MADICON REPORT: The Sinister Stone of Sakkara

Monday , 14, March 2016 6 Comments

I’ve run a marathon role-playing session at the local convention nearly every year this past while. It’s been a great way to not only learn to game master, but also to meet the sort of people in my area that are willing to play in the sort of continuing campaigns that I could only dream of running back in the day. If you have unplayed rpgs on your gaming shelf and it really bugs you that you never got game sessions out of them, then this is something I can really recommend trying.

Attendance can vary a lot. I had six people show up my Keep on the Borderland sessions. Due to a miscommunication about the sign-up sheets, I had eight show up to my Isle of Dread game. Three is enough to break in a new module, though, and that’s what I had this time. In addition to a couple of regulars, I had one person show up that had not really played “real” rpgs before and really wanted someone to show him the ropes. It’s people like that that are the best reason to take a stab at running a game in a convention setting. They may never play again in some cases, but they can at least make an informed choice as to whether or not they really want to get into the hobby.

The first thing I had to cover with the crew this year was what makes Adventurer Conqueror King System different from all the other D&D type games out there. Here’s the short version on that:

  • Fighters get an extra bonus to damage (both melee and missile) and get a bonus attack when they drop a combatant. A second level fighter with a decent strength score has a fair chance of killing three monsters in a single combat round. This can really speed up combat!
  • Mages do not “memorize” spells, but have a set repertoire that they can use their spell slots on as they please. This means that underused utility spells have a greater chance of coming into play because player wizards don’t have to sacrifice a combat spell in advance in order to have the offbeat spells at their disposal.
  • Attributes are 3d6-in-order. Once you’ve qualified for a class, you can raise your prime requisite by one for each two points you drop another attribute. Thus, if you roll a couple of elevens or twelves, you have a really good chance of raising a key attribute score up into the +2 or even +3 bonus range.
  • Thief skills, saving throws, proficiency checks, attack throws, and tasks like open door checks are all resolved with a d20 roll where you must get the target number or higher to succeed. So armor might increases the attack throw from 10+ to 12+ for leather or from 10+ to 16+ for plate. (Yes, it is easy to adjudicate compared to whatever the system is in my classic rule books.)
  • When you are dropped to zero or lower hit points, you are “not quite dead”. After the battle, you have a chance of dying instantly, needing immediate healing magic or else, or being mortally wounded and needing healing magic with 24 hours to survive. Characters that have a brush with death in this manner will pick up additional disadvantages ranging from bum knees to PTSD.
  • Initiative is done individually, though groups of interchangeable monsters all use the same die. Mages must declare spell casting before initiative is rolled. If they take any damage, their spell is spoiled and does not go off.

One thing I feel pretty strongly about in running classic D&D type games is I don’t like to use pre-generated characters in a convention game. In my view, character generation is integral to the experience; if you don’t get to roll attributes and pick a class in your first game, you’re really missing out. From a game mastering standpoint, if the players do terribly with my pregens, then it’s in some sense my fault that I failed to “balance” the game properly. But if the players roll up the characters themselves, they are partly responsible for whatever difficulties they get into. Inevitably the party won’t be optimized on that first pass, of course. If two or three characters get killed off early on, figuring out how best to address party composition issues when they roll up replacements is a major part of the game. This is one place where teamwork and strategy can pay dividends to cunning players.

It takes time to roll up a fresh party, but ACKS has a couple of features to expedite this, however. The Player’s Companion includes template tables that allow you to randomly select starting proficiencies according to a range of themes. This not only speeds things up, but it also provides just a smidge of additional background for the player characters that differentiates them. Players do riff on this in play from what I’ve seen, so it can really contribute to the role playing side without adding overhead. Even better, it avoids having rowdy players kick off the campaign by fighting over the rulebooks so that they can perfectly min/max their proficiency selections. (Old school D&D just isn’t that sort of game, really.) Finally, in addition to giving starting proficiencies, the tables also give suggested starting equipment as well. Some people will insist on going shopping themselves, but for people in a hurry to get started it’s a big help.

Another central feature of ACKS is its approach to dealing with “hopeless characters”. Now, my usual solution to that is to just let them die off so that they could be replaced by people with better stats and higher hit point rolls. Not everyone likes that, of course. (But seriously, who else are you going to send to spin the wheel of fortune that no one else wants to mess with?) In ACKS you can (optionally) roll up five sets of characters at once. One is your main character. Two others become your backups.(In my game, I let these be “free” starting hirelings that become player-characters in the event of someone dying or else someone dropping into the session midway through it.) The final two technically belong to the DM, but usually they just disappear into a shuffle of gaming paperwork, never to be heard from again.

Now, new players are not going to be able to wrap their heads around this approach to character generation. Compared to a lot of systems it really is simple, but with new people rolling up five quick characters is still going to be too much. I had worked through this process in advance so that everyone could see an example how it’s done. The new guy rolled up one set of attributes and got a lousy roll on his hit-points. I tried to get him to do four more sets, but it was all he could do to get through character generation even once. He liked his second set of attribute rolls and hit points well enough, so we just went with that. Another player (I think) took what the dice gave him on his first roll and then used one of my sample characters as his backup. Finally, a seasoned player actually did the official “roll up five characters at once” thing and took the time to carefully choose between a couple of characters that each had different shortcomings. All told, it took forty minutes to get the new guy through character generation while it took the old hand a little more than an hour sort out what to do with his five.

Now, in a convention environment you don’t have time to let everything develop organically. It’s too chaotic for that. My style– especially in those circumstances– is to just shift things to the fun part as quickly as possible. With classic modules, I normally have to tweak things a little, but the adventurer’s background in The Sinister Stone of Sakkara was short enough and decent enough that I could use it verbatim. There is also an optional table as well for giving the players a reason for being involved with the adventure. I wasn’t sure how that would go over exactly as I tend to run more of a hack and slash game anyway, but the players all wanted to roll on it and those background details did in fact get used during the session to color the decision making a little.

One thing I’ve suggested fairly often for people running adventures is to try to have several options presented right up front that the players can pursue without having to overthink things too much. Basically, you don’t want the players to have to work too hard to find something fun to do and you also want to have some significant choices right from the beginning. (Players can’t always articulate exactly what they want from a game, but presented with several “real” adventuring options they always know which one they want to pursue.) The Sinister Stone of Sakkara follows this design principle almost to a tee as there is sort of a bulletin board with four different adventure hooks on them that you can read off to the characters at the beginning of the session. In this case, they aren’t really separate adventure hooks so much as a quick way to introduce key NPC’s while also giving the players additional motivation for investigating the big mystery, nevertheless this material is easy to incorporate into the game and it’s in a format that players can assimilate even if they are in a chaotic convention environment playing with people they don’t know.

One minor problem is that, strictly speaking, nobody knows where the dungeon is at the start or even that there is a dungeon at all. Normally I’d just start people at the entrance and hand wave everything else, but here… I had to run an investigation sequence before we could actually get started. In our game, the players wanted to go hunt for bandits– it was one of the problems posted on the central bulletin board in town and they thought this was the thing to do. But there’s no material for tracking down bandits on the road. Rather than improvising something (or simply having nothing of interest happen) I opted to use the wilderness encounter where the bandits are taking a stolen wagon back to their hideout. The players role-played the exchange, killed a couple of them, and cast a sleep spell on the rest. Turning in captives to the local centurion got them on positive terms with the local military (some of the bandits were known deserters), but also go the players enough of a rep that three men-at-arms decided to join them on their adventures for a mere 5 gp a week.

We must have been a couple of hours into the session by now and we still hadn’t gotten to the dungeon yet. (I’m not sure how this all went over with the players, but I was getting a little antsy at this point.) What’s more, the players decided to wait a week’s game time while one of their injured fighters recuperated from a near-death experience. Heading back to the forest after that, they encountered some dwarvish traders and got directions to where the dungeon was. Okay, now we were in business!

But tackling something like this just seems to bring out the analysis paralysis on the part of the players. They got over to the entrance to the buried temple and saw some kobolds milling around there and immediately had to concoct some kind of crazy plan. They decided to camp overnight and then deal with the kobolds first thing in the morning because they hoped that the nocturnal creatures would be sleepier then. While the party camped, a group of beastmen came up on the players. The guy on watch exchanged insults with them and everyone went back to sleep.

The next morning, the hirelings approached from one direction without any weapons and were instructed to throw garlic at the kobolds. The rest of the party were going to try to sneak up behind them. A couple of kobolds were killed in the ensuing fight while two others ran inside to alert their people. The players followed and ended up facing room after room of kobolds. The first level cleric died right away. Monsters came at the party in waves large enough to be a threat but small enough to not be worth a sleep spell. The players moved quickly and didn’t spend a lot of time searching. When they rounded the corner after wiping out a dozen kobolds, they walked right into an oil trap. This hurt the two second level fighters in the front. (I’d given each player one second level character for their main PC just to speed up the opening phases of the game.)

Now, the players could have followed these kobolds into what I thought was fairly obviously the lair where the decent treasure would have been, but the players were rattled a bit after falling afoul of the trap. They were also a bit leery of getting too far from the entrance. They continued on in such a way as to make a complete circle, wiping out a small group of wandering monsters in the process. They then went to a new region of the dungeon where they fought several waves of bandits. A second level fighter player character died in the tussle and the players beheaded the bandits in the hopes of collecting a bounty with them. They went back to town where another PC spent a week recuperating from what could have been a mortal wound.

