Tuesday 28 March 2017

[Actual Play]Victory at last: A Team Tsathogga Retrospective.

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Image by MrZarono.

Last week's Team Tsathogga game ended with an epic battle, which we have - in a sense - been building up to since the game began. Driven in disorder from the subterranean snakeman base that they discovered last week, the PCs roamed from island to island, cashing in every favour they could think of in order to assemble a small army of allies with which to mount a new assault. Their motley brigade of slug-men, skeletons, press-ganged sailors, zombies, hunter-gatherers, tunnel-dwellers, and religious warriors, led by a whole gallery of NPC allies accumulated over the course of the game so far, attacked the snake-man base from two sides and ultimately managed to overwhelm its defences, in an epic battle which ended up involving laser guns and poisoned gas and black powder grenades and acidic ectoplasm. To my astonishment, all the PCs emerged from the slaughter alive, although in one case this was only due to some absurdly lucky dice-rolling. (Jack the Fighter will not die!) Their victory means that they are now the proud owners of a recently-depopulated snake-man science facility, and the de facto rulers of the Purple Islands.

Anyway, the battle was a meatgrinder. It made me appreciate the simplicity of the B/X combat rules, which made resolving the attacks of whole units of troops very nearly as quick as it would have been in an actual wargame - which, not coincidentally, is of course what basic D&D evolved out of in the first place. And it was great to see all the different connections and alliances which the PCs had built up over the last year of game-time finally prove their worth, collectively allowing the party to take on a force which would have wiped the floor with them if they'd tried to go in alone. Now the surviving villagers and soldiers and tunnel dwellers have bonded over their shared experience of murdering snake-men; and with almost all their monstrous inhabitants now dead, a new era of harmony may be dawning over the Purple Islands. It would almost be heart-warming, if it wasn't for the fact that the PCs are already talking about using all the snake-man eggs they found in cryogenic storage to breed a new race of brainwashed serpent-warriors loyal to them alone.

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Image by JonBeanHastings.

I started the Team Tsathogga game just as a way of easing myself back into gaming after a long absence, and as a way of introducing D&D to a bunch of new players with no prior experience of the game. I had no particular expectations of it, but it's actually been really successful. Looking back over the campaign to date, which has now taken the PCs from level 0 to level 4 over the course of sixty-odd hours of actual play, I have a few conclusions:

1: B/X D&D is a superb system for new players.

I kinda knew this anyway, but I'd never had an opportunity to put it to the test. But the fact that I was able to explain the rules, have the players create characters, and have the PCs entering the dungeon within about twenty minutes of starting the first session really cut down the barriers to entry. All the investigation of how things worked - how many hits it takes to kill a goblin, what armour class your cobbled-together leather armour grants, and so on - became things that the PCs figured out through actual play, rather than having everything front-loaded right at the start. If I'd been running in, say, Pathfinder, I think the players would have got bored and wandered off before I'd finished explaining half the available character-building options to them.

2: Having multiple characters per player can work really well. 

This was never a deliberate plan on my part: I started each player off with three level 0 characters, on the assumption that most of them would die early on and the survivors would become the PCs. But this never actually happened: some died, yes, but most lived, and a few sessions in we'd stablised at two characters per player. I'd vaguely thought that if something like this happened, each player would pick one character to be a PC and the rest would become henchmen, but in fact everyone seemed pretty much equally attached to both their characters, so we just drifted into a two-PCs-per-player model.

This turned out to have loads of advantages. It meant that character death wasn't a big deal: you just carried on with your other PC until a chance arose to recruit a replacement. It meant that no-one minded too much about 'bad' ability scores, because your two characters could usually help cover one another's weaknesses. And it helped to lessen the problem of power disparity between casters and non-casters, because usually each player would have one caster PC and one non-caster PC, so the players were on an equal footing even if the characters weren't. I'd never try it with more complex systems - the thought of trying to run a Pathfinder game with 8-12 PCs is horrific - but B/X D&D is so simple that we really didn't find it difficult to deal with.

3: Random character generation is amazing.

I've written before about how rolling 3d6 in order will sometimes produce characters no-one would ever have thought of themselves, like Jack the Fighter (Str 5, Cha 18) and Sophie the Muscle Wizard (Str 16, Con 4, Int 10). But even in less extreme cases, it creates all kinds of odd, characterful little quirks: so Skadi is weak but tough, Circe is wise but ignorant and illiterate, Hash is much stronger than anyone expects him to be, and so on. Less random systems strongly discourage sub-optimal placement of ability scores, meaning that you lose out on the possibility of a character who just happens to be surprisingly strong, or unfit, or ugly, or whatever - not as part of some kind of complicated min-maxing strategy, but just because that's who they happen to be. Rolling randomly for hit points has a similar effect: the fact that Circe had only 4 HP at level 2 was a major reason why she tended to be so cowardly in dangerous situations, which has gone on to become a well-established part of her personality even though she's now almost four times as tough. It does mean that not all characters are equal in power, but the whole 'multiple PCs per player' does a lot to help with that.

4: There's no need for a skill system.

Everything from stealth to crafting to mountaineering has proven perfectly straightforward to handle simply through a combination of ability rolls and common sense. ('Well, you used to be an entertainer, so I guess you probably do know how to play the piano!') Randomly generated ability scores are heavily bell-curved around 10.5, so 'ability score or less on 1d20' is usually a perfectly good solution for cases where something could legitimately go either way, producing a good mix of successes and failures while also favouring characters who should logically be better at the task at hand. We don't use thieves, and honestly I haven't missed them in the least.

5: B/X characters are surprisingly durable.

Not at first level, of course. But by the time you're talking about, say, a fourth-level fighter with half-plate armour and 27 HP, they're honestly very difficult to bring down, able to endure five or six arrows or sword-wounds and still carry on fighting. If your party are in the habit of standing toe-to-toe with the monsters and exchanging blows until someone falls over, I can see that accumulating that many injuries might actually happen. But my PCs are a devious bunch, whose reaction to finding themselves in anything like a fair fight is always to run away and not come back until they've engineered an unfair advantage; they usually disengage as soon as they start taking real damage, and as a result, ever since they progressed past the point where a PC could be randomly taken out by a stray arrow it's proven surprisingly difficult to kill the bastards. Even Death Frost Doom only put paid to one of them.

6: Balancing casters is hard.

The traditional assumption is that the low-level B/X caster is a feeble creature, because they only get one or two spells per day, and aren't much good in a fight; but this assumes a dungeon context, in which once you're through the front doors, you have very limited control over how many encounters you might have to endure before you get a chance to rest. Given that this game largely consisted of me drawing big overland maps on a whiteboard and asking the players where they wanted to go next, the same resource economy didn't really apply; one or two 'encounters' per game-day was the norm, and most of those were resolved non-violently. Under those circumstances, there was little to prevent casters loading up with new spells for each situation; and as a result, by level 3 or so it was hard to feel that they weren't the ones doing most of the work. The multiple characters thing worked in our favour here, as most players had one caster and one non-caster character, so balance between players was maintained even if balance between characters wasn't. But it's definitely something I'm going to need to think about how to address in future, as it's only going to become more of a problem as they level up...

Anyway, the game's now on hiatus, but we'll probably play a few more sessions after Easter. They've come a long way from their humble origins, and I'm keen to see how much further they'll manage to get!

I might even ultimately bring them to the Wicked City...

Friday 17 March 2017

[Actual Play] Forged love letters and unscripted radio plays: Team Tsathogga get creative!

Team Tsathogga met for a (sadly brief) session this week, and things got weird. 

Last time, the session ended with Circe rushing off into the depths of Zombie Mountain and holding a dozing necromancer at knifepoint while her Invisibility to Undead spell wore out. Given that she was in her full Devourer cultist regalia at the time, the old man was understandably terrified, and ordered his skeletons to kill her if she tried anything, creating a Mexican standoff situation: so Circe played for time, launching into a sermon about the teachings of her made-up religion while the rest of the PCs (and the slug-men they'd tricked into helping them) scaled the mountain outside. Soon the situation resolved itself into four concentric bands, with the necromancer at the centre, Circe standing ready to stab him if he tried anything, his undead minions ready to attack Circe if she stabbed him, and the PCs and slug-men ready to attack the undead if they attacked her. The mood, understandably, was pretty tense.

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A bit like this but with more zombies.

As it swiftly became clear that much of the necromancer's hostility towards them was due to his assumption that they were Devourer cultists, the PCs claimed that their cult had changed enormously since it first left this island, and that they weren't at all the kind of nihilistic murderers that he might remember their ancestors as having been. Somewhat reassured by the fact that no-one had stabbed him yet, the necromancer explained that the Devourer cult had terrorised the people of this island during his youth, but had then all departed for the mainland, for reasons unknown. Shortly afterwards, he and his brother had been exiled from their village and had found their way to this mountain, where they discovered a trove of magical books and items which the cult had left behind. (He initially claimed that they had simply been abandoned, but when pressed admitted that he and his brother had murdered their protectors: 'They weren't even human any more! We were doing them a favour!') Not long after that, his brother had gone crazy, apparently under the influence of a cursed book, and run off with it; he had lived here alone ever since, studying the magical arts, and ultimately raising a small army of undead to ensure his own privacy, thus causing the zombie infestation which had plagued the island ever since. His name, he said, was Titus, and his brother's name had been Markus.

(This last revelation prompted a whole round of OOC incredulous laughter and 'oh NO!' reactions from the players, who swiftly agreed among themselves not to mention that his brother's preserved psychic head was now stitched onto a makeshift zombie body somewhere on the mainland, or that his cursed book was now in Hash's possession. Or that six hundred years had passed in the outside world since the Devourer cult left the island, even though it had only been a few decades from his perspective.)

Circe was curious as to why he had called out a woman's name - 'Zenobia!' - when awoken, and Titus proceeded to tell them the creepy and pitiable story of how he had fallen in love with a girl from his home village after spying on her through the eyes of his zombie pterodactyls, but had still been debating how best to go about courting her when his pterodactyls were smashed up by the purple cloud monster, leaving him with no way to continue his long-distance stalking: shortly afterwards her whole village was evacuated, and he had no idea where she had now gone. (Again, the PCs diplomatically declined to mention that all this pterodactyl-smashing had been their doing.) Sensing an opportunity to gain leverage over Titus, the PCs told him that Zenobia was now living in a village on the southern island, which they had converted to their reformed version of the Devourer's religion. Titus was initially horrified by the idea of the girl he loved serving in some kind of horrible murder cult, but after the PCs reassured him that they really didn't go in for the whole blood sacrifice business any more he calmed down a little, and asked if Circe would be willing to carry a letter to her on his behalf. After all, the religious leader of Zenobia's community, she would surely have great influence in encouraging her to look favourably upon his courtship!

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Cult leaders make great romantic go-betweens!

Circe agreed to do this, but upon one condition: that he send his zombies to help them in the battle against the 'underground monsters', who now threatened everyone on the islands, Zenobia very much included. Titus warily agreed that if these monsters were as real and dangerous as she said, he would do his part in fighting them; he then set to work on his love letter, recruiting Hash and Sophie to help him write it. As he agonised over one draft after another, the PCs explored the cave network in which he had lived for so many years, discovering that one side of the cavern which Titus used as a bedroom had apparently caved in. Titus assured them that it had always been like that, and that the cave-in was completely natural; but the PCs had been made wary by their encounters with the snake-men in the tunnels, especially as the increasingly-excited slug-men seemed to think that this room was where the 'hissing prophets' were likely to appear. They swiftly assembled a work-gang of zombies and slug-men to clear the cave-in, and sure enough they discovered that it had been concealing a hidden tunnel, sloping sharply downwards: presumably an entrance to the hidden subterranean lair of the serpent-folk, who had originally created the Devourer cult so many years ago. Not that they told Titus that, of course.

The PCs didn't feel ready to tangle with the snake-men just yet, so they headed back to the south island, promising to deliver Titus' message to Zenobia. There, they were rejoined by their comrades, Zeth and Atella. Zeth, who had been a scribe by profession before she started branching out into Mad Science, was able to imitate Titus' handwriting well enough to forge a new love letter from him, rewritten to be much less creepy; this was then delivered to Zenobia, along with heavy hints that its sender had probably been one of Amelia's soldiers, and instructions for where she should leave her reply. Her father insisted that she have nothing to do with this unknown suitor, so - predictably - later that night she came sneaking out to leave her own letter in the agreed hiding place. This letter was promptly taken and rewritten by Zeth into a new document, which insisted that she could only turn her mind to love once the threat from below had been overcome. The original love letters from both Titus and Zenobia were then thrown into the sea.

That night, the village watchman reported seeing a flash of light from the direction of the east island, followed by the sound of something flying rapidly through the sky overhead, apparently heading south. The PCs concluded that the snake-men must have created some kind of flying machine using the parts salvaged from the crashed spaceship, and were now heading off to join the army of vat-grown demons which must by now have assembled around their reactivated fleet beacon far to the southwest, presumably intending to reestablish their control over their ancient slave-soldiers. If any strike was going to be launched at the snake-man base beneath the islands, it would need to be now, before they could return with an army of demons at their heels.

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'I want these motherfucking snake-men off this motherfucking plane!'

Keen to secure every possible advantage in the coming battle with the snake-men, the PCs decided to investigate the metal cylinder that Hogarth had salvaged from the crashed spaceship. They couldn't find any way of opening it, so Skadi just put it on a rock outside the village and shot a hole in the top of it with their looted laser bracelet: orange steam came billowing out, along with a dribble of orange liquid that withered the surrounding plant life in seconds. Concluding that the liquid inside was highly toxic, Skadi called upon Atella - the group's craftswoman - to modify their stolen snake-man gas mask into a shape that could be worn by a human: Atella ingeniously sliced open its rubber hood and sewed it onto a leather cap, creating a nearly-airtight helmet capable of fitting onto a human head. Thus protected, Skadi went back to the cylinder and decanted its contents into a series of thick ceramic jugs, which the PCs then stoppered-up and took with them for use as improvised toxin bombs. They then sailed back to see Titus, who was overjoyed with the encouraging letter they brought him from 'Zenobia', and swore to dedicate his undead minions to the task of keeping her safe from the monsters below. (The fact that they apparently had a hidden tunnel to his bedroom also served as a contributory motivational factor!)

So the PCs set off down the tunnel, accompanied by Titus, the slug-men, and a whole bunch of undead. After walking for a long time in the dark, they found the tunnel terminated in a pair of wide-open powered doors, on the other side of which were a short corridor section whose walls seemed to have been painted by a shiny metallic white substance, and then another pair of powered doors, shut, with a blinking red light in a recess above them. Still in her Devourer cultist gear, and secretly accompanied by Hogarth (who was, as usual, invisible), Circe marched up to this door and declared that she was a priestess of the Devourer, who had come to speak with the Hissing Prophets. Moments later, a hissing, metallic voice echoed apparently out of nowhere, demanding to know why the supply of liquid time to the islands had been cut off, forcing them to rejoin the timestream. (This was another penny-drop moment for the party, as they finally realised what the Deathfrost Mountain shrine had been for, and why the Purple Islands had reappeared not long after the destruction of the cult there.) Circe claimed that there had been all kinds of problems and complications and she really needed new instructions, but the voice wasn't interested and just told her to get back onto the surface and build a new cult. Nonplussed, she returned to the rest of the group to discuss what to do.

This was when they had a stroke of genius. Invisibly, Hogarth walked over to the blinking light with the laser bracelet in his hand, guessing (correctly) that it was some kind of camera: he then pulled the trigger, destroying the camera and leaving the snake-men unable to see what was happening in the tunnel. The PCs then began to improvise an unscripted radio play for the benefit of the snakemen listening over the intercom, in which Circe pretended that she was suddenly being attacked by an army of zombies, while everyone else made zombie noises and thumped around as much as possible. Circe begged the snake-men to let her in before the zombies tore her apart, but their only response was to close the outer powered doors, leaving Circe and Hogarth sealed in the space between them. Circe then ran over to the intercom to narrate her own melodramatic death scene - 'They're coming! I can't hold them off any longer! Oh, if only this cruel door would open! AAAAAHHHHH!' - while, with the aid of Titus' mob of real zombies, all the strongest members of the party began forcing the outer doors open with crowbars, telling zombies to shove their arms and fingers into the crack thus opened to hold them apart. After lots of heaving they finally managed to force the doors open, wedging spears into the floor-grooves to keep them from being shut again. Then they herded the zombies on to claw at the inner door.

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From behind the door came sounds of hurried movement, as the serpent-folk scrambled to deal with this apparent zombie invasion - and then, very suddenly, the doors snapped open, to reveal a single gas-mask-wearing snake-man standing behind a tripod-mounted laser weapon. Instantly he began to fire, sweeping a volley of devastating laser blasts across the zombies which blew their rotting bodies apart. Only Hash, Zeth, and Jack had fast enough reflexes to act before the gunner obliterated the zombies and the door snapped shut again: Hash and Zeth seized the opportunity to hurl magic missiles at the snake-man, mortally wounding him, and causing the tail-end of his volley to go wide as he crashed to the floor, still clutching his weapon. Jack, for his part, leaped through the doors into the snake-man base beyond, fearlessly brandishing his lucky bow. As the handful of zombies still on their feet staggered forwards the doors started to snap shut again, catching them in the middle; there was a horrible crunching sound as their bones snapped, but ultimately the sheer mass of their crushed-together bodies was sufficient to keep the doors from shutting fully. And as the rest of the party surged forwards to try to climb over their broken corpses and into the room beyond, Jack looked around himself and realised just how dangerous a situation he had just hurled himself into...

Is this the end for Jack? If it is, will anyone ever be worthy of wearing his beautifully-tailored mountaineering trousers again? Will the the PCs ever put into practise their mad plan of staging a fake sea monster attack on Zenobia so that Titus can sweep in and rescue her from it? Will Titus ever learn just how much the PCs are concealing from him? Only Tsathogga knows all! 

Thursday 9 March 2017

[Actual Play] Team Tsathogga Rides Again!

I haven't written any actual play reports since December, but that doesn't mean that the Team Tsathogga group has ceased to meet. In the last two months of real-time we've played through a whole year of game-time, highlights of which include:

  • Gathering all the surface-dwelling human inhabitants of the Purple Islands together into one settlement and converting them to the party's made-up dualistic religion.
  • Using the giant purple cloud monster to smash up the undead pterodactyls patrolling around Zombie Mountain.
  • Almost getting eaten by zombies.
  • Discovering that Elder Amelia is apparently some kind of alien, having no idea what to do with this information, and ultimately opting to just maintain an embarrassed silence.
  • Returning to the tunnels beneath their hometown, taking over the goblin tribes that lived there by claiming to be prophets of Tsathogga, and destroying an infestation of goblin spore zombies that they'd accidentally started during their previous visit.
  • Totally failing to assist the Toad People with the fact that their entire young adult population had been conscripted by the Science Fungoids and marched off to fight in some kind of underground warzone. ('Eh. We'll get around to it later.')
  • Breaking into the shrine of the Devourer (a slightly rewritten version of Death Frost Doom) and escaping with lots of creepy books, at the cost of only one dead PC and 150-odd murder zombies released into the surrounding region. ('They'll cope... right?')
  • Recruiting Sophie the Muscle Wizard.
  • Using absurd numbers of Charm Person spells to infiltrate a secret society at a medical college by persuading its leaders that Sophie was actually an amnesiac noblewoman, and conning them into making a new undead body for their buddy, Markus the Psychic Head-in-a-Jar.
  • Making friends with a bunch of mutant freaks in the woods, whom the same secret society Frankensteined together and then abandoned some decades earlier, and handing Markus over to them so that he, too, could learn the art of being a freaky undead mutant powered by Mad Science and Liquid Time.
  • Finding a boyfriend for Jack the Fighter, to take his mind off his dead sister.
This week, though, they finally returned to the Purple Islands, and the session which resulted was so much fun that I just had to write it up...

* * *

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So Team Tsathogga returned to the Purple Islands, which had been the site of so many of their dubious victories in the past. They found their human inhabitants living together in peace under the enlightened leadership of their friend Erin, who told them that Elder Amelia had established a fort on the eastern island, and also that there had recently been two other visits to the islands: one by Magister Sorn, the elf magician who had trained Hash, and the other by the Order of the Divine Surgeon, the secret society which the party had recently deceived. Given that the PCs had basically set up both of these expeditions (and, in the case of the Order's mission, also effectively set it up to fail) through the controlled distribution of information about what the islands did and did not contain, this did not come as an entire surprise. When time permitted, they agreed to follow up on what had become of both of them; but their first priority was to test their hypothesis that some of the serpent folk, whose cruel empire had once dominated the world, might still be alive somewhere in the tunnels beneath the islands...

Descending into these tunnels, they received an extremely wary welcome from the tunnel-dwellers, who remembered their antics the year before all too clearly. However, when the PCs told them that they had come to deal with the shadow-dwelling creatures with whom they had long suspected they had been unwillingly sharing their tunnels, they became excited: they believed that the creatures had been very active recently, with people hearing lots of movements in the darkness and even hatch doors to the surface clanging open and shut when no-one was nearby. They didn't know what had provoked this new bout of activity - as far as they knew, the creatures had never before shown any interest in gaining access to the surface - but it had prompted them to set more guards by the tunnel entrances, and they welcomed any help that the PCs could offer.

The assumption of the tunnel-dwellers was that the creatures were deliberately collapsing tunnels to hide themselves - but if they were able to creep out through the tunnels to the surface, then some secret, non-caved-in entrance to their lair must also exist. The PCs thus proceeded to spend two days searching partially-flooded tunnels and interrogating moles in an attempt to find this entrance, to no avail, and spent their nights under the watchful eyes of the tunnel-dwellers posted to guard the hatch which led up to the east island on the surface.

On the first night, the guards felt they were being watched by something, but whatever it was retreated back into the darkness whenever they advanced with lights. On the second night, however, the serpent folk attacked. The first warning the PCs got of this was a gas grenade crashing down in their midst, releasing a great cloud of yellow-green vapour which made it hard to see or breathe; and as the tunnel-dweller guards stumbled around in this, struggling to aim their blunderbusses, they began to be cut down by scything laser beams which flickered out of the darkness, slicing their bodies apart and filling the air with the smell of burning meat. With several PCs incapacitated by the gas, the remainder decided to grab their poisoned comrades and flee as quickly as possible, ruthlessly shoving their way past the coughing tunnel-dwellers as they stampeded for the ladder up.

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Snake men with laser guns! Run!

Circe, true to form, was the first one to escape to the relative safety of the surface; while Skadi, bringing up the rear, suffered a near-fatal volley of laser fire from the gas-mask wearing snake-men below as she grimly clambered up the shaft. Once they were up on the surface, Jack and Sophie provided covering fire, Jack by shooting arrows at the snake-men at the bottom of the shaft, and Sophie by dropping dumb-bells on them. The serpent-folk fell back, and Skadi managed to drag herself out of the hatch more dead than alive, but the tunnel-dwellers were slain to a man.

For a while, the PCs tried to keep the snake-men pinned down in the tunnels, engaging them in a missile duel in which the PCs fired spells and weapons down from the top of the shaft while the snake-men fired their laser weapons up. Unfortunately, their primitive weapons proved no match for the superior technology of their opponents, and they were soon forced to abandon their position, shutting the hatch and weighing it down with rocks before fleeing for the nearby woods. The apemen who lived there grudgingly permitted them to climb a tree and hide in the foliage provided they made no attempt to move further into the forest; but a few hours later an apeman messenger came shrieking through the canopy, and all the apeman warriors who had been watching over them suddenly went swinging away to the east.

Curious, Hogarth turned himself invisible and followed them on foot, soon coming to a bizarre scene: the snake-men, it seemed, had partly excavated a small, ancient spaceship from beneath the forest floor, and one of them was now tinkering away inside its engines while the rest provided covering fire, holding at bay a screaming mob of furious apemen in the trees nearby. (Several dead apemen littering the forest floor bore witness to the efficacy of their shooting.) Not wanting to be turned into laserbait, Hogarth merely watched silently as the snakeman mechanic retrieved something from inside the engine before the whole group of them turned and ran back in the direction of the hatch, hurling gas grenades into the apeman mob as they went. One of them was pinned to the ground by a thrown apeman spear, which by some stroke of fortune managed to penetrate through its weird black mesh armour; but the rest soon escaped into the distance, pursued by the apemen as soon as the effects of the gas wore off.

With both snake-men and apemen now gone, Hogarth was free to loot the dead snake-man's body (taking its gasmask, gas grenade bandolier, and weird wrist-mounted laser weapon), before heading inside the spaceship itself. It had clearly lain undisturbed beneath the earth for centuries, its only cargo a heavy, unmarked metal cylinder. An ancient skeleton in a spacesuit sat propped up in front of the windshield; his co-pilot, it seemed, had managed to eject in time. Face-down on the dashboard, Hogarth found an old, faded photograph of what must have been the pilot's high command, and noted with grim amusement that the 'Divine Surgeon' revered by the secret society they had deceived back on the mainland appeared to have been none other than the chief medical officer of this ancient spacefleet. Taking the cylinder with him, he returned to the rest of the group.

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Rest now, spaceman. The struggle against the serpent folk goes on...

Keen to avoid any further showdowns with the snakemen, the PCs headed north to Amelia's fort, which was being run by the Angel Andrew in her absence. Andrew allowed them to stay in the fort for old time's sake, giving Jack a chance to visit the grave of his sister, which since her death had become a pilgrimage site for the native population; and the next day, after Circe had finished healing everyone's laser wounds, he even agreed to lend them a ship to carry them to the west island, to further investigate the secrets of Zombie Mountain. Sailing west, they found a smaller ship moored outside the abandoned village, with a man on deck whom they recognised as Ernst, a member of the Order of the Divine Surgeon. He, in turn, recognised Sophie as 'Lady Penelope' (her fake cover identity during her time with the Order), and began to pour out a tale of woe and trauma concerning what had happened to him and his expedition on the island. Following 'Penelope's' advice, they had sailed out expecting to find an island full of docile and obedient undead: instead they had stumbled into a hell of ravenous zombies and sacrifice-happy slug-monsters, who had killed both his companions and half of his crew. Sophie could only shrug her shoulders and say that conditions on the island must have changed since their previous visit.

At this point, the party had a debate about what to do next. If Ernst returned to the mainland, then it would become fairly obvious that 'Penelope' had set his mission up for failure: but could they really kill a moderately-innocent man just to protect themselves? On balance they decided that, yes, they could, because the Order of the Divine Surgeon had been mean to them and had tried to enslave their psychic zombie-buddy Markus by building him a body that would only function for as long as they gave him regular alchemical injections, so fuck those guys. (Fortunately, Zeth, the party's budding mad scientist, had managed to hook him up with an alternative supply.) Privately acknowledging that it was 'the most evil thing they'd done so far', they invited Ernst to join them in returning to the island, as his sailors now refused to set foot on it, assuring him that his mission could still be a success. Then they lured him out to the altar of the Devourer in the slug-man settlement, and Sophie brained him with a rock.

('I do it quickly', her player said. 'I don't want him to suffer...')

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Out from the surrounding hovels surged the slug-men: but this time they were met by Circe, resplendant in the ritual regalia of a high priestess of the Devourer (which she'd looted from their shrine on the mainland), who hailed them with the appropriate ceremonial greeting before cutting out poor Ersnt's heart upon their altar. Convinced that their spiritual leader had finally returned to them, the slug-men prostrated themselves before her, eagerly drinking in her story of how the Devourer cultists who had sailed from these islands had gone on to win many conquests in the world outside. Intrigued by the fact that the island's zombies apparently left the slug-creatures alone, Circe led them to the foot of Zombie Mountain, which was much easier to approach now that it was no longer guarded by endlessly-circling undead pterodactyls. Then Hogarth cast Invisibility, she cast Invisibility to Undead, and the two of them set off up the mountain's slopes to see who or what lived inside the giant face carved on its side, the apparent origin point of the island's zombie infestation...

Hogarth's spell lasted as long as he could maintain concentration, so he climbed very slowly and carefully. Circe's spell only lasted for half an hour, so she climbed very quickly indeed, soon leaving Hogarth far behind. Looking into the 'mouth' of the giant face she saw a mob of zombies waiting just inside, peering out - but, of course, she was invisible to them. Heading on down its 'throat', she came to a phalanx of skeletons in scavenged weapons and armour - but she was invisible to them, too, if only for a few more minutes. Beyond them she saw an old man, asleep on his desk. She could have used the remaining minutes of her spell to leave quietly, Instead she used them to walk over to the man and wake him up.

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I mean, how bad could the situation get?

He opened his eyes. He saw Circe standing over him in the regalia of a priestess of the Devourer. He screamed.

Instantly Circe's sacrificial dagger was in her hand. 'Tell the skeletons to attack and I'll kill you!' she hissed.

'Skeletons!' the man wailed. 'Don't attack her unless she attacks me! But kill her if she does!'

Instantly the skeletons formed up around the now-visible Circe, levelling their weapons at her, but not striking... yet. Circe, playing for time, began blathering away about how the cult of the Devourer had changed a lot since it had left these islands, and how they now recognised that the Devourer was just one of a trinity of gods, and had he ever heard of the Frog God? Or maybe the Bright Lady? Meanwhile Hogarth, still invisible, finally entered the cave and began rifling through the old man's bookshelves, ignored by everyone; and on the mountainside below, alerted by the old man's scream, the rest of the party and the slug-men began to ascend the mountain, unaware of the Mexican standoff which awaited them within the caves above...

...and that's where the session ended. Will Circe be able to talk her way out of this one? Who will win if the situation devolves into a grand zombies vs. slug-monsters melee? Is sending multiple people to their likely deaths by feeding them misinformation really more evil than just braining one dude with a rock? And just what are the serpent-folk up to in their hidden tunnels? Some, none, or more of these questions may be answered in the next installment of The Adventures of Team Tsathogga!

Friday 3 March 2017

Khanates of the Endless Steppe

Steppe nomad woman in Central Asia.:

North of the Great Road, the steppe stretches out for what feels like forever: hundreds and hundreds of miles of emptiness, of tall grasses swaying in the endless wind. There are very few trees, and very little cover to shelter travellers from the heat of the day or the cold of the night, or to stand between them and the winds and rain. In most places the soil is too poor and dry for farming, and so the people of the steppe khanates live by herding, and by hunting, and by war.

Each khanate is composed of an alliance of clans, usually united by their shared membership of some larger ethnic group. They are defined by continuity of culture, rather than of territory: being nomadic, the steppe peoples can (and often do) perform heroic migrations over the course of their history, and it is by no means uncommon for the people of a given khanate to live hundreds or thousands of miles from the lands inhabited by their ancestors. Each individual is part of a clan, and each clan is part of a confederacy, with a single khan at its head. Some of these confederacies have held together for many centuries, and are now so tightly bound together by alliances, intermarriages, and shared history that only the direst emergencies would break them apart, while others are much more recent creations, likely to fissure as soon as an incompetent or divisive khan takes over the duties of rulership.

In the real world, the early modern period was a transitional moment for the people of the Eurasian steppe. For a thousand years, from Attila and his Huns in the fifth century to Timur and his Turco-Mongol followers in the fifteenth, the periodic risings of the steppe peoples had terrorised (and occasionally obliterated) the surrounding empires: but by the eighteenth century technological innovations in Europe and Asia had allowed the empires to reverse the situation, with Russia and China carving up most of Eurasia between them. The genocide of the Dzungar people by Qing China in the 1750s may be taken to mark the definitive point at which mass violence ceased to be something which was exported from the steppe into the surrounding empires, and started to be something imported by those empires as they expanded their reach into the steppe. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries thus formed a period of queasy near-equilibrium, during which the steppe khanates no longer possessed the power to snuff out entire civilisations, but were still resilient enough to mostly resist imperial encroachment - and it's this moment in their history which I want to evoke with ATWC.

Tatar horseman:

To generate a steppe khanate, use the following tables:

Size (roll 1d4)
  1. A minor confederation, composed of 2d3 constituent clans. If the khan called all his horsemen together, they could overrun a city.
  2. A small confederation, composed of 2d6 constituent clans. If the khan called all his horsemen together, they could overrun a province.
  3. A large confederation, composed of 4d6 constituent clans. If the khan called all his horsemen together, they could overrun a small nation.
  4. A very large confederation, composed of 8d6 constituent clans. If the khan called all his horsemen together, they could overrun a large nation.
Degree of Integration (roll 1d6)
  1. Very loose. The clans barely co-operate, each pursuing their own interests independently and frequently clashing with each other. Only a major threat or opportunity will bring them all together, and one major crisis is likely to tear the confederacy apart.
  2. Loose. The alliances between the clans are firm enough for them to co-operate in important matters (such as waging war or mutual defence), but in more everyday matters they mostly pursue their own paths.
  3. Intermediate. The clans take their shared ancestry and oaths of loyalty seriously enough to mostly work together, but each clan still has a strong sense of independent identity, and strongly resists attempts to curtail their independence. Getting them all to cooperate requires exhausting bouts of compromise and diplomacy.
  4. Strong. The clans have fought beside one another so often that they regard one another with mutual respect, and generally cooperate with one another for the good of the khanate. However, the confederacy is divided along some kind of dividing line (usually religious and/or ethnic), and in times of strain the clans tend to group together accordingly. If a major disaster ever befell the confederacy, it would probably fissure along this dividing line. 
  5. Very strong. Generations of intermarriage has softened the barriers between clans, and they generally regard each other as branches of the same people, bound together in loyalty to the same khan. Only in times of severe difficulty will the divisions between the clans begin to show.
  6. Extremely strong. The clans have so much shared history that they consider one another as brothers, and will stand together to the last. Khans may come and go, but only the most extraordinary crisis will break the confederacy itself. 
Camel races, Mongolia:

