Sunday, 16 December 2018

[Actual Play] Holy Heat-Rays, Batman! Team Tsathogga ascends the Plateau of Yeth

In my last actual play write-up, I described how Team Tsathogga adopted what remained of the Devourer cult, promising to lead them through the thousand miles of unmapped wilderness that lay between them and the sea. Before they went, though, they decided to give their shrine a really thorough looting: and so, while Tiny drilled the undead cultists in the arts of sign language and phalanx warfare, the rest of the PCs descended once again into the Deathfrost Mountain shrine.

Now, Death Frost Doom has a bit of a reputation as a party killer - but it was written as a module for low-level characters, and it was simply never designed to survive the attentions of a cautious, systematic, and well-equipped party of 7th level PCs. Even the true Dead King turned out not to be much of a threat to a party able to throw 30-odd HP worth of unavoidable Magic Missile damage at him every single round. Slowly, carefully, at a rate of a few rooms per day, Team Tsathogga explored and ransacked the entire place, toasting most of the undead along the way. They even added insult to injury by reconsecrating the main shrine in the name of the Frog God. The only inhabitants they spared were the two obese ghouls, who freaked them out so much that they just walled them up inside their own crypt and left them alone, and the Red Architect, whom they freed from her crypt/prison and allowed to tag along with them on the condition that she swore on the Testifier never to directly (or indirectly) cause (or allow) them (or their allies) to come to harm (as they themselves would define it). Through extensive questioning they learned all about her complicated backstory, the interlinked histories of the Devourer cult and the faith of the Shining One, how the shrine came to be built, what powered all the weird magical stuff inside it, and so on. Then they locked her inside a room and went off to discuss how best to destroy her life's work.

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Pick on somebody your own level for once!
When the last room had been searched and looted, the PCs paused to take stock. By questioning the cultists, they had learned that the thousands of glass globes within the amorphous body of the Divine Parasite each contained a human soul, suspended in liquid time. They knew that roughly half of these were the souls of the cultists who had served at the shrine over the centuries, who experienced the song of the Parasite as a blissful rest, and that the other half were the souls of their sacrificial victims, who experienced it as continual torment. They knew from bitter experience that when a globe was broken, the soul within it immediately fled back to its corpse and reanimated it - at least until the corpse itself was destroyed, at which point it passed on to whatever afterlife awaited it. And they knew that the embalmed corpses of a thousand-odd cultists still remained in the shrine's burial vaults, awaiting the final arrival of the Devourer so that they could march forth and destroy the world in its name. They didn't much like the idea of leaving this sleeping corpse-army intact, and they really didn't like the idea of leaving the souls of a thousand-odd innocent people stranded in eternal suffering. But how was the situation to be resolved without unleashing an evil undead army upon the world?

In the end, they hit upon a sort-of solution. The cultist corpses were embalmed, so they reasoned that they would burn readily. The Divine Parasite clearly didn't like heat or fire, so a firestorm big enough to consume a thousand bodies would almost certainly be sufficient to burn it to death, thus freeing all the souls within it. Relocating that many corpses from their burial niches to the corridor right next to the parasite was a big job, but Titus was able to raise twenty-seven of them as a zombie work gang, capable of labouring day and night to drag the rest into position. The PCs made sure that the corpses were suitably arranged, with plenty of air-space to allow the fire to spread, and pockets of oil-soaked kindling distributed throughout the hecatomb. They armed their zombies with burning torches and gave them orders to advance in waves and light the fire, with each pair stepping forwards to rekindle the blaze whenever it seemed in danger of burning out, and the last four standing as guardians to whack any half-burned undead cultists who managed to fight their way free of the inferno. Then they piled lots of rocks on top of the entrance to the shrine and ran away.

Their plan was for the fire to destroy the vast majority of the cultist's corpses before it reached the Parasite and burned it to death, with the result that only a small number of them would be able to reanimate, and that those that did would mostly find themselves trapped under a heap of burning skeletons in the middle of a firestorm and burn to death before they were able to escape. The remainder would hopefully be finished off by the zombies. As for the souls of their victims, they would be free... to reanimate their corpses in the mass grave on the mountainside. This was, they acknowledged, a potential problem, as prior experience had shown that such souls tended to be hopelessly crazed by their experiences within the Parasite, and prone to random acts of violence. But the resulting zombie army would be disorganised, and would presumably emerge from their graves in waves, given the varying lengths of time that it would take to dig themselves free of the frozen soil. Forces from Vornheim were probably already on their way, as the Grand Duke must by now have received word of their (fictional) 'secret mission' and realised that something on Deathfrost Mountain had gone badly wrong. And even if the area around the shrine did get reduced to an uninhabitable skeleton-infested wasteland, was that really worse than allowing the suffering of the souls within the Parasite to continue forever?

So they took the Red Architect, and they took their own undead cultists, and they ran away. From the safety of the next valley, they watched the mountain shake and tremble, and they knew the Divine Parasite was dead: Vorn, the God Beneath the Mountain, was stirring in his sleep, probably obliterating what was left of the shrine in the process. (They knew from questioning the Architect that the shrine of the Devourer had literally been built directly over his face.) They reassured the anxious cultists that this was an auspicious sign, a good omen for their journey, symbolising that the old dispensation was over and that it was time for them to return to the Hissing Prophets of the Purple Islands. Then they turned their backs on Deathfrost Mountain and marched west, while up in the jumbled, frozen soil of the mass grave, hundreds of skeletal hands began to claw their way up towards the surface...

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It'll be fiiine...

Still, that was now someone else's problem. Team Tsathogga led their followers over the mountains: an arduous journey made possible only by Resist Cold and Resist Energy spells, and by the fact that the undead were impervious to bad weather. Descending the far side of the range, they saw broken lands stretching out before them: the beginning of the great Northern Wilderness, to which no kingdom laid claim. Knowing that they were now well and truly off the map, they began using Sovan as a spotter: each morning, while they had breakfast, he would sit cross-legged and slowly levitate straight up to a height of 3000 feet, look around, and then slowly levitate back down again. In this way they were able to get a sense of the surrounding terrain, and plotted their journey further west, across the hills and up the looming slopes of a high plateau. Sovan had glimpsed something up there glinting like glass in the far distance, and they wanted to know what it was.

The PCs hadn't progressed very far across the plateau when they encountered its inhabitants: a race of minotaurs, primitive pastoralists who lived by herding sheep across its meagre pastures. (The similarities between the minotaurs and his own horned, thick-skinned, vat-grown warrior race were not lost on Tiny, who suspected that either his people had been modelled on them, or vice versa.) The minotaurs were initially suspicious of the intrusion into their lands, proclaiming that they were the guardians of the Vitreous Citadels, and would permit no-one to approach them: but the PCs insisted that they were just passing through, leading a procession of 'pilgrims' (i.e. the undead cultists) whose exacting ritual purity requirements meant that they had to stay covered up and avoid contact with unbelievers at all times. They promised to perform great feats of healing and woodwork for the minotaurs in exchange for safe passage; and the bull-men, evidently curious, brought them back to their village, where the PCs were promptly set to work healing the sick (with Cure Disease spells) and creating various kinds of decorative woodwork (with Warp Wood spells). Impressed by their evident magical prowess, and not especially eager to pick a fight with a large group of magically-powerful travellers, the minotaurs agreed to let them pass through their lands on the condition that they stayed as far away from the citadels as possible. These citadels, they explained, were the homes of a bat-winged race called the Yeth, whom the minotaurs regarded with reverence and superstitious dread.

While staying in the minotaur village, the PCs befriended two of its other residents. One of these was a wandering vulture-man: his name was an untranslatable sequence of calls that sounded a bit like 'Keuuah-kehhueak', so the players decided to call him Kerouac for short. Kerouac told them that his people, the vulture-men, had once ruled over a carrion kingdom in this region, until a coalition of other races led by the Yeth had torn them down: ever since then, those of them that remained had lived as travelling funerary-priests, wandering from one community to the next in order to carry out divinations, funerals, and exorcisms. The PCs deduced that the black magic practised by their late enemy, Hagen, must have been learned from the vulture-men, but when questioned on this, Kerouac insisted that their sacred dances were only ever to be taught to other vulture-men. He was very distressed at the idea of them being practised by a 'cave dwarf' like Hagen, and was relieved when the party explained that he was now dead. He also made clear that his people took a very dim view of undead, and was getting very suspicious of the 'pilgrims' until Sophie zapped him with a Charm Person spell and told him not to worry about it.

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My vulture-men are basically the ones from Elfmaids, although the Skeksis from The Dark Crystal were also an influence.
The second new acquaintance that the PCs made was an adolescent minotaur, sick of being stuck in his village and eager to see the world beyond. He told them that although his people regarded it as their sacred duty to protect the vitreous citadels of the Yeth, no-one had actually seen one of the Yeth within living memory. He strongly suspected that they were actually all dead, and pure cultural inertia was keeping his people stuck on the plateau when they should have been rampaging through the world outside.

Intrigued by all this, Hash and Sovan set off the next day to spy on the citadels under the cover of invisibility. Up close, it became obvious that the citadels had been shaped using some kind of immense heat, which seemed to have been able to melt rock into glass: this tallied with the stories told to them by Kerouac, which described the Yeth having possessed some kind of powerful fire-magic that had allowed them to burn the vulture-men out of the sky. The doors of the citadel had been melted shut, and the lowest windows were 15' off the ground: but Sovan was able to teleport up to them with a Dimension Door spell, and peered into the darkness within. Inside he saw a vast, vaulted hall, its walls covered in dusty bas-relief images depicting heroic-looking bat-men battling against humans, minotaurs, and vulture-men, and its floors covered in broken debris and rotted trash. His appearance on the windowsill triggered some kind of alarm, however, and as he scrambled down to hide in the trees outside he heard sounds of motion from within the citadel, followed by the appearance of a scrawny-looking bat-man in the window, who waved some kind of metal device around and yelled out words in an unfamiliar chirping tongue. Filtered through Comprehend Languages, they turned out to be: 'Who dares approach the citadels of Yeth? Flee, interlopers, lest we burn you where you stand! Yeth is magnificent! Yeth is invincible!'

Returning to the rest of the PCs, Hash and Sovan shared their conclusions: that while the Yeth still existed, they were clearly only a shadow of their former glory. The citadels had obviously been built for a population of thousands, but the time it had taken for even a single creature to respond to the alarm suggested that perhaps only a handful of inhabitants now remained within each of them. Curious, the PCs fobbed the minotaurs off with an excuse about needing to carry out some kind of purification ritual and headed off to the nearest citadel under the cover of illusion magic. Hiding in the bushes, they sent a minotaur-shaped Purple Simulacrum off to knock at the door, which triggered the alarm again: the same bat-man soon came to the window and began threatening it with his metal machine, while the PCs used illusions - shaped so that they appeared to emanate from the simulacrum - to indicate that they were interested in offering tribute, specifically tribute in the form of the Comprehend Languages spell so that they would actually be able to talk to each other. Another bat-creature from within started yelling out that it wanted to take them up on this, but the one in the window just shrieked that the Yeth needed nothing and that the 'minotaur' had to leave or die. When the simulacrum didn't comply, the bat-man finally zapped it with a searing blast of heat from his machine, evaporating it on the spot.

Somewhat irritated by this, Circe got Sovan to cast Resist Energy on her and stepped forwards to address the Yeth directly. Seeing a human so close to the citadel made the bat-man in the window freak out completely, and it promptly blasted her with its heat-ray: but Sovan's magic held strong, and the blast simply rippled harmlessly around her. A few more displays of magical might soon convinced the Yeth that the PCs were a force to be reckoned with, and after a chittering debate among themselves they agreed to accept their 'tribute' if it would make them go away. One of their number - a younger-looking bat-creature, the same one who had tried to accept the tribute when it was initially offered - volunteered to fly out to meet them that night at the minotaur village, while the rest of them shrieked dire threats about what would happen if they attempted any kind of trickery. Then the PCs sneaked back to the village under the cover of more illusions.

That evening, to the amazement of their minotaur hosts, the bat-man they had spoken to came flapping down out of the sky. The villagers all prostrated themselves before him, but he addressed them in their own language, assuring them that it had merely come to learn about the curious travellers in their midst. The PCs explained to him that he'd have to learn their language before he could learn their spells, but he turned out to be an eager, intelligent, and obviously highly-motivated student, and made rapid progress. Clearly somewhat envious, Kerouac insisted on being allowed to join the class too, although the vulture-man obviously had nothing like his classmate's aptitude for languages. For their part, the minotaurs now regarded the PCs with little short of reverence. Over the weeks that followed, the PCs gradually wandered west across the plateau, moving from village to village. Wherever they went, the minotaurs bowed down before the bat-man while the PCs performed miracles of healing and woodwork, with the result that the minotaurs swiftly came to view them as a band of magicians in the service of the Yeth.

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Our star pupil!
The name of their student was a series of high-pitched shrieks no human throat could possibly imitate. He explained that, in his own language, it meant 'Distiller of August Compounds, Son of the Distinguished Astronomer', so the PCs decided to call him 'Ron' for short. Ron told them that the Yeth had come to the plateau centuries ago, after abandoning the bloody religion of their ancestors and leaving their homeland in the underworld. On their long journey they had encountered a race of engineers in a 'machine-city' beneath the earth, who had taught them the ways of science and given them the heat-rays that had allowed them to build their citadels, tame the minotaurs, and break the power of the vulture-man empire: but their glory days were long gone, now, their numbers dwindled almost to nothing, and less of them were born into each generation. Ron told them that he had long dreamed of seeking out the lost homeland of his people and returning with a breeding population of bat-folk with which to renew their race, but the tunnels beneath the citadels led only to the machine city, and those who descended that way now did not return. He was eager to hear of their magic and their travels, and made them promise to reveal to him the entrance to the underworld which they had discovered beneath Bright Meadows, clearly convinced that if only he could reach it then the Yeth might still be saved.

One morning the PCs woke and found Kerouac gone: presumably Sophie's spell had worn off, and he had fled from them like the mind-controlling fiends they clearly were. (Under other circumstances he might have roused the minotaurs against them, but that was clearly not an option with Ron around.) With Ron and the minotaurs to protect them, however, the PCs feared nothing: and after completing their leisurely tour of the plateau, they descended off its western edge and into the forested hills beyond. They did, however, panic a bit when Ron identified the hunched mountain in front of them as Vulture Crag, one-time seat of the Empire of Carrion, and decided to give the whole region an extremely wide berth. Even so, their journey took them through various half-melted vulture-man ruins, some of them with ancient vulture-man bones still fused with the stone that they had been melted into by the heat rays of the Yeth. Surveying these, Ron reflected mournfully that the bas reliefs in his citadel had made the war between his people and the Empire look a lot more heroic and a lot less sad.

Descending into a heavily forested valley, the party suffered another loss when the Red Architect vanished into the night. Cursed to be unable to move in light, she had clearly taken advantage of the valley's darkness to escape; and while a thorough search suggested that she had headed south, her head start and the nature of the terrain made her recapture extremely unlikely. Her disappearance threw Titus into a deep depression, as he'd become friends with her over the course of the journey, and had been rejoicing in finally finding a woman - even an undead one - who shared his interest in necromancy and unholy magic. Her desertion clearly made his still-raw memories of the breakdown of his marriage come flooding back, and he climbed into the improvised howdah he had built on Zombie Runt Ape's back and drew the curtains, refusing to come out or to speak to anyone. Shortly afterwards he had one of his zombies kill a bird for him so that he could reanimate it, tie a skull to its leg, and send it flying off again over the forest, obviously using Skull Sight to scry on the surrounding area in the hopes of spotting where the Architect had gone.

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Fly, zombie bird! Bring my true love back again!
Weirdly enough, Titus's slump ended up setting off a bit of an emotional chain reaction in the rest of the party. What were they doing out there, in a wood, up a hill, in the middle of nowhere, leading a parade of evil skeletons on a thousand-mile journey to meet a snake-man toddler? They were in their late twenties, now - by the standards of their own peasant community, that was almost middle-age. What were they doing with their lives? Sophie tried to console herself by using illusions to live out her fantasy of being a successful academic instead of a homeless college drop-out turned roaming con-woman, but once they saw her doing it, all the PCs wanted one. Skadi had a fantasy of being a crime lord, lolling around on a giant pile of gold while relays of exploited orphans brought her stolen treasure. Hash had a fantasy of being a famous actor, treading the boards alongside Desdemona, the actress for whom he had been nursing an unrequited crush ever since he'd seen her perform back in Vornheim. Circe dreamed of owning all the sheep in the world. (She'd originally become an adventurer after being cheated out of a sheep someone owed her, and had clearly never got over it.) Sovan still longed for life as a successful drover out in the hills of Qelong. Even Ron got into the spirit of things, creating an illusion of himself single-handedly persuading a cave full of attractive young bat-ladies to abandon their horrible religion and take up the ways of Science instead, with such success that they all immediately agreed to become his wives and start bearing him litters of hideous bat-babies. In the end Sovan and Circe's dream-illusions got mixed up, with him fantasising about selling her sheep at an unbelievable mark-up, and the whole thing broke down. By then, of course, the Red Architect was far, far away.

After this bout of emotional self-indulgence, the PCs headed on west, into cave dwarf territory. Hash soon spotted that they were being watched at a distance by some wary cave dwarf scouts, so he promptly Charmed three out of four of them and called them down to join him: this they eagerly did, while the fourth of them ran off in horror, presumably to report that all his comrades had gone mad. They were sturdy but filthy-looking creatures, all hides and hair, and armed with stone hammers and axes; but despite their primitivism, their knowledge of the terrain was unparalleled. They explained that if the party wanted to reach the sea, they would have to pass either south, through the Cold Marshes, or north, through the Stonemoors: but the former was the home of the Marsh Giants, and the latter was currently wracked by some kind of tribal war. Surveying the way ahead, it seemed as though the hardest part of their journey was still be ahead of them...

Monday, 10 December 2018

Echoes and Reverberations part 2: the WFRP 3rd edition adventures

So, um, yeah. A huge pile-up of work wiped out all my evenings for a couple of weeks and meant that this took a lot longer than anticipated. But it's finished now. Many thanks to the anonymous benefactor who provided me with copies of all of these for review purposes.

Following on from my last post, I'm going to briefly discuss the various adventures that FFG released for WFRP 3, with a focus on which of them might be worth borrowing for use in games run using the WFRP 1 or WFRP 2 settings and rules. They're all full of nonsense about progress trackers and whatnot, but their 'clever' mechanics can almost always be stripped out with no real loss, which highlights how superfluous most of the mechanical innovations of WFRP 3 really were. Run them as traditional adventure scenarios and you should be fine.

Tl;dr version: The best ones here are 'An Eye For An Eye', The Witch's Song, and The Art of Waaagh!, although I'd run the third one in D&D rather than WFRP. The rest can be skipped.

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A Day Late and a Shilling Short (demo adventure): This isn't really an adventure at all, just a demonstration of the game mechanics. The PCs fight some beastmen in order to learn the combat rules, persuade a merchant to give them a package in order to learn the social rules, and then that's the end. Skip.

An Eye For An Eye (from the core set): This is a rather good investigation scenario, set in a hunting lodge whose staff have been infiltrated by chaos cultists. I'm not fond of 'suddenly, beastmen attack!' as the opening to a WFRP adventure, but aside from that this looks like it could be a good, creepy adventure to play through, with plenty of scope for the PCs to unravel the lodge's mysteries in different ways. It's a bit 'WFRP by numbers', but I think that's forgivable in an introductory scenario. The climactic scene, in which beastmen storm the lodge from all sides while the cultists try to summon a demon in the basement, looks like it could make for an especially memorable episode. Worth a look.

The Gathering Storm: I'd describe this adventure as (1) basic, (2) solid, and (3) probably better-suited to D&D than WFRP. It's set in a little town with big problems: there are beastmen in the marshes, goblins in the hills, a wizard looking for the fragments of a magic item from a nearby ruin, and a local necromancer who isn't nearly as dead as the townsfolk think he is. Each problem comes with a twist that makes it more than just a straightforward stab-fest: the beastman shaman is actually trying to restrain his herd out of sympathy for his human mother, the necromancer's spirit is not entirely in control of the corpse he's hijacked, the goblins have a captive troll which is itching for a chance to break out and eat them, and so on. There's nothing bad here, either in terms of content or scenario design, and it would probably be fun to play. But there's also nothing very conceptually interesting, and I suspect that any GM who has internalised the relevant design philosophies could probably come up with something just as good on their own if given a few hours of planning time.

Winds of Change (from Liber Mutatis): This is a very lazily-written scenario. An apprentice at one of the colleges of magic has gone missing during a visit to a run-down area of Altdorf - so, naturally, rather than looking for him themselves or calling in the authorities, the college hires the PCs to find him, the only clue being the square he was in when he went missing. Fortunately, he's been kidnapped by the world's laziest chaos cultists, who have sold his wizardly regalia to a pawn shop in the very same square they abducted him in, thus allowing their whole diabolical plan to be unravelled in an afternoon. He turns out to be only one of eight apprentices, one from each college, whom they've abducted for sacrifice in a ritual that can only be performed once per year, the dreadful result of which will be to... um... turn eight mutants into eight slightly more powerful mutants. Honestly, it all hardly seems worth the effort, and no explanation is ever provided as to why the PCs have to handle the whole situation themselves even after it turns out that eight apprentice wizards are being held captive by chaos cultists just down the road from the Colleges of Magic. That's not worth the Colleges sending a single wizard out for? Not even worth involving the city watch?

There's some good local colour here, and the square and its inhabitants are worthy of a better adventure, but this scenario feels too slight to be worth bothering with. Either skip it, or write your own mystery and use the location and NPCs as a ready-made supporting cast.

Journey to Black Fire Pass: This is another introductory adventure, designed for a party of dwarf PCs. The PCs are sent to find a ceremonial shield and bring it to a dwarf king. It's much more of an actual adventure than 'A Day Late and a Shilling Short', featuring battles with greenskins, negotiations with other dwarves, and a rather nice bit in which the PCs have a chance to work out that the town they're staying in is built over an old dwarven ruin, and descend into the vaults to protect it from being looted by humans. (Normally the PCs would be the looters!) So as an introductory adventure it's a fairly good one, although it's obviously not a very representative example of what most WFRP adventures tend to be like...

The Edge of Night: I have very mixed feelings about this adventure. The key scene it's built around, in which a bunch of feuding nobles make fools of themselves at a masquerade ball while skaven infiltrators make increasingly unsubtle attempts to spike the food and drink with warpstone dust, is great. The trouble is that virtually everything else is hugely bloated and, frankly, a bit rubbish. (Everything before the masquerade could easily have been cut by 75% without meaningful losses.) The write-up of the ball itself has a detailed timetable for what's supposed to happen when, clearly inspired by the one in 'Rough Night at the Three Feathers', but the number of NPCs involved looks overwhelming: I'm a pretty experienced GM, and I'm not at all sure I could run a complex scene involving twenty-seven different named NPCs all bouncing off the PCs and each other in the middle of a crisis situation. The final battle also expects the PCs to be able to take on eight skaven, a grey seer, and a rat ogre in a straight fight, which seems a bit heavy for WFRP. (Presumably WFRP 3 PCs are tougher than those in earlier editions?) The basic 'skaven at a masquerade' set-up might be worth stealing, though.

Horror of Hugeldal (from Liber Infectus): This is a decent investigation set in a small, plague-ridden village: the kind of miserable, isolated settings that WFRP tends to shine in. It's very slight, though: the investigation leads to some travelling Nurgle cultists whose entire plan amounts to 'drop a disease bomb down the village well and run away', which feels more like an entry on a WFRP-themed random encounter table than the climax of an entire adventure. Skippable.

The Witch's Song: I liked this adventure a lot, and I felt that it really played to WFRP's strengths. It's set in an isolated run-down fishing village in the swamp, where the locals hunt bog octopi for food and whisper stories about the one-eyed demons in the marshes. The central conflict revolves around a witch hiding in the swamps and a witch hunter determined to track him down, but the real situation is much more complicated than it first appears. (I especially appreciated the fact that neither the witch nor the witch hunter is straightforwardly 'good' or 'evil' - they're just two damaged individuals who happen to be set on a collision course.) Everyone in the village has secrets, and for once the secret isn't just 'we're all chaos cultists': instead they stem from much more human motivations of remorse, resentment, and grief. It's all very vivid and atmospheric, and the PCs are permitted a lot of freedom in who they side with and how they deal with the situations that arise. The later sections of the adventure are a bit heavy-handed in their attempts to force the PCs to arrive just in time for various climactic events, but it would be easy to ignore them and run the whole thing as a genuine sandbox / powderkeg instead.

My one concern is with the finale, in which all this dense, character-driven tragedy suddenly gives way to a climactic action sequence in which the PCs have to blow up a tunnel in order to stop a Dark Elf fleet sailing through it. I found the sudden shift of tone and scale a bit jarring, especially as it only works if the GM rigs events to ensure that the PCs arrive at just the right time. Scaling it down a bit - replacing the looming invasion fleet with a single Dark Elf slaving vessel that's been moving back and forth through the tunnel, for example - might help to mitigate this.

Crimson Rain (from Liber Carnagia): I thought this adventure was interesting, if not entirely successful. It revolves around the PCs pursuing a band of chaos-worshipping Norscans, who have stolen a spear which has a demon of Khorne bound within it: the twist is that the demon is now reaching out and seeking a new host, and the more blood the PCs shed while in pursuit of it, the more likely they are to be targeted for possession. This kind of material is under-explored territory in WFRP, which usually assumes that the lure of chaos is something that happens to other people rather than the PCs; but the way in which it's handled here is rather clumsy, with the PCs racking up arbitrary bloodthirstiness points for the kind of random violence that would otherwise be ordinary PC behaviour. Still, there's probably enough here to form a salvageable adventure if one was willing to put in a bit of work.

Harrower of Thrones (from Black Fire Pass): A wilderness- and dungeon-based scenario in which the PCs must return a sacred dwarf hammer to its proper resting place in a ruined dwarf hold, which is currently being occupied by a band of goblins and has an ancient Dragon Ogre sleeping at the bottom of it. There are some nice touches, here - the guides who turn out to be bandits, for example, or the giant monster that emerges after the main objective is fulfilled to block the way out - but I always feel that this sort of straightforward 'dwarves and goblins in dungeons' set-up is the sort of thing that D&D does much better than any edition of WFRP.

Mirror of Desire (from Liber Ecstatica): Like Edge of Night, this scenario is built around a promising set-up, in which a mirror containing a demon of Slaanesh makes its owner so desirable that her four aristocratic suitors start behaving in crazier and crazier ways in order to win her affections. The gradual ramp-up of weirdness looks as though it could be a lot of fun: so the athletic suitor starts off just showing off his muscles and ends up grabbing and bench pressing passing PCs right in front of her, the rich suitor starts off buying her jewellery and ends up buying random houses so he can tie giant bows around them and present them to her as gifts, and so on. The rest of the scenario, however, is very contrived: it's all supposed to end up with the PCs getting trapped inside the mirror and having to find their way out, but it looks to me as though even moderately proactive players would find this very easy to derail. I'd suggest just borrowing the whole 'girl with demon-mirror and four enchanted suitors' set-up as a comedy B-plot for use with some other scenario.

The Art of Waaagh! (from Hero's Call): I love this adventure. An orc army is marching down the valley, and a dilapidated castle is all that stands in its way. They're much more tactically acute than orcs normally are, though, because they're being secretly guided by a vampire trapped under the castle, who wants them to tear it down so that they can free him from his tomb. (He's also got a minion on the castle staff, whose manipulations have ensured that the current commanders are totally unequal to the task of holding off the orcs.) So first the PCs have to sort out the castle itself; then they have to roam around the valley, recruiting the assorted misfits who live there - knights, dwarves, ogres, killer schoolgirls - into a force capable of holding the castle against the greenskins; and then they have to endure the siege itself, fighting off various orc stratagems (rock lobbers, goblin infiltrators, etc) while trying to work out what the deal is with these unusually-clever orcs, hopefully ultimately discovering and destroying the vampire before the castle falls. It's written as an adventure for very powerful characters, but I don't think it needs to be: what the PCs really need to succeed here is intelligence and charisma, not the ability to personally sally forth and bash the heads off black orcs. It's also a rare example of an adventure where the 'progress tracker' is actually doing something useful, because given the set-up of course you need a way to measure how close the orcs are to the castle, and then of course you need a way to measure how close the castle is to falling. It's all rather more heroic and cinematic than the default WFRP norm, but I'd happily run it as written in D&D.

The Enemy Within: This is much the biggest of the WFRP3 adventures, though it's still tiny compared to such behemoths as The Thousand Thrones or the original Enemy Within campaign. Its gimmick is that the main villain, the Black Cowl, could be any one of three different NPCs. The GM can either play fair and pick who it is right from the start, or go all Quantum Ogre and leave it undefined until much later, thus ensuring that the true villain is whomever the PCs least (or most) expect. Not that it makes much difference, honestly. Power Behind the Throne this is not.

Anyway. The Black Cowl has learned about a recently-discovered warpstone idol, and has come up with a simple plan. Step one: help the skaven to steal it, in exchange for them making half of it into a cursed bell clapper like the ones they use in screaming bells. (Why the skaven don't just run off with it, I've no idea. I guess they view the Black Cowl as a valued customer.) Step two: swap the cursed clapper with the one in the bell of the Temple of Sigmar at Altdorf just before a state service, thus hopefully taking out the Emperor and a large chunk of the Imperial elite. Unfortunately, he's also come down with a bad case of Evil Mastermind syndrome, so he's massively over-complicated it with all kinds of nonsense about elf-murder, gunpowder smuggling, fake purification rituals, exploding theatres, and manipulating cultists into manipulating beastmen into attacking the Empire, thus providing plenty of opportunities for the PCs to discover and thwart his unnecessarily convoluted plans.

The campaign has four parts:
  • In part one, the PCs have to investigate a bunch of disappearances and other bizarre events in Averheim, as the skaven carry out the thefts and murders needed to create the clapper. This is well-handled, with plenty of colourful NPCs, and lots of apparently disconnected events that should effectively communicate to the PCs the sense that they are brushing against the edges of something large and complicated and dangerous. (It also has a much more credible take on 'skaven denialism' than most WFRP books.) 
  • In part two, they have to take the clapper to Middenheim to be purged in a ritual. This section is much weaker than the first one, with little for the PCs to do except follow the trail of breadcrumbs through the plot and occasionally butcher some very stupid chaos cultists. (If you were a Witch Hunter / Slaanesh cultist double agent, would you leave your chaos cult books and robes in the room you just hired at the local inn? And then wander off and leave them there unattended?) 
  • Things look up again in part three, a 'Rough Night at the Three Feathers' style tangle in which a whole bunch of events, each individually trivial, are made much more compelling by all happening at the same time. This section looks like it could be challenging to run, but potentially rewarding if you could get it right. Nothing the PCs do actually matters, though, because at the end the clapper gets stolen, the bell gets rung, and the PCs have to help save the Emperor from demons while the Black Cowl jumps through a portal to the Realm of Chaos. I'll take genuine player agency over a 'cinematic climax' any day.
  • In part four, the PCs have to pursue the Black Cowl by jumping through the portal. This is new territory for WFRP, which has never used the Realm of Chaos as an actual adventure location before, but it gets handled in a very tokenistic fashion here: fight some Khornites, get tempted by some daemonettes, chat with a Great Unclean One, navigate a Tzeenchian castle full of traps, and then have a big battle with a Changer of Ways. The clever bit comes afterwards, when the PCs think they've returned home to Altdorf, only to discover that they're actually in a Tzeenchian illusion... and then a Slaaneshi illusion... and then a Nurgle illusion... and then, just at the point when they think they've got this all figured out, they find themselves back in the real Altdorf being attacked by real demons of Khorne, who they'll probably assume are yet more illusions until halfway through the fight. Then they kill all the demons and get rewarded, except for any of them who picked up mutations in the Realm of Chaos, who get handed over for execution instead. Sucks to be them! 
Overall, it's not that great, especially compared to the original Enemy Within campaign. I'd suggest using a slightly-expanded version of part 1 as a stand-alone scenario, and stealing the twist at the end of part 4 for use in another adventure.

Coming next: Shadow of the Demon Lord!

Thursday, 29 November 2018

A brief word on some recent online controversies

I don't use social media, so I get to live most of my life in blissful ignorance of what people are currently yelling at each other about. Years back Dave McGrogan suggested to me that I should start uploading my posts to G+, but I very seldom use it for any other purpose, so all the debates that take place on it are invisible to me. It's only when controversies filter down to the level of actual blogs that I usually become aware of them.

I have become aware of this one.

I'm generally pretty sceptical of internet politics. Social media is very good for grandstanding and blacklisting and rumour-mongering and getting people to hate each other, but it's much less effective for actually getting anyone to change their minds about anything. That said, I have come to care about this weird monster-baby of a creative community that we call the OSR, and it saddens me to hear that a growing number of people are apparently coming to associate it with intolerance, far-right politics, and other forms of ideological awfulness.

If you endorse or encourage racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic views, then you are an awful person and you should stop doing that.

If you think that you're just tragically misunderstood and all these people are being so unreasonable and complaining about nothing, then please consider the possibility that actually being [black / female / gay / trans] may have given them a better insight into what constitutes [racism / sexism / homophobia / transphobia] than is easily accessible to others.

If you believe that a shadow army of evil totalitarian SJW snowflakes are trying to destroy gaming, and that it is your right, nay, your duty to be as offensive as possible in order to defend our freedom, then get a fucking grip. Your actual ideological opponents don't give a fuck about your fantasy game. All you're doing is harming random bystanders and alienating people who might otherwise have been your friends and/or customers.

If you are Venger Satanis, then you appear to be in the middle of a highly public meltdown. (You 'took issue with both sides of the Charlottesville political protest'? Seriously?) Get help, dude. Get help.

The OSR movement has benefitted enormously from the contributions of trans gamers and creators such as Scrap Princess, Evlyn M, Gennifer Bone, Bardaree Bryant, and FM Geist. Anything which makes them feel less welcome among us can only leave us all much poorer as a result.

Be kind to one another. For fuck's sake. It's not that hard. Just be kind.

I'll try to post about the WFRP 3 adventures soon.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Echoes and Reverberations part 1: WFRP 3rd edition - the setting

My overview of WFRP 2nd edition may be finished, but the work goes on. So many different people made so many different requests during the last series of posts that I've decided to do a second series, albeit hopefully a shorter one, which covers what happened to WFRP and its spiritual successors after 2nd edition came to an end. Material I propose to cover includes WFRP 3rd edition, WFRP 2nd edition fan-content, Shadow of the Demon Lord, Zweihander, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and Small But Vicious Dog. There's a lot to cover, though, so these will be much more 'zoomed out' than the previous series.

First up: WFRP 3rd edition.

As I discussed here, Fantasy Flight Games acquired the WFRP license in 2008, and promptly killed off WFRP 2nd edition in favour of their own WFRP 3rd edition in 2009. This edition represented a major departure from tradition. Instead of WFRP being sold as a book, it was now marketed as a boxed set, which contained multiple books, special dice, and lots and lots of fiddly little components. It looked like... well... this:

Image result for warhammer fantasy roleplay 3rd edition

In retrospect, I can understand FFG's decision to go with this kind of hybrid RPG / board game setup. The third edition of Dungeons and Dragons had demonstrated that it was possible to market RPG books in the same way that one might market board game expansion sets, with people buying books like Races of the Dragon simply in order to get the rules for that one prestige class they were itching to try out. D&D 4th edition, which came out in 2008, took this even further, with ultra-codified spells and powers that worked pretty much exactly like action cards used in many board games - spend this resource to inflict this much damage on this number of squares on the board, and so on. WOTC even brought out decks of power cards for players to use, and supplements which were little more than shopping lists of new powers for them to choose from. FFG were board game manufacturers before they were RPG publishers: they had the resources they needed to produce high-quality components, and they understood that you could charge a lot more money for a big box of shiny objects than for a single softcover book. Black Industries had given up on WFRP precisely because the old supplement treadmill business model for RPGs had proven to be insufficiently profitable - so why not abandon the old approach entirely, and replace it with boxed sets of cards and components that could be sold like board game expansions, instead?

The logic must have seemed compelling at the time, but it soon became apparent that FFG had badly misjudged their audience. The core player base for WFRP didn't want 'chrome': they were attached to grimy minimalism, to a game that could be played out of a single book, to character sheets scribbled on bits of paper and rules that you could still mostly remember even when drunk. They didn't want clever, fiddly mechanics, where you moved a token on a character dashboard to modify the type of dice you rolled when you played your next action card. They just wanted big books filled with long lists of crap jobs, horrible mutations, and hilariously violent critical hit tables. They treasured their memories of sitting around a big table with six of their mates, taking turns to narrate their attempts to brutalise some unfortunate clanrat in a sewer someplace, and they did not take kindly to discovering that the big, expensive core box for WFRP 3 only included enough components for one GM and three PCs.

As a result, WFRP 3rd edition seems to have been a commercial failure. A glance at the 'Strike to Stun' forum archives for 2009-13 demonstrates that the players there were much more interested in discussing WFRP 2 than WFRP 3 even during the years in which the latter was the official edition. The rate at which FFG released material for the game during 2010 implied that they hoped WFRP might become a product like their Game of Thrones LCG, with players buying boxed expansion sets every month or two; but the regular release of new boxed sets really only lasted two years, from November 2009 to November 2011. After that came two 2012 boxed sets, a dribble of print-on-demand card sets, and then nothing. FFG claimed that this was because they had 'delivered a complete game experience', but given how little of the Old World they'd actually covered in the course of their run, I don't think that anyone actually believed them.

I haven't played WFRP 3, but I have read the rulebooks, and it looks like a very cleverly-designed game. I like the way that the special dice cram lots of information into a single dice roll, for example, allowing you to tell at a glance not only whether you've succeeded or failed, but also whether you've exhausted yourself, whether there have been additional complications, and so on. But it looks like a very poor fit for what I - and, I suspect, many other people - want from WFRP. When I'm playing a scruffy grave robber engaged in a frantic back-alley knife fight with a chaos cultist, I don't want to be thinking about building dice pools and selecting action cards and moving stance tokens, as though I was playing some kind of martial arts master coolly contemplating which technique to use. I just want to roll some dice, and have the GM roll some more dice, and then listen while the GM tells me that I've just taken a knife in the face and that, furthermore, death from shock and blood loss are instantaneous.

It probably didn't help that the mechanics are often oddly disassociated. First aid, for example, can be used once per scene - but how long is a scene? Is a five day journey five scenes, or one? Can I keep starting new scenes by doing random things along the way, simply in order to give me more chances to use my first aid skill? Insanities have formal game effects, which is fair enough: I can understand why working with someone suffering from paranoia, for example, would be stressful for everyone involved, and having it add tension tokens is a perfectly reasonable way of representing that. But am I also expected to actually roleplay the insanity, by saying and doing paranoid things, or are the effects of my paranoia simply assumed to be abstractly modelled by the increasing number of tension tokens accumulated by the group? Locations have special rules, which are sometimes perfectly reasonable - taking physical actions in a crumbling building means a chance of injuring yourself - but at other times feel more like things I'd expect to see written on a square in a board game. ('Ballroom: whenever you regain stress, regain 1 extra stress.') The 'progress tracker' makes sense for some situations - whittling away at the morale of an attacking force until they give up and retreat, for example - but is simply bizarre for others, such as investigations. In the starter adventure, for example, the GM is told to 'direct the party towards an as-yet undiscovered overt clue' once they've moved five spaces along the progress tracker by uncovering five unrelated pieces of suspicious information. But why should noticing that someone is behaving suspiciously suddenly mean that I also notice the blasphemous books in the library? Once again, this feels more like a board game mechanism - 'trade in five minor clue tokens for a major clue card' - than an attempt to simulate a fictional world.

Setting-wise, WFRP 3 dialled the timeline back to just before the Storm of Chaos: but if you think that means a return to the low-fantasy setting of WFRP 1, then you'd be sorely mistaken, because WFRP 3 offered the most D&D-ified version of the Old World yet. Wood elves, dwarves, humans, and high elves - high elves! - are all given equal amounts of attention in the corebook as possible PC races, and there's a lot of emphasis on the fact that the characters are heroes, with the expected party composition clearly closer to the 'elf, dwarf, and wizard' mix of traditional D&D than the 'boatman, agitator, ratcatcher' mix of classic WFRP. The careers list is weighted towards traditional 'adventurer' careers like Witch Hunter rather than 'scum' careers like Bonepicker, and it is apparently possible to buy 'healing draughts' - basically D&D healing potions - in any Old World settlement. And as for the setting... well... I'll let the book speak for itself:

'The greatest realm of the Old World is the Empire, a land of courageous men ruled by a wise Emperor.'
'Those who serve the Empire strive to defend it against many enemies. The Imperial armies guard the borders against invaders. Witch hunters scour the land for witches, Chaos cults and mutants. Roadwardens and shipswords protect the Empire’s highways and riverways from bandits and beastmen. However, the Empire is a vast place, and the Emperor’s servants cannot be everywhere.'
'“On my first visit to Altdorf, I was surprised by the number of races rubbing shoulders with each other in the narrow streets: men of every nation, intractable dwarfs and portly halflings. I even met a few of my own kind, as well as a curious representative of those elves who remained in these parts after the exodus. What surprised me more was how they all seemed to get along... well, most of the time.” – Suriel Lianllach, High Elf envoy'
'Under the current Emperor, Karl Franz of Altdorf, elected in 2502, the Empire enjoys a renaissance of strength and prosperity. Karl Franz realised that the Empire could not stand alone against its many enemies. His ambassadors have secured alliances with the other nations of men, and rejuvenated the ancient friendship with the dwarf holds. Envoys sail between the Empire and Ulthuan, and high elf merchants are no longer an unusual sight in the markets of Altdorf or Nuln. The Emperor also strives to maintain the Empire’s unity. Relationships between provinces have always been fractious, but the Emperor rewards those Elector Counts who display loyalty. Those who do not receive a visit from his stern champion, Ludwig Schwarzhelm. They never stray again.'
A great realm of courageous men ruled by a wise emperor, whose stern champion ensures the unity and loyalty of the nobility. Armies, roadwardens, and witch hunters all working in unison against threats from within and without. Formal alliances with the High Elves. Humans, elves, dwarves and halflings all getting along happily together in the streets of Altdorf. The Emperor rides a griffon, and, according to Omens of War, he also has a pet dragon. It's not quite the way I remember the setting from 1st edition.

FFG's business model of releasing boxed sets rather than books had a number of knock-on consequences. Most boxed sets consisted of a box of cards and tokens, plus a book that told you how to use them; whatever pages that the book had left over then contained either some setting information, or an adventure, or both. Even when the new cards obviously represented the main purpose of the set, something had to go into the book, and this resulted in a proliferation of weird filler material. So Omens of War, the boxed set containing the cards and tokens for advanced combat styles, also contained an oddly superfluous book about the armies and military history of the Empire, while Black Fire Pass, the boxed set containing cards for advanced dwarf careers, contained a whole book about, um, Black Fire Pass. (It's not very interesting.) Perhaps the most extreme example of this was the decision to bring out one boxed set for each chaos god, each including a book containing an adventure, some new rules - the disease rules, for example, were in the Nurgle box - and then a heap of filler to round out the page count. Get ready to be told that Khorne likes blood and skulls and also violence over and over and over and over again.

With so many of the books in the line devoted to trivia like the military history of the Empire, the edition was only ever able to present a very superficial version of the WFRP setting, with a heavy focus on the Reikland province and very little on the wider world. The presentations of religion and magic essentially recapitulate the 2nd edition versions in a more condensed form, though I was pleased to see a greater emphasis on the way in which the invention of the printing press is shaking up the religious hierarchies of the Old World, and on colour magic as a deliberately crippled form of sorcery taught to the humans by Teclis to limit their magical potential. The colleges of magic described here are less restrictive institutions than their 2nd edition counterparts, doubtless to make it easier to play as an adventuring wizard; unfortunately, they've also become even more boring. (The 2001 Realms of Sorcery interpretation of the colleges remains my favourite version.) The chaos books, as I've already mentioned, are huge disappointments - much weaker than the 2nd edition Tome of Corruption, which was itself already much weaker than the 1st edition originals. They repeatedly stress that there is no good reason to join a chaos cult and you'd have to be totally crazy to do so, and then go on to blithely assert that all four gods have loads of cults packed with fanatical cultists ready to devote their lives to them for no damn reason at all. The 2nd edition presentation, where most chaos cultists didn't actually know that they were chaos cultists, made a lot more sense. 

The bestiary draws on the wargame, and it shows. Chaos marauders live only to fight and kill. Greenskins live only to fight and kill. Demons live only to fight and kill. Beastmen live only to fight and kill. Trolls and giants live only to fight and kill. Cultists are fanatics eager to kill and die for their dark masters. Undead tirelessly attack the living until hacked apart. It's little more than a parade of cannon fodder. Skaven are presented here as a race of sneaky, paranoid cowards, rather than as the apocalyptic threat they were described as in 2nd edition. Compared to previous editions, the published adventures make greater use of adversaries such as goblins, dark elves, trolls, and dragon ogres. Coupled with the much greater emphasis on non-human PCs - there are even rules for playing an ogre! - this further enhances the sense of WFRP 3 as the most 'high fantasy' version of the RPG to date.

In conclusion - if you're looking for setting or background material, then WFRP 3 offers very slim pickings. In quantity, it's inferior to WFRP 2; in quality, it's inferior to WFRP 1. The system looks clever, though I have my doubts about how well it would work in actual play, but seems a poor fit for the themes and setting of WFRP. For fans of WFRP 1 and 2, the most valuable thing about it is probably the adventures, some of which are rather good, and most of which could be very easily adapted to other editions of the game. I'll cover them in my next post. 

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

[Actual Play] The Deathfrost Mountain Adoption Agency: Team Tsathogga performs a hostile takeover

I'm sure a lot of people have played Death Frost Doom over the years. I'm sure many of them ended up killing the undead cultists, or getting killed by them. Team Tsathogga may be the first ones to end up adopting them instead.

Image result for death frost doom

For readers familiar with the original scenario, I should say that the Devourer cultists of my own campaign are not identical to the Duvan'Ku of Death Frost Doom. The Duvan'Ku are figures of transcendent and cosmic evil; the Devourer cultists are just victims of history like everyone else. They did some awful things over the years, but ultimately they were still people, which is very much the way I prefer my fantasy cultists to be. I mention this because, without it, the narrative that follows is unlikely to make much sense.

Having cleared the way to the shrine within Deathfrost Mountain, the PCs disguised themselves. Over the years, Circe had pieced together a full set of Devourer cultist ritual regalia from her various victims, so she donned that and took the lead. Tiny went next as her demonic servant, his inhuman appearance for once serving as an asset rather than a disadvantage. Skadi was worried that she might be recognised from her previous visit to the mountain, so she put on full mourning dress, complete with a full-face veil, which she had purchased ages ago as part of some complicated scam or other back in Glasstown. Sovan borrowed Sophie's academical gown, and hid the golden lotus flowers growing out of his head beneath her mortarboard. Thus garbed as the Priestess, the Widow, the Master, and the Demon, figures of immense but unspecified symbolic importance, they descended beneath the earth. (Titus, Sophie, and Runt Ape brought up the rear as the rather less symbolically resonant figures of The Scruffy Old Man, The Powerlifter, and The Beast of Burden.)

The shrine was as spooky as ever, unnatural cold and all. They found the undead cultists waiting for them in the chapel, blades drawn, poised to leap upon them and attack the moment they entered - which they had no intention of doing, in case the disembodied spirits of the priests of Vorn still haunted the chamber, waiting to possess any mortal who set foot within. Calling out from the threshold, Circe announced that they were followers of the Devourer, members of a daughter cult founded by cultists who had survived the purge of the Deathfrost Mountain shrine. Henryk had found them, she claimed, and told them of the cult's plight, and they had travelled here to set them free, although Henryk himself had regrettably not survived the journey.

Image result for human skeleton in leaves
We will remember him. Briefly.
By their standards, it was actually a pretty credible cover story. Circe certainly looked the part in her ritual regalia, and as far as the cultists knew, only followers of the Devourer had the ability to command vat-grown demons such as Tiny. The PCs knew that the undead cultists trapped in the woods outside had gone to seek aid from living followers of the Devourer - and who else would have any reason to open their shrine back up again? The wary poses of the undead relaxed a little, their fleshless jaws clacking in approval, and out of the darkness strode the imposing figure of their leader: the Dead King.

He had clearly been a big man in life, but his huge spiked armour made him seem much bigger and bulkier, and the familiar hilt of Kal'Thalax the Demon-Slayer protruded from a scabbard at his hip. He spoke in a voice like a trumpet, his words amplified by the bugle-like mouth sculpted into the full-face helmet he wore, shaped like the face of a snarling demon. A golden crown that was clearly never made to fit him had been hammered into the metal brow of his helm, and wherever he went he was surrounded by an honour guard of eight black-robed skeletons with masked faces, carrying drawn swords before them. As he began to declaim in their general direction, the PCs rapidly concluded that he was an arrogant, self-obsessed narcissist over-fond of the sound of his own voice, and probably a usurper to boot. Spending two years buried alive with him in a subterranean shrine could not have been much fun for the other cultists, especially as he seemed to be the only one who had retained the ability to speak.

Clearly assuming that the PCs simply represented a fresh supply of minions, the Dead King demanded to know where the rest of their cult was so that he could take command of it. When Circe replied that they were far away, he demanded to know how she had reached the shrine with a demon in tow without being spotted, and was told in response that they possessed mysterious powers of moving across the land unseen. He insisted that they would all have to join the mother-cult in the work of gathering sacrifices to resume the flow of liquid time to the Hissing Prophets, but Circe smoothly one-upped him by stating that she had been to see the Hissing Prophets in person, and that they were no longer in need of liquid time. (She neglected to mention that this was because the PCs had killed them all.) With the lapse of their sacrifices the Purple Islands had returned to the world, and a new dispensation was at hand.

This was big news for the cultists. For them, the Purple Islands were the holy stronghold of the Hissing Prophets, the legendary homeland their ancestors had left six centuries before, which had been suspended outside the timestream ever since. The Dead King was not pleased at being thus upstaged, especially when Circe added (truthfully) that during her visit to the islands she had communed directly with the Devourer herself. (It's the collective godmind of an ancient alien race that committed mass ritual suicide. The snake-men accidentally tuned into it while trying to make contact with the rest of their species using a psychic scanner made from a bunch of brains in jars. Of course Circe tried the head-set on.) He insisted that, as the ultimate leader of the cult, he should be taken to the islands to meet with the Hissing Prophets himself, there to be rewarded for his services and informed of the new dispensation. The PCs promised to use their mysterious powers of concealment to convey him and his honour guard unseen across the land and sea, so he turned around and ordered the rest of the cultists to remain hidden in the dark, there to await his inevitable glorious return. Then he and his honour guard followed the PCs up the ladder out of the shrine.

Image result for ladder into darkness
It's a traaap...

It was, of course, a trap. As soon as the Dead King dragged himself through the trapdoor, Sovan slammed it shut and cast Hold Portal on it, trapping half his honour guard below the ground, while the rest of the party set upon him with weapons and spells. A furious and desperate melee ensued in which Runt Ape was killed outright, while Sophie, Circe, and Tiny were all terribly injured. Skadi had both her body and her mind torn open by the claws of the Dead King, and was left a bleeding, amnesiac wreck, cowering in the corner of the cabin. The Dead King seemed almost impervious to weapons, so Circe made a grab for the hilt of Kal'Thalax, which leaped from Dead King's scabbard into her hand, eager to be wielded once more against its ancient adversaries. Then she rammed it through a chink in his armour while Sophie blasted him to bits with Magic Missile spells. Titus wept briefly over the fallen body of Runt Ape, but soon consoled himself by resurrecting him as a zombie instead.

The noise of the battle was easily heard amidst the otherwise deathly stillness of the mountaintop, and within moments of the last skeleton falling the PCs heard voices from outside, calling them to emerge and identify themselves. Circe swiftly ripped off her Devourer cultist regalia and stepped outside with Sovan and Sophie, only to see the soldiers from the watchtower regarding them warily from horseback, accompanied by a man in furred robes who appeared to be a priest of Vorn. Sophie, Sovan, and Circe claimed to be secret agents of the Grand Duke of Vornheim, and gave their names as Medusa, Attila, and Alecto, respectively. (Circe's player is a classics student.) Taking advantage of his foreign appearance and academical garb, 'Attila' claimed to be an expert occultist from far Qelong, and began lecturing the men on how the evil spirits from beneath had almost escaped on their watch, while 'Medusa' surreptitiously cast Charm Person spells on the corporal and priest. Both men were soon convinced that 'Medusa' really was the secret operative that she claimed to be, especially when the PCs started waving the heads of the recently-vanquished Devourer honour guard at them, and on her authority they obeyed the instructions of 'Attila' to promptly begin carving all kinds of ritual markers in a mile-wide circle around the site. Their absence gave the PCs a chance to heap more rocks on top of the trap-door to the shrine before sneaking Tiny, zombie Runt Ape, and the totally non-functional Skadi away to their concealed camp in the woods nearby.

A round of healing and Dispel Magic spells the next morning managed to get Skadi back to something resembling her old self, although enormous gaps remained in her memory, as though the tapestry of her mind had been shredded by terrible claws. Tiny tried to persuade Kal'Thalax that demons weren't inherently evil, but the intelligent sword was having none of it, and kept trying to spin around and stab him until the PCs trapped it under a rock. Discussing their options, the PCs decided that with the Devourer cult now leaderless, they had an ideal opportunity to seize control of it for themselves. After all, they could hardly be less appealing leaders than the Dead King seemed to have been...

Sneaking back into the cabin, they descended into the shrine and found the remaining undead cultists once again waiting for them in the shrine, lurking in anxious defensive postures behind improvised barricades. Assuring them that they meant them no harm, the PCs explained that the Dead King had been a false and unworthy leader, who would have left them all entombed in the cold darkness while he alone sought the rewards and glory that were rightfully due to them all. The PCs would do more for them, much more: they would use their mysterious magic to hide them from the sight of men. (Here Circe cast Invisibility to Undead, which to the undead really did make it look as though she had simply vanished.) They would lead them out of this now-redundant shrine, and across the land and sea to the Purple Islands of their ancestors, there to meet with Ambie, last and greatest of the Hissing Prophets.

(Ambie is an adopted snake-man baby whom allies of the PCs have raised from an egg. He's currently about 18 months old. Explaining why the last and greatest of the Hissing Prophets is a toddler is a bridge that the PCs will cross when they come to it.)

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BEHOLD YOUR NEW GOD!
There was a lot of jaw-clacking and a lot of obvious dissent, especially from the four surviving honour guards. But the rest of the cultists had had a pretty demoralising two years: first awakened prematurely from their holy sleep to find themselves inhabiting their own mute embalmed corpses, then stumbling out into an unfamiliar world that had moved on without them, and finally being driven back beneath the earth and sealed away in the dark by the Grand Duke's soldiers, with only a grandiloquent megalomaniac over-fond of his own monologues for company. The PCs at least held out the offer of something more than darkness and imprisonment. Slowly at first, and then with increasing momentum, the robed undead swept out of the shrine to stand beside the PCs. Sophie - sorry, 'Medusa' - slipped out to send the watchmen off to do some more pointless busywork, and while they were thus distracted the other PCs led their new followers out into the woods, where they started work on teaching them basic sign language.

And so Team Tsathogga found themselves the leaders of forty-six confused undead murder-cultists, thirteen of whom were children, and all of whom had awakened at random from sleeps of between one and six centuries in duration. They found themselves committed to somehow leading this ragged warband to the Purple Islands, a distance of nearly one thousand miles as the crow flies, and much, much further as the skeleton stumbles. But they'll make it work somehow. Probably. Maybe.

What combination of low face and high tragedy - but probably mostly low farce, to be honest - awaits this mismatched band in the outside world?

Only Tsathogga knows all! 

Thursday, 1 November 2018

[Actual Play] Mistakes were made: Team Tsathogga return to Deathfrost Mountain

After a gap of six months, I finally got the Team Tsathogga group into the same room at the same time again. This is what happened.

I should start off by saying that although this was the last session I wrote up, it's not the last session that the group played before the break. It was followed by multiple sessions set in the underworld, which were mostly devoted to complicated inter-species politics and guerrilla warfare. The consequences of the party's often-chaotic and frequently catastrophic intervention into the lands below the earth included the following:
  • Liberation of the Toad Folk from the rulership of the Science Fungoids.
  • Near-extermination of the Toad Folk in ensuing war with the Science Fungoids.
  • Death of the Toad Folk hero and ex-PC Kroak in battle with the Science Fungoids.
  • Loss of Kroak's prized laser sword in pool of space acid, damn it all, that thing was irreplaceable.
  • Discovery of the location of the secret Science Fungoid 'Demonspore' project. Projected assault on demonspore called off on grounds of looking too bloody dangerous. 
  • Obliteration of Science Fungoid agricultural base through detonation of stolen magical WMD.
  • Discovery of multiple strange new underworld races: shriekmen, adherers, fishmen.
  • Innovative use of adherers to foil Science Fungoid gas warfare, because your enemy can't deploy their gas weapons if all their firing slits have been glued shut with lumps of super-sticky underworld humanoids first.
  • Discovery that any number of zombies can be defeated by having a very large woman squish them one at a time with a very heavy iron door.
  • Deployment of a giant maggot-vomiting zombie vampire toad based bioweapon in war with Science Fungoids, with mixed results.
  • Contact established with the fishmen of the Nightmare Sea, great new source of information on the sleeping gods imprisoned beneath the world by the ancient empire of the snake-men, PCs plan to totally get around to freeing some of them one day.
  • Loss of the Sister of Seraptis, utterly traumatised after near-death experience inside the stomach of a Science Fungoid warbeast, really just wants to go back to her creepy temple and chill for a few decades if it's all the same to you.
  • Heard rumours about some kind of unholy underground empire called the Realm of the Fallen Queen, probably nothing to worry about. 
  • Titus the necromancer hears the call of the Sleepers beneath the Nightmare Sea, and has to be bribed into returning to the surface with promises of unimaginable necromantic awfulness hidden beneath Deathfrost Mountain. 
  • Establishment of trade relations between the surface world and the Navigator Houses of the Nightmare Sea. (These guys, pretty much.)
  • Sale of loyal goblin tribes into debt slavery to Navigator Houses of the Nightmare Sea, huge potential for future profits, everyone wins except the poor old goblins.
  • And, last but not least, the acquisition of a noble albino simian named 'Runt Ape' as a mount and bearer.
So after all that the PCs came stumbling back up to the surface, blinking in the moonlight, and headed for the nearby village of Bright Meadows. As they approached it, however, three figures on horseback emerged from the shadows of the village and moved to meet them. Hastily disguising their more bizarre companions - Runt-Ape, Tiny the demon, and Titus's zombie servants - with illusion magic, the PCs watched as the riders approached, their weirdly-similar faces revealing them to be 'angels' (roving agents) of the church of the Bright Lady. Their travel-worn clothes implied that they had come a long way, and they regarded the PCs with wary distrust, clearly poised ready to fight or flee at a moment's notice.

(Exactly why the angels of the church all look so similar has long been a topic of speculation among the PCs. Hash suspects cloning. Circe suspects incest.)

Hailing the PCs, the angels declared that they had ridden from Ingria in pursuit of a fugitive wanted for violating graves, animating corpses, and breaking into the house of a terrified young wizard to force her to teach him spells at knifepoint. (General nodding and muttering of 'So that's how Titus learned the Light spell...') Shuffling their necromatic buddy to the back of the group, the PCs unconvincingly claimed to know nothing about it. The angels didn't seem persuaded, but weren't about to pick a fight with a heavily-armed band with three times their own numbers, so they withdrew back towards the village. The PCs recovered their horses, slept for a few hours in the hovel of Circe's elderly friend Edith, and then rode north in the morning, certain that they were being followed at a cautious distance.

Their plan was to return to Deathfrost Mountain: partly as a bribe to Titus, partly in the hope of reclaiming their lost sword Kalthalax the Demon-Slayer, and partly just to find out what happened there after they fled the region pursued by well over a hundred skeletons. Using their superior knowledge of the countryside - Skadi and Circe had both grown up in Bright Meadows - they evaded the angels in the hills, sending Titus's zombies off on a sacrificial mission to lay a fake trail while they rode up a riverbed in the opposite dircetion. Titus complained about the loss of his servants, but was persuaded to try riding on Runt Ape's shoulders instead, and soon became quite fond of his new steed. Joining the trade road to Vornheim, they disguised themselves with illusions and fell in with a band of traders, carrying a cargo of furs north. Glad to have more companions to scare off the goblins in the woods, the traders told them about the disruptions to the fur trade caused by the flooding in the northern provinces, and the new fashion for fur trousers among high-status men. (The PCs realised at once that this fashion had been started by their old friend Jack the Fighter, who had turned fur trousers into his signature fashion accessory after looting them from the corpse of a dead climber on Deathfrost Mountain, although naturally no-one else could pull off the look as well as he could.) Tactful enquiries about plagues of undead in the Vornheim region prompted one of the traders to explain that there had been a terrible series of attacks on villages by undead monsters the previous year, but that as far as he knew these had been successfully suppressed by the combined efforts of the Grand Duke of Vornheim and the Church of Vorn.

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Why do actions have to have consequences? It's so unfair!

Parting from their new friends in Vornheim, the PCs took up residence at an inn - and here a problem presented itself. Runt Ape and Tiny were too large to pass as humans, so they had to be magically disguised as horses - but Sophie could only keep up the illusion on them if she was with them, which hadn't been a problem on the road, but became one once the PCs went to their rented room and the 'horses' went to the stables. Thinking quickly, the party explained that Sophie was their indentured servant, and was thus unworthy of a bed and had to sleep in the stables with the animals. Stuck in the stable all day while the snow fell endlessly outside, Tiny passed the time by constructing extremely clumsy ice sculptures when no-one else was around - but as he was disguised as a horse, these were universally attributed to Sophie, who was becoming quite ill in her freezing and draughty accommodation. The pathetic combination of her chattering teeth and her pathos-inducingly-awful ice sculptures moved the pity of the innkeeper, who roundly berated the party for treating their servant so horribly, and the PCs grudgingly hired a private house for her and the 'horses' to stay in while they waited for the winter to pass.

Meanwhile the rest of the party were making enquiries in Vornheim. Everyone seemed to know about the revelation of the Devourer cult in the city thirty years ago, and the destruction of their horrible temple up in the mountains: the priests of Vorn were particularly proud of the fact that five of the holiest men of their order had sacrificed themselves to seal their evil away forever. (At this point, the PCs guiltily remembered the five frozen skulls that they had gleefully looted teeth from during their last visit to Deathfrost Mountain.) Evidently the seal had not been perfect, however, for last year the villages around the accursed mountain had been attacked by mobs of undead. The Grand Duke's cavalry had ridden out, crushed the undead, and buried their evil temple beneath heaps of rocks, but rumours of the living dead continued to filter out of the forests to the west.

Research in the city's cathedral library suggested that the same mountains were holy to Vorn, god of iron, time, and rain; and while the official line of the clergy was that Vorn spiritually inhabited the mountain range as a whole, the writings of his oldest prophets described him specifically as buried beneath it. Putting two and two together, the PCs concluded that Vorn must originally have been another of the alien hyperintelligences imprisoned beneath the surface of their world by the snake-men, which explained why the snake-men of the Purple Islands had sent the original Devourer cultists to establish their temple in that specific place: Vorn, they realised, must be buried inside Deathfrost Mountain, with the cultists somehow using him to distil the liquid time that their snake-man masters had used to isolate the Purple Islands from the timestream. Unimpressed by the gloomy monks of Vorn, they sought information instead from the city's criminal element, who mostly hung around a low tavern called the Fearful Sapper. By posing as a strung-out addict desperate for a fix, Circe was able to get in touch with the ageing drug dealer who, many years before, had supplied the cult with its purple lotus powder. Then spy-rat followed him home and Skadi broke in and stole his stash. After experimenting with smoking, swallowing, and sniffing it, they concluded that the chief qualities of the drug were to induce hazy euphoria and fortify the mind against magic, and brought it along to use in their raid on the temple of the Devourer.

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The correct method of taking the drug was fortuitously discovered just as Hash was starting to pull his trousers down.
By this point the worst of the winter cold was over, and Hash was becoming fixated on a talented young actress he'd seen performing in an epic tragedy. (The rest of the PCs, phillistines that they were, had only gone along for the sake of the bawdy farce performed afterwards.) The decision was taken to leave town and head back to Deathfrost Mountain: so, equipping themselves for a journey through the snow, they told everyone that they were leaving to search for their missing cousin among the Tear-Eater tribes of the north, before promptly turning west as soon as they were out of sight of the city walls. In the foothills they found villages whose traumatised residents spoke vividly of the horrors of the year before, describing how they had been attacked first by roving mobs of undead that seemed confused and moved seemingly at random, and then by extremely purposeful robed skeletons who abducted people in the night and carried them off into the forests, never to be seen again. (The PCs guessed these corresponded to the victim skeletons from the mass grave and the cultist skeletons from the temple vaults, respectively.) The villagers insisted that the undead still stalked the woods, so the PCs took to roaming through the forests with Detect Evil spells active, looking for anything other than Circe that registered as supernaturally evil. The first such skeleton they detected was hiding at the top of a tree, and Tiny's thrown rock brought it down rather too effectively, crashing to earth in a heap of broken bones; but a few days later they found a second one hiding in some bushes, flushed it from cover, lassoed it, and tied it to a tree trunk. They noted that it wore the remnants of its burial robes, although these had been worn to rags, and concluded that it was one of the reanimated Devourer cultists they had accidentally unleashed on their last visit.

The skeleton was initially uncooperative: but Bless spells caused it pain, and the threat of their repetition was enough to get it to 'speak'. It couldn't talk, but carefully untying one hand allowed it to scratch its answers to their questions on tree bark. A long interrogation followed, in which it revealed that its name was Henryk, and that the risen Devourer cultists were completely nonplussed at being awakened so early, long before the arrival of their god. Their leader, the Dead King, had told them to resume their sacrifices in order to restore the supply of liquid time to the Hissing Prophets - but that had only succeeded in bringing the Grand Duke's men down on them, and now most of the risen cultists were trapped inside their own temple. Of those caught outside when the temple was blocked off, some had gone to Ingria to seek aid from Llegh, the Devourer cultist who had created the Fleshdregs after infiltrating the Order of the Divine Surgeon and penning the Grimoire of the New Flesh, in the hope that his experiments with liquid time might have allowed himself to prolong his own lifespan. None, however, had yet returned, and the rest were reduced to cowering in in the woods in bushes, bemoaning their separation from their fellows and the loss of their enchanted rest.

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Turns out life as a skeleton cultist isn't all fun and sacrifices...

By this point, the PCs were feeling a bit sorry for Henryk, even if he was an undead murder-cultist. They questioned him on the nature of the blob-creature they had encountered in the shrine, and learned that it was 'the divine parasite', somehow fused with the captive god below in order to distil liquid time from its breath: its song had kept the dead cultists in peace and their dead victims in torment, which explained the crazed state of the mass-grave skeletons which had attacked the region. They tried to persuade him that they were secretly allies of the cult, but he wasn't buying it. They tried to persuade him that the Hissing Prophets were dead and they had killed them, but of this he would not be convinced, no matter how much looted snake-man wargear they waved in front of him. They rather cruelly cast all their spells on him, one after the other, to see which ones worked on ensoulled skeletons and which ones did not. Then they took a quick vote on whether or not to kill him, picked 'death' by four votes to two, and Tiny pulled his skull off.

Discussing what they had learned, the PCs reached a conclusion: the Dead King had to go. Once he was out of the way they might be able to take control of the remaining undead cultists: failing that, they'd just have to kill them all, but one way or another they were determined to get back into the temple and learn what it had to teach them, captive god, liquid time, divine parasite, and all. Ascending the mountain, they saw that a watchtower had been built to keep guard on the site of the shrine, with shivering soldiers sitting huddled around a brazier at the top; so they circled around and approached the site under the cover of an Obscuring Mist spell, which brought them back to the strange petrified cabin that concealed the shrine's entrance. The duke's soldiers had heaped felled tree trunks on top of the cabin, evidently hoping that the strange wood-petrifying powers of the place would eventually turn their heap of wood into a hill of stone; but the trees were still wooden enough to part under the power of a Warp Wood spell, and the PCs slipped unnoticed into the cabin. Inside they found that everything had been smashed to pieces in the fighting, and rocks piled up on top of the trapdoor. Putting his ear to the ground, Hash could hear a pathetic scraping sound coming from below - presumably the sound of a skeleton attempting to dig upwards through the stone, a task that would obviously take many years to accomplish. Tiny and Runt Ape set to work lifting the rocks away, and after a few hours of exhausting work the trapdoor down was revealed. The scraping sound had long since stopped. Presumably the skeleton digger had run off to tell the Dead King that someone was approaching from above.

As the cold air of the shrine blasted upwards from the trapdoor, the PCs steeled themselves to descend, once more, into the darkness within Deathfrost Mountain...