Skogenby Ooze: Save or Die?

We just finished our first session of Skogenby. Play report below, but first my question:

How can a beginning party have a Trapped conflict with a Creeping Ooze without losing at least one party member and probably several? Or is that the idea? Certainly, that’s what happens in every Actual Play I have read or seen. But that seems more like OD&D / DCC than Torchbearer to me: Everywhere else in the rules, it feels like players have some choice about dying, or at least warning; here it’s just “fail a random survivalist test, get killed”.

First session report:

During character creation, my players loved the Nature questions and grumbled about the harshness and rigidity of the inventory system (“can I stick a candle to my helmet with melted wax?”). I told them that there were certain abstractions, including inventory and the Grind, that were fundamental to the game mechanics, asked them to embrace these, and assured them that there was plenty of room for Good Ideas elsewhere. They agreed.

Because my group is into people, we spent most of the session in the village. Half the group tried to find out if the villagers who died of fright had all touched the arm ring (because they didn’t want to take it if it was dangerous… which it is, but not that way!). The other half shook down the villagers for every cent they could squeeze, including a rousing Orator test opposed by Hakemunn Grimm from “Evolving the Dread Crypt: Bringing Skogenby to (un)life”.

They checked out the dolmen and its inscriptions, then chipped off a piece in case it was valuable (an ancient, cold-radiating rock whose minerals were foreign to the dwarf is bound to be worth something to someone!). Inside, the Thief took one look at the Vault of Skulls and said “I’m sneaking ahead, shielding my candle with my hands, to make sure we aren’t ambushed by any skeletons”. Success on opposed Scout, so I let him take an action against the first Tomb Guardian while it was still trying to rouse its bones from the bier. He make up some lore about being able to deanimate them if you can pull out their top vertebra. That’s more Dungeon World than Torchbearer, but I wanted the Scout success to be worth something and also to be encouraging for the first session, so I let him make a Criminal test to finesse the vertebra out. He failed. This group is new to failing forward, so I decided to demonstrate it: The vertebra was held by some elastic magical force. He struggled to get his hand out of the thing’s ribcage, unable to let go of the vertebra, forced to stare into its firey eyesockets. Finally, he panicked (Afraid), which gave him the strength to rip the vertebra out and run back down the hall.

The Grind hit. The priest Invoked the Fury, driving off another Guardian. At this point is was late, and there were only two Guardians left, and we had already learned a lot of new rules, so instead of a Conflict, they finshed them off with an opposed fighter test led by the Warrior, helped by the Dwarf. Failed! Again, let them have it, but the Warrior was Injured and the Dwarf Exhausted.

It all ran more fluidly than I had expected. I am obviously incapable of playing RAW, but I tried my best. More Twists next time.

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Hello and welcome!

The ooze is no joke and can be deadly, but it is a suggested twist and the party can avoid it in a number of ways. Ambushes and special abilities limit the conflicts the party can engage in, but they are rare.

By design, some encounters in the dungeon are just too much to handle and failure leads to compromise. If the players embrace this, they will think twice before just walking right into a trap or waltz into an ambush or start drinking water from a scary crypt.

Sounds like you had a great session.

I wouldn’t say you are incapable of playing by the rules. Everyone had a good first session and is starting to grasp the game.

The game rewards creativity and risk, and Afraid is an appropriate consequence for that bold move to grab the bone.

A lot of new players don’t like the idea of going back to town during the middle of the adventure, but it is there for a reason, and it is better to head back to lick your wounds than die unceremoniously in a dark crypt.

Please let us know how the next session goes.

Grind on!

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The answer is yes, by the way. It’s still a candle, and so it is snuffable at GM’s discretion. Also, it’s twist fodder for sure.

The number one thing to highlight when players grumble about inventory is Skill Tools. They’re carrying 40 pounds of gear that enables them to use their skills. Inventory slots are remaining space. This tends to placate most people, I’ve found.

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Thanks for your answer!

I (and they) are on board with not everything being a level-appropriate encounter, and I agree that drinking the water might be foolish enough to warrant a Gygaxian Gotcha, but the Twist is suggested in response to trying to check if the water is safe! That feels more like punishing people for searching for traps than like punishing them for blundering into them, which crosses a boundary for me.

They are definitely going back to town – no foolishly bold heroes in this party! This leads to some more rules improv on my part: Jora’s parents have offered to lodge and feed the PCs for free, because it was really hard to justify not doing so, but this destroys the resource economy that drives all of Torchbearer. I plan to solve this in the fiction by having the next nightly village death be Jora’s mother, so her dad has a reason not to welcome the PCs back until they get results. I figure one free recovery roll and some fresh rations per PC won’t throw things out of whack.

Sweet! That was actually my first thought – “sure you can, but wait until you see the consequences”, but I didn’t want to drift the rules more than necessary in the first session. Thanks for the reassurance.

That’s a common refrain. I hear ya. I’ve had players go ballistic, shouting that the ooze “breaks the rules.”

But I’d say the Ooze is one of the most quintessentially Torchbearer monsters because it is only deadly at the end of a series of failures. As you know, it’s not like every time you go to find water an ooze pops out. The ooze twist makes sense because the GM decided to place it there, and the GM can sell it through foreshadowing and details in the room description so that it doesn’t seem like a gotcha’.

In additional to the failed test, the players must also have ignored clues leading up to it that something would be amiss:

  • The crypt is cursed
  • The environment is blighted
  • There is nothing else in the room
  • There is water dripping from the faucet
  • They spent time hanging around it

As with any adventure though, GMs will edit to the tastes of the table. I’ve run Skogenby without ever pulling the ooze out. It’s plenty deadly without it.

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I’ll give it a try. Actually, the players’ dice are hot so far, so they will probably never get the ooze! In fact, in the second session, I think I wasn’t pushing them hard enough, because they decided to make their own problems:

Second session report
The party sensibly realized that they could just return to town and rest. As per town rules, they used their two checks to recover Injured (success) and Afraid (failed) before arriving. Once there, they only stayed for lunch: I ruled that Jora’s parents would provide them with free fresh rations (I have ways to restrict this if they abuse it) before returning to the Crypt.

After much checking of light supplies (Warrior: Lantern. Thief: Candle) and mutually agreeing that light would not be a problem (hilarious in retrospect, read on), they entered and noted that the Tomb Guardian that had fled had not returned. The dwarf was suspicious that the other guardians might reanimate from their loose bones, so they put the leftover femurs and humeruses in a sack and stomped them to powder (Good Idea). They looked for tracks of Jora or the fleeing Tomb Guardian, but I ruled that the fight had obscured them here.

They agreed to proceed down the hall. First, the Thief wedged some ribcages and loose bones above the arch to the Chamber of Ablutions, so that if someone tried to get behind them from that direction, the bones would clatter to the ground and alert the party (successful Sapper Ob 2, Tripwire Alarm, Turn 1). The Dwarf tried to help with Trapwise, but the Thief used Loner against himself to, appropriately, negate the helping die.

The Thief scouted ahead and discovered the end of the passage and the second arch. There is a niche there on the map, so I described an empty chair in it. The Foolhardy Warrior immediately sat in it. The Priest examined it and realized (successful Theologian Ob2, winging it, Turn 2) that it was dedicated to the Faceless Lord, for whom people in earlier days left an empty chair at funerals and on the grimmer holy days. Everyone, especially the Afraid Thief and Warrior’s player, was creeped out. Fortuitously, this was also two turns after Haathor-Vash was alerted to their presence (by the fleeing Tomb Guardian last session, so maybe not fair?). I rolled in secret to see whether she would try to possess the Thief (arm ring) or Warrior (torc) and got the latter, which is great, because now everyone will blame it on the chair.

I decided to keep the Health test (failed vs., Turn 3) and subsequent possession secret from everyone but the Warrior, although the module implies it is obvious, because I thought it would be more interesting for the Warrior’s player to run her evil self than to have me take over, and create creepier situations for the other players. I told her that she:

  1. wanted her treasure and revenge on the interlopers,
  2. but was also curious after eons of boredom.
  3. Could see in the dark.
  4. Always knew where her treasure was.

That was the third turn, so the lantern went out. Since they were already nervous because of the Evil Chair, everybody panicked like a bunch of five year olds. The Thief, roleplaying his Afraid, dropped his candle, leaving them in total darkness. I love my players!

The Warrior relit the lantern with an instinct helped by the Dwarf’s Delving Nature (successful Ob 2 survivalist, “starting a fire in bad conditions” + 1 for darkness - 1 for tinderbox). The Priest then lit a candle, since no one trusted the Thief with the light anymore.

They entered the Chamber of Vigils. Everyone tried to figure out what the ash in the copper bowl was by stirring it or, in the Dwarf’s case, tasting it (he constantly tasted anything made of metal or stone to determine what kind). I described some charred wood in the bottom. The Priest annoyed all the other, less patient characters (not players) by ascertaining the room’s purpose (successful Ob 4 Theologian, Turn 4). The Grind hit and they were H&T. Everyone except the Dwarf ate.

They followed the tracks of the fleeing Tomb Guardian in the floor ash (Good Idea) to the Altar of Ascension. They theorized about the purpose of the amphorae and goblets (I described the former as clay and the latter as tarnished silver or coppery metal, some jewel-encrusted; actually tin or brass with fake gems). The possessed Warrior tried to get the party interested in opening the sarcophagus, but first, despite cries of “you’re wasting our light” from Thief and Dwarf, the Priest decided to try to understand the symbols and then copy them. I had her make both tests and combined the consequences (failed Ob4 Lore Master with Beginner’s Luck, Twist, Turn 5. Failed Ob1 Scholar, Condition. Turn 6): At first, she couldn’t understand anything. She started to copy, until the symbols flowed from her half-finished transcription into her skin (Twist). Suddenly, she understood everything (Unhinged = Sick)… and the lantern went out again.