Animals which they are famous for breeding (roll 1d10 1d3 times - duplicates mean that they're just really, really good at breeding that animal)
  1. Yaks.
  2. Reindeer.
  3. Goats.
  4. Sheep, famous for the quality of their meat.
  5. Sheep, famous for the quality of their fleece.
  6. Cattle.
  7. Horses, famous for their speed.
  8. Horses, famous for their stamina.
  9. Horses, famous for their beauty.
  10. Camels.
Accomplishment for which they are famous (roll 1d10)
  1. Archery. All the steppe peoples are great archers, but the people of this khanate are amazing.
  2. Horsemanship. All the steppe peoples are great riders, but the people of this khanate are unbelievable.
  3. Wrestling. All the steppe peoples are great wrestlers, but the people of this khanate would snap you like a twig.
  4. Shamanism. The people of this khanate are famous for the number and power of their shamans.
  5. Hunting. 
  6. Eagle hunting. (That's hunting with eagles, not hunting of eagles.)
  7. Slave-taking. 
  8. Felt-making.
  9. Trading.
  10. The making of high-quality kumis.
The Buryats are the largest indigenous group in Siberia. They are a Mongolian people that practice Tibetan Buddhism with a touch a paganism. Buryat shaman communicate with hundreds and thousands of gods, including 100 high-level ones, ruled by Father heaven and Mother Earth, 12 divinities bound to earth and fire, countless local spirits which watch over sacred sites like rivers and mountains.:

Religion (roll 1d6). 
  1. Traditional shamanism. The religions of the Great Road have made no inroads amongst them.
  2. A syncretic fusion of traditional shamanism with one of the religions of the Great Road.
  3. An influential minority of the people have been converted to one of the religions of the Great Road, but most still follow the shamanic traditions of their ancestors. 
  4. An influential minority of the people still follow the shamanic traditions of their ancestors, but most have been converted to one of the religions of the Great Road.
  5. The people are divided between two different religions of the Great Road, which serves as a powerful source of tension within the khanate. Shamanism is on the decline.
  6. The entire khanate has been converted to one of the religions of the Great Road, and are now among its most zealous followers. Their shamanic traditions persist only in secret.
(NB: Religions of the Great Road can be generated using the tables here. Information on shamanism can be found here.)

Relationship with the nearest empire (roll 1d8)
  1. The emperor still fears the khanate due to the terrors that it once inflicted upon his ancestors, and leaves them alone as much as possible.
  2. The khanate engages in opportunistic raiding and slaving along the imperial frontier, retreating back into the steppe whenever a punitive expedition is launched against them.
  3. The khanate and the empire are linked together in a tenuous alliance, characterised by deep mutual suspicion. 
  4. The empire views the khanate as a convenient source of mercenary cavalry, and tolerates it so long as it remains willing to send horsemen to fight in its wars. 
  5. The khanate is currently playing a very dangerous game, attempting to prolong its independence by playing the empire off against its rivals. 
  6. The khanate has recently been forced to cede control of important territories or trade networks to the empire, and its current khan is scheming how best to recover them. 
  7. The khanate has come under steadily-increasing pressure from the empire, forcing its clans to migrate deeper into the steppe.
  8. While still notionally independent, the khanate has suffered the indignity of having to swear allegiance to the emperor, a humiliation which its current khan finds almost unbearable.
Abylai Khan:

The current Khan is... (roll 1d12)
  1. A skilled diplomat, expert in persuading the often fractious clans he leads to pursue the same course of action.
  2. A heroic warrior, famous for his personal prowess on the battlefield, who has no respect for anyone incapable of holding their own in a fight.
  3. A devout convert to one of the religions of the Great Road, in which he has been trying to interest his people, with mixed success.
  4. A devotee of the traditional shamanic practises of his people, who lives in awe and fear of the spirits and seeks the advice of his shamans before every major decision.
  5. A bloodthirsty warlord who sees the rest of the world as nothing but a source of slaves and plunder.
  6. A staunch traditionalist, who is convinced that his people have gone soft, and that if only they returned to the old ways then they could rebuild their former glories.
  7. A learned and civilised man, whose yurt is full of books and mechanical marvels imported from the cities of the south.
  8. A charismatic visionary who dreams of leading his people in the conquest of empires, just like their heroic ancestors.
  9. An embittered realist who has realised that the great days of the steppe khans are over, and is trying to find a new path to guarantee the future of his people.
  10. A drunken thug who spends most of his time blitzed out of his skull on arak and/or kumis.
  11. A moderniser, eager to experiment with the military potential of firearms and artillery. 
  12. A weak and indecisive man, the last heir to what was once a great dynasty of conquerors whose armies once terrorised the world.
Tatar warrior, 17th century: