You've noticed people aren't popping round to visit as often as they did? I've noticed that too! So, to keep RPGs happening, I have to brave the Internet and get my feet wet in the world of online gaming. I decide to set up Google Hangouts, I invest in a webcam, I've got 4 players and they've got webcams too. They don't know each other terribly well. I need a straightforward, atmospheric dungeon. Someone recommends The Dread Crypt of Skogenby and I download it because (1) it's free and (2) I love the name 'Skogenby'.
Click the image to go to the downloadable PDF of this scenario
The scenario is written for a RPG called Torchbearer which, I must say, looks fascinating. Torchbearer claims to be an homage to early D&D, but it's a pole away from OSR. You see, Torchbearer is concerned with capturing the psychological grind of dungeon delving: the failing of light, the loss of equipment, growing hunger, exhaustion, fear... It looks compelling and complex and abstract and intense.
But I'm not using the Torchbearer rules. No. I'm using White Box RPG which is about as far away from Torchbearer as you can get despite being, in essence, the original 1974 D&D rules, prettified and rationalised and put in one tidy book. It's a stripped down, minimalist affair, with hardly any dice rolls and a licence to make it up as you go along. Ideal for online gaming without miniatures, maps or complicated character sheets.
Click the image to look at the White Box website and blog
Why not FORGE?
Fans of this blog (if such there be) might wonder, "Why not use FORGE OUT OF CHAOS since you're always banging on about it?" and, yes, ordinarily I would. But on this occasion I wanted to lighten the cognitive load for everyone involved so we could manage the technical and social impediments of roleplaying across this new medium. So I went for a system that is the simplest to create characters for, teach, referee and improvise with - and that's White Box.
Whatever distinctive complexities Torchbearer has, the shared tropes in Fantasy RPGs make conversion effortless. My players arrive at the windswept, vaguely-Yorkshire village of Skogenby, where some local teens have stumbled upon an ancient crypt. One of them, a girl called Jora, foolishly went in, found silver jewellery, passed it out to her friends and told "a tale of moldering crypts rich in grave goods" down there, but, as she crawled out, something seized her and dragged her screaming back into the stifling darkness of the crypt.
The plays out like a trailer for a fantastic direct-to-streaming horror film, doesn't it?
Then it gets worse. Something starts emerging from the crypt at night. It stalks the village. People are found dead in the morning, a rictus of terror on their cold faces. The victims are all connected to the crypt-robbing youths and the cursed treasure they unearthed. Now the PCs have to go down there, into that evil hole, to lay something ghastly to rest and bring back poor Jora, if she's still alive.
The art is of an exceptional standard throughout
The scenario itself is a small but intense dungeon. There are exactly the sort of undead critters you would expect down here, doing guard duty, and one unpleasant monster you wouldn't expect, drawn here by the necromantic energies of the place.
The main task for the players is to figure out the function of this place. It's more than just a tomb: it's a god-machine. An ancient barbarian queen had herself, her slaves and her priests buried alive down here so that she could go through a series of rituals to ascend to godhood. The PCs encounter these chambers, tools and instructions and might re-enact some of the rites themselves, should they dare. Along the way there are traps and plenty of opportunities for knowledge and skills as well as brawn and bowstrings and plenty of creative speculation.
Torchbearer offers interesting mechanics to keep track of time in precious torches and chart the emotional and physiological fraying of the characters. It also offers contingencies called 'twists' that make events play out in a more ... entertaining ... way. They include ominous weather, mystic phenomenon, bad luck with equipment, shattered nerves and other mishaps. If you're not using Torchbearer rules, then these twists offer a deeply atmospheric alternative to Wandering Monsters.
The showdown pits the PCs against the possessed Jora. Hopefully, they've carried out some of the rituals to gain mystical protection. Hopefully, the realise that the dead queen, Haathor-Vash, is still lingering here in spirit-form and is furious about the theft of her grave goods. Hopefully, they try to negotiate rather than lay into an innocent girl with swords. Hopefully.
Well I hoped in vain. I think the crypt is so successful at being spooky and weird and ominous that it leaves the players, never mind their characters, rather on edge by the time they reach Haathor-Vash. In Torchbearer, your character might be so physically and psychologically drained that you're eager to parlay. In D&D and similar games, you're probably itching to hit something. The problem is that if Haathor-Vash leaves Jora (say, because you chopped her head off), she can always possess someone else. And so it goes, like that Denzel Washington film Fallen (1998), with the spirit bouncing from body to body, except in a cramped crypt while you're beset with skeletons.
All of which is to say, this is a surprisingly thematic dungeon puzzle with a very tense and difficult final encounter. Strong roleplayers with a taste for the spiritual will make a feast of it, especially if the GM indulges them by characterising Haathor-Vash in a vivid way. More conventional PCs will die in the inner crypt.
Yes, you figured it out: for my party, it was a Total Party Kill (TPK), with one PC, the lone survivor, becoming Haathor-Vash's new vessel, to remain in the crypt, in the darkness, alone. Brr-rr. But that feels right for the doomed horror-stylings of this scenario.
What Can You Make Of It?
Firstly, the scenario functions as a fantastic advertisement for Torchbearer RPG and I'd defy anyone to read it and not want to know more about Torchbearer. The scenario might be set in a dungeon but it plays out rather more like Call of Cthulhu than Dungeons & Dragons: there is a distinctive and evocative ancient mythology to untangle, skills in scholarship and the occult matter just as much as combat, when you reach the showdown you have hopefully engaged ancient arcane forces on your side.
Most interesting is the psychological attrition as characters move to being weary, hungry, exhausted and afraid. The combat seems to be pure theatre of the mind, with an emphasis on dread and caution rather than swashbuckling heroics. This dungeon is CLAUSTROPHOBIC and Torchbearer seems to be a system that's all about conveying the emotional pressure of entering such places, like a more complex and nuanced version of Call of Cthulhu's ever-diminishing Sanity score.
Or you can do what I did and convert it to an Old School RPG system. This is easy enough: skeletons are skeletons and oozes are oozes. The stat block for Jora/Haathor-Vash needs some thought, but I treated Haathor-Vash's possessed victims as half-strength Wights and the effect of the Ritual of Purification being to acquire Protection from Evil on your person, keeping the Wight's level-draining claws from touching you. Despite the text and cover art that has Jora wielding it, I decided to make Haathor-Vash's sword available for a PC to seize and upgraded it to being magical+1, just to even the odds.
The problem with any OSR conversion is that you risk missing out on what this scenario is all about: claustrophobia, dread, ancient rites, the sense of a haunted and malevolent place rather than just a 'dungeon'. Of course, sensitive GMing can make up for that through atmospheric description and the 'twists' offered in the text go a long way to help with this. Nevertheless, as I found, the genetic code of D&D is hack'n'slash and that can overturn the conclusion, which in Torchbearer will probably result in negotiation or a PC rout (and frantic flight through the halls and out through the narrow tunnel with undead fingers clutching at your ankles) but in D&D invites straightforward TPK.
Simply adapted as a 'dungeon', the scenario has its merits. It's small and focused, suitable for a single 3-hour session, offering puzzles, traps and a bit of combat before the climax. But I feel that D&D-style games fail to capitalise on the experience that The Dread Crypt of Skogenby has to offer. I could see it working really well in The One Ring RPG, as a thoughtful variation on standard Barrow Wight activities: that game also charts spiritual/psychological deterioration as much as physical harm and emphasizes mood and character rather than muscle and combat. It would even work in Pendragon as an unusual horror-themed digression for minor knights, again because that game focuses on character traits and the conflict between Christian and Heathen values. And of course, it would be fun to use Call of Cthulhu - nothing about the setting demands a medieval time frame and it would play out just as well in 1920s Scotland or Yorkshire.
30 Minute Dungeons
Essays on Forge
I'm a teacher and a writer and I love board games and RPGs. I got into D&D back in the '70s with Eric Holmes' 'Blue Book' set and I've started writing my own OSR-inspired games - as well as fantasy and supernatural fiction..
The shoddy PDF rulebook available at drivethrurpg is missing pp 66-67, 82-83, 86-87, 126-127, 140-141 and 162-5. You can read or download these below: