Sunday, 23 April 2017

The Blue Necropolis

One of my historical reference points for the Wicked City is late medieval and early modern Samarkand, and one of Samarkand's most famous sites is the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis. In reality, it consists of twenty-odd large mausoleums, spectacularly decorated with the characteristic blue-green tiles of the region, and mostly containing various Timurid-era dignitaries of the city. (Timur loved extravagant building projects almost as much as he loved large-scale atrocities against defeated populations.) But the Wicked City is much larger than Timurid Samarkand, and much more morbid; and so its equivalent is not just a single street of mausolea, but a whole wilderness of tombs. The people call it the Blue Necropolis.

Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis. Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Shah-I-Zinda necropolis, Samarkand.
In all there are several hundred grand tombs in the Blue Necropolis, although some of the oldest ones are now little more than wind-worn ruins marked with ancient and illegible names. Here, in elegant tiled mausolea, rest the great and good from past centuries of city's history: kings and queens, princes and princesses, scholars and generals, ministers and holy men. Here too, in huge and over-decorative tombs which testify to both the wealth of their builders and to their horrible lack of good taste, lie the dead members of the city's more recent dignitaries: the heads of Cobweb families, and the lucky minority of deceased ex-ministers whose careers ended with posthumous honours and state funerals rather than with midnight visits from the secret police. The building of each mausoleum can take years, and there's usually a work-gang of artisans and clockwork labourers sweating away somewhere in the Necropolis, building the latest monstrosity in honour of some recently-dead member of the city's elite. Being quieter than the Grand Bazaar district, and not subject to the bizarre curse which falls upon the Streets by night, the Necropolis also serves as a site for various forms of covert commerce, prostitution, and the sale of stolen goods.

When the Wicked King came to power, he purged most of the city's old aristocracy, killing or exiling their relatives and handing over their estates to the henchmen and sycophants who would go on to found the families of the Cobweb. In many cases these tombs are now the most substantial remaining monuments to their vanished power, and they have thus come to serve as natural meeting-points for the scattered and shattered remnants of those who still preserve some nostalgic loyalty to the old order. Distant cousins of murdered beys meet outside the mausolea of their ancestors, to clean their tiles and speak mournfully of the glory days of their family. Men and women whose great-grandparents served as officers under generals whom the Wicked King exiled, or as attendants to the holy men he martyred, meet at the tombs of their glorious predecessors and shake their heads at the doleful condition of their land.

ISLAMIC ART & ARCHITECTURE: Shah-I-Zinda Necropolis, Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Mausoleum in Shah-I-Zinda, Samarkand.

These meetings seldom come to anything, of course: the Wicked King's statue network runs throughout the necropolis, ensuring that no-one there dares to express any real disloyalty or sedition. But sometimes... sometimes, as they gossip and complain, the little gatherings are joined by voices from within the mausolea. Old voices. Thin voices. Voices speaking in antique dialects.

'What has happened to our city?', they murmur, plaintively. 'What has become of us?'

Shah-i-Zinda mausoleum complex ~ Samarkand, Uzbekistan | Flickr - Photo by jason.risley
Shah-I-Zinda again.

The sad truth is this: under the influence of the city's miasmic spiritual corruption, more and more of the dead of the Blue Necropolis have begun to rise as Hortlaks, Those of them who return without intelligence just thump around inside their coffins, occasionally scaring passers-by with their muffled howling; but the more intelligent of them claw their way out of their graves and lurk inside their mausolea, listening at their sealed doors. The holy rites with which the mausolea were constructed prevent them from leaving their tombs; but they can and do speak through their doors, with lying, wheedling voices, cajoling the furtive groups who gather there into talking to them. Listening to them. Obeying them. And bringing them victims.

'Just let their blood run under the door', they say. 'This is old magic. It is secret. It is important. It will be the salvation of our city. You are heroes, you who are doing this. One day, your great deeds will be rewarded. Just a few more victims. Just two more. Or three more. Just let their blood run under the door...'

And so they feast, these horrible parodies of the city's long-dead dignitaries, ancient generals and princesses scrabbling around on all fours within their mausolea, licking blood from their cold stone floors with long and blacked tongues.

PCs looking for potential allies against the Wicked City's tyranny could easily end up crossing paths with the Necropolis gangs. They might well be willing - even eager - to believe the stories such gangs tell them, about great warriors and holy sages from the city's past ages lurking inside their tombs, waiting to burst out and free their nation if only they can be fed enough human blood. Some of the gangs have degenerated into mere murder cults, drunk on covert violence and misguided dreams of their own future glory; but others make a sincere effort to only kill the 'right' sort of victims (criminals, informers), and genuinely believe themselves to be working for the city's redemption. If the PCs can persuade them that no salvation worth having can really be achieved by pouring human blood into ancestral tombs, they could potentially become valuable allies. But if, on the other hand, the PCs enthusiastically join them in their endeavours, the consequences could potentially be dire.

For all of the Hortlaks of the Blue Necropolis have the same dream: that one day, glutted on blood, they will become so swollen with stolen life-force that they will be able to burst the doors of their mausolea and escape, laughing and ravenous, into the vast and victim-filled city outside...

Related image

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Merchant houses of the Wicked City

Traffic on a mountain pass in Afghanistan.:

Even in its decayed state, the Wicked City remains a major centre of trade in six commodities: clockwork technology, medicines and opiates, coal, guns, metalwork, and slaves. No foreign merchant likes visiting the place any more - although some of them guiltily look forward to it, as a chance to indulge in various horrible vices which the rest of the world has quite rightly forbidden - but as long as the prices stay competitive, then what are they supposed to do? Business is business, after all - and if they don't take advantage of the economic opportunities that the city offers, then their competitors certainly will.

And so the caravans continue to trek through the desert to visit the Wicked City, even though they assure the kings and holy men of their far-off homelands that they will give the place as wide a berth as possible on their long, long journey across the Great Road. They bring wine and grain, dye and coffee, cloth and silk and carpets; and they leave with bundles of guns and bales of opium and files of jerkily-marching clockwork soldiers, which they sell in distant marketplaces in order to enable the perpetuation of old and ruinous wars. When they return home again, who is to say which part of the money in their purses came from this trade, rather than from any other? The face of the Wicked King, after all, has never been stamped on any coin...

This trade is overseen (and largely controlled) by the merchant houses of the Wicked City. Before the city's decline, they were great merchant consortia, who traded across the length of the Great Road and returned with wealth to rival that of kings; and while their stature has shrunken along with that of their city, what they have lost in size and reach they have more than made up for in greed and guile. Their dilapidated mansions fill the streets around the Grand Bazaar, their rooms piled high with mouldering curios imported by their adventurous ancestors: stuffed animals from distant jungles, relics from far-off ruins, and books written in languages that no-one has spoken for a thousand years. Legendary treasures are rumoured to lie rusting in their hidden vaults, guarded by devious traps and unsleeping clockwork sentinels. Maps of half-mythical foreign kingdoms are pinned, sagging, to their stained and crumbling walls. And amidst all this decayed splendour their scions sit looking out at their soot-stained courtyards, their fingers heavy with antique rings, sipping strong coffee and clicking the beads of their abaci, calculating the profits of their trade. They know their city is corrupt, and that they live amongst evil and violence and squalor, but still - one must balance one's books, must one not?

Uzbek  traditional Ikat chopan (coat) w/ a great Niello /Silver concho type belt,19th century. Uzbeks.:

There are dozens of such merchant houses in the Wicked City - far too many for it to be worth detailing them all individually. To generate one, use the following tables:

Primary Business (roll 1d12)
  1. Exporting coal. (Will have strong connections with the city's mines.)
  2. Exporting metalwork. (Will have strong connections with the city's foundries.)
  3. Exporting clockwork technology. (50% chance of being Brass Folk; if they're not, they will have very good contacts in the Brass Folk community.)
  4. Exporting medicines and opiates. (50% chance of being Serpent Folk; if they're not, they will have very good contacts in the Serpent Folk community.)
  5. Exporting guns.
  6. Importing and exporting slaves.
  7. Importing silk and textiles.
  8. Importing wine.
  9. Importing grain.
  10. Importing coffee.
  11. Importing horses.
  12. Importing gold, silver, and jewels.
Divriği - Ulu cami and Darüşşifa (Hospital). Main room of hospital with octagonal pool:

Their mansion is... (roll 1d6)
  1. Built around a single large courtyard, once bright with flowers and water, now blackened with smoke and soot.
  2. Built around a series of smaller courtyards, each one opening onto the next.
  3. Built like a small fort, with thick, heavy walls and narrow windows ideal for firing muskets out of.
  4. A large building surrounded by lavish gardens, which are in turn surrounded by a high wall to keep the people of the city out.
  5. A sprawling building containing a confusing labyrinth of rooms, connected to one another apparently at random by corridors, balconies, and staircases.
  6. Built around a large central tower, in imitation of the spires of the Cobweb.
Their mansion contains... (roll 1d20 1d3 times)
  1. Networks of concealed rooms and secret passages.
  2. Hidden treasure vaults that even the current family don't know how to find.
  3. Ingenious clockwork traps installed at strategic points to immobilise and/or kill intruders.
  4. Vast networks of half-collapsed storage basements, which ultimately connect to the Maze.
  5. A set of rooms which no-one goes into because everyone believes it to be haunted.
  6. A staff of ancient, creaking clockwork servitors, who wordlessly serve the family in place of human servants. 
  7. An exceptional menagerie of exotic animals, some of them extremely rare and dangerous.
  8. An exceptional menagerie of clockwork animals, some of them extremely rare and dangerous.
  9. An extraordinary collection of art from a far-off nation, collected by one of the current family's ancestors.
  10. A secret room containing a miserable-looking peri in an iron cage.
  11. Extensive alchemical laboratories, in which one of the the current family's ancestors sought the secret of eternal life. (1 in 6 chance that she sort-of-succeeded and is still down there, her withered body connected by dozens of metal tubes to the cumbersome alchemical apparatus which maintains it in a semblance of life.)
  12. Marvellous fountains and water gardens, full of exotic fish.
  13. A collection of fossilised dinosaur bones from the Cold Desert, including 1d6 complete skeletons.
  14. 1d3 ravenous Storm Worms imprisoned in a hidden pit. 
  15. 1d4 technically-not-quite-dead elder members of the family, their brains preserved within clockwork bodies so that they can continue to act as advisers for its business affairs.
  16. An extensive collection of antique weapons and armour, drawn from many cultures.
  17. Maps of a far country long believed to be entirely mythical, which the current family swear that their ancestors actually visited.
  18. A small but impeccably-equipped observatory at the top of a high tower, complete with high-quality telescopes from the distant Sunset City.
  19. A great library of poetical and philosophical works, written in many languages.
  20. A large collection of notes, plans, and charts written by one of the previous heads of the house, relating to a never-completed expedition to investigate (and, if possible, seize and carry back) the Bronze Gods of the Frog Men.

From an album "Kazakhstan" by photographer Sasha Gusov. October 2013.:

The current head of the family is... (roll 1d12)

  1. A ruthless social climber who aspires to their own tower in the Cobweb.
  2. A loyal scion who dreams of restoring their family to its former glory, and is working steadily to turn that dream into a reality.
  3. A scholar and a mystic, much given to abstruse philosophising while under the influence of opium.
  4. Secretly a member of the Red Brotherhood, covertly channelling wealth towards resisting the wickedness of the city's government.
  5. A once-ruthless merchant grown old and fearful, who now spends money lavishly on religious donations and holy relics in the hope of averting the wrath of heaven.
  6. A decadent wastrel who squanders the wealth of their family in hedonistic self-indulgence.
  7. A depraved cultist who worships the Wicked King in secret, and regularly purchases slaves for ritual sacrifice in a hidden shrine beneath their mansion.
  8. An impractical dreamer, helplessly watching the fortunes of their family decline and longing for the better days of the past. 
  9. A once-dutiful individual made reckless by desperation; they know that their family faces ruin within a few years unless some radical change occurs, and will do anything to save it.
  10. Sick at heart of the cruelty of the Wicked City, and secretly planning to emigrate to somewhere less horrible while taking as much of their family and fortune with them as possible. 
  11. A fearless merchant-adventurer, who has travelled through many lands and suffered many hardships, and boasts that they have seen all the wonders of the earth.  
  12. A sleepless stimulant-addict, hooked on coffee and liquid brightness, who roams their mansion by night shaking and twitching, watching fearfully for some nameless threat to come creeping in from the darkness outside...

along the silk road:

Thursday, 13 April 2017

The Thirteen Ministries

Safa-Gerey Khan of Kazan Khanate:

From their offices high up in the King's Tower, the eight Lesser Ministers and the five Greater Ministers oversee the government of the Wicked City, such as it is. The primary concern of the Lesser Ministers is scheming to engineer their promotion to the ranks of the Greater Ministers. The primary concern of the Greater Ministers is keeping the Lesser Ministers firmly in their place. A shocking amount of gold, blood, and twisted ingenuity has been expended in the name of these two objectives over the years.

In the great hierarchy of abuse which makes up the social order of the Wicked City, the thirteen ministers are very, very close to the top; but this position makes their own vulnerability harder rather than easier to bear. How utterly unfair - how unbearably unjust - that they, who possess so much wealth and power and status that they can ruin the lives of lesser men with a mere gesture of their languid hands, should be as powerless as anyone else in the face of the secret police! And yet this is so: the thirteen ministers exist in the shadow of the fourteenth ministry, the Ministry of Information, whose workings they are not privy to and whose edicts they are not expected to question, only to obey. If the endless status games played by the thirteen ministers often seem almost incomprehensible in their cruelty and pettiness, it may be because their true purpose is not to reallocate actual power between them, but to distract their players from the fact that true control over the city does not rest with any of them, and never really did. They behave like vindictive gods among men to protect themselves from the knowledge of their own vulnerability. Their offices are decorated like palaces and defended like fortresses, but they know that none of that will count for anything if the secret police decide to pay them a call.

Ottoman Woman by Abdullah Buhari, 18th century, Istanbul University Library:

They hold meetings in a great chamber on the thirty-first floor of the King's Tower, around a huge table with fourteen chairs. At this table the thirteen ministers debate, snipe, harangue, insult, plot, scheme, declaim, manipulate, flirt, and rage at each other from their gilded thrones, while the masked representative of the Ministry of Information - always code-named Captain Six, even though it is obviously a different person each time - watches them impassively, seated in silence upon a simple wooden stool. Normally their meetings are fantastically unproductive, as each minister pushes their own pet projects and personal agendas into the teeth of the rest; but, from time to time, Captain Six will rise to his or her feet and modestly suggest a course of action. Then the thirteen ministers will all go very quiet and agree to do that, instead.

The thirteen ministers hate and fear Captain Six more than anything in the world. It is the only thing they have in common. They hate the fact that the secret police can't even be bothered to send the same person to each meeting. They hate the fact that none of them are brave enough to object to it. They have nightmares about that bland, featureless mask.

Portrait of Karabed Artin Paşa Davityan (1830-1901), Ottoman diplomat and official from an Armenian family.  Named ‘Dadyan Paşa’ in Turkish sources.  He was Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs from 1876 until 1901.:

The five greater ministries are these: Trade, War, Diplomacy, Finance, and Religion.

The eight lesser ministries are these: Words, Heavens, Civil Order, Fortifications, Agriculture, Roads, Technology, and Industry.

These are their functions.

- The Ministry of Trade oversees the dealings of the city's great merchant houses, ensuring that a suitable cut of their take is redirected to the government's coffers, and that a sufficient number of the caravans of the Great Road continue to come to the Wicked City, however guiltily and furtively, to buy and sell those goods which can be traded nowhere else. The current minister is Shining Firuza, an elderly and embittered woman whose chief interest is in adding to her collection of antique ceramics. When she was younger she had a reputation as a fearsome black magician, but she has long since become disillusioned with sorcery, and her terrible grimoires now do little except gather dust upon her secret shelves.

- The Ministry of War has responsibility for the organisation and supply of the King's Men and the First Brigade, and deals with the defence of the city and the pacification of the surrounding countryside. The current minister is Uruslan the Benevolent, a cruel, limping old soldier who takes an obvious sadistic glee in doling out corporeal punishments to his inferiors. He is secretly a bone witch, and the fossilised dinosaur egg bound over his heart is the only thing which keeps his crippled body alive.

- The Ministry of Diplomacy is responsible for relations with foreign powers, which in practise means handling the vast networks of spies, informers, and secret agents that the Wicked City has embedded in every state for several hundred miles. The current minister is The Most Merciful Shahnoza, whose head is encrusted with so many layers of networked logician implants that she has to be accompanied everywhere by servants who help her to support the enormous weight of her giant mechanical brain.

- The Ministry of Finance deals with the collection of taxes, and the funding of all the other departments. Because none of the other ministries can function without money, this is generally viewed as the most powerful of the Thirteen Ministries (although, for precisely this reason, most of the other ministries have set up their own systems of extortion to provide them with revenue streams independent of the Ministry of Finance). The current minister is Farrukh the Glorious, a devious weasel of a man who spends most of his leisure time indulging in horrible combinations of mind-altering narcotics provided by the serpent folk.

- The Ministry of Religion is responsible for the maintenance of the Wicked City's awesomely corrupt state religion, which is now little more than a hollowed-out shell of what it once was. In practise this means that it maintains the city's temples and religious hierarchies, and squeezes money out of the population in the form of 'offerings'. The current minister is Her Supreme Holiness Umida, a brutally pragmatic woman who is only interested in religion insofar as it offers possibilities for personal self-enrichment. She has a healthy respect for its ability to inspire loyalty and dread, however, and demands actual worship from her unfortunate subordinates, insisting that she alone can interpret the will of heaven.

Turkish Lady, 1870s. via carolathhabsburg's tumblr.:

- The Ministry of Words is responsible for the regulation of printing, education, and theatrical performance in the city. (This also means that it provides the licences for the schools of the Mindblade Orders.) Its main activities are censorship and squeezing money out of people in exchange for licenses of various kinds - to print, to teach, to perform, and so on. The current minister is The Most Wise Durdona, whose veneer of high culture and profound emotional sensitivity conceals her shocking and amoral heartlessness. She plots to replace Shahnoza as Minister of Diplomacy.

- The Ministry of the Heavens is responsible for the city's observatories, and for the regular compilation and analysis of astrological predictions and horoscopes. For no very logical reason, it is also responsible for the Cloud Castle and the Air Corps. The current minister is Alisher the Just, a young man of exceptional physical beauty and limitless personal ambition, who craves power for its own sake and will break any number of lives to attain it. He schemes to replace Farrukh as Minister of Finance, and he has begun to worship the Wicked King in secret in the hope that this will help him to achieve his goals.

- The Ministry of Civil Order is responsible for maintaining civic order in the Wicked City and its dominions. In practise, this means maintaining the city's statue network and overseeing its fantastically unjust legal system, which exists mostly as a way of collecting additional revenues in the form of legal fees, bribes, and fines.The current minister is Gulnora the Radiant, a coarse and low-minded woman whose chief interests are in food, drink, and sex, and who is seldom seen without a handsome young Murder Harlot on her arm. She aspires, in a vague sort of way, to replace Umida as Minister of Religion.

- The Ministry of Fortifications is responsible for maintaining the vast ring of crumbling walls, towers, and forts which circle the Wicked City, as well as the various watchtowers and border forts which the city maintains out in the hinterlands. The current minister is Aziz the Magnificent, a weaver of labyrinthine conspiracies, who plots with infinite patience to remove and replace Uruslan as Minister of War.

Engraving by unknown artist for Eugene Schuyler’s Turkistan: Notes of a Journey in Russian Turkistan, Khkand, Bukhara, and Kudja  1876, Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington:

- The Ministry of Agriculture oversees the operation of the city's farmlands, and the endless, thankless task of repairing their continually-crumbling irrigation networks. The current minister is Yulduz the Compassionate, a murderous psychopath with a room full of guns and a hair-trigger temper, who has been murdering her way up the ranks for her whole adult life and sees no reason to stop now. She currently has her sights on the Minister of Finance, Farrukh.

- The Ministry of Roads is responsible for keeping the streets of the Wicked City clear for traffic, and maintaining the roads which connect the city to the outside world. The ministry also maintains the network of messengers who carry communications back and forth across the city-state, and is responsible for keeping the roads clear of thieves and bandits, or at least ensuring that their numbers are kept down to a tolerable level. The current minister is Jamshed the Valiant, a paranoid wreck of a man who plots ruthlessly for his own advancement - not because he has any actual desire for power, but because he is convinced that only when he reaches the very top will he finally be safe. He makes heavy use of Maimed assistants, whose Cruel ears and eyes allow them to gather the information he needs to stay ahead, while also reinforcing his paranoid belief that the world is a relentlessly horrible place full of people who want him dead. He aims to displace Firuza as Minister of Trade as the next step in his ascent.

- The Ministry of Technology is responsible for the maintenance of the various clockwork automata upon which the city's economy relies, from the clockwork digging machines which excavate the irrigation channels in the fields, to the warehouses full of clockwork soldiers which stand in long, dusty rows, waiting to be wound up if the city ever comes under attack. The minister also acts as a kind of liaison between the city's government and its populations of Brass Men and Steel Aspirants, and has responsibility for the Clankers. The current minister is Sezim the Brilliant, a woman of great intelligence and charisma who uses her natural talents to coast through life in a careless and haphazard fashion, confident that she will always be able to find someone else to take the fall if things go wrong. (So far, she has always been proven correct.) She aspires to replace Shahnoza as Minister of Diplomacy, but hasn't really gotten around to doing anything about it.

- The Ministry of Industry deals with permits for the city's many foundries and furnaces, and with the operation of the coal mines up in the hills which feed their insatiable appetite for fuel. In practise, this means that most of the ministry's work is taken up with maintaining order and discipline among the army of slaves who work in the city's mines, and stamping out the regular escapes and rebellions among them. The current minister is Rostam the Charitable, a pallid, joyless workaholic who never seems to eat or sleep. He is a dogged advocate of the merits of necro-mechanical clockworking, which he insists is the magitechnology of the future, and his offices are full of zombies with weird clockwork prostheses which he keeps around as proofs of concept. Spiteful rumours accuse him of indulging in bizarre and outlandish sexual perversions behind closed doors, probably involving all those clockwork zombies. He plots to replace Firuza as Minister of Trade.

