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Old 03-26-2018, 12:39 PM   #1
Myrion
 
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Default [Spoilers] Experience running ISAR and some concerns

So I finally got around to running the introductory adventure, I Smell A Rat.

The players I got to run it for were newbies, this was their first introduction to Pen and Paper RPGs. (In fact, running this was a birthday present to one of them.)

The party consisted of a Swashbuckler, a Barbarian, a Bard and a Thief. Not optimal, but I thought that giving the Bard access to healing and everyone 2 healing potions would be enough to get them through at least the first part, at which point they'd be able to stock up again. The healing spells helped, but they still struggled heavily, which surprised me a lot.

They started out well enough, dealing with the spiders quite competently. The Swashbuckler got hit badly by the very first attack, but as it only happened once, and he began defending more successfully afterwards, it wasn't a huge threat. The party (apart from the Barbarian) did already have some trouble getting any damage through the DR, which in hindsight should've been a first red flag.
The Bard put Song of Echoes to great use as they cleared the cellar, which helped them find the Smuggler's Den (it pointed out a suspicious area of the wall that was different, which the Thief then turned into looking for a secret door). They looted that carefully, which was a cool scene, though I realized that the description of the den is a bit lacking.

In the sewers, they quickly found Merle's door, again using the Song of Echoes. Constructing an improvised bridge from the junk pile, they cross the sewage safely - except for the Swashbuckler, who jumped across!

That's when they hit the first big snag, though. They simply didn't have any way of dealing with the Rune-Limned gallery. The Swashbuckler was too Overconfident to play it safe, and obviously got hit again. The Barbarian made his save, and the Bard and the Thief looked at each other and tried to figure out any way to break the spell.
After several attempts, I allow the Bard to sing a Song to dispel the enchantment, at heavy penalty, but a Crit gets them safely past.

Then they run into the Peshkali - which would've just shredded them if I'd used its full potential. They didn't have close to enough skill or numbers to make it use up its parries, DR protected it from most of their attacks, making it hard for even the barbarian to deal the 10 damage in one go that are necessary to cripple an arm. Which they didn't know and couldn't figure out, as again, no one had the appropriate skills (also kinda my bad, I thought the bard knew this kind of stuff, too). So I told them to go for the arms, because they were about to give up on that, as they needed to deal 20 injury before they could even begin to deal with the arms.
Even with Deceptive Attacks (which only the Swashbuckler could reliably do), they barely hit.
With me cheating and not using the Peshkali's full potential, they eventually pull through.

That was the end of Session 1. While they told me it was a fun, challenging fight, it felt super stressful forme, as I had to cheat quite a lot.

Before Session 2, I make sure to read up on all the other monsters' abilities, so I wouldn't have to do that again or at least have a better plan for it.
I convince them to hire some support and they go and get themselves an initiate and an apprentice, so they have someone who can exorcise the altar and heal more, if necessary, as well as someone for magical threats (and the toxifier, though I didn't tell them that. They also stock up some Alchemist's Fire and Liquid ice.

They'd discovered the false wall previously, and now went through it to deal with the zombies, which worked very well, although their lack of vitals made them tricky to deal with for anyone who didn't have the Barbarian's raw damage. I kept the number of Zombies low, and that was a good decision.

Instead of exploring, they end up going straight to Merle, encountering and avoiding a fight with rock mites on the way.

I may have misread Merle, but he ended up not giving them much trouble at all, as the bard uses Daze on him as much as he can and Merle resisting horribly. But at least this way the Bard was useful - unlike the Thief. The thief just doesn't deal enough damage to get through DR, even from behind (not having invested in Expert Backstabbing).
The Swashbuckler doesn't roll great on damage, again leaving the big part of the work to the Barbarian.

It felt like the adventure shut down many of the combat options that characters other than the Barbarian need to be effective. No Vitals, no Knockdown, DR etc make it very hard for most chars to even deal damage. The challenges that flat-out require a Wizard and/or Cleric were also somewhat surprising. I get niche protection, but that no-one can cover in a pinch was a bit frustrating.

Of course, the players didn't bring a lot of system mastery, but I feel like that shouldn't be required for Dungeon Fantasy, yet it really feels like a balanced party and a good deal of system mastery are a hard requirement.
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Old 03-26-2018, 04:04 PM   #2
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Default Re: [Spoilers] Experience running ISAR and some concerns

Although I can see how that bunch would have trouble overall, there are some things that confuse me:

the barbarian should have ST 17+ and weapon-16+. The Peshkali only has DR 4, the Barbarian does 3d+1 cu with a hand axe - sure, only 1 in 5 attacks gets through, but he should be pulverizing that peshkali on each hit. And once Pehskali start losing arms, they become much easier to deal with.

the Swashbuckler should have ST 11 and Striking ST +2 (or some other combo that gets him to swing 2d-1) - but I see that's something you have to know in DFRPG, it's not pointed out in the build advice.

Peshkalis are tough and nasty, but they don't have Peripheral Vision. Why weren't they surrounding it to get some free hits in?
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Old 03-26-2018, 05:12 PM   #3
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Default Re: [Spoilers] Experience running ISAR and some concerns

I would say that the problems you describe have more to do with the PCs than with the adventure, though there's a reasonable argument for calling that also a problem with the game. For example, consider choices for a swashbuckler:
  1. A swashbuckler who puts nothing into ST and uses a rapier does 1d+2 Imp. His weapon costs $500 (1p cash). Average wounding per hit on a giant spider is 7, and max damage cannot disable a peshkali's arms.
  2. A swashbuckler who puts 10 points into Striking ST 2 and uses an edged rapier does 1d+3 Imp or 2d+3 Cut. His weapon costs $1,000 (2p cash). Average wounding per hit on a giant spider is 12, needs to roll 9+ on 2d to disable a peshkali's arms.
The second character is vastly better, and without some system mastery at GURPS it's not obvious that it would be true.
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Originally Posted by Myrion View Post
That's when they hit the first big snag, though. They simply didn't have any way of dealing with the Rune-Limned gallery.
As far as I can tell, the default way through that trap is to just soak the damage, though some parties will have appropriate defensive spells.
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I may have misread Merle, but he ended up not giving them much trouble at all, as the bard uses Daze on him as much as he can and Merle resisting horribly.
You probably forgot his magic resistance 6 -- it's not likely that a bard has the skill of 24 needed to reliably affect him (skill 24 is reduced to 18 for MR, his HT of 12 is increased to 18 by MR).
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Old 03-26-2018, 05:15 PM   #4
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Default Re: [Spoilers] Experience running ISAR and some concerns

Thanks for your post. It was interesting to read given that no one was a GURPS expert, while at the same time, this was an introduction to table-top RPGs.

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Originally Posted by Myrion View Post
The players I got to run it for were newbies, this was their first introduction to Pen and Paper RPGs.

The party consisted of a Swashbuckler, a Barbarian, a Bard and a Thief. Not optimal, but I thought that giving the Bard access to healing . . .

Of course, the players didn't bring a lot of system mastery, but I feel like that shouldn't be required for Dungeon Fantasy, yet it really feels like a balanced party and a good deal of system mastery are a hard requirement.
I'm not saying ISaR is good or bad in my opinion, but making a balanced party a requirement for a dungeon is a good indication that it has a wide variety of challenges—not just hack-and-slash—and I consider that a good thing.

At the same time, calling a party made of a Bard, Barbarian, Swashbuckler and Thief "not optimal" is putting it pretty mildly. You let the difficulty knob get set to hard mode with that selection, and if you had much experience at all with the Dungeon Fantasy line, you would have known that. You could be the best dungeon crawl GM ever, but that party is going to have one hell of a rough time in any dungeon, not just one that "requires" a Wizard and a Cleric, for example.

The Bard is basically a master of the "Town" mini-game (Exploits, pp. 13-17). If that template isn't in the hands of a veteran GURPS player, it's probably not going to go real well. I would have advised a brand new player against taking that template for a birthday one-shot introducing people to table-top RPG's!

I don't have anything nice to say about the Thief template. I would have so much rather the Rogue from Dungeon Fantasy Denizens: Swashbucklers, been the "default." As it is, especially when compared to the Scout (a great template!), the Thief is lackluster. Here, I would have recommended the Scout, who is awesome at all thief things except picking locks, but is also a great combatant—ranged, even!

The Swashbuckler is a great template, as is the Barbarian.

So, basically, you had two fighters and two tagalongs who could be useful in certain circumstances. Your two fighters, since they were made by total newbies, weren't highly optimized, I'd wager.

As for the peshkali, according to Dungeon, page 3, "Fixed numbers assume six adventurers; scale these to group size and round up (minimum one monster)." Instead of six, you're basically working with two, neither of whom are munchkin'ed out. So, no surprise that it wasn't a fair fight. Perhaps ISaR should have an alternate there for sub-optimal parties.

As for the rune-etched hall, I looked it over and if you had a problem with "taxing" your PC's with a HT-resisted damage roll, then you could have simply made a quick adjustment (Will instead of HT? less damage?) on the spot, or even taken it out. That was a pretty easy fix there.

