Saturday, September 2, 2017

Actual Play: Tomb of the Serpent Kings

Several members of my usual MotBM group couldn't meet this week, so I decided to use the two that did show up as guinea pigs to test both my new system (Sugarhack, a The Black Hack spin-off I may release someday) and Tomb of the Serpent Kings, by Skerples. Now, these are experienced players, and I was more interested in seeing how the module stood up to a veritable speedrun, so the rules were simple:
  1. This is a dungeoncrawl. I haven't prepped anything outside the tomb.
  2. No retainers, hirelings, or livestock.
  3. Three hour time limit.
Characters were rolled (Festa the thief, Lesta the ranger) and we jumped right in.

Suspicious from the start, both men refused to open the coffins contained within the first four rooms ("I ain't getting strangled by zombies 5 minutes into the session") and headed immediately forward towards the hammer door. It took two of them to lift the heavy stone barring the door, and as the hammer trap swung down, each character was faced with a choice: push the other into the trap to get an advantage on their dodge, or simply jump away...assuming their partner didn't sacrifice THEM.

I resolved this as a pseudo-prisoners dilemma: I had both players silently choose to either sacrifice the other or not, and write down their answers. When it came time to reveal, I was surprised to discover that neither of them had chosen "sacrifice." Honor among thieves, I can only assume.

Progressing into the next room, the duo's attention was immediately drawn to the three ornate coffins leaning against the north wall. Festa had the foresight to purchase a ten foot pole, and started poking them from a respectable distance. Immediately the coffins started to shake, rattle, and roll in a way not unlike a scene in the second-to-latest Game of Thrones episode, which we had watched together earlier that day. Our heroes weren't looking for a fight, but they were looking for burial gifts and other riches, so it was decided that the best way to reconcile those desires would be to hoist a coffin upon their shoulders and throw it into the hammer trap.

However, neither of them had rolled a particularly high STR score, and so they dropped the coffin halfway across the room, breaking it open and revealing the very angry snake-man skeleton inside. We rolled initiative, and the party won: a few incredibly well-placed stabs and arrows later, and the skeleton was truly laid to rest. A brief discussion followed, wherein I humbly asked how they could possibly kill a skeleton with arrows. We eventually concluded that Lesta had managed to hit it in an eye socket, exploding its skull. Metal.

The two decided against checking the other two coffins, and instead headed south into the small shrine room. I pointed out the obvious secret passage beneath it, long since revealed by the steady erosion of surface water dripping from the ceiling. The party dropped down into the second level, lighting a torch to reveal a long, darkened corridor lined with fearsome statues.

Festa noticed that one of the statues was on a swivel, not unlike a Scooby-Doo bookshelf. Rotating it revealed a secret room with a small silver icon and two hooked polearms, which they stole and piled under the hole they dropped down from. Progressing east, they entered another octagonal room with doors at each cardinal and primary intercardinal direction (I looked that up just now), dominated in the center by a large, murky black pool which they were immediately suspicious of. Taking care to skirt around the edges of the room so as not to trigger my obvious encounter, they entered the rooms in a clockwise manner: nearly avoiding a lightning trap (once again owing to the ten foot pole) in the first, completely avoiding the very angry skeleton in the second and the ooze in the third, and bravely running away from the stone cobra guardian directly to the east. If this review is doing a disservice to the module, it's only because my players are the most damnably intelligent cowards I've ever known.

The southeast room held little but some beds (they stole the sheets) and a nice piece of treasure, as the players were unable to decipher the writing on the scrolls lining the walls. Similarly little time was spent in the southern room, but upon discovering the room of statues to the southwest, the party decided to investigate a little further, correctly assuming from past experiences that these statues held a secret. They discovered the secret passage behind one of them, and headed down into floor 3.

