Thursday 9 November 2017

[Actual Play] Fire, acid, and laser beams: pest control, Team Tsathogga style

This week's Team Tsathogga session began with a serious debate over whether Qelong in general, and the city of Xam in particular, were worth saving. The whole place was drenched in magical radiation, rotten with plagues and curses, shattered by civil war, and now infested with evil psychic ants... might it not be best just to carry their new followers off with them to the Purple Islands, and leave Prem and his monks to wipe the rest of the nation clean? Hogarth suggested that they should at least have a go at turning this crisis into an opportunity, so they asked the soldiers who had escorted them in to see their commanding officer, General Ngour, at what used to be the royal palace. Half-delirious with sleep deprivation, the exhausted general listened to their wild claims about being monster-slaying wizard-heroes in the service of a giant frog, before telling them that if they could save the city from the ant-monsters, they could have as many temples to their freaky frog god as they wanted. He also asked them to confirm that they were loyal to King Nath, the rightful ruler of Qelong, who had marched east with most of what remained of his army to fight the evil usurper, Queen Beja. The PCs nodded sagely and withdrew.

In the city outside they encountered Mei, the Golden Lotus nun they had met on their first visit to the city, who pressed them for news of what they had encountered up-country. She had heard nothing from her superiors in the Temple of the Golden Lotus for months, and was shocked when the PCs told her of Master Prem's coup and his radical plans for the nation. Assuring them that such a 'hard reset' of the Qelong valley would be impossible while the stupas near the river's mouth remained out of his hands, she promised to pass word of this new threat on to her fellow monks on this side of the river, but explained that she had no means of doing the same on the east side, in the lands where Queen Beja held sway. The PCs told her that they'd try to do this themselves, on one condition - that she provide them with a skilled gardener capable of cultivating golden lotus flowers, which they insisted that they wanted to introduce to the Purple Islands for 'meditational purposes'. Bewildered, Mei agreed to hand over one of her horticulturally-talented novices, Dara, who eagerly agreed to the whole arrangement as soon as she realised that it would give her an opportunity to get out of Qelong before the situation deteriorated even further.

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So the PCs headed back over the river to the east, trailing their desperate entourage of refugees behind them. In their cunning little minds, a plan was forming. The myrmidons were mostly in the eastern part of the Old City of Xam, which was hemmed in by the sea to the north, the river to the west, and city walls to the south and east: they had poured into the city through the gap in the fortifications which the mercenaries had torn during their assault, but if that gap could be plugged, then the myrmidons could be trapped inside. They knew the ants couldn't swim, and General Ngour had told them that they were vulnerable to fire, and the old city was made of wood... but how could they rebuild the walls, when any work crew they brought to bear would be instantly swarmed and destroyed? They had an idea. An idea that involved ancient archanotech and tentacles.

Giving the infested city a wide berth, they headed for the nearest stupa on Hash's sketch-map, which turned out to be full of terrified soldiers who had fled from the recent rout of King Nath's forces and were now hiding from the queen's army. They told the party that the king's remaining soldiers were probably falling back towards Xam - where, of course, they were highly likely to become Myrmidon-bait. The PCs advised them to flee the area while they still could.

By this point their food supplies were running very low, so the party decided to delegate, ordering a few of the most able-bodied refugees to head east and west: west to find King Nath's army and warn him not to get too close to Xam, and east to warn any monks they could find to defend their stupas against Prem and his followers. The rest followed them to the secluded cove where Captain Matthew's ship lay at anchor, ready to carry them back to the Purple Islands. Only half of them could be carried aboard it at a time, so the families drew lots to see which would go first: the winners were then loaded aboard, and the ship sailed north until it reached the bay outside Erin's village, where the first ship-load of Qelongese refugees had already built themselves homes. Leaving the new arrivals to get settled in, and only mildly distracted by learning that Titus and Zenobia's marriage had broken down already - she'd moved back into her father's house, and he'd moved back into his mountain full of zombies - they called together their old friends Erin, Zeth, and Atella, and explained their plan. They would use the mind-projection machinery in the village to take control of the giant purple tentacle monster which hovered over the islands, fly it across the hundreds of miles of water between them and Qelong, and use it as a remote-control wrecking ball with which to smash up the myrmidon-occupied areas of Xam and fill in the gap in the city's walls, thus trapping the ants within a contained space where they could be roasted at leisure.

