Thursdays in Thracia - Part 13
This is Part 13 of my Thursdays in Thracia B/X Dungeons & Dragons Campaign, an actual play of Jennell Jaquays’ The Caverns of Thracia. For more context, start from Part 0.
[caption id=“attachment_508” align=“aligncenter” width=“525”] The river on level 2[/caption]
Continued from Part 12, in which a giant gnome was roused and Jek the Stabber broke into a subterranean hut.
Just as the lone lizardman appeared from among the stalagmites by the river, Magic-User Yam Stevens was able to cast a charm spell on him, turning him immediately into a useful ally. The lizardman told the party that the hut (29) was a strictly taboo place for his tribe, and they better fix it up quickly to keep from getting into trouble.
After setting it right, he introduced himself as Shrank, and said that the party should come with him to meet his chief, G’ruk. G’ruk had been looking for humans recently, he said, and might have an opportunity for them. Yam stevens volunteered to go with a fighter retainer they had hired to meet the chief and check things out. Shrank led the two of them through a patch of dangerous stalagmites, and ferried them across the river to where the tribe waited (31). It was a group of 15 lizard folk, led by a shaman, G’ruk. G’ruk greeted them about as warmly as a cold-blooded creature is able, and told them that there was a small cave upriver, in which a treasure lay. However, he had heard that only humans could access it. If he led Yam to the treasure, they could split it 50/50.
Yam agreed, and he and the fighter and G’ruk, Shrank, and another lizard warrior made their way upstream, the humans riding on the backs of the lizards, passing on the way underneath a massive spider’s web(32). They reached a narrow, gravelly beach, with a small opening in the rock wall. G’ruk indicated that this was the location of the treasure, and Yam had the fighter step forward to check it out. Then things got confusing very quickly. G’ruk ordered his tribesmen to attack the humans. The second lizardman snuck up behind the fighter in the hole, but Shrank, under the influence of the spell, hesitated. G’ruk was furious, and tried to attack Yam while the fighter and his foe clashed in the cave.
Shrank finally blocked one of G’ruk’s attacks, allowing Yam to get off a Sleep spell, dispatching G’ruk and his accomplice at once. Shrank grew increasingly nervous. While Yam looted G’ruk’s sleeping body, the fighter descended into the cave to investigate this treasure, calling back to Yam all the while. Three chests, a big one in the middle and a smaller one on each side, were lined up along the wall, and another exit from the cave, deeper in. When the fighter touched the chest, a mysterious, disembodied floating mouth materialzed and began to attack, biting at him over and over! He soon came running from the cave mouth, pursued by the floating mouth as well as several thick, dark tentacles, reaching from further into the cave.
Startled, Yam decided to retreat, and had Shrank ferry him and the fighter back to where the party waited, just as the mysterious tentacles tugged G’ruk’s sleeping form back towards the cave mouth.
Playing the Game
So this treasure situation was a little crazy. In the module, G’ruk actually believes that human blood is required to open these treasure chests, but won’t reveal that to the PC’s. He is, however, wrong. The chests can be opened by anyone, but are protected both by these weird, disembodied, floating mouths and by a tentacle creature that reaches in from the following chamber. The rules for these mouths are absolutely wild, and I ended up kind of relieved that only the retainer went in and I could run them more loosely.
Check it out:
It might be on me, but in a module that can go in so many different directions at any moment, these kinds of descriptions and rules in block text are really hard to execute as written. I read the room descriptions beforehand, of course, but I’m not sure where the players are going to go each session. It’s easy to end up in a situation where I’m staring at my print-out, trying to figure out exactly what to say to the players about the situation. There’s a tension between wanting to do the module justice and get the specifics right, and my desire to keep things exciting as a DM. The mouth monster isn’t really that complex, but trying to read this and work it out in the moment was pretty paralyzing. For that reason I avoided dropping back into combat rounds and just had the fighter shouting, about as confused as I was.
It was fun to figure out how Shrank would react in this situation. After some negotiation with Yam’s player, I gave Shrank a 50/50 shot of interfering versus just hesitating while G’ruk attacked. Most modern roleplaying games tend to push the GM to make particular decisions, or to mechanize certain things, but I’m increasingly convinced that “if you don’t know what to do, and there isn’t a rule, tell the player it’s 50/50 and roll” should be in the GM section of a lot more games.
Say Hello to Offworlders, a Rules-Light Spacefaring RPG
Offworlders is a roleplaying game in the tradition of Traveller and Stars Without Number, that strips the classic formula of bouncing between planets with a crew of misfits down to its barest essentials.
Offworlders is built on the foundation laid by World of Dungeons, by John Harper. If you’ve seen that game, you have a pretty good idea of how Offworlders works. It’s a little bit more than just a reskin though. Offworlders contains a brief but thorough chapter of GM tools and structures to plan single sessions as well as campaigns. Like World of Dungeons, Offworlders is designed to be heavily interpreted in play, hacked to bits, and customized to taste.
There are a huge number of very well-built roleplaying games for science fiction campaigns. I play those games too. I put Offworlders together because I wanted one that I could play with twenty minutes notice for a one-shot, but that had enough going on to be usable for short campaigns too. World of Dungeons, which is a hyper-distilled riff on old school D&D, provided a perfect framework.
Originally, Offworlders was just a document on my Google Drive, until my friend Olivia Gulin offered to do layout and illustration for it. Olivia’s drawings and designings really bring my little hack to life. The PDF includes dozens of drawings of characters, ships and equipment, as well as character and ship record sheets.
Like World of Dungeons, Offworlders is going to be a free pdf. We are trying to figure out a paid print on demand version, too.
It’s coming soon! Stay tuned.
# Thursdays in Thracia - Part 12
[caption id=“attachment_471” align=“aligncenter” width=“525”] Toba has a high wisdom.[/caption]
Continuing from Part 11, after Jek stole a sack from a sleeping something on a bridge.
The party rummaged through the sack Jek had brought back up, finding some money, minor trinkets and an old key. They pocketed the goods and decided to head down the rope ladder together, quietly.
They managed to get down without waking the sleeping figure on the bridge, and headed up the hallway to the north. The one lined with spooky, glowing skulls.
At the end of the long hallway, they stopped in front of the threshold of a pitch-dark room, with a raised dias taller than a person protruding from the opposite wall. As those at the front of the party glanced about the room without entering, planning and bickering about what to do next, Yam Stevens the magic user, who was close to the back of the group, noticed something odd. Two of the skulls in adjacent wall sections were slightly misalined, almost as if they were rotated towards each other.
Yam ordered Jenn and Jann Halfroot, the retainers, to rotate the skulls back in place at the same time. As they did, something clicked. The skulls laughed maniacally, and Jann’s skull gave him a nasty bite on the finger. The wall panels slid open revealing a musty room.
The party decided to investigate, and found a stairway leading downward, choked to the point of being impassable by thick, dense spider webs. They decided not to go that way.
Instead they entered the room with the dias. As soon as they had, doors shut behind them, and the room filled with a golden light. Upon the dias where nothing had been before now rested a massive creature, with the body of a tawny lion and the torso and head of a beautiful, dark-haired woman. The Sphynx!
In conversation, the Sphynx proved to be belittling, dismissive, and rude. She separated the party from hundreds of gold pieces by charging a 10gp per head “entry fee,” and then offering to answer any question truthfully for a fee of 100gp per question. She told the party the location of the nearest treasure (“behind me”), and how to get it (“kill me). The party debated trying it before ultimately paying up and leaving well enough alone. They went back south to the bridge.
Without crossing the bridge and waking the sleeping creature, the only other way for them to go was upriver, but the coastline was dangerous, a narrow strip of wet stone. Jek volunteered to go first and investigate. He made it about halfway across the stone outcropping, then fell in the water and got carried back. Suffering only minor scuffs, he tried again, bringing rope with him. The rest of the party held the other end, and hammered it into the stone to make a hand-hold.
The hammering, of course, woke the sleeper on the bridge. He grumbled and rose up, a humanoid, a bit taller than a person but with an enormous head and strange, stocky proportions. He noticed the missing sack of treasure, but with some slick talking the party fooled him into thinking the sack had been taken by the cultists.
The creature introduced himself as Grastic Hammerclay, a giant gnome. He seemed quite lonely, explaining to the party that he was outcast from his people for being a freak.
On the other side of the rocks, Jek found a wider pebbly beach with a small hut on it. Outside the hut was a stick in the sand with the wide skull of a lizard, painted in strange designs perched on it. He approached the hut and slipped in through the rotting door.
Inside was a simple living space, with a small skeleton on a bed, and a table. On closer inspection Jek found it was the skeleton of a halfling with a small silver pendant in the shape of a fish resting on its chest. Jek pocketed it.
On the table was a white candle. Jek lit it, and it glowed bright as a lantern with a silvery, obviously magical light.
The rest of the party fed Grastic some of their rations, making fast friends with the lonely outcast. They asked if he would join them, but he seemed reluctant to leave the safety of his bridge. Toba the cleric offered him some words of comfort and wisdom, and the party moved across the rope to meet with Jek.
Just as they arrived, a lone lizard man appeared, skulking around the perimeter of the hut behind Jek.
A lot of what happened here was outside of specific mechanics, and it was a pretty fun and involved session. I made a few rolls at a few moments to see if Grastic would wake up, usually giving him a 1 in 6 chance. I figured most demihumans have a 2 in 6 chance to hear a quiet noise, plus he was asleep. Until the party started hammering in pitons, which drove it way up. I had a lot of fun playing this sort of suspicious but very lonely, pathetic character. He doesn’t quite trust anyone, but is lonely enough to reward any small kindness.
I loved playing the Sphynx as just being the absolute worst. A know-it-all who can also beat you up, who is also trying to get as much cash out of you as possible. I was worried for a bit that the party would attack her, which would have ended very badly.
The skull doors were another instance of just kind of giving out information. I told Yam’s player what Yam saw, the slightly cocked skulls, and let the party act on it.
They are finally on the second level of the caverns! 6 sessions in, and the dungeon is only getting more complex, twisted and weird. It also feels like the players are getting more comfortable with their characters and with prodding at the dungeon.
Under “Notes for the Judge,” Caverns of Thracia says, “Due to the size of this adventure, it is doubtful that it can be played in one sitting.” Yeah no kidding!
Thursdays in Thracia - Part 11
[caption id=“attachment_466” align=“aligncenter” width=“339”] Hallways with false ends leading to the chasm.[/caption]
Continuing from Part 10, after the party met a tired looking man and his skeletons.
The man in dark robes looked somewhat confused and bewildered, and spoke a version of the Thracian language. A couple of party members who had practiced the language managed to establish a baseline of communication. Thelma Turge, a Magic-User, was able to carry on a complete conversation using the alignment language of Law.
Thelma explained that they were the enemies of the Gnolls and Lizard-men, which got the man on their side. He introduced himself as Macreus, cleric of Thanatos. It soon became clear that he had been sealed in this area for a very long time, perhaps hundreds of years. Eventually, he provided the party with a history lesson on the caverns. Long ago, humans built a society here, achieving a great level of sophistication. Far below, a great palace stood in a place where a sun-filled forest grew miraculously underground. The cult of Thanatos was held in high regard then, and the humans kept the beast-men, the gnolls and the minotaurs, as slaves. During the reign of Agamemnos, however, the beast-men revolted, slaughtering the king and conquering seizing all levels below the first. This was before Macreus was born. During his time, humans lived only on the first level, and in the city on the surface above. The worship of Thanatos became outlawed then, and he and his brothers sealed themselves in this secret area, waiting for a safe time to reemerge. There were also rumors that once, even before the old human kingdom, a race of highly sophisticated lizard-man progenitors lived in the caverns, but of course that was nonsense. Tales of the undead lizard king served to frighten children into obedience.
It was unclear how long Macreus had been in stasis down here, but the city he described on the surface was now just ruins. The party did however tell him that the cult of Thanatos was alive and well. They didn’t tell him how many of its members they had killed on a previous expedition.
Encouraged by someone taking up arms against the beast-men and their Minotaur King, Macreus offered the party some information and help. He told them that there was a sphinx on the floor below, and that beyond that sphinx was a route to the old temple of Thanatos from its heyday. Far below that temple was the old palace, where the sun shone far below ground. He also told them of a temple to the goddess Athena, where it was said that Agamemnos stored weaponry crafted by a great weapon smith from a land far to the east.
Telling them that it was impossible to return to the first level of the caverns the way that they had come, due to a magical seal, he fished out a long rope ladder from a pit in the hallway floor. He led them to the end of the hallway, where what looked like a solid wall of rock was really just an illusion, and opened out onto a chasm. The rope ladder affixed neatly into slots in the floor, and the party began to argue about how to go down.
First they sent two retainers, Jen and Jann Halfroot, down the rope ladder. When they returned, they reported a cavern below, with an underground river running through it. On a small bridge across the river, slept a large humanoid creature.
After some deliberation, the party decided to send down their solitary thief, Jek the Stabber. Jek descended the ladder and saw the creature, a kind of stunted-looking giant, much larger than a person but with the squat proportions of something smaller… a halfling or a dwarf maybe? Small creatures stirred in cages mounted to the bridge, and baskets hung in the water.
Then Jek noticed the sack. A bulging bag propped up against a nearby wall, adjacent to the bridge. They poked it from ten feet away with a pole, making a tiny noise but not arousing the creature. They ran up to it, carefully examined it, and silently lifted it from the ground. Then Jek noticed the hallway going north, the direction in which Macreus had told the party that a Sphinx lived. The long hallway was lined on either side with eerily glowing skulls, one set into the center of each ten foot section of wall.
Jek took the sack and rushed back up the ladder.
The most interesting thing in the first half of this session was dealing with Macreus, and how much he could tell them. They did get a great reaction roll, and to their credit, used his ignorance of the current situation, and their knowledge of the existing enmity of the cultists and the gnolls to get him onto their side.
Technically Macreus only speaks Thracian and Ancient Thracian, the former of which some of the PC’s can piece together, the latter of which is supposed to be mostly lost to time. I’ve let the PC’s who speak the modern language piece together a few words of ancient in the dungeon though, and ultimately I let them carry out a full on conversation using the alignment language of Law.
Alignment languages are a weird feature of the game. B/X only has three alignments: Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic, and any character can speak a language tied to their alignment. It seems like this would eliminate any advantage for having a high intelligence and speaking additional languages, as the party’s edgy, chaotic character can just talk to all the monsters.
Because Caverns of Thracia was originally written for AD&D, not B/X specifically, Macreus actually has a two-part alignment: Lawful Evil, which makes sense for a death cult leader. So Thelma Turge, lawful magic user, was able to talk to him no problem.
There is an encounter later in the dungeon that includes a chart to roll on which takes Intelligence into account, to determine the accuracy of communication between people who don’t share a language. The intent seems to be that you can use it anywhere in the module (and presumably elsewhere in your campaign, too), but the presence of alignment languages kind of circumvents that as well.
I have come around to the philosophy that giving the players more information is almost always better than giving them less, and challenges that just occlude information from the players are usually not going to be interesting. In this case, as soon as Macreus gave them a huge exposition dump, they started plotting about whether to seek the temple, or the sphynx, about the best route out, about whether to try and return to town first or push onward. Having meaningful, actionable intelligence can be what separates an interesting, player-driven sandbox from a game where they are just aimlessly roving down corridors running into monsters.
While Thracia and other modules often have rumor tables, where new characters can roll for hints, they are often so vague as to be kind of useless until the players are more familiar with the adventure location, and they are also often seeded with false rumors and red herrings. There’s something about just saying “there is interesting and valuable stuff in places X, Y, and Z, have at it” that immediately gets things moving in a more interesting direction.
Thursdays in Thracia - Part 10
[caption id=“attachment_458” align=“aligncenter” width=“582”] Channeling a frightened retainer and repping multiple games at once.[/caption]
Continuing from Part 9, after the party left the dungeon to rest in town once again.
Alveric, the thief who had repeatedly used the paralyzing eyes of the statue to great effect, recently retired from the adventuring life (his player moved away). He kindly left his friends the treasure he had been carrying around, which in addition to the statue gemstone eyes, included two very lifelike glass eyes, stolen from the death cultists and carried around since then.
The party took the eyes to an oddities expert on the edge of town and after some negotiation, paid her a generous fee to identify if the eyes had any magical use. She said it would take several days, so in the meantime they brought on some new retainers and set out once again for the caverns.
They arrived back at the mysterious, formerly plastered-over door covered in ominous inscriptions. Before they could open it, several giant rats attacked them from the darkness, but were dispatched easily.
[caption id=“attachment_452” align=“alignleft” width=“183”] The Chapel[/caption]
Beyond the door, a hallway stretched into darkness, with a room lit by fire visible at the other end. A brave retainer was dispatched first, who confirmed that the room appeared safe. The party followed.
The room was draped with black cloths on all its walls, and lined with pews, as in a chapel. Several immobile shapes, corpses in black robes sat and kneeled among them. Four braziers, one in each corner, burned a sweet smelling incense. Too late, the party members noticed they were becoming woozy. A strange soporific! Several fell unconscious. Thinking swiftly, Yam Stevens the magic user doused the fires with water from his water skin. Eventually the others woke back up.
Pulling at the black curtains, the party noticed the walls were covered in murals celebrating THANATOS, the god of death, triumphing over all living beings on the planet. There was also a door each on the north and south walls. The party also noticed an area on the south wall that looked uneven, patched over with plaster.
The north door was decorated with a skull with glowing red eyes, and as Jek the Stabber approached it, it beckoned to them in an alarming, high-pitched voice:
ENTER FOOLS! JOIN ME IN THE BLISS THAT IS THANATOS! BECOME ONE WITH BLESSED DEATH! IT IS IN THE FINAL END THAT FULFILLMENT LIES.”
The party decided to maybe not go through that door. The skull repeated its message after a few minutes, and Jek carved the skull from the door, stashing it in their bag.
While some members chipped away at the plastered wall, a retainer, a trained man-at-arms, was ordered to check out the bizzare, black-robed, dried out corpses. Each of them, save one, had a pendant around its neck, a skull with jeweled eyes. The retainer gingerly lifted each pendant away with his knife, stashing the treasure in a sack.
Then he decided, just for fun, to smash in the skull of the one without treasure. As he lifted his weapon, the kneeling figure rose up and lashed out at him with a gnarled, clawed hand! The party sprung into action. The unnatural creature swung several times, but its claws found no purchase on the retainer’s armor, and together the party hacked it to pieces, and it crumbled to dust. In the ashes lay a strange key, adorned with a death’s head.
After catching their breath and clearing away the rest of the plaster, the party found an ancient door, with a keyhole. Naturally, they had a hired peasant try the key in the lock.
A spear shot down from the ceiling, catching the poor young man in the shoulder! He staggered back, wounded but not mortally, and slumped against the wall, bleeding. The door opened.
As the party gathered around him, he stared with horror at the opposite corner of the room. He reported that he saw a man, thin and pale and black-robed, with his arms open for an embrace. He wanted to walk forward and embrace the man. The party saw nothing but the stone corner of the ancient chapel. They managed to convince the young man to ignore the terrifying vision, and helped him up.
They proceeded past the door, and down a long hallway, when they heard the clatter of old bones against paving stones coming towards them through the darkness. A group of four animated skeletons, wielding long spears! One of the party’s clerics raised her holy symbol and prayed to the gods. A blinding flash! The skeletons, all of them, turned and fled. Behind them stood a middle aged man, clad in dark robes, looking somewhat like he had just awoken from a very long nap.
Nothing too crazy this time, from a DM’s perspective. When the party went back to town they wanted to have those eyes identified, and I hadn’t really sorted out rules for that. In fact, I haven’t fleshed out town at all, just sort of running it abstractly as where the PC’s go when they heal and hire more suckers retainers. I don’t want to make a full on magic item shop, but I decided a sort of traveling expert on oddities who could identify properties of items given time and money wouldn’t be such a bad thing. I think I’d like to flesh out town a little bit more. Rules-wise, B/X really doesn’t care much about who the PC’s are outside of their function within the party, and having a few NPC’s in town could let the players role-play their characters and create a break between relentless dungeoneering expeditions. I also might write up a few potential retainers between sessions, instead of conjuring them up on the spot when the PC’s decide to hire them. Maybe they shouldn’t be an infinite resource.
The man the party encountered right at the end of the session, guarded by skeletons, knows a lot about some of the dungeon’s hidden areas. We ended just in time, because the party is definitely going to interrogate him, and I definitely needed to read up on those parts of the dungeon first.
[caption id=“attachment_455” align=“aligncenter” width=“488”] Most of The Caverns of Thracia is presented like this. It can be a lot.[/caption]
Admittedly, I have only glossed over a lot of the lower areas of the dungeon, which is going to come back to bite me unless I spend some quality time with the module. The Caverns are massive, complex and deeply interconnected. I’ve printed out separate maps of the first two levels, annotating them by hand and putting them on an inside panel of my DM screen, but the process of doing that is a bit painstaking due to the old school layout of the module. For each page of map you get pages and pages of pure text. There are sub-levels on some of the levels, and flipping back and forth to make sure you know where that secret door comes out, or where that stairway leads becomes a little tiresome. Stat blocks and descriptions are wedged into paragraphs of text. As you can see from the above image, grabbing just the right information at the right moment can be difficult too. When the players are all looking at me to see what happens next, it can definitely bring on the DM performance anxiety. Everyone seems to be having fun though!
Bottom line is that it makes me grateful for a lot of the OSR stuff being made these days with super usable layouts and accessible information.
Thursdays in Thracia - Part 9
Continuing from Part 8, after the party took shelter from a pursuing statue in a room full of gnolls (7, above).
After the statue was safely on its way, the party and the group of gnolls shared an awkward moment, standing there staring at each other. When it was clear that the gnoll leader was arguing with his underlings about whether or not the party or their pets were food, the party decided it was time to get going. In a final gesture of cross-species friendship, the gnoll warned them about a spear trap in the hallway(6, above), and led them past it so they could return to town and rest up.
Once in the hallway, they noticed a section of wall that looked different, an odd texture compared to the rest of the wall. Apparently, something had been plastered over. They decided to spend some time chipping away at the plaster.
As Jek the stabber (thief) slowly revealed something long hidden, the corridor filled with the sound of padded feet. From around the corner, 6 gnolls, come to replace their brethren down the hall. To the delight of Yam Stephens (magic-user), they were led by the Gnoll he had affectionately named Slam, who was still under the effects of a charm spell from the very first expedition.
Yam and Slam embraced while once again the other gnolls looked on, confused and hungry. After a brief catch-up Slam gave Yam a symbol of their friendship, which could hopefully be shown to other gnolls in the future.
Meanwhile, Jek had uncovered a large stone door, engraved all over with text in the ancient Thracian language. Some of the party members could understand a modicum of modern Thracian, and could pick up a few important concepts. Words like “DEATH” and “PORTAL” and “ETERNITY” and “CHERISH.” Naturally, they wanted to explore further beyond, but decided to return to town first. They returned to the surface and trekked back without further incident.
I discussed reaction rolls and the limits thereof a little bit in Part 8. The party scored really highly against the gnolls in the guard room last session, so I gave them a lot, but also figured that these are ultimately monsters, and even if they’ve gotten social traction with the leader of a group, the rest of them are going to be generally disgusted by humans. Essentially, uneasy momentary truces are possible, but becoming outright allies with monsters probably isn’t possible. Any interaction with a monster is in danger of breaking down fast. I required another reaction roll to get the leader to disarm the trap for them, but they nailed that one, too.
Of course, Slam is still under the effects of Charm, so he treats Yam like a close friend, much to the confusion of his comrades. I only recently realized I was handwaving town so much that I hadn’t accounted for the slow healing times in B/X. Technically everyone only gets back 1HP per full night of rest. It’s likely that if I actually had been tracking that then Slam would have shaken it off by now, but hard to say. I’ve been ticking off two days every time the party leaves and comes back, and the spell allows its target to save only once per week. At this level anyone who has taken more than 2HP of damage has probably ended up dead anyway.
Of course, when that spell wears off the gnolls are gonna be pissed. Probably to the point of automatic violence instead of a reaction roll at all.
There was also this cool secret door! I’ve decided my philosophy for secret doors is that I am going to make their presence relatively obvious from description. Hence the plastered over walls, or the intricate patterns from previous sessions. The players can then choose to search, or chip away at the plaster expending time and risking additional encounters. The time vs. encounter roll trade-off is a major component of B/X, and I think the choice to take that risk is a lot more interesting than the PC’s just never seeing an awesome part of the dungeon because they didn’t happen to search a completely random part of one of many long hallways.