Brightwater: the MeatgrinderMon 21 October 2019 by George Dorn
Over the weekend, I hosted a one-shot kickoff funnel game. I used the module Meatgrinder, a free zine-style adventure for Dungeon Crawl Classics.
The rules are cobbled together from Basic (especially B/X) and Dungeon Crawl Classics. The idea of a funnel is from DCC; a funnel is a module for many low-level characters, often level 0 commoners, in which most die or are grievously wounded. The few survivors become first-level adventurers. Despite being a relatively recent invention, a funnel module provides several helpful features for starting OSR games. They're the opposite of modern D&D; PCs are nearly powerless, believable people with ordinary lives. Funnels set the tone of danger and desperation of low-level adventuring and are story generators, creating backstories for heroes in-game. Combined with a simple character generation system, funnels can be as low-friction as starting a boardgame, except heroes emerge from the other side.
Stats are the usual six from B/X, rolled 3d6 in order with B/X's non-linear stat mods (e.g. 16-17 is +2, 18 is +3).
I'm not using skills, at least not yet; instead I'm borrowing DCC's occupations. Every commoner has a job of some sort, providing just enough information to know what the character might be good at. When a roll is needed, a simple roll-under-stat mechanic is used, generally on a d20. Meatgrinder kills off the King's Army and town militia in the opening scene, leaving only a small band of irregulars, the PCs. While the DCC backgrounds include things like guards, soldiers and demihumans, I came up with my own collection from several giant lists of medieval occupations, leaving out any military or combat-competent jobs.
I streamlined the process of creating a character, pre-rolling 30 characters and filling out custom index-card character sheets.
Ability scores were simply 3d6, in order, and space was left for name, occupation/background, AC, Hit Points and notes. Occupations were charted up roughly on a d200 table, with each associated with one or two ability scores.
Character creation was relatively fast:
- draw a PC card from the deck
- name the PC (a list of suitable names cribbed from Dungeon World was provided, but most players preferred making up silly names)
- roll on the d200 occupation chart, rerolling if the ability scores were an outright awful match, or if unrealistic duplicates happened (how many professional egg candlers can a small frontier town support?) The spreadsheet of occupations I used can be downloaded here.
- come up with a tool or implement related to that occupation that, in a pinch, the PC could fight with. DCC provides these but I left it wide open for players to invent their own. The butcher had knives, the wainwright had a mallet, the barkeep had a club for rousting drunks, the nightwatch had a staff to lean on and a lantern, etc.
- Finally, I gave the option to age the character, giving them a roll every 5 years to become better at their jobs. The roll was a simple d20, rolling under a related stat (and alternating every 5 years).
"Leveling up" in a job had no concrete game effects, but I did provide a new title (often Journeyman or Master) and some ideas about what getting better at the job meant. I also used critical successes (rolling very low) to sprinkle in some folk magic; one character had a brooch they believed kept wild animals away while they collected medicinal herbs in the woods, and another (the "dog leech" or town veterinarian) learned a song that seemed to calm distressed animals.
All-told, 10 players created 20 characters in about a half hour. There was room to front-load even more of this; I had plans to create occupation cards, each with three occupations to pick from (and their stats), along with concrete tool/weapon suggestions and leveling up options. I still plan to develop this, but ran into issues with my laser printer. Another six characters joined the party after being rescued (replacing other fallen PCs) and that only took a minute or two while other players were planning their next steps.
Actual Play (Spoilers)
The players are a band of irregulars told to hold a mountain pass outside of town against invading beastmen. I had the players select somebody to carry the absent Duke's backup war banner (which quickly became a spear). Fires brought the PCs back to town, where they found much of it burnt down. The stone church where the villagers too young, old or infirm were hiding had been breached and a bonfire in the town commons had "a couple dozen" horrible beastmen cooking and eating people. Meatgrinder goes hard on the child-murder, but I toned it down, deciding that beastmen stole children to raise as more beastmen.
