Sunday 17 November 2013

Undead Stats for Death Frost Doom

Here are the undead stats I used for Death Frost Doom, although only the first two made it to actual play. I was going for something a little more horror-movie like and a little further from standard DnD undead.

Revenant(slow moving corpse)

Move: 30
2d8HP(1d8 for child)
FDM: 1
AC 5
Attack: bite +1 1d4+1(+0, 1d4 child)
Contagious bite

Ghul(hungry flesh-eating corpse)

Move: 120
FDM: 1
AC 12
Attack: bite +4 1d6+2

Wiht(long haired, pale, silent warrior)

Move: 120
FDM: 3
AC 15
Attack: mace +8 1d6+3+drain
Only hurt by silver/magic


Move: 120(240 flying)
FDM: 9
AC 13
Attack: claws +13 1d4+3, 1d4+3 or by weapon
Only hurt by silver/magic
Repelled by Garlic
Turn to gaseous cloud...

Death Frost Doom: Post-Session Retrospective

Map by Claytonian
So, I wanted to take a look at what worked and what didn't in the recent session where I ran Death Frost Doom for our group. This is my first time running a horror game, as well as my first time running a published module(as opposed to creating my own sandbox), so this was definitely a learning experience for me. Oh, and once again: spoiler warning!

Didn't Work: Pacing

I think this was the biggest issue with the session. We jumped right in and were at Pepe's(Zeke's) place within 5 minutes after character creation. But, despite the quick start, there was a lot of material before things heated up with the undead outbreak: Zeke, the hanging tree, dead body, the well, the weird stuff in the cabin, and exploring the dungeon underneath and I sensed the players were getting bored. So how could I have improved this?

  • Start out with a bang: maybe start-out the trip with a bear attack or some-such event, since I know there won't be any more combat till the end
  • Cut out some material: each of the elements of the module are great, but when your players are intent on exploring everything methodically, it can get a bit slow. I would maybe cut it down to Zeke, the body outside the cabin, and the magic picture inside the cabin. Also, perhaps provide a more direct path to the plant-monster.
  • Emphasize more which direction the susurrus seems to be coming from so the players see a clear alternative to covering every single room of the place
  • Ideally I would shoot for about 1/2 hour of build-up before they hit the zombies. And maybe re-arrange the place so the party can barricade themselves into a dead end and have more of the Duvan'Ku material there, before they make a break for it, rather than loading it all at the beginning of the module.

Worked: Swashbucklers & Seamonsters Firearms Rules

The S&S Firearms rules worked well. Firearms were a bit more deadly than other weapons, but the reload time meant that mid-combat reloading wasn't really an option.

Didn't Work: Reading Screw-Ups

The module(or at least the first edition of it) doesn't separate at all between player text and DM text. Now, I tried to prepare so as to minimize reading during actual gameplay, but DFD has enough tricks and complex set-ups that it just isn't always an option. So passages like this screwed me up a couple times:

The altar itself is waist-high on a human, with inscriptions inlaid with gold along the base reading (in the language of Duvan’Ku), “We hail the Lords of Death and Give Offerings to the Masters of Chaos.” Write this down and hand the note to the player who reads the inscription. If he reads it out loud, word-for-word, to the others, then everyone within earshot must make a saving throw versus spells. Go around the table,
starting at the reading player’s right. If that PC made their save, continue on until somebody fails a save. The first character to fail the save immediately intends to sacrifice one of the other people there on the altar.

I read the first part, started reading it to the players and then was like, "oh wait, I'm supposed to write this down for you", at which point no one was falling for it. It would be better to just have a small handout to cut-out and give to the players. This screw-up on my part was probably the only thing that kept them from making it to the Greater Tombs.

Friday 15 November 2013

Horror in the Hills of Basque Country a.k.a Death Frost Doom

So I finally got to run this for our group. Basically Death Frost Doom re-skinned for a trio of Basque Pirates starting an extended shore leave. The system is Labyrinth Lord, borrowing simplified saving throws and ascending AC from DCC RPG, and equipment/occupations/Death & Dismemberment from Swashbucklers & Seamonsters. There are many DFD spoilers ahead, in case you plan on playing it any time soon.

Los Desgraciados

The party consisted of three natives of Esquiule:

  • Agurtzane- the lovely Ship's Doctor, wielding dual blunderbuss pistols--a regular Pirate foil to Dr. McNinja
  • Franzisko- Pearl Diver with a crowbar for opening giant oysters and a diver's helm with a hand pump to supply air from above
  • Eder- the ship's quartermaster, sporting a cutlass, dual pistols, and a keg of good rum

The Diver's Helm proved the most useful item, being used for well-diving, poison spore disposal, and even saving him from a ghul that leapt on him when he peeked out of a hole in the ground.


Our unfortunate heroes left town quietly in the early morning, when most of the inhabitants were still hung-over on garlic-flavoured ale. They headed up the taboo mountain and towards the end of the first day met Pepe, a strange old mountain man who they suspect is a serial killer. While Eder munched on the mystery meat he gave them(the others refused to ingest it), he told them about the cursed tower and that they should stay away from it. He told them that he spends much of his time carving grave-markers for the poor souls who died there without a proper burial--the party wasn't sure to believe him, thinking perhaps the grave markers are for his victims.

As it grew late in the day, they politely rejected his offers to board them for the night. Instead, they started back down the mountain, doubled back and continued a little ways up, camping in a secluded spot.

The Tower

After a short hike the next morning they crosses a ridge and saw ahead of them the remains of the tower and a graveyard. They messily bled a tree, burned a frozen corpse, went down a well of freezing water, and then made their way to the tower. After getting sent 7 hours into the future, one at a time, the party found the dead man's equipment and started feeling a bit positive about the expedition, despite the many ominous signs.

Sourcing the Susurrus

The party made their way down into the cult-area. Eder almost died from poison spores when he decided to start smashing things, but the helmeted Franzisko dragged him out of the spore-cloud and Agurtzane performed a successful tracheotomy to bypass his swollen air passage. Franzisko and Eder acquired cursed items.

The party found various creepy things, looted quite a few crypts and eventually fought the plant producing the susurrus. They then spent time clearing out the hole in the ceiling, which is when a Ghul jumped on Franzisko's head, but ended up falling past down him down into the unknown. They then baited a couple other Ghuls to follow it.

Things Heat Up

The party quickly found they were trapped, with an unlimited supply of zombies(they killed 5) approaching below and Ghuls up above. They declined sacrificing a party member, instead hoping to outrun the Ghuls by pure speed. They quickly found themselves with about 300 ghuls chasing them down the mountainside!

The good Doctor was first to fail her stamina test, but she managed to hide while the other two led the ghuls further.

Eder was second to tire, but he didn't manage to hide from the ghuls in the relatively open ground. He was torn apart horribly, but his meaty bits distracted most of the Ghuls, leaving a mere 70 Ghuls chasing Franzisko.

Franzisko made it to Pepe's place and started a forest-fire and the two were soon fleeing side-by-side through the forest. Franzisko eventually managed to outrun the Ghuls and hide in a tree. Later that night 3 ghuls started climbing his tree, but he jumped to a different tree and outran them.

Dealing with the Outbreak

Franzisko got back to town in the morning, telling everyone they must leave, but not detailing why. The next day Agurtzane arrived, having walked halfway around the mountain. They convinced their families to leave, but the rest of the town was slower to listen.

They made their way to the big city, sold their treasures. Franzisko survived surgery to cut-off the areas effected by zombie bites. While there, they heard rumours of Equiule, that it burned down in a forest fire and that the survivors were apparently driven half-mad with hunger and are attacking travellers in that area.

Taking Stock

The party did pretty well, considering. The undead hordes were released but without a general to lead them in an organized conquest. Their hometown was destroyed, along with all their childhood friends, but they escaped with their families. They achieved their goal of finding riches, with only one party member killed and another cursed.

Monday 11 November 2013

Coverage-Based Playtesting

OK, following up from last post, here's another approach to playtesting that borrows from software testing.

Coverage-Based Software Testing

In Software Engineering, Coverage-Based testing means running your tests and then, usually with a specialized tool, seeing what parts of your program the tests "covered" and which were left-out of the test. It's not a perfect technique: you might "cover" a piece of code and still miss the bug that is there. However, if you didn't cover a piece of code, then you definitely won't find the bug there. So it's one of the quicker methods to find holes in your testing, albeit an imperfect one.

Coverage-Based Playtesting

Get a game together and run a playtest on your game artefact, be it a game system or module. Now, when the playtest is over, ask yourself what parts of the game did your playtest "cover". The simplest way to do this is to skim through the text and circle any rooms, monsters, magic items, etc. that didn't get used.

Okay, so you've got your list of "holes". What do you do with them?

The Brute Force Approach

The ideal option is to continue running playtest after playtest until most or all of the holes are covered. But that can take a lot of time, especially since, along with the holes, you will no doubt be re-hashing a lot of the same covered material as in previous games.


For one, you can decide which holes are really a problem and which aren't.  Empty rooms might not be so important to playtest, for instance. You might also filter them based on what concerns you have for this artefact.

The Parallel Universe Approach

Now that your group finished their playtest tell them "OK, now let's go back in time to when you went right at that passage and instead say you decided to go left". Continue to reset them to past locations until most or all of the holes are covered.

The Proofreading Approach

You're not going to get around to covering everything via actual play. Instead, give the holes an extra round of proofreading, to make up for them not being covered in the playtest.

Sunday 10 November 2013

Concern-Based Playtesting

Playtesting. It's an important part of developing a game system or module. Until you playtest, everything is a priori--all your assumptions about how the game will play-out in practice are just that--assumptions. So fine, to playtest you run the game and make observations.

But playtesting effectively takes a lot of time. Getting a group together and then playing for several hours takes a lot of effort, and you're going to have to arrange quite a few of these to cover every part of your module and sufficiently playtest every mechanic. So unless you are a company with a full-time playtesting staff, you probably aren't going to be able to set up enough playtest games.

Concern-Based Testing

In the world of Software Quality, one of the techniques for dealing with the "too much material to test" problem is Concern-Based testing. The idea is that we identify the areas that are the most error-prone and focus a dis-proportionate amount of our testing resources there.

So how can I do this for my Game Artifact?

Well, in addition to running a single game with the Artifact, you can devise a number of much smaller, more focussed playtests, each addressing whatever concerns you identify in your Artifact. Here are some sample concerns with examples of how to playtest them:

Concern 1: Player Skill

Sections of the game that require Player Skill are always problematic. These include solving riddles and solving mysteries. The problem is that one groups will solve the problem in a minute, while another group will get hopelessly stuck and the DM will have to bail them out. And nobody likes it when the DM has to fudge and bail you out.

So for this concern, identify sections of your game which require player skill and try-out the riddle/mystery on a number of your friends. If too many people are getting stuck, you may want to make it easier or make sure there is an alternate route, albeit one that may require more time/combat.

Concern 2: Branches

Some parts of your game have too many "branches" to be properly covered by a single playtest game. These could be random tables, with many options that will not be rolled in a single game. It could be a complex map, which the party will pass through, most likely without stopping in every room.

So how do we playtest these? It may be an issue of proof-reading the table extra carefully, since you know it won't be covered by the playtest. It might be an issue of describing each and every room of the dungeon(or at least the more interesting ones) to some "players" and seeing how they react, without all the character generation and die rolls.

Concern 3: Balance

It's happened to me and to other DM's I know that you set-up this big difficult battle and then, much to your surprise, the PCs breeze right through it. And it's not because they came-up with some ingenious trick. It's simply that you mis-calculated(the conclusion of Shadows Over Bogenhaffen is a well-known example of this). The point is that, while I'm not for balancing every single battle, some of your battles you want to at least provide a challenge, and that can be hard to estimate without playtesting.

So, if there are any of those battles that you didn't reach in your playtest game, make sure and playtest them independently.

Concern 4: Novelty

So you don't have to playtest every single encounter and trap in your game module. Assuming that you are using a tried and true game-system, you can generally rely that things are going to just "work". That isn't the case when you create some new mechanic. Maybe the king of the goblins challenges the PCs to a drinking contest which uses your own novel mechanic, or the PCs have to wrestle a bear in the arena to impress the Hetman's daughter, using your custom mechanics. The point is, that a single play-through is not going to properly test some new mechanic. It's worth running a number of drinking contests or bear fights to make sure that everything plays-out well.

Anyway, these are all just ideas. Next time you are playtesting your module, think about what concerns your playtest game doesn't address and make sure and playtest them separately.

Tuesday 5 November 2013

The Weird Classics

Reading through Machen's "The White People and Other Weird Stories", I can't help thinking about how different contemporary fiction is from classic Weird Fiction. The major Weird authors had strong beliefs about the world, which look anachronistic by today's standards. And yet, those beliefs give their fiction an power and an energy that most current fiction lacks. Let's take a look at a few examples of Weird Authors and their major messages:

Arthur Machen

A Christian mystic, Machen viewed the growing materialism of the Modern era with great unease. His works reveal the hidden realms of the holy and the profane hiding behind the facade of everyday life--realms in which Machen really believed. His novella A Fragment of Life is a particularly subtle yet effective example of this.

Another of Machen's themes is distrust of Science and it's Irreverent outlook on sanctity and morality. From this mindset grew his most well-known horror story, The Great God Pan.

Robern E. Howard

Howard, like Machen, was also unhappy with Modernization, but for entirely different reasons. Growing-up in various towns in the State of Texas, Howard saw a growing contrast between the previous generation's tales of the Texas Frontier and the increasingly urbanized existence spreading across the continent. This feeling of being closed-in and confined by Urbanization gives Howard's stories their unmatched energy. Writing was this author's escape, and he approaches it with all the gusto of an inmate fleeing his prison. In Howard's writing, everything is larger than life, but written with the complete conviction that this is how real life is meant to be.

H. P. Lovecraft

Ah, Lovecraft. There's a lot to say about Lovecraft, but one of his major themes is that the universe we live in is ambivalent, if not hostile to Human life. The idea that, if we're unfortunate enough to encounter some of the strange forces or denizens out there in the Cosmos, then Humanity's short history will come to an abrupt end.

Another of Lovecraft's themes is building horror on the back of our xenophobia. People have a fear of The Stranger which borders on the instinctual. From what I understand, Lovecraft expresses a fear of the influx of immigrants into his native New England in some of his correspondences. I would suggest that it is this very bias that injects such strangeness and repulsion into his descriptions of the denizens of Innsmouth and the "mixed-blood" sailors in "Call of Cthulhu".

This is Why We Can't Have NiceWeird Things

Now, you might rightly accuse me of being a post-modernist windbag, describing these excellent authors as the mere sum of their individual beliefs and biases. Could be.

At the same time, I think there is something here. You don't hear so many authors in our age giving such succinct theories of the world around them. There was something about the turn of last century, a certain confidence in our ability to sum-up the world with one well-thought-out theory, that doesn't exist today.

Society was reaping the economic rewards of modernism and industrialization, science fiction was turning out hyper-optimistic prophecies of rationalist utopias, and political theory was inventing systems, like Communism and Fascism, to create just such utopias. The world seemed so much more black and white back then, and the classic weird authors, products of their time, had their own well-crafted theories about what was wrong with the world. Their outlooks, in today's context, come-off as naive at best or chauvinistic/racist at worst. That said, their world-views gave their writings a power that remains unmatched till this day.