Actual Play – Tomb of Sum’dedguy (12/14/2013)

torchbearer-rpgGM: Sean Nittner
Players: Matthew Grau, Mike Muldoon, Skylar Woodies, Dennis Jordan, Kristin Hayworth, and Shaun Hayworth
System: Torchbearer
Dungeon: Dread Crypt of Skogenby

Description: Adventurer is a dirty word. You’re a scoundrel, a villain, a wastrel, a vagabond, a criminal, a sword-for-hire, a cutthroat. Respectable people belong to guilds, the church or are born into nobility. Or barring all that, they’re salt of the earth and till the land for the rest of us.

Your problem is that you’re none of that. So there’s naught for you but to make your own way. There’s a certain freedom to it, but it’s a hard life.

A rumble in the earth opened a passage into the long buried Tomb of Sum’dedguy. Quick, pillage its treasures before another scoundrel beats you to it, or worse, the earth shifts again and closes off the entrance forever.

Torchbearer is a riff on the early model of fantasy roleplaying games. In it, you take on the role of a fortune-seeking adventurer. To earn that fortune, you must explore forlorn ruins, brave terrible monsters and retrieve forgotten treasures. However, this game is not about being a hero. It is not about fighting for what you believe. This game is about exploration and survival.

Dread Crypt of Skokenby

As I was writing this adventure, Thor mentioned on G+ that he was working on a similarly themed dungeon. I love Under the House of the Three Squires, so I fully expected to love any tomb raiding adventure he created.

At Burning Con he gave me a copy of the adventure, and that sealed the deal. I was definitely going to run it! In retrospect, I should have play-tested it though. I’ve gotten really comfortable with the House, and I wasn’t nearly confident or familiar with the material when I ran DCoS.

Torchbearer at Dead of Winter

Overall I was disappointed with the game I ran at Dead of Winter. There were three major reasons for this: buy in, preparedness, and style.

Buy in

Of the players at the table I had Shaun who was very enthusiastic about Torchbearer, Kristin and Dennis who were curious about it, Skylar who has transitioned completely from Pathfinder to Dungeon World and loves DW, and Matt and Mike who had signed up because they wanted to try out one of my games. All good reasons for playing, but as a group, I don’t think I did a good job setting the expectation for the game we were playing.

Torchbearer is a dungeon crawl, so it’s a game you have to start with that intention in mind. It’s also a game of making a lot out of not much. Your characters are always under-equipped and under-informed, and part of playing Torchbearer is embracing that and marching ahead determined to do the best with what you’ve got.

Once we started play I could tell I hadn’t conveyed that.  The characters really wanted more information before entering the dungeon as well as wanting to propose a simple solution to the problem (just roll that boulder back over the hole that had been uncovered and consider the child lost). I steamrolled over both of these ideas and said “that isn’t what this games does” but I immediately felt like I was forcing the players rather than working with them.

From then on there were several instances where the mode of play a player wanted wasn’t compatible with the mechanics of TB. For example, Matt wanted to use Taika’s singing nature to help bolster her companions in a fight, but stay out of the fight herself. Several times throughout the game I found myself telling Matt that he couldn’t use singing to help in particular circumstances, but Taika did have Fighter, Scout, etc. and other skill that would help. It didn’t fit with his vision of the character, and so until the end of the game Taika was often unable to providing helping dice. I felt through most of the game that if we were playing Fate, or even Pathfinder/D&D 3.X / 4E and Matt was playing an Elven Bard he would have been able to do the things he wanted to do.

Preparedness

I had read the adventure cover to cover at least half a dozen times. Nothing really prepares you for running a dungeon like actually running it. I’ve gotten really comfortable with Under the House because I’ve run it for six different groups over the course of 12 sessions. With the Dread Crypt I found myself constantly rushing to keep up with the action, and unwilling to stop to read a room’s full description before moving on.

Part of that was performance anxiety. I wanted to stay connected with the players and actively engage them, which meant I was only willing to glance at the adventure and skim the box text. This did not serve the game well as I frequently glossed over important details that would have provided a richer (more exploratory) game for the players.

I think I really needed to know the adventure better than I did. The simple solution for that would have been to play the adventure myself at Burning Con and run a play-test of it for others. I didn’t do either and I think the game really suffered for it. There is just no remembering the details of every alcove in a room like you get from running the game a few times and having the adventurers bang into said alcoves.

Where this really hurt was in the various chambers, which had plenty to observe and investigate, but since I didn’t present them with rich detail, the players had little reason to investigate.

Style

While I love, love, love Under the House of the Three squires, I’m only luke warm on the Dread Crypt of Skogenby. This is for two reasons: nobody to talk to, and lots of lore/scholar/theologian investigations.

The House has several groups of critters that you can talk to, along with a host of NPCs that all have their own stories. I like having interactions with players and giving them lots of options for how to handle them.  Most of the threats in DCoS have to be fought or fled. Both are cool options, but I like there being others as well. And I think I made it doubly bad by using a twist to create another encounter that had to be fought. Bleh.

Of the non-fight challenges, I found a lot of them were about “knowing” rather than “doing”. They involved lots of Lore Master, Scholar, and Theologian tests. Those kind of “do I know it?” tests are hard for me to wrap my head. First off, asking a player to describe their action is always tricky. When do I go from players asking a question to calling for a roll. I want to see them do something before I have them make a test, but when you’re trying to understanding something it’s hard to describe what you do. Also, it’s hard for me to think of good twists when “do I know/understand it” tests are made. Most of the time they are out of left field, unlike when someone tries to do something physically or socially, and I can follow from the fiction to determine what could go wrong. Scholar checks are great in town, they leave me lackluster during the adventure.

The play is the thing

Adventure intro. Before starting the game I gave the players the adventure intro, and quickly hurried them along to the entrance of the crypt. They really wanted to talk to the families more to try and get more information. They also wanted to propose a simpler solution…just roll the bolder back over the hole in the earth. I pointed out that the girl Jora was still in there and the families wanted he brought home safely, or at least her remains returned.

Grumble, grumble, get to the entrance of the dungeon!

Adventure Phase

Turn 1 – Standing the the fading gloom, torches were lit and Gerald plus companions approached the stone pillars, capped by a giant yew, and cleared them off so the runes beneath could be read [Scout Ob 2. Fail. Result: Twist] As they work rain began to fall. It actually aided clearing the stones but sent a chill down their spines and was difficult to work in [A factor outside]

Turn 2 – Using Ulrik’s shield and Karolina’s bearskin cloak to provide cover from the rain, Varg took rubbings of the markings to examine later [Scholar Ob 2. Result: Success]. After acquiring the rubbing, the pushed forward…into the narrow tunnel.

Turn 3 – While crawling through the opening Taika took notice of the white lesions on roots of the yew and identified them [Lore Master Ob 2. Success] as the result of charnel magics permeating the crypt.

Turn 4 -Inside finding the four disturbed coffins, Karloina thought to poke them with her spear, but first Varg wanted to inspect the auras around them, determined if the dead were at rest or not. [Lore Master Ob 2. Fail. Result: Twist]. Using his Wizard Sight, Varg pierced the veil and discovered the ghostly spirits of Haathor-Vash’s slaves. As they flickered in an out of existence, they enchanted Varg, who followed them as they danced away…

And all were Hungry and Thirsty

Turn 5 – Varg did not try to resist the lights, but Karolina didn’t like it when he followed them into a room and seemed to continue following them after they disappeared into a pool of water. With some help she pulled Varg back and broke the spell, leaving the magician infuriated [Angry] that he wasn’t able to learn the secrets of this crypt.

Spell – As Karolina wrestled with Varg, the skeletons they investigated burst into life (or unlife) and lurched forward with weapons in hand to attack Beren and Ulrik. Summoning the might of the Lords of Life and Death. [Ritualist Ob 5. Success]. Two of them remembered their life, there dedication to Haathor-Vash, and fled to warn their master of the intruders.

Turn 6 – Undaunted by their cohorts fleeing, the two remaining tomb guardians mindfully attacked Ulrik and Beren. All but Taika joined in on the fight, aiming to destroy the two skeletons, beating them into dust. During the fight Ulrik was knocked around some, angering him [Angry], and Beren was impailed by the leader of the tomb guardians [Injured].

Turn 7 – Having defeated all immediate threats, the party opted to spike the doors that lead into the adjoining rooms. Gerald set about securing camp while others made plans. [Survivalist Ob 2. Fail. Condition: Afraid] While spiking one door he saw he saw the shape of a woman’s face pass through the door and so close to him he could almost feel her icy breath. As quick as she appeared, she vanished back behind the door. After that he was terrified. What good is spiking a door if evil spirits can pass through walls.

Camp Phase

During camp, first Ulrik and then Taika tended to Beren’s injury. Gerald drunk deep of his wine to shake off the fear he encountered and then made merry by planning a card game with his companions which soothed their angry hearts.

Taika studied the remains of the bones left behind and realized that the bones were warriors who gave their life alongside their master, willingly, and continued to server her in death.

Adventure Phase

Turn 1 – After a restful camp, there heard something try to open the eastern doors, and when the found the spiked, began slamming into them. The party split up. Ulrik and Karloina tried to hold the door fast, while Gerald, Taika, and the others worked as pulling the spikes from the other door in a hurry [Dungeoneer Ob 2. Success].

Turn 2 – Taika waned to investigate a route to flee while the others held the door fast, but instead determined that the rooms connected back up, forming a circle, and now the six tomb guardians were right in front of her! [Scout Ob 2. Fail. Twist: In the fight].

Turn 3 – As the doors burst open, the adventurers could choose to stand and fight, or try to flee by crawling through the narrow passage into the light.  The held their ground and destroyed the tomb guardians! [Kill conflict. No disposition lost!]