Ottoman woman:

(A note on levels: most of the ministers are mid-level Tricksters. Firuza is a high-level Scholar with access to all kinds of horrible black magic, although she doesn't much like using it. Uruslan is a mid-level Fighter with a terrible Constitution score, and powerful magic weapons made from fossilised dinosaur bones. Shahnoza and Rostam are mid-level Scholars, though Shahnoza's logician implants allow her to effectively function as a human computer. Yulduz is a very high-level fighter who owns some of the finest guns ever made in the Wicked City, and is easily the most personally dangerous of the ministers in a straight fight. Specifics should be adjusted to suit individual campaigns.)

Monday, 10 April 2017

Feeding the Wicked City

Before its fall - back when it still had a name - the Wicked City was the jewel of the Great Road. None of the other oasis kingdoms could compete with its wealth or its splendour. Caravans thronged that led to it. Almost a million people called it home.

Feeding a city of that size was a serious undertaking. Some of its food was brought to it by the caravans, imported from neighbouring kingdoms in exchange for the manufactured goods in which the city's artificers excelled; but most of it was grown locally, in the vast network of irrigated fields which surrounded the city. Every river for a hundred miles was tapped by networks of irrigation channels which carried their water far from their natural courses, making land fertile which would otherwise have been arid; and every stream which once trailed off into the desert was rerouted by the patient labour of the people, their waters channelled back into the fields, instead. A thousand wells were sunk deep into the ground to tap the waters of the oasis. Great underground aqueducts were dug through the earth to carry the water where it was needed most. The city's irrigation systems were accounted one of the wonders of the world.

Image result for qanat
Underground aqueduct, Iran.

As the city fell into wickedness and ruin, and its population declined, the vast infrastructure of its canals and aqueducts sank into decay. Today their productivity is less than a third of what it was at their height; the intricate system of shared labour by which the irrigation system was once maintained has now disintegrated almost entirely, and it is only preserved from complete collapse by the work-gangs of slaves and water-powered automata which are dispatched by the city's government at irregular intervals to carry out particularly urgent repairs. As the channels dry up, the people of many outlying villages have reverted to subsistence farming, or simply abandoned their homes in the face of accelerating desertification. The subterranean aqueduct system has become infested with pig-men, who burrowed into them from God knows where years ago, and entire sections of it are now effectively no-go areas. Rusting chunks of water-pumping machinery litter the countryside. Out on the borders, where the cultivated land fades into the desert and the authority of the city's government is especially tenuous, roving bandit gangs have converted a number of dried-out wells into makeshift oubliettes.

In their current state, the hinterlands of the Wicked City resemble a kind of crazy patchwork. A collapsed irrigation channel can lead to the development of a few square miles of desert, surrounded on all sides by fertile and productive farmland; similarly, a still-functional well can keep a patch of land in cultivation when everything around it has collapsed back into arid dust. When roaming through the surrounding countryside, the state of any given area can be determined by rolling 1d10:

Image result for desertification china

1: Productive farmland. One of the lucky areas where the old maintenance system still more-or-less functions, with everyone taking turns to repair and maintain the irrigation channels on a system which seems nightmarishly complex to outsiders, but which seems as natural as breathing to the locals . The area produces a large surplus of agricultural produce, which is sold in the markets of the Wicked City to feed what remains of its population.

2: Recently repaired. The work gangs recently passed through here in a flurry of activity, and for now the aqueducts and irrigation channels are working again and the land is fertile and fruitful; but the arrangements put in place to maintain them are desperately inadequate, and it's obvious that the works will simply have to be repeated in a few years time.

3: Repairs in progress. This area is currently a hive of activity, with chain-gangs of sweating slaves clearing and repairing irrigation channels under the watchful eyes of their pitiless Blood Man overseers. Huge clanking clockwork automata chew through the earth wherever heavy digging work is required; and whenever the mainspring of one of the machines is almost unwound, it stomps off through the fields to dip its water-wheels in the nearest body of running water, gradually powering itself up again. A handful of engineers and bureaucrats are overseeing the work from a hastily-erected pavilion, worrying about how to get the repairs completed on-time and on-budget; security is provided by a detachment of the King's Men, who mostly view this assignment as an opportunity to engage in petty extortion among the villagers. Everything's very chaotic, and enterprising PCs could probably liberate a few slaves and ride off on a hijacked digging machine before anyone realised something had gone wrong...

4: Marginal farmland. The irrigation infrastructure out here is in a very poor state of repair, but enough water gets through that the locals are able to eke out harvests from the soil, and on good years sometimes even manage to raise a surplus to export to the Wicked City. Opportunistic bands of the King's Men occasionally ride through the area, checking if times are good enough for the people to have something worth stealing.

5: Subsistence farmers. The few wells and irrigation channels that still work out here are barely sufficient for the few remaining farmers to raise enough food to feed themselves. All the people who worked the poorer fields have long since fled, and even those who live on what was once the best land now supplement their harvests with hunting and scavenging in order to keep their families fed. Everyone here is so miserably poor that the King's Men never bother to come out here, and as a result that there's a one in four chance that each half-abandoned village is currently inhabited by 1d6 wanted criminals and/or political dissidents, hiding out here from the authorities.

6: Abandoned villages. The irrigation channels have collapsed, and this area has reverted to desert, crisscrossed with dried-out canals and abandoned farmhouses sinking into ruin. Each settlement has a one in three chance of having someone hiding within it. (Roll 1d4: 1 = crazy old hermit, 2 = impoverished scavengers, 3 = wanted criminals, 4 = band of pig-men.)

7: Bandit camp. Abandoned by most of its former inhabitants, this mostly-desertified area has become the home of a gang of bandits, who raid nearby roads and villages and stash their treasures and victims at the bottoms of dried-out wells. Roll 1d4 to determine the nature of the band: 1 = former farmers, starving and desperate, 2 = opportunistic bandits from the desert roads, 3 = criminal gang from the slums of the Wicked City, 4 = Brigands of the Noonday Dark.

8: Pig-man infestation. This area of farmland was once supplied with water by underground aqueducts, but now the aqueduct network has become infested with pig-men and all the human inhabitants of the area have fled. The pig-men mostly live underground, filling their slowly-collapsing aqueducts with filth, but make regular scavenging trips to the surface.

9: Rusted machinery. This was once a major pumping station, redirecting huge volumes of water for agricultural purposes; but now the farmland is desert, the villages are abandoned, and the pumps lie rusting within buildings half-fallen into ruins. Masses of broken heavy machinery and unstable walkways over huge, empty reservoirs make this a very unsafe place to move around, and thus potentially a very good place to lure someone for an ambush. There's a one in three chance that a band of scavengers live here, looting the old machines for components that can be sold in the Wicked City.

10: Underground aqueducts. A major system of underground canals once brought water to this region; today they are mostly dry and empty, a now-purposeless network of tunnels that runs for miles in every direction. Occasional bands of pig-men, nests of brass-snout rats, and miscellaneous tunnel-dwelling crazies mean that they're not exactly safe, but if properly mapped out they would provide a great way of secretly traversing the area. There is a one in three chance that, if the tunnels are followed for long enough, they will eventually lead into the Maze beneath the Wicked City itself.

