Saturday, September 5, 2015

Final Fatal System Response - Lost Songs from the table 2 (still feat. Stonehell)

Two days in a row, eh? Sometimes I'm productive that way ... You can see right there what an optimistic person i am :-) Anyway, back to our last sessions of play testing Lost Songs of the Nibelungs with the Stonehell Dungeon Crawl! This series is called "fatal system response" for a reason: it's testing the game. We all agreed that the system is allowed to run amok to see where we end up and if it works as it should. There hadn't been much action in our first session, only atmosphere, encounter and reaction tables. But this is going to change as the group goes deeper into the dungeon (again, some minor level 1 spoilers ahead) ... I hope you brought some time, this is a long one (again).

This journey starts here.

Just not that deep, please

We are still in the first quarter of the first level of Stonehell. That encounter with the bandits I described in the first post actually happened at the very entrance. Kicking in doors is a noisy affair and those bandits tried to sneak up on the group as they were exploring some empty rooms nearby.

You'd have chosen that passage, too, right?
(Stonehell level 1, Ogreface passage) [source]
Here is an example how I handle these things: A Good Will save shows if the Gods are smiling unto the characters or not. Default difficulty is 20, making the save is good, not making it will have a negative result and reduce a character's Fate ability score (as it is a Fate save and every ability score has it's own save ...). So one player got a critical success, which means the bandits make themselves known. Result: the character gets some dust in his nose, sneezed and gets a "Bless you!" from a dark passage ...

You know the rest. So after the first empty set of rooms, the group decides to go north. I believe the passage with the best description will get the most traffic and this one even got a picture! First crossroads it's either left to a dragon (as some obscure sign in the middle of the crossroad says) straight ahead or turning right. Group decides to go right. First room: heaps of garbage and a hidden encounter (3 spitting cobras).

There's a good chance the encounter never happens, so there's a Good Will Save in order to find out if a character is unlucky. The ensuing fight is short and brutal for the snakes. As long as the players are careful and keep working together there's nothing on this level that is even remotely dangerous. They keep on keeping on ...

Lost Songs and the Dungeoncrawl (system update)

Stonehell kept being fun. Monster reaction rolls helped a lot to make this more about fighting than about killing. There had been, for instance, a curious kobold from a maintenance crew that stopped by to check out the group and one of the characters saw him (because of being at watch and actually paying attention ...). The reaction roll indicated friendly, so the kobold just waved a shy hello and went off again. I like stuff like that and the group kept building up on the initial encounter, accepting those kobolds as mostly harmless.

But the DM side of things is explained easy enough. How the game worked for the players and why the things that happened in the end had happened at all, needs some basic understanding of the mechanics I use in LSotN. What follows is a (very short!!) summary of the rules I use right now. So for the uninitiated (and those not remembering the specifics ...):

Core System

Think D&D, but: it's rare that characters fail at a task, but half of the time them making it means it came with a prize. The basic system of LSotN is quite easy. There are 6 ability scores (D&D, but: Muscle, Finesse, Grit, Wits, Nerve, Fate). Every ability score also has a save (Withstand, Reflexes, Stomach, Sanity, Stress, Good Will, values around 10, varies by level ...). There are now 2 types of tests, saves and ability checks (skill checks are basically ability checks with an additional bonus for the skill).

Saves are d20 + save value vs. 20 (standard) or 25 (hard). A success has the expected result. Failure will reduce the ability score for the difference needed to make the difficulty. The lower the ability scores are, the higher are penalties for everything else. I need to update the character sheets, for now it's resolved as "minus 1 for every ability score in the buffer, minus 2 for every a.s. in scarred and minus 4 for every a.s. in permanent, all cumulative". So a character with a particularly bad day with two ability scores in the buffer, one in scarred and one in permanent will have a minus 8 on all checks, saves and attacks.

Ability checks are d20 + ability score (+ skill, if available) vs. 20 (easy)/25 (normal)/30 (hard)/ 35 (really hard). Resolution is a bit different compared to the saves. For one, a player may decide that the character doesn't make it. If a check doesn't meet the difficulty, the DM asks the player if his character goes the extra mile to make it a success. If the player says no, the check is just failed. If he wants his character to succeed, he needs to spend Endurance to bridge the difference between result and difficulty (Endurance fronts Muscle, so if Endurance is "empty", Muscle is reduced instead).

As a final rule it is possible to reduce Fate instead of getting an ability score permanently damaged (so let's say you failed a Sanity check big time and your brain would get some permanent damage as a result, you might instead just reduce your Fate score by the amount of permanent damage the character would have received).


Other than being happy to be able to put the core system in no more than 4 short paragraphs, It's also quite interesting (to me, at least) how all that worked in a dungeon environment. In an ideal case all saves should be triggered at some point or another:

  • Withstand is useful every time a character is subjected to some sort of force, like holding a door shut, for instance. Doesn't happen that often, BUT since Muscle is tested on a regular basis due to Endurance, that's actually a good thing.
  • Reflex is really quite easy. Need to react fast because of something? Reflex is the way to go.
  • Stomach goes well with all sorts of poisoning and disease, so that got some use (see below).
  • Sanity was for the weird and magic stuff, so that's a no brainer (ba-da-tum).
  • Stress is important in every stressful situation characters might encounter. Sneaking past some guard, balancing around a trap (or diffusing it), some irritating noise that won't stop, dungeon environment are ripe with stuff like that and I learned to love stress tests (see below)!
  • Good Will finally helps you finding out how encounters react to a character or how lucky a character is in general. It, basically, tests the good will of the gods towards a character ...

This really worked quite well. It covers everything I think needs testing and grinds characters down slowly and simply by what they are experiencing and how they handle it. Stress really became a big thing for some characters, as it accumulated to at least two characters being nervous wracks at the end of one day (a good night's sleep would have cured most of it, though).

Checks also work fast and cover the complete range of actions a game needs. The simple tweak that it's not about "making it" but instead about "are you willing to pay to make it?" managed to speed up the game considerably. The characters want to kick in a door? Roll d20 plus muscle vs. difficulty for the door. If the result doesn't meet the difficulty, the player may decide to spend Endurance to make it and the door is open. Teamwork would reduce the difficulty one stage per character (but never lower than 20). Done. If the characters want a door open, it should be open. But there's lots of room for shenanigans (accidents do happen).

And as the characters progress through the dungeon and loose ability points, it gives lots of narrative room to raise the tension (like with stressed out characters, as described above, or by threatening their sanity and so on). Since all of it affects every character individually, it gets quite colorful. Characters get nervous, exhausted, sick, crazy, slow or loose the gods favor (you know those days where nothing seems to work? low fate score, I'd say ...). And if they are not careful, it's leave permanent marks or keeps keeps affected for several days. It's direct, it produces the right narrative, it's where I wanted this to end up. A DM gets quite the complex pattern to play with The rest is examples ...

Exploration turns Survival Horror

Lost Songs heavily relies on (human) resource management and team work. Players taking care of business will find the system supporting them. Every action, on the other hand, that'd be considered "bad behavior" at the table anyway (or just ill advised) will have a system response opposing the players*.

All right. Here's what happened. People had good rolls and bad rolls. On some characters stress started to show others had their Fate reduced and Endurance became rare all over the place. As one would expect after exploring as much as they did (about an 8th of the entire first level). So the characters needed some rest and soon decided for a small room with an intact door and a giant face on one wall.

A good night of sleep would mean at least 8 hours sleep per character (healing buffer damage), but real healing (scar level damage) would need 24 hours. So went for the eight hours as a start and assigned night guards. That night really wasn't quite. One encounter roll triggered after another. Mostly it just resulted in noises of creatures talking and passing the door. One time a group of kobolds encountered a group of orcs and a loud argument started. But the room the characters had been hiding in kept being unaffected, their door block untested.

Until I rolled those orcs again and they ended up testing the door and finding it closed. I gave it a reaction roll to see if they'd leave it or if they went for forcing it open and finding out what's behind it. The roll indicated aggression.

By that time the character keeping guard already started waking the others as quite as he could. Two of the waking characters already had low Nerves because of the stressful day they've had. Now they are shook out of their deserved sleep into a completely dark room and both still a bit groggy when the first orc shoulder meets the door with a loud BAM! Of course they need to make a stress save. One fails and squeals in terror as her nerves are very much shot by now ...

Without light and the doors closed the wizard got no target for his sleep spell (it has to have some limits, at least). Ramming the door didn't have the right result and the orcs are eager now to enter, so they start hacking the door down with an ax ...

My first thought ... [source]
Half the group didn't know Kubrick's Shining, btw. Didn't know what to say to that, either. But I showed them the relevant theme to get them into the right mood :-)

The fight was a bit hectic, but short and noisy. Also triggered the next random encounter: 3 giant centipedes! Those beasties are more or less harmless and easy enough to kill (unless you got bitten, of course). But they are no threat anyway, as they just go for some orc corpses and that's that. Until some of the players decide to disturb them for loot and those centipedes react really pissed (again: monster reaction roll).

Fatal System Response (finally ..)

It's the second time they encounter those and while the first time had just been squishing some bugs, they ended up with two poisoned characters this time. Staying back in the dungeon is not an option anymore, as the centipede's poison leaves a character useless for a couple of days. So out they go. Here's where they made their first big mistake: they didn't leave the canyon in front of the entrance to Stonehell, but went for the one ruin they'd explored on their way in.

There'd been half the roof, a strange statue and half the walls had been down or on their way there. The weather roll came up with heavy rain** and it was really not comfortable in that ruin. Failed stomach saves kept making it worse for the poisoned characters and a fire had been out of the question (although it would have made those stomach saves a lot easier ...).

The weather kept being shitty for three days (at least 10 bad rolls on my side) with a heavy thunderstorm being the high point of this bad weather front. There were less encounters than in the dungeon, but still way more than they'd have had in the swamps half a days travel away from the dungeon. They waited with making a fire until one of the characters had been at death's doors already. Only a natural twenty would have kept her alive for another 12 hours when the thunderstorm hit the canyon (she made that save ...).

The storm forced once more the players hand. Getting the sick characters somewhere dry and save enough for a fire would have been important days ago. Now it became a last desperate gamble ...

As I already hinted to in the first post, the group didn't take the time to explore the canyon but went straight in to the dungeon. Now they started exploring a nearby cave. One of the wizards, no less, climbed the mountain face to the cave entrance only visible when lightning lit up the sky. One of the warriors took one of the sick and waited for the okay to bring her up.

Yeah, him again ...
The wizard would have had several possible ways to explore that cave. He could have sent his pixie familiar, for instance. But no, he went there himself and it was a cave lions den. I gave it a 50 percent chance that the lion was at home (due to the weather) and of course the beast was there and pissed (monster reaction roll ...). The wizard decided to ... fight (yeah, I know). Mirror image saved him round one, but the second round was his end. The term "minced meat" doesn't quite give it justice.

The fighter below had seen him going into the cave, sword in hand, and decided to climb after him. She arrived just in time to see her friend be torn to bloody pieces, looked at me and said: "I'm outta here ..." Good call.

The cave became off limits, but the sick girls survived the night  and the new day started bright and shiny after the storm (it's amazing how all of that was the result of rolling the dice ...), so the second wizard of the group went towards the swamps to gather some herbs that might help the sick characters. The fighter went to gather some food, the one sick girl made her SECOND NATURAL 20 in a row to live another 12 hours (!) and I rolled for random encounters. Of course a 1 came up and (naturally) it was the mountain lion stretching his legs after the storm ...

I get extra random on occasions like those. It had been a random encounter in the canyon, so the wizard was out. Left the food gathering fighter or the sick girls, so I checked (as I'd do regularly with encounters) this drop die sheet I made some time ago:

Download of the pdf is under "Free Stuff" above ...

It was a low roll (2 or 3), but worse was that it resulted in the mountain "lion belligerently invading another territory for survival". So it had been the sick girls and they had no chance what so ever. It was a horror scene right out of The Ghost and the Darkness. The fighter returned and only found blood trails leading to the cave. With three out of 5 characters dead, the remaining two characters made a run for it and never looked back ...

Recap Part 2

There had been some really bad decisions in the end, but I loved how it all came together through random results. The bad weather, the encounter and reaction rolls, the bad saves, it all came together to make that last part feel like survival horror. There was always a chance to make thing better. They could have called that wizard from the beginning, they could have gone for those haunted trees (which would have disguised them effectively).

But the best option, in my opinion, would have been to go as far as possible out of that canyon, as this simple action alone would have reduced the encounter possibility from "1 in 6 every two turns" to "1 to 3 in 6 per day"). They didn't and 60% of the group died because of, well, all of that.

It's just one of those things that happen every so often. The players don't pay attention, make a few mistakes or bad rolls and characters start dropping dead a lot. That's not to criticize them or shed a wrong light on them. It's a great group and it's been the play test of a game they are not yet familiar with. They get a better handle on how ability scores work in the game and situations like this end completely different ...

I hope this little two post update of how Lost Songs rolls right now helped a bit showing where the game is and where it's heading. With us moving to Leipzig it'll take a bit longer, since we have to find a new group of willing gamers over there. It's also becoming a beast of a game that, while it has all the things I want/need in a game, grows every day in depths.

And one final note: this definitely was not our last visit to Stonehell. This megadungeon is brilliant and is highly recommended. Good show!

Now back to BASTARD! ...

* You see, dear reader, this post is finally talking about the titled "fatal system response" ... I'm sorry if this comes over like a Tarantino joke without the sophisticated skill usually attached to a joke like that.

** Just a d20. 1 means clear and good weather, 10 means cloudy, but no rain, 11 to 19 means light to heavy rain, 20 is a full blown thunderstorm. I constantly rolled over ten, with a twenty in the mix to make it worse.

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