Friday, April 1, 2022

Degrees of Horror: An East Texas University Post-Mortem Part 2 - Freshman Year

 Welcome back, friends. Last week, I laid the ground the work for this series, a recap of one of the best campaigns I've ever ran. Now I'm going to pour over my notes and go back to the very beginning of the campaign, and run through the adventures we played through, starting with Freshman Year.

I put a lot of thought into just how I wanted pace this, as I knew I wanted the campaign to have time to "breathe", and so I made the decision to aim for 13 adventures per school year. The idea being that it would be 3 adventure per half semester, with one adventure taking place on break. This meshed well with the idea of ETU's advances coming at the end of mid-terms and end of semester. This incorporated every Plot Point adventure from the Plot Point Campaign, every one of the original 12 to Midnight Adventures, the Class Ring adventure from the ETU GM screen, Owen Lean's Horror for the Holidays, and a number of my own creations, some using the Adventure Generator and some just crafted whole cloth.

Some of my notes are a little light. And we started this campaign 6 years ago, in person, at my dinner table, before moving online to Roll20...and we played The Curse of Strahd in between. So my memory may fail in places.

And again, be advised that spoilers will be unmarked.

Episode 0: Chickens in the Mist

  • Well regarded as a great convention adventure, we used Chickens in the Mist to kick off the campaign, setting it about  a week before school started, as the incoming students were arriving into town.
  •  In a bit of small town humor, the group was brought together by Brandi convincing Becka to double date with Russ and Mason...whose bright idea was chicken fights at the O'Conner Farm.
  • "Coincidentally", Jonathan Wolfwood broke down on a dirt road in the rain, and the group stopped to help him. They decided to bring him along as a fifth wheel.
  • This also launched a running gag that ran through the entire campaign, in which Russ and Mason became convinced that Wolfwood - from Pennsylvania - was a vampire from Transylvania, and dubbed him "Europe", a nickname that would stick.
  • The first major failed Fear Test of the campaign gave Bad Moon a Phobia of the woods when Mason spooked him in the dark.
  • The exploration of the O'Conner farm found the O'Conners were employees of Grendel-Faust, but this wouldn't begin to take on meaning for the group until much later in the campaign.
  • The fight against the giant chickens, and chase out of the farm, was a crazy blast. The group escaped with a giant chicken head, as well as weapons stolen from the farm.
  • Chickens in the Mist was a great start to the campaign, hooking the group on the weirdness of the setting. Russ Rison's player started a tradition here of kicking in various narrative elements about the town and the county, as his character was a local (and a local hero at that).
  • I didn't award any experience here, as this was more or less a "feeler" to see if we would like it, which we quite obviously did. Also, the Phobia for Russ stuck, because I'm an evil GM or something.

 Episode 1: Sweat Lodge

  •  This is the first Plot Point in the Degrees of Horror Plot Point Campaign. Essentially, there's three connected (directly or indirectly) adventures per school year, weaving a major plot through the game. This also serves as the students' orientation at the school.
  • "Our" Jackson Greene
    "Our" GlenMac
    This adventure served as the introduction to Professor GlenMac and his grad student assistant, Jackson Greene. Europe scoffs at finding out they are ghost hunters, being a Doubting Thomas (who doesn't believe in ghosts). Europe also gets targeted by an attractive young woman named Nina Castle, who lures him into a room to seemingly seduce him, but tells him "you're all going to burn" and the room bursts into flames. Europe is rescued, but finds himself marked by her.

  • The climactic battle against the bad guy of this adventure, inside a flaming gymnasium, leaves Mason with a Phobia of fire. The group also gets the first hint of The Needler, as it snatches the main baddy away.
  • The post-fight drama introduces Detective Blaine Bishop, who also questions the group about the incident at the O'Conner Farm in the previous episode. The group figures out that Bishop is one of the more reasonable authority figures in the area, which proves to be a key lifeline for the group. 
  • Europe also got a gig as an assistant for GlenMac's girlfriend, Helen Lane (if you know, you know...and this wound up causing problems for me later and altering the campaign a fair bit).

    Detective Blaine Bishop

Episode 2: A Bite To Eat

  • This is a Savage Tale from the Degrees of Horror book, and one I wanted to use entirely to realign the group's expectations in the game.
  • The group is at the Pizza Barn when a mother, out with her kids, gets attacked in the parking lot by a freaky goth looking dude in a trenchcoat, with fangs. Russ "Bad Moon" Rison, star quarterback that he is, hurls pizza with garlic on it, blasting the "vampire", who turns out to just be a regular dude. The vampire runs off, and this turns into an early memorable moment in our campaign.
  • The rest of the session was pretty standard college stuff: Russ and Mason recruited Europe as the ETU Ravens' kicker, with Russ arguing that you don't need to be an athlete, or any good, to be the kicker. The rest of the session was pretty much a big party, with the "vampire" attacking Bad Moon again when he stepped outside to relieve himself, but Bad Moon beat him to a pulp and Detective Bishop was called to arrest the vampire, a goth kid named Timothy Diamond.

Episode 3: Class Ring

  • This adventure was included with the GM Screen.
  • Due to the pacing I set for the campaign, this was set right before Mid-terms.
  • Becka was our hook for this, as she started seeing ghosts while studying for midterms.
  • The ghostly activity in this adventure proved to be too much for Europe's player, and he could no longer justify playing a Doubting Thomas, and started slipping into Delusions instead. Becka's NPC roommate (and Bad Moon's girlfriend) Brandi developed a Phobia of ghosts here as well.
  • The group joins forces with the building's maintenance engineer Michael Landry, and Dr. Hyde, but Landry dies of a heart attack confronting the demon at the end of the adventure, but they saved Dr. Hyde.
  • Europe also came into possession of The Diario de Padre Santiago.
  • Two impactful events came out ETU's academic testing mechanics, with Europe gaining a non-teacher faculty contact and Bad Moon getting an opportunity to earn some extra cash.

 Episode 4: The Sinister Sorority Sisters

  • This adventure was the first that I put together in this campaign, rather than being a canned adventure. It wound up being hugely impactful to the campaign as well.
  • The hook was Bad Moon being tasked with picking up donations for the Xi Beta Omega sorority's rummage sale, a sorority Brandi was also trying to impress, dragging Becka along in her efforts.
  • Andi, Candi, and Sandi had a number of stops for the group:
  • They met Tony Hidalgo of the Pinebox Historical Society at Hidalgo Tractor Supply.
  • At Mary Lynn's Used Books, they clashed with the West Texas Liberation Front, a white supremacist group who took issues with Racin' Mason Holmes. ETU's lead janitor, Commando, showed up and helped diffuse the situation (with threats of violence).
  • At Pinebox Pawn, they met Forrester Harris, a meeting that would have HUGE ramifications down the line.
  • At Vanderhorn's Workshop, Paul Vanderhorn let them play with a catapult, which they had a blast with.
  • Bad Moon wound up arrested when Detective Bishop and Sheriff Butch Anderson arrived at his dorm looking for goods stolen from Pinebox Pawn, and finding them in his room. This would be the first of a few grudging multi-jurisdictional operations between Anderson and Bishop, despite the fact that they didn't really like each other.
  • Bad Moon wound up locked up with members of the WTLF, who beat him in the cell, and we met his dad for the first time - Richard Rison, who told Anderson just to keep Bad Moon in jail.
  • Brandi and Becka went out to Devil Pig Swamp with the Xi Beta Omega girls, who began putting Brandi and Becka - and other girls - into a hypnotic trance. Becka broke it and texted Europe, but was beaten unconscious by Andi, Candi, and Sandi.
  • Forrester Harris told the police to release Bad Moon, declaring he wasn't pressing charges for the stolen items. He then clued Bad Moon in that a statue of the god Cronus had been stolen from the pawn shop.
  • Bad Moon, Mason, Europe, and Commando rushed to Devil Pig Swamp. In the ensuing fight, Andi and Sandi escaped, though Andi suffered backlash when her ritual was disrupted, causing her hair to fall out. Candi was killed by Europe, but her body was never found, as swamp critters ate her up.
  • With first appearances for Sheriff Anderson, Richard Rison, Paul Vanderhorn, Forrester Harris, and Tony Hidalgo (all "official" NPCs), as well as Commando and Andi (creations of mine), this session was kind of a big deal in the greater scheme of the campaign.

Episode 5: Bugs

  •  Savage Tale from the Degrees of Horror book.
  • Europe is working late with Helen Lane, and gets attacked by The Needler, but Commando and Jackson Greene save him. This, combined with Bad Moon and Mason being hung over, costs ETU a football game.
  • Accidentally discovered that Becka's player has a bug phobia when the bad guy of this adventure attacked her with bugs.
  • Introduced Missy Jordan, a girl on campus who was being stalked by Johnny Chafe. Over the course of this adventure, she developed an interest in Europe, who was oblivious to it.
  • The racist rednecks returned, and Bad Moon accidentally set one of them on fire with a road flare.
  • Brandi, feeling unloved and rejected by Bad Moon, hits on both Becka and Europe with no luck, and leaves town.
  • Commando let the group into the Insectary, and Bad Moon and Mason beat Chafe up, and threatened his life.
  • Brandi was still missing, but they traced her phone to Austin, TX.

Episode 6: Return to Roost

  • Plot Point adventure, and final adventure of the semester.
  • Brandi mysteriously returns to town, waiting on Becka in their dorm room.
  • The ghost of Nina returned, and the group had a vision of her murder, from her point of view, as well as her hiding something in a trophy case.
  • Deputy Mooney (original NPC) made his first appearance, taking a shine to Becka.
  • Europe found a cross that Nina had hidden, and gave it to Jackson for him and GlenMac to study.
  • The group passed their tests and wrapped up the semester.

Episode 7: Horror for the Holidays

  • Standalone adventure released by Owen Lean.
  • Introduces Sarah Herron, who winds up becoming a huge part of the campaign. She's a girl who has been hunted by the ghost of a criminal every Christmas for the last few years. This year, she happens to be in the same Freshman class as the group, winds up getting their assistance.
  • Set at Christmas time, as the name implies. Great adventure. Highly recommended.
  • Becka started working at the Golan County Sheriff's department after Deputy Mooney offered to get her hired on. This made events in the adventure go a little easier as she managed to manipulate Mooney into helping her acquire the badge of deceased Sheriff Bit Bedford.
  • There was lots of hijinks for Christmas presents as well here, with Mason buying Becka a gigantic gummy bear that melted in her car. Commando left town for the holidays, leaving the gang each a gummy bag of dicks. (Yes, really.)

Episode 8: Greek Tragedy

  • The ETU Ravens won their bowl game, which was huge for the group with half the characters on the football team. I used a slight variation of the Mass Battle rules at first for the football games, having Bad Moon take the Football skill, which operated almost identically to Knowledge (Battle).
  • This adventure was a Savage Tale from the Degrees of Horror book, about a murder in a frat house. As close to a "filler" game as we probably ever got.

Episode 9: Conspiracy

  • Pure homebrew adventure.
  • Bad Moon gets arrested again, this time for manslaughter, when the redneck he accidentally torched in Episode 4 dies in the hospital.
  • Rison family lawyer Jerry Auger comes to his defense at the request of Bad Moon's mother.
  • The West Texas Liberation Front attack Mason while he's with Becka, but they're both pretty good fighters and this turns out to be a bad idea.
  • The non-incarcerated party members go to the redneck's house and get pinned down by a Grendel-Faust paramilitary squad that really sets them on edge, but they manage to slip away.
  • The "deceased" redneck resurfaces, transforming into a freakish, Resident Evil-like monster, but Bad Moon and Sheriff Anderson fight him off, and form a reluctant truce, at least in regards to the supernatural stuff in Pinebox.

Episode 10: Spring Break

  • Homebrew.
  • Europe's overbearing parents try to get him to come home for Spring Break, since he stayed in Pinebox for Christmas, but he instead gets the family jet brought out to Texas so they can fly to Mexico.
  • Professor Tate of the Anthropology Department kidnaps Brandi and tries to put his dead wife's soul in Brandi's body. The group fights through the Mexican gang muscle Tate hired and Becka reluctantly agrees to take Brandi's place as Tate's wife's new vessel...but Europe joins in incantation and manages to disrupt it, causing a vicious deathspirit to emerge and slaughter Tate, the cultists helping him transfer the soul, and his remaining muscle outside.

Episode 11: The English Patient

  • Savage Tale (with plenty of embellishments).
  • Benito Ramirez hits up Bad Moon about joining the Ravens, but Bad Moon blows him off for being too small. (This is foreshadowing for a Sophomore year arc...part of the fun of knowing you're going to run a campaign with some length is the foreshadowing).
  • Becka got to babysit for some weird kids, Callie and Ethan Camden, who hit most of the "creepy horror kids" tropes...but were otherwise perfectly innocent.
  • Bad Moon and gang crashed the babysitting gig to throw a party, but the Camden kids called the cops and Deputy Mooney showed up to break it up and send everyone home.
  • The Needler emerged and attacked Bad Moon and Brandi, leaving them paralyzed. When Bad Moon recovered, "Brandi" was revealed to be a featureless grey corpse, and leaving a lot of questions behind in her wake. (I more or less used the classic D&D doppleganger here. I knew when Brandi came back that she wasn't Brandi...just remained to be seen when the group would find out.)
  • In English Lit, Professor Cutter and his fiancee were under magical assault, and the gang figured out pretty fast that it was fellow student Keyva Bordeaux. Europe managed to convince her to break the curse on them, while also enlisting her in the effort to find Brandi, though she wanted $500 and a gallon of blood.
  • Bad Moon used Twitter to spark an ETU blood drive, getting Keyva's requested blood in record time. Unfortunately, FedEx was running late with the materials she needed for the ritual.
  • The group went to Pinebox Pawn to try to get what they needed (including the wedding ring from a murdered bride), but when Forrester Harris deduced what they needed it for, he agreed to perform the ritual himself...only to come up empty.

Episode 12: The Needler

  • Final Plot Point of Freshman Year.
  • Europe acquired a magic zippo lighter from Hell from Forrester.
  • Europe got a disturbing phone call from Jackson Green, but the line went dead. The group went to find out what had happened, but cops were swarming the place.
  • After convincing with Bishop, they got to look around, where they found quills from The Needler.
  • Missy Jordan texted Europe that she was in danger at the library, and the group rushed to her aide, but she was safe. She said something was lurking near the green houses.
  • The group ventured to the green house and heard a cry for help, and Becka got her first run-in with The Needler, defeating it single handedly (she's kind of a badass). In the fight, Europe was paralyzed by its poison and Mason was nearly crippled.
  • The greenhouse burned down, leaving no sign of the Needler or anyone inside, nor could anyone find Jackson. 
  • Detective Bishop told the group that Brandi had been found in Houston, her brain removed.
  • Finally, Europe got a mysterious package with a photo of a group of classmates from the 50s...including Nina Castle, the spirit who had marked him.

Final Thoughts

  • ETU's extracurricular activities and some of the rewards from testing well at mid-terms and semesters made for great adventure hooks.
  • Adapting Savage Worlds rules to mimic football games was something I struggled with the whole campaign. Later on, I settled into Dramatic Tasks using Bad Moon's Football skill, supported by Mason's and Europe's Athletics.
  • These cliff's notes do not capture the full humor and impact in each session. We laughed in this campaign. A lot.
  • While I largely roleplayed the NPCs, Mason's sheet and die rolls were handled at the table by Bad Moon's player, and Commando was largely handled at the table by Europe's player.
  • As Freshman Year went along, the town really came alive. Forrester Harris, in particular, became an interesting foil/ally for the group, as they were never quite sure where he stood or where they stood with him. And I kept track of NPCs like crazy, to make sure they showed back up when appropriate.
  • The group had an interesting dynamic with Becka being a general do-gooder, Europe being the one roped into the idea of helping GlenMac and Jackson and bringing the rest of the group along for the ride, and Bad Moon (and by extension Mason) being motivated by sex, partying, and sports, but still being loyal to their friends.
  • In hindsight, I kind of regret having Sheriff Anderson offer the uneasy truce with Bad Moon. Especially so early.
  • I got ahead of myself by introducing Helen Lane the way I did, and waaaaay off model (I like "casting" characters, and Cynthia Preston is one of my favorite soap villains). This created a quandary that I felt the need to address by the end of the campaign (but that's for the Senior Year post).

Forrester Harris

Helen Lane

Nina Castle

Sarah Herron


  1. Hey, man! Just wanted to say, it's good to have you back. Been reading this blog for years. It's one of my favorite places to read RPG reviews. Anyway, keep up the good work!

  2. I'm also bingeing this blog. Quality SW content and reviews, love these actual plays!