Sunday, 5 May 2019

'An amphibious boy in a canvas suit': Charles Dickens's monsters

Hey, all. I'm not dead, and the blog's not either: I've just had a busy couple of months dealing with various real-life obligations. Normal posting should be resumed shortly.

Most of this post consists of lengthy quotations from a novel published in 1841. You have been warned.

Anyway. Last month I read The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens. It's not a great novel. In fact it's barely a novel at all: more like a heap of random scenes, loosely strung together by improbable coincidences that serve to move the characters from place to place. The individual scenes and characters are often great, but I felt that the book as a whole was weaker than the sum of its parts. I was not surprised to learn that it was written in weekly installments.

It is, however, a work in which Dickens indulged his relish for the grotesque. Most of his novels are ostensibly set in the real world, while actually depicting something closer to the world of Gothic melodrama: but in this book the veil is particularly thin, and some of the characters who populate it barely even pretend to be human. Here, for example, is the novel's villain, Quilp:

The creature appeared quite horrible with his monstrous head and little body, as he rubbed his hands slowly round, and round, and round again—with something fantastic even in his manner of performing this slight action—and, dropping his shaggy brows and cocking his chin in the air, glanced upward with a stealthy look of exultation that an imp might have copied and appropriated to himself.

Mr Quilp now walked up to front of a looking-glass, and was standing there putting on his neckerchief, when Mrs Jiniwin happening to be behind him, could not resist the inclination she felt to shake her fist at her tyrant son-in-law. It was the gesture of an instant, but as she did so and accompanied the action with a menacing look, she met his eye in the glass, catching her in the very act. The same glance at the mirror conveyed to her the reflection of a horribly grotesque and distorted face with the tongue lolling out; and the next instant the dwarf, turning about with a perfectly bland and placid look, inquired in a tone of great affection.

‘How are you now, my dear old darling?’

Slight and ridiculous as the incident was, it made him appear such a little fiend, and withal such a keen and knowing one, that the old woman felt too much afraid of him to utter a single word, and suffered herself to be led with extraordinary politeness to the breakfast-table. Here he by no means diminished the impression he had just produced, for he ate hard eggs, shell and all, devoured gigantic prawns with the heads and tails on, chewed tobacco and water-cresses at the same time and with extraordinary greediness, drank boiling tea without winking, bit his fork and spoon till they bent again, and in short performed so many horrifying and uncommon acts that the women were nearly frightened out of their wits, and began to doubt if he were really a human creature. 

Yeah. An evil dwarf. He drinks boiling water. He never sleeps. His face seems to be able to act independently of its own reflection. He eats tobacco and water-cress for breakfast. He bends metal with his teeth. He presides over a horrible old wharf, where he is served by 'an amphibious boy in a canvas suit'. In the original illustrations he looked like this:

Image result for the old curiosity shop illustrations quilp figurehead
Quilp is the figure on the far right. Attacking a giant wooden admiral. Like you do.

Despite being notionally human, Quilp manages to be more goblin-like than most subsequent actual goblins. And this sort of thing keeps happening. Take, for example, this account of how people devolve into ghouls:

There were many such whispers as these in circulation; but the truth appears to be that, after the lapse of some five years (during which there is no direct evidence of her having been seen at all), two wretched people were more than once observed to crawl at dusk from the inmost recesses of St Giles’s, and to take their way along the streets, with shuffling steps and cowering shivering forms, looking into the roads and kennels as they went in search of refuse food or disregarded offal. These forms were never beheld but in those nights of cold and gloom, when the terrible spectres, who lie at all other times in the obscene hiding-places of London, in archways, dark vaults and cellars, venture to creep into the streets; the embodied spirits of Disease, and Vice, and Famine. It was whispered by those who should have known, that these were Sampson and his sister Sally; and to this day, it is said, they sometimes pass, on bad nights, in the same loathsome guise, close at the elbow of the shrinking passenger.

Again, notionally this is a 'realist' account of how Sampson and Sally decline into poverty; but in practise the language makes it clear that they've collapsed below the level of the human, becoming 'spirits', 'spectres', vile crawling things that live in vaults and cellars, creeping out on 'nights of cold and gloom' to slurp discarded offal out of gutters. A comparable process of dehumanisation, through which social conditions gradually transform people into something nonhuman, can be seen in the passage in which Nell encounters a laborer whose job it is to tend a factory furnace.

