Solo Skald |||

Still in the Monastery of St. Othric, our three members of the Labyrinth Dredgers (Ataulf, Melisanda, and Cethegus), plus a temporary companion named Bertram (of the Incendiary Guild) are looking for the entrance to a Grail Tomb. They have found a library, to which Bertram has first rights as part of his deal to assist the expedition. But they’ve also found a group of pilgrims and a strange old woman who calls herself Crocon. In reality, she is a devil in disguise who serves Malistrad, an archdevil who tempts mortals with forbidden and unholy knowledge.

Devil’s Bargains

Does the party even recognize her as a devil? I decide that that will be decided by the characters’ Insight. Cethegus does not, but Ataulf and Melisanda perceive something infernal about Crocon. They’ll be wary as they interact with this woman in a plague doctor mask who seems so interested in their expedition.

Crocon

Crocon asks about their group’s purpose, and they tell her the truth: they seek an entrance to a Grail Tomb beneath the monastery. She asks them why they seek such a place when there’s so much knowledge to be uncovered here in these ruins.

It’s a fair question, honestly. There is a lot here, but it’s mostly holy knowledge or information from relatively recently, compared to what lies underground. So Melisanda starts explaining that they’re researching the Lilitu themselves and seek their catacombs, not the secondary knowledge that St. Othric and those who followed him uncovered.

Crocon flatters them for this. You are wise and sagacious,” she says. The knowledge you uncover could indeed save your people and usher in a new golden age. I can show you the way to these hidden truths…”

But Melisanda recognizes where this is going. Feel free to show us the way, but we have no interest in a bargain.”

Crocon laughs. Of course not. I will be here, waiting; when you need assistance, or when the knowledge you seek doesn’t quite satisfy you, come to me. The costs will be trifling for what you can gain. For now, consider this a show of good faith.”

She escorts them through a non-descript door off the courtyard where they’re standing and down some stairs to a root cellar with crates of long-rotted food. She pulls back an old canvas curtain, where a set of steps is carved into the earth leading to a dark void. This is the way to the catacombs,” she says. I will be here when you need me.”

The Grail Tomb

I’m once again starting with one of Dyson Logos’s maps. This time it’s Tarodun’s Tomb.

The group reaches the double doors at the south entrance as they’ve descended. Melisanda carries a torch and leads the way, with Cethegus and then Ataulf behind her. Cethegus’s halberd can attack from the second rank, but Melisanda’s expertise as an antiquarian may be needed to interpret what they see and guide them.

Chamber 1

Before they can enter, what are these doors like? They are Exotic / Mystical”, with chalice motifs in the doors and the likenesses of gaunt vampire-like beings flanking them. Is the portal sealed (likely)? Yes, and it’s a magical seal in some form. How can the seal be broken, since none among them are wizards? Does the ward Bertram studied above have any connection here (unlikely)? No, but… Move / Social”. One option is to ask Crocon for assistance, but they aren’t inclined to take an infernal bargain just yet. Or perhaps those pilgrims?

Cethegus and Ataulf study it more closely; their recent encounters have left them with a bit of insight into the workings of ancient magic. Ataulf in particular recognizes this pattern from his past as a tomb robber and is able to manipulate the workings of the seal deftly. After a moment, the doors slide open.

What lies beyond is a small alcove to their left and a long hallway to their right. The hallway has an opening to the left, and then curves beyond that. They’ll encounter hostile enemies but see no interesting objects.

Returning to the Encounter Table for Grail Tombs” in Krevborna, we get fanged pools of gelid blood want to add further nightmarish depth to their liquid mass.” These aren’t just environmental hazards, but living creatures. I decide to use the Ooze” stat block from The Monster Overhaul (TMO). As blood oozes, any damage the Ooze deals to a living creature heals it for the same amount.” The ooze is currently expelling waste pockets into the alcove; it’s right in front of them.

This is perhaps one of the most dangerous monsters they’ve faced. This gelatinous, slithering, shapeless mass could absorb any one of them at once. They pull back slightly. Thinking quickly, Ataulf douses the ooze in oil as Melisanda tosses her torch down on it. I decide it can do 2d6 damage, but Melisanda will need to make an attack roll at Advantage to hit it with her torch. That’s a critical hit, so it does 12 damage. The blood ooze is still alive, but just barely as it only has 4 hit points left.

We don’t need to enter initiative per se; if they can stay out of its reach, it will burn. So the two in front just need to avoid the first attack, if they can. I randomly determine that the ooze will try to slap Ataulf, but it fumbles (natural 1). After a few minutes, all that is left of the ooze is burnt blood and a horrible stench. Was anything in it (likely)? Yes, a valuable diamond. This will at least pay for their expedition costs!

Chamber 4

Further down the hallway, they can see an open chamber to their left as well as a door on the right where the hallway curves. The large open chamber has some sort of obstacle in it, but also a useful tool, key, or device. Entering it, they can see two sets of double doors straight ahead and to the left, plus a short hallway to the right. What’s the obstacle here? It’s an Exotic / Physical” thing that does something represented by Harm / Social”.

A set of iron spikes will come down in the middle of the room, and they’ll need to avoid them. I decide that two of them will need to make saves or take 1d6 damage. That’s a success for Melisanda, but Ataulf is struck for 3 damage.

Rules Digression

This presents a mechanical dilemma I should have thought about before. In Searchers of the Unknown (SotU) after [fighting], all hit points (hp) are restored back [to] their initial score.” So a trap that does HP damage but doesn’t kill its target in effect does very little, unless it springs during a fight.

Instead, I’m going to give Ataulf a condition, bad cut” that will last until he rests for the night. If there’s a situation in which that would matter, like some strenuous physical action, he’ll have Disadvantage. This isn’t particularly satisfactory and I don’t want to make this a long-term solution, but see the latter half of this post for more on that.

Exploration continues

In this chamber, they find a Complex / Mystical” device that does something Take / Social”. I need a little more inspiration here, so I’m going to use Geek Gamers’ A Place Underground” pamphlet as a suggestive resource and roll d66. The result is an excerpt from Charlotte Smith’s 1793 novel, The Old Manor House, and it gives me the idea that the device can amplify the fears of its target. That’s incredibly dangerous and exactly the sort of thing the Dredgers want to find, as it could be used to fight fire with fire. And just as importantly, they don’t want it to fall into the hands of the cult that seeks this location! Effectively, this is an Orb of Fear”. Ataulf will carry it for now, as a sort of compensation for his injury.

Restating their position, they’re in a medium-sized chamber with double doors ahead and to the left. To their right is a small hallway that might intersect the curving hallway they left earlier. They listen at the doors ahead of them and can hear movement (“hostile enemies”), but the doors to their left hold only silence. They decide to go left.

Chamber 5

Are the doors sealed (likely)? No. It’s another hall with central pillars much like the ones they’d found previously. There are three single doors along both the left and right sides, and another door at the end of the hall. No interesting objects in here.

For the six burial vaults, I decide to roll dice for each of them. They each have a 1-in-3 chance of treasure and a 1-in-6 chance of an appropriate monster (likely something small or undead or both). Additionally, I’ll randomly determine which characters take which pairs of doors and roll a check for them to see if they find anything extra (e.g. secret door).

Ataulf will search the pair of doors here at the back of the room. Melisanda will search the other two on the right, leaving Cethegus with the two on the left.

In the back right door, Ataulf finds nothing. But in the back left door, there’s an object! It turns out to be mundane, like old rusted tools that are no longer useful.

Melisanda also finds something in the first room she checks, but they turn out to be just extra bricks and stones for repairing the walls and construction. Does she find the secret door here? No, unfortunately. That would have helped them go around some enemies, but that’s not what the dice said.

Cethegus pokes into his two small vaults. The first one contains a unique NPC or adversary”, but no interesting stuff. So what’s this, then? This might be something related to the Lilitu, but they’re all long-dead. And it’s not a regular random monster. I decide, instead of rolling, to pick a result from the Encounter Table for Grail Tombs”: A fading shade of a Lilituan warlock, its task left undone.”

Of course, the adventurer leaps back in fear. What’s the shade’s reaction? Retreat,” per the reaction roll in TMO. As a ghostly, spectral figure, it pulls back into the wall, whispering as it does so. I ask ChatGPT to generate some ideas for what it says, then roll on that list. The result:

The machines that power the Grail Tombs are not of this world. They are not meant for human understanding.”

That’s ominous, but the Dredgers aren’t really going to take that advice. They’re not ready to hear that, in other words.

In the other vault, Cethegus finds an obstacle and a rare or special item. The obstacle is a trap; we haven’t had one of those in a bit! It tries to slam closed on him, but he dodges it. The item is Dignified / Mystical”, a valuable magical treasure. It does something Command / Social”, so I interpret this as a magical scepter, the equivalent of a Staff of Commanding” from Basic Fantasy.

This staff can cast charm person and charm monster spells, and can grant a power equivalent to a potion of plant control. Each function uses one charge.

