Sunday, 24 March 2019

Echoes and Reverberations 6: Zweihänder

This is the sixth in a series of posts on the various 'dark Eurofantasy' RPGs that appeared in the wake of the abrupt demise of WFRP 2nd edition. Like Shadow of the Demon Lord, Zweihänder started life as someone's attempt to write their own personal 'WFRP 2.5', pointedly taking a completely different direction to the one chosen by FFG for the official WFRP 3rd edition. (The game's author, Daniel Fox, described WFRP 3 as 'sugar-coated' and 'too much like D&D'.) It began back in 2013, as an attempt to create a WFRP retroclone called 'Project COREhammer' on the Strike to Stun forum - but swiftly grew into a game in its own right, boosted by a successful kickstarter campaign in 2016, and in 2018 it won the Best Game award at the Ennies. You used to be able to get a free no-art version of the game from Drivethrurpg, but that seems to have vanished now. I've only read the 688-page (!) free version, so it's possible that some changes have been made between this and the latest (674-page) version of the game.

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Zweihänder is basically what happens when someone's document of house rules for WFRP 2 gets so big that it turns into its own game. It addresses all the standard complaints that people have been making (and house-ruling) about WFRP since the 1980s, like 'why are some careers so much better than others?', 'how come a naked dwarf can ignore getting hit in the face with a battleaxe?', 'why does the game have all these stats that barely ever get used?', and the ever-popular 'why do I miss so fucking much in combat'?

In Zweihänder, every career offers the same number of skill and stat increases. The number of ability scores has been condensed down to seven. Numbers are higher across the board, making PCs more likely to succeed at whatever they're currently attempting. The combat and damage system has been rewritten: WFRP's system of wound points and critical hits has been replaced with a series of damage thresholds that forces players to roll on ever-more severe injury tables depending on how much damage they've taken, while combat now involves each character receiving three 'action points' per round, which they can choose to use to move, attack, perform special manoeuvres, and so on. Every monster comes with a sheaf of special rules, D&D 4 style, to make sure that fights will play out differently depending on the specific combatants involved. It all looks like a lot of work to me, but I'm very lazy about these things, and tend to lose patience with combat systems more complex than 'roll WS or under on 1d100 to stab the goblin in the face'. The same 'rules for everything' approach can be seen in the game's rules for social interactions, chases, wilderness travel, and just about everything else. A game that actually used all these rules would be far too heavy for my tastes, but I suspect that most groups will just mix and match, just like in every other RPG.

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All of these are the kind of WFRP house rules that I can imagine a group making in the late 1980s, probably shortly after being exposed to GURPS, and represent a continuation of the changes that WFRP 2 made to WFRP 1. However, Zweihänder also includes some more 'modern' elements of game design. The four most important of these are Peril, Corruption, Fortune, and Professional Traits.

Peril is the way that the game tracks stress, fatigue, and all those other negative effects that fall short of actual injury. As you gain more Peril, your skills become less effective; if the Peril just keeps coming, then eventually you reach the point where you're so wrecked that you automatically fail at everything you attempt. I like the idea of this: I've written before about how I wish D&D had better ways of modelling the impact of hunger, exhaustion, cold, fear, and all the other cumulative stresses of the adventuring life, and I like the elegance of rolling them all together into a single mechanic that can cover everything from choking a guy out to someone being so terrified that they become totally non-functional, rather than trying to model them all separately.

What I'm less convinced by is the specific effects of Peril, namely disabling your skill ranks and pushing everyone steadily towards the level of untrained amateurs. If anything, I'd expect the reverse: the guy who's performed a task a thousand times before is precisely the one who's going to be able to perform it under crisis conditions, because even if his mind is currently blank with panic his hands are still going to remember what to do, whereas the half-trained amateur who relies on conscious knowledge rather than muscle memory might manage just fine under normal conditions, but is likely to be useless under pressure. It'd be easy to flip this, though, so that skill ranks were the last thing rather than the first thing to go as the Peril piles on.

Corruption seems to have grown out of WFRP's insanity point system. Anything likely to cause trauma - suffering serious injuries, witnessing horrible events, channeling weird magic, collapsing under a huge mass of Peril, etc - inflicts Corruption points. Using drugs and alcohol to temporarily blunt the effects of injuries, Peril, madness, or diseases also inflicts Corruption, as your short-term remedies exert a long-term toll on your mind and body: a brilliant bit of game design that I wish I'd thought of myself. At the end of every session you roll 1d10 and compare it to your Corruption score: equal or less means you gain 1 'chaos rank', higher means you gain one 'order rank'. (If you gained more than 10 in a single session, you get one chaos rank automatically for each ten points and then roll again against whatever's left.) Ten chaos ranks earns you a disorder. Ten order ranks earns you a fate point.

Where it gets weird is that Corruption also serves as the game's morality system. Corruption points are given out for evil actions, meaning that a PC who keeps being bad will go crazy just as fast as one who keeps getting traumatised, and a PC who does both will go mad twice as fast as either. This really does strike me as an attempt to make the same mechanic do two not-very-compatible things at once: and if I were using the system I'd be very tempted to decouple Corruption from fate points, and to reserve it for actions and experiences that caused mental strain, regardless of their moral status.

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Fortune points are just reroll tokens. You can use them whenever you want, but then you have to hand them to the GM to use against you whenever they want. I'm really not sure about this: when I GM, it's very important to me that I try to run the world impartially. I think you'd need a very clear 'gentleman's agreement' between players and GM about whether the GM's tokens were to be used to make the game more interesting or more deadly, as otherwise I can imagine a lot of bad feeling being generated the first time the GM uses a bunch of fortune tokens to turn a trivial injury into a mortal wound.

Professional Traits are unique abilities that each career - sorry, 'profession' - grants to its members. Each profession grants exactly one special ability, and everyone who joins that profession gets it: so all Footpads can sneak attack, all Ratcatchers can speak to rats (yes, really), and so on. Some of these are really, really specific: Investigators, for example, get an ability called 'True Detective' that allows you to have visions, granting you extra clues 'when Intoxicated or under the effects of Deliriants', i.e. you are Rust Cohle. (Hope you didn't want to play any other sort of investigator instead!) I understand the desire to give the professions a bit more mechanical differentiation, but these traits strike me as needlessly narrow, and I probably wouldn't use them myself. I'm quite happy for each profession to just serve as a bundle of skill and stat increases.

Zweihänder's attitude towards its setting is a bit perplexing. It presents itself as a setting-agnostic toolkit suitable for use in any kind of low fantasy early modern setting, including seventeenth-century Earth, but its gods, monsters, and magic system have all been straightforwardly borrowed from WFRP. They're all here: orcs, skaven, Sigmar, Ulric, daemonettes, fimir, zoats, dragon ogres, slann, bog octopi, chaos dwarves, the chaos gods, the winds of magic... the entire Warhammer bestiary and cosmology, just with changed names and slightly modified descriptions. (Even mostly-forgotten oddities like WFRP's gnomes make the cut - as a PC race, no less!) Some of the changes are quite inventive, like the idea that goblins started out as chaos-tainted human children, but mostly they just look as though they've been subjected to tokenistic rewrites for copyright purposes. The bestiary gets most interesting when it goes furthest off-script: I liked its various giant intelligent animals, and I loved the idea of an order of jackal-headed vampire knights who use their long, forked tongues to drink the blood of their enemies. The vast majority of it, however, consists of straightforward Warhammer expies, clearly intended to allow published WFRP adventures to be run using Zweihänder with a minimum of fuss.

The Zweihänder core rulebook also includes an adventure, called 'A Bitter Harvest', which is essentially a rather grim historical adventure in flimsy fantasy drag. (The author even notes that it was inspired by an incident from the Baltic Crusades.) The PCs find themselves stuck in a village as raiders approach: the same raiders who attacked the village years before, abducting all the women and children who were hiding in a cave nearby, and carrying them off as slaves. But all is not as it seems: the leading men of the village actually sold the location of the cave to the raiders in exchange for being left alone, and one of the captured women - who was enslaved by the raider's leader, but has since come to effectively control the warband - now leads the raiders back towards the village in search of revenge on the men who sold them out. The roads have been cut, so the PCs need to find some way of resolving the situation, probably by uncovering the village's true past and leveraging what they've learned in order to buy it some kind of future.

This is a good adventure, filled with a rich tangle of interpersonal relationships, and the moment when the PCs discover what the 'heroes' of the previous battle actually did in order to get rid of the raiders should come as a genuine shock. The parts leading up to the siege are very linear, but the way in which the PCs resolve the main situation is left completely open, accommodating everything from the PCs assassinating the woman leading the raiders to them joining her in her search for revenge. (How often do you see that in published adventures?) That said, I had two issues with it. The first is that this is heavy stuff, much heavier than the standard-issue cultist-whacking that makes up most WFRP adventures. Not all groups are going to be comfortable unravelling a community's history of trauma and sexual violence, especially when there's no cathartic moment where you stab the bad people and make all the problems go away. The second is that, as I've indicated, this is barely a fantasy scenario at all. Supposedly the raiders are orcs (although they don't really act like it), and supposedly the woman has established control over them by dosing their food with alchemical potions, but this is little more than fancy dress, largely irrelevant to the real story. If your group plays fantasy RPGs for stories of magic and monsters, rather than sad stories of human weakness, then this might not quite fit the bill.

Overall, while I quite liked Zweihänder, I felt that it was aiming at a terribly small target market: people who had enough issues with WFRP that they weren't happy to just carry on playing WFRP 2, but who still liked it enough that they weren't prepared to abandon it for Shadow of the Demon Lord or D&D 5 or OSR D&D instead. That seems an awfully specific demographic of players... but, then again, Zweihänder is now an 'adamantium bestseller' on DrivethruRPG, so maybe there are a lot more of them than I thought. If you like the core ideas behind WFRP but want a more balanced career system and more options in combat, then give it a look. But main takeaways from it was that any WFRP-style system would probably benefit from some kind of 'peril track' to record just how tired, hungry, cold, sick, scared, and miserable everyone currently is, and that the world needs more jackal-headed vampire knights with serpentine tongues.

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Monday, 11 March 2019

New B/X Class: The Gothic Villain

My reading has taken me, once again, back to the Gothic fiction of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, where the villains have dark eyes, the heroines have white dresses, the castles have secret passages in every room, and the plots make no damn sense whatsoever.

This class is my tribute to the absurdist horror fiction of yesteryear. It should bring a touch of melodramatic lunacy into any campaign.

Gothic Villain

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To-Hit and Hit Dice: As Fighter.

Saves: As Thief.

Weapons and Armour: Gothic Villains can use any weapon, but cannot use shields or any kind of heavy armour, as these would get in the way of their dramatic gesticulation.

XP per level: As Magic-User.

Dark Secret: All Gothic Villains harbour Dark Secrets, although at the beginning of their career they only know a fragment of the terrible truth. At level 1, roll 1d10 on each of the following tables to generate a secret, as follows:
  1. I...
  2. My husband / wife...
  3. My mother...
  4. My father...
  5. My brother...
  6. My sister...
  7. My son...
  8. My daughter...
  9. My whole family...
  10. My one true love...
  1. ...murdered...
  2. ...stole the inheritance of...
  3. ...committed adultery and/or incest with...
  4. ...was deliberately driven mad by...
  5. ...usurped the rightful title of...
  6. ...imprisoned and faked the death of...
  7. ...was ruined and degraded by...
  8. ...was tricked into committing treason by...
  9. ...was lured into heresy and blasphemy by...
  10. ...was seduced into a life of shameful vice and crime by...
  2. husband / wife.
  3. mother.
  4. father.
  5. brother.
  6. sister.
  7. son.
  8. daughter.
  9. whole family.
  10. one true love.
(If this results in something totally bizarre, like someone usurping their own title, then just roll with it. Maybe everyone involved was drunk and/or mad at the time.)

Every time the Gothic Villain goes up a level, they will discover another fragment of the horrible truth. Roll again on all three tables. If this results in something they should really have known already, like the fact that their own daughter murdered them years ago, then feel free to include however much amnesia and mistaken identity is required to make the whole thing work.

Example: Eduardo rolls 1, 7, 5, so his initial Dark Secret is that he was ruined and degraded by his own brother. When he reaches level 2 he rolls 6, 4, 9, and discovers that his whole family also conspired to drive his sister mad. On reaching level 3 he rolls 4, 1, 9, and learns that whole family - who he's been regularly interacting with since the campaign began - were actually murdered by his father. Maybe all these people are ghosts? Or impostors? Maybe they faked their own deaths? Or maybe he's just going mad? Just another day in the life of a Gothic Villain...

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The Home of My Ancestors: The Gothic Villain starts play as the owner of a decayed castle, abbey, or manor house, located somewhere horribly inconvenient, such as the top of a mountain, the depths of a forest, or the middle of a swamp. Bits of it keep falling down, and its once-fine furnishings are warped and worthless, but its staff of servants (all of whom are too old, inbred, sycophantic, and/or insane to leave) maintain it well enough to prevent it from actually collapsing. Although it is instantly obvious to everyone else that this building is a total liability, the Villain will be insanely proud of it, and must always devote at least 50% of all treasure earned to restoring their family home. No matter how much money is spent on it, however, the house will remain the same rickety deathtrap it has always been.

While on the grounds of their estate, the Villain may mobilise a number of family retainers equal to their Charisma multiplied by their level. These retainers are normal 0-level humans, but they are extremely devoted to the Villain (morale 10) and obey the Villain without question. They cannot be brought more than a day's journey from the estate, as the outside world bewilders and terrifies them.

If the Villain dies without naming an heir, the House will be abandoned by its servants and sink into utter ruin within 1d6 months.

Obey Me, Miscreant!: The Gothic Villain begins play with a single cringing minion, who obeys them out of greed and fear. Each time they go up a level, they gain an additional minion. If a minion dies, then the Villain will automatically obtain a replacement after spending 1d6 days in any inhabited area, as malcontent weirdos with strange deformities are attracted to them like moths to a flame.

Generate each minion by rolling 2d12 on the following tables.

  1. A fighter (half your level, round up) who...
  2. A thief (half your level, round up) who...
  3. A cleric (half your level, round up) who...
  4. A magic-user (half your level, round up) who...
  5. A slow-witted brute (STR 15+1d3, INT 2+1d3, HD equal to half your level, round up) who...
  6. A well-trained ape (HD equal to half your level, round up) who...
  7. A seductive harlot (equal chance male or female, CHA 15+1d3) who...
  8. A disgraced scholar (INT 12+1d6, has mastered a number of fields of knowledge equal to half your level, rounded up) who...
  9. A master infiltrator (capable of disguise, ventriloquism, imitating voices), who...
  10. A Scooby-Doo villain (dab hand at faking apparitions with aid of wires, phosphorous, and magic lanterns), who...
  11. A corrupt detective (capable of spotting clues and following trails, can try to frame people for crimes with a success rate of 10% per level), who...
  12. A band of ruffians (a number of 0-level thugs equal to your level+1) who...
  1. ...has hideous facial deformities.
  2. covered in distinctive scars.
  3. missing a body part (roll 1d4: 1 = eye, 2 = arm, 3 = leg, 4 = ear). 
  4. a dwarf, giant, or hunchback (equal chance of each).
  5. always drunk.
  6. addicted to horrible narcotics.
  7. ...has some kind of weird psycho-sexual obsession with you. 
  8. a kleptomaniac.
  9. a pyromaniac.
  10. a compulsive liar.
  11. a slave to their bizarre sexual fetishes.
  12. ...experiences irrational bursts of rage at inconvenient moments.
Minions will put up with most forms of ill-treatment, but will not obey orders that are obviously suicidal. Their base morale is 8, adjusted for Charisma as usual. 

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Dread Gaze: At level 2, the gaze of the Villain grows so powerful that it can leave people transfixed with fear. If the Villain catches the eye of an intelligent target (including animals), the target must save or be effectively paralysed for as long as the villain carries on staring at them. During this time the Villain cannot take any action other than walking, talking, and staring, and the effect ends at once if either the Villain or the target takes any damage. Once someone has successfully saved against this ability, it cannot be used on them again for the next 24 hours. 

Full of Scorpions is my Mind: By level 4, the Villain has uncovered so many Dark Secrets about themselves and their family that by brooding on them for 1d6 minutes they can throw themselves into a frothing rage, during which they gain a +2 bonus to-hit, damage, and saves vs. mind-affecting powers. This rage lasts for a number of minutes equal to the Villain's level. During this time the Villain will rant, rage, and literally chew the scenery, making any kind of stealth impossible until they have calmed down. 

Everything I Own Is Poisoned: At level 6, once per day, the Villain may retroactively declare that any object within their power or possession that someone has just interacted with - the dagger they just stabbed someone with, the glove they were wearing while shaking hands with someone, the doorknob someone just turned, whatever - was actually covered in poison. The person who touched it must save or take 1d6 damage per level of the Villain. If the poison was on something they ate or drank, then the damage rises to 1d10 per level. 

Illustration from the Midnight Assassin

Into the Oubliette! At level 8, once per month, the Villain may send a lettre de cachet to mysterious allies of his family. The next time the person named in the letter leaves their home, a band of mysterious masked men will attempt to abduct them. They must make a saving throw: if they pass, the attempt fails, and the lettre is wasted. If they fail, however, they will be dragged off with a bag over their head and thrown in a secret dungeon somewhere, where they will be kept for 1d6 days per level of the Villain before being pulled out and released without explanation at a random location 1d100 miles from their home. (Roll 1d8 for direction: 1 = 1d100 miles north, 2 = 1d100 miles north-east, and so on.) The location of their prison is so secret that even the Villain will not be able to locate them during their imprisonment. 

Ruin Has Come: At level 10, the Villain may enter some kind of institution (a castle, a temple, a university, etc) accompanied by his full retinue of minions, and simply... self-destruct. Unless the leader of the institution is higher level than the Villain, then over the next 1d6 days the institution disintegrates into crime, madness, factional warfare, corruption, and vice, before collapsing into spectacular ruin in a final institutional flame-out that consumes the lives of the Villain, his minions, and (1d6 x 10)% of the institution's members, including its entire senior leadership. All sane and decent people will abandon the institution immediately thereafter. 1d6 weeks later, one scion of this fallen institution will return home, seize control of whatever remains of it, and begin their career as a new level 1 Gothic Villain. 

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Sunday, 3 March 2019

[Actual Play] 'If you run out of air up there, just stick your head in this bucket!' Team Tsathogga take to the skies

This actual play write-up describes how Team Tsathogga got their hands on a radioactive flying ship. So now nothing is safe.

My previous post described how they captured the blood witch, Hild, at the bottom of a haunted valley in the Stonemoors, along with the ship she'd been hoping to fly to the stars in and the crystal casket (complete with a mysterious sleeping woman) that she'd been intending to use as a power source. Only Hild had any idea how to get it airbourne, and she was not inclined to help them after their slaughter of her followers, many of whom had been her kinsmen; but Tiny pointed out that she'd tortured and murdered several of his kinsmen in order to find the casket in the first place, so she could hardly claim that she hadn't had it coming. Besides, he explained, he and his fellow 'sky-beasts' had never wanted to be on this planet in the first place, and just wanted the ship so that they could fly back to their own home beyond the sky. Clearly no stranger to the logic of blood feuds and shipwrecks, Hild suggested that, as the representatives of their respective clans, they could agree that all this murder had left them even, with no remaining blood guilt on either side. She then offered to hand over the ship to them if they would return her to her people on the Black Isle. Tiny agreed, but went one better: if she gave him the ship, he would show her where to find an alternate power source, so that she could make a second ship of her own.

So Hild set to work on the remaining carvings for the ship, watched day and night by a bodyguard of her own dead kinsmen, now reanimated as zombies under Hogarth's control. The PCs knew that if they were going to use it they would need a crew, so they sent Captain Matthew back to the Purple Islands to fetch them some islanders who knew their way around a sailboat - and a few weeks later Matthew's first mate, Isaac, returned to the valley, accompanied by five adventurous young fisherfolk. Soon afterwards Hild finally finished the carvings, which now clearly formed a kind of circulatory system intended to channel the magic of the casket through the timbers of the ship. The carvings were installed, with the casket plugged in to act as their heart, and to the wonder of all present the ship rose out of the water to float about ten feet in the air. The rest would be down to wind and sails.

The flying ship turned out to be very tricky to handle. Moving against the prevailing winds was almost impossible. Attempting to 'land' on rough terrain would obviously lead to the hull getting ripped off. Ascending or descending was a matter of angling the sails up or down and hoping for the best. But, for all that, it really could fly... at least as long as its carvings and power source remained intact. For some days, Isaac and his men experimented with flying the ship into and out of the valley, while the giant squid-monster watched them suspiciously from below the water, waiting for the PCs to fulfill their promise to carry him to the sea.

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Never double-cross a giant squid.

Meanwhile the party had acquired a new member: a cave dwarf named Elric, who had learned the rudiments of sorcery while serving as a porter and translator for a Glasstown expedition to the north. He had been hit by one of Hash's Charm Person spells months ago during the party's journey through his clan's territory, and had simply never recovered. Obsessed with the beautiful, androgynous stranger who had passed so magically through his life, Elric had undertaken a nightmarish odyssey to find him, finally stumbling half-dead into the valley and throwing himself at Hash's feet. More than a little creeped out by the arrival of this besotted, beard-covered stalker, Hash reluctantly agreed to instruct him in the arts of magic. Elric, for his part, lapsed happily into a life of submissive adoration that made everyone else deeply uncomfortable. He was, however, able to teach himself a spell to predict the weather from Hild's translated spellbooks, which made him very valuable to their ongoing experiments with the flying ship.

Once Isaac was reasonably sure he could fly the ship without crashing it, he piloted it down to the lake, where the squid monster heaved its enormous bulk onto the deck, its tentacles trailing overboard on all sides. It complained that the crushing pressure was killing it, but Elric had predicted a strong east wind, and the ship soon swept out to sea, where the creature gratefully hauled itself overboard and vanished beneath the water with a splash. (The PCs speculated whether the transition from freshwater to saltwater would kill it, but whatever unnatural force had spawned it apparently protected it against the shift in environments.) With the giant squid gone for good, the PCs then turned their prow east, to see what was going on in the parched lands around the Holy Mountain. Keeping their ship concealed with illusion magic, they spied on various settlements from above, witnessing preparations for invasion and war: they even saw one of the 'red men' with their own eyes, a brute of a man fully seven feet tall, with crimson skin and hair the colour of dried blood. Circe sent a summoned Spawn of Tsathogga to try to capture him, but the attempt was an abject failure, so the PCs contented themselves with summoning frog monsters to sow random chaos among the eastern clans, hoping thereby to delay their invasion of the west. Then they turned their sails south and began the long flight back to Qelong, where Tiny assured Hild that she would be able to find an alternate power source with which to build a new flying ship.

Qelong, it turned out, had begun to recover from the devastating civil war that the PCs had brought to an end two years before. The upcountry regions had been completely abandoned, left to whatever roving bands of brigands, cannibals, or lunatics still remained there; but along the coast the rice paddies had been brought back under cultivation, and the food supply situation was now merely 'dire' rather than 'utterly catastrophic'. Visiting their old friends King Nath, General Ngour, and Mei (who was now a senior abbess) in the capital city, Xam, they were gratified to see that the king's new throne room included spectacular frescoes depicting the appearance of his father's ghost and the miracle of the bowing tree, while the half-rebuilt royal temple included niches set aside for them and their weird heathen gods, just as they had requested. After making various enquiries about the state of the nation, the PCs flew upriver to the site of the now-deactivated fleet beacon, which had caused so much of Qelong's misery. There they met once again with Vord, who was having trouble keeping his free demon followers occupied: with no practical way of freeing their comrades from the mental enslavement of the snake-men, they'd had nothing better to do than endlessly maintaining the fort they'd built when they first arrived there, and were now in danger of slipping into suspended animation out of sheer lack of purpose. The PCs looked at him, and at Hild, and put two and two together. They'd give the demons something better to build than an old hill-fort. They'd set them to work on a space fleet. 

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This space reserved for icon of Tsathogga.

Hild could sense the familiar throb of arcanowave radiation from within the inactive beacon, which she knew represented a potential power source for a second ship - but how could it be obtained? Climbing up to the exposed control panel of the beacon, the PCs saw a narrow shaft extending deep within it - but it had clearly been built for snake-men, thinner and more agile than any human. Hash's elfin build made him the obvious man for the job, so he stripped down to his underwear and oiled himself up, to Elric's evident delight. Then he wriggled down into the depths of the machinery, using Comprehend Languages to translate the snake-man glyphs as he went, until he found the reactor chamber - but the hatch was, unsurprisingly, locked. There was no room to swing a weapon down there, so the PCs decided to try blowing the door open with Magic Missile spells. With Sophie dead, however, the only person able to throw that sort of magical destruction around was Hogarth, who was far too stocky to fit down the shaft.

Fortunately, Elric wasn't the only one who'd learned something from Hild's captured spellbooks. Hogarth had learned a spell that enabled him to take on the shape of anyone whose blood he had tasted: so, after a bit of mildly homoerotic blood-sharing, he was able to swap his own form for Hash's. (The spectacle of two oiled-up, stripped-down Hashes was enough to make Elric faint on the spot.) Descending inside with the aid of a Light spell, Hogarth blew the hatch open with repeated barrages of Magic Missiles, thus exposing himself to a massive dose of arcanowave radiation from the reactor core within. Gums bleeding, he retreated back up the shaft. Given that retrieving the active element from within the reactor would obviously be a death sentence for any living creature, the decision was made to flense the muscle off two of their zombies, on the grounds that their animated skeletons would be able to fit down the shaft and pull out the element, while Hogarth used Light and Skull Sight to see out of their eyes and shouted instructions from above. This gambit proved successful, and after much heaving and tinkering the skeletons emerged from the hatch dragging a super-dense lump of something black and balefully radioactive behind them.

A new problem now confronted the party: how could this inert lump of solidified arcanowave death be broken up into pieces small and light enough to be used safely as the power sources for more of Hild's ships? (Using the whole thing was clearly out of the question: quite apart from the fact that it was so heavy that it would simply drop right through the timbers, any human crew exposed to it would be dead of radiation poisoning within a day.) Tiny's efforts to break bits off it by whacking it with rocks, axes, hammers, etc barely managed to dent it, so the PCs developed a new plan: to drop it from an enormous height. The plan went like this: first, Tiny would use his innate paratrooper training to make Sovan a parachute. Sovan would use Strength spells to make himself strong enough to lift the lump, and then Levitate straight up. Each time one Levitate spell came close to wearing off he would cast another one, thus allowing him to ascend many thousands of feet into the air. A Resist Energy spell would protect him from the arcanowave radiation of the element he carried, and Circe would cast a Water Breathing spell on him, so that if the air became too thin to breathe he could simply stick his head inside a bucket of water and breathe that, instead. Once he attained his maximum height he would drop the element, which would fall thousands of feet at terminal velocity and hopefully shatter on impact. Then he would open the parachute and hopefully drift down safely to the ground below.

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Just another 10,000 feet to go...

To prepare for this, Tiny spent a few days practising skydiving with Sovan by shoving him off progressively higher cliffs with a parachute strapped to his back. (Fortunately, Sovan has quite a lot of healing spells.) Once he was deemed ready, Sovan was send aloft with his horrible burden, while everyone else scattered in all directions. Over an hour later, the lump came crashing down like a meteorite and cracked apart, studding the whole rocky hillside with radioactive fragments. Shortly afterwards, Sovan was spotted drifting down and away on his parachute, and ended up having to be rescued from the branches of a tree in which he had become entangled, some miles away from the impact zone. Tiny selected a radioactive lump of roughly equal power output to the crystal casket for use as Hild's next power source, while the skeletons were tasked with collecting up the rest, putting them back inside the shielded reactor chamber within the beacon, and then holding its hatch shut from the inside FOR ALL ETERNITY - or until Hogarth gave them alternate orders, at any rate.

The PCs presented this rock to Hild as her new power source, and told her that Vord and his demons would be the workforce who would build her a new ship, and perhaps many more ships thereafter. Hild protested that the demons had no knowledge of shipbuilding, but Tiny just shrugged and told her to teach them whatever they needed to know. Leaving Hild fuming and furious in the custody of Vord, they flew back to Xam to pick up some ship-building equipment, before dropping it off at Vord's fort and promising to return 'at some point' to see how they were getting on with building their flying armada. Then they flew back to the Stonemoors, pausing only to stop off at the Purple Islands and swap out some of their crew for replacements after some of their crewmen had started to display alarming symptoms of sickness. Long-term exposure to the casket, it seemed, wasn't terribly healthy for anyone...

What impact will the arrival of the PCs have upon the war in the Stonemoors? Will they ever fulfill their promise to return Hild to the Black Isle? Where did the Red Men come from? And what use would a wind-powered ship be in space, anyway? All will be revealed in what appears to have become a weekly series of The Adventures of Team Tsathogga! 

Sunday, 24 February 2019

[Actal Play] 'First we steal the flying boat, then we airlift the giant squid': Team Tsathogga meddle in other people's plans

Still trying to catch up with my actual play writeups. Let's see if I can close the gap.

As per my previous write-up, the PCs had made their way to shores of a lake at the bottom of a 'haunted' valley in the Stonemoors. They wanted to know what was up with the strange group of people on the island in the middle of the lake, but were uncertain how to investigate without revealing their presence. As they discussed their options, they were surprised and overjoyed by the unexpected arrival of their old friends Jack and Hogarth, who told them that their zombie bird had finally completed its mission and summoned their ship back from Kingsport. It now lay at anchor outside a small fishing village whose inhabitants had told them about the party's plan to explore the hidden valley, and Jack and Hogarth had hurried to join them.

(The timelines for all this don't really stand up to close examination. But it was the first time that Jack and Hogarth's player had been able to join us for over a year, so I was willing to handwave some times and distances to get him back into the action as quickly as possible.)

Thus reinforced, the PCs opted to scout out the island by sending Hash over the water under the cover of Invisibility, wearing the ring of water walking. Sneaking into the house, Hash noticed drag-marks on the floor, as though something heavy was regularly dragged from the building into the water and back again. The woman they had spotted before was clearly in charge, and seemed to be at work on some fantastically complex wood-carving project - presumably related to the odd recesses on the deck of the ship, which were clearly intended for the insertion of some large blocky object and some surrounding panels of wood. Noting that the magic filling the valley seemed to be emanating from beneath the lake, they questioned a passing fish using Speak to Animals, learning that some kind of enormous squid-monster lived at the bottom of the lake and sometimes came to the surface in response to the call of the humans on the island, carrying 'something shiny' with it. Intrigued, Circe went underwater using a Water Breathing spell - and, sure enough, at the bottom of the lake she found a gigantic squid-beast, clutching a crystal casket in its barbed tentacles.

Striking up a conversation with this monstrous creature, Circe learned that it had originally been washed downriver into this lake from some half-remembered grey upland, long ago, and had gorged itself on the local fish stocks until it grew too large to leave. Then it had slumbered until the coming of the witch-woman on the island, who had befriended it with offerings of meat and blood, and had entrusted her precious casket to its care. It had dreams, sometimes, of a vast expanse of cool water, which it felt must exist out there somewhere - but every time it tried to leave its lake, the crushing pressure drove it back below.

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No squid-monster wants to end up like this.

Eager to learn more, the PCs staged a disturbance on the shores of the lake, hoping to draw off some of the men from the island. Sure enough, half a dozen of them came rowing over in their longboat to investigate. Sophie concealed the party beneath an illusion while she cast Charm Person spells on several of the men, including their leader. She then modified the illusion to include the image of herself peeking out from behind a tree, in order to gauge from the reactions of the men whether the charm spells had taken effect. When they ran towards her, she tried to back off while maintaining the illusion, so that they wouldn't bump into the concealed PCs - but the strain of concentrating on an illusion while picking her way through the forest proved too much for her, and the illusion started glitching, causing the illusionary Sophie to first appear to get stuck inside the tree, and then to start ragdolling disturbingly across the floor. Realising that the game was up, she dropped the illusion - but fortunately her charm spell on the leader had been successful, and when she told him that she was a famous and benevolent sorceress named Freya he was only too willing to believe her. He agreed to take her to the island, where she also managed to successfully Charm the witch-woman, who consequently accepted her story without question. The rest of the party went with her, ostensibly as her retinue.

The witch told 'Freya' that her name was Hild, that she was a devotee of the Blood Queen - an ancient goddess whose worship had long since been suppressed on the mainland - and that she had come to the valley to build a flying ship. The idea had come to her back on the Black Isle, when strange monsters had dropped from the sky: she and her people had captured and tortured them, and the creatures had revealed that many worlds existed up beyond the moon, and that it was possible to travel between them by means of a ship with an appropriate power source. (Tiny bristled at hearing of his comrades being thus abused, but fortunately his inhuman features were hidden beneath his armour.) The 'sky-beasts' had also told her that such a power source could be found on the Holy Mountain, so she had obtained it and carried it here so that she could work on her ship. The PCs deduced at once that the removal of this power source - the crystal casket, presumably - must have caused the drought in the east, and thus the war in the Stonemoors, but Hild made clear that she had no intention of parting with it, especially as her flying ship was so nearly complete. She also had no patience with their absurd claims about not being able to use it to fly to other planets because space was full of 'hard vacuum'. If there was nothing in a space, then obviously that space was full of air. That was what air was, right?

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Our Mars mission begins!

Promising to return to Hild with magical assistance, the PCs retreated to form a plan. Tiny wanted revenge on her for presumably torturing a bunch of his comrades to death, and the rest of the party were keen to get their hands on the power source and/or the flying ship. They didn't fancy taking on the squid, but they were confident that it could be bribed with the promise of a one-way airlift to the ocean. First, though, they needed to fulfill their promise to the skeleton cultists that they had escorted all the way from the shrine of the Devourer: so, returning to Fort Tiny, they loaded them aboard Captain Matthew's ship, with Titus's headless zombie marsh giant tied to the deck like a bale of cargo. Sailing back to the Purple Islands, they dropped Titus back at his home within Zombie Mountain, as getting his face eaten by fish had massively dampened his enthusiasm for further adventuring.

The skeletons were dropped off with him, on the island that they regarded as the sacred homeland of their ancestors, while the PCs hastily went off to brief Ambie, the snake-man toddler that they had raised from an egg, on how he was to play the role of child-prophet to the cultists. Fortunately (?) he was scarily intelligent for his age, and proved quite capable of receiving their homage at the huge ceremonial festival that the PCs set up to welcome them to their new home. Ambie reassured the skeleton cultists that the rest of the Hissing Prophets were off assembling an army in the name of the Devourer, and that their task was now to restore the original shrines and alters of their faith, now fallen into ruin, in expectation of their imminent arrival. The skeletons clacked their tongueless approval, and proceeded to dance all night to the beat of Ket and Sovan's drumming.

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Everyone knows that skeletons make the best dancers.

The next follower they needed to get rid of was Ron the Bat-Man, who was demanding to be taken to the underworld as quickly as possible. Insisting that he needed more magical training, the PCs rather heartlessly dumped him in the mad science laboratory of their old friend Zeth, who was happy to take him on as an assistant in her horrific ongoing researches into the Grimoire of the New Flesh. It was there that their ex-comrade Erin, who was now de facto king of the Purple Islands, caught up with them and told them that Elder Amelia had been asking after them with increasing urgency - so they left her a skull, accompanied by a message that she should place any letter that she wanted them to see in front of its eye-sockets, as they would check it via Skull Sight every three to five working days. Finally, having thus effectively invented email, they loaded up every dried golden lotus flower that Dara could spare from her gardens to feed their horrible drug habits and sailed back to the Stonemoors. Along the way they picked up a message from Amelia via Skull Sight, insisting that they return at once so that she could speak to them in person about a number of pressing topics, but they figured that they'd kept her waiting for a year and a half already, so waiting a little longer wouldn't do her any harm. (There was also a letter from Ron begging them to please come back and rescue him from the terrifying madwoman they'd left him with, but they just ignored that one.)

Returning to the Stonemoors they found the people were full of fear, convinced that the men of the east would come raiding again as soon as they'd finished laying in stores for the winter. Progressing to the haunted valley they found that Hild and her men were still present, but in a state of high alert that implied that Sophie's Charm spells had worn off during their absence. Not wanting to give away their presence, they had Tiny remove his helm and stomp around on the shore, posing as a 'sky-beast' drawn by the power source (which, indeed, he was), He was spotted at once, and Hild and half her men rowed out to seize him, while the PCs lurked in ambush in the trees overhead. They hoped to re-charm her - but the plan fell apart when she leapt ashore and immediately started using some kind of ghastly blood magic on Tiny, causing great clouds of blood to burst from his orifices. Frantically the PCs threw spells down at Hild and her men, but while her followers succumbed to Hold Person spells, nothing seemed to work on Hild. She fatally exsanguinated Sophie with a single ripping gesture, and when Skadi grappled her she made her blood start boiling with a touch, so that only a well-timed Dispel Magic from Sovan saved her life. Finally the whole party jumped on top of her, held her down, and beat her up, before slaughtering her paralysed followers. They then remembered that they'd left Ket tied to a tree further up the valley the whole time, and retrieved him half-mad with fear and confusion after being exposed to innumerable semi-solid illusions in their absence.

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Hild's blood magic spells were all shamelessly copied from old Thaumaturgy powers from Vampire: the Masquerade.

Sophie's death was a shocking event: she had been part of the party for years, and had accompanied them on innumerable adventures. Circe insisted on burying her in a frog-shaped grave, just as she had buried Jill years before. Skadi agreed, but requested (and received) permission to ritually butcher and eat her first, so that Sophie's legendary strength could live on in her. Hild, meanwhile, was kept tied up and gagged under the supervision of her own deceased followers, whom Hogarth had raised as zombies. That night, the rest of Hild's men - stranded on the island by the fact that their boat was on the far shore - tried to escape by swimming, but Tiny heard the splashing sounds and kicked Skadi awake. Skadi donned the ring of water walking, ran over the water, and whacked them on the head one after another with her snake-man shock baton, cracking their skulls and sending their convulsing bodies down to be eaten by the squid.

The next day, Circe went beneath the lake using Water Breathing and asked the squid to yield up the crystal casket, promising in exchange that they would use it make the ship fly, and then carry it to the sea. The squid agreed - but only once the ship was actually ready to take off. It did allow Circe a closer look at its treasure, however - and, to her surprise, revealed not the featureless arcanowave power cell that she had expected, but a kind of crystal coffin. Within it lay a woman, apparently in suspended animation, wearing heavy cold-weather clothing and clutching a golden starburst symbol in her hand - and all at once the random illusions plaguing the valley made sense. They weren't just designed to confuse and terrify intruders. They were the sleeping woman's dreams.

Image by Ashley Stewart.

Who is she, though? Can the PCs get the ship airbourne, and, if so, what havoc will they inflict with it? Does anyone care that this 'power source' might be the only thing capable of restoring peace to the Stonemoors? And who will be Sophie's replacement? Discover the depressing truth in the next installment of the adventures of Team Tsathogga!

Sunday, 17 February 2019

[Actual Play] 'We should have started using this zombie bird trick ages ago': Team Tsathogga's sojourn in the Stonemoors

More actual play. You can read the previous installment here.

So the PCs were deep in the Cold Marshes, half-starved and far from home, when they heard the booming of drums through the mist and realised that the ghost drummers had caught up with them. They didn't know what the ghost drummers were, but after everything that had happened they were pretty sure they were bad news, and scrambled off to find a defensible bit of relatively dry land as quickly as possible. There they drew up their skeleton followers in a formation that Tiny dubbed 'the Death Hedgehog', gathered in a tight circle with spears pointing outwards in every direction. The mist around them was full of drumbeats that seemed to come from everywhere at once, louder and louder, until the sound seemed to be almost on top of them. Then, quite unexpectedly, a child-sized figure came skipping out of the mist towards them. As it came closer, they could see it was a tiny animated effigy, apparently made from twigs and scraps of cloth, topped with a lump of wood with a crudely carved face on it. It carried a piece of bark in its little wooden claws.

Everyone loves dolls, right?

Warily, the PCs allowed it to approach as it hopped over to Circe and proffered the piece of bark to her. The bark was covered in unfamiliar symbols, but after casting Comprehend Languages Hash was able to translate it as a crudely scrawled demand that they hand over all their magic in exchange for their lives. The little effigy stood stock-still before them, its head tilted to one side, while the PCs discussed whether they might be able to somehow scam their way out of the situation. Then, evidently feeling that it had given them ample time to surrender, it leapt straight upwards and lunged for Circe's face. She grabbed it just before its tiny wooden claws made contact with her skin, and promptly smashed it against the nearest rock.

Instantly the unseen drums boomed out in unison - and, in response, the marsh all around them erupted with flailing limbs. Dozens of leathery bog mummies burst from the mud and charged their mound from all sides, hurling themselves fearlessly onto the spears of the Death Hedgehog and dragging their impaled bodies down the shafts, their slimy fingers clawing in the air. Titus' zombie giant smashed one to the earth, breaking every bone in its body: but it just carried on moving, writhing bonelessly across the floor like leathery snake, trailing its shattered limbs behind it. As the melee intensified, two things swiftly became clear. The first was that they were outnumbered and likely to be overwhelmed. The second was that the bog-corpses all writhed and struck and slithered in time to the beat of the unseen drums.

Reasoning that the drums were somehow being used to control the corpses, Sovan cast Silence 15' radius on Ron - and, sure enough, every bog mummy within 15' of the bat-man instantly stopped moving. Sovan then made frantic circling gestures, and Ron - ever quick on the uptake - flapped into the air and began flying in circles around the battlefield. Wherever he passed, the bog corpses stopped moving, blunting the impact of their advance and granting the skeletons some much-needed respite. As he passed overhead, Hash took advantage of the momentary lull to cast Invisibility on himself and slip out through the skeleton lines, determined to locate the source of the drum-beat. His keen elven ears soon distinguished that it was coming from several points at once - so, approaching the nearest one, he saw through the fog a huge, six-legged, crocodilian marsh beast, atop whose back sat a wild-looking man beating rapidly at a crude skin drum. Hash promptly drew his bow and shot the drummer in the back, before fleeing into the mist as his monstrous mount began to sniff the air.

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Run, Hash! Before it smells your fear!

Back on the mound, things weren't going so well. The bog corpses just wouldn't stop coming: Zombie Runt ape was pulled down and torn apart by sheer weight of numbers, and even Tiny was getting worn down. However, as one of the drums fell silent (thanks to Hash), the PCs noticed a small but noticeable decrease in the momentum of the bog mummy attack. Concluding that silencing the drums was clearly the only way to win this, they waited for Ron to fly overhead and then burst through the skeleton lines and out into the marshes, determined to take out the drummers as quickly as possible. Spreading out, they hit three more of the drummers almost simultaneously with a volley of spells and missiles, halving the momentum of the attack. Two of their mounts were scared away with mind affecting magic: the third one jumped on Skadi and started eating her alive, but Sovan and Circe poured so much healing into her that her body just grew back as fast as the beast could shred it, and it ended up wandering away looking rather nonplussed. As one drum after another fell silent, the remaining drummers began beating a retreat, and the bog corpses slithered back off the spears of the skeletons and poured away into the marshes to follow them. The skeletons skewered some of them to the ground to prevent them from getting away, but as the drumbeats moved out of earshot they slumped down into the marsh, clearly inanimate corpses once again.

The losses had been heavy: Tiny was covered in wounds, as usual, while Zombie Runt Ape and seven more skeletons had been destroyed in the fighting. On the plus side, they had scooped up the drums of the four fallen drummers, and had even thoughtfully captured one of them alive so that he could teach them how to use them. Once they had slapped him awake, this captured drummer - whose name turned out to be Ket - told them a miserable tale of how his people lived in service to a fell witch of the swamps, who made their drums and bred the great marsh-beasts that they rode upon, and who was regarded with fear by all the inhabitants of the Cold Marshes. The drums, he explained, had the power to command the corpses of the drowned, but learning to use them was a demanding process that took years of practise to master. Undaunted by this news, the PCs told him that if he wanted to live, he was going to have to serve as their new percussion teacher. Then they dragged him off with them and headed on westwards, eager to get out of these horrible swamps as soon as possible.

The next day's travel finally brought them to the coast, or what passed for it: a vast region of saltwater marshland in which the land faded imperceptibly into the sea. To their delight the area was teeming with birds, which their skeletons proceeded to net, spear, and shoot in great numbers, finally bringing their weeks of near-famine to an end in one enormous all-you-can-eat open-air bird roast. Their ship lay hundreds of miles to the south, but now that they had reached the sea they knew that all they had to do was send Captain Matthew a message and then stay put, and he would eventually be able to reach them by simply following the shoreline. To these ends they had Titus reanimate the corpse of a particularly sturdy-looking bird, hooked a skull on its talons (so that they could keep track of its progress via Skull Sight spells), shoved a message in its beak (giving orders for Captain Matthew to come and find them at the northern edge of the cold Marshes), and sent it off south with instructions to follow the coast until it reached Kingsport and then land on the only ship in the harbour that had distinctive purple-stained timbers. They then ascended into the hills to the north and waited for rescue.

It was a long wait. The zombie bird was maddeningly literal-minded, following every contour of the coastline, thus multiplying the length of its journey: so Tiny instructed the skeletons and the zombie marsh giant to built a fort on the hilltop, both to keep them safe and to make them harder for the ship to miss. As Fort Tiny rose around them, the other the PCs demanded that Ket give them ghost drumming lessons, although only Sovan showed any aptitude for it. The rest of them decided to wander off into the Stonemoors instead, and passing over the hills they soon found themselves in a windswept country of rocks and moors and streams, dotted with old grazing trails but with hardly a sheep to be seen. The hunger-bitten people in the first little fishing village they came to revealed the reason: just as the cave dwarves had warned them, the Stonemoors had been ravaged by war.

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Clan feuds and sheep rustling had always been common among them, as had slaving raids by the ships of the Black Isle, but this was something new: the year before, the eastern clans had risen in a great confederacy and marched west, led by huge red-skinned men who seemed invincible in battle. Their chiefs declared that the rivers of meltwater which ran through their lands from the Holy Mountain had run dry, and the consequent drought had reduced them to famine - so, rather than sit at home and starve, they had come instead to seize all the flocks of the western clans and drive them away into the east. Every clan that had attempted to meet them in battle had been routed, and the rest had no choice but to yield up all their sheep and supplies to the invaders, who left them with barely enough to survive the winter. Some of them had even become so desperate that they had started making hunting trips into the Cold Marshes, although what with the ghost drummers and the marsh giants not all of them returned. Their greatest fear now was that the red men might return again in the autumn, and seize what little they had left.

Skadi, who remembered all too well what it was like to be a starving peasant herself, was indignant at their plight. She set Sovan and Circe to work helping out with Cure Disease and Purify Food and Drink spells, and organised the skeletons into hunting parties to start gathering food in the swamps. Circe used Water Breathing and Speak to Animals spells to strike bargains with some large local fish, promising them food in exchange for driving shoals of smaller fish into the nets of the fishermen. As they travelled up the coast, feeding the hungry and curing the sick, they heard rumours of a haunted valley a day's travel inland: a place whose woods had, for the last couple of years, apparently been thick with terrifying apparitions. Working out that this haunting had apparently started at roughly the same time as the drought in the eastern Stonemoors, and that the location of this valley furthermore correlated with Tiny's instinctive sense that a fairly powerful source of arcanowave radiation lay somewhere to the east, they decided to pay the place a visit.

Scouting came first, of course, so they rigged up another zombie-bird-and-seeing-skull combo and sent it down to the lake at the bottom of the valley, where the radiation appeared to be coming from. Looking through the eyes of the skull, they saw a longhouse built on an island in the lake, with a longship tied up on the shore - clearly a seagoing vessel, and one that could never have sailed down the narrow stream leading into the valley. Sending the bird back with instructions to look in through the house's windows, they saw a band of men inside smoking fish, their muscular arms and backs bespeaking lives spent on the rowing-bench, while a tall woman with long dark hair worked on some kind of intricate woodcarving by the fire. The woman then looked up, saw a zombie bird carrying a skull outside her window, and threw a knife at it - and while the bird flew onwards on its preprogrammed route, someone came up behind it and smashed it to bits. Their curiosity piqued by what this odd band - raiders from the Black Isle, by the looks of them - could be doing in the middle of a 'haunted' valley, the PCs decided to go down and take a closer look for themselves.

Descending the thickly-wooded slopes the valley, the PCs found themselves assailed by strange visions: burning vulture-men, icy ghouls, and glimpses of the frost-slicked streets of some frozen city, where metallic clanking sounds filled the air and a huge tower loomed in the distance. Although these were clearly illusions, they were much more 'real' than any they had previously encountered - audio-visual, semi-solid, and cold enough to leave the party genuinely shivering - and they even used Dispel Magic spells to nope out of a couple of particularly nasty ones. Finally they reached the shores of the lake, and the illusions vanished - or so they thought. But then Hash, ever eagle-eyed, pointed out that although it was still the middle of the day, the pole star could be seen distinctly shining in the sky above their heads...

What do the illusions mean? Who are the red men? Do the PCs even really care, or will they just leave the Stonemoors and never come back as soon as their ship arrives at Fort Tiny? Will these writeups ever catch back up with the actual game? Some, none, or more of these questions may be answered in the next installment of The Adventures of Team Tsathogga! 

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Echoes and Reverberations 5: Small But Vicious Dog

Back in 2011, Chris Hogan - author of the OSR blog Vaults of Nagoh - wrote a hilarious 36-page free RPG called Small But Vicious Dog, with the aim of combining 1st edition WFRP with B/X D&D. Like many 1st edition WFRP fans, Hogan was openly contemptuous of WFRP 3rd edition, and SBVD plunged defiantly back in the opposite direction to WFRP 3's more new-school, high-fantasy take on the setting. In Hogan's own words:
Welcome to a fantasy world where the men are Baldrick, the dwarves are punk, and the dogs are small but vicious. Welcome to a world of bawds, grave robbers, excisemen and witch hunters; a place where “Blather”, “Flee!” and “Mime” are legitimate skill choices; and where all material on the insidious threat of Chaos is officially interchangeable between settings.
Hogan's blog hasn't been updated since 2013, but Small But Vicious Dog lives on. You can download it here for free.

SBVD is, essentially, a collection of rules hacks for making B/X D&D look more like WFRP. Some parts of it are just B/X in WFRP drag: so Constitution is called 'Toughness', melee attack bonus is renamed 'Weapon Skill', hit points become 'wounds', and so on. The four base classes are Academics (who get magic), Rangers (who can shoot people), Warriors (who can hit people), and Thieves (who can sneak attack people). Each character also gets a Career, which in turn grants them some Trappings and a Career Skill. The combat-oriented career skills, like Dodge Blow, have specific rules effects. The rest just give you a thing that you can do by rolling equal to or less than your relevant ability score.

PCs start with 6 'wounds' (i.e. hit points) plus their initial hit dice, and they also get 'fate points' which act as 'get out of death free' cards, just like in WFRP. They also get one more fate point and the ability to increase one ability score by one point each time they level up, to mimic the way that the stats of WFRP characters rise as they progress through their careers. Hogan writes a lot about how doomed and miserable the PCs should be in SBVD, claiming at one point that 'Nothing better evokes the spirit of the source material that inspired SBVD than making the PCs suffer', but between their fate points and their increasing ability scores and their extra HP (sorry, 'wounds'), SBVD PCs are actually much tougher than their B/X D&D counterparts.

Other parts of the game have also been modified to make them a bit more WFRP-y. Falling to 0 HP - sorry, 'wounds' - means a roll on the critical hit table rather than automatic death. There are some rather clever rules to differentiate weapons from one another, making them more like their WFRP equivalents: so two-handed weapons make you attack last but let you roll damage twice and keep the better option, daggers can be drawn as a free action, firearms ignore armour at close range but may misfire, and so on. There are rules for the various psychology effects from Warhammer, like Frenzy, Stupidity, Fear, Terror, etc. The biggest change is the magic system, which ditches spells per day in favour of a WFRP 2 style system where you can cast as many spells as you like, but each casting carries a risk of (possibly catastrophic) side effects. Further rules cover social status, drugs, disease, medicine, insanity, and hirelings, which gives a clear sense of the kind of material that the game is intended to focus on. The rules only cover characters of levels 1-3, but it would be easy to extend them into higher levels.

This is all well and good: but at the end of the day, SBVD is very much D&D rather than WFRP. The careers system is a superficial varnish over the class system, rather than being integral to the game as it is in WFRP, and nonhuman PCs don't even get to have careers (or classes). Advancement is still mostly a matter of getting more hit points (as in B/X D&D) rather than improving across the board (as in WFRP). XP also comes from finding treasure rather than completing scenarios, which is a big change from WFRP, and likely to motivate very different player behaviour. 

The best thing about SBVD is its gleefully demented take on the Warhammer setting. At the very moment when FFG were trying to convince people to take WFRP seriously as High Fantasy Drama, Hogan was writing things like this:
All dwarves are beer-soaked beards on legs who stop mining only to fight, drink heavily and/or sing about mining. They consider everything they say and do to be SRS BZNZ and nurse a grudge like a Bretonnian nurtures a fine vintage wine. All perceived similarities between Dwarves and Yorkshiremen are coincidental. 

There’s a 10% chance that any dwarf character created is a Troll Slayer, a kamikaze no-pants dwarf with a big orange mohawk, prison tats, a two-handed axe and a burning desire to ragequit life as violently as possible. 

All elves are metrosexual minstrels and archers who fly into fey rages when provoked. The elven ability to lose it in spectacularly violent fashion has been clocked at “Nought to Feanor in 4.2 seconds”. Most PC elves are filthy tree-hugging pseudo-Celtic Wood Elves, although the Sea Elves who hang out in coastal cities seem to be a kind of Elven gap year backpacker.  

Rumour has it that the Elven homelands are contested in an endless war between two mighty and ancient factions: the louche-and-arty vs. the darker-and-edgier. The origin of their interminable strife is unknown, although it probably began as a spat over the relative aesthetic merits of art nouveau and gothic revival styles. 
If you only know Warhammer from its later, more serious incarnations, then this will read like parodic caricature. But here are some extracts from the actual (real, official, canonical) description of the Lothern Sea Guard from 1985:
The job of Captain of the Guard of Lothern is not a popular one. Few jobs are popular in the Elf Kingdoms, as Elves despise all forms of work. Perhaps it is because of this that important or responsible positions tend to fall to eccentrics. D'roi Haisplinn, Captain of the Guard of Lothern, is a case in point; a neurotic, homicidal maniac. At dusk he can be seen pacing the battlements of the great lighthouse of Lothern, cackling madly and, perhaps, torturing an underling.

The battlecry of this regiment is based up the age old tradition of challenging strangers during the hours of darkness. In Elvish the cry is 'Elo Cailor Gotda Liet', which is popularly supposed to translate as 'Hello, Hello. What's going on here then?'

Amongst Haisplinn's many deeds of infamy the destruction of the 'Halfling House' Inn and rest home, must be one of the basest. Many Halflings were slain, or suffered horrible and embarrassing torture at the hands of the Guards. Haisplinn's only motivation seems to have been that Halflings are short, ugly and have very poor dress sense.
Hogan's interpretation of WFRP as absurdist black comedy, concerned exclusively with the miserable lives of the poor, mad, and desperate and their comically doomed attempts to get rich quick, very much emphasises one aspect of the Warhammer world over others - after all, high fantasy elements have also been present in the setting from the very start. It does, however, neatly summarise what many people find most distinctive and appealing about WFRP, and acts as a welcome reminder of just how crazy the setting used to be, back before everyone started trying to take it so damn seriously.

The bestiary for SBVD is a bit of a treasure trove, featuring all kinds of mostly-forgotten weirdness from the early days of WFRP, and rejoicing in the now deliberately-forgotten fact that the Warhammer world was once overrun by killer puffins, 'carnivorous laser slugs', and other nonsense. The write-ups of these creatures are often accompanied by jokes about how poorly they've fared in subsequent editions of the game:
The Bog Devils are monocular amphibian humanoids of evil aspect. These ancient terrors of the wetlands have been driven to the verge of extinction by divisions among their creator gods, and by the inexorable expansion of Ratmen and Dark Elves into their conceptual niche territory

[Zoats] have a long and convoluted history. They originated as druidic defenders of the forest, and then went into space as the shock troops and diplomats of an alien hive race before disappearing entirely. They appear to have vanished into a combined time travel/ret-con portal, returning as fearsome lightning-powered Dragon Ogres. Suffice it to say these guys are weird, a bit confused and not to all tastes. 
There's a lot to like, here, but at the end of the day I'm not sure how useful SBVD actually is. As Hogan himself repeatedly points out, B/X D&D and WFRP 1st edition are already pretty similar, which makes it easy to adapt material for one game for use in the other even without a halfway house ruleset such as this one. Rather than an actual game to be played as-written, it's probably best viewed as a collection of suggested house rules and monster write-ups, which people who want to make their D&D games a bit more WFRP-esque can borrow from as best suits the needs of their individual campaigns.

I'll end by quoting Hogan's own list of things to remember about SBVD, which serve as a useful manifesto for the kind of black comedy WFRP spirit that the game embodies:

1. The world is not fair. 
2. The gods hate you, and your suffering amuses them. 
3. 90% of people are corrupt, greedy scum. The remainder are vicious fanatics. 
4. Everyone has an agenda, sometimes several. 
5. It can always get worse, and generally should. 
6. If in doubt, Chaos did it! 
7. If it appears that Chaos didn’t do it, check harder. 
8. Glowing green rocks = bad. 
9. There are no such things as Skaven.