Thursday, 12 October 2017

[Actual Play] The Lotos-Eaters: Team Tsathogga Head Upriver

So, the last installment of Team Tsathogga's adventures saw them perched on top of their improvised wall near the flooded temple that the naga-kin were using as their headquarters, ready to take on whatever emerged from it after the sun went down. As the darkness gathered, Hash's nightvision picked out slithering forms moving out of the building, taking up positions on its sloping roof: then the temple bell rang out once more, and a single figure leaned out from the tower. Covered in robes of embroidered silk, once-gorgeous but now foul with river-slime, the figure held out its hands towards the PCs and began orating at them sonorously, its words rising and falling like a chant as it gestured eloquently towards them with its clawed and misshaped hands. Unfortunately, the PCs had used up all their Comprehend Languages spells earlier that day, so none of them had any idea what it was saying.

Seeing the PCs make no response to its oratory, the figure appeared to grow angry. Turning to address its followers, it began to speak to them, gesturing furiously towards where the PCs crouched on their makeshift barricade. Alarmed by the awful sounds spilling out of the darkness, the rest of the PCs begged Hash to do something about the situation - so he drew back his bow, and loosed an arrow right into the orator's body. Stumbling back, the robed figure howled a curse and gestured at Circe, but her deranged faith in the Frog God defended her from its magic: and with a shot that only an elf could possibly have made successfully, Hash's second arrow sliced through the darkness and silenced him forever.

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Lizard Man, by GutsBerserk. No matter how mysterious you look, you'll still drop to an arrow in the eye...

As their leader dropped, the naga-kin went berserk, charging out of the temple to assault the barricade from all sides. Unable to see what was happening outside their narrow circle of lamplight, the PCs hurled more acid bombs and gas grenades at the naga-kin surging through the floodwater towards them, horribly aware that more were clambering up onto other parts of their makeshift wall as they did so; then, as more of the mutant beasts came rushing at them along the top of the barricade, they unleashed a storm of spells and arrows at them, while Circe held down the button on her looted snakeman pain-wand and blazed away with it for all she was worth, sending naga-kin tumbling down in agony on every side. Subjected to this withering bombardment, the creatures broke and ran, howling, into the night; and once the sounds had faded into the distance, the PCs descended, cautiously, to explore what lay within the temple itself.

Within lay a disturbing scene. Circles of bloated, mutated children, their skin discouloured by long immersion in river-water, knelt in silent circles around a central pit, in which had been heaped all the wealth that the naga-kin had looted from this once-rich trading town: skeins of torn and filthy silk, sodden books, ink-run calligraphic scrolls, and once-beautiful painted screens all lay heaped in the floodwater, slimy and ruined and foul. Here and there, however, gold still glittered in the PCs lantern-light - and seeing that the children merely watched them silently as they advanced, Skadi's criminal instincts rose to the fore, and she pushed forwards and began probing the pile with a stick. When this brought no immediate retribution, she succumbed to greed and started stuffing items of jewellery into her pockets.

The effect was dramatic. The items heaped in the pit pulsed, heaved, and then burst upwards in a shower of sodden finery, as an immense creature hurtled upwards: a gigantic snake with four heads, each face resembling a human woman with fanged mouths and long, long trailing waterfalls of hair. The naga hurled itself upon Skadi, tearing bloody chunks out of her body with its four mouths, while her companions rained attacks upon it: the space acid they hurled at it burned ragged holes in its body, while Hash used a Light spell to blind one of its heads and Hogarth cast a Choke spell to throttle a second. Finally Skadi shoved her shock baton into one of the holes burned into the creature's flank and electrocuted it from the inside, killing it: and as it crashed down its body dissolved into a wave of venomous river-water, rushing rapidly out and killing the naga-kin children where they knelt. The PCs fled for the tower steps, with variable success: but such was Skadi's hardihood that she fought off the mingling venoms burning in her bloodstream and staggered onwards, bearing wounds upon her body which would have killed any four normal men.

(Skadi passed three saves vs poison in succession, any one of which would have killed her. She really earned that treasure!)

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It was a bit like this, but much less heroic. Art from Kenneth Hite's Qelong, naturally.

Searching the body of the fallen priest revealed only a strange jewelled dagger, which Circe swiftly incorporated into her growing Evil Dagger Collection; so once the PCs had finished taking all the remaining unspoiled valuables from the heap of offerings, they headed off to inform the townsfolk of their victory. The next morning, the people headed out to the temple, where they gathered up the bloated, mutated remains of the people who had once been their friends, relatives, and, most heartbreakingly, children: but the surviving naga-kin seemed to have fled for good, restoring a measure of safety to the ragged survivors who remained. About half of them decided to take the opportunity to attempt the long, hazardous overland journey to the coast, while the rest opted to maintain their barricades and try to wait things out until the troubles finally ended. The PCs stayed with this latter group for a few days, recovering from their injuries; then, promising to check up on them during their return journey, they headed further upriver, towards the source of the Qelong's woes. By this stage Sophie was starting to feel a little strange, so they decided not to eat or drink anything which they hadn't cast Purify Food and Water on first.

Their journeys soon brought them to a fork in the river. Uncertain which way to proceed, they decided to make camp: each day they would catch one fish from each fork of the river, and Circe would use Speak to Animals to question them about what they had seen upriver, in the hope of deducing which fork would lead them closer to the fleet beacon. (For some reason, they opted to stay for exactly five days, on the grounds that their experiment wouldn't be 'scientific' unless they questioned five fish from each branch.) On the fourth day, they spotted a band of starving refugees stumbling out of the hills, several of whom were missing their hands: and in exchange for a few castings of Purify Food and Water the refugees told their miserable tale, explaining that the mutilated individuals were the victims of a curse which seemed to have befallen these lands, the power of which gathered in their hands until they had to be amputated in order to avoid afflicting everyone they touched. They also told the PCs that the east fork of the river would take them past the famous Temple of the Golden Lotus, the holiest site in all of Qelong, although what state it was in now they couldn't say. As Circe's fish-interrogations had strongly suggested that the east fork was the more seriously afflicted of the two, the PCs heard this news with considerable interest; and the next day, after questioning one more fish from each branch of the river, they headed down the fork to the south-east.

Once again they found themselves moving through abandoned villages, but with a difference: everywhere, in abandoned pools and overgrown gardens, they found swathes of gold-coloured lotus flowers. Detect Evil and Detect Magic spells revealed that these flowers were exempt from the air of evil and magic which hung over everything else in this blighted land: so, reasoning that they might be of use in warding away the curse the refugees had spoken of, they gathered the flowers and experimented with mashing them into a soup, which they then mixed with boiling water and fed to Sophie. Sophie experienced trippy visions of wheeling geometric shapes expanding in endless fractals, and spent the next few hours with blank eyes and a big, stupid smile on her face; but upon coming down from her trip, she reported that she was definitely feeling a bit less odd than she had been before.

(I was rather proud of the fact that the PCs worked out both the need to use Purify Food and Water spells on everything they ate and drank, and the potential value of the lotuses as anti-curse medication, entirely on their own, without the need for any hints or dice rolls...)

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That evening they came to the temple: a towering stupa surrounded by formal gardens laid out on geometric lines, in which the ubiquitous lotus flowers grew in great profusion. Here and there, serene, golden-robed monks and nuns could be seen tending the grounds, in striking contrast to the desolation which surrounded the stupa on every side. Hailing them, the PCs received a friendly greeting, and one of the monks went off to fetch a middle-aged nun from the stupa, who welcomed them in their own language. She invited them to stay at the temple, but insisted that the holy laws of their order would permit them to accept them as guests only for one day and one night, no more. Incredulous, the PCs pointed out that the land outside their temple was now a monster-filled wasteland of death and chaos, but the nun politely but firmly insisted that however regrettable the circumstances, they could not permit guests to remain with them for longer than twenty-four hours. Grumbling, the PCs then asked how the temple had been able to preserve itself from the horrors which had depopulated the rest of the region. The nun explained that they had been able to keep the ravages of the curse at bay through the rigorous maintenance of spiritual purity and the consumption of a special tea made from golden lotus petals, which she gave Circe a quick lesson in how to brew.