I not saying I disagree with the premise of your thread, though. I'm not arguing against your main point. An introductory adventure included with a boxed set needs to be spot-on. It needs to be Keep on the Borderlands. That's a high standard, and ISaR may not have met it.

I've never ran or played ISaR so I'm not going to comment on it, but I think it's probably asking too much for a generic adventure to prove a well-balanced challenge for that group of PC's, played by that group of players, under those circumstances. :-)
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Old 03-26-2018, 05:22 PM   #5
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Default Re: [Spoilers] Experience running ISAR and some concerns

Speaking only about Merle: He's actually intended to be an ironic non-boss. Defeating him is a simple matter of one-shotting him with a reasonably high-damage Deceptive Attack. He's basically a way to get a bonus reward. There are more dangerous monsters in the dungeon, guarding better loot. This is in the tradition of the genre, where "the nasty thing in that random room" proves to be a bigger challenge than the main quest . . .
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Old 03-26-2018, 05:29 PM   #6
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Default Re: [Spoilers] Experience running ISAR and some concerns

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Speaking only about Merle: He's actually intended to be an ironic non-boss. Defeating him is a simple matter of one-shotting him with a reasonably high-damage Deceptive Attack.
That seems like a poor design for an introductory adventure (yes, there's room for irony, but you should usually introduce the tropes before breaking them). However, it's kind of hard to one-shot a guy with DR 5, Unkillable, and a HT of 18 for consciousness checks.
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Old 03-26-2018, 05:42 PM   #7
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That seems like a poor design for an introductory adventure (yes, there's room for irony, but you should usually introduce the tropes before breaking them). However, it's kind of hard to one-shot a guy with DR 5, Unkillable, and a HT of 18 for consciousness checks.
Yes, sorry . . . maybe a few good shots. But skull hits are skull hits, even on Merle. To get him to -10×HP with his measly 9 HP takes 99 HP in total, which is just 25 HP in total skull damage. That would take a single hit of 32 points with skull DR, or two of c. 20 points, or three of c. 16 points, which I hope is in range of any party with a barbarian.
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Old 03-26-2018, 09:16 PM   #8
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That seems like a poor design for an introductory adventure (yes, there's room for irony, but you should usually introduce the tropes before breaking them).
I've said before, I think ISAR is a terrible introductory adventure for GURPS newbies... but, I've refined my thoughts some and it's an excellent introductory adventure into OSR gaming.

The person that hires the Party is lying to them? Check.
'Unfair' first combat? Check.
Secret room that's hard to find and only exists to hand out loot and clues as to the 'dungeon's backstory'? Check.
Half the dungeon gated off behind a single easily failed skill roll? Check.
Heinous monsters in random rooms for no discernible reason? Check.
Wandering Damage Chart? Check.
Tunnels that lead off away from the adventure and serve only to confuse easily distracted PCs (and which will be retconned in the next adventure anyway)? Check.
End Boss that's weaker than a 'random monster'? Check(ish).
A "if you go here you're probably dead" portal? Check.


See? Perfect example of OSR gaming.

It even kinda follows that terrible "5 Room Dungeon" nonsense (thought I suspect this has more to do with adventure brevity than Kromm actually trying to adhere to the 5 Room format).

Last edited by evileeyore; 03-26-2018 at 09:20 PM.
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Old 03-27-2018, 12:55 AM   #9
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Default Re: [Spoilers] Experience running ISAR and some concerns

So let's see if I can properly respond to everyone's thoughtful replies. Thank you all, at any rate!
Quote:
Originally Posted by mlangsdorf View Post
Peshkalis are tough and nasty, but they don't have Peripheral Vision. Why weren't they surrounding it to get some free hits in?
Well, who with? The only one who could reliably damage it was the barbarian. Sure, the thief snuck up behind it, but they had serious trouble getting through DR - and then the peshkali turns around and knocks them out in one attack.

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Originally Posted by Anthony View Post
The second character is vastly better, and without some system mastery at GURPS it's not obvious that it would be true.
Yes, and for some reason the swashbuckler liked to thrust, anyway. My mastery of GURPS has waned after a bit more than half a year of not playing and I never ran DF or anything similar, so I didn't see it either...

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You probably forgot his magic resistance 6 -- it's not likely that a bard has the skill of 24 needed to reliably affect him (skill 24 is reduced to 18 for MR, his HT of 12 is increased to 18 by MR).
Yuuup, that'd be it. Kinda glad I missed that, ultimately.

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Originally Posted by Stripe View Post
I'm not saying ISaR is good or bad in my opinion, but making a balanced party a requirement for a dungeon is a good indication that it has a wide variety of challenges—not just hack-and-slash—and I consider that a good thing.

At the same time, calling a party made of a Bard, Barbarian, Swashbuckler and Thief "not optimal" is putting it pretty mildly. You let the difficulty knob get set to hard mode with that selection, and if you had much experience at all with the Dungeon Fantasy line, you would have known that. You could be the best dungeon crawl GM ever, but that party is going to have one hell of a rough time in any dungeon, not just one that "requires" a Wizard and a Cleric, for example.
Yeah, I thought that my general knowledge of GURPS would be enough, but I'd never run DF before. That certainly didn't help.
While I generally agree that it's good to, hm.. "soft"-require a balanced party, where things are easier with the appropriate team, "hard"-requiring it, where you simply die if you don't, is not as fun.

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The Bard is basically a master of the "Town" mini-game (Exploits, pp. 13-17). If that template isn't in the hands of a veteran GURPS player, it's probably not going to go real well. I would have advised a brand new player against taking that template for a birthday one-shot introducing people to table-top RPG's!

I don't have anything nice to say about the Thief template. [...]
See, I did advise against it, but I didn't want to force them into roles they didn't pick. I figured that the thief would be useful with the locks, and the bard would at least be able to fight. I thought that one of the genre conventions that the DFRPG would uphold was that everyone's a fighter.

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As for the peshkali, according to Dungeon, page 3, "Fixed numbers assume six adventurers; scale these to group size and round up (minimum one monster)." Instead of six, you're basically working with two, neither of whom are munchkin'ed out. So, no surprise that it wasn't a fair fight. Perhaps ISaR should have an alternate there for sub-optimal parties.
Yeah, I probably should've reduced the number of arms or extra attacks.

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I've never ran or played ISaR so I'm not going to comment on it, but I think it's probably asking too much for a generic adventure to prove a well-balanced challenge for that group of PC's, played by that group of players, under those circumstances. :-)
Probably - but they felt entirely non-viable, and for all that they were newbs and non-munchkins the party didn't look like they should've been so out-matched.
Oh well, I learned something for the next group I'll run through ISaR.


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But skull hits are skull hits, even on Merle. To get him to -10×HP with his measly 9 HP takes 99 HP in total, which is just 25 HP in total skull damage. That would take a single hit of 32 points with skull DR, or two of c. 20 points, or three of c. 16 points, which I hope is in range of any party with a barbarian.
Yeah, but skull is at -7 to hit, and the barbarian only at skill 16, iirc - he wasn't gonna try that out without AoA and given that he was the main target of Merle, that was an uncomfortable risk. Plus, DR7 at the skull is not nothing either.
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Old 03-27-2018, 01:16 AM   #10
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Default Re: [Spoilers] Experience running ISAR and some concerns

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Originally Posted by evileeyore View Post
I've said before, I think ISAR is a terrible introductory adventure for GURPS newbies... but, I've refined my thoughts some and it's an excellent introductory adventure into OSR gaming.

The person that hires the Party is lying to them? Check.
'Unfair' first combat? Check.
Secret room that's hard to find and only exists to hand out loot and clues as to the 'dungeon's backstory'? Check.
Half the dungeon gated off behind a single easily failed skill roll? Check.
Heinous monsters in random rooms for no discernible reason? Check.
Wandering Damage Chart? Check.
Tunnels that lead off away from the adventure and serve only to confuse easily distracted PCs (and which will be retconned in the next adventure anyway)? Check.
End Boss that's weaker than a 'random monster'? Check(ish).
A "if you go here you're probably dead" portal? Check.
Oh and I noticed these things too and... was less than impressed.
They never thought to ask Lee for more info about Merle, because they asked about Merle's death before going in the dungeon, and believed her about "it's been too recently" and then checked with her after finding the passage to the sewers, which she genuinely didn't know about.
Not that she had much to tell besides "Merle's a wizard" and possibly that she had a kinda bad feeling / vision about his death.

I also agree that one needs to introduce the trope before breaking it. The bait-and-switch with the spiders and rats is fine because it's obvious irony, but the rest... Mh, not so happy.

I made sure they didn't get lost in the sewers (which got rid of all those wandering monsters, and good thing too) by letting the Song of Echoes lead them into the right direction almost instantly. In the tunnel to Merle they met some rock mites, because again, any of the other fights would've been terrible.

I'm glad they didn't explore the cells.
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