I’m going ultralight this time. Searchers of the Unknown (SotU) is a game that takes the D&D B/X stat block for monsters and assumes PCs don’t really need more than that. As before, I will use the Solo Game Master’s Guide approach.
I want to explore a setting I’ve run several games in before, a Gothic setting called Krevborna.
The blood moon rises above the haunted lands of Krevborna! Once a country of picturesque villages, deep forests, and sublime mountain ranges, Krevborna is now a land of Gothic ruins preyed upon by fiends, ravening beasts, and the unquiet dead. Shadows triumphantly lengthen across Krevborna; the great powers of darkness work to usher in the dread dominion of an everlasting empire of night.
I have several others I want to pull in as we go.
I don’t play board games but I can think of other places on the Internet that could give me ideas, particularly some subreddits, but I’ll list those when I put them in use after our initial dungeon.
I’ll try 1974 Style first and may pull in resources from the RPG Collection as needed. For now, rule extensions I intend to use from the beginning are:
Also, instead of a Sanity mechanic, I’ll use the Insight mechanic from Cthulhu Dark (see below under Character Creation).
Since I’m starting with a setting I’ve run before, I’ll just do a quick review of the setting and choose some specifics to focus on.
The land of Krevborna is analogous to a fictional, early modern Eastern European land where all the magic and monstrosity found in Gothic literature is a real and present danger rather than mere folklore and fancy. Krevborna is a land in need of heroes willing to shed blood — sometimes their own — to save it from falling irretrievably into the howling shadows of damnation.
Once a country of picturesque villages, deep forests, and sublime mountain ranges, Krevborna is now preyed upon by werebeasts, witches, malicious fey, fiends, and the undead.
The goal of adventures set in Krevborna is for the player characters to find ways to fight back against the evil that taints the land. Someone must light a candle against the enveloping, corrosive darkness.
Krevborna itself has an eastern coast and mountains to the north and south. It’s a rough stand-in for Romania and (to a lesser extent) Bulgaria, but that certainly shouldn’t be taken literally.
The most populated areas are Creedhall, Hemlock, Chancel, and Piskaro, plus Lamashtu (a feudal domain ruled by vampires). Additional areas that have had some details specified are the Grail Tombs, the Nachtmahr Mountains, the Silent Forest, and Veil (a town of “monsters”).
Given the strengths of SotU, I think I’ll start out at the Grail Tombs:
Ancient catacombs deep within the earth, the Grail Tombs are the remains of the Lilitu, a technologically advanced civilization that predates the rise of man. The Lilituan Empire fell when it embraced demonic cults that ultimately transformed their noble rulers into the world’s first vampires.
- Labyrinthine dungeons and burial vaults belonging to a long-dead and inhuman civilization.
- Grail and chalice motifs; depictions of tall, gaunt, vampire-like beings carved in stone.
- Unnatural phenomena, warped time, impossibly convoluted architecture, unthinkable machines, malevolent beings trapped in the strange eons of the past.
- The present’s uncertain foundations are the corruptions of the past.
- Unthinkable connections between the vampires of Lamashtu and the forgotten civilization of the Lilitu.
- All empires fall.
The book goes on to suggest a few adventure ideas and an encounter table, which I’ll use as needed. Later in the book, several factions have links to the Grail Tombs:
That gives us three or four factions to deal with, plus an underground environment of crypts, monsters, and rivals. In my mind, I can already see the Tombs themselves as dark mazes of stone and shadow with far-off sounds echoing through the corridors. In fact, I will use some of Dyson Logos’s tombs maps for locations. More on dungeon crawling procedures when we get started!
One of the big inspirations for this game came from the recent book The Monster Overhaul by Skerples. In fact, page 1 literally sparked my imagination for running this:
Chapters are designed to be combined to create settings. Want to run a Gothic horror game? Mix chapters 1, 9, 13, and occasionally 8.
These chapters are:
There may be specific occasions where I use monster entries from other sections, particularly if I take inspiration from one of the random tables in Krevborna.
Before I create any individual characters, I want to think about the group and their collective goals. They will be a group of adventurers associated with one of the aforementioned factions: “Delvers employed by the Church, the Labyrinth Dredgers search for lost knowledge within the hypogean Grail Tombs.”
