“Lockpicking with a bag of nails”: Affair at Sombrefell Hall (session 1) blow-by-blow report, 1.5 rules.

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I’m delaying typing up my notes from Pale Mountain in order to catch up with reporting, as we are behind already. My previous reports from Lost Star are here and here.

Note: There may be mistranslations: My GM translated on the fly from English to Swedish as we played, and I translated on the fly from Swedish to English as I wrote notes on what happened...

==Character Creation==

We are down to two players, so we play two characters each. As my primary character from previous scenarios is a bard, I could bring her into this scenario too, which the other player thought unfair. He is also the one player whose character was particularly interested in the Countdown Clocks during our Mummy’s Mask campaign. So our GM allowed the other player to bring his primary character, and we created a cleric each as secondary characters. With two high-charisma clerics and a bard, we thought we would bring sufficient magic healing to make the scenario work, whatever it was.

So, the characters were:
Arami, Cavern Elf Maestro Bard.
Deena, Cavern Elf Cleric of Honey, passion domain.
Elise, Cavern Elf Cleric of Honey, passion domain.
Keyt, Cavern Elf Rogue.

As we’ve relocated the scenarios to our GM’s version of Greyhawk, tying it into the meta-plot threads connecting his different campaigns together, places and gods had to be changed. Honey is an old character that ascended in the events following our run of Rise of The Runelords. She is a patron of the performing arts, and for those with a generally bohemian hippie “flowers in your hair” lifestyle. Here we decided to translate Honey as Playtest Deity into: Performance skill, Fist as holy weapon as Irori, and Domains and Spells as Shelyn.

All four characters were Cavern Elves, as both players are very fond of the combination of high movement and Darkvision, and nobody wanted to get stuck with the one character without these two properties. Of course all four had both Nimble and Fleet.

Equipping the four characters took forever, as it was hard to find a satisfactory combination of items using the “X of level Y” rules, especially as we tried to co-ordinate the items over all four characters. Fortunately we could pool the money part - that made things a bit easier.

== Introduction ==

Our GM introduced the letter from the Esoteric Order with the mission, and described where in his campaign world he wanted to set the scenario. Sombrefell Hall ended up at the edge of a swamp just east of the City of Greyhawk itself, near Cairn Hills and its many haunted graves. Apparently the aristocracy of the city once liked to build large villas in the area because of its sombre ambience, making them feel darkly poetic and expressively emotional - or something.

After the intro, we decided to pick memorised spells for the two clerics. This proved to be a severe speed bump, as we argued a lot on how much meta-knowledge we could use in the spell selection, especially knowing that the scenario called for magical healing - and what that implied. Finally we solved it with deciding that as we knew that we were travelling into an undead-infested area, it would not be unnatural to pick a lot of anti-undead spells.

== Entering the Hall ==

We all got delivered to the Hall in style - in a black carriage, care of the Esoteric Order. However, after ushering us out the driver sped off, obviously relieved to be able to leave the area, leaving us to stare at the massive oak door and its iron knocker. We knocked… and knocked… and nothing happened.

Investigating the door while we waited started a long discussion on what you could and could not do with the playlist’s version of Detect Magic, and what heightened meant in that context.

Finally, this out-of-character discussion got interrupted by the door getting opened by a dark-haired woman in a green dress, Lucvi. She did not want to let us into the house, and asked what our mission was. This immediately triggered a “We’re on a mission from God!… I mean, our Goddess!”. Keyt got to roll an intimidate for this line: 30. A stunned Lucvi let us into the hall.

(Here the GM revealed the map of the house)

Keyt immediately spotted the chandelier (obvious on the map) and noticed the levers that could be used to lower and raise it - and make it crash to the floor.

The professor came out to meet us, and we started to discuss our mission with him. He only came with excuses and faint justifications for avoiding the task. When we pressed him on this, he claimed we did not have sufficient knowledge for understanding the situation. Arami immediately proved him wrong with an Occultism roll of 24, to persuade him that we indeed knew what we were talking about.

Reluctantly, the Professor revealed that he feared he was pursued by an agent of the Dominion of the Black. When we asked what kind of agent he got vague again: “I’m unsure, some kind of dream being…”

Well, we argued that for who could be better at coping with supernatural threats than clerics, and we offered divine protection until his immediate concern was dealt with and he could accept the mission we wanted to give him. Also, as we seemed to know our stuff, we were allowed to stay in one of the guest rooms, and prompted by us, we also got permission to investigate the house to spot any threat.

Of course, the first thing we wanted to investigate was his study…

== The Professor’s study ==

We all entered the professor’s study together with Lucvi and the Professor - and spotted all the interesting notes strewn around the room. After some out-of-character discussion on how to do this, we decided that Deena and Elise would engage the researchers in conversation to distract them, while Arami and Keyt tried to surreptitiously read the notes.

First attempt:
Distraction - Deena: Diplomacy 18, Elise: Diplomacy 29 - successful
Investigation - Arami: Occultism 12, Keyt: Occultism 15 - fail

Second attempt:
Distraction - Deena: Diplomacy 21, Elise: Diplomacy 27 - successful
Investigation - Arami: Occultism 16, Keyt: Occultism 15 - fail

Third attempt:
Keyt rolled a natural 1 on occultism before we had a chance to roll the distracting diplomacies - and the GM decided this was reason enough for us to get thrown out, with the Professor and Lucvi staying in the study.

But we still had permission to investigate the house…

(Here we asked how much time we had to investigate the house: 2h 40 mins until nightfall, and we could use up 10 mins for each room we did a “normal” search in. We gave the GM a note with our perceptions on, so he could roll secretly for each of us for each room we searched.)

== Storage room ==

A lot of leftover junk. Search gave nothing. On a direct question if anything could be used to defend the house: “Well, you could always build a barricade out of it.”


== Kitchen ==

Place looked messy but had no food: “Typical student cooking.”

Search revealed some silver knives:
“Silver kitchen knives?”
“Yes, big ones.”
“Tableware can be made from silver - but kitchen knives? Something is fishy.”

Well, Arami and Keyt decided to take a knife each.

“Oh, and the knives are of expert quality.”

== Dining room ==

Floor to ceiling glass windows. Search only revealed that the big kitchen table was bolted to the floor. Why?

Food trolleys were moveable.

== Pantry ==

Search revealed preserves, bread, sausages, four flasks of olive oil, and seven braids of garlic.

“Seven braids?”
“Somebody must love garlic…”

Out of character: “Barricades, silver knives, garlic. This feels like an old-style computer text adventure where you pick up the stuff you find, to use later…”

== Library ==

Attention was immediately drawn to the immense block of marble drawn on the map. We refused to believe you would build such a big thing as just a decorative pillar, and insisted that it had to hide a secret room or something. To stop us from derailing, the GM had to retcon it to a marble floor with a smaller column in the centre, with the bookshelves standing on that marble floor.

After that change, we spent double time searching here, with Arami and Keyt searching the bookshelves, and Deena and Elise “searching” the sofas.

The double search allowed Keyt to find a handwritten note in a book, with ramblings about transformation. We fruitlessly tried to draw conclusions from the book the note was found in, and why anyone (obviously the Professor) would write such a note and then place it in a random book…

== Bottom floor bedrooms ==

We quickly looked into each of the bottom floor bedrooms to try to decide what room belonged to whom, no searching.

“Man, woman, not a bedroom, apparently the professor, apparently Lucvi.”
“Ok, lets’ investigate the Professor’s bedroom. We *do* have permission…”

== Professor’s bedroom ==

It was surprisingly clean, and the bed was made. We searched.

Keyt found a book under the pillow in the bed.

Out of character:
“Wait a minute. Under the pillow? That’s the most obvious place to look ever… Just to satisfy our curiosity: what was the DC to remember to look under the pillow?”
“DC20 to look under the pillow?”
“That is so stupid”.

The book ended with torn out pages. The last ones not torn out were six weeks old, and contained ramblings about a Ramlock, whose voice the professor apparently could hear.

== Professor’s Walk-In Closet ==

Old clothes and a carpet on the floor.

Before deciding to use 10 minutes to search:
Sarcastically: “Ok, a carpet on the floor. Is it also DC20 to remember to look under the carpet?”
“Actually…. it is DC26.”
“But as you specifically mentioned looking under the carpet, you don’t have to search and it won’t take 10 minutes. You find a trapdoor.”
“Could it not have been an intricate puzzle of sliding parquetry tiles or something? It’s a regular carpet - this is stupid.”

== Unlocking the trapdoor: The big bag of nails! ==

This will take some explaining. This is something my co-player has figured out, so I hope I get this right.

Rather than use regular lock picks, Keyt has a big bag of old bent nails to use as improvised lock picks. That means a lesser chance to succeed, but you eliminate the cost of a critical failure, as you only need to sacrifice an old nail when that happens. As long as you still have any chance of success, you will eventually make it - and remember, a natural 20 is a success unless the GM says the task is impossible.

So, all you need is that big bag of nails, and the patience to roll *a lot* of checks. It is in exploration mode, so you would be fatigued after 300 attempts, but 299 is ok, as long as you rest a little before the next 299 rolls…

Of course, Keyt just *had* to ask for Inspire Competence rolls from Arami, i.e. me. But as Inspire Competence is a reaction, so you can only use it on every third attempt…

Arami: Inspire Competence 27, critical success
Keyt: Thievery 27, success
Keyt: Thievery 23, fail
Keyt: Thievery 21, fail
Arami: Inspire Competence 20, success
Keyt: Thievery 22, fail
Keyt: Thievery 25, fail
Keyt: Thievery 25, fail

I think you get the idea. After four more Inspire Competence and twelve more Thievery checks the lock was unlocked… Total of 24 rolls.

This is why we think the absence of take 20 together with having success on a natural 20 is bad.

== Cellar ==

Cot, chains, bizarre writings on the walls.

We tried to identify the language of the writings:
Arami: Society 18 - fail
Keyt: Society 21 - fail.

Here our GM reminded us of the “nail tactics” above. As Recall Knowledge is a single action, and nothing forbids retries, we can roll 299 times before getting fatigued. He did not want us rolling 299 times, so he just gave us the answer: “The Language is like Aklo, but it is not Aklo”.

More out-of-character discussion: This is just mood-setting information. Why is the DCs to reveal mood-setting stuff so high? It’s not like “it’s similar to Aklo” is of much use to the characters…

The chains looked well used.
Players OOC: “This is like the standard props from a werewolf movie… The main character always tries to lock himself up when he turns into a werewolf.”
The person wearing the chains could unlock them if calm - some kind of safety for psychotic episodes.

== Attic ==

Looking over the map we noticed the stairs to the attic (even if they were shaded to look descending).

Even the simple padlock on this door was DC26. So…
GM: “Let’s just skip the nails and the scores of rolls and say you open the lock.”

We decided to take 10 minutes to search the attic.
“Well, this might be another pick-up-needed-items-room. Let’s look for anti-mummy powder!”

Deena did not find anti-mummy-powder, but the corpse of a dead zombie in a corner. Well, a deader zombie. Somebody had stuck a letter-opener with the Professor’s initials into the remains of its brain, and it was not moving any more.

The GM rolled three secret Medicine rolls:
Deena: It has been here a few weeks.
Keyt: It has been here for years.
Elise: It has been here a few weeks.

Oh, well.

== Upper Floor Guestrooms ==

We decided to all stay in the same upper floor guest room. A search revealed a closet of old clothes. We used these to make dummies to put into the beds of the other guest bedrooms.

== Dinnertime ==

After all this searching we were hungry. We decided to cook something good out of the stuff in the pantry. Keyt cooked, and Arami inspired.

Arami: Inspire Competence: 26, crit success.
Keyt: Craft: 27 (I assume this was some kind off crit, due to the effect)

The wonderful smell of the cooking drew everyone to the kitchen and the dining room, even the cranky Professor.

During dinner, we tried to make conversation about the area - i.e. gather some information.
Elise: Diplomacy natural 20.
We found out that the lake contained a village that had been flooded, drowning the inhabitants, and that the area was known for its vampires. Cosy.

Here somebody started pounding on the front door. Time for a cliffhanger ending of the session.

== Session End ==

Time spent: 2h 11 min
Hero points spent: 0
Death saves: 0
Consumables used: 0
Resonance used on anything other than daily imbuements: 0
Spell Points used: 0
Spell Slots used: 0

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Thanks a lot for writing this, @Mats, as usual the hero point is in the mail.

The GM report on the same session, quoted from my own thread First Impressions of Sombrefell Hall and Lock Picking [Small Spoilers].

We began doing Sombrefell Hall yesterday. We played 2h 30 min and got to the first banging on the doors. And I have two mayor impressions, both about skill checks.

* The DCs are ridiculous. Perception DC 26 to notice a bump under a carpet? The standard difficulty in the adventure is DC 22. This is a situation when there really is no opposing force. The NPCs in the adventure are not working at cross purposes. There are not a group of malignant maids of level 7 skills hiding evidence. The DCs feel entirely arbitrary.

* Again, the number of die rolls you have to make to resolve some situations are ridiculous, the main example being lock picking.

In this adventure there were a lot of lock picking. We realized that, as long as you have any chance of success (even it it is a 20 only), the best way to open a lock is to always use improvised tools. Sure, you get a -4 penalty, but you never loose successes to avoid breaking your tools since you are not using tools but a set of nails. So, progress is slow, but entirely safe.

Something we decided to do, and which I have been thinking about for some time, is to say that anything that is possible to do in encounter mode, is automatically successful in exploration mode. That saved us about 100 rolls of non-stressful lock picking.

A comment from the other playtester: Why have all this exploration in the scenario, when we cannot use it to prepare appropriate spells? I have to agree.

One of the points of prepared casters is that they can adjust their spell load based on information collected. This increased the reward from investigation and scouting, which adds a lot to the fun of being a prepared caster. This is even more true in PF2, where you have only half as many spell slots. Affair at Sombrefell hall failed to use this feature of prepared casters. Wizards can pick the ability to exchange their prepared spells - this is something all prepared casters should have.

Adventure Path Charter Subscriber; Pathfinder Starfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

Yes, single-day scenarios and prepared casters are a frustrating combination. I'll say, though, that our GM gave us another day, but the clues we had drawn out did still did not enable me to pick the right spells. There was a zombie, but that was the only hint of undead, and we felt very confident about zombies. Otherwise all clues were Dominion of the Black, who are not typically undead. (We did not hear about vampires.) The information we got was frustratingly useless.

I don't ever want to play a prep caster with so few spells again. It was really painful. As it turns out, I should have put heightened Restoration in all high-level slots, and the scenario was a TPK because I did not. And ye gods, I missed being able to prepare other spells then convert to healing. That made prep clerics bearable for me in PF1.

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