Monday, May 18, 2020

Play Report: The Tower of Zenopus, Session 2

I ran D&D over Zoom again this weekend, with much more success this time.  I've cast my net pretty wide among my D&D-playing acquaintances, and managed to rope in some guys that I haven't gamed with in over 20 years.  Last week we had a bunch of connection issues, but this time around everyone who wanted to play was able to get on.  It was only three people, just one more than last week, but the game went much longer and saw the party experiencing far greater success.

The novel thing for me is that none of the players who showed up carried over from the last game.  This is the first time I've ever experienced running multiple groups through the same dungeon setting, and I'm looking forward to doing more of it.  This week's group took an entirely different path than the previous adventurers, so it didn't make much of a difference.  Plus the dungeons beneath the Tower of Zenopus are small, and I don't think I'll get more than one more session out of them.  But with my current set-up, where I run for whoever shows up on a Saturday night, the possibility is there for some proper old-school multi-party campaigning, especially when I start running some more expansive modules.  I can tell already that it's going to be a lot of fun.

This week's group consisted of a halfling, a cleric and a thief.  They played things smart by hiring a man-at-arms, which they were clued into by one of the rumours from Zach Howard's excellent Ruined Tower of Zenopus.  I called the man-at-arms Hew off the cuff, and had a lot of fun investing him with the persona of a simple everyman slightly overwhelmed by the situations he was finding himself in.  The players took to him pretty quickly.

The party headed east from the entry stairs, and fought a fairly easy battle against the five goblins in room A.  I used the morale rules from Basic D&D, and the goblins rolled well and ended up fighting to the death.  This went somewhat against the module text, which states that they surrender once half of their number is dead.  Ah well, you can't remember everything.  Unfortunately, what I also forgot was some of the loot: the goblins are meant to have two bags with 500 silver pieces, but I only gave the PCs one.  I think I'll move the second bag somewhere else in the dungeon, so that they can still find it.  I don't want to cheat them out of the treasure completely.

From there they went south, and it didn't take them long to figure out the trick with the doors and the statue.  Continuing south to the base of the thaumaturgist's tower, they fought and killed a giant snake.  The cleric got constricted a bit, but a single monster like this rarely fares well against a full party, and the snake didn't last long.

From there they headed west, to the room with the sundial and the bronze mask.  The mask will answer any question asked of it, but only if the party figures out its clue: "I will not speak til it be four".  The cleric player figured this out with suspicious quickness; I'd suspect him of having read the module beforehand, but he's always been a sharp dude.  I'll have to keep on my toes, it's going to be hard having a player who is obviously more intelligent than I am.

They kept their eyes on the prize, and asked the mask where they could find the most valuable treasure.  I didn't have this info readily at hand, so I had the mask direct them to the sea cave and the smugglers.  In retrospect I should have directed them north to the catacombs, but I didn't want to bog the game down while I scoured my notes.

They followed the directions south, west, and then north, having a fight with a giant crab along the way.  It lasted a few rounds due to a tough AC, but my rolling for the crab was abysmal, and it didn't score a single hit.  My rolls for Hew, on the other hand, were on fire, and he was undoubtedly the MVP of the session.  He might have made things a little too easy, but then again it could all have gone very differently if the dice had swung the other way.  One bad roll and Hew would have been dead.  Still, an easy game for the players isn't such a bad thing now and then.

From there they headed north, where they fought four smugglers.  This was the final encounter of the session, and it ended in a real anti-climax.  The smugglers failed their morale check after the first of them fell, and two more of them were cut down as they fled.  One of them escaped, fleeing north into the dungeon tunnels.  I suppose he'll still be there next session, if he's still alive.

The party found the treasure chests in the smugglers' boats, as well as a kidnapped Lemunda the Lovely, daughter of the local lord.  There was serious discussion about them taking one of the boats and rowing out of the sea tunnel, but that would almost certainly have resulted in disaster at the hands of the giant octopus lurking at the bottom.  I figured that Lemunda would have heard the pirates talking about the octopus, so I had her warn the party against it.  Sometimes the DM must be kind.

The rest of the session was spent lugging the two treasure chests out of the dungeon.  I probably should have made more of a big deal about them carrying them across a 3-foot-deep river, but it was getting late so I fudged it.  What I didn't fudge were the half-dozen or so wandering monster checks I made while they were struggling to get the chests out of the dungeon.  Not a single one came up.  I probably made about 20 wandering monster checks for the whole game, and none of those came up either.  Sometimes all the luck just runs the way of the PCs I guess.

All told, a fun and quite successful game.  The PCs played well (lots of sharp decisions, listening at doors, not lingering too much), the dice rolls went their way, and they managed to win a few fights and make off with some decent loot at little cost to themselves.  They also had some luck with the paths they chose, and avoided the most difficult encounters, any one of which could have resulted in a TPK.  Those encounters are still down there, of course, and it just makes it more likely that the party will encounter them next time.


I'm still using my encumbrance house rules, and this time I actually got to put them into practice.  They worked about as well as I was hoping, and we were able to easily keep track of what the PCs were carrying and how it would affect their movement.  They even had to leave some treasure behind: 2,000 copper pieces in a chest that they found after defeating the goblins.  Copper pieces are a proper encumbrance trap for dumb PCs, being of such low value, and I was pretty pleased to see this party making the smart decision to leave them behind.  The system I've come up with isn't precise, but it's close enough that it made the PCs question whether to take that chest with them, and that's exactly the sort of thing I was looking for.

One thing I need to come up with is a rule for  characters carrying things between them.  As it is, nobody in my current rules is capable of carrying a chest with 2,000 coins in it.  I allowed them to carry the chests with one character lifting each side, and dropped all of their movement rates to 30'/turn as they struggled their way out of the dungeon.  It would be nice to have concrete rules to fall back on for this kind of thing though.

I also need to know how much weight a character can carry over the amount that drops their movement rate to 1.  I'll look into how the various editions have handled this and work something out.


I was tracking light sources pretty rigorously, which I've never really done before.  The party were using torches, which burn for one hour.  Combined with ten minute turns, and D&D's frightfully slow dungeon movement rates, those torches run out really quickly.  A little too quickly, I felt, but then again I have no practical experience with burning torches.  The players didn't complain, and they were smart enough to take and use the torches that I mentioned the goblins had burning on the wall.  So I had some misgivings, but I'll stick with the rules as written for now.


I've been using a combat sequence with group initiative and phases: spell phase, missile phase, movement phase and melee phase.  Last week I toyed with the idea of adding a second melee phase that would happen right at the start of the round, but I decided against it on the grounds of over-complication.

I'm not entirely thrilled with what I've come up with.  The main problem I'm having is that it's a bit arbitrary as to which players go first during their turn in melee.  It doesn't really matter, and didn't cause any issues during this game, but I know that there are players that are territorial about  getting their "kills".  I think I'll start using Dexterity scores, and just running down the characters in order based on that.


I mentioned last week that I was using screen-sharing and Excel to show the players the room dimensions, and to track things during battle.  So far, all of this has worked surprisingly well.  My main concern was that it's only good for square and rectangular rooms, but I've solved that problem as well, as you can see below.

Rooms K and S2 of the Tower of Zenopus adventure.

You can set background images in an Excel worksheet, and doing that I was able to mock up the sea caves and the round rooms in the thaumaturgist's tower.  It's a little time-consuming - especially getting the grids lines up correctly, but it does the job if you're not into using things like Roll20.

I expect to get one more session out of the Tower of Zenopus, possibly one more in Portown if the players decide that they really want to go hunting for smugglers.  After that, I think I'll send them to a certain Keep on the Borderlands, and the Caverns of Quasqueton nearby.  Beyond those, I'm not sure, although I'm leaning towards Caverns of Thracia and Jeff Sparks' version of the Holmes' Skull Mountain dungeon as a bridge to get them strong enough for some of the mid-level TSR modules.

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