Interesting that Cethegus, with the dark secret he carries, now has two magic items used for mentally influencing and manipulating others. I wonder if that’s going to come up later.

Last vault

The last vault is extra interesting because, on the map, that’s where the coffin is. This is the actual tomb. The explorers group up by the door and listen. They hear nothing inside. Ataulf carefully inspects it for traps, and finds nothing. But when they open the door, another portcullis slams down. Does he avoid it? I’ll roll with disadvantage (because of the earlier trap) and get literally a 1 and a 20. He’s struck and in fact pinned to the ground by the portcullis.

The coffin opens slowly, however. A gaunt, fanged body arises from inside it. This creature appears almost human but not quite. How does it react? I decide to roll 3d6 and take the lowest two for the reaction, because I don’t think it’s likely to be friendly. That’s an 8, which is Hesitation / Confusion”, about as good as it was likely going to get.

When it speaks, the explorers hear the voice in their head speaking incomprehensible whispers. Everyone must make an Insight roll. Melisanda and Ataulf both increase their Insight by 1 and scream for a moment, particularly as Ataulf remains pinned. The creature looks down at Ataulf questioningly. It reaches out tentatively with a claw, prodding at Ataulf.

This is of course a vampire, but it’s weakened from centuries of slumber. Unfortunately, it’s immune to non-magical damage, lightning, and mind-altering effects, so the group literally has no way to hurt it because that describes their entire set of abilities and equipment. The twitching hunger overtakes it, and it descends on Ataulf, who is pinned to the ground.

The others can only scream in horror, then turn and run. Ataulf will meet his end there, his life drained by the ancient Lilitu. Despite having turned from simple grave robbing to slaying the undead, he died trying to understand the secrets of the undead in their tombs. The others will escape, but they’ll be haunted by the memory of his death for the rest of their lives.

Rethinking some mechanics

I’m actually going to end this one here, but that’s because I want to retool a bit. Searchers of the Unknown is a wonderful approach but it has some things that need adjustment, at least for me.

I’m going to quote some mechanics from 1974 Style Rules (1974) and then talk about how I want to change them up. To be clear, most of these are the same as the original SotU, or nearly so; this isn’t a slight on my neighbor Stan Shinn at all! I just want to change things up for my own preferences.

Checks and Skills

From 1974:

Reactions to poison, mental powers, fear and other non-physical threats allow a Save roll. Roll d20 + Level/HD ≥ 10; GM may apply modifiers where appropriate. Also use a Save roll as a Check to determine the success or failure of anything other than combat (e.g. jumping across a chasm).

GM may adjust the target number for saves and skill checks depending on the difficulty.

OPTIONAL: The GM creates a list of a dozen or more specialty skills appropriate to the setting. 1st level players start with 4 skill points to spend and gain an additional 1 skill point to spend with each new level. Taking a new skill costs 1 point and gives you a rank of 1, for example Medicine 1’. To advance a skill to a higher level requires points equaling the new skill level (e.g. advancing from Medicine 2 to Medicine 3 costs 3 skill points). Skill checks are made by rolling d20 + Level/HD + skill rank ≥ 15 for success.

I haven’t used the skill system there, in part because I don’t want to add much to the character sheet, and in part because a unified d20 resolution system is so swingy. I like the x-in-6 system that some other games use, which also has the nice property of resembling the Insight, Morale, and Reaction systems.

But the Morale and Reaction system use a 2d6 roll, which has the additional nice property of a curve. The skill system in Kevin Crawford’s work such as Worlds Without Number (WWN) says this on page 9:

When a hero attempts to pull off some feat of exceptional expertise, they must make a skill check. The player rolls 2d6 and adds their relevant skill level to it and the modifier of their most pertinent attribute score. If they have no relevant skill at all, they subtract 1 from their roll.

If the total is equal or higher than the check’s difficulty the attempt is a success. If less, then either they fail, they succeed in a way that doesn’t help them, or cruel fate intervenes to spoil their effort.

Notably, his system uses the traditional six attributes from D&D, but the modifiers are almost always -1, 0, or +1. +/- 2 is extremely rare, requiring an attribute of 18 or 3. Skill levels range up to +4 but those are difficult to reach.

So I’m going to do something similar, but also simpler. Every character has a profession (per 1974). If they need to make a check of exceptional expertise” (as Crawford calls it), they’ll roll 2d6 ≥ 8. If their profession applies, they add their HD (level) to the roll. Rather than change the target number to reflect difficulty, we’ll shift the stakes. That’s something I’m already accustomed to doing from games like Into the Odd (ItO), Mothership, and Dungeon World, where rolls are about consequences not probabilities. That target number corresponds to WWNs typical check for a significant challenge to a competent professional.”

In this game, with the death of Ataulf, the remaining professions in the group are Antiquarian” (Melisanda), Ruffian” (Cethegus), and Inventor” (Bertram, who’s now promoted to full group member). They don’t come from a list; they just represent the character.

For characters to gain new abilities beyond any of this, they’ll need to find and use arcane items and potentially lore (magic). That last bit will likely involve the Insight mechanic but I’m not there yet.

Damage and Health

One of the reasons I started running this little game was because I wanted to play with TMO. Why did this thing excite me so much, I don’t know. I think it’s because it just got right to the point, didn’t try to add too much fancy verbiage, tried to be as system-neutral as possible while still maintaining some D&D-ness, and has lots and lots of tables to go with the creatures in it.

In the past, when I’ve run games like ItO, I’ve struggled a little bit with converting monsters. That is to say, I can do it, but it’s basically recreating the monster in a different system. SotU doesn’t have that problem, because it literally just uses B/X stat blocks for PCs. That’s basically what TMO provides, and so SotU requires almost no conversion. It does make some assumptions about HD and weapon dice, but if we step everything down (e.g. d8 => d6) then it’s no problem.

So, without trying to convert monsters in advance or on the fly, what do I do with the trap damage issue mentioned above? Here again are the options:

  1. Mark off HP as normal. Healing cannot occur until after combat.
  2. Mark off HP as normal. Healing requires a full dungeon turn but risks a wandering encounter.
  3. Mark down max HP until a full rest (e.g. a whole night in relative safety) can occur.
  4. Impose conditions that impair the character (e.g. grant Disadvantage) until they can be healed or otherwise attended to in the fiction.
  5. Make traps WAY more dangerous: have them kill or incapacitate the character outright.

I suspect most folks use 1 or 2, and I did 4 this time. It might still apply sometimes, but in general I want to go with 5. Dungeon builders place traps to kill or maim, not to wound. That will be the new default, but it also means that I will make traps more visible. Characters will have a chance to avoid them, and if they don’t, they’ll make a save to avoid the trap’s intent (usually death or capture). I’ll see how this feels in practice in the next expedition.

In combat or similar situations, characters who go to 0 HP will need to make a save to avoid death. No skills apply to this, just 2d6 + HD ≥ 8. If they fail, they’re dead. If they succeed and their allies can get them to safety, they’ll be at 1 HP until they can take a full turn’s rest. (See the mention of a scar system below.)

Leveling up

1974 has characters leveling up every 2-3 sessions no matter what, as long as they survive (1-3 XP/session, 5 XP to level). Leveling up basically just increases your HD (and thus your HP).

In the original SotU, XP was explicitly for defeating monsters (which did not necessarily require killing them). That’s a fine way to handle games of monster hunting! Of course, the traditional way grants XP for loot (returning GP to safety) as well as a bit for monsters.

This particular campaign, though, is a bit different. The characters go into dungeons to get loot, but it’s not about direct monetary value like coins and gems. Instead, they’re trying to find information and artifacts for their faction (the Labyrinth Dredgers). ItO has a similar goal (finding arcana), so characters advance mechanically by returning from expeditions. Most advancement happens in the fiction, though, by acquiring items, reputation, and so on. Summarizing ItO’s Experience Levels:

  • Novice (1 HD): Ready to go on an expedition
  • Professional (2 HD): Survived an expedition
  • Expert (3 HD): Survived three expeditions as a professional (4 total)
  • Veteran (4 HD): Survived five expeditions as a veteran (9 total) and have an Apprentice
  • Master (5 HD): Survived one expedition together with an Apprentice of at least Expert level
  • Beyond: Greater ambitions…

For our characters here, Cethegus and Melisanda have (almost) returned from 2 expeditions and will immediately have 2 HD; this will be Bertram’s first, so he’ll get that second HD after they get to safety.

In the future, I might even just use the Electric Bastionland scar system (especially for something like a monster hunting campaign), but I want to try this first.

Wrap-up

That’s where we leave things for now. If this sounds like I’m folding ItO back into SotU, well, you’re not wrong. SotU first came out in like 2009 and it’s fair to update it with some relatively modern innovations.

In the next session, we’ll get the surviving explorers back to safety and decide what they’ll do next, as well as think about their factions.

Up next Solo Gothic - Part 2 Solo Gothic - Part 4
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