Thursday 29 November 2018

A brief word on some recent online controversies

I don't use social media, so I get to live most of my life in blissful ignorance of what people are currently yelling at each other about. Years back Dave McGrogan suggested to me that I should start uploading my posts to G+, but I very seldom use it for any other purpose, so all the debates that take place on it are invisible to me. It's only when controversies filter down to the level of actual blogs that I usually become aware of them.

I have become aware of this one.

I'm generally pretty sceptical of internet politics. Social media is very good for grandstanding and blacklisting and rumour-mongering and getting people to hate each other, but it's much less effective for actually getting anyone to change their minds about anything. That said, I have come to care about this weird monster-baby of a creative community that we call the OSR, and it saddens me to hear that a growing number of people are apparently coming to associate it with intolerance, far-right politics, and other forms of ideological awfulness.

If you endorse or encourage racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic views, then you are an awful person and you should stop doing that.

If you think that you're just tragically misunderstood and all these people are being so unreasonable and complaining about nothing, then please consider the possibility that actually being [black / female / gay / trans] may have given them a better insight into what constitutes [racism / sexism / homophobia / transphobia] than is easily accessible to others.

If you believe that a shadow army of evil totalitarian SJW snowflakes are trying to destroy gaming, and that it is your right, nay, your duty to be as offensive as possible in order to defend our freedom, then get a fucking grip. Your actual ideological opponents don't give a fuck about your fantasy game. All you're doing is harming random bystanders and alienating people who might otherwise have been your friends and/or customers.

If you are Venger Satanis, then you appear to be in the middle of a highly public meltdown. (You 'took issue with both sides of the Charlottesville political protest'? Seriously?) Get help, dude. Get help.

The OSR movement has benefitted enormously from the contributions of trans gamers and creators such as Scrap Princess, Evlyn M, Gennifer Bone, Bardaree Bryant, and FM Geist. Anything which makes them feel less welcome among us can only leave us all much poorer as a result.

Be kind to one another. For fuck's sake. It's not that hard. Just be kind.

I'll try to post about the WFRP 3 adventures soon.

Tuesday 20 November 2018

Echoes and Reverberations part 1: WFRP 3rd edition - the setting

My overview of WFRP 2nd edition may be finished, but the work goes on. So many different people made so many different requests during the last series of posts that I've decided to do a second series, albeit hopefully a shorter one, which covers what happened to WFRP and its spiritual successors after 2nd edition came to an end. Material I propose to cover includes WFRP 3rd edition, WFRP 2nd edition fan-content, Shadow of the Demon Lord, Zweihander, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and Small But Vicious Dog. There's a lot to cover, though, so these will be much more 'zoomed out' than the previous series.

First up: WFRP 3rd edition.

As I discussed here, Fantasy Flight Games acquired the WFRP license in 2008, and promptly killed off WFRP 2nd edition in favour of their own WFRP 3rd edition in 2009. This edition represented a major departure from tradition. Instead of WFRP being sold as a book, it was now marketed as a boxed set, which contained multiple books, special dice, and lots and lots of fiddly little components. It looked like... well... this:

Image result for warhammer fantasy roleplay 3rd edition

In retrospect, I can understand FFG's decision to go with this kind of hybrid RPG / board game setup. The third edition of Dungeons and Dragons had demonstrated that it was possible to market RPG books in the same way that one might market board game expansion sets, with people buying books like Races of the Dragon simply in order to get the rules for that one prestige class they were itching to try out. D&D 4th edition, which came out in 2008, took this even further, with ultra-codified spells and powers that worked pretty much exactly like action cards used in many board games - spend this resource to inflict this much damage on this number of squares on the board, and so on. WOTC even brought out decks of power cards for players to use, and supplements which were little more than shopping lists of new powers for them to choose from. FFG were board game manufacturers before they were RPG publishers: they had the resources they needed to produce high-quality components, and they understood that you could charge a lot more money for a big box of shiny objects than for a single softcover book. Black Industries had given up on WFRP precisely because the old supplement treadmill business model for RPGs had proven to be insufficiently profitable - so why not abandon the old approach entirely, and replace it with boxed sets of cards and components that could be sold like board game expansions, instead?

