AVL Scarefest Playtest – After-action Report

Hexed Playtest AVL Scarefest Custom Dice

Everyone likes custom dice – all the better that they’re d6!

Last weekend, I ran two tables of Hexed at the AVL Scarefest convention in scenic Black Mountain. 7 players who had never even heard of Hexed signed up for games and sat at my table, both groups braving the dangers of the Archmage Vyro’s lost tomb. These are their stories.

The first trio selected their characters – the Dwarven Brawler with high single-target damage, a Human Alchemist with a variety of helpful concoctions, and a Human Invoker with the threefold powers of magic, divinity, and a big sword. These three were a regular gaming group, used to working together.

Hexed Playtest AVL Scarefest

A brave party of adventurers.


All they knew was that Archmage Vyro’s tomb was a recently-revealed dungeon, the final resting place of the great smith and wizard Vyro. Vyro forged the weapons of the Demigods in ancient planar wars, but now he was long-dead, and his treasures, magics, secrets, and legacy all lie below the frigid sands of al-Hadren. The party staked in a rope and descended into the tomb. I like starting Hexed campaigns at the mouth of the dungeon – doubly so for a convention game.


The entrance hall was an intentional branching point – offering meaningful choice is kinda the headline of Hexed, so I wanted the player’s first in-world decision to drive the story. There were four paths – a north path that was utterly unremarkable, an east path with a gentle wind blowing down it, and two paths to the south and west, both of which emanating a deep humming song. The party decided to pursue the humming, since they had expected to be the first visitors here.


The humming came from a jail cell, housing a blind masked man named Crow. Crow was one of my pressure valves – a variable element in the adventure that could morph into different things depending on what the party seemed to enjoy. For this group, Crow became a suspiciously capable illuminator who was here to tame the Wendigo – he introduced a slight element of chaos and threat in the otherwise static upper levels of the tomb.


The  party was reasonably suspicious but decided to help Crow – the Invoker turned him into a mouse so he could crawl out of his cell. The other cells held humanoid creatures made of sand that gestured wildly, asking to be released. When the Alchemist reached into one cell, trying to get to a sand-buried gear in the back corner, the sandman touched him, turning his body to sand and trapping him in Crow’s now-vacant cell.


For a moment, I think the Alchemist’s player suspected he was actually dead – the victim of a single bad decision. The player has played older editions of D&D, so they’re no stranger to save-or-die, but of course there was no save here. After a bit of quick thinking, though, he started scratching words in the sand at his feet. The two surviving members of the group used an empty ale bottle to splash water from a nearby fountain into the gear’s cell, turning the aggressive sandman into a pile of silt. They hoped that killing it would return their ally, and although it did not, it did let them access the gear. They bashed apart the lock to Crow’s cell, letting the Alchemist walk out. As soon as his sand body left the cell, it reverted to flesh and bone.


Exploring the rest of the top level yielded a laser-activated trap avoided via mouse-form, a battle against four undead, a room full of musty robes, and a much tighter grid of trap lasers, avoided via a clever usage of two repaired mirrors from the robing room. The mirror solution particularly impressed me – the lasers don’t hurt people who wear the robes, so I didn’t plan any other solution to get through them (and they only summon snakes when triggered, a survivable combat encounter) but the mirror idea is solid gold.


The players also found two huge red gems, the Fireheart Gems that allow travel around this complex. They checked the windy passage last and walked into a huge cylindrical pit of a room, with a few thin walkways around the room’s outside circumference. Navigating up and down this huge chamber made most of the challenge of this complex. The Fireheart Gems raise sand bridges and stairs to let parties traverse; there are huge chains you can walk across or release to server as ladders; and at the bottom, there’s a fire-powered stone snake that forms into a spiraling sloped ramp. Atop the central pillar is a sphinx, dozing and dangerous.


This party visited the Sphinx atop the pillar first, but decided not to hear the riddle yet (guessing wrong means fighting the sphinx). They experimented with the Fireheart Gems, then climbed down to the next level and opened a semi-secret door, revealing a teleportation portal. The Invoker knew enough magic to spend some time reading the runes on the portal, identifying that this teleporter connected to another portal (a 2-way passage) and traveled through both space and time. Of course, they went in.


The portal led to the Library Out of Time, a library that exists in all times simultaneously. The whole place is a Escherian nightmare, with spatial and temporal distortions aplenty and a colorful cast of visitors from all nature of realities. The players had to pay the librarian their overdue book fees for books they hadn’t actually checked out yet (a quirk of the time distortion), but they did glean some valuable information. They learned some new spells, a new way to make acid, and checked out Sphinx Answers and You, Volumes 1 and 2.

Hexed Playtest Scarefest 2018

A little dice superstition never hurt anyone.

Returning to their place and time, the trio proceeded down another hallway to the Godsforge. Activating the Godsforge was the side objective of this dungeon – it requires all 4 Fireheart Gems, even though you only need 1 to reach the Archmage’s burial chamber. In the nearby storeroom for smithing equipment, the canny Alchemist burned away some webs to reveal three giant spiders lurking in wait. A single swing of the Brawler’s battleaxe cleaved through all three – cleave is the special feature of the battleaxe. They found a Godsteel ingot, ran into Crow feeling his way across a side chamber, and plundered an old cask of ale, which they agreed to split three ways and drink immediately as a toast – their packs were too full to carry the cask, since they’d been grabbing every gem or gear they passed.


While they investigated the Godsforge, we got our first Group Skill Check – except for the battle with the skeletons, the group hadn’t run into direct opposition yet. It is quite possible to spend hours in a dungeon in Hexed without touching the dice. The group spent some willpower and rolled a cluster of 6s, enough to hear the squeaking door behind them. Someone had peeked out of the other door in this chamber, then shut it hastily. After a moment’s interrogation through the door, the alchemist dissolved the lock with a quick acid brew.


Inside, they met Illminus, a library custodian who was living in this dungeon. All employees of the library rent rooms in abandoned dungeons, since staying in the library for too long leads to time poisoning. Illminus had assumed that the party were debt collectors here for his overdue rent, but was delighted to learn they were adventurers – since they had found their way into the tomb, it was no longer technically abandoned, which voided his tenant contract. He agreed to trade the party his Fireheart Gem (he used it only to access the library portal) in return for them explaining the situation to the library docent.


Gems in hand, they climbed down the chain and activated an old magical construct, summoning a stone ramp snake down to the bottom of the sandy pit. They found sphinx bones and decided not to disturb them, and dug up another gear, their fourth total. The floor here was covered in dunes of sand, but winking at them from the base of the tower was a final Fireheart Gem. They removed it, activating the trap floor – the flat ground turned to a slope, sliding all three down towards a nest of blades underneath the tower.


Some good rolls and quick thinking proved sufficient to save the party, including turning the stout Brawler into a frog that could leap back up the slope of sliding sand. Safely back on land, the party retreated and plugged their 4 Firehearts into the Godsforge, then smithed some magical weapons for themselves – obviously loot is somewhat unimportant in a convention game, so I designed the Godsforge as a way to access an immediate boon that the party could carry into the final battle.


Back on the bottom level, they followed a side passage to the burial chamber entrance. Here stood a huge metal automaton, and a metal door too heavy to lift that blocked their progress towards the Archmage’s riches. They examined the environment and their gears, then returned to the Sphinx and asked her some clarifying questions – between her answers and their own intuition, they figured out what the gears were used for.


Each gear has three segments, each of which was marked with a symbol (a fist, a boot, a heart, or a lightning bolt). These served as programmatic instructions for the automaton, and choosing which 3 gears to place (of their 4) in addition to choosing their starting orientation would change how the final battle would play out. The players decided to maximize the number of boots on the gears they used, since moving wasn’t a threat to them, and set things up so that the attacks would come in waves instead of a sustained assault.


The final battle itself, for both parties, was a resounding clatter of dice. Both groups played conservatively through the dungeon and avoided some optional combat, so they were free to blow through all their Resolve in this climactic encounter. Combined with the Godsteel weapons, this led to plenty of 40+ dice rolls and a few 10-damage blows. Axes flashed, swords hummed, crossbow bolts and lightning bolts flew, and soon the automaton collapsed to the ground. In its death throes, it reached over and grasped the heavy metal door, lifting it to reveal the riches of the tomb.


After a short break, I sat down with the second group and went through the same brief rules explanation. Two players who had signed up ended up being no-shows, but 4 is still more than enough so I passed around characters. Three chose perpetually popular archetypes (repeats of the first three characters) but I see this as a statistical outlier – I did nothing to shift them towards these characters. Alchemist and Brawler both also have the advantage of coming earlier in the alphabet, when I list classes. The fourth player selected the Human Guide, a powerful support tank with a quarterstaff.


There were a few key differences the second time around. This group found the robing room at once and donned the attire of this tomb’s guardians, letting them walk unimpeded past the laser traps. When they found the first skeletons, they knotted their legs up and jammed their arms into their rib cages before touching the Rubyheart. When they animated and started to untangle, the party tied them up into one bundle. This creature – dubbed “Jingle Bones” – got shoved into a secret passage they discovered under a sandpit (the first group missed this completely), then the Invoker followed it, exploring on his own. The player selected a new character, a Human Illuminator, while his first character descended into pitch blackness.

Hexed Playtest Players

The creation of Jingle Bones

While the first group had explored methodically, room by room and floor by floor, this group was more cavalier – they took the Sphinx’s riddle immediately, answered successfully, and learned that the best treasures were at the bottom. From there, they cleared the complex in reverse, starting at the automaton (they lacked the gears to animate it of course) and making their way upwards. They learned some new spells and some of the items required to make the philosopher’s stone from the library, then powered up the Godsforge (one player suggested they make a sculpture with their Godsteel, but the party settled on weapons. I felt bad because as soon as they started the forge, I described how much steel different weapons would take. Perhaps if I had left it open ended, they would have made a sculpture? (probably not – players love magic weapons)).


The second group coincidentally avoided a few combats, so I added a giant sand snake guarding the Godsforge to get us rolling some dice. When they encountered the spider ambush, they also managed to 1-shot the encounter, this time with a molotov. They never encountered Crow – I removed him when they eventually returned to the prison on the first level, because we didn’t really have time to get into the tension of roleplaying with an uncertain ally.


At the bottom of the complex, as they readied to fight the automaton, the missing Invoker and Jingle Bones both fell out of the ceiling, dropping into the end destination of the secret dark passage. On his way down, the Invoker had located another gear, giving this group 5 different ones to choose from.


The second group crushed the automaton with similar aplomb, using resolve and willpower wildly to score some huge blows. We had once tense moment, where the Dwarven Brawler declared Grit Your Teeth but was wounded before taking the turn. Since Grit Your Teeth has a huge damage potential, he had a good chance of finishing the fight with this hit – but it always harms the user, so using the turn would literally kill him. The player debated going out in a blaze of glory before deciding to cancel the turn, but I was happy to see a tense decision play into the outcome. I can foresee a different situation in a traditional campaign where a Brawler sacrifices themselves to let their allies live – that wasn’t the explicit purpose of Grit Your Teeth, but I’m happy to see that possibility emerge in play.

Pondering the Automaton’s puzzle. Note the gear props in the middle of the table.

Hexed Playtest AVL Scarefest Second Group

Reveling in their victory

All in all, it was quite a successful pair of sessions. The players had fun and provided some great feedback, both during play and on their questionnaires. I like Archmage Vyro’s tomb – I’d run a longer version of it previously for my homegroup, and it works well as a modular dungeon you can adjust on the fly. AVL Scarefest was a great convention and I enjoyed the welcoming but spooky atmosphere. My long-suffering girlfriend attended with me, and had a good time doing the on-site escape room and perusing shopping options. Hexed grows closer to complete by the day!


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