Friday 23 December 2016

Cold, tired, scared, hungry, thirsty, and in pain: discomfort in D&D

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Illustration to 'The Seafarer', by Jila Peacock.

It's almost Christmas time, and at Christmas I always find myself thinking of Old English poetry. Don't you?

Forþon him gelyfeð lyt,
se þe ah lifes wyn
gebiden in burgum,
bealosiþa hwon,
wlonc ond wingal,
hu ic werig oft
in brimlade
bidan sceolde.
Nap nihtscua,
norþan sniwde,
hrim hrusan bond,
hægl feol on eorþan,
corna caldast.

('Indeed he credits it little, the one who has the joys of life, dwells in the city, far from the terrible journey, proud and wanton with wine, how I, weary, often have had to endure in the sea-paths. The shadows of night darkened, it snowed from the north, frost bound the ground, hail fell on the earth, coldest of grains.' Full poem and translation here.)

What the author of the poem - presumably an Anglo-Saxon sailor of the tenth century - cannot forget about his time at sea is the terrible cold. 'Calde geþrungen / wæron mine fet', he writes: 'my feet were fettered with cold', either because they were so numb that he couldn't move them or because they were actually, physically frozen to the deck. He has been 'bihongen hrimgicelum' ('hung with icicles'), out on the 'iscealdne sæ' ('icecold sea'); he has heard the cry of the freezing tern, 'isigfeþera' (ice-feathered'), and the sound of the 'iscaldne wæg' ('icecold wave'). But he knows that the people who have 'lifes wyn' - the people who have 'won at life', as we might say today, the people who live in cities and have warm houses to sleep in and decent wine to drink - will hold his story 'lyt', or lightly, barely able to imagine what it was like on-board his ship when 'Nap nihtscua, norþan sniwde, hrim hrusan bond, hægl feol on eorþan'.

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In D&D, a lot of attention gets devoted to spectacular bodily injury: getting whacked in the face with axes, splattered with acid, shot full of arrows, incinerated by fireballs, and whatnot. The lower-level discomforts of adventuring life - the cold, the pain, the hunger, the exhaustion, the constant anxiety, and so on - are more likely to get glossed over. To a certain extent, that's perfectly reasonable, because the PCs probably don't pay much attention to them either. Most of the characters in my current game, for example, started out as medieval serfs, and as such I assume that conditions which I would find almost unbearable probably strike them as being completely ordinary: for them, being wet and tired and cold and hungry is just what normal life is like. Besides, they're PCs, and PCs are crazy bastards almost by definition: the kind of Mungo Park types who will plunge into the most inhospitable terrain in the worst possible weather just to see what's on the other side of it, utterly undeterred by their expedition's 90% + death rates along the way.

Even so, however, I think there's something to be said for not ignoring these sorts of discomforts entirely. One thing that comes across very powerfully in a lot of military campaign memoirs is just how much time and attention soldiers on campaign devote to trying to stay warm, dry, and decently fed. Dry firewood, extra food, thick socks, decent blankets: for the footslogger on a long march, or the squaddies holed up in a muddy trench waiting for the next big push, these things are like gold dust. That tenth-century Saxon sailor, standing watch on the deck of a wooden ship, at night, in the North Sea, in winter, in the middle of a fucking hailstorm would probably have traded almost anything for a warmer coat and a genuinely waterproof pair of shoes. So if you're out there, in the wilderness, surrounded by potential enemies and looking for any kind of advantage that you can scrape together... well, that's the sort of thing that you can use. 

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Mungo Park, last seen diving into the Niger River while the locals threw spears at him. He had forty-four followers. One survived.

In D&D terms, the easiest way to model this is through follower morale, doling out bonuses for PCs who take the trouble to keep their followers warm and dry and well-fed, and penalties for the reverse. This can also be applied to NPCs, which means that clever PCs can weaponise it: parties who can force their foes to fight them while cold and tired and hungry and miserable should be rewarded by giving their enemies penalties to morale. Reminding PCs that not everyone is like them, and that both their followers and their enemies would really prefer to have a warm meal and a decent night's sleep once in a while, can lead to some interesting situations, as the kind of mundane items which usually get ignored as irrelevant (looted tents, blankets, coats, shoes, and firewood, for example) can suddenly become the focus of intense attention. Which lucky hireling will be rewarded with the only really waterproof hat, for example? (And just how much will the others resent her for it?) Is it worth launching an attack on the bandit camp, despite the potential loss of life, simply in order to get hold of their supply of dry firewood? (After a week of marching miserably through heavy rain, your followers probably think it sounds like a great idea!)

This sort of thing should never become a requirement - most people play D&D for fantastical adventure, not because they want to fret about how to find enough blankets to outfit their adventuring party - but in moderation, I think it can be quite a good thing. It helps to emphasise that situations don't always have to be resolved through the D&D trinity of magic, gold, and violence: that in a world as horribly uncomfortable as most D&D settings, you'll often be able to build alliances just by providing people with food and warmth and shelter, and to cripple your enemies by taking those things away. It ties back to romantic fantasy ideas I've written about before, in which the contributions of 'ordinary' people (cooks, foragers, tailors) can actually make a much bigger contribution to the overall success of a mission or a campaign than some fucker who just grants everyone a +1 bonus to hit. (Ask soldiers in the field whether they'd rather have a 5% increase in weapon accuracy or a warm dry place to sleep at night and I'll bet the vast majority would pick the latter.) And, perhaps above all, it gives you a way to highlight how tough and remarkable and crazy the PCs are. If you depict a world in which most people care a great deal about staying warm and dry and fed, then when the PCs inevitably proceed to give no fucks about any of it, then... well... that demonstrates why they're the PCs, doesn't it?

Just make sure you come up with some good house rules for frostbite...

Sunday 18 December 2016

New B/X Class: The Tinker (AKA 'MacGyver in D&D')

So, um, this is going to be one of my sillier classes. Derek Holland asked me to write a B/X MacGyver class. I've never seen any MacGyver, but I knew the general idea, and Derek gave me a brief: an engineer class which tinkered its way out of situations using devices cobbled together on the spot, rather than relying on a portfolio of prior inventions. So here it is.

Note that, by its very nature, this class requires the GM to be very lenient when it comes to accepting what can be built out of what. The question of exactly how the PC turns a heap of bones and leaves into a fully functional hot air balloon simply by hammering at them for a few minutes is really best not looked into too closely...

Also note that, with the exception of their stronghold (see below), all the devices built by the Tinker have a strictly limited lifespan. When it comes to building things that actually last for more than a few hours, their ability is no greater than that of any other talented engineer of the appropriate tech level.

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The Tinker

To-hit, saves, hit dice: As per thief.

Weapons and armour: As per thief, but you are also proficient with any improvised weapons or armour you create yourself (see below).

XP per level: As magic-user.

Mechanical Aptitude: You have the same ability to pick locks and find or remove traps as a thief of equal level.

Inspiration Pool: You have a number of inspiration points equal to your Intelligence score plus five times your level. (So a level 3 tinker with Intelligence 12 would have 27 inspiration points.) Your inspiration pool refills every time you get a good night's sleep.

Scavenger: You can't build your devices without a suitable heap of bits and pieces - fragments of metal, scraps of cloth, bits of wood and bone, whatever - to build them out of. Luckily, you have an uncanny knack for finding random bits of junk wherever you go. By searching for 10 minutes and spending 1 point of inspiration, you can always find enough stuff to build the thing you want, unless it would be obviously and entirely impossible for you to do so.

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Improvise Weapons: By spending 1 point of inspiration, you can turn any random bit of junk into an effective improvised weapon by working on it for one minute. In your hands, the resulting weapon will deal 1d8 damage if it's a ranged or one-handed melee weapon, or 1d10 damage if it's a two-handed melee weapon. It will fall apart after being used in one fight.

Improvise Armour: You can cobble together any old random junk into weirdly effective improvised armour. 1 inspiration and 1 minute's work grants a +1 AC bonus to you or one other person; this may be increased to any extent, but the cost in time and inspiration doubles for each extra point of AC. (So granting someone +3 AC would cost 4 inspiration and take 4 minutes.) The resulting armour will fall apart after a number of hours equal to your level.

Improvise Tools: You may spend 1 inspiration and 5 minutes to cobble together nearby junk into a crude but effective version of any normal tool: a lockpick, a snorkel, a water clock, and so on. (At the GM's option, this may also allow you to cobble together things like magnets and small electrical generators.) If your toolkit is taken away from you, you can use this ability to tinker up replacement tools out of sticks and stones. The resulting tools will function for 10 minutes of use per level before falling apart.

Improvise Chemicals: You may spend 10 minutes to convert some totally innocuous-looking nearby substances into either slippery stuff, a phosphorescent fluid, a powerful explosive, a powerful corrosive, or a poisonous gas. You also create a fragile container to store it, which will break if thrown, trodden on, etc. Effects are as follows:

  • Phosphorescence: When container is broken, whoever or whatever is splashed with it will glow brightly until it is washed off. Costs 2 inspiration to make.
  • Slippery Stuff: When broken on the floor, creates a 10' puddle so slippery that anyone who walks on it must save or fall over. If broken over a person instead, they become effectively impossible to grapple. Lasts for 1 minute for every 2 inspiration spent making it. 
  • Corrosive: When container is broken, whoever or whatever is splashed with it takes 1d6 damage for every 2 inspiration spent making it. (Save for half damage.) Maximum damage is 1d6 per level. Can also be used to melt holes through metal barriers and destroy small metal objects
  • Poison gas: When container is broken, everyone within 10' must save or suffer either incapacitating sickness or confusion (your choice) for 1 round per 3 inspiration spent making it.
  • Explosive: When container is broken, explodes in a 10' blast radius, inflicting 1d6 damage for every 5 inspiration spent making it. (Save for half damage.) Maximum damage is 1d6 per level.
The chemicals you create will decay and become inert after 1 hour per level.

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Build Artillery: You may spend 5 inspiration and 10 minutes to turn a random heap of junk into a crude but effective man-portable catapault, ballista, cannon, mortar, or similar device. Its target must save or take 2d6 damage: you may increase its damage by spending 5 inspiration for each additional 1d6, so a cannon which inflicts 4d6 damage costs 15 inspiration, and so on. You can also upgrade it to an area effect by spending additional inspiration equal to the desired blast radius in feet. The resulting weapon can be fired once per level before it breaks; it will also fall apart after a maximum of 1 hour per level if it has not already done so. If your artillery is used by anyone other than you, each shot taken counts as two shots towards its maximum limit.

By spending an extra 5 inspiration, you may give your artillery an automated firing mechanism, which will trigger either after a certain length of time (e.g. 'ten minutes after I set the timer') or when a connected tripwire or pressure plate is triggered. Once the automated artillery is triggered, it will fire once per round at whatever it's currently pointing at until it falls apart.

Note that artillery may also be used for non-combat purposes, such as launching grappling hooks across chasms, throwing halflings over walls, breaking down doors, and so on. Just ask your GM how many 'damage dice' worth of artillery power the effect you want would require!

Build Decoy: You may build wheeled decoys (normally human-sized, although you can choose to make them smaller), which you can use as trap-springers, distractions, or even improvised cover. An unpowered decoy which has to be physically pushed from place to place costs 2 inspiration; a wind-up decoy (can run for up to 1 minute per level) costs 4 inspiration, and a motorised decoy (can run for 10 minutes per level) costs 8 inspiration. The decoy has AC 5 and 2 HP per level. Note that you may use decoys as delivery systems for chemicals or automated artillery (see above). If not otherwise destroyed, decoys fall apart after 1 hour per level.

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Build Transportation: You may turn a random heap of junk into a crude but effective vehicle. Different vehicles cost different amounts of inspiration, as follows:
  • 1 inspiration: Sled, snowboard, skateboard, surfboard.
  • 2 inspiration: Rowboat, cart, bicycle, hang-glider.
  • 4 inspiration: Chariot, carriage, sailboat.
  • 8 inspiration: Hot air balloon, diving bell. 
  • 16 inspiration: Pedal-powered gyrocopter or submarine.
  • 24 inspiration: Motorised cart, speedboat, or snowmobile. (Don't ask what's powering them. Probably a spring or something.)
  • 32 inspiration: Motorised crane, bulldozer, steamroller, jet ski, or biplane.
  • 48 inspiration: Motorised hovercraft, helicopter or submarine. 
  • 64 inspiration: Mole machine (can dig through earth, sand, or rubble, although not through solid stone), jetpack. 
  • 80 inspiration: Space capsule (complete with steering thrusters and heat shielding capable of surviving re-entry.) 
The vehicles you build will function for 1 hour per level before they fall apart, although you may double their effective lifespan by increasing their inspiration cost by 50%. By default, they are one-person vehicles, but you may add space for additional passengers by increasing the vehicle's inspiration cost by 2 per extra person. (So a five-person speedboat would cost 32 inspiration.) Building time is 5 minutes per point of inspiration cost. 

Emergency Construction: If you're in a real hurry, you can scavenge for parts or build devices at double normal speed by increasing their inspiration cost by 50%. Round up any fractions.

Scrapheap Stronghold: Upon reaching 10th level, you may build a stronghold. Doing this requires 1d6 months work, at the end of which you will, by mysterious means, have built yourself a castle-sized stronghold guarded by a number of 0-level men-at-arms equal to your total inspiration pool. Upon close inspection, both the castle and the guards will turn out to be built out of sticks, duct tape, bits of corrugated iron, and similar unlikely objects, but they function just like a normal fort guarded by normal men. If your men-at-arms are killed, they can be replaced at a rate of 1 per day of work spent rebuilding them. If a year ever goes by in which you do not devote at least one full week to maintaining and repairing your stronghold, both fort and men collapse into heaps of scrap. 

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Thursday 15 December 2016

[Actual Play] Blood For The Frog God: The Terrible Triumph of Team Tsathogga

Team Tsathogga has met for the last time in 2016. I shall finish off this series of actual play reports by recording their questionable adventures for the benefit of posterity. I may or may not resume them when the group gets back together in the New Year.

So the cloud monster crashed into the village. Of course it did. Hogarth yanked his head out of the interface just before its impact, blood streaming from his eyes, ears, and nose, just as the sound of impact and unearthly screeching woke everyone in the sleeping village. As the chief and his family stumbled from their beds in confusion, the PCs fled the room, then the house, and then the village, running out into the forests to hide while the monster randomly smashed things until someone - presumably the village chief - used the machine to get it under control. Meeting up with their 'A team' in the forest, whose pursuers had run back to the village when the monster attacked, they agreed that the only place on the island which was now likely to be safe for them were the chambers under the ancient arena, where they could rely on the part-robot ape-man arena champion to defend them. They thus hiked back across the island under the cover of darkness, told the champion that a bunch of people in purple might be coming to challenge him, and hid in the subterranean rooms beneath the arena floor.

Sure enough, they were followed: and a few hours later a group of huntsmen from the village arrived at the arena, following their trail, and led by a man in purple who carried some kind of large glass jar on a metal ring in lieu of a weapon. Spying on this group from the entrance to their chamber, Circe waited until the leader was facing towards the arena, and then sneakily cast a Command spell on him, ordering him to 'charge'. He promptly ran into the arena itself - an act which, as the PCs had expected, was interpreted by the hulking champion as a challenge. The ape-robot-monster leapt on the unfortunate man and began tearing him to pieces, ignoring his attempts to brandish the glass jar at it. His followers opened fire on the beast with bows, thus demonstrating (from its perspective) that they were part of the challenge as well; and once it had finished murdering their leader it pursued them, howling, into the ruins. The PCs waited quietly, listening to the twanging of bowstrings and the screams of dying men, until finally the champion staggered back into the arena, bristling with arrows and leaving a trail of blood behind him, to declare himself still undefeated. Then he fell over and passed out.

Curious about the glass jar, the PCs used Circe's poking stick to roll it off the arena without actually setting foot in it. It turned out to be a preserved human head in a jar of viscous fluid, which - when questioned - turned out to be capable of limited (and headache-inducing) telepathic communication. Talking to the head, they learned that its name was Marcus, and that in life it had lived in the village, although being turned into a head-in-a-jar and used as a portable psychic raygun had evidently eroded his loyalty towards the community he had once called home. What Marcus really wanted was a new body, and the PCs earnestly promised to try to find him one if he would help them with their adventures.

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Knowing that more hunters would soon be upon them, the PCs sneaked back across the island to the hidden hatch of the tunnel-dwellers, who were not at all pleased to see them. Jack, who had now recovered from his near-drowning, used all his considerable charisma and devastating good looks to persuade their sentry to permit them passage, promising that if they did it would soon be possible to rid the islands of the cloud-monster for good; but while Jack's charms sent the watchman swooning, the best he could offer was to relay the suggestion to his superiors. With several hours to wait, and convinced that their enemies could be upon them at any minute, the PCs retreated into the still-unexplored ruins in the west of the island, where they found (and ignored) evidence that someone or something was still living in one of the buildings, under a sealed manhole. Sure enough, another group of hunters soon came looking for them, led by a swaggering woman wielding a sword - but the PCs blew her up with a volley of ranged and magical attacks from ambush, and the rest of the hunters fled, their morale crumbling after witnessing their leader's death. Eager to experiment with his new necromancy, Hogarth insisted on taking her corpse with them as they hurried back to the hidden hatch, where - to their enormous relief - they were granted sanctuary in the tunnels.

After taking another of their now-familiar blindfold marches through the tunnels to the north-eastern island, the PCs reconvened with Amelia to discuss how best to proceed. Amelia was confident that her men could easily seize the village (and the machine) if only the monster could be removed from the equation; and after a lengthy process of planning and discussion, they finally hit upon a plan. Amelia would gather up the church's soldiers and lead them through the tunnels, ready to emerge for a sudden surprise attack on the village under the cover of darkness. The savage tribesmen from the nearby village that the PCs had taken over would go with them, and would launch an initial, diversionary assault on the village, which would hopefully draw away the cloud-monster. Andrew would then fly over to the chief's house, carrying Hash, who would keep them both concealed with a Darkness spell; they would then crash in through the chief's window and kill whoever was operating the machine, thus breaking their ability to control the monster. At this point, Amelia's soldiers would begin the main assault and hopefully capture the village. Jack was sent off to persuade the tunnel-dwellers to allow a small army to march through their secret tunnels, promising that they would not just be blindfolded but also have their hands tied for the duration, and Erin and Circe rounded up the tribesmen for what they hoped was not going to turn out to be a suicide mission.

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'Come on, guys! Some of you might even live through this!'

In the end, the plan worked... mostly. The tunnel-dwellers allowed the soldiers to use their tunnels. Hogarth animated the corpse of the dead woman and sent her stumbling into the village as a diversion from the diversion, allowing the tribesmen to approach the settlement without being spotted. When they broke cover, the cloud-monster, predictably, went hurtling after them, and they fled back into the trees; this was Andrew and Hash's cue to assault the chief's house, crashing in through the window and blasting the chief with Magic Missiles and Kroak's borrowed laser sword while he was still interfaced with the machine. As he died, losing control of the cloud-monster, it reverted to aimlessly flailing away at the woods it was hovering over; the rest of the PCs then helped to lead the charge into the village, barrelling over the panicked defenders. Amelia's war-leader, Sarah, gallantly led from the front, flaming sword in hand: she was promptly shot full of arrows upon arriving in the main village square, but Kroak and Circe's healing magic sufficed to save her life, and Hash and Erin took out the archers with some eagle-eyed sniping of their own. As resistance disintegrated, Amelia strode into the village, not a hair out of place, and announced that the villagers were now duly punished for their act of unprovoked aggression in setting their monster on the ship which had originally tried to contact them. They were henceforth subjects of the Church of the Bright Lady, and would revere her accordingly.