This was not a small undertaking. Just using the machine to make the monster fly from one island to another caused painful headaches and copious bleeding from the eyes and ears - controlling it for this long was unprecedented. But the PCs had done their maths, and calculated that at 1d4 damage per use of the machine, their collective hit point total plus the average hit point yield of all their available healing spells would probably be enough to get the thing all the way to Qelong: and after bribing Zeth with a crawling hand for her growing mad science laboratory, they dragooned the three ex-PCs into helping out as well. Each person was to insert their head into the machine, take control of the monster, and force it to fly as far south as possible until they passed out; they would then be pulled out of the machine and replaced by the next person in line, while the party clerics healed them up in preparation for another round in the mind-melter. It would all work out fine!

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The solution to all our problems!

So, all through the afternoon, they took turns inside the machine. One by one they placed their heads inside the magical purple cloud which allowed them to take control of the body of the monster; one by one they were yanked back out, screaming, shaking, and vomiting blood. Controlling the weird, inhuman body of the beast came more easily to some of them than others - Sovan turned out to be especially good at it - but collectively, they were able to force it to fly right the way across the sea until the harbour of Xam came in sight. Hit points and healing spells alike were running dangerously low, but they weren't about to stop now: so Hogarth assumed control of the monster and sent it smashing down into the city, crushing the old wooden buildings into kindling wherever it went. The myrmidons fled before it, many of them retreating into the two largest buildings still standing, the temple and the old fort: so Hogarth made it smash those, too, sending the creatures flying, and revealing heaps of bloated human bodies beneath each of them from which the silver ants crawled in seemingly endless swarms. Guessing that these luckless souls had become incubators for their eggs, Hogarth made the monster roll its enormous bulk around on top of them, squashing them to paste. Then the strain became too much for him and he passed out.

Skadi was up next. Taking control of the beast, she found it rolling around happily in what had once been the basements of the fort, popping swollen, egg-filled corpses into its many mouths; but, forcing it up, she made it brace itself against the rubble of the fort and start to push it in the direction of the breach in the city walls. Foot by painful foot, the monster shoved this heap of broken masonry through the streets, crushing entire houses in the process, their timbers simply adding to enormous pile of wreckage it was forcing onwards. Finally, Skadi managed to make it shove this accumulated heap into the breach in the walls, plugging the gap. Then she passed out, too; and it was left to Circe to make the beast dunk itself thoroughly in the water, washing off the innumerable silver ants which now clung to it, before relinquishing control of the creature and allowing it to fly away back home.

The PCs spent the next day groaning, bleeding, and vomiting, gradually recovering from their ordeal with the help of copious quantities of healing magic. There was no time to waste, though - and as soon as they had the strength to walk (or at least stumble), they requisitioned all the ethanol from the labs of the tunnel-dwellers, before boarding Captain Matthew's ship once more and ordering him to sail back to Qelong. (Meanwhile Dara, left behind on the island with the refugees, made a start on a nice new golden lotus garden for Sophie.) Returning to the cove where they had left the rest of their followers, they found them, and a large number of men from King Nath's defeated army, imprisoned inside a crude stockade, watched over by a detachment of Queen Beja's spearmen. As their ship approached within yelling distance, the commander of Beja's men called out to them, saying that their followers had been apprehended as suspicious persons, and that his unit had been stationed here to see if there was any truth in their wild claims that a band of foreign magicians would soon be returning to carry them off over the seas. When the PCs affirmed that they were indeed powerful magicians, the commander insisted on escorting them to meet Queen Beja, who was currently making a triumphal progress towards Xam after defeating King Nath in the field. Worried that the queen's soldiers might soon become myrmidon-bait, the PCs reluctantly agreed.

Queen Beja's army turned out to be pretty unimpressive: seven hundred soldiers in tattered wargear, marching in ragged formation around two malnourished elephants. Parting the threadbare curtains of her gilded palanquin, the queen listened to the party's wild stories about the hordes of ant-monsters awaiting her in Xam, before benevolently decreeing that if they would swear allegiance to her cause and rid her of the regrettable pests infesting her capital city, they would be welcome to place icons of their barbarian gods in her royal temple just as soon as she got around to rebuilding it. Grumbling, the PCs accompanied her on her lackadaisical march to Xam, where, sure enough, the approach of her army brought a few clay-covered myrmidons stumbling out of the shanty town of abandoned shacks and tents which surrounded the city's east side. Unimpressed, the queen ordered her men forwards to clear the shanty town and prepare a path for her triumphal approach.

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This is an Angkor Empire army. Queen Beja's army looks like a bargain-basement version of this.

To the party's total lack of surprise, things rapidly went wrong. The more noise and disturbance the queen's army caused, the more myrmidons came stumbling from the shacks, shrugging off arrow fire, gathering in growing mobs that swiftly drove the soldiers back out into the open, and clubbing down stragglers with their heavy, clay-encrusted hands. Yelling out to the queen's men to use fire, not blades, the PCs swiftly animated two of the fallen soldiers with Command Corpse spells, equipped them with flaming brands, and sent them off to set light to the abandoned shanty town. As the fire spread, more myrmidons rushed out to avoid the flames, lurching towards the hastily-assembled shieldwall which the queen's men had raised up around her elephants. But there seemed to be only a couple of hundred of them in all... which meant that the vast majority were still trapped within the city walls. For now.

It was now obvious to the PCs that if the main body of the myrmidon army escaped from the old city, then it would be pretty much game over for the whole eastern half of Qelong. The queen's forces wouldn't stand a chance against them, and once her army had been crushed - which it surely would be - then there would be nothing left to stop the myrmidons ravaging everything east of the river. Breaking away from the queen's men, they rushed towards the city walls, climbing up to the battlements by scrambling up the slope of rubble which their remote-control monster had piled into the breach. Looking down into the old city, they saw the myrmidons swarming like ants, heaping up bits of broken wood and stone against the walls, building a ramp that would allow them to climb out and gain access to the tasty, tasty humans outside.

Thus began OPERATION KILL IT WITH FIRE. The PCs incinerated the myrmidon ramps with volleys of ethanol-filled molotov cocktails. They used Command Corpse spells to animate fallen myrmidons, ordered them to grab as many burning brands as they could hold, and sent them into the city to set it alight. They used laser bracelets and flaming arrows to ignite the smashed-up buildings which their monster had crushed into kindling while it was doing its giant wrecking-ball impression. Every time the myrmidons tried to build a new ramp, they dropped oil and tar on it and then torched it. Seeing what was happening, General Ngour rallied his men on the west bank and ordered them to start firing volleys of pitch-dipped arrows across the river, contributing to the growing firestorm. When, in desperation, the myrmidons just started climbing up on top of each other in order to escape the burning city, Sophie and Hash used Magic Missile spells to blast away crucial load-bearing myrmidons, sending the rest tumbling to the ground in heaps. Finally, the silver ants animating the myrmidons began abandoning their doomed bodies, pouring out of them in glittering streams and climbing straight up the side of the walls - a move which the PCs responded to by pouring acid over them and incinerating them with sustained fire from their one remaining laser bracelet. (Laser bracelets run out of power when a 1 is rolled on their attack roll. Jack's player rolled over sixty d20s over the course of the battle without rolling a single 1!) As the flames closed in on them, the ants were driven together on the wall, climbing on top of one another in a single roiling mass - until Skadi dropped a perfectly-placed acid bomb right into the middle of it. Circe swore she could hear their collective psychic scream as they died.

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Just burn fucking everything, OK?

With the old city now a single sea of flames, the PCs turned back towards the queen's army, which somehow seemed to be losing its battle with a myrmidon mob it outnumbered more than three to one. But with the main swarm destroyed, the greatest threat was surely over. What remained of Qelong had been saved. Hadn't it?

Hadn't it?

Beg the Frog God for mercy! The worst may be yet to come!

Monday 6 November 2017

Localism: the adventure as microclimate

We started with the stories, and in the stories almost everything was unique. There was one maze, inhabited by one minotaur. There was one chimera. There was one golem made from stitched-together human corpses. There was one vorpal blade. One holy man once turned sticks into snakes. Early D&D took these and expanded them into types, so you could meet 1d6 minotaurs, or 1d3 flesh golems, or cast Sticks to Snakes for the third time that day, or kill your fourth chimera and find your second vorpal sword in its lair... but it still didn't quite have the assumption that everything could be found everywhere. The game assumed that there were populations of elves and dwarves and halflings around the place for you to recruit PCs from, but there was no expectation that every region had a population of thouls.

As time passed, standardisation set in. Creatures like mongrelmen, originally created to play specific roles in specific scenarios, were added to the generic D&D repertoire: no longer just one particular remnant population in one particular forbidden city, but a monster race who could potentially turn up anywhere. One-off oddities like the Froghemoth were rewritten as species. It became accepted that the swamps of all D&D worlds contained populations of bullywugs and lizard men, just as all D&D underdarks had populations of derro and duregar and drow. You were doing something noteworthy if you didn't include them.

What had been a tendency in the AD&D days became official policy with third edition. With everything suddenly available as a PC option, everything had to be everywhere - because otherwise, what would you do if somebody wanted to play one? Every single book came with a long list of new races, classes, and prestige classes, each of them trailing a sad little paragraph about 'Illumians in the world', or whatever, which supposedly told you how to integrate them into your campaign setting. Default D&D-land became a place where dozens or hundreds of intelligent species rubbed shoulders on the streets of every major city, practising dozens of different forms of magic (each with their own guilds and academies), and worshipping hundreds of different gods (each with their own churches). It got crowded. 

DiTerlizzi tieflings
Yes, Sigil was great. But surely not every D&D city should have to be like it!

The trouble with this kind of 'top-down' approach, where every race and class and god and form of magic is assumed to be more-or-less universal, is that it gives each individual addition a very heavy 'footprint' on the setting. If the same gods are worshipped almost everywhere, then adding a god means adding a new temple and a new religious order to almost every city. If all your monsters are widespread species rather than one-off freaks of nature, then adding a monster means finding a place for it in your ecosystem - and, if it's intelligent, in your cities and cultures as well. But more isn't always more: and while adding a goblin ghetto to your human city could lead to some interesting world-building, if it's just one of twenty-seven non-human enclaves scattered around the city's outskirts then it shrinks from something important and noteworthy into just being part of a long list of token background elements.

Recently, I've been increasingly moving away from this sort of model, in favour of one in which most monster populations, divine cults, schools of magic, and so on are assumed to be intensely local. Maybe that shrine to the Queen of Storms up on the mountaintop is the only place in the world sacred to her, and the three old men who tend it are her entire priesthood, and no-one outside this valley has even heard of her. Maybe the lizard-man tribe who live in this swamp are the only lizard-men in the world, the result of magical meddling by some long-dead magician who once inhabited these lands. Yes, if your PCs kill them all, that means there are no more lizard-men - but so what? It's not like you're in any danger of running out of monsters...

There are a few things I like about this approach. It lets me use enormous numbers of different monsters, divinities, and so on within the same campaign setting, without making the world feel overcrowded: sure, there may be a hundred-odd intelligent races, but they live in a hundred different places, rather than all jostling together through the streets of every major settlement. It provides an easy way of differentiating areas: a wood full of trolls is going to be a very different sort of place to a wood full of hobgoblins, and can fulfil a very different role in the campaign world, rather than both of them just being 'generic monster-haunted fantasy woodlands'. It means that each thing is much more rooted in the campaign world: gnolls go from being 'one of a dozen annoying low-HD creatures who populate wandering monster tables' to 'those creatures which inhabit the badlands east of the City of Fallen Spires', with all the specific resonances and relevances that go with that. Perhaps above all, it preserves a sense of strangeness, of never knowing what's over the next hill or what might be living in the next valley. Top-down settings feel familiar and cosmopolitan: everywhere you go, you'll encounter the same creatures, the same religions, the same magical traditions. But more local settings can be much more mysterious, with the PCs genuinely not knowing whether, say, ettercap exist in this campaign world until they actually happen to encounter one.

Source: captvinvanity                                                                                                                                                      More
'Bugbears can only thrive under very specific environmental conditions...'

This sort of intensely local setting design obviously fits in with more sword-and-sorcery style settings, where the world is full of isolated pockets of strangeness, rather than the more 'joined-up' worlds typical of high fantasy settings; but I think that it can also be used to lend settings a more down-to-earth, folkloric, quasi-historical sensibility. In most folkloric traditions, every moor or forest is associated with its own specific supernatural denizens: Black Annis lived in the Dane Hills, the Yeth Hounds lived in Wistman's Wood, and so on. Entire pagan mythologies, with their own distinctive pantheons, existed in regions which in many campaign settings would only be a dozen or so hexes across. (How much space would Wales or Lithuania take up on your campaign map?) The traditional, 'naturalistic' D&D approach acts to flatten out those regional variations, collapsing all these distinctive figures into one race of trolls, one race of hags, one pantheon of gods, and so on. But if you want a world which is at once more varied and more grounded, I think there might be something to be said for thinking of adventure locations as unique geographical and cultural microclimates, featuring creatures and gods and forms of magic entirely unknown elsewhere. Don't feel you have to pick just one of D&D's many, many takes on, say, fish-men: take them all and put them in different bodies of water. Go small-scale. Go local. Zoom in for a change!