Friday, 17 March 2017

[Actual Play] Forged love letters and unscripted radio plays: Team Tsathogga get creative!

Team Tsathogga met for a (sadly brief) session this week, and things got weird. 

Last time, the session ended with Circe rushing off into the depths of Zombie Mountain and holding a dozing necromancer at knifepoint while her Invisibility to Undead spell wore out. Given that she was in her full Devourer cultist regalia at the time, the old man was understandably terrified, and ordered his skeletons to kill her if she tried anything, creating a Mexican standoff situation: so Circe played for time, launching into a sermon about the teachings of her made-up religion while the rest of the PCs (and the slug-men they'd tricked into helping them) scaled the mountain outside. Soon the situation resolved itself into four concentric bands, with the necromancer at the centre, Circe standing ready to stab him if he tried anything, his undead minions ready to attack Circe if she stabbed him, and the PCs and slug-men ready to attack the undead if they attacked her. The mood, understandably, was pretty tense.

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A bit like this but with more zombies.

As it swiftly became clear that much of the necromancer's hostility towards them was due to his assumption that they were Devourer cultists, the PCs claimed that their cult had changed enormously since it first left this island, and that they weren't at all the kind of nihilistic murderers that he might remember their ancestors as having been. Somewhat reassured by the fact that no-one had stabbed him yet, the necromancer explained that the Devourer cult had terrorised the people of this island during his youth, but had then all departed for the mainland, for reasons unknown. Shortly afterwards, he and his brother had been exiled from their village and had found their way to this mountain, where they discovered a trove of magical books and items which the cult had left behind. (He initially claimed that they had simply been abandoned, but when pressed admitted that he and his brother had murdered their protectors: 'They weren't even human any more! We were doing them a favour!') Not long after that, his brother had gone crazy, apparently under the influence of a cursed book, and run off with it; he had lived here alone ever since, studying the magical arts, and ultimately raising a small army of undead to ensure his own privacy, thus causing the zombie infestation which had plagued the island ever since. His name, he said, was Titus, and his brother's name had been Markus.

(This last revelation prompted a whole round of OOC incredulous laughter and 'oh NO!' reactions from the players, who swiftly agreed among themselves not to mention that his brother's preserved psychic head was now stitched onto a makeshift zombie body somewhere on the mainland, or that his cursed book was now in Hash's possession. Or that six hundred years had passed in the outside world since the Devourer cult left the island, even though it had only been a few decades from his perspective.)

Circe was curious as to why he had called out a woman's name - 'Zenobia!' - when awoken, and Titus proceeded to tell them the creepy and pitiable story of how he had fallen in love with a girl from his home village after spying on her through the eyes of his zombie pterodactyls, but had still been debating how best to go about courting her when his pterodactyls were smashed up by the purple cloud monster, leaving him with no way to continue his long-distance stalking: shortly afterwards her whole village was evacuated, and he had no idea where she had now gone. (Again, the PCs diplomatically declined to mention that all this pterodactyl-smashing had been their doing.) Sensing an opportunity to gain leverage over Titus, the PCs told him that Zenobia was now living in a village on the southern island, which they had converted to their reformed version of the Devourer's religion. Titus was initially horrified by the idea of the girl he loved serving in some kind of horrible murder cult, but after the PCs reassured him that they really didn't go in for the whole blood sacrifice business any more he calmed down a little, and asked if Circe would be willing to carry a letter to her on his behalf. After all, the religious leader of Zenobia's community, she would surely have great influence in encouraging her to look favourably upon his courtship!

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Cult leaders make great romantic go-betweens!

Circe agreed to do this, but upon one condition: that he send his zombies to help them in the battle against the 'underground monsters', who now threatened everyone on the islands, Zenobia very much included. Titus warily agreed that if these monsters were as real and dangerous as she said, he would do his part in fighting them; he then set to work on his love letter, recruiting Hash and Sophie to help him write it. As he agonised over one draft after another, the PCs explored the cave network in which he had lived for so many years, discovering that one side of the cavern which Titus used as a bedroom had apparently caved in. Titus assured them that it had always been like that, and that the cave-in was completely natural; but the PCs had been made wary by their encounters with the snake-men in the tunnels, especially as the increasingly-excited slug-men seemed to think that this room was where the 'hissing prophets' were likely to appear. They swiftly assembled a work-gang of zombies and slug-men to clear the cave-in, and sure enough they discovered that it had been concealing a hidden tunnel, sloping sharply downwards: presumably an entrance to the hidden subterranean lair of the serpent-folk, who had originally created the Devourer cult so many years ago. Not that they told Titus that, of course.

The PCs didn't feel ready to tangle with the snake-men just yet, so they headed back to the south island, promising to deliver Titus' message to Zenobia. There, they were rejoined by their comrades, Zeth and Atella. Zeth, who had been a scribe by profession before she started branching out into Mad Science, was able to imitate Titus' handwriting well enough to forge a new love letter from him, rewritten to be much less creepy; this was then delivered to Zenobia, along with heavy hints that its sender had probably been one of Amelia's soldiers, and instructions for where she should leave her reply. Her father insisted that she have nothing to do with this unknown suitor, so - predictably - later that night she came sneaking out to leave her own letter in the agreed hiding place. This letter was promptly taken and rewritten by Zeth into a new document, which insisted that she could only turn her mind to love once the threat from below had been overcome. The original love letters from both Titus and Zenobia were then thrown into the sea.

That night, the village watchman reported seeing a flash of light from the direction of the east island, followed by the sound of something flying rapidly through the sky overhead, apparently heading south. The PCs concluded that the snake-men must have created some kind of flying machine using the parts salvaged from the crashed spaceship, and were now heading off to join the army of vat-grown demons which must by now have assembled around their reactivated fleet beacon far to the southwest, presumably intending to reestablish their control over their ancient slave-soldiers. If any strike was going to be launched at the snake-man base beneath the islands, it would need to be now, before they could return with an army of demons at their heels.

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'I want these motherfucking snake-men off this motherfucking plane!'

Keen to secure every possible advantage in the coming battle with the snake-men, the PCs decided to investigate the metal cylinder that Hogarth had salvaged from the crashed spaceship. They couldn't find any way of opening it, so Skadi just put it on a rock outside the village and shot a hole in the top of it with their looted laser bracelet: orange steam came billowing out, along with a dribble of orange liquid that withered the surrounding plant life in seconds. Concluding that the liquid inside was highly toxic, Skadi called upon Atella - the group's craftswoman - to modify their stolen snake-man gas mask into a shape that could be worn by a human: Atella ingeniously sliced open its rubber hood and sewed it onto a leather cap, creating a nearly-airtight helmet capable of fitting onto a human head. Thus protected, Skadi went back to the cylinder and decanted its contents into a series of thick ceramic jugs, which the PCs then stoppered-up and took with them for use as improvised toxin bombs. They then sailed back to see Titus, who was overjoyed with the encouraging letter they brought him from 'Zenobia', and swore to dedicate his undead minions to the task of keeping her safe from the monsters below. (The fact that they apparently had a hidden tunnel to his bedroom also served as a contributory motivational factor!)

So the PCs set off down the tunnel, accompanied by Titus, the slug-men, and a whole bunch of undead. After walking for a long time in the dark, they found the tunnel terminated in a pair of wide-open powered doors, on the other side of which were a short corridor section whose walls seemed to have been painted by a shiny metallic white substance, and then another pair of powered doors, shut, with a blinking red light in a recess above them. Still in her Devourer cultist gear, and secretly accompanied by Hogarth (who was, as usual, invisible), Circe marched up to this door and declared that she was a priestess of the Devourer, who had come to speak with the Hissing Prophets. Moments later, a hissing, metallic voice echoed apparently out of nowhere, demanding to know why the supply of liquid time to the islands had been cut off, forcing them to rejoin the timestream. (This was another penny-drop moment for the party, as they finally realised what the Deathfrost Mountain shrine had been for, and why the Purple Islands had reappeared not long after the destruction of the cult there.) Circe claimed that there had been all kinds of problems and complications and she really needed new instructions, but the voice wasn't interested and just told her to get back onto the surface and build a new cult. Nonplussed, she returned to the rest of the group to discuss what to do.

This was when they had a stroke of genius. Invisibly, Hogarth walked over to the blinking light with the laser bracelet in his hand, guessing (correctly) that it was some kind of camera: he then pulled the trigger, destroying the camera and leaving the snake-men unable to see what was happening in the tunnel. The PCs then began to improvise an unscripted radio play for the benefit of the snakemen listening over the intercom, in which Circe pretended that she was suddenly being attacked by an army of zombies, while everyone else made zombie noises and thumped around as much as possible. Circe begged the snake-men to let her in before the zombies tore her apart, but their only response was to close the outer powered doors, leaving Circe and Hogarth sealed in the space between them. Circe then ran over to the intercom to narrate her own melodramatic death scene - 'They're coming! I can't hold them off any longer! Oh, if only this cruel door would open! AAAAAHHHHH!' - while, with the aid of Titus' mob of real zombies, all the strongest members of the party began forcing the outer doors open with crowbars, telling zombies to shove their arms and fingers into the crack thus opened to hold them apart. After lots of heaving they finally managed to force the doors open, wedging spears into the floor-grooves to keep them from being shut again. Then they herded the zombies on to claw at the inner door.

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From behind the door came sounds of hurried movement, as the serpent-folk scrambled to deal with this apparent zombie invasion - and then, very suddenly, the doors snapped open, to reveal a single gas-mask-wearing snake-man standing behind a tripod-mounted laser weapon. Instantly he began to fire, sweeping a volley of devastating laser blasts across the zombies which blew their rotting bodies apart. Only Hash, Zeth, and Jack had fast enough reflexes to act before the gunner obliterated the zombies and the door snapped shut again: Hash and Zeth seized the opportunity to hurl magic missiles at the snake-man, mortally wounding him, and causing the tail-end of his volley to go wide as he crashed to the floor, still clutching his weapon. Jack, for his part, leaped through the doors into the snake-man base beyond, fearlessly brandishing his lucky bow. As the handful of zombies still on their feet staggered forwards the doors started to snap shut again, catching them in the middle; there was a horrible crunching sound as their bones snapped, but ultimately the sheer mass of their crushed-together bodies was sufficient to keep the doors from shutting fully. And as the rest of the party surged forwards to try to climb over their broken corpses and into the room beyond, Jack looked around himself and realised just how dangerous a situation he had just hurled himself into...

Is this the end for Jack? If it is, will anyone ever be worthy of wearing his beautifully-tailored mountaineering trousers again? Will the the PCs ever put into practise their mad plan of staging a fake sea monster attack on Zenobia so that Titus can sweep in and rescue her from it? Will Titus ever learn just how much the PCs are concealing from him? Only Tsathogga knows all! 

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