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Sunday, 9 April 2017

The Wicked City: Story Hooks

Turkic warriors guarding the Doors of Tamerlane. Tamerlane, anglicized form of Timur-i-Lang ('Lame Timur' or 'Timur the Lame') (1336-1404), was a Turkic conqueror, born in Kash near Samarkand. He waged several devastating wars, conquering Persia (1392-96) and northern India (1398), and defeating the Ottomans and the Mamlukes (1402):

I've written a fair bit about the Wicked City since starting this blog, but one thing which could probably have benefitted from being addressed more directly is why on earth PCs would end up there in the first place. The standard D&D dungeon has a built-in reason for people to want to go there, despite its dangers, in the form of treasure; but unless the campaign premise is 'liberate the Wicked City', why would your PCs ever want to go to this horrible half-ruined police state to begin with? My intent has been for the Wicked City to be a very 'sticky' location, insofar as once the PCs arrive, there's lots of things around to prompt them to either remain for longer than they intended or to make repeat visits in future. But first you need a reason for making that initial visit - so here are twelve...

Reasons for a brief visit to the Wicked City
  1. To buy something which is only for sale in the markets of the Great Bazaar.
  2. To seek out the clockworking expertise of the city's Steel Aspirants, which has no parallel elsewhere in the world.
  3. To hunt down a wanted criminal who has fled to the city.
  4. To seek out information known only to a famous spy, who has since taken up employment among the families of the Cobweb
  5. To evacuate a specific individual or family from the city. 
  6. To retrieve a magical or sacred item from the Maze.
  7. To make contact with the Red Brotherhood on behalf of a foreign government with an interest in undermining the rule of the Wicked King.
  8. To make contact with one of the Cobweb families, on behalf of a foreign patron who needs access to some knowledge or object which only they possess. 
  9. To locate and free someone who has been imprisoned by the King's Men on trumped-up charges, probably because they looked like a good target for extortion. 
  10. To broker a marriage between one of the Cobweb families and a foreign aristocrat who really, really needs to marry into money.
  11. To locate and free someone who has been captured by the Brigands of Noonday Dark and sold into slavery in the Wicked City.
  12. To make contact with the embassy of the Scarab Men in the Wicked City, as this is the only channel of communication known to exist between the Insect Queen and the outside world.
This is the old City of Yazd. Old brick and mud houses and arches taking their natural light from the opening in the Arches. A desert city on the silk Route.:

Once they're in the city, of course, their opportunities for becoming entangled with its horrible destiny multiply. PCs who appear to be competent (or simply cheap and expendable) might find themselves recruited as agents by any of the city's factions; idealistic PCs may be moved to take a stand against the city's injustices, especially if they've formed personal connections with some of its inhabitants, while more vengeful ones might turn against its government after one too many shake-downs by the King's Men. Then again, they could just be given some kind of mission that is likely to involve a lengthy stay in the city, as they gradually work out how to achieve their goals. Here are twelve possible reasons why PCs might find themselves needing to stay in the city long-term:

Reasons for a long-term stay in the Wicked City
  1. One of the PCs, or someone close to them, has unwisely become hooked on some horribly addictive narcotic, and only the Serpent Folk of the Wicked City can supply them with their regular fix.
  2. One of the PCs, or someone close to them, has fallen in love with one of the Wicked City's residents, and the Man With Stones For Eyes won't let them leave.
  3. To find some way of liberating the Cloud Castle from the city's government, as a way of earning or repaying a major favour from the Blue Folk.
  4. To free the spirit of the ancestress of the Children of the Pines from the King's Tower, as a way of earning or repaying a major favour from them.
  5. To steal some kind of experimental military technology from the Clankers or the Air Corps on behalf of a foreign power. 
  6. To rescue someone being held captive by the city's secret police in the Ministry of Information.
  7. To free a peri who has been captured by the city's government, and is currently being used to power a weird perpetual motion machine somewhere in the King's Tower.
  8. To find out what's going on at the top of the King's Tower, and who (if anyone) is actually running the Wicked City.
  9. To steal the war mask once worn by the Wicked King before his disappearance.
  10. To find out what has happened to the city's spirits.
  11. To lay the groundwork for a rebellion against the city's government, preferably with the aid of the Red Brotherhood, the People of the Rubble, and the various inhabitants of the Maze.
  12. To discover the city's true name, and the true nature of the Wicked King.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Minimalism and Maximalism (AKA 'do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the Lore').

The first game setting I ever read wasn't a D&D book: it was Titan, the 1986 world-book which described the setting of the then-popular Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. As anyone who had an interest in fantasy and/or gaming during the 1980s will probably remember, Fighting Fantasy was everywhere at the time. (In retrospect, they played an obvious transitional role between the early tabletop RPGs of the 1970s, which they grew out of, and the computer RPGs of the 1990s, which ultimately supplanted them.) Early on, each FF gamebook was completely independent, with only the barest hints of any kind of shared setting. But then Titan came along, and mapped out - literally - how Firetop Mountain and Scorpion Swamp and The Citadel of Chaos and The Forest of Doom all fitted together as component parts of a single imaginary world, with its own history and gods and mythology and all the other stuff you'd expect to find in a fantasy setting.

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This map has held a special place in my heart ever since.

At almost exactly the same time, the same thing was happening to D&D. The Keep on the Borderlands and The Lost City and The Palace of the Silver Princess aren't really located anywhere in particular: they're just places where adventures can happen. But as time went on, the D&D adventure modules started getting welded together: first as part of something called 'the known world', and then as components of the Greyhawk and Mystara campaign settings. And then the deluge of setting information began.

I have always found this process rather fascinating. In 1994, the background of Warcraft consisted of little more than 'Orcs from orc-world are attacking humans from human-world! Now fight!' 23 years on, there's more Warcraft lore than you can shake a level 110 Blood Elf Death Knight at. Shortly before Magic: The Gathering went into production in 1993, Richard Garfield decided that just having cards called 'Dryads' or 'Dragon' or 'Warlord' sounded a bit bland, so he went through the list adding nonsense adjectives: Shanodin Dryads, Shivan Dragon, Keldon Warlord, and so on. 24 years later, there have been entire novel cycles written about the heroes of Keld and the histories of the Island of Shiv. In 2001, a couple of brothers from Cambridge coded a simple little online game called Runescape, where you could run around a fantasy village and do a few quests for the locals and fight goblins out in the woods. 16 years worth of weekly updates have turned this minimalist concept into a sprawling, baroque nightmare of false gods and dying worlds and hidden secrets. Let's not even get into what's happened to Warhammer 40,000 in the three decades since some innocent Games Workshop staff member first said: 'What if we did Warhammer, but, like, in space?'

Lore accumulates. It accumulates fast. A dungeon grows into a wilderness which grows into a campaign world. When I was 14, and I had just started a new AD&D campaign, I drew a circle in the middle of a piece of paper and said to the players: 'This is an inland sea. The dwarves live to the north-east and the elves live to the south-east and the humans live everywhere else.' By the time I was 18 I had written hundreds of pages of information on the geography and history and races and religions of the enormous fantasy world which now sprawled out in every direction from that original circle-on-a-map. To my shame, I think I can even still remember most of it. (Narsier. Utrean. Faserik. The Cathideni City-States. The Throongorm Mountains, whose foothills were home to the Blackfang goblin tribes. The Bloody Plains. The Men of the Keeps. The Forest of Whispering Trees.) The rise of the internet has made it very clear that the creation of immense imaginary worlds, complete with myths and legends and lineages of kings and whatnot, is not some rare and difficult achievement. Quite the contrary: it can be, and very often is, accomplished by anyone with a bit of spare time and a word processor.

How much lore is too much lore? Everyone has different tolerances. Some people will always prefer the most minimalistic, lightly-sketched-in version of a setting to anything that comes later: the 1977 version of Star Wars, the 1987 version of Warhammer 40,000, and so on. Others really love the sheer piling up of information for information's sake, preferring the most complex and fully-detailed versions precisely because of their detail and complexity. As far as RPGs go, though, I think the key point to bear in mind is probably that the low-lore and high-lore settings are different kinds of tools, which are useful for different kinds of games:
  • A minimalist approach presents a setting as though from an outsider's perspective, in which only the most sailent characteristics of the situation are immediately obvious, and the reasons why things are the way they are is often unclear. It thus encourages PCs to act like outsiders, engaging in activities such as exploration, crime, raiding, and the disruption of established social orders and hierarchies.  
  • A maximalist approach presents a setting as though from an insider's perspective, in which the complex web of relationships and institutions and traditions which bind different elements of the setting together are intimiately understood. It thus encourages PCs to act like insiders, engaging in activities such as trade, politics, or military service, which rely on all parties having a reciprocal understanding of their relationships with society as a whole. PCs in such settings are much more likely to join established groups and work within them, rather than just trying to rip them off or tear them down. 

A minimalist setting will feel open, mysterious, and full of possibilities, its history and geography a largely-blank canvas across which the PCs can paint their own crazy destinies. A highly-detailed setting, by contrast, will feel defined and bounded, with PCs much more likely to try to seek places for themselves within the limits defined by its existing social systems - even if it is exactly the same setting. You can describe a setting as vast and wide-open and full of mystery and adventure, but if you then go on to explain everything about it in encyclopedic detail then it will feel small and cramped and fussy, no matter how many thousand-mile wildernesses you draw on your map. (Exhibit A: the Forgotten Realms.) By the same token, even if your setting is described as crazily complex, it will feel as though it is open to freewheeling adventure as long as that complexity is communicated through broad-brush outlines and maybe a random table or two.

I've deliberately kept the level of detail and interconnectedness in ATWC very low, in order to encourage that outsider's perspective, and to ensure that everything feels suitably open. But if you wanted your PCs to feel like insiders to one part of the setting - their home khanate, for example - then one could easily detail that bit of the world in great thoroughness, presenting PCs with lists of clans for their characters to be from, famous warrior lineages they might be descended from, ancestor spirits whom they might revere, wrestling tournaments they might have taken part in, and so on. In fact, the contrast between their highly-detailed homeland and the lightly-sketched-in world outside - 'It's a city which trades in... um... goods and services? Anyway, there's lots of rich merchants about. Wanna rob one?' - might be quite a good way of emphasising the difference between their insider-perspective into their own culture, and their outsider-perspective on the huge and mysterious world outside. Their homeland is a place to live in. But the outside world is a place for adventure...

Kipchak (Cuman) Horseman:

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

[Actual Play]Victory at last: A Team Tsathogga Retrospective.

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Image by MrZarono.

Last week's Team Tsathogga game ended with an epic battle, which we have - in a sense - been building up to since the game began. Driven in disorder from the subterranean snakeman base that they discovered last week, the PCs roamed from island to island, cashing in every favour they could think of in order to assemble a small army of allies with which to mount a new assault. Their motley brigade of slug-men, skeletons, press-ganged sailors, zombies, hunter-gatherers, tunnel-dwellers, and religious warriors, led by a whole gallery of NPC allies accumulated over the course of the game so far, attacked the snake-man base from two sides and ultimately managed to overwhelm its defences, in an epic battle which ended up involving laser guns and poisoned gas and black powder grenades and acidic ectoplasm. To my astonishment, all the PCs emerged from the slaughter alive, although in one case this was only due to some absurdly lucky dice-rolling. (Jack the Fighter will not die!) Their victory means that they are now the proud owners of a recently-depopulated snake-man science facility, and the de facto rulers of the Purple Islands.

Anyway, the battle was a meatgrinder. It made me appreciate the simplicity of the B/X combat rules, which made resolving the attacks of whole units of troops very nearly as quick as it would have been in an actual wargame - which, not coincidentally, is of course what basic D&D evolved out of in the first place. And it was great to see all the different connections and alliances which the PCs had built up over the last year of game-time finally prove their worth, collectively allowing the party to take on a force which would have wiped the floor with them if they'd tried to go in alone. Now the surviving villagers and soldiers and tunnel dwellers have bonded over their shared experience of murdering snake-men; and with almost all their monstrous inhabitants now dead, a new era of harmony may be dawning over the Purple Islands. It would almost be heart-warming, if it wasn't for the fact that the PCs are already talking about using all the snake-man eggs they found in cryogenic storage to breed a new race of brainwashed serpent-warriors loyal to them alone.

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Image by JonBeanHastings.

I started the Team Tsathogga game just as a way of easing myself back into gaming after a long absence, and as a way of introducing D&D to a bunch of new players with no prior experience of the game. I had no particular expectations of it, but it's actually been really successful. Looking back over the campaign to date, which has now taken the PCs from level 0 to level 4 over the course of sixty-odd hours of actual play, I have a few conclusions:

1: B/X D&D is a superb system for new players.

I kinda knew this anyway, but I'd never had an opportunity to put it to the test. But the fact that I was able to explain the rules, have the players create characters, and have the PCs entering the dungeon within about twenty minutes of starting the first session really cut down the barriers to entry. All the investigation of how things worked - how many hits it takes to kill a goblin, what armour class your cobbled-together leather armour grants, and so on - became things that the PCs figured out through actual play, rather than having everything front-loaded right at the start. If I'd been running in, say, Pathfinder, I think the players would have got bored and wandered off before I'd finished explaining half the available character-building options to them.

2: Having multiple characters per player can work really well. 

This was never a deliberate plan on my part: I started each player off with three level 0 characters, on the assumption that most of them would die early on and the survivors would become the PCs. But this never actually happened: some died, yes, but most lived, and a few sessions in we'd stablised at two characters per player. I'd vaguely thought that if something like this happened, each player would pick one character to be a PC and the rest would become henchmen, but in fact everyone seemed pretty much equally attached to both their characters, so we just drifted into a two-PCs-per-player model.

This turned out to have loads of advantages. It meant that character death wasn't a big deal: you just carried on with your other PC until a chance arose to recruit a replacement. It meant that no-one minded too much about 'bad' ability scores, because your two characters could usually help cover one another's weaknesses. And it helped to lessen the problem of power disparity between casters and non-casters, because usually each player would have one caster PC and one non-caster PC, so the players were on an equal footing even if the characters weren't. I'd never try it with more complex systems - the thought of trying to run a Pathfinder game with 8-12 PCs is horrific - but B/X D&D is so simple that we really didn't find it difficult to deal with.

3: Random character generation is amazing.

I've written before about how rolling 3d6 in order will sometimes produce characters no-one would ever have thought of themselves, like Jack the Fighter (Str 5, Cha 18) and Sophie the Muscle Wizard (Str 16, Con 4, Int 10). But even in less extreme cases, it creates all kinds of odd, characterful little quirks: so Skadi is weak but tough, Circe is wise but ignorant and illiterate, Hash is much stronger than anyone expects him to be, and so on. Less random systems strongly discourage sub-optimal placement of ability scores, meaning that you lose out on the possibility of a character who just happens to be surprisingly strong, or unfit, or ugly, or whatever - not as part of some kind of complicated min-maxing strategy, but just because that's who they happen to be. Rolling randomly for hit points has a similar effect: the fact that Circe had only 4 HP at level 2 was a major reason why she tended to be so cowardly in dangerous situations, which has gone on to become a well-established part of her personality even though she's now almost four times as tough. It does mean that not all characters are equal in power, but the whole 'multiple PCs per player' does a lot to help with that.

4: There's no need for a skill system.

Everything from stealth to crafting to mountaineering has proven perfectly straightforward to handle simply through a combination of ability rolls and common sense. ('Well, you used to be an entertainer, so I guess you probably do know how to play the piano!') Randomly generated ability scores are heavily bell-curved around 10.5, so 'ability score or less on 1d20' is usually a perfectly good solution for cases where something could legitimately go either way, producing a good mix of successes and failures while also favouring characters who should logically be better at the task at hand. We don't use thieves, and honestly I haven't missed them in the least.

5: B/X characters are surprisingly durable.

Not at first level, of course. But by the time you're talking about, say, a fourth-level fighter with half-plate armour and 27 HP, they're honestly very difficult to bring down, able to endure five or six arrows or sword-wounds and still carry on fighting. If your party are in the habit of standing toe-to-toe with the monsters and exchanging blows until someone falls over, I can see that accumulating that many injuries might actually happen. But my PCs are a devious bunch, whose reaction to finding themselves in anything like a fair fight is always to run away and not come back until they've engineered an unfair advantage; they usually disengage as soon as they start taking real damage, and as a result, ever since they progressed past the point where a PC could be randomly taken out by a stray arrow it's proven surprisingly difficult to kill the bastards. Even Death Frost Doom only put paid to one of them.

6: Balancing casters is hard.

The traditional assumption is that the low-level B/X caster is a feeble creature, because they only get one or two spells per day, and aren't much good in a fight; but this assumes a dungeon context, in which once you're through the front doors, you have very limited control over how many encounters you might have to endure before you get a chance to rest. Given that this game largely consisted of me drawing big overland maps on a whiteboard and asking the players where they wanted to go next, the same resource economy didn't really apply; one or two 'encounters' per game-day was the norm, and most of those were resolved non-violently. Under those circumstances, there was little to prevent casters loading up with new spells for each situation; and as a result, by level 3 or so it was hard to feel that they weren't the ones doing most of the work. The multiple characters thing worked in our favour here, as most players had one caster and one non-caster character, so balance between players was maintained even if balance between characters wasn't. But it's definitely something I'm going to need to think about how to address in future, as it's only going to become more of a problem as they level up...

Anyway, the game's now on hiatus, but we'll probably play a few more sessions after Easter. They've come a long way from their humble origins, and I'm keen to see how much further they'll manage to get!

I might even ultimately bring them to the Wicked City...

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! 

Thursday, 9 March 2017

[Actual Play] Team Tsathogga Rides Again!

I haven't written any actual play reports since December, but that doesn't mean that the Team Tsathogga group has ceased to meet. In the last two months of real-time we've played through a whole year of game-time, highlights of which include:

  • Gathering all the surface-dwelling human inhabitants of the Purple Islands together into one settlement and converting them to the party's made-up dualistic religion.
  • Using the giant purple cloud monster to smash up the undead pterodactyls patrolling around Zombie Mountain.
  • Almost getting eaten by zombies.
  • Discovering that Elder Amelia is apparently some kind of alien, having no idea what to do with this information, and ultimately opting to just maintain an embarrassed silence.
  • Returning to the tunnels beneath their hometown, taking over the goblin tribes that lived there by claiming to be prophets of Tsathogga, and destroying an infestation of goblin spore zombies that they'd accidentally started during their previous visit.
  • Totally failing to assist the Toad People with the fact that their entire young adult population had been conscripted by the Science Fungoids and marched off to fight in some kind of underground warzone. ('Eh. We'll get around to it later.')
  • Breaking into the shrine of the Devourer (a slightly rewritten version of Death Frost Doom) and escaping with lots of creepy books, at the cost of only one dead PC and 150-odd murder zombies released into the surrounding region. ('They'll cope... right?')
  • Recruiting Sophie the Muscle Wizard.
  • Using absurd numbers of Charm Person spells to infiltrate a secret society at a medical college by persuading its leaders that Sophie was actually an amnesiac noblewoman, and conning them into making a new undead body for their buddy, Markus the Psychic Head-in-a-Jar.
  • Making friends with a bunch of mutant freaks in the woods, whom the same secret society Frankensteined together and then abandoned some decades earlier, and handing Markus over to them so that he, too, could learn the art of being a freaky undead mutant powered by Mad Science and Liquid Time.
  • Finding a boyfriend for Jack the Fighter, to take his mind off his dead sister.
This week, though, they finally returned to the Purple Islands, and the session which resulted was so much fun that I just had to write it up...

* * *

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So Team Tsathogga returned to the Purple Islands, which had been the site of so many of their dubious victories in the past. They found their human inhabitants living together in peace under the enlightened leadership of their friend Erin, who told them that Elder Amelia had established a fort on the eastern island, and also that there had recently been two other visits to the islands: one by Magister Sorn, the elf magician who had trained Hash, and the other by the Order of the Divine Surgeon, the secret society which the party had recently deceived. Given that the PCs had basically set up both of these expeditions (and, in the case of the Order's mission, also effectively set it up to fail) through the controlled distribution of information about what the islands did and did not contain, this did not come as an entire surprise. When time permitted, they agreed to follow up on what had become of both of them; but their first priority was to test their hypothesis that some of the serpent folk, whose cruel empire had once dominated the world, might still be alive somewhere in the tunnels beneath the islands...

Descending into these tunnels, they received an extremely wary welcome from the tunnel-dwellers, who remembered their antics the year before all too clearly. However, when the PCs told them that they had come to deal with the shadow-dwelling creatures with whom they had long suspected they had been unwillingly sharing their tunnels, they became excited: they believed that the creatures had been very active recently, with people hearing lots of movements in the darkness and even hatch doors to the surface clanging open and shut when no-one was nearby. They didn't know what had provoked this new bout of activity - as far as they knew, the creatures had never before shown any interest in gaining access to the surface - but it had prompted them to set more guards by the tunnel entrances, and they welcomed any help that the PCs could offer.

The assumption of the tunnel-dwellers was that the creatures were deliberately collapsing tunnels to hide themselves - but if they were able to creep out through the tunnels to the surface, then some secret, non-caved-in entrance to their lair must also exist. The PCs thus proceeded to spend two days searching partially-flooded tunnels and interrogating moles in an attempt to find this entrance, to no avail, and spent their nights under the watchful eyes of the tunnel-dwellers posted to guard the hatch which led up to the east island on the surface.

On the first night, the guards felt they were being watched by something, but whatever it was retreated back into the darkness whenever they advanced with lights. On the second night, however, the serpent folk attacked. The first warning the PCs got of this was a gas grenade crashing down in their midst, releasing a great cloud of yellow-green vapour which made it hard to see or breathe; and as the tunnel-dweller guards stumbled around in this, struggling to aim their blunderbusses, they began to be cut down by scything laser beams which flickered out of the darkness, slicing their bodies apart and filling the air with the smell of burning meat. With several PCs incapacitated by the gas, the remainder decided to grab their poisoned comrades and flee as quickly as possible, ruthlessly shoving their way past the coughing tunnel-dwellers as they stampeded for the ladder up.

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Snake men with laser guns! Run!

Circe, true to form, was the first one to escape to the relative safety of the surface; while Skadi, bringing up the rear, suffered a near-fatal volley of laser fire from the gas-mask wearing snake-men below as she grimly clambered up the shaft. Once they were up on the surface, Jack and Sophie provided covering fire, Jack by shooting arrows at the snake-men at the bottom of the shaft, and Sophie by dropping dumb-bells on them. The serpent-folk fell back, and Skadi managed to drag herself out of the hatch more dead than alive, but the tunnel-dwellers were slain to a man.

For a while, the PCs tried to keep the snake-men pinned down in the tunnels, engaging them in a missile duel in which the PCs fired spells and weapons down from the top of the shaft while the snake-men fired their laser weapons up. Unfortunately, their primitive weapons proved no match for the superior technology of their opponents, and they were soon forced to abandon their position, shutting the hatch and weighing it down with rocks before fleeing for the nearby woods. The apemen who lived there grudgingly permitted them to climb a tree and hide in the foliage provided they made no attempt to move further into the forest; but a few hours later an apeman messenger came shrieking through the canopy, and all the apeman warriors who had been watching over them suddenly went swinging away to the east.

Curious, Hogarth turned himself invisible and followed them on foot, soon coming to a bizarre scene: the snake-men, it seemed, had partly excavated a small, ancient spaceship from beneath the forest floor, and one of them was now tinkering away inside its engines while the rest provided covering fire, holding at bay a screaming mob of furious apemen in the trees nearby. (Several dead apemen littering the forest floor bore witness to the efficacy of their shooting.) Not wanting to be turned into laserbait, Hogarth merely watched silently as the snakeman mechanic retrieved something from inside the engine before the whole group of them turned and ran back in the direction of the hatch, hurling gas grenades into the apeman mob as they went. One of them was pinned to the ground by a thrown apeman spear, which by some stroke of fortune managed to penetrate through its weird black mesh armour; but the rest soon escaped into the distance, pursued by the apemen as soon as the effects of the gas wore off.

With both snake-men and apemen now gone, Hogarth was free to loot the dead snake-man's body (taking its gasmask, gas grenade bandolier, and weird wrist-mounted laser weapon), before heading inside the spaceship itself. It had clearly lain undisturbed beneath the earth for centuries, its only cargo a heavy, unmarked metal cylinder. An ancient skeleton in a spacesuit sat propped up in front of the windshield; his co-pilot, it seemed, had managed to eject in time. Face-down on the dashboard, Hogarth found an old, faded photograph of what must have been the pilot's high command, and noted with grim amusement that the 'Divine Surgeon' revered by the secret society they had deceived back on the mainland appeared to have been none other than the chief medical officer of this ancient spacefleet. Taking the cylinder with him, he returned to the rest of the group.

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Rest now, spaceman. The struggle against the serpent folk goes on...

Keen to avoid any further showdowns with the snakemen, the PCs headed north to Amelia's fort, which was being run by the Angel Andrew in her absence. Andrew allowed them to stay in the fort for old time's sake, giving Jack a chance to visit the grave of his sister, which since her death had become a pilgrimage site for the native population; and the next day, after Circe had finished healing everyone's laser wounds, he even agreed to lend them a ship to carry them to the west island, to further investigate the secrets of Zombie Mountain. Sailing west, they found a smaller ship moored outside the abandoned village, with a man on deck whom they recognised as Ernst, a member of the Order of the Divine Surgeon. He, in turn, recognised Sophie as 'Lady Penelope' (her fake cover identity during her time with the Order), and began to pour out a tale of woe and trauma concerning what had happened to him and his expedition on the island. Following 'Penelope's' advice, they had sailed out expecting to find an island full of docile and obedient undead: instead they had stumbled into a hell of ravenous zombies and sacrifice-happy slug-monsters, who had killed both his companions and half of his crew. Sophie could only shrug her shoulders and say that conditions on the island must have changed since their previous visit.

At this point, the party had a debate about what to do next. If Ernst returned to the mainland, then it would become fairly obvious that 'Penelope' had set his mission up for failure: but could they really kill a moderately-innocent man just to protect themselves? On balance they decided that, yes, they could, because the Order of the Divine Surgeon had been mean to them and had tried to enslave their psychic zombie-buddy Markus by building him a body that would only function for as long as they gave him regular alchemical injections, so fuck those guys. (Fortunately, Zeth, the party's budding mad scientist, had managed to hook him up with an alternative supply.) Privately acknowledging that it was 'the most evil thing they'd done so far', they invited Ernst to join them in returning to the island, as his sailors now refused to set foot on it, assuring him that his mission could still be a success. Then they lured him out to the altar of the Devourer in the slug-man settlement, and Sophie brained him with a rock.

('I do it quickly', her player said. 'I don't want him to suffer...')

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Out from the surrounding hovels surged the slug-men: but this time they were met by Circe, resplendant in the ritual regalia of a high priestess of the Devourer (which she'd looted from their shrine on the mainland), who hailed them with the appropriate ceremonial greeting before cutting out poor Ersnt's heart upon their altar. Convinced that their spiritual leader had finally returned to them, the slug-men prostrated themselves before her, eagerly drinking in her story of how the Devourer cultists who had sailed from these islands had gone on to win many conquests in the world outside. Intrigued by the fact that the island's zombies apparently left the slug-creatures alone, Circe led them to the foot of Zombie Mountain, which was much easier to approach now that it was no longer guarded by endlessly-circling undead pterodactyls. Then Hogarth cast Invisibility, she cast Invisibility to Undead, and the two of them set off up the mountain's slopes to see who or what lived inside the giant face carved on its side, the apparent origin point of the island's zombie infestation...

Hogarth's spell lasted as long as he could maintain concentration, so he climbed very slowly and carefully. Circe's spell only lasted for half an hour, so she climbed very quickly indeed, soon leaving Hogarth far behind. Looking into the 'mouth' of the giant face she saw a mob of zombies waiting just inside, peering out - but, of course, she was invisible to them. Heading on down its 'throat', she came to a phalanx of skeletons in scavenged weapons and armour - but she was invisible to them, too, if only for a few more minutes. Beyond them she saw an old man, asleep on his desk. She could have used the remaining minutes of her spell to leave quietly, Instead she used them to walk over to the man and wake him up.

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I mean, how bad could the situation get?

He opened his eyes. He saw Circe standing over him in the regalia of a priestess of the Devourer. He screamed.

Instantly Circe's sacrificial dagger was in her hand. 'Tell the skeletons to attack and I'll kill you!' she hissed.

'Skeletons!' the man wailed. 'Don't attack her unless she attacks me! But kill her if she does!'

Instantly the skeletons formed up around the now-visible Circe, levelling their weapons at her, but not striking... yet. Circe, playing for time, began blathering away about how the cult of the Devourer had changed a lot since it had left these islands, and how they now recognised that the Devourer was just one of a trinity of gods, and had he ever heard of the Frog God? Or maybe the Bright Lady? Meanwhile Hogarth, still invisible, finally entered the cave and began rifling through the old man's bookshelves, ignored by everyone; and on the mountainside below, alerted by the old man's scream, the rest of the party and the slug-men began to ascend the mountain, unaware of the Mexican standoff which awaited them within the caves above...

...and that's where the session ended. Will Circe be able to talk her way out of this one? Who will win if the situation devolves into a grand zombies vs. slug-monsters melee? Is sending multiple people to their likely deaths by feeding them misinformation really more evil than just braining one dude with a rock? And just what are the serpent-folk up to in their hidden tunnels? Some, none, or more of these questions may be answered in the next installment of The Adventures of Team Tsathogga!