaign design). But on the other hand, it's very much not a failure -- the players have really been digging the variety and strangeness of the encounters they get in the far-ranging "wilderness" passages. And tactically it's kind of important (as is always the case for wandering encounters) that they be tested on how well they can avoid crippling delays or losses before getting to the goal areas. So really, you could totally go either way with this issue and get really strong (but distinct) games in any case.

Can't wait until next year! The Drow homeland already has some welcoming plans made...


9 comments:

  1. Fun write up!
    Interested in hearing your thoughts on the Polymorph issue.

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    1. Thanks! You might need a bit of patience for a polymorph discussion here, I think it's set for 3 weeks from now (some other stuff coming first).

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  2. Sounds like a lot of fun was being had. And I might steal your pre-rolled PCs. :-)

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  3. Excellent write-up. You might find this of interest as well:

    http://greyhawkgrognard.blogspot.com/2008/07/dming-into-depths-of-oerth-part-3.html (about Vault of the Drow)

    http://greyhawkgrognard.blogspot.com/2008/06/dming-into-depths-of-oerth-part-2.html (about the one you ran here, Shrine of the Kuo-Toa)

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    1. That's great! Thank so much for those links. I'll plan to read the whole set tomorrow on my commute, looks like a great comparison. Recommended to anyone else: here's a link that brings up the whole series D1-2-3:

      http://greyhawkgrognard.blogspot.com/search?q=DMing+into+the+Depths+of+the+Oerth

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    2. Glad I read it. I think in some respects I differ from GG in that I'm a now lot more troubled by the "how did it run in tournament play?" question that leads me to think the hints of negotiation and factional opportunities aren't really consistent with the main development of any of the encounter areas. Likely they were later add-ons that I might say contradict the initial and major part of the work.

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  4. I had a lot of fun thinking about which character and spells to use in advance, both in terms of playing to meet victory conditions, and not wasting a lot of time with set-up at the table. Playing a Sphinx felt a bit abusive to me as well, but it was the strongest choice in the list so I went with it. Didn't save me from insta-death! :)

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    1. I'm really glad it was fun! You totally motivated me to dig into that spell and the monsters in my game and think them through a lot more carefully. There's going to be a whole series of "Spells Through the Ages" here basically inspired by those couple of games you were in.

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