In a large and lofty building, supported by pillars of iron, with great black apertures in the upper walls, open to the external air; echoing to the roof with the beating of hammers and roar of furnaces, mingled with the hissing of red-hot metal plunged in water, and a hundred strange unearthly noises never heard elsewhere; in this gloomy place, moving like demons among the flame and smoke, dimly and fitfully seen, flushed and tormented by the burning fires, and wielding great weapons, a faulty blow from any one of which must have crushed some workman’s skull, a number of men laboured like giants. Others, reposing upon heaps of coals or ashes, with their faces turned to the black vault above, slept or rested from their toil. Others again, opening the white-hot furnace-doors, cast fuel on the flames, which came rushing and roaring forth to meet it, and licked it up like oil. Others drew forth, with clashing noise, upon the ground, great sheets of glowing steel, emitting an insupportable heat, and a dull deep light like that which reddens in the eyes of savage beasts.

‘I feared you were ill,’ she said. ‘The other men are all in motion, and you are so very quiet.'
‘They leave me to myself,’ he replied. ‘They know my humour. They laugh at me, but don’t harm me in it. See yonder there—that’s my friend.’
‘The fire?’ said the child.
‘It has been alive as long as I have,’ the man made answer. ‘We talk and think together all night long.’
The child glanced quickly at him in her surprise, but he had turned his eyes in their former direction, and was musing as before.
‘It’s like a book to me,’ he said—‘the only book I ever learned to read; and many an old story it tells me. It’s music, for I should know its voice among a thousand, and there are other voices in its roar. It has its pictures too. You don’t know how many strange faces and different scenes I trace in the red-hot coals. It’s my memory, that fire, and shows me all my life.’
The child, bending down to listen to his words, could not help remarking with what brightened eyes he continued to speak and muse.
‘Yes,’ he said, with a faint smile, ‘it was the same when I was quite a baby, and crawled about it, till I fell asleep. My father watched it then.’
‘Had you no mother?’ asked the child.
‘No, she was dead. Women work hard in these parts. She worked herself to death they told me, and, as they said so then, the fire has gone on saying the same thing ever since. I suppose it was true. I have always believed it.’
‘Were you brought up here, then?’ said the child.
‘Summer and winter,’ he replied. ‘Secretly at first, but when they found it out, they let him keep me here. So the fire nursed me—the same fire. It has never gone out.’
‘You are fond of it?’ said the child.
‘Of course I am. He died before it. I saw him fall down—just there, where those ashes are burning now—and wondered, I remember, why it didn’t help him.’
‘Have you been here ever since?’ asked the child.
‘Ever since I came to watch it; but there was a while between, and a very cold dreary while it was. It burned all the time though, and roared and leaped when I came back, as it used to do in our play days. You may guess, from looking at me, what kind of child I was, but for all the difference between us I was a child, and when I saw you in the street to-night, you put me in mind of myself, as I was after he died, and made me wish to bring you to the fire. I thought of those old times again, when I saw you sleeping by it. You should be sleeping now. Lie down again, poor child, lie down again!’

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Tellingly, this man isn't given a name. His life, family, and identity have all been sacrificed to a piece of industrial machinery, which he has come to regard as something more alive and sentient than he is. He himself is well on his way to becoming a mere spirit of the fire, his humanity entirely subsumed into the machinery around him. The only thing that would prevent this whole passage from appearing in a Warhammer 40,000 novel is that GW's writers could never sustain this level of prose. 

Nell leaves the factory, and wanders on into a nightmare cityscape:

Advancing more and more into the shadow of this mournful place, its dark depressing influence stole upon their spirits, and filled them with a dismal gloom. On every side, and far as the eye could see into the heavy distance, tall chimneys, crowding on each other, and presenting that endless repetition of the same dull, ugly form, which is the horror of oppressive dreams, poured out their plague of smoke, obscured the light, and made foul the melancholy air. On mounds of ashes by the wayside, sheltered only by a few rough boards, or rotten pent-house roofs, strange engines spun and writhed like tortured creatures; clanking their iron chains, shrieking in their rapid whirl from time to time as though in torment unendurable, and making the ground tremble with their agonies. Dismantled houses here and there appeared, tottering to the earth, propped up by fragments of others that had fallen down, unroofed, windowless, blackened, desolate, but yet inhabited. Men, women, children, wan in their looks and ragged in attire, tended the engines, fed their tributary fire, begged upon the road, or scowled half-naked from the doorless houses. Then came more of the wrathful monsters, whose like they almost seemed to be in their wildness and their untamed air, screeching and turning round and round again; and still, before, behind, and to the right and left, was the same interminable perspective of brick towers, never ceasing in their black vomit, blasting all things living or inanimate, shutting out the face of day, and closing in on all these horrors with a dense dark cloud.