Soon afterwards, the surviving tribesmen came stumbling out of the forest, where it turned out that half of them had been eaten by the cloud-monster before Hash had been able to deactivate the beast. Still, with this village conquered, the mutant ape-men slain, and Hologram Head defeated, the PCs and their allies now more-or-less had control over two of the three islands, as well as a machine which would (imperfectly) let them control a giant purple cloud-monster, the true capabilities of which were still unknown. Circe was already talking wildly about using it to build an empire on the mainland, though...

And thus Team Tsathogga rested, having gone over the course of twelve sessions from a disorganised rabble of level 0 serfs to an equally disorganised rabble of level 2 and 3 characters with mad ambitions to take over the world. Only one of the three Purple Islands still defied them.

Zombie Mountain awaits...

Thursday 8 December 2016

[Actual Play] 'I stick my head into the interface!': Team Tsathogga sample the joys of lost technology

[This is the latest installment of my actual play reports for a campaign I'm running, where the PCs are currently exploring a heavily modified, cut-down version of Venger Satanis' Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence. You can read the previous installment here.]

Lost and exhausted in the tunnels beneath the Purple Islands, the PCs had no choice but to rest. They stretched themselves out miserably on the bare concrete floors, sleeping in total darkness to avoid using up their torches, with Kroak and Hash - the only two party members able to see in the dark - taking turns to stand watch. They both felt something watching them from the darkness, and sometimes even glimpsed flickers of movement in the distance, but whatever it was did not approach.

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Probably nothing to worry about, right?

After getting a bit of sleep (although not much), the PCs took stock of their remaining torches and set off through the maze of half-collapsed tunnels, marking their path, Ariadne-style, with threads unwoven from Kroak's rags. (Kroak usually hides his inhuman features under heaps of rags and tatters so that people will think he's a leper or something, and thus be discouraged from investigating further.) Some hours later, they finally emerged into an area manned by a group of nervous-looking tunnel-dwellers with guns and light globes, obviously on the lookout for the monster. They were glad to hear that it was now dead, but made it extremely clear to the PCs that they were no longer welcome in the tunnels, despite their previous services. Escorted back to the exit, they found a group of tunnel-dweller workmen wearily repairing the busted hatch for a second time in two weeks, who pleaded with the party not to lead any more monsters into their hidden home.

Reporting back to Elder Amelia, the PCs spun an unlikely story about how they'd tricked all the remaining mutant ape-men into falling off an illusionary cliff before scurrying off to read the book they'd stolen. It turned out to be a necromatic spellbook, crammed with unholy-but-exciting-looking magic, most of it far beyond their meagre ability to use; Hogarth, however, did manage to learn a spell which allowed him to temporarily animate a corpse, and Hash learned one for magically preserving dead bodies. While they were poring over its pages they were interrupted by the arrival of a lost-looking tunnel-dweller, carrying a metal broom over one shoulder. Introducing himself as Derek, he explained that he was a bit of an outcast among his people, who had sentenced him to permanent tunnel-sweeping duties for certain crimes and indiscretions he didn't really want to talk about. Seeing the PCs magically translate books which had defied the most knowledgeable of his people and inspired him, and he had decided to abandon his tunnel-sweeping career for a life of adventure on the surface - and, if possible, a chance to learn some of their surface-dweller magic.

Instantly recognising him as a fellow misfit, the PCs welcomed Derek to the party, and proceeded to quiz him about the movements in the dark that they had seen. He explained that the tunnel-folk were fairly certain that something was hiding down in the darkness with them, and probably deliberately collapsing tunnels to keep its lair hidden, but that none of them had ever been able to find out what it was. Intriguing though this was, more pressing business now claimed the PCs attention: Amelia was determined not to spend winter on the islands unless she had to, and ordered the PCs to go and investigate the village on the south island, in order to find out how they were controlling the purple cloud-monster and, if possible, stop them from doing so.:Once it was gone, there would be nothing to stop the repaired ships being able to move freely back and forth between the islands and the mainland. Having rather outlived their welcome among the tunnel-dwellers, the PCs decided to travel to the south island via raft, and Amelia ordered one to be built for them by some of Captain Matthew's sailors.

The next day, the party set out across the water accompanied by two of Amelia's minions: the Angel Andrew, whose talents of levitation had impressed them during the battle with the ape-men, and a soldier called Paul, both of whom had orders to keep an eye on them and assist with their mission if necessary. Unfortunately for the PCs, they were halfway between the islands when the cloud-monster suddenly appeared in the sky and came racing towards them. Knowing it would only attack what it could see, they all jumped into the sea and clung to the underside of the raft, holding their breath as best they could while the immense purple pseudopods of the monster reached down to curiously investigate the floating raft, smashing it to pieces in the process. Desperate for air, Jack started to panic and swim for the surface, so Kroak grabbed him and held him underwater until the monster flew away, by which point he was very nearly dead from drowning. Finally the party swam ashore with the shattered remnants of their raft, where they left the still mostly-dead Jack shivering by a driftwood fire and nursing his new phobia of the sea.

