Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Demon Masks and Other Wandering Monsters of Depth 1

My encounter charts for the 1st level of my megadungeon were pretty simple, but I think they worked well- mostly.

Honey Skeleton
This is just a slow skeleton, burdened skeleton with a beehive inside them. You can charge and bash them apart just like you could any other lone, unarmed skeleton, but then you're fighting a swarm of angry bees. But you can't just ignore it like you could a regular beehive, because the skeletons want to rip out your skeleton!

My players didn't find many in the dungeon, but bees that colonized various zombies and skeletons were found above ground fairly frequently. They required specific tactics to kill, but weren't huge threats so long as you applied a modicum of strategy and respect to how you dealt with them. I was kinda proud of this enemy because it punished straightforward approaches but was really easy to deal with with even simple spells, flasks of oil, and/or Turn Undead. It's good to encourage and reward lateral thinking, lest fights devolve into mindless HP vs Attack Value slugathons.

Anyway, these haven't seen much use outside of 'enemy that you should outwit rather than fight head on.' Combining them with other encounters is something I keep meaning and forgetting to do, but honey skeletons are a great mix of trashy minion and hazardous complication.

Demon Mask
Stats as a stirge- latches onto people, sucks blood, not a lot of HP. Turns out with low-level to-hit rolls and bad luck, even a single one attacking from surprise can horrify low level adventurers.

But these added a degree of caution to the players- they attacked if you walked in front of them, but were otherwise inert. They don't even have peripheral vision, so crawling foils them. Good for making the players think about how they approached things, spatially speaking. I hoped players would walk into a double encounter of a Honey Skeleton and a room full of these hanging on the walls, with the honey skeleton blundering around activating the masks and the players having to either deal with a swarm of masks, or take down the skeleton fast without rousing the beehive. But alas, they listened at a door, heard bees, and walked away.

Demon masks feel like great encounters to me because they have rules, and obvious ones. Lots of monsters have these 'rules.' Don't look at basilisks. Don't cut off hydra heads unless you can burn the stumps. That sort of thing. Demon Masks had a clear set of rules, and clear punishments if you violated the rules, but exploiting the weaknesses of those rules let the players get easy victories. They may be minor victories, but they earned 'em by examining how the masks worked, not just how tough they were when it came to dice rolling. I think they enjoyed getting the upper hand on the demon masks, sneaking up on them from the side and burning them, even when they were strong enough to just beat them down.

Oh, the demon masks also turn corpses into undead if left alone to fuse to their faces. So that's a neat built in dungeon repopulation mechanic I got to use, both to reanimate a bunch of goblin corpses that the players sicced masks on, and once to turn a dead player into a shambling zombie to chase the surviving players out of the dungeon with. That was fun.

To be frank, I totally used shriekers wrong most the time, putting them in random dead end corridors where their screaming was pretty much irrelevant as they were chopped up, burned, and so on. What I should have done is put them in the middle of pathways and near other, scarier monsters, turning them into danger amplifiers rather than arbitrary extra wandering monster checks+ burning oil tax.

One thing shriekers are good as is dungeon repopulation- have them grow on dead flesh, so returning to the scenes of slaughter in 'cleared' areas turns out to be not so safe after all.

Still, one thing I don't like is rolling to kill a creature with no attacks- kinda a waste of time, but at the same time shriekers are pretty durable. This could be solved by either making shriekers fragile and easy to kill, or possibly more threatening- deafening characters, or having other fungus buddies that are poisonous or mobile and angry or whatever. Next time I use shriekers, I'll make them cool I swear.

Sideways Goblins and Rightways Goblins-
There was a deeply entertaining magic crystal that reoriented people to face south. As expected and hoped some players used this to help explore the dungeon, even venturing out into the open as a cleric balloon lashed to donkeys, other players, and so on. One character, Townlocke the cleric, stayed sideways for a very long time.

But more importantly, there was a bit of dungeon politics going on- the Sideways Goblins could walk down long holes and engage players from weird areas due to their altered gravity, while the Rightways goblins were your standard dungeon goblins. Though their hatred of each other didn't manifest into full blown goblin politics sessions, having both factions was still important to me because it had the potential for more than just goblin bashing. Being Sideways wasn't even good for the sideways goblins in most encounters with the players, but that's just it- it showed that the dungeon was an environment that existed independently of the players. The sideways goblins had to string up ropes and iron spikes hammered into the walls to get around.

Or maybe this just tickled my GM sensibilities and the players didn't think it was all that cool. But I really liked the sideways goblins- goblins with one weird gimmick that totally changed how I ran them and saw the dungeon, looking at the dungeon as a series of deadly shafts and rooms with the doors halfway up them, because that's how the sideways goblins saw it.

Oh, and the Rightways goblins were important to have around because if everything is weird, nothing is. Rightways goblins keep it real.

Zombie Ogres
Not just zombie ogres. Zombie ogres in plate mail, with iron spikes driven through them and iron chains dangling and occasional really bizarre weapons, like a giant multi-headed flail where the flail heads were collected from petrified basilisk victims.
Kinda like this, but with more armor and demonic masks on its back instead of candles

Anyway, I described this thing as horribly as I could the first time the players found one because it had twice as much HP as the entire party combined, could squish any given player in one hit pretty easy, and had so much AC that they didn't have much chance of hitting it.

Anyway, these are wandering 'miniboss' encounters that offered a minor reward (master keys to depth 1, though the players got their hands on those from the key room before ever killing one) and a double reward of both removing the zogre from the encounter chart and of stopping demon masks from resupplying in certain areas... and also hinting at the presence of undead more horrible than the relatively innocuous Honey Skeletons. The idea was that players could wait until they were strong enough to destroy them in fair combat (Which they did, and it was a tedious, regrettable slog) or they could maybe use the environment to kill them early on.

Why Wandering Monsters
Wandering monsters prevent the 5 minute adventuring day problem. If there's a chance of meeting dumb resource draining monsters all the time, you want to make sure your expeditions matter, that you go in deep and come out rich, even if you have to take risks and push your luck.

Masks and Honey Skeletons provide initial exciting gimmicks, but soon become nothing but drains on oil reserves and maybe HP unless encountered in weird terrain or with other monsters (which I wish I had done more often, but alas).

Goblin packs were mostly drains on Sleep spells rather than real threats, but were also a goal in a way since each goblin head was worth 5GP. A classic minor risk, minor reward encounter, but as the demand for gold became higher, goblin hunting became less appealing. Furthermore, goblins were a source of information if you could capture one and convince it to tell you about traps and treasure.

The Ogres, of course, were 'oh no' moments when one came wandering up, but as the clerics grew in level, it became simple enough to just Turn and ignore them.

But while it lasted, this was a solid encounter table, despite being so simple.

Of course, as the characters outgrew these encounters, they were also wiping them out and making room for new encounters... over the course of play, the random encounters of depth 1 now look more like this.

1-Honey Skeleton
2-Wererats from Depth 2 impersonating another human encounter
3-Riikhites (Essentially Paladins)
4-Escaped Demons (Totally the players' faults)
5-Lightspear Bandits (Servants of an evil wizard wielding Spears of Continual Light)
6-Zombie Ogre (or Rival Adventurers if the zogre of the area is slain already)

Though still dangerous, the dungeon has mostly been overrun by humans from the surface, and become a real mess of talking and diplomacy and factional nonsense compared to the old stuff. Remember- Megadungeons don't get 'cleared' they get changed by the actions of the PCs, and that's definitely happened here. The fatty loot and player interest is more directed towards the lower levels, but the altered encounter charts means that they now have a different set of 'rules' to learn and exploit on their way to the lower depths and back.

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