The Dredgers’ motto is “We need eyes beneath the earth—to keep watch on what watches us.” They are willing to use occult and heretical means to ensure the survival of their people (interpreted broadly). This also means they are not dogmatic believers; the Church is their patron and a useful source of power, but they are not beholden to it.
I’ll create three characters for the group and start with rolling their “Dark Secrets” from a table in the book:
This starts give them a bit of background. For each of them, I’ll choose a Gothic name and an archetype (from Krevborna):
I’m also rolling Character Attitude from the Solo GMG.
A few mechanical notes: the 1974 Style rules don’t prescribe specific weapon or armor types, although they do give a few examples. In keeping with a roughly Early Modern setting, each character has access (at creation time) to no more than light armor (e.g. a padded jacket) or heavy weapons. As befitting their general profession of tomb raiding, none will really have heavy armor or similar.
Due to the themes of this game, I’ll pull in the Insight mechanic from Cthulhu Dark by Graham Walmsley:
Your Insight shows how far you can see into the horror behind the universe. It starts at 1.
When you see something disturbing, roll your Insight Die. If you get higher than your Insight, add 1 to your Insight and roleplay your fear. (This is called an “Insight roll”.)
Is your Insight real? Can you really see a deeper truth? Or is it just insanity? Sometimes, it is hard to tell.
When your Insight reaches 5, you may now reduce it by suppressing knowledge of what you have discovered: for example, by burning books, defacing carvings or destroying yourself. Each time you do this, roll your Insight Die. If you get less than your current Insight, decrease your Insight by 1.
You may continue reducing your Insight in this way when your Insight drops below 5.
When your Insight reaches 6, you understand the full horror behind the Universe and leave everyday life behind. To the outside world, you appear insane.
In the latter case, I think that will be a cue for the character to retire from adventuring and become a scholar or administrator or something.
That said, I’ll add one bit: when trying to understand something otherworldly (e.g. a strange symbol or a cryptic message), the player can roll a d6 against Insight; if it’s the same or less, they gain some knowledge about that thing. So there’s a benefit in having some Insight, but it can also be a liability if pushed too far. In fact, depending on what they’re examining, it might provoke an Insight roll. I want to try this out in practice before settling on a final rule.
This suggests a skill system, but I’d rather not use that just yet. I’ll keep it in mind as I go in case that turns out to be an interesting way to go.
I’m going to start with one of the suggested quests for the Labyrinth Dredgers. The group has been asked to “rescue a party of Labyrinth Dredgers who have been lost within a particularly maze-like Grail Tomb.”
I don’t know yet how anyone knows they’re lost and in need of rescue; I also don’t know who else (or what else) might be inside. Let’s start with an opening scene using the One Page Solo Engine. The three Dredgers are at the entrance to a tomb. I’ll draw two cards:
The group finds the prior expedition’s equipment and supplies, including the excavation setup. But there’s no sign of the missing Dredgers.
Now I’ll roll a Scene Complication on a d6:  Things actually go as planned. Nothing else is out here and nothing seems out of the ordinary. I decide to use the Crypt of the Scarlet Wolf by Dyson Logos.
Cartography by Dyson Logos
They’ll enter the first chamber, which is a hallway with central stone pillars and three exits. It’s a transitional area, with no encounter but an interesting item or clue. The pillars themselves are carved with depictions of vampire-looking people, with gaunt cheekbones and prominent fangs.
The clue is 🃊 Ten of Diamonds “Specialized / Technical”, and it’s about 🂡 Ace of Spades “the PCs / Mystical (meaning, capability)”. There’s some kind of arcane device belonging to the Dredgers here. What does it do? 🂽 Queen of Hearts “Assist / Social”. It’s a tracking device that will help finding the missing Dredgers. That will provide a fictional reason to use the Yes/No oracle from OPSE.
Is the group in the sealed room adjacent to the curved hallway (unlikely)? No.
Is the group beyond the sealed door in front of us (unlikely)? Yes.
But the double doors are sealed and we’ll need to find a way to open them. Cethegus the Exile will try to force the doors open with his halberd. It takes a few moments, but he forces them open after a bit of noise and effort.