The first fight began with a lot of careful planning. For obvious reasons, the players were tentative about a frontal assault, so they picked three volunteer runners to harass them and try to draw them into a fight. After two rounds of hilariously bad attempts to throw stones at the beastmen, six decided to give chase. With slightly fewer beastmen to deal with, the irregulars reluctantly charged. The opening barrage was barely effective, reducing the beastmen in number to match the PCs, so I had the players roll attacks for beastmen against their own characters. It was brutal, with every hit scored killing or maiming a PC. A second round of battle went only slightly better, but I decided to check morale, realized morale wasn't a provided stat for the beastmen, and decided they weren't in the mood to lose more of their number, what with their leader having left them behind for cleanup duty. The beastmen withdrew, giving the PCs a minor victory and setting the stage for surviving NPCs to tell the story of what happened.
The three runners rolled CON to see how fast they could run, outpacing half of their pursuers. Two PCs ran to the tanning pits (a feature invented by the players, since one was a tanner) and dove in (ick), and the last ran to the woods with two pursuers. They caught up with him, but one fumbled badly, throwing a meat cleaver into the other's head. Some desperate wrestling later had the PC (the village tinker) smashing in the skull of the beastman, the first truly heroic moment.
The survivors regrouped at "the old old mine", where an NPC told the players about the attack: the small band of King's Army soldiers sent to defend the town (and lead by the local duke) were routed at the river (with cries of "dragon!", though no survivor witnessed a dragon) and the militia fell to the beastmen. The leader of the beastmen, a 10-foot-tall boar-headed man, ordered the town burned, the survivors slaughtered, and then took the children and marched south along the river.
The PCs considered ransacking the Duke's Manor, but decided against treason (too bad, given the handful of useful weapons and armor they'd have found there). Weapons from the fallen beastmen and one unburned King's Army soldier were gathered, mostly crude meat cleavers but one shortsword and a suit of banded mail (I ruled that it would fit best on PCs with physical stats closest to the dead soldier).
Eventually, the players worked up the courage to go after the beastmen, trailing them to their lair in The Mountain Pass Caves (of Doom!). They sent scouts up the stone steps to the cave mouth, beginning the actual dungeon crawl proper after two hours into the session. They scouted the first room, full of bedbug-ridden cots and furs, waffled at the next tunnel and after their eyes adjusted to the darkness realized the tunnel contained some beastmen.
Too much planning later, the PCs assembled into cot-wielding pairs and lured the beastmen into the first room. Befitting the pathetic aesthetic, the cot-wielders had marginal success barricading or pinning the beastmen, but this was enough to kill the first two without casualties. Five more approached, but the scouts had discovered a drainage area in middle of the tunnel and suspected a pit trap, and sure enough the beastmen had to cross along the edges in single-file. Three more were dispatched before the rest began to flee; slowed by avoiding the pit trap, they fell to numerous thrown spears and a miner's pickaxe.
The tunnel lead to a room lit by firelight, with two side tunnels. These were briefly investigated; one had treasure on a pedestal (surrounded by eerie gem-eyed stone faces) and the other had some terrifying wall of spiky death gears, so the party continued into the dining hall.
They charged into the dining hall, where the feasting beastmen were surprised. Only a couple fell, with hilarious fumbles on both sides, but after a second round of fighting the four remaining beastmen fled further into the caves. The dining hall contained a pen with ten or so villagers waiting to be eaten; six were able-bodied enough to join the irregulars, replenishing some of their ranks and picking up weapons from the fallen.
While the party regrouped and carried their casualties to the cave mouth, one PC found the gold on the pedestal too enticing and decided to climb up to collect it. He died from the poison gas before he could finish saying "hey, something smells weird". The tinker studied the terrifying spiked gear wall from a distance, realizing it might move around the room and deciding it was too terrifying to approach.
This left one avenue; a narrow tunnel in the back of the dining room leading into the darkness. Two scouts investigated tentatively, finding a pale blue glow at the other end. Eventually they worked up the courage to find its source, a pyramid-shaped room with a single chanting beastmen in robes working a ritual sacrifice of a villager. The scouts tried distracting the beastman summoner, who only sped up the ritual, sliced open the sacrifice and called up some chaos demon (Hegoredulthu). The cultist fell a round later to the advancing party, but the demon started emerging from the chest of the sacrificed villager. Many attempts to wrestle the body off the crude stone altar were made, but the demon latched on with thin, bony tentacle-fingers (I was imagining John Carpenter's The Thing at the time) until somebody thought to throw the night watchman's lantern on the corpse to set it on fire. With the gateway into this realm on fire, the summoner dead, and surrounded by angry villagers with meat cleavers, the demon opted to retreat.
At this point, it was four hours into the session and I decided to add more tunnels to make getting to the final fight easier. The players were also focused on finding the children, so the two tunnels out of the summoning room were inspected and one (back into the meatgrinder room) was clearly dusty, so the other was followed. The simplicity of the dungeon was a benefit here, along with listening for what the players wanted.
The more-used tunnel lead into a large room with a dragon! A dragon! The PCs were rightly terrified, but the dragon seemed largely disinterested in them. This scene was mostly for comic effect (what color dragon is it? it's dragon-colored! how did it fit in here? maybe they raised it from an egg?) but finally one player got the idea to feed it the cultist and I decided the dragon-shaped pig would be content with that. I had the pig carry the cultist to one corner, leaving two tunnels to choose from: one next to the dragon and one not, so they chose to stay far from the dragon.
That tunnel lead to the head Pigman's room, where the children of the village were formed in a circle around him, staring blankly. There was room here to find out what was going on, but the players were having none of that; they charged in with everything they had left. One PC did decide to drag some kids out, but the rest surrounded the Pigman, who started goring and hewing PCs while they poked and prodded him with sharp implements. He finally fell to a blow from a heavy staff (I think a pole from the BBQ pit?). It would have been an anticlimactic fight but for the viscious followup blows the players narrated "to make sure he's dead."
The PCs then escorted the wounded, the children, and carried the dead back to town, stopping only briefly to use some jury-rigged ropes and poles to pull the gold off the pedestal without being close enough to the gas to die from it.
Notes from Running the Game
Morale rolls didn't work, at all. I suspect in a more typical dungeon crawl, where reaction rolls are also used, the pair might be relied on to make combat avoidable or end quickly, but in this scenario reaction rolls largely didn't make sense. I had to overrule the morale rolls constantly, having the beastmen flee at the first sign the PCs might be a threat, to keep the game moving and to avoid a full TPK. The feeling of desperation was unharmed by this; a majority of PCs fell in battle, some killed outright and others permanently maimed.
Another missing mechanic was the option for the PCs to flee. The players never considered running, aside from the impromptu chase scene near the start of the session, simply because running might mean their children died. In future sessions, where the goal is a little less pressing and failure is an option, I'll need to telegraph unwinnable fights more.
Initiative was very free-form. I was going to have each side roll once, but then I realized I could gain some of the benefits of individual initiative, even with ten players, by rolling once for the monsters. The combatants ended up in three groups - those that beat the monsters, those that tied the monsters (and thus went simultaneously) and those that lost initiative (or had giant two-handed weapons, like the farmer with the scythe). Each group went in any order, though by the end of the night I just picked one side of the table at random and went around.
Combat was pretty boring, as it often is, with an occasional fumble, critical hit, or death/injury roll to change things up and provide room for narration. This is entirely on purpose, though; the drama comes from the die rolls, not tactical decisions.
I gave the PCs descending armor class, but Meatgrinder used DCC's ascending armor class. It confused me briefly, but I think I may just use ascending AC after all. Mostly it didn't matter; everybody had an effective THAC0 of 20, the beastmen had a to-hit bonus baked in and players were rolling and adding Str or Dex bonuses accordingly. There was rarely a question of whether a PC got hit; only two had armor of any major value, and Dex bonuses/penalties were rarely more than 1 (using BECMI's stat table), so most of the time it was simply a question of whether the roll was 11 or above.
In any case, there were very few mechanics to track, and any weird idea the players came up with were easy to make quick rulings on. The cots-as-weapons I waffled on for a bit but decided an opposed roll-under-Strength sufficiently modeled the situtation and gave the PCs the advantage they were looking for (since it was 2-on-one). No combats took longer than ten minutes to run; the majority of the session's time was spent by the players planning, scouting, and examining things.
From here I hope that a group or two will form from the players wanting to continue the story, in a West Marches-style free-form schedule.
With over half the town dead, the Duke and his soldiers missing and harvest season just starting, the PCs now must decide how to spend the gold they found to best survive the upcoming winter and rebuild the town. There are orphans to care for, no militia or patrols left, and probably no help coming. They've also witnessed real horrible eldritch magic: magic traps, hypnotized children, demon summoning, and pigs transformed into dragons. There's some more of the cave system to investigate and clues to other adventuring locales to find.
Not to mention becoming level 1 adventurers.