None of this was playing out quite like I’d expected. The players had taken a while to start investigating the dungeon and they had spent a lot of game time waiting around for people to heal up. It wouldn’t matter normally, I guess, but in this game there were several adventure hooks that could get stale if too much time passed. (I can make up some new ones, sure, but there’s got to be some kind of consequences for lolly gagging!) Also, monsters increase their numbers over time if their leaders are not dealt with quickly. So the players had not only failed to get to the really neat parts of the dungeon, but the two factions they’d encountered had a strong chance of getting reinforcements. That’s just not a lot for them to show for having two dead PC’s on their hands!

The players, of course, had no idea what they were missing out on. They were just playing the game. We’d been going for about four hours when they got ready for their third sortie. Heading back to the dungeon, they went back to the bandit area. The leader offered to help the PC’s wipe out the kobolds in return for a truce. The players went for this. Six bandits accompanied them to the kobold lair and insisted that the players not get sidetracked on the way there. There was a big battle and the players got a lot of kobold loot.

They left it there, though, and headed off to explore a totally different section of the dungeon. They ran into two groups of orcs and lost another player character in the battles. Fortunately, the guy could be saved with some relatively quick medical attention, so they decided to take him back to town along with all the loot they’d won. It was nearly midnight at this point, so we called the game.

So what do I think of the module? Well, there is some really neat stuff in it, but I don’t think players would normally get to it until maybe the second or third session. I estimate that it may take four or five sessions altogether to get to something decisive with the overall scenario. The fact that the dungeon is hidden at the start combined with the extremely conventional opening stage means that it will take time to “get to the bangs.”

The opening drags a little compared to Dwimmermount where the players can quickly find a map of the entire first level. That not only saves a lot tedium, it also allows the players to quickly pull out several contrasting adventuring options from the mass of unexplored rooms. On the other hand, I don’t think dropping the new player into the middle of an ongoing Dwimmermount campaign would have been the best experience for him. As an introduction to old school role playing, I think the conventional opening of “Sakkara” is probably the right move.

One thing that’s cropped up with ACKS is that there is a default setting baked into the rules and especially the oddball character classes from Player’s Companion. Elements of The Auran Empire setting have bled into my other campaign even though it’s not explicitly set there! (It’s just not worth the effort to me to police the setting when the players are picking up the core rule books and taking things as being in play.) With this adventure, though, all of those little details work to add something to the game instead of being something I occasionally have to work around. I like it on the whole, and wouldn’t mind having more adventures with this particular setting baked into the details because it’s very easy to leverage it in actual play when the players are already learning about it via their character classes and so forth.

The only other thing I can think to complain about is that it may be difficult for a party of first level players to really deal with this scenario in anything like a timely fashion. I fear that even a group of six second level characters with some extra help can still have a significant chance of a total party kill in more than one of place in the game. (Maybe I’m wrong about that.) Another problem is that the dungeon maps perhaps suffer from “it just so happens to fit on one piece of graph paper syndrome.” If I was running this again with an all first level party, I’d want them to be able to level up before they tackle the second level. I might add a couple of lairs in the wilderness area along with some additional sections to the first level of the dungeon in order to address all of this. (A secret library with intact books or lore and spell formula that the players could sell would be just what the players need. Of course, selling the ancient lore could have bad consequences in and of itself!)

One thing to pay attention to, though, is that how the module comes off depends greatly on which path the players take down to the second level. There’s not much in the way of hints or preamble with this sort of thing for the players to really make an informed choice. The game could play entirely differently depending on what kind of information the DM lets drop in ad libbed interactions with the monster factions. Likewise, the NPC’s in town are (in my opinion) far more interesting and playable than the ones I’ve seen in other games. As more information comes to light about what is going on in the dungeon areas, there is solid information included to play their reactions intelligently– and that’s a good thing.

Here are some campaign notes in case I continue the adventure, though DM’s wondering what to expect in their game may find these details useful as well. (If anything, you can use the stats here as a “real” NPC party– which I note is missing from the wandering monster tables!) Note that without finding some magic items to sell it can take several sessions to level up!

XP for monsters:

  • 33 Kobolds: 33 x 5 = 165
  • 4 Goblins: 4 x 5 = 20
  • 25 Brigands: 25 x 10 = 250
  • 10 Orcs: 10 x 10 = 100

Treasure:

  • 150 silver, 30 gold, ruby worth 250 gold, copper torc worth 25 gold, tarnished silver ring worth 10 gold, red dyed cloth worth 100 gold, 14 bone fetishes worth 448 gold, 2 agates worth 50 gold, 7 tapestries worth 140 gold,
  • 15 silver from Goblins
  • 175 silver from Brigands
  • 70 silver from Orcs

Total XP = 165 + 20 + 250 + 100 + 1068 + 1.5 + 17.5 + 7 = 535 + 1094 = 1629

The Party:

  • Xy: Second Level Mage (War Mage), 13-18-10-10-10-10, 4 Hit Points, AC 0, Neutral, Iron Shod Staff 9+ 1d6+1, Officer’s Dagger, Spells (Sleep, Charm Person, Ventriloquism, Read Languages), Battle Magic, Military Strategy, Tracking, Intimidation, XP 2500 + 271.5 x 1.1 = 2798 (Need 2202), Gold 182.
  • Borg: First Level Fighter (Mercenary), 18-10-8-10-9-6, 4 Hit Points, AC 5, Lawful, Well Oiled Sword 7+ 1d6+4, Crossbow 10+ 1d6+1, Combat Reflexes, Manual At Arms, Damaged Knee (capacity reduced by 6 stone), XP 271.5 x 1.1 = 298 (Need 1702), Gold 182.
  • Kud: First Level Dwarven Fury (Belligerent), 13-8-9-10-9-9, 5 Hit Points, AC 3, Neutral, Battle Axe9+ 1d6+2, 3 Hand Axes 10+ 1d6+1, Damage Reduction 1, Fighting Fury, Savage Resilience, Weapon Focus (Axes), Endurance, Damaged Knee (capacity reduced by 6 stone.) XP 271, Gold 19.5 + 182 = 201.5.
  • Firecheeks: Second level Fighter, 14-11-9-9-14-8, 16 Hit Points, AC 5, Sword 8+ 1d6+2, Spear, Two-handed morning star, Dungeon Bashing, Intimidation, XP 2000 + 271 = 2271 (Need 1729), Gold 27 + 182 = 209.
  • Mutt and Jeff, the men-at-arms. XP 135 (Need 1865), Gold 182 each. (One of Mutt’s hands is severed or crushed– he cannot dual wield or use two-handed weapons.)

Rest in Peace:

  • Krug the first level Cleric, killed by a kobold in the buried temple.
  • Quintus the second level Fighter, killed by a brigand in the buried temple.
  • Bob the man-at-arms, killed by an orc in the buried temple.

Note: I interviewed Alexander Macris about this module in April of 2015.

6 Comments
  • cirsova says:

    “Mages must declare spell casting before initiative is rolled. If they take any damage, their spell is spoiled and does not go off.”

    Y’know, technically this is the way that D&D is supposed to be work, too; this is just one of those spots where houserules became tradition or something.

    “The caster must inform the DM
    that a spell is being cast and which spell will be cast before the
    initiative dice are rolled. If the caster loses the initiative and takes
    damage or fails a saving throw, the spell is interrupted and lost.” X11, Cook.

    • Jeffro says:

      We learned from Moldvay Basic. By the time we got around to picking up Expert, we didn’t know that there could be a bombshell that big in the section on spells. So yeah, a lot of people could play B/X for years without knowing that rule.

  • CHRIS MATA says:

    Great write up. I still need to get ACKS

    • Jeffro says:

      My personal favorite iteration of the OD&D, B/X, and AD&D rules. Just about the only “new” D&D that can convince me to set aside a vintage ruleset on anything like a regular basis.

  • Aurumvorax says:

    I just realized what the portraits of young people on the new ACKS books mean: they signify the transition to a new generation of players. I’m older than you but that means I grew up playing AD&D, so I find myself in the same position as those younger gamers whose roleplaying aspirations you, and unfortunately Alexander Macris, have difficulty apprehending. It serves little to spend half an hour going through a complex initial process of multiple dice rolls to have a promising character die, less to end up instead having to play an unenjoyable character for several hours, and nothing to roll one Hit Point when you think you’re ready to start. You complain (in your Death & Taxes opener on WordPress) that the mass of gamers are drawn to the glamer of packaging and detail, but I think all we are looking for is something that means something to us. People play games to relax, and especially roleplaying games to go on a journey of discovery. Often they don’t know what they want, as you point out, and what they seek may reflect personal goals or struggles. But being forced to embody an archetype of failure serves no end, and having to pay five gold pieces each for a limited supply of Molotov cocktails which still have a five percent chance of setting you on fire signifies a ridiculous extreme of simulationism. Please convey my regrets to your wife and kids that I never remember their names when I see them. I hope you will post about your new experiences in the Puget Sound area, as long as it doesn’t mean starting a third blog!

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