We had our first player character death in Tunnels & Trolls last night.
This was the fourth session of playing T&T, though the campaign began using the minimalist Tunnel Goons rules. We switched over to T&T after 7 sessions due to my feeling that TG required too much additional design work to make it “go” on a long term basis: it wasn’t giving me enough levers to pull on, and as I added more of my own I realized since I was on the way to rewriting TG so it was more like T&T, we might as well just play T&T (fifth edition, with some house rules).
The dead character was Rigo, the first (and, thus far only) player character native to the T&T portion of the game (the others were converted over from TG), played by Carlos who joined us in our 8th session overall and our first session playing T&T. Rigo was the group’s only wizard and this is Carlos’ first RPG experience, so there were a number of reasons this was actually shocking/emotionally rocky in the moment.
The circumstances of his death: the party was making a second attempt on raiding the stronghold of a Necromancer who was up to no good (specifically: trying to capture trolls and vivisect them to use their regenerating parts as the material for creating ever more hideous half-dead servants). During the first delve, the party had managed to avoid much in the way of combat and had found a Protection from Undead scroll on the dungeon’s second level. Rather than push onwards, they decided to head back to town so that Rigo could learn the spell and add it to his repertoire (rather than simply having it be a one use scroll) and then teach it to Rufus (a rogue): the party (rightly) felt this was a good strategic play, giving them a potential leg up on dealing with the Necromancer’s skeleton guards with very little downside, as they had avoided being noticed by the Necromancer or any of his henchmen. (That is, there was no danger that the Necromancer might beef up security in the meantime).
After using the downtime to learn the spell, the party headed back to the Necromancer’s lair. Apart from Rigo and Rufus (played by Mark), the player characters are Ashlash (played by George), a lizard man warrior, and Rochembeau (played by Rod), a warrior based on the protagonist of the Castlevania game (who has a real hatred for Necromancers and undead). Rochembeau and Ashlash are the powerhouses in terms of melee: both rolling 6 or 7 dice with 10 adds or so.
This time through they made a point to fully clear out the first level and dispatched 5 giant spiders fairly easily. They again went through the second level by avoiding the (mostly) obvious traps and so by the time they reached the third level, it had a been a very easy delve so far (in retrospect, this may have fed into an unrealistic sense of security).
On the way up to the third level, they ran into the Necromancer’s Half-Orc lieutenant, Hagodur: because of a good reaction roll and Rochembeau’s attempt to parley, he agreed to a deal with the party to stay out of their way in return for a share of any loot (but also more or less admitted that if it looked like things were turning against them he wouldn’t be lending any more help).
Hagodur also helpfully pointed them right towards the shrine part of the dungeon level where the Necromancer was currently scheming with three of his cultist sycophants. The party made their way there, though did take time to free some prisoners/would-be-test-subjects.
The party opted for a “break down the door and attack” approach as opposed to using sneakier, more ambush-y tactics. Inside the shrine room, the Necromancer was overseeing a ritual/experiment with his three cultist henchmen. The party busted through the doors and moved to attack them.
Things turned ugly fairly quickly: in the magic phase of the round, the Necromancer got off a Take That You Fiend at a randomly rolled target — which ended up being Rigo. Rigo failed his Luck save (I’m using the suggested house rule of allowing saving throws to mitigate TTYF for any characters with attributes rather than Monster Ratings) and ended up fried on the floor. To add insult to injury, while Rigo did get off his Oh Go Away spell prior to being taken out, the cultists were all at too high a MR to be affected by it.
This didn’t feel good! On the other hand, it felt “right”, as in, honoring the procedures we had decided to use and (from my side) honoring the prep. From my point of view, there’s no way that this Necromancer would not have reacted with his most effective attack against a group of armed thugs breaking into his sanctum sanctorum. I.e. it would have felt wrong to nerf things by having him cast Oh Go Away — or something else less deadly — instead.
But still it was a shocking moment, seemingly moreso for some of the other players (George especially) rather than for Carlos (though I don’t want to speak for them).
In the melee that followed, the henchmen outfought the party, though didn’t do any damage due to armor (I realize now that I forgot to add the TTYF into the bad guys’ combat total, but their armor still would have protected them from any more hits - but just barely).
Going in to the second round, I made it clear that they’d be facing down another TTYF from the Necromancer - which meant a greater than 50% chance that another character would be killed. There was some discussion among the players of possible strategies to get around it, but the consensus ended on not wanting to take that risk and to run away instead.
They managed to get out: no wandering monsters popped up while fleeing from the dungeon complex. They have really changed the situation in that at least for the near future, the Necromancer will be on higher alert. Moreover, any further action is unlikely to have the benefit of the assistance of Hagodur.
This was a significant session! Eero Tuovinen said something which I think is true: in these kinds of challenge based games, the reward cycle doesn’t really kick in until the group has suffered a real defeat - a defeat which stings - and decides to “step on up” in the face of that defeat, to tighten up their play and not make the same mistakes next time. And this tracks with my subjective feeling about how the session went: as a group we’re at a point where we can embrace that kind of play and jump back in with a greater sense of what’s at stake —- or we can say “hey this isn’t really for us, let’s try something else that doesn’t sting in this particular way.”