Panic!
Dwarf: “The Priest is clearly possessed. I beat her unconscious.”
Priest: “What? Wait, don’t!”
Thief: “I grab the Priest’s candle!”
Warrior: “No, I grab the candle!”
DM: “You fight over the candle. It goes out. The last thing you see, before the darkness smashes into you like a fist, is the Dwarf raising his hand against the Priest. You hear thuds and whimpers.” (Dwarf’s successful Warrior vs. Priest’s Health Beginner’s Luck; having forgotten the PvP rules, I offered the Priest a choice between Angry or Afraid and she chose Angry for RP reasons. In retrospect, I think she should have been knocked out, plus a Twist. Turn 7).

Dwarf: “If she’s still awake, I’m out of here.” He grabbed a random goblet and left the Crypt by retracing his steps (successful Ob 4 (detecting direction + darkness) Dungeoneer + Delving Nature. Turn 8). The Grind hit, so everyone was H&T… except the Dwarf, who was already H&T and Exhausted! He got Angry from bumping his head against the walls while stumbling through the darkness.

Thief: “Warrior, use your Instinct! Light the lantern! Light it! Quick!”
Possessed Warrior: “Oops, I dropped it and it broke!”
Thief: “WTF? Ok, take this candle and light that!”
Possessed Warrior: “I grab your arm and pull the ring off it.”
Thief: “…I… pickpocket the Torc off your neck while you’re distracted and stick it in my pouch.” (successful Criminal vs. Beginner’s Luck Health. Twist as per PvP rules: Tomb Guardians will arrive soon. Turn 9). They swap jewelry.
Possessed Warrior: “I grab your pouch.”
Thief: “It’s dark, and I made my roll. How do you know I have it, let alone that it is in my pouch?”
DM: “That is suspicious, isn’t it?” /waggles eyebrows suggestively, ends session.

As noted, I love my players! They will roleplay to the death. However, the fact that they were so eager to do dangerous things makes me worry that they didn’t feel threatened enough by the environment. But they kept hitting their rolls, so what could I do? Things will no doubt get worse next time.

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This is such a great and simple piece of lore to add in the world-building. It fits so seamlessly into the staging of that room too.

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Very cool. Lots of little ingenious touches here and there by the whole group.

You might have inadvertently given the players a pressure relief valve. Typically, the party cannot “fast travel” to town without making a map first, and making such a large map is a challenging test for a 1st level Cartographer. Maybe town phase and camp phase got mixed up a little??? Town has Lifestyle cost and camp uses checks. Going to town sucks because it is expensive, dirty, filthy, and perhaps plague-ridden. Town is full of wary villagers, pickpockets in the streets, and a town watch ready to rough you up if you don’t pay your bills. Not sure if that was the case.

But from the sound of it everyone had a blast.

Thanks! They are a great group.

I think I read somewhere that dungeon difficulty depends on the number of tests required to reach town, with zero being a valid option. Since the module states that the rock was rolled away from the entrance by village youth clearing a field, a test seemed inappropriate.

I’m aware, and thanks for the reminder, but for both pacing and suspension of disbelief reasons, I didn’t do a proper town phase. All they got was free food (and avoided a Camp Events Check by using the At The Gates rules for spending checks) – no market, no recovery rolls, no fresh condition, etc.

Next time, I will do a full town phase, but with simplifications:

  1. No Watch, because the town has no guild or wall.
  2. No Town Events because the serial murders are enough.
  3. No adventure hooks because I’m railroading them to House of the Three Squires next anyway.
  4. In the first Town Phase (only), Jora’s parents, who live in a Flophouse-equivalent, are treated as the PCs parents, i.e. no lifestyle cost for lodging. That night, the “death by terror” victim will be Jora’s dad. Her mom’s attitude towards the party will change from “my saviours” to “you made things worse! Don’t show your faces here again without my daughter”.
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Thanks! (is it ok to just post “Thanks”, or am I spamming?)

We’re glad you shared, and please post more!

If you haven’t already, you might check out the Middarmark book’s sections on Hospitality and using a Steading as a Town. Sounds like what you are already doing in a way.

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That sounds great. I don’t have the book, but Christmas is coming… I’ll have to figure out how to get just the PDF, though, or shipping will be much more than the actual book.

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Do yourself a favor and get the printed book. Plus, it is on sale so you can get the Print version (softcover) + PDF for $10. Tell Santa you’ve been a good GM.