Turn 4 – Inside the Chamber of Vigils they noticed there was a fine ash permeating the room. It was centered in a wide pit in the floor, but their fighting had disturbed it. Clever, clever adventurers that they were, they looks for tracks made of ash, and sure enough using their keen eyes and “Tracks-wise”, they followed the skeleton’s tracks made of ash into the Alter of Ascension, and found then dead end at the wall in the corner. [Scout Ob 2. Success]

And all were Hungry and Thirsty

Spell – Realizing that the sarcophagus here had to be a decoy, Varg took some time to study it and the rubbings he had taken from the dolmens outside. He incanted his Wisdom of the Sages spell to decipher them, but instead of learning their meaning, uttering the words brought about the attention of Haathor-Vash. [Arcanist Ob 3. Fail. Result: Twist]

Turn 5 – Pouring through the wall like a living shadow, the specter of Haathor-Vash brought a chill to the room. They heard a muffled cry coming through the wall behind it, and at once Varg was locked in a battle of wills to fight off the spirit from possessing him. [Will vs. Nature test. Success].

Turn 6 – Realizing that the scream came from a child, the adventurers redoubled their efforts to get through the wall that was a dead end. With some careful examination, they discovered the secret latch on the wall (see thoughts below for how I mucked up this room) [Scout Ob 3. Success], but before opening it…

Instinct – Ulrik checked for traps, and found eight spears hidden in the rafters above, ready to plunge into them. [Scout Ob 3. Success].

Good Idea –  instead of trying to disarm the spears, the adventurers simply tied a rope to the latch and pulled it from a distance, setting them off from a safe distance. I was totally turned around on this room by this point and had described everything wrong. So when I realized this was the wrong trap, I just decided to go with it and keep moving forward.

Turn 7 – Entering the Vault of Bone Flowers, the adventurers saw four more skeletal warriors. When the didn’t wake at first, Gerald bravely snuck up to them and wrapped his rope around all of their spines to bind them together. He also liberated their battle axes! [Criminal Ob 4. Success!]

From here I stopped keeping track of the turns because the party became really divided in their direction. Some of the things that happened.

Haathor-Vash, possessing the body of Jora opened the oaken doors and cursed them. Ulrik tried to banish the spirit (Banish conflict) and lost but gained a minor compromise. The compromise was that the spirit left Jora, but now possessed Varg.

After that most of the party was ready to flee. The raced out of the crypt with the body of Jora in their hands and threw off all the arm rings they were carrying, but Gerald stayed behind to try and help his friend.  There was a brutal kill conflict in which Gerald went down, but having received a compromise, took the spirit into himself so that Varg could escape.

The wizard ran out of the crypt in the dark and got out just moments before, the others pushed the boulder back over the opening. Sealing the crpyt with Gerald inside.

Thoughts on this game

Mike said he was happy with the heroic sacrifice to save his companion, which I was glad to hear. Others said they enjoyed the game as well, though frankly it’s awkward not to say that after a GM has just run a game for you. Mostly, I felt disappointed with my delivery of the Torchbearer mood and mechanics as well a the adventure I was running. As noted above, I think practice would have helped that delivery greatly.

“Your doing it wrong.” I tried to reiterate to everyone several times that helping means getting in there and doing some of the work. In the case of using a wise, it’s reasonable to correct someone, but otherwise, you gotta help to help. On a fighter tests it means hitting something or blocking a blow, or maneuvering into position. With a scholar test it means discussing the meanings of something, looking in your own books, or doing some of the translation work. What helping doesn’t mean is telling someone “you’re doing it wrong.” One of my frustrations was hearing that line over and over when someone would offer a helping die. I pushed back on it several times saying “describe the action your taking that is actually helping” but even then the action was often followed up by a similar snipe of “showing you how it’s done.” At one point we even had one person helping saying “you’re doing it wrong” and another person helping saying “no, they are wrong” (but you know, not “you’re doing a good job” or anything encouraging). I need to work on setting the tone of the game, that it’s gritting and rough, and that all adventurers have to rely on is each other. Also I should be more proactive in framing how helping works and give some examples.

I forgot that if someone fails treatment, it results in “sucking it up” and losing a point in a stat, and instead had Ulrik lose his healers tools by falling on the ground and getting contaminated. I think in retrospect they should have just fallen in Beren!

I really started free-wheeling when the got to the Altar of Ascension. I had read up so much on the two chambers to the side, and was expecting them to investigate them further, but hadn’t read the Alter text well enough. Instead of stopping the game to read the box text there, I glimpsed at it and drew out a few details. Wrong details as the case was. But instead of fixing it, I just pushed past and twisted the room around. I’m disappointed that I didn’t stop to refer to the text.

How to do a flee conflict when there is no where to go? This was a problem. When the second set of Tomb Guardians appeared and the party thought to flee, they realized the space was a circle and they practically speaking had nowhere to go. After that they decided to fight. I was a little disappointed with that because had the space been a bit larger, or they been able to conceive of a way to run out (short of running outside, which they were convinced was impossible do the tight constraints.

Action cards were great. There is a certain diminishing returns with cards on the table, simply because they take up space and eventually clutter the table. For my money though Action cards are great for the suspense of flipping over a card to see what actions are taken. In declining order of usefulness I think there is Light, Conditions, Weapons, and then Armor.  That’s a theoretical list however, because I didn’t print out light cards (didn’t have time).