But night-time in this dreadful spot!—night, when the smoke was changed to fire; when every chimney spirited up its flame; and places, that had been dark vaults all day, now shone red-hot, with figures moving to and fro within their blazing jaws, and calling to one another with hoarse cries—night, when the noise of every strange machine was aggravated by the darkness; when the people near them looked wilder and more savage; when bands of unemployed labourers paraded the roads, or clustered by torch-light round their leaders, who told them, in stern language, of their wrongs, and urged them on to frightful cries and threats; when maddened men, armed with sword and firebrand, spurning the tears and prayers of women who would restrain them, rushed forth on errands of terror and destruction, to work no ruin half so surely as their own—night, when carts came rumbling by, filled with rude coffins (for contagious disease and death had been busy with the living crops); when orphans cried, and distracted women shrieked and followed in their wake—night, when some called for bread, and some for drink to drown their cares, and some with tears, and some with staggering feet, and some with bloodshot eyes, went brooding home—night, which, unlike the night that Heaven sends on earth, brought with it no peace, nor quiet, nor signs of blessed sleep—who shall tell the terrors of the night to the young wandering child!

You know that city, right? You've read about it in a hundred dystopian novels and OSR campaign settings. Some of you will have read about it on this very blog. (I called it the Wicked City.) But all that any of us have done is taken Dickens's metaphors a bit more literally than he does here. 

Dickens had a gift for making 'normal' things seem weird and horrible. I've read a lot of horror fiction over the years, and few literary horror monsters manage to be as creepy as, say, the old man who buys David's coat in David Copperfield:

Into this shop, which was low and small, and which was darkened rather than lighted by a little window, overhung with clothes, and was descended into by some steps, I went with a palpitating heart; which was not relieved when an ugly old man, with the lower part of his face all covered with a stubbly grey beard, rushed out of a dirty den behind it, and seized me by the hair of my head. He was a dreadful old man to look at, in a filthy flannel waistcoat, and smelling terribly of rum. His bedstead, covered with a tumbled and ragged piece of patchwork, was in the den he had come from, where another little window showed a prospect of more stinging-nettles, and a lame donkey.

‘Oh, what do you want?’ grinned this old man, in a fierce, monotonous whine. ‘Oh, my eyes and limbs, what do you want? Oh, my lungs and liver, what do you want? Oh, goroo, goroo!’

I was so much dismayed by these words, and particularly by the repetition of the last unknown one, which was a kind of rattle in his throat, that I could make no answer; hereupon the old man, still holding me by the hair, repeated:

‘Oh, what do you want? Oh, my eyes and limbs, what do you want? Oh, my lungs and liver, what do you want? Oh, goroo!’—which he screwed out of himself, with an energy that made his eyes start in his head.

‘I wanted to know,’ I said, trembling, ‘if you would buy a jacket.’

‘Oh, let’s see the jacket!’ cried the old man. ‘Oh, my heart on fire, show the jacket to us! Oh, my eyes and limbs, bring the jacket out!’

I mean, fuck. I suspect that this guy was one of the inspirations for Tolkien's Gollum, but Gollum on his worst day was never as scary as Dickens manages to make the drunken old owner of a second-hand clothes shop. 

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1872 illustration of the Goroo Man, by Fred Barnard.

What reading The Old Curiosity Shop brought home to me was just how little a sense of supernaturalism depends on the actual supernatural. I've written before about how easily the fantastical can cease to feel fantastic, especially in a game like D&D, but the converse is that even 'normal' things can swiftly take on a fantastical dimension if they're evoked in the right way. Dickens, who was always a massive ham at heart, even shows us some of the ways to do it. Give a character some sinister and distinctive appearance, mannerisms, speech patterns, and behaviour, and they can swiftly come to seem more genuinely monstrous than any out-of-the-book goblin, orc, or gnoll. An orc who jumps out a cave, tries to whack you with a sword, and dies after taking 1 HD worth of damage isn't really much of a monster: he's just an environmental hazard. But a creature that comes crawling from its cellar on lightless nights to suck the offal from the city gutters can still genuinely appall, even if it still has 'human' written on its character sheet. 

With a bit of work, it might even be possible to make the village shopkeeper much creepier than the average D&D demon.

Oh, my heart on fire.

Oh, my eyes and liver.

Goroo...

Image result for bleak house illustrations Mervyn Peake
Illustration of Old Smallweed, by Mervyn Peake.

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...
  1. ...me.
  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.
(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. ...is covered in distinctive scars.
  3. ...is missing a body part (roll 1d4: 1 = eye, 2 = arm, 3 = leg, 4 = ear). 
  4. ...is a dwarf, giant, or hunchback (equal chance of each).
  5. ...is always drunk.
  6. ...is addicted to horrible narcotics.
  7. ...has some kind of weird psycho-sexual obsession with you. 
  8. ...is a kleptomaniac.
  9. ...is a pyromaniac.
  10. ...is a compulsive liar.
  11. ...is 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!