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What Jack will be dreaming about every night for the rest of his life.

Everyone agreed there was no point in trying to infiltrate the village until night, so with true PC logic the party decided to do a spot of light ruin excavation to pass the time. They hacked their way through the undergrowth which choked the nearby ruins and found a mysterious-looking crater, but a brief encounter with a man-eating plant soon persuaded them that it was probably a location best explored on another occasion. After dark Kroak and Hash sneaked into the village under the cover of magical darkness, with Kroak using Command spells to send nearby dogs running off before they raised the alarm, and Hash crept into the home of the village's chief, finding a strange machine in the upstairs bedroom which seemed to be generating a small cloud of purple mist. Unfortunately, his attempt to investigate further disturbed one of the sleepers in the room, and he fled back out again before they had time to properly wake up.

When Hash described the machine to Derek, the tunnel-dweller-turned-adventurer became excited, declaring that it was almost certainly an item of ancient serpent-man technology which the villagers were using to control the cloud-monster. He thought that the purple mist was probably some kind of biological interface, and argued that as the only member of the group with any knowledge of such lost technologies, he should be the one to operate it. The party retreated to their hidden camp, spent the day resting (along with the now slightly-less-dead Jack), and the following night returned to make another attempt at reaching the machine; but Hash's break-in had clearly not gone unnoticed, and now there were guards with torches scattered around the village. An 'A-team' of Andrew, Erin, Kroak, and Derek totally failed to sneak in without being spotted, and ended up fleeing into the forests, with several guards in hot pursuit; so it fell to the 'B-team' of Hash, Circe, and Hogarth to creep into the chief's house while everyone was distracted. The one guard inside the house who had remained at his post swiftly became an impromptu sacrifice to the Frog God after a silent but terminal encounter with Circe's magic dagger, and the three adventurers crept up into the bedroom to examine the machine, while the chief and his family slumbered all around them.

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The Mysterious Purple Cloud awaits!

Hogarth went first. He put his hand into the cloud, and experienced little except dizzying synaesthesia; but upon removing his hand all those trippy colours suddenly turned into very powerful, very ordinary pain, and he slumped back ashen-faced, biting his lips to stop himself from screaming. Circe tried next, and with her customary recklessness shoved her whole head into the purple cloud. All at once she was the cloud-monster, seeing in all directions with hundreds of kaleidoscopic eyes that saw far into both the infrared and ultraviolet ends of the spectrum. The attempt to make sense of this perceptual overload totally overwhelmed her brain, and she yanked her head back out of the cloud, bleeding from her eyes, ears, and nose. Believing that his magical training would make him better-equipped for such tasks than his witchy companion, Hogarth then tried again, putting his head into the cloud - and, sure enough, he was able to get some kind of a grip on the alien body of the cloud-monster, and began guiding it towards their current location. Minutes passed, and Hash and Circe began to get rather worried about the sheer quantities of blood that were dribbling out of the cloud that Hogarth's head had disappeared into - but then, suddenly, they heard a terrible keening sound coming from across the sky. Looking out of the windows, they could see the cloud-monster hurtling through the air towards the village, apparently on a collision course...

Will Team Tsathogga destroy the village in order to save it? Who will survive, and what will be left of them? Find out in the next thrilling Actual Play installment, coming soon to ATWC!

Tuesday 6 December 2016

The power of first-level spells

More Team Tsathogga coming soon, but I just wanted to mention something which my experience with this game has really hammered home to me: level 1 D&D spells are incredibly powerful.

The Team Tsathogga characters are mostly level 2 (although a few of them hit level 3 at the end of our last session), so level 1 spells are all that they've had access to so far. But they're moving through a world in which most people don't have any magic at all, and their ability to cast spells like Charm Person, Comprehend Languages, Cure Light Wounds, Detect Evil, Command, and even the humble Light (which should really be renamed 'Light or Darkness or Blind' - it really is the Swiss army knife of level 1 spells) has allowed them to set themselves up as virtual gods. They can conjure mystic light from heaven, or summon darkness at noonday. They can heal wounds with a touch. They can translate ancient inscriptions in long-dead languages. They can strike men blind. They can locate the source of the evil forces plaguing the community. They can turn foes into friends with a word and a gesture. They can order their enemies to kneel before them in battle and actually be obeyed. No wonder everyone they meet is terrified of them.

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The epic duel of Bargle and Aleena. Remember them? First-level spells all around!

Later editions of the game gave out so much more magic, to PCs and monsters alike, that these spells became little more than parlour tricks - in fact, when cantrips became a thing, some of them ended up getting demoted to level 0. The low-level B/X cleric or magic-user, able to cast only one or two first-level spells per day, became a figure of mockery. ('Remember when wizards could only cast Sleep once per day? Man, casters used to suck so much!') But put them in a relatively low-magic world, and they don't feel weak or comical at all. They feel like miracle workers.

Of course, B/X casters aren't that hard to deal with if you know what you're doing. They're usually pretty soft targets: snipe them from range, or catch them in ambushes that drag them straight into melee, and Mr Beard and Bathrobe will be splattered all over the walls before he has a chance to get off a single spell. My PCs have been absolutely ruthless in dealing with enemy spellcasters, to the point where the first time they learn what spells they could cast is usually when they rifle through their stolen spellbooks. ('Hey, this guy could cast Charm Person! Good thing we shot him first, right?') But 'in the wild', as it were, the addition of a single level 1 cleric or magic-user to a situation can be an absolute game-changer.

I know it's long been D&D tradition that every village priest is a spellcasting cleric, and that every town has a local wizard, and so on. But if you want your PC casters to feel like badasses right from level 1, try putting them in a setting where that's not the case - and then watch just how fast they wreck it using nothing but first level spells...

Thursday 1 December 2016

[Actual Play] Team Tsathogga Terrorises Territory: Tunnel-Town Traumatised by Thaumaturgical Thuggery

Team Tsathogga is still alive! Even though most people probably wish they weren't. (You can read about their previous adventures here and here and here.)

Their attempts to persuade the ape-man-gladiator-robot to leave his arena proved fruitless, so the PCs explored a bit more of the island, creeping up on the village of the purple-monster-worshippers from a concealed approach; there, they saw the giant purple cloud-monster hovering over the village and raining purple slime down upon it, which the villagers scooped up and deposited in a large pit. Noticing that the villagers always wore hooded robes dyed with this slime when outdoors, the PCs began to suspect that these garments were the key reason why the monster didn't regard them as prey like everyone else. Slinking back through the woods, they had a near-encounter with another band of village hunters out searching the island for them, but by using illusion magic they were able to send their hunters rushing off to the north while they fled hastily to the south. Returning to the hidden tunnels beneath the island, they got some much-needed rest in the relative safety of the subterranean zone.

Speaking to the tunnel-dwellers, they learned that their ancestors had once been able to operate many of the ancient machines down in the tunnels, but that most of these had broken down over the centuries and the knowledge of how to repair them had been lost. The PCs offered to use Comprehend Languages spells to help the tunnel-dwellers translate any texts that might be helpful; this offer was relayed back to their elders, and soon the PCs were blindfolded again and marched off to meet the tunnel-dweller's archivist, an elderly woman who requested their aid in translating parts of various ancient technical manuals left over from the serpent-man empire. The PCs did so, even if they understood almost none of what they were reading, winning the gratitude of the tunnel-dwellers.

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Some instruction manuals are best left unfollowed.

They also overheard a group of tunnel-dwellers listening to a recorded message, and asked the archivist about this. She explained that it was this message which had initially prompted their ancestors to flee into the tunnels: a transmission in which a woman calling herself Commander Elizabeth Lockheart had declared that the destruction of the serpent-man empire had begun, and urged all slave populations to abandon their masters and await their liberation. In the weeks after the message arrived, the serpent-man settlements on the islands were reduced to rubble by orbital bombardment: but no liberation army ever arrived, no further transmissions were ever received, and her people had been hiding down here ever since. Comparing this story to the doctrines of the Church of the Bright Lady, the PCs began to strongly suspect that the Bright Lady herself might be no more than a deified folk-memory of Commander Lockheart, although they agreed not to mention this theory to the Church forces already active on the islands.

Returning to the eastern island, the PCs discovered that the church expedition was under new leadership: Captain Matthew had made a supply run to the mainland, and picked up the Elder Amelia, who had assumed command of the mission. Unfortunately his ship had been wrecked by the cloud-monster on the island's east coast on its way back, leaving the expedition with two crippled ships and no way back to the mainland until one of them was repaired. With supplies only sufficient to feed her soldiers for a month, and relations with the ape-men getting strained due to competition over very limited foraging opportunities in their forest, Amelia was keen to gain access to new food supplies. Her preferred target was the clan of crazed, mutant ape-men who apparently inhabited the north-east of the island, but she was unwilling to make a frontal assault on their heavily-forested lair except as a last resort. The PCs discussed the situation, and eventually agreed to sneak in with a group of hand-picked soldiers as an advance party under the cover of darkness; they would take up positions on the hillside above the cave that the ape-men used as a lair, and engage them as they emerged, thus preventing them from harassing the main body of soldiers as they advanced up the valley.

Of course, no plan survives contact with the enemy. The ape-men heard the PCs blundering around in their forests and sent sentries to see what was going on: some spectacularly inaccurate arrow-fire from the party achieved nothing except letting the ape-men know that they were under attack, and before they knew it the PCs and their soldiers were skirmishing in the dark with a whole bunch of crazy ape-man mutants, with the main body of Amelia's forces still more than a mile away at the bottom of the hill. Making desperate use of Cause Fear and Darkness spells as stalling tactics, they managed to hold the ape-men up for long enough for the soldiers to advance halfway up the valley, at which point half the ape-men grabbed their children (and a big, suspicious-looking book) and fled into the night, while the other half stayed behind to fight a rearguard action. The PCs and their allies made short work of these, with Circe's healing magic sufficing to cure the injuries they sustained in the process.

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And then it was kinda like this.

This fight left the PCs and their allies as masters of what had been the territory of the mutant ape-men, but Hash was keen to find out what was in that book. A conversation with the local non-mutant ape-men, who had come to see what all the fuss was about, soon revealed that the book had been discovered by one of their own in a weird ruin generations ago; soon afterwards he and his family left their village, and his descendants had become more and more crazy and isolationist with each passing generation, until they were reduced to the freakish creatures that the PCs had just dispossessed. Weirdly enough, learning that its previous possessors had been turned into lunatic mutants just made Hash want the book even more, so Erin found the tracks of the escaped ape-man mutants and the PCs set off to see what had become of them.

Following the trail led them to a morbid scene. In a ruined building, the book lay open on a stone; in front of it lay the corpse of a mutant ape-man, cut open, apparently so that its blood and guts could be used to draw a circle around the book. All around this circle lay the corpses of the other ape-people, adults and children alike, unmarked by any kind of obvious injury - as though they had simply dropped dead where they stood. Finding this whole scene deeply suspicious, Hogarth fired a Magic Missile spell into the nearest corpse - and, sure enough, they all instantly jerked into motion! Rather than emerging separately, however, the animated corpses crawled together into a huge mound which then proceeded to shamble out of the building, clawing at the air with a dozen waving arms.

Huge though it was, this corpse-blob-monster wasn't very fast; and so, once it had emerged from the building, Tod saw his chance for glory. Eager to impress his new comrades, he ran around behind the monster, leapt into the ruin through one of its windows, and tried to grab the now-undefended book - but as he crossed the circle of blood, he was hit by a blast of necromatic energy and killed on the spot. Seconds later, his corpse began to animate, crawling out to join the rest as part of the blob. The rest of the PCs retreated before this horror, and after crawling a few hundred yards the corpse-monster turned around and headed back to the ruin, apparently intent on guarding the book.

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Dead PCs so far: six. Alas, poor Tod...

Circling back to the ruin, Circe produced her trusty Poking Stick (made from ancient lashed-together bones from the caverns beneath her distant hometown) and leaned in through the same window Tod had used to make his ill-fated entry, trying to prod the circle of intestines away from the book - but the moment she touched them, she was struck with a wave of magical energy that hit her like a club. When she reported this to the party, her near-indestructible comrade Skadi volunteered to take her place, on the grounds that it would take a whole lot of club blows to bring her down. Unholy magic tore at her mind, but Skadi just kept pushing until the circle was breached, at which point the supernatural assault abruptly ceased. Unfortunately, a speculative arrow fired into Tod's corpse proved that the corpse-blob-monster was still very much active; so the party led it away from the building while Hash climbed in through the window and grabbed the book, instantly becoming obsessed with keeping it safe and protected the moment his fingers touched its pages.

A surreal scene followed. The PCs fled the scene, but the corpse-monster, though slow, simply wouldn't stop chasing them (or, rather, chasing Hash); no matter how far they ran, sooner or later it always appeared on the horizon behind them, waving its dozens of arms angrily in the air. Hours passed, and darkness gathered, and night and exhaustion forced the party to slow its pace, and still the monster pursued. Realising that it was soon going to catch up with them, the PCs sought shelter with the tunnel-dwellers, claiming that they wanted passage to the southern island and neglecting to mention that they were being chased. However, any hopes that they might have had that the concealed hatchway would foil the creature died when they heard dozens of hands beginning to scratch on the other side of the hatch...

The tunnel-dwellers were not pleased, and began angrily blaming the PCs for leading a monster to their home - but their recriminations were cut short when the corpse-blob ripped open the hatch (which had only been hastily repaired since its mauling by Hologram Head's minions eleven days earlier) and threw itself down the shaft, only to rise again as a heap of broken-boned but still animate corpses whose shattered arms now waved like fleshy tentacles. PCs and tunnel-dwellers alike panicked and ran; some of the tunnel-dwellers threw crude explosives at the beast, and Kroak blazed away at it with his laser sword until the battery was flat, but these attacks did not suffice to destroy it. As the tunnel-dwellers scattered, the PCs followed one at random into a twisting area of half-collapsed tunnels, but he soon outpaced them and the glow of his light-globe faded into darkness. Lighting torches, the PCs saw the horrible monster closing on them fast and knew that it was time to make a stand.

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Maybe stealing that book wasn't such a good idea after all.

Arrow-fire proved ineffectual. Swords worked a bit better, but the sheer mass of the beast meant that it just kept coming. Finally they tried fire, ramming their torches into whatever parts of the blob looked most flammable, and ultimately Erin succeeded in setting light to it by shoving his burning torch into the long, greasy hair of Tod's corpse. As the blob burned, one of its component corpses grabbed Skadi by the face and tore open her cheeks with its nails, adding to her already-impressive collection of scars. Then the PCs disengaged and fled, watching from a safe distance as the corpse-heap was consumed by flame. Finally the fire burned out, leaving them alone, lost and exhausted, deep in a maze of tunnels beneath the earth. There was no sign of the tunnel-dwellers - but, as Hash peered into the darkness, he had an uncomfortable feeling that they were being watched...