After a humble supper of plain rice and vegetable broth, the PCs were packed off to the guest dormitory, where they discovered that the temple had another guest that night: a man named Sovan, with a slightly wild, traumatised look about him. Sovan (who also happened to speak their language) explained that his village had turned to indiscriminate golden lotus consumption when the curse struck: many of them simply abandoned themselves to the lotus-visions and starved to death, but after overdosing on lotus blossoms he had experienced some kind of transcendent visionary experience from which he had emerged with miracle-working powers. Held captive for months by a cannibal clan in the hills, who found his healing abilities useful, he had finally escaped and fled to the temple for shelter and guidance - only to be told, to his disbelief, that even he would only be permitted to remain for one day and one night. Upon learning that the PCs were searching for the source of the evil which had befallen Qelong, he eagerly agreed to join their band.

By this point the party were intensely suspicious of their hosts, especially as Sovan confirmed that giving charity to the poor and desperate was meant to be one of their key functions: throwing people like him back out into the wilds went against everything they were supposed to believe in. Their suspicions were intensified by the fact that the number of monks in the temple was obviously far smaller than the number it was intended to house, and deepened even further when they found that they had been locked into their dormitory for the night. Deciding that something very odd was happening here, Skadi picked the lock and the PCs crept out to explore the temple: they took some food and lotus petals from the kitchens, and stole a bag of random scrolls from the library, where Hash also sketched a copy of a huge map of Qelong which hung on the library wall, illustrating the positions of all its many stupas. (Fully two-thirds of these had markers pinned next to them bearing sylised gold lotus designs, which made the party even more nervous.) Sneaking up the stairs behind the main prayer-hall they found a room above it, with two monks standing guard while two more meditated silently nearby; so, reasoning that something important was probably inside, they sent Sophie up to try to bypass the guards with Charm Person spells.

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Unfortunately, everything went wrong. The spells didn't work, and Sophie was promptly jumped on and restrained by four weirdly-calm monks, who pinned her down on the floor. The rest of the PCs, hearing her cries, decided they needed to get out of there, and sneaked back to their room, lay down, and pretended to have been asleep the whole time. Through the guarded door came the head monk, who looked entirely normal apart from the trippy golden mandalas in his eyes, and who gently requested that Sophie explain her presence at on doorstep. She claimed to have just been sleepwalking, but he was unconvinced, and gave orders for her to be locked in one of the storerooms beneath the temple. Shortly afterwards, the PCs were 'woken' by the same woman they'd spoken to before, who knocked on their door and explained that their comrade had been apprehended trespassing in the temple. Hash stealthily cast Charm Person on her, and begged her to intercede on Sophie's behalf: but she returned an hour later, visibly agitated, saying that there was no question of Sophie being released before she had been thoroughly interrogated, and the rest of them would still have to leave, without her, the following day. When asked if she could at least promise that their friend would not be tortured, all she could say was that if she was truly innocent, she would surely be released unharmed in due course.

After she left, the PCs agreed that they had to stage a jailbreak and rescue Sophie immediately. Being able to see in the dark, Hash sneaked out and began searching the complex, soon spotting the two guards posted outside a seemingly-normal kitchen storeroom; he returned for the others, and Sovan cast Hold Person to try to immobilise the guards, but they both shrugged off the effect and leaped forwards, yelling for reinforcements. Skadi shouldered her way to the front to take up her role as 'designated meatshield', flailing uselessly at the monks with her shock baton as they dodged and wove, pummeling her with nerve strikes which would have felled a weaker warrior: Circe's Command spell temporarily dropped one of them, but the other simply dodged or resisted everything they threw at him, yelling for help the whole time. But aid came from an unexpected source when Sophie, realising from the commotion outside that her friends had come to rescue her, charged at the door of her cell - and proved that all her weight training had paid off by smashing it clean off its hinges. Snatching up the falling door, she whacked one monk with it from behind, while trampling the other underfoot; Princess then pinned the still-mobile monk to the wall, her robot body impervious to his nerve strikes, while the rest of the party flooded forwards to pummel him into submission. Their rescue effected, they then fled for their lives, taking the unconscious monk (and the storeroom door) with them.

Pursuit was not long in coming. Seeing lantern-bearing monks running towards them across the gardens, the PCs ran for the perimeter wall, with Sophie propping her stolen door up against it to use as a gangplank. Hash ran straight up it to the top of the wall, and started pulling the others over; but the stompy metal feet of Princess crashed straight through the boards, and Skadi yelled that it was time for the robot to be abandoned to her fate. Circe, Sophie, and Sovan refused to leave her, throwing down ropes and hauling her up one bicep-straining foot at a time, until finally she crashed over the top and toppled down onto the other side; and with Hash's darkvision to guide them they fled away into the night, with Sovan advising them of little-known drover's trails that carried them deeper and deeper into the depopulated countryside to the east.

Just what are these gold-robed monks doing in their temple? Why are they so calm all the time? What do the markers on the map mean? What is up with that guy's eyes? Watch Circe and her minions comrades try, and probably fail, to discover the answers to these and other mysteries in the next installment of The Adventures of Team Tsathogga!

Monday, 9 October 2017

Almost a review: Mutant Crawl Classics adventure modules

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Derek Holland asked for reviews of the adventure modules which were released as Kickstarter rewards for Mutant Crawl Classics. So here they are.

All these adventures have good black and white art, with the maps, in particular, being wonderfully embellished with illustrations. They draw on a very similar set of ideas: mutants, robots, ancient computers, and laser guns. Only one of them makes any use of manimals, and none of them use plantients at all, which seems to confirm the impression I got from the main MCC rulebook that they were basically just tacked on. (It's a shame: the chance to play a sentient heap of radioactive ivy was one of the things which attracted me to the game in the first place!) All but one of them also features artificial intelligences as NPCs, usually in very prominent roles - so if you want to run all of them then I hope your players enjoy talking to faces on computer screens...

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Hive of the Overmind (level 0): A 0-level character funnel, with a great concept - the PCs are people who have been kidnapped by ant-men and drugged into servitude within their hive, but one day a giant bee attacks and the mental grip of the ant-men weakens enough for them to make their escape into the ancient science complex below! What I like about this one is that there are multiple different ways for the PCs to escape the hive: steal a digging machine from the tunnels, ride to freedom on the backs of giant horseflies, or even use the labs to plug themselves into the hive mind and turn the tables on the antmen, enslaving them in turn! There's also some good stuff with warring robots down in the tunnels and a chance to do the whole you-say-you-are-programmed-to-destroy-all-nonhumans-but-look-you-yourself-are-a-nonhuman-the-incinerator-is-that-way routine, which is always good for a laugh. As a way to start a new campaign, it's way better than being hired to kill some goblins by an old guy in a tavern.

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A Fallen Star For All (level 1): An ancient industrial complex is torn open by a meteor, and now a whole bunch of scavengers are converging on it. It's alright, but sadly most of the rival scavengers just attack on sight, as does virtually everything inside the complex itself. There's a fun bit with a robot nanny called MATRON, and skeletons in containment suits are a classic, but overall you could probably put together something just as good yourself with a few hours work.

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Incursion of the Ultradimension (level 2): This is basically the same set-up as the last one: a crazy AI and a bunch of killer mutants in an ancient science complex. There's some stuff about incursions from another dimension, but the extradimensional creatures are no odder than the local mutants, so all it really means is that you get to 'win' by turning off the portal in the last room. The highlight is probably a chance to make friends with the 7' tall furry warrior-mutants who have evolved from the lab's population of guinea pigs.

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Warlords of Atoz (level 3): This is a Zardoz homage. An army of mounted gunmen are spreading out from a temple, enslaving and exterminating local populations, but the temple turns out to be a giant flying head ruled by an AI which has set itself up as a god. (Sadly, the gunmen don't wear red underpants and thigh-high boots.) The concept is clear and good - infiltrate the temple, kill the boss, try to avoid crashing the flying temple into the ground - but it's very short, and there's just not a whole lot to it. There is an opportunity for your PCs to jump into surgical pods and get random cybernetic implants, though.

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Blessings of the Vile Brotherhood (level 4): This one was written by Harley Stroh, so of course it's the best one. Mutant raiders butcher an order of monks to unearth an ancient warbot beneath it, but then fail to control it and promptly schism over the resulting disaster. It's non-linear, it features memorable set-piece encounters, it's full of factions you can play off against each other, it rewards intelligent problem-solving, and it even features non-suicidal enemies. My one quibble is that it feels rather like a repurposed DCC scenario: its quasi-medieval setting of monasteries, bandits, pilgrimage roads, monks and nuns, and so on is very different to the world of primitive scavengers hiding in the jungle which is presupposed by the other modules. (Warlords of Atoz even assumes that the PCs will never have encountered agriculture or horseback riding before!) Even the mutants resemble D&D monsters - one of them's basically an ettin, for example. It's still the best of the bunch, though.

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The Apocalypse Ark (level 5): This adventure is hardcore. A genocidal scientist roams the world in her giant mobile laboratory, sending genetically-engineered monsters out into settlements to infect everyone with her artificial plague, while rocking out to a soundtrack played by her robot DJ (who interprets everything that anyone says to her as a song request, which would probably be hilarious in actual play). When the PCs and their village are hit, they have to board her lab and search for a cure - but the scientist has psychic ability to project her mind into a new body every time she dies, so if cornered she'll just shoot herself in the head and possess one of her vat-grown murder-mutants, meaning that it'll take more than just violence to defeat her. So the PCs are likely to end up stranded aboard a fortified laboratory crashing through the jungle at high speed, under attack from waves of mutant knife-fighters who keep crawling out of the spawning vats, and hunting a villain who just swaps bodies every time they kill her, all while probably dying of the plague. Luckily, the lab contains some possible allies as well as enemies...

I like a lot of things about this adventure, which confronts the PCs with an extremely challenging central problem, and then gives them lots of possible tools with which to solve it. The mobile lab, with its crew of freaky hyper-specialised mutants, is also a much more interesting adventure location than yet another ancient underground bunker - especially as the PCs are actually allowed to interact with it as a vehicle, with the option of smashing its tank treads, crippling its sensor arrays, and so on. Very good stuff overall.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Condensation in Action, part 4: Council of Thieves

I've been planning to do another condensed Pathfinder AP for a while, now, and Svebor Midzic put in a request for Council of Thieves. So here it is. Anyone who wants to see one of my previous condensed APs - Rise of the Runelords, Curse of the Crimson Throne, or Kingmaker - can find them here, here, and here, respectively.

Council of Thieves is a fucking mess, and I don't think anyone involved with writing it really had any idea what they were doing. The six adventures which constitute it are barely connected to one another, major plot threads appear and disappear at random, and the finale comes completely out of left field, so what follows is less of a 'condensation' than a rescue mission. Rise, Curse, and Kingmaker are all very highly regarded by the PF community - Rise and Curse got deluxe expanded editions, and Kingmaker is getting adapted into a goddamn video game - but Council is often voted as one of the worst, if not the worst, adventure path which Paizo has ever put out.  Despite this, however, Svebor thinks it has potential, and I agree with him. The fact that it basically consists of a heap of random stuff linked together by almost nothing except their shared location makes it a rubbish Pathfinder railroad, but means it has the potential to be a pretty decent urban sandbox!

So with no further ado...

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Background: This AP takes place in a decadent and decaying port city called Westcrown, which has recently been mauled by a civil war in which its rulers backed the losing side. Half the city lies in ruins, and the rest is under military occupation by the Hellknights. It has also been afflicted by a strange enchantment, the Shadow Curse, which summons dangerous shadow-creatures to roam its streets after dark.

Back in its glory days, Westcrown was home to a powerful mafia, the Council of Thieves, who grew so rich and influential that their crimelords married into the nobility. As the city waned, the Council became a shadow of its former self, but notional leadership of the Council continued to be passed down the male line of the once-famous Drovenge family. Its current head, the formidable Vassindio Drovenge, is growing old; and when his only son, Sidonai Drovenge, reached middle age with only a daughter to his name, he couldn't bear the thought of the line dying with him. Sidonai sought out a witch, The Mother of Flies, who gave him an enchanted coin, and told him to swallow it next time he lay with his wife. He obeyed, and sure enough his wife conceived and gave birth to a son, Eccardian: but the child's horns and silver eyes betrayed his otherworldly heritage, and Vassindio soon found out about the whole affair. Sidonai was immediately banished from the city, and hasn't been heard from since; his wife died soon after, apparently of fever, but actually of poison administered on the orders of her furious father-in-law.

All through the civil war, and the occupation that followed it, Eccardian and his half-sister Chammady were raised in the home of their distant, domineering grandfather, who detested them as embodying the ruin of his house. They longed for his death, but the old man seemed determined to live forever; so a few years back, they began gathering allies in preparation for a coup. Now that Eccardian has finally reached adulthood, they have decided to take matters into their own hands, and to attempt to seize House Drovenge, the Council of Thieves, and perhaps even Westcrown itself for their own...

Westcrown: This city has seen much better days. Once one of the world's great trading ports, it has been left behind by more recent political and economic developments, and now most of its wharves and canals lie empty. Its people, and especially its aristocracy, still entertain an over-inflated estimate of their place in the world, and have not yet come to terms with the fact that most people now view the city as a backwater whose time has passed. Its rulers live in decaying mansions, mere wrecks of their former grandeur, and lose themselves in dissipation to distract themselves from their city's decline.

Due to an extensive history of diabolism among the city's aristocracy, Westcrown has a significant tiefling population, who are the victims of widespread prejudice. Those born with demonic traits small enough to conceal live in fear of exposure, while those unfortunates whose demonic features cannot be hidden are driven into lives of crime and poverty in the city's slums. Tiefling thugs and street gangs are a persistent menace in the rougher parts of the city.

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The Hellknights: These are the army occupying Westcrown. They wear distinctive spiky black platemail armour, partly to make themselves look intimidating, and partly to protect them against missile fire from any opportunistic would-be patriots (such as the Children of Westcrown) who might be lurking in upstairs windows as they march through the streets. The locals hate them and fear them, and whisper that under their armour they are all monsters and demons rather than men.

The Hellknights loathe Westcrown. The city is so rundown and war-ravaged that the taxes raised from it don't even cover the costs of maintaining their occupation, but it's a matter of national and regimental pride, now: their prestige is on the line, and they can't be seen to back down in the face of some ragtag urban insurgency. If someone could credibly promise to ensure order and loyalty in the city, they'd happily leave the place forever: they'd even be willing to offer the city a measure of self-government, if they could be persuaded that it would mean an increase in the tax revenue. If, on the other hand, the situation in Westcrown appears to be spiralling out of control, they will call in more and more reinforcements until all disorder has been crushed by overwhelming force. They are completely willing to destroy the city in order to 'save' it.

The leader of the Hellknight force in Westcrown is Paralictor Chard. He is unaware that one of his lieutenants, Signifer Verennie, is secretly in the pay of Chammady and Eccardian Drovenge, who have promised to aid her advancement if she assists them in their coup. Verennie has tired of the severe restrictions of life under Paralictor Chard's austere interpretation of the Hellknight code, and longs for an easier and more enjoyable life in which she calls the shots, instead. Verennie will thus do her best to ensure that the Hellknights look the other way while the Drovenge siblings make their moves.

The Council of Thieves: Back in Westcrown's glory days, the Council of Thieves were a force to be reckoned with. These days they're a shadow of their former selves, so weakened that most people in the city are unaware that they still exist. The head of the Drovenge family still serves as their hereditary leader, and several other members of Westcrown's aristocracy hold (largely ceremonial) roles within its leadership structure. Even in its current diminished state, however, there are still a fair number of criminals in Westcrown to whom loyalty to the Council still means something, and its leaders can call up a small army of thugs and cutthroats if they need to.

The current head of the Council is Vassindio Drovenge, who is well into his eighties, but has no intention of dying any time soonIt is largely due to Vassindio's efforts that the Council still retains any kind of power or operational capability, and most of its members are fiercely loyal to him. If he dies then this role will be inherited by his 'grandson', Eccardian - but the Council's loyalty to him is purely a matter of tradition, and if evidence emerged that he isn't really Vassindio's grandson, or that he was responsible for Vassindio's death, it would turn against him at once. If the Drovenge family dies out, then the Council will probably die with it.

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Eccardian Drovenge: As a horned, silver-eyed, golden-skinned tiefling, Eccardian has been forced to spend most of his life in hiding, barely ever permitted to leave his grandfather's mansion. The official story is that Eccardian suffers from terrible eye and skin diseases, which keep him confined to his room most of the time, and require him to completely cover his skin and wear tinted glasses on the rare occasions when he's permitted out. Lonely and resentful, he has grown to hate his grandfather, his city, and pretty much everyone and everything else except his beloved sister, Chammady. His planned coup is the culmination of a lifetime of fantasies about forcing the world to give him the respect and status he feels to be his due.

Eccardian's plan has four stages: first use LiebdagaIlnerik, Irimeian, the Bastards of Erebus, and his demons to create chaos in the city, then use that chaos as cover for his murder of his grandfather and several of the city's other leaders (including Vuiper Ghivel, Paralictor Chard, and Mayor Arvanxi), then take control of House Drovenge and the Council of Thieves (both of which he should inherit after his grandfather's death)and finally stage a 'glorious rescue' in which he and his men appear to save the city from all its troubles, culminating in a faked battle between himself and an army of his own summoned demons (hopefully led by Liebdaga). After 'saving' the now-leaderless city (from himself), he will then offer his services to the occupying powers as its new Lord Mayor, as he will have proven himself the only person capable of keeping order in its streets, with Signifer Verennie aiding him as the new commander of the Hellknights. Then he'll have shown them. He'll have shown them all!

Unlike Chammady, Eccardian is basically driven by resentment rather than ambition, and he'd rather see Westcrown destroyed than let things continue as they are. If his plans seem to be falling apart, he'll simply unleash all his minions - demonic, undead, and human - upon the city in the hope of doing as much damage as possible, a nihilistic act of pointless destruction which will horrify his more pragmatic sister.

Despite being barely 20 years of age, Eccardian's infernal heritage has made him a natural demonologist, and has secretly summoned a small army of demons to assist him. The most dangerous of these are his Hellish Cavalry: six demonic warriors riding on blazing infernal saber-toothed tigers, whom he has stashed within a summoning circle in a secret room beneath Drovenge Manor, waiting for the time to be right to unleash them.

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Chammady Drovenge: A scarily intense woman in her mid 20s, Chammady is a skilled swordswoman and a dangerous opponent, even when she doesn't have Kruthe the Hammer looming behind her like a big, ugly shadow. She's devoted to her brother, Eccardian: in fact you might as well go ahead and make them incestuous lovers, which is hinted at but not outright stated in the original. She's ambitious and ruthless, but the real drive behind their planned coup comes from Eccardian, and she lacks his deep-rooted anger at the world. She doesn't think Westcrown is worth dying for, and will cut her losses if everything seems to be falling apart. If her brother seems determined to drag the whole city down with him, the PCs might even be able to turn her against him.

Chammady is currently conducting a secret affair with one of the city's most senior clerics, Vuiper Ghivel, who is also the head of one of its oldest aristocratic familiesVuiper is vain enough to believe that she really loves him, and is doing everything he can to assist her plans, in the deluded belief that she will marry him as soon as she manages to pull of her coup; but in fact she's just using him for his wealth and connections, and plans to feed him to her brother's demons as soon as he's outlived his usefulness.

Kruthe the Hammer: A half-ogre warrior of prodigious size and strength, Kruthe was raised from early childhood within the Drovenge family to serve as an enforcer for the Council of Thieves. Growing up in the same household as Chammady Drovenge, he has nursed a helpless crush on her ever since he reached puberty, and would do anything to win her approval. If Chammady ever needs someone or something utterly wrecked, then Kruthe and his henchmen are the ones she'll send to do it.

The Bastards of Erebus: This gang of thuggish tieflings do Chammady and Eccardian's dirty work. Right now they've been told to cause as much trouble down in the slums as possible, in order to distract the city's authorities from the coming coup. They are currently hiding out in an old abandoned temple, guarded by animated dog skeletons, where their most freakishly deformed member - Dravano the Digger, who has huge mole-like claws - is busy excavating a new base for them in what was once the crypt.

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Irimeian: This cannibalistic undead sorceress lurks in Sunset Gate, a gatehouse which once watched over the road into Westcrown's ruined districts. As the road now leads to nothing, she's mostly left undisturbed, preying upon the vulnerable and building undead minions from their remains. Chammady and Eccardian have struck a deal with her, keeping her supplied with corpses and body parts in exchange for her promise to unleash her minions upon the city to cause havoc when they most need her to do so.

The Slave Barge: Rumours are circulating in Westcrown of a mysterious pleasure barge which sails the city's canals at twilight. Four beautiful women entice people aboard, promising a night of pleasure, but those who board it are never seen again. In fact these women are demons summoned by Eccardian, and their victims are taken back to a makeshift prison in the ruined districts, where they are either pressed into service or sold into slavery. (If the PCs are captured by the Council at any point, this prison is probably where they'll end up.) The prison is run by a tiefling named Skarx, who dreams of winning Eccardian's love and ruling the city as his queen. She views Chammady as her rival, and would happily betray her to the PCs if she thought she could do so without harming Eccardian. She is one of the few people who knows about Chammady's relationship with Vuiper Ghivel.

The Shadowcurse: Each night, as darkness falls over Westcrown, its streets fill with supernatural shadows. The baying of unearthly hounds can be heard, and the people hurry to lock themselves indoors. Those who roam the streets after dark will often find themselves pursued by packs of hounds seemingly composed entirely of solid shadow, who will drive them back indoors. Anyone who fails to take the hint will be attacked by shadow hounds, and probably torn apart.

The people of Westcrown blame the curse on their occupiers, and they're not wrong - the Hellknights introduced it as a cost-cutting measure, as it saves them the trouble of patrolling the city's labyrinthine alleyways after dark. It's maintained by a magician named Ilnerik, whom the Hellknights believe to be a simple sorcerer for hire. They are unaware of his true nature and origins, but might not care very much if they found out.

Ilnerik: Ilnerik was once a famous explorer, who operated out of his sprawling home in Westcrown, Delvehaven. His decline began when, in a far-off land, he discovered an ancient relic, the Aohl, sacred to a long-forgotten dualistic religion. Not understanding its nature, he separated its two halves - holy to the lords of day and night, respectively - and left the former in Delvehaven, while carrying the latter half, the Totemrix, with him. Unbalanced, its shadow powers soon consumed him, turning him into a weird creature of living darkness with the ability to summon beasts of shadow from the void. He is totally dependent upon the power of the Totemrix, and if it is taken from him - or if its power is neutralised by combining it with the other half of the Aohl, the Morrowfall - then he will rapidly wither and die.

Ilnerik volunteered his services as a shadow-summoner to the Hellknights, but his true loyalties are to Chammady and Eccardian Drovenge, who have promised him great wealth and power if he assists them with their planned coup. His shadow-beasts will never impede them or their minions (including the Bastards of Erebus) unless this would make his disloyalty obvious to the Hellknights, and when the coup comes he will merrily unleash them upon the general population. He is currently living in a fortified house in Westcrown along with his lover, Silana, who is forbidden to leave the house, and is consequently so bored and frustrated that she'd happily betray him if she thought she could get away with it. Long-term exposure to Ilnerik's shadow-energies mean that Silana is no longer quite human, her skin and hair permanently infused with living shadow, but she's OK with that. The Goth look suits her.

Delvehaven: This was the headquarters from which, in life, Ilnerik planned and organised his various journeys of discovery. His transformation into his current quasi-living state released shadow energies which turned Delvehaven into a magical disaster zone, and it was magically sealed by the city authorities shortly afterwards. The Children of Westcrown strongly suspect that Delvehaven contains clues which might help to end the Shadowcurse, but it's widely known that only Mayor Arvanaxi has the authority (or the means) to open its magical wards. Anyone trying to get in without the key (which is hidden within Abirian's Folly) will have to deal with any number of magical traps along the way.

Inside, shadow-beasts - like those called by the Shadowcurse, but much more powerful - roam the corridors, and the main hall has become the lair of an animated triceratops skeleton, which Ilnerik brought back from one of his voyages and was animated by the shadow-powers he accidentally unleashed. The vaults beneath it contain all manner of trophies and treasures, including the Morrowfall - the other half of the relic which Ilnerik so catastrophically divided. Wielded, it can be used to conjure blazing light to burn undead, destroy shadow-creatures, and blind the living; and if combined with the Totemrix, the powers of both halves are neutralised, ending the Shadowcurse. Anyone who carries the Morrowfall around for more than a year without also carrying the Totemrix will be consumed by its energies and transformed into a being of living radiance, just as Ilnerik became a creature of living shadow.

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The Morrowfall.

Mayor Arvanxi: The current Mayor of Westcrown, Arvanxi is a local aristocrat installed by the occupying forces. The Hellknights approve of him because of his willingness to enforce their edicts; the aristocracy tolerates him because at least one of their own is still notionally in charge of Westcrown; and the common people hate him, but no-one cares what they think. He's a fan of the so-called 'Theatre Mortrescci', or 'murderplays', in which actors suffer real pain and violence onstage - his favourite examples are little more than thin excuses for extended scenes of sadism, interspersed with real life-and-death battles with skeleton warriors raised for him by his 'chaplain', Vestus Svaska. (Exactly which god Vestus is a cleric of is a question best not delved into too closely.) Murderplay actors and directors are regular guests at his official residence, Aberian's Folly, where he hosts frequent banquets for the local aristocracy.

Robahl Nonon: Westcrown's leading murderplay director. He owns a theatre which also stages more conventional dramas, but he's always on the lookout for people hardy or desperate enough to agree to various on-stage tortures in exchange for a pile of gold; once he's rounded up enough of these unfortunates to put on a play, he gets in touch with Mayor Arvanxi and organises a performance as soon as possible, with the surviving actors always generously feasted and rewarded by the mayor afterwards. Very few people are willing (or physically capable) of performing more than one murderplay, so PCs looking for an opportunity to meet the mayor, or to infiltrate Aberian's Folly, only need to sign up as 'actors' in Robahl's latest spectacular. You don't mind acid burns, do you? There might be quite a lot of acid burns...

Aberian's Folly: This sprawling mansion is the official residence of the Mayors of Westcrown. It is one of the city's most famous landmarks, renowned for its magical conveniences: ever-burning torches, temperature-controlled rose gardens, hot and cold running water, and so on. What very few people know is that these are powered by a demon, Liebdaga, who has been bound beneath the mansion and used as a power-source. The day-to-day running of the manor is handled by the mayor's majordomo, Crosael. She is secretly a tiefling, but has so far managed to keep this hidden from everyone - until recently.

One regular visitor to Aberian's Folly is Chammady Drovenge; and when she brought Eccardian as well, for once, his unearthly senses soon allowed him to detect both Crosael's true nature, and the presence of the demon bound beneath the house. Chammady subsequently blackmailed Crosael into letting her brother into the mansion's basements, where he communed with Liebdaga, offering to free him in exchange for his assistance in their coup. They then forced Crosael to 'hire' an agent of theirs, a tiefling named Sian, as a maidservant. Sian has been surreptitiously weakening the bindings restraining Liebdaga ever since, causing erratic failures in the house's magical systems which annoy Mayor Arvanxi hugely. (He finds it especially embarrassing when they fail in front of guests.) He's tasked Crosael with finding the source of the problem, but even though she strongly suspects Sian is behind it, she can't move against her without risking exposure. Crosael deeply resents being blackmailed by a fellow tiefling, and would double-cross them in an instant if she thought that she could get away with it.

The key to opening Delvehaven is in a chest hidden in the mansion's attic, guarded by demons who step out of enchanted mirrors hung on the wall to slay anyone who attempts to take it. (These mirrors, like everything else in the house, are powered by Liebdaga, and will become increasingly unreliable as his bindings weaken.) The chest also contains a stack of corpse candles (which, if placed on a corpse and lit, allows communication with the spirit whose corpse it is, whose face appears in the flame), and the severed head of a demon, which mostly just screams and swears at people.

Liebdaga: This powerful demon is trapped under Aberian's Folly, where its supernatural energies are tapped to power the mansion's various amenities. If Sian is allowed to continue her sabotages for long enough, then the binding will start to malfunction in increasingly spectacular ways: less minor glitches in the temperature control systems, and more obliterating blasts of random hellfire. At this point Mayor Arvanxi will abandon his home and beg for help from anyone he can find, even if it means confessing to random adventurers that he's had a demon locked away under his house all along.

Liebdaga is imprisoned within a network of magical machines, collectively called the Nessian Spiral. These machines are tended to by a work gang of Tiefling slaves, the Tunnel Rats, who are never permitted to leave. If the bindings start to break down, the Tunnel Rats will make a desperate attempt to escape before they all get incinerated with hellfire. Repairing the machines without their assistance - willing or otherwise - will be extremely difficult. If the machines break down entirely and Liebdaga escapes, he'll initially be very weak and vulnerable after being subjected to so many years of energy siphoning, and PCs who track him down quickly enough should be able to defeat him. If he survives long enough to regain his strength, however, he'll return to Westcrown, ready to fulfill his side of the bargain by obliterating anyone standing in the way of Eccardian's rise to power.

The Children of Westcrown: This rather amateurish resistance movement is trying to fight back against the occupation of Westcrown. They're mostly composed of young idealists who dream of restoring their city to its former glory. In a straight fight the Hellknights would crush them like insects, but the Children specialise in hit-and-run ambushes in the mazelike alleyways of the old city. Their leaders, Janiven and Arael, are strong on good looks and charisma but weak on practical long-term strategy. They've had a run of good luck recently, but their organisation is rudimentary, and if one of their leaders were to be captured then the Hellknights could probably roll the whole conspiracy up within a week.

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Janiven, trying to look cool. Again.

The Devildrome: This ruinous amphitheatre in the ruined districts of Westcrown has now been taken over by Rance Lucca, a member of a minor and impoverished noble house. He uses it to run exotic bloodsports, in which demons summoned by his hired conjurer, Mantrithor Thrax, fight either against human gladiators or each other, while the audience pays for admission and bets on the outcomes. There aren't a lot of people willing to fight demons for money, so he'll be eager to hear from any PCs who want to take part. PCs who manage to win big will earn the attention of Chammady Drovenge, who is a regular visitor to the Devildrome. Robahl Nonon also frequents the place, as the kind of people who are willing to fight demons for money are often also the kind of people who can be persuaded to consider trying their hands as 'actors' in a murderplay...

The Sisterhood of Eiseth: This all-female order of devil-worshippers have existed covertly in the city for years, although their numbers have declined along with its waning fortunes, and they are now little more than a street gang with a fancy gimmick. They fight with bladed scarves, and operate out of a crematorium in the poorer part of town, which they use to dispose of the bodies of their victims. The ossuary under the crematorium contains hundreds of urns in which are deposited the ashes of all those they've killed over the years, meticulously labelled and dated in Infernal script. Before their decline, the Sisters were Westcrown's premier assassins, and their ash-library contains the remains of many notable figures from the city's past, including individuals involved with the foundation of the Council of Thieves, the binding of Liebdaga under Aberian's Folly, and even the expeditions of Ilnerik and the sealing of Delvehaven. PCs who obtain the corpse candles from Aberian's Folly can use these to commune with their ghosts, gaining information about any or all of these events

The Hagwood: This forest stands a short way outside Westcrown, and is the home of the Mother of Flies, the witch responsible for Eccardian's conception. She lives in the Maggot Tree at its very heart, served by murderous redcaps and giant insects and vermin of many different kinds. Because she is the only person other than Vassindio Drovenge who knows about Eccardian's true parentage (and thus that he has no real right to either the Drovenge name or the hereditary leadership of the Council of Thieves), Eccardian has dispatched a force of cutthroats into the Hagwood to find and kill her - but they're city boys, and the forest is huge and hard to navigate. If and when they locate the Maggot Tree, they'll lay siege to it as best they can.

PCs could potentially learn from any number of sources that a whole bunch of Westcrown ruffians have been coming and going from the Hagwood recently, even though everyone knows there's nothing of value out there. If the PCs assist the Mother of Flies in getting rid of them, she'll happily tell them the truth about Eccardian's birth, and even suggest (correctly) that the original demonic contract she made his father sign is probably still stashed away somewhere in Drovenge Manor. Publicising this document would be enough to get Eccardian disowned by his family (although not by Chammady), and possibly murdered by the Council of Thieves.

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Probable Course of Events:

  • As soon as the PCs arrive in Westcrown, they will hear about the Hellknight occupation and the Shadowcurse.
  • Investigating the city will soon alert them to rumours about the Devildrome, the Slave Barge, tiefling thugs raising hell in the slums (i.e. the Bastards of Erebus), resistance fighters struggling against the Hellknights (i.e. the Children of Westcrown), and undead monsters stalking the ruins (i.e. Irimeian). 
  • PCs who dig deeper may also hear about bands of cutthroats roaming the Hagwood, the mysterious sealed building in town (Delvehaven), the recent malfunctions in the mayor's magical mansion (Aberian's Folly), and an all-female gang out in the slums who used to be hardcore assassins back in the day (the Sisterhood of Eiseth).
  • PCs who start to make a name for themselves are likely to be approached by Janiven and Arael (who will try to recruit them for the Children of Westcrown), Paralictor Chard (who offers to hire them to assist the Hellknights in dealing with the city's many problems), Rance Lucca (who will want them for the Devildrome), and/or Robahl Nonon (who will want them to 'act' in one of his stupid murderplays). 
  • After a few weeks, if Sian hasn't been stopped, the malfunctions at Aberian's Folly will become so dangerous that Mayor Arvanxi will flee his home and beg for help from anyone, including the PCs. If the infernal machines beneath the mansion aren't promptly repaired, then the Tunnel Rats will mine their way out and flee for their lives, and shortly afterwards Liebdaga will burst from the flaming ruins and flee into the wilderness.
  • If Liebdaga is still alive a week after his escape, he returns to Westcrown at the head of an army of Eccardian's demons and starts wrecking everything, aided by Ilnerik's shadow-beasts, Irimeian's undead, and the Bastards of Erebus (assuming they're all still active). Eccardian will seize the opportunity to have his various minions murder Vassindio Drovenge, Vuiper Ghivel, Paralictor Chard, and Mayor Arvanxi, seize control of the Council of Thieves, and attempt to stage his 'rescue' of the city.
  • If Liebdaga doesn't escape, or escapes but is killed before regaining his strength, Eccardian will try the same plan with whatever assets he still has.
  • If Eccardian's position is so weakened that his plan is obviously doomed to failure, he'll just unleash everything he has on Westcrown in the hope of doing as much damage as possible, probably alienating Chammady in the process.
  • After all the craziness dies down, a massive force of Hellknights marches into Westcrown. If anyone - even some random outsider like one of the PCs - seems to be in control and doing a decent job of maintaining order, then they'll appoint them Lord Mayor on the spot and then leave. If all they find is chaos, then they'll simply start smashing things until either the problem is solved or the city no longer exists. Either one works for them.
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Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Here Be Cannibals: Mapping Generic OSR-Land

You've probably all seen those maps of Generic Fantasy Land. This one was made years ago;  more recently James Hutchings posted two similar ones over on his Teleleli blog. You might also have seen this post over on Throne of Salt,  which took a whole bunch of OSR settings (including mine!) and squished them all together into a single hexmap - which is also, incidentally, pretty much how I built the game setting for my current Team Tsathogga campaign.

Reading these two posts in close succession made me think about what the OSR-fantasy version of those maps would look like. The OSR, after all, has its distinctive preoccupations and areas of focus: a lot less Generic Fantasy Kingdoms, and a lot more crashed spaceships and mutant snakemen. We have our own fads and fashions - islands and whaling seems to be in this season - and one doesn't need to read very widely in the OSR blogosphere to start seeing the same motifs surfacing over and over again. (There seems to be no limit to our collective fixation with cults and cannibals, for a start.) So I idly opened Hexographer, and an hour later, I came up with this...

Thursday, 28 September 2017

[Actual Play] Propaganda videos and chemical warfare: Team Tsathogga's Vacation in Qelong

Team Tsathogga are back! Again!

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The frog cult grows strong!

Long-term readers may recall that their last adventure, back in March, saw their final conquest of the Purple Islands and their capture of the snake-man science facility beneath them. Much fucking around with ancient technology ensued. The PCs discovered holographic records describing the fall of the prehistoric snake-man empire. They hatched a bunch of snake-man eggs in incubators, adopted one of the resulting babies, and called it Ambie. They accidentally made contact with the ascended collective consciousness of an alien race out in space somewhere. They discovered space suits which had obviously, and intriguingly, been built for ape-men rather than humans. They successfully restarted an ancient android, interrogated it about its memories, dressed it in purple robes to disguise its inhuman nature, and named it Princess. And, of course, they loaded up on as much captured snake-man wargear as they could carry.

But amidst all this joyful looting, they couldn't escape the knowledge that somewhere, far to the south, the last surviving snake-man scientists were probably rallying the army of demons which would by now have assembled around the crashed fleet beacon whose reactivation had been sensed by their demon buddy Vaul so many months before. So with heavy hearts they entrusted the rulership of the Purple Islands (and the raising of Ambie the Snake-Baby) to their former comrades Erin, Atella, and Zeth, manned and equipped the ship they'd stolen from the Order of the Divine Surgeon, and sailed south.

They landed in Qelong - or my version of it, at any rate - where they swiftly discovered that the local situation was pretty dire. A civil war between rival claimants to the throne had collapsed into something much worse as a plague of madness, curses, and monsters had moved downriver from some unknown source in the southern highlands; and while the rival armies still fought over the coastal regions, upriver the social fabric had disintegrated almost entirely. The cities were crammed with starving refugees from up-country villages, telling confused horror stories about ghosts and monsters and crawling hands. In a gesture that neatly combined mercy with practicality, the PCs selected several of the most capable-looking refugee families and offered them a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to leave their ravaged homeland and settle as colonists on the Purple Islands, instead!

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'It's OK, guys. You'll love it here!'

So as their ship left the harbour, laden with refugees leaving to start a new life on the islands, the PCs paid extortionate prices for horses and then rode upriver, strongly suspecting that the fleet beacon they were looking for had something to do with Qelong's misfortunes. Everywhere they saw the ravages of war, and one night they had a spooky encounter with a herd of seemingly-demonic water buffalo: the last remnant of order seemed to be a riverside town occupied by a company of foreign mercenaries, which they decided to stay as far away from as possible. Beyond this point lay a wilderness of abandoned villages and ruined paddy fields, through which they rode until they came to what had once been a large and prosperous town built around a bridge over the river - but now the bridge was broken, half the town was flooded, and the rest appeared to be uninhabited. As night was coming on, they took shelter from the rain in one of the sturdier-looking buildings on the outskirts of town.

In the middle of the night, Jack was standing watch when he noticed furtive movement in the rain-slicked streets below. He swiftly woke the rest of the party, and Hash's elven night-vision picked out multiple figures stealthily converging on the house from all sides. He called out a challenge, and the figures hid themselves; but soon after a horrible gurgling voice responded from the darkness, calling for them to come down, down to the river's embrace...

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Mmm. Watery death. Tempting.

In the brief dialogue that followed, it became clear that the beings outside revered some kind of river-monster called 'the naga', and wanted to bring the PCs to meet her. When the PCs politely declined, they became angry, loudly declaring that anyone who did not go willingly would be dragged to the river by force. Minutes later, the creatures attempted to storm the room which the party was in, attacking through every door and window simultaneously - but the PCs were ready for them, and responded with a storm of arrows, laser bolts, and magic missiles that blasted them back out into the night. Only one of the creatures managed to close to melee range, and he had the bad luck to pick Princess for his target, jamming his spear through her robes and getting stunned by an electric shock for his troubles. A further volley of arrows and magic from the PCs soon sent the remaining creatures in the streets outside fleeing back to the safety of the river.

Tying up their captive, the PCs soon discovered that it was some kind of mutant, resembling a drowned man with snake-like fangs and in-growing scales. They attempted to interrogate him, but all he did was rave about the naga in the river; and when the sun rose, they saw him visibly shy away from the light. Advancing cautiously into the town, they discovered that one section of it was still inhabited, with barricades drawn up around a few blocks of houses and exhausted, malnourished guards standing on watch. With the aid of a Comprehend Languages spell, the PCs learned that these ragged survivors were all that remained of the town's population, who now lived in fear of the mutant monsters which crept out to abduct and drown people in the night. Many had tried to leave, but all had been hunted down and drowned - and, horribly, some of them had subsequently reappeared, bloated and mutated, in the ranks of the monsters who now infested the flooded half of the town. They told the PCs that the creatures hated warmth and dryness, and begged them to burn their captive at once - which the party proceeded to do, in order to prove that they weren't in league with the river-monsters. He was very soggy, though, and he didn't burn very well.

The PCs now faced a problem. Comprehend Languages allowed them to understand what the locals were saying, but not to speak to them in turn - so how could they make themselves understood? After some discussion, they hit upon a brilliant idea: and using illusion magic, they projected a silent propaganda video of themselves onto the wall of a nearby house, accompanied by Hogarth's a capella rendition of the theme from Thunderbirds. The awestruck survivors watched as, in the illusion, idealised versions of the PCs stood around in triangle formations, walked away from explosions in slow motion, killed horrible monsters, united beautiful maidens with sexy bad-boy anti-heroes, and generally went through an extremely sanitised version of their actual adventures, all designed to show them as the conquering hero-prophets of their crazy made-up religion. (It had now evolved into a sort-of trinity, with the Bright Lady and the Frog God as rulers of the overworld and underworld, respectively, and the Devourer as an evil devil-figure to which they were both opposed.) When Jack explained, via pantomime, that he and his heroic comrades had now come to liberate the town from the monsters lurking in the floodwater, the desperate villagers eagerly admitted them to their barricade.

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Within the barricades, things were really wretched: a few hundred survivors eking out a miserable existence on a dwindling stock of rice, and leaving the barricaded area as little as possible. Circe promptly set about winning hearts and minds with the aid of Cure Light Wounds and Purify Food and Water spells, but it was clear that if any fighting was going to happen, the PCs would need to do most of it themselves. They began with information-gathering: Circe went down to the river and caught a fish in a net, only to observe with some disquiet that it was freakishly large and had some kind of weird growth on its side, resembling a cluster of four malformed human faces. Using Speak With Animals she questioned the fish about the naga and its followers, learning that a large 'shoal' of naga-kin mutants was living in the flooded areas of town, and that the naga itself was somehow both present and not present everywhere in the river, a fact which caused the fish no small amount of stress. (At this point Hash had a lightbulb moment: 'The naga's not in the river. The naga is the river!') The fish also told her that all the plant and animal life in the river became increasingly weird and dead the further upriver you went. Experimentally, Circe then used a Bless spell to turn the water around the fish into holy water, and was intrigued by the fact that the horrible four-faced growth on its side promptly tore away from its flank, leaving a bloody patch on its side where it had once been. They then released the fish to seek its fishy destiny elsewhere.

Keen to lure the naga-kin out, the party decided to set a trap for them. Just before dusk, Hogarth took the partially-burned corpse of their deceased captive, cast Control Corpse on it, and instructed it to lie still until someone other than him tried to touch it, and then to grab that person and bring them to the party; he then tied a rope to it and floated it out into the middle of the river, while the party lay in wait, concealed in the ruins at the river's edge. A couple of hours after dark, Hash's darkvision picked out a few naga-kin swimming cautiously towards the corpse, sawing through the rope which bound it, letting it drift a short way downriver, and then swimming carefully over to retrieve it... at which point it promptly grabbed its would-be collector, and Hash cast Light on it, allowing everyone else to see the naga-kin as they recoiled from the glare. As the brightly-glowing zombie grappled with the naga-kin Hogarth cast Choke to subdue its victim further, while the rest of the party tried to keep the others from aiding their comrade with a hail of arrows fired from cover. The naga-kin fled with horrible gurgling wails, but soon returned with more of their kind, who swam rapidly across the river towards the PCs; the party responded by fleeing back towards the barricades, throwing stolen snake-man poison gas grenades behind them to cover their retreat. Circe was jumped by one of them while stumbling in the ruins, but she promptly stabbed a sword through its leg and dragged it off with her as a prisoner while Hash provided covering fire.

As the still-glowing zombie stumbled out of the river carrying the limp body of its captive in its arms, the other naga-kin swiftly surrounded it, eager to destroy it but fearful of its brightness. Casting Invisibility on himself, Hogarth crept over to his zombie servant, and slipped into its pocket a clay pot of the potent acidic venom which the PCs had gathered from the crashed spaceship they found on the Purple Islands. He then whispered one final order: wait until they close in on you, then break the pot. He slipped away as the naga-kin circled the glowing zombie, tearing at its legs with their barbed spears; and as it feel to the ground and they advanced to maim it further, it followed his instructions and smashed the pot. The resulting burst of fiercely-acidic venomous gas and liquid killed several of them in seconds, with the few survivors fleeing, howling, back to the safety of the river.

◍iт'ѕ noт тнe world тнaт'ѕ crυel, iт'ѕ тнe people in iт◍ aesthetic ~green~
Eat space acid, mutant scum!

No sooner had the PCs started to congratulate themselves on a job well done than they heard something: the terrible, sonorous tolling of a huge bell in the darkness, somewhere on the far side of the river. Soon it was joined by the booming of gongs, and the clashing of cymbals - and then by what sounded like hundreds of horrible gurgling voices, raised in wordless war-cries. Realising that they might have just provoked a full-scale invasion, the PCs grabbed lanterns from the villagers, leaped onto their horses, and rode as quickly as possible down towards the river-bank, looking for all the world like the heroic versions of themselves in their own propaganda video. The water was alive with naga-kin, swarming towards them in waves - so, inspired by Hogarth's recent successes with chemical warfare, the PCs began lobbing pot after pot of salvaged space-acid into the river. The effect was dramatic: as the river turned to poison, inflicting awful chemical burns on the naga-kin swimming through it, their morale broke and they turned and fled back towards their flooded ruins, giving the PCs an opportunity to lob yet more space-acid into them for good measure as they retreated back across the river.

(I made a morale roll and it came up double-6, so I assumed they just routed en masse when the river started turning to poison acid all around them...)

No further attacks came that night, and morning revealed a morbid sight: dozens of acid-burned naga-kin corpses strewn on both sides of the river, along with quantities of dead fish. Rallying the villagers, the PCs indicated that the time had come for them to crush the naga-kin once and for all, and marched them out onto the broken bridge: Circe proceeded to show off by using Warp Wood to make it mend itself right in front of her, allowing them to process onto the far bank, a feat of miracle-working which inspired even more wonder among the already awe-struck survivors. Having located the flooded ruins of a temple as the likely site of the bell they heard during the night, the PCs set the villagers to work collapsing the water-rotted buildings in a wide circle around it, with the aim of turning it into a lake which they could then consecrate and/or poison; but their efforts were hampered by hit-and-run attacks by naga-kin lurking in the nearby buildings, and by the day's end their planned barrier was only half-finished, with nine unfortunate villagers having paid for their progress with their lives. Unwilling to let the naga-kin simply pull down in the night the wall that they had constructed at such cost during the day, the PCs told the villagers to return to their homes as darkness fell, while they themselves climbed up on top of their improvised wall and prepared to defend it against whatever issued forth from the flooded temple after dusk...

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Who will prevail? What new propaganda reels will the PCs one day make based on the events of the night to come, and just how many embarrassing incidents will have to be left out of them when they do? Find out in the next thrilling installment of The Adventures of Team Tsathogga!

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Dragon Warriors: You Can Never Go Back

I first came across the Dragon Warriors books as paperbacks, in 1991 or thereabouts. I think that I initially mistook them for Fighting Fantasy style gamebooks, which were released in the same format, and were very popular at the time. I swapped books 1 and 2 from a friend - in exchange for Deathtrap Dungeon and Trial of Champions, if I recall correctly - and later borrowed books 3, 4, and 6 from a local library. I never did get hold of book 5.

Dragon Warriors blew the doors off my tiny little mind.

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All images in this post are from the original Dragon Warriors books and its Blood Sword spin-off series.

I'd read Fighting Fantasy and Tolkien and Eddings and Brooks and far more Dragonlance novels than can possibly have been healthy for any one human being, and from them I'd absorbed the basic premises of generic high fantasy, but I'd never seen anything like Dragon Warriors before. Its dark, fearful, cobwebbed world of superstitious villagers, guttering torchlight, dripping forests, barrow mounds, and shadows on the mist immediately seized hold of my imagination, and has never really let go. That D&D5 module I wrote the other month? With all the fog and the curses and the creepy pagan idols? Pure Dragon Warriors. 

I was used to thinking of goblins as disposable sword-fodder and slapstick comic relief: Dragon Warriors gave me goblins as wicked fey who came creeping out under the cover of dusk, wielding swords made from icicles and nets of spider-silk. Boggarts who danced along the moon-beams. Two-headed trolls that gibbered to themselves as they loped across the moors at twilight. Amoral, soulless elves who cast no reflection in mirrors. Wights who came drifting from their barrow-mounds, cold and pale and sad, to slay their victims and sow their corpses in the earth. Kings slumbering in hidden chambers beneath the forest. Knights placing the fingerbones of saints in the pommels of their swords to grant them power over evil. Skeletons clawing their way out of their own graves, furious at being buried in unconsecrated soil. I'd never read anything like it, and its distinctive, atmospheric blend of modern fantasy and medieval folklore absolutely enchanted me. When I finally read TSR's Ravenloft stuff, some years later, it seemed like pretty small beer by comparison.

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A while back, the publishers of the new version of Dragon Warriors, Serpent King Games, put their core rulebook up on Drivethru as a Pay What You Want product, so I picked it up. The rules and the setting were the same, but the effect was completely different. The old black and white art had been replaced with more generic fantasy illustrations. The rules for the monsters were the same, but the monster descriptions had been cut to the bone, with no mentions of goblins making swords out of icicles, or pazuzus posing as 'forsaken lazars', or any of the other details which had so captured my imagination all those years before. The new sample adventure was... well, it was alright. But it didn't compare very well to the old ones.

(A brief aside on first encounters: in the original Dragon Warriors sample adventure, the first combat encounter is with a band of warriors who step out of a tapestry to defend the complex the PCs are trying to enter. When killed they merge back into the tapestry, on which they now appear as corpses. The tapestry is highly flammable, and burning or otherwise destroying it kills all the warriors instantly. It's weird, it's medieval, and it rewards PCs for thinking rather than just hacking. In the new one, the first encounter is with a bunch of feral dogs who attack for no reason and fight to the death. It's the sort of 'tutorial' fight scene I'd expect from a video game rather than an RPG.)

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I should make clear, here, that large chunks of the new Dragon Warriors book is copied verbatim from the old ones, including all the wonderful magic items. (I've never really cared whether one of my PCs found a wand of magic missiles or not, but woe betide the NPC who stands between them and ownership of a Ring of Red Ruin!) And there is a separately-published bestiary book, which may well contain all the original monster descriptions. Overall, though, reading the new version of Dragon Warriors made me realise just how much of the effect of an RPG is communicated not through facts - these are the rules for armour, this is how many hits it takes to kill a goblin, and so on - but style. The feel of the Dragon Warriors world, its distinctive claustrophobic folk-horror vibe, was never really reflected in its rules: instead, it was communicated through the language, the illustrations, the sample adventures. Whenever the new version keeps the facts but changes the style, most of the value gets lost along the way. Those throwaway lines of description in the original monsters section have influenced me more than any set of rules or mechanics ever could.

I strongly suspect that half the RPG edition wars one sees being fought on the internet only pretend to be about factual changes to rules and settings, and are actually mostly about changes to the style in which they are presented. I don't say that to be dismissive: I actually think that style is at least as important a part of RPG writing as game or setting design, and quite possibly more so. (Any setting can be made boring if it gets described in a boring enough way, after all!) One of the strengths of a lot of current OSR stuff is that it foregrounds art and prose style in a way that is now much rarer in the works produced by, say, Paizo or Wizards of the Coast. The distinctive styles cultivated by individual OSR creators won't necessarily appeal to everyone, and may indeed alienate more people than they attract. But when they win, they win big. They win people over the way Dragon Warriors won me over in 1991. 

Anyway. Despite everything I've said here, the new edition of Dragon Warriors is still well worth a look to anyone who's not already familiar with the game, and it's still PWYW. You can get it here. I just wish they'd been able to keep the original art...

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