The logic must have seemed compelling at the time, but it soon became apparent that FFG had badly misjudged their audience. The core player base for WFRP didn't want 'chrome': they were attached to grimy minimalism, to a game that could be played out of a single book, to character sheets scribbled on bits of paper and rules that you could still mostly remember even when drunk. They didn't want clever, fiddly mechanics, where you moved a token on a character dashboard to modify the type of dice you rolled when you played your next action card. They just wanted big books filled with long lists of crap jobs, horrible mutations, and hilariously violent critical hit tables. They treasured their memories of sitting around a big table with six of their mates, taking turns to narrate their attempts to brutalise some unfortunate clanrat in a sewer someplace, and they did not take kindly to discovering that the big, expensive core box for WFRP 3 only included enough components for one GM and three PCs.

As a result, WFRP 3rd edition seems to have been a commercial failure. A glance at the 'Strike to Stun' forum archives for 2009-13 demonstrates that the players there were much more interested in discussing WFRP 2 than WFRP 3 even during the years in which the latter was the official edition. The rate at which FFG released material for the game during 2010 implied that they hoped WFRP might become a product like their Game of Thrones LCG, with players buying boxed expansion sets every month or two; but the regular release of new boxed sets really only lasted two years, from November 2009 to November 2011. After that came two 2012 boxed sets, a dribble of print-on-demand card sets, and then nothing. FFG claimed that this was because they had 'delivered a complete game experience', but given how little of the Old World they'd actually covered in the course of their run, I don't think that anyone actually believed them.

I haven't played WFRP 3, but I have read the rulebooks, and it looks like a very cleverly-designed game. I like the way that the special dice cram lots of information into a single dice roll, for example, allowing you to tell at a glance not only whether you've succeeded or failed, but also whether you've exhausted yourself, whether there have been additional complications, and so on. But it looks like a very poor fit for what I - and, I suspect, many other people - want from WFRP. When I'm playing a scruffy grave robber engaged in a frantic back-alley knife fight with a chaos cultist, I don't want to be thinking about building dice pools and selecting action cards and moving stance tokens, as though I was playing some kind of martial arts master coolly contemplating which technique to use. I just want to roll some dice, and have the GM roll some more dice, and then listen while the GM tells me that I've just taken a knife in the face and that, furthermore, death from shock and blood loss are instantaneous.

It probably didn't help that the mechanics are often oddly disassociated. First aid, for example, can be used once per scene - but how long is a scene? Is a five day journey five scenes, or one? Can I keep starting new scenes by doing random things along the way, simply in order to give me more chances to use my first aid skill? Insanities have formal game effects, which is fair enough: I can understand why working with someone suffering from paranoia, for example, would be stressful for everyone involved, and having it add tension tokens is a perfectly reasonable way of representing that. But am I also expected to actually roleplay the insanity, by saying and doing paranoid things, or are the effects of my paranoia simply assumed to be abstractly modelled by the increasing number of tension tokens accumulated by the group? Locations have special rules, which are sometimes perfectly reasonable - taking physical actions in a crumbling building means a chance of injuring yourself - but at other times feel more like things I'd expect to see written on a square in a board game. ('Ballroom: whenever you regain stress, regain 1 extra stress.') The 'progress tracker' makes sense for some situations - whittling away at the morale of an attacking force until they give up and retreat, for example - but is simply bizarre for others, such as investigations. In the starter adventure, for example, the GM is told to 'direct the party towards an as-yet undiscovered overt clue' once they've moved five spaces along the progress tracker by uncovering five unrelated pieces of suspicious information. But why should noticing that someone is behaving suspiciously suddenly mean that I also notice the blasphemous books in the library? Once again, this feels more like a board game mechanism - 'trade in five minor clue tokens for a major clue card' - than an attempt to simulate a fictional world.

Setting-wise, WFRP 3 dialled the timeline back to just before the Storm of Chaos: but if you think that means a return to the low-fantasy setting of WFRP 1, then you'd be sorely mistaken, because WFRP 3 offered the most D&D-ified version of the Old