Pickup 3: A short dungeon jaunt

Recently I’ve been trying out shorter, more casual sessions, focused on dungeon crawls in a generic old school game system. My schedule is wonky so I haven’t had the time or energy for anything longer. Today I played in my third such pickup game. All three have been set in the same dungeon, Borshak’s Lair by Jennell Jacquays.

I had two “yes” RSVPs, but one player no-showed, so it was just me and my frequent collaborator and co-GM Adam. He rolled up a character, Norbert the thief, and asked for two retainers. I rolled up Skamandra the magic-user and Grignr the half-orc fighter. I then gave Adam a brief history of the dungeon he was about to face: first Lord Helmdar built it as a chapel, and then tomb, and then the wizard Tim took it over, and now 100 years later it’s the lair of some orcs and goblins. Adam had heard a bit about the dungeon from the two previous players and my session blurbs, and he was cautious. Jennell loves a screw-job.

The trio descended a long stairway into the dungeon, meeting a lone orc guard at the foot of the stairs. In my notes, all the guards will let people enter the dungeon, but they’ll try to stop players from leaving or finding the orc barracks. So the orc responded to their greeting in a disinterested way. Adam said he felt like he’d have to fight the guard to get past it. I wanted to signal that this wasn’t true, and I figured that the guard, seeing the party get tense and ready for battle, would want to signal his lack of desire to fight, so the guard asked, “Going in?” and stepped aside.

The party entered the room at the foot of the stairs, which was lined with heavy velvet curtains and had a large double door on its south wall. As soon as he was sure that nobody was watching from behind the curtains, Adam had the party attack the orc. Since the orc was watching them, I asked him to roll for initiative, rather than grant surprise. The orc won initiative and ran away, up the stairs. On Adam’s turn Skamandra cast sleep, knocking out the orc. The party took him out of the dungeon and interrogated him.

Here I rolled for the orc’s reaction, to see how pliable it would be. Adam’s character was good-aligned, and he specifically said he wouldn’t torture or threaten prisoners. I rolled a moderate reaction. I played this as the orc being a bit cagey and vague, giving general details but not specifics. If he had used torture, I might have given precise (but sometimes false) details. If I had rolled a more positive reaction, I would have given more details, and fewer or none on a more negative reaction.

The orc told the party that Borshak allowed anyone to enter the dungeon, hoping that its defenses would weaken or kill them, and that Borshak’s forces would pounce upon them as they tried to leave. He said that there were lots of secret doors in the dungeon, the first of which was in the dungeon’s very second room (after the drapery room), and that there was hidden space behind the drapes.

The lair so far

Adam had the party leave the orc tied up loosely, so it could escape on its own in a few hours of wriggling, and returned to the dungeon the next day, spells refreshed. They met another orc guard at the door. (I reasoned that Borshak probably expected a pretty high casualty rate for his door-guards: most of them would either be killed by adventurers who didn’t want to try diplomacy, or get bored and wander off. So he probably budgeted for that and would just keep replacing them, without thinking anything was the matter.) The party shanked this one as they walked by. I didn’t call for any attack rolls or anything; three on one, with a decent chance of surprise, sounds like a done deal to me.

Then the party explored the curtained room. It turned out to be much larger than it seemed – the curtains hid a 5 foot wide perimeter! They dragged the dead orc into the hidden perimeter and began to search the area. Unfortunately, there was no treasure there, as it had already been looted during pickup 1. As the party searched, I rolled a random encounter check, and got 2 orcs. At first I thought I’d roll to see if the orcs heard the party, but Adam suggested that it would probably be impossible, with the thick velvet curtains muffling things, to hear mere footsteps. So we dispensed with that. Grignr circled the perimeter while Skamandra and Norbert got line-of-sight with the stairway. The orcs went to stand guard at the stairway (what else would they be doing? It wasn’t a feature-full environment) and Skamandra and Norbert threw darts at them from behind. In hindsight, I should have given bonuses for attacking unaware opponents from behind, but I did not.

Only Skamandra hit, and she only dealt 2 damage.

Adam remembered that Norbert was a thief, and wanted a bonus for backstabbing, retconning his ranged attack into a melee. I agreed, but he wouldn’t get to reroll his attack: he had to stick with his original, bad roll. This roll was bad enough that, even with the thief’s backstab bonus, he missed.

The orcs turned to attack Skamandra and Norbert. Grignr, who had been holding his attack, charged from behind. (Here I remembered the bonus to hit from behind.) Unfortunately, he too missed.

The orcs attacked Norbert and Skamandra, and both hit. I had instituted a house rule that players could halve a damage from one attack to fall unconscious for the remainder of a fight. Both Norbert and Skamandra fell unconscious – it was that or death!

I hoped Grignr might come to the rescue, but Adam reminded me he should probably roll morale. His morale failed and he fled.

The orcs scooped up the unconscious adventurers, looted them, and tortured them to death. Next session Adam’s going to play as Grignr, who has killer stats and an interesting introduction to the game.

2 Appreciations

This is an interesting interaction. As a referee, my gut instinct would have been to be non-committal about whether the player would have to fight the orc or not - try something and see what happens! Killing orcs out of suspicion is also the kind of way the in-fiction racism would manifest in the game world. (Not saying anything about the players, here, to be explicit.)

What led you to wanting to signal that a peaceful approach is also possible?

Good question! I think it would have been perfectly fine for the orc to not say anything.

I thought that Adam’s character should have been able to tell from the guard’s relaxed posture that he wasn’t preparing for a fight, and that the guard would be able to tell from Adam’s party’s hushed whispers that maybe they were. Since the scenario explicitly states that Borshak’s minions will not stop anybody from entering the dungeon (is this in the writeup? It should be, if it isn’t), the orc would probably want to signal to the party that he would not stop them from coming in.

Also, I think I was worried that the session would be too boring (for me) if it turned into a fruitless frontal assault, and he had been deliberating on the issue for a full minute or more. I felt that I would have a more fun, interesting time if Adam tried to engage with the different racial factions in the dungeon rather than simply killing them.

If I played it again, I might simply ask Adam why he thought that he didn’t have a choice, and say that nothing in the orc’s bearing suggests he is ready for combat, despite his posting.

2 Appreciations

The desire for the game not to be boring is certainly understandable.

As far the sharing of information, what gets my attention is that a misunderstanding (or conflict) in understanding concerning the game world by the players is fixed by an NPC doing a particular thing, which corrects the player-level misunderstanding. This is not critique, just an observation.

I think that’s the key point. And it goes against some of my artistic ideals. When I run the game, I want the world to be as it is, not to change it to teach my players a lesson.