This is a small area set a bit into the ground, with a central pillar and three other sets of double doors, each at the top of some steps.
Does this attract an encounter? I’ll roll 2d6 on the Encounter generator and use the highest: hostile enemies. What’s the encounter?
Preserved in resin-soaked cloth, these undead Lilituans guard the crypts of their nameless masters.
Before we jump to combat, first let’s check their reaction, rolling 2d6 on the “Reaction Roll (General)” table from The Monster Overhaul:  Retreat.
The undead pull back; perhaps they were a bit intimidated at first by the sight of three well-armed adventurers breaking down their door. That probably won’t last. They’ll probably set up an ambush; we’ll be ready.
Is the group in one of the adjacent rooms (unlikely)? Yes. We’ll try chamber 3 to the left first. Is it sealed (likely)? Yes, which makes it less likely that’s where the expedition is.
Let’s try chamber 4 to the right. Is it sealed (likely)? Yes.
What about chamber 5, straight ahead of where we came in. Is it sealed (likely)? No. We’ll enter cautiously. What’s in here? A unique NPC or adversary, which we’ll take to mean the expedition we’re seeking. How well are they doing?  Surprisingly lacking - they’re dead. What else is in here? 🂧 Seven of Spades “Simple / Mystical”. Swirling darkness; it’s hard to move or maneuver in here.
Is this where the undead guards ambush us (likely)? Yes, and they’re not alone. What else is in here? “Skittering things, tails full of poison, moaning, weeping.”
So we will have to fight.
The skittering things will be treated as minions (1 HP each); there are d4 = 3 of them. For the undead Lilituans, we’ll use the “Undead Minion” stats from The Monster Overhaul (p. 49). There are d6 = 2 of them with 4 & 8 HP, respectively. They appear as “rotting corpses with baleful blue fire in their eyes.” They have armor as leather (AC 11) and do d4 damage with their horrible claws, but they always go last in a combat round and have MV 6 (½ normal). Because of the circumstances, I’ll have the spiders go first, then the explorers, then the undead.
The spiders, which do minimal damage but require a save vs poison, each attack a separate adventurer. Melisanda manages to avoid the spiders, but Ataulf and Cethegus each take 1 damage and need to save vs poison. Cethegus does fine, but Ataulf fails critically and takes an extra 1 damage on this turn.
Cethegus sweeps his halberd wide, hitting the spiders and does enough damage to kill them all, but nicks Ataulf in the process and deals 1 more damage to his comrade.
Ataulf is angered, but will have to yell at Cethegus afterward (if indeed there is one). He draws a pistol and fires at point-blank range at the nearest undead, which I’ll grant Advantage for. He misses, but with advantage he avoided a critical fail (which could have jammed his pistol or similar).
Melisanda pulls back into the doorway behind them and fires her pistol as well, failing critically. As suggested, this means her firearm jams. She’ll either have to spend a round fixing it or switch to a different weapon next round.
For now, the undead attack Ataulf and Cethegus. The first one hits, dealing a full 4 damage, but the second one only does 3 damage to Cethegus.
Ataulf is down to 1 HP and decides to retreat, firing his pistol as he goes (which means no Advantage on this attack). He scores a critical hit, dealing 6 damage and eliminating one of the undead.
Cethegus has room to maneuver here, so he’ll attack the remaining undead with his halberd and deals a full 8 damage, killing it as well.
The previous expedition wasn’t “lost” in the sense of being unable to find their way out. They were ambushed and killed by the undead and the skittering things.
Next time, we’ll explore the rest of the tomb and see what else we can find.
I found several inconsistencies in the 1974 Style Rules document, particularly around Move Rate and Armor Class. In this case, I just went with the tables rather than the text, since they made more sense and were easy to use in that way.
The Monster Overhaul is as good as I hoped it would be, both from a mechanical perspective as well as the usability during a game. Together with Searchers of the Unknown and Krevborna, I have a good sense of how this game can go.
The jury is still out for me on the One Page Solo Engine in this specific context. I’ve used it before in my Star Wars d6 game, and it helped in this dungeon context, but more traditional random encounter procedures might feel better in this game.