Our noble graverobbers emerged in a large, pitch-black chamber, quiet save for the gently clinking of chains on stone coming from the east. Wisely, they decided to head west, entering a small hallway and turning south to come upon a large, barrel-like stone blocking their way. The stone had an indent big enough for two people, and rotated along the z axis to (presumably) grant passage to the other side of the hallway. Lesta wasn't convinced. He stuffed the stolen sheets into the hole and spun the great stone counterclockwise like he was on The Price is Right. When it spun back around, the rag was in tatters, as if pierced by a thousand tiny spears (it was). Replacing it with another sheet, they spun the stone clockwise, and it emerged unscathed. Thus, our daring duo with a combined intelligence of 14 narrowly avoided impalement. They climbed in, pushed off in a clockwise manner, and emerged on the other side, picking up a pair of gold bowls hidden in an alcove along the way.

This new area was hewn from natural stone and slick with a strange, fungoid goo, in stark contrast to the dusty-but-otherwise-well-kept areas before. After wading waist-deep through a room filled with feathers, rags, and bowls of fat, Festa and Lesta come across a strange sight: a decrepit throne room, with two creatures angrily fighting over a crown made of melted spoons. The monsters appeared to be goblins, but covered in fungal growths and oozing a disgusting, pus-like slime from every orifice. It was appalling, and only more so as they rushed up to the PCs, offering the crown to Lesta. He humbly accepted the title of Cutlery King without question. However, his reign was short-ruled: from behind came a sound not unlike that of tuna sloshing around in too much oil. The four citizens of Lestalia turned to discover a skeleton covered in orange goop coming their way. The fungus goblins were terrified, and fled immediately. Festa threw a torch at it, which fizzled out as it touched the slimy surface. Now trapped in the darkness with a weird bone jelly (Lesta tried to convince me he was also carrying a torch, but I killed that idea after reminding him he had been shooting arrows this entire time), our heroes panicked and attempted to run away. Lesta was caught by the creature, who's only method of attack seemed to be grabbing Lesta's head and shaking it violently like a felonious babysitter. Breaking free, L and F decided to retreat into the hitherto-unexplored room to the east, which was supposed to be a huge mass of goblins but was instead a farm, owing to me misreading the map I placed on the same page as the room description. DMing is hard.

Finally free from the murderous science display, Festa wisely lit another torch, and the party proceeded north to find a secret passage to the surface world. They rested, leveled up, and re-entered the tomb from the front door, intent on exploring every nook and cranny they had previously missed.

Inside the four rooms they avoided in their first excursion were discovered some trinkets and a lovely snake ring that Lesta put on his middle finger, turning his fingernail into a bifurcated, poisonous facsimile of snake fangs. The two let out a collective "huh" and proceeded down into the second floor(disabling the hammer trap along the way), stopping briefly to put Sparamantur the angry giant skeleton out of his misery. They attempted to fight the Snake Temple Guardian that they had previously run from, but decided to instead flee (forward this time) after it nearly one-shot the thief. Finding themselves in new territory, with an angry golem behind and an endless chasm ahead, the pair proceeded south with caution.

They shortly came across a large door not unlike the one that nearly squashed them two floors up, and they approached it with well-deserved apprehension. There was no hammer mechanism to be found, but Festa saw scuff marks on the ground that seemed to indicate somebody being flung over the chasm with great force. They decided to ignore the door for now, and continue south. Sadly, their path was blocked by a large procession of dungeon barnacles, which Lesta knew could strip and eat an adventurer in minutes, given half the chance. Lacking any other options, they decided to crumble up their rations and throw them at the creatures, hoping to satisfy their hunger if only for the moment needed to get past. This worked slightly (Lesta failed his DEX check and was trapped for a round) and shortly the pair found themselves in a small, branching hallway heading north and south. They went south.

The next room had the appearance of a torture chamber. Dried blood and other questionable fluids painted the walls, and a long-abandoned pair of manacles sat coiled in the center. Festa went forward to pick them up, but was ensnared by the magic cuffs, which seemed to tighten by the second. Luckily, the quick-thinking-when-he-thinks-at-all thief was able to pick the lock, and ran from the room into a conjoined chamber featuring a locked iron door to the west, a broken stone door to the south, and a plain door to the north. South led to a massive treasure hall, enough to set two hardened criminals on the straight and narrow for years to come. North led to a horrifying sacrificial flame pit, and more wanton death. They went north.

The flame pit was intriguing, but ultimately my players knew better than to slide down the curved floor to retrieve the meager trinkets that lay below. Instead, they went west, which led to a curved hallway flanked with two life-like stone statues of snake-men. These were summarily ignored, but the door they appeared to be guarding was opened to reveal a lovely woman shackled to the floor. She introduced herself as LaLiberte, a botanist from the nearby town of Bellacy. After conferring with me to determine if there was a town named Bellacy nearby (there was) and if they knew of any botanists there (they didn't) the players grew suspicious and turned to leave. LaLiberte begged them to help her, producing a ruby the size of her fist from a side pocket, claiming it to be her family jewel. She turned on the charm --

I'm going to pause here to admit that I suck at playing damsels in distress (and especially disguised succubi, as is the case here), for one because I find them kind of sexist and two because I play in a public game/comic store and the requisite begging/flirting/vague hints at sexual favors to come is really hard to play off when there's a ten-year old looking at green lantern comics right behind you. I did the best I could, though, and I got what I (she) wanted in the end, so everything's cool.

-- and eventually convinced Lesta to take it, along with a magical dagger that lay across the room. However, in retrieving the treasures, Lesta unwittingly stepped over the magic circle holding Baltoplat, the bound succubus, in place, allowing her to quickly strike and drain him of power (and Constitution!). With a giggled "see ya, shitlords!" Baltoplat grew wings and fled the tombs, never to return.

At this point Lesta had been shaken, chased, and partially molested. Through careful mapping he figured that the door to the west should connect to the large room with the secret passage to the second floor. They were correct, but upon stepping into the room remembered why they had not come this way before: the rattling of chains close by, and a pair of brilliant blue eyes staring back at them from the darkness. They had entered the basilisks lair.

Immediately they felt a twinge of numbness spread over their fingers and toes. After a few seconds, they noticed their limbs growing heavy and their skin beginning to turn grey, and that's when they finally realized the extent of their troubles. As the basilisk rushed forward, its jaws snapping hungrily, Lesta and Festa heroically passed their DEX saving throw, giving them enough time to hightail it back to the surface world.

They sold their ill-gotten wares and used the money to restock, drink, and carouse until dawn, wherein Lesta's middle finger fell off, turned into a snake, and slithered away. Easy come, easy go, Lesta always said. They headed back down for one final scan of the place, heading west again from the basilisk chamber but instead choosing to go straight forward into the living quarters of a very well-mannered snake-man lich.

"Greetings, bipeds!" boomed the desiccated serpent. It introduced itself as Xiximanter, royal sorcerer to the snake-man empire that by now must control half the planet. Our heroes side-eyed each other, but said nothing. Xiximanter had been hard at work for the past few months/years/centuries, attempting to perfect his immortality potions. They almost worked, in that they turned people into unkillable gummy skeletons described by Skerples as "too dumb to live and too stupid to die." The lich led the duo into his potion room, which contained some number of various potions, along with approximately 10 fungus goblins crammed into a cage and complaining miserably. After inquiring as to whether or not Xiximanter would be willing to trade any of his potions, the kindly undead smiled and presented several options: a potion of minor immortality, a potion of spell change, and several healing potions. However, Lesta was a man of discerning taste, and demanded to know about the major immortality potion; Xiximanter grew excited and, after rummaging through an ornate chest, brought forth a bubbling black ichor in a test tube, claiming it the newly-perfect immortality potion. Lesta immediately drank it, because he was an idiot, and he immediately died, because all of my not-so-subtle hints about skeleton jellies and failed immortality experiments apparently fell on deaf ears.

At this point, I decided to call the session, in part because they had explored the lions share of rooms and in part because we were the only ones in the shop and the friendly old grognard behind the register looked like he wanted to go home early. All in all? An enjoyable session that, had I made any attempt to develop, could be the catalyst for an entire campaign centered around the lost snake-man civilization. As it were, this session functioned more or less as a stress test: I took the dungeon, ran it strictly by the books under the worst conditions (only two players, untested ruleset, experienced dungeoncrawlers, time limit) and still managed a memorable, exciting session. Had I run it as intended, with several new players learning the intricacies of the dungeon over several sessions, there is not a doubt in my mind that it would have served its purpose wonderfully. Tomb of the Serpent Kings gets a gold star for ease of use, playability, flavor, and design.