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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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...