Playback: Portal Under the Stars-Advice, What I learned,etc

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Far-Sighted Wanderer
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Playback: Portal Under the Stars-Advice, What I learned,etc

Post by modemaus »

Hey everyone - I finished GMing Portal Under the Stars for a party of 20 0-level characters (5 players) and just wanted to write about it for anyone else who is thinking about using this adventure!

Background info: my gaming group consisted of me as GM, 2 players who had played a few sessions of D&D, and 3 players who have never played a tabletop RPG. I have GMed only D&D games before, and 95% of the time I would spin up my own campaign and general storyline from scratch and play from that. I have only ever played maybe 1 or 2 published adventures.

1. Character Creation
Even with 20 characters to generate, this step went relatively fast. I believe we spent about an hour (probably less) doing everything from rolling abilities, to random weapons, to naming characters. Some of the tables in the rule book do not list information that I normally would expect from a stricter ruleset like D&D, which meant consulting related passages and sometimes even the index or appendices (when rolling a dwarf or elf, you need to consult the chapter on the class of elf and dwarf to find out things like "what does Heightened Senses actually do?", how sensitive are they to iron?, how far in the dark can infravision see? IE dwarves have infravision, but you would only know this reading it in the class section. ). In some cases, I could not find the info I was looking for quickly enough and simply made it up myself (how many arrows do people whose occupations give them Shortbows have? IE there is a section that tells you demi-human halflings and dwarves have a base speed of 20', but I couldn't find what the stock base speed was and assumed it was 30' as per other role playing game rules. Later, I found it somewhere in a section that I was not able to locate again).

The players had a lot of fun when they rolled characters with 1HP and knew they were doomed, although one of the 1HP characters was pretty tough and lasted all the way up until the last battle! The atk +4 on the Warlord managed to get him taken care of in one shot.

Area 1-1
After reading the first passage, the players heard "jewels and crystals" and immediately wanted to pry them from the doors. They spent a lot of time thinking about where the door was a push or pull door, trying to investigate hinges and asking for details about whether there was a doorknob - which was not specified. Ultimately, I told them yes there was a doorknob but thinking about it now, I should have assumed that since it wasn't specified, it was intentional, and no there was not a doorknob. One of the dwarves in their party rolled a critical on his first strength check to knock the door of it's hinges, and triggered the trap, but I rolled low and this character did not die.

Area 1-2
This room is essentially where you set the tone of loss for the players. If the dice are in the DMs favor, you are looking at four dead party members right off the bat (they deal 1d8 damage with their spears and have +2/+4 to attack). Smart players will recover the spears - these will come in handy later. Smart players will think about how low their hit points are and they will make every effort to use the spears for ranged attacks. The DCC book treats a spear as a melee weapon - no range is listed for them - however, these statues launching the spears make it impossible to enforce them as melee only.

Area 1-3
We had a pretty unique situation in this room. One of my bolder players said, "I'll lead the way" - he took two of his characters into the room, reported back about it, and then said he wanted to shoot the statue with an arrow. Another player choose to close the door and hold it shut, locking this players two characters Jeff and Ickleme in the room while the other 18 stayed in the statue room.

The players then spent about 5-10 minutes discussing whether it was a good idea, until finally the player with 2 characters in the room decided he would go back into the room where everyone else was without firing his bow. This is when the statue began to shoot fiery blasts from his fingertips, which will hit 3/4 of the time and deal enough damage to kill most characters. This led to a fatality for Ickleme at the door, and Jeff running by himself to the door to area 1-4 - this character survived and made it into the hallway.

The players then spend another 10 minutes thinking about what they would do, and eventually came up with an interesting plan to use some guys as a decoy while a stout dwarf runs up and tries to attack the statues finger. I HAD A BLAST watching them come up with all sorts of crazy ideas as to why the statue was firing at them - they all brought their characters into the room and made sure to "make eye contact with the statue at all times". After failing to break off the statues finger (looking back, I should have made it clear that the finger was too high up for anyone to attack via melee), the character pushed the hide armor up over the statues head to "cover its eyes". It was entertaining when I had the statue still rotate and follow people despite having his eyes covered.

The players spent a looong time in this room just trying to figure out what was going on. Eventually, the leftover bundle of characters in area 1-2 made a run for it to the safety of the hall where Jeff was waiting. The remaining three blasts were fired, killing Katy Perry, injuring one, and missing one. After the group made it into the room, the few brave characters who were investigating the statue spent even more time trying to figure out what was going on, even though the statue was no longer firing.

At this point, I tried to have some characters make intelligence checks to see if they would recognize the smell of "burnt oil" to help indicate that the statue was out of oil. Everyone rolled poorly. It was entertaining because they then said, "sh*t we missed the hint", to which I responded, "What hint?", and got some smirks out of my players ("good answer GM").

One player, frustrated by the inaction, sent his brave halfling to door leading to area 1-5. The statue followed - I had the hide armor fall off of his eyes while he moved (entertainment for GMs) - but didn't fire of course. The halfling opened the door and saw armor, and bones beginning to animate, but despite the fact that 7 piles of bones were about to attack 1 small halfling, he ran to the armor and tried to don it. I told him it just so happened to be halfling sized, so he gained +4 AC, and then swiftly was killed by a bunch of weak bones. Looking back, the armor should have been human sized so someone could retrieve it later (anything you can do to allow players - who are beginning to figure out who their favorites are - to protect them, is a good idea for player happiness).

Instead of closing the door, the set of dwarves who were on their way to attack the bones left the door open and ran to the safety of the group - closing that door behind them, but seeing the bones come out into the monument hall.

Later, after their battle with Ssissaraaaaag the Demon Snake, they came back into this room to find the bones we no longer animated. Some enterprising characters began to shoot the bones with their longbow, throw spears, throw pitckforks. They aimed directly at the skulls, so I had them take a -2 for trying to hit a particular item in the pile. Once the onslaught began, I had the bones reanimate. I should have left the bones animated, because everyone rolled well and most of the skulls were shattered by ranged combat, which I thought was pretty clever of the low HP party

They also asked to remove the humongous hide armor, and I allowed them to divide it into three seperate hide armors by cutting and patching it. Looking back, I should have put more thought into occupation and whether anyone could do this, and I should have made the hodge-podge hide armor have a smaller AC bonus due to poor craftsmanship.

Area 1-4
The character Jeff was taking a leadership role at this point, and he ran with the group to the room where Ssissuraaggg was waiting. Jeff was swiftly killed, much to the dismay of the player who was already kind of bummed that other party members locked his characters in the last room to die. Jeff was certainly his favored character after surviving that room - he was also an Elven navigator who studied demonic, because he made it his life goal to take revenge against a demon who killed his family.

Ultimately, the players defeated Ssissuraagggg with I think 1 more death (was a little bit surprised, but they had about 17 attacks in the party. Looking back, I was playing sloppily and trying to speed things along, so I didn't play this comat out properly. 17 people could not have had attacks, because there are not 17 spaces for people to stand around 1 enemy. Additionally, most of them hadn't even gotten out of the hallway before Ssissuraaag attacks and the hallway should have been blocked.

A farmer tried to offer Ssissuraaaggg a chicken, but Ssissuraaggg wasn't hungry, despite having been unfed in an alien dungeon for multiple millennia.

The dwarf who killed Ssissurraaag immediately asked to take his horn as a trophy, even before I told him Ssissuraaag dissapated into a horn! I had the retrieval of the horn immediately cast invoke patron, and Ssissuraaag, the immortal, was the patron. He said, in demonic, that he shares a hatred with the character Jeff for the same demon who killed Jeffs family. He tells the dwarf that he can call upon him in times of need, but that he asks this favor: he will revive Jeff, but the dwarf is responsible for aiding and encouraging, in fact forcing, Jeff to exact his vengeance. If Jeff does not pursue this endeavor, it is the Dwarfs responsibility to deliver Jeff's soul to Ssissurag manually.

Finding nothing, the characters go back into the monument room and contend with piles of bones.

Area 1-6
They didn't think anything of the pool at first, didn't bother to search or pry out crystals. They were obsessed with the ghostly creatures. The dwarf invoked Ssissuraaaggg to ask about these ghosts, and Ssissuraaag was angry to be bothered over such petty things. He told the dwarf that the ghosts wouldn't bother them if they didn't bother the ghosts, reminded him that the more favors he does for the dwarf, the more favors the dwarf must do for him.

They ultimately went to the spiral staircase and began their way down.

Area 1-7
Again, the characters were obsessed with the figurines. Surprisingly, they took the silver generals because they thought they would be useful later, but they didn't mention a word about taking them for their value (they are silver!!).

Area 1-8
When the characters entered and the army started to animate. The generals were already dead, so *reading the passage was silly* - I read the passage aloud, but then had to revoke some of the things I said and explain that the generals were not animating, but the Warlord was. I additionally thought I read that because the generals were dead, that the soldiers wouldn't animate at all. Actually they were supposed to animate, but take extra time to orient themselves because the generals were not there to order them around.

As soon as one player heard "clay solders", he said, "we need to go release the pool from upstairs." - which was super impressive, and I'm excited to have a player who thinks big picture like that. The rest of the group did not respond to this idea and it didn't happen. Another player had his character run into the previous room and slash all the soldier figurines, but with no effect. The characters then tried to throw spears at the glowing orb above the throne - when 1 ultimately hit, it had no effect and the enemies were getting closer. After the soldiers started to climb out from the pit, the players all retreated upstairs.

They were still concerned about the ghosts, and they thought disturbing the pool would set them off. Ultimately, the dwarf got in the pool an examined the structure and determined that all of the crystals were seated within cracks in the floor. Another character tied a rope to his waist, and to a pillar, and began collecting crystals. This finally led to the collapse of the pool, clay soldiers melting away, and the character who was dangling from rope above the warlord being pulled up to safety.

Realizing they had the high ground, they began to launch their remaining spears at the Warlord (who was the only remaining enemy. After looking at the stats, I kind of wish I had kept 3-5 soldiers alive as well). The one character who hit him did pretty good damage, and the Warlord then threw his spear up at him (with a -2 penalty for low ground) and killed the lowly 1hp soldier immediately. The player was upset I think because this was his favored character.

Finally, they marched back downstairs realizing they had no ranged weapons left and took him on via melee, suffering no more casualties.

We ended the session here, leaving leveling up and treasure gathering for the next session ( we played from 8 PM till 2 AM - everyone was fried by around 1 and we should have called it off then!) Only half of the party died, so most players were all left with 2 or 3 characters (I think 1 guy had only 1 left). I do not think the funnel worked, but I think that is mostly due to my own GMing - I did not follow strict combat rules, I should have made the bones animate faster and actually do some damage, and I should have left some soldiers alive with the warlord. Additionally, I should have had the battle with Ssissuraaag kill off more characters by not allowing all 17 to attack.

I think I was a bit rusty as a GM (haven't in years), and I also was not well-versed enough in the rules, despite having read the book a ton. I think that I have a lot of experience to gain as a GM still, but this was a great start!

My biggest takeaway was that DCC RPG may not be the best intro to role playing games for people who have never played anything else! The idea of so much death and loss makes them feel like they are fighting a losing battle, and makes them feel like I as the GM am hungry for their characters souls. I just don't think they were able to get excited the way newbies to D&D do! However, I do think that the flavor of the game can be a real treat for players who are bored with the monotony of the D&D system or other less variable, heroic-deed oriented systems. I loved watching them take on creatures that were far more powerful than them and win, and I think there were mixed feelings of success and failure that led to great gameplay overall!
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Re: Playback: Portal Under the Stars-Advice, What I learned,

Post by maxinstuff »

Thanks for posting these tips - I will watch out for these possibilities!
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Re: Playback: Portal Under the Stars-Advice, What I learned,

Post by GnomeBoy »

The funnel does take some making sure that your players understand what the funnel is... It's sort of a game-within-a-game and meant to winnow down a large group of characters into the survivors that will go on to level up. As such, it does involve a much higher deaths-per-minute rate than is usual. This can have the effect of getting people to play smarter; not a bad thing. And if players understand that the funnel session is a one-off for launching into play, they may well enjoy the rampant carnage and not be troubled by it.

However, I think the game would be a great one for introducing new players to RPGs, given the stripped-back of rules at Zero Level, it puts the emphasis on 'what do you want to do?" over "what does it say on your character sheet?".

Sounds like a good start, though! :)

BTW, Zero Level demi-humans are covered on page 21.
Gnome Boy • DCC playtester @ DDC 35 Feb '11. • Beta DL 2111, 7AM PT, 8 June 11.
Playing RPGs since '77 • Quasi-occasional member of the Legion of 8th-Level Fighters.

Link: Here Be 100+ DCC Monsters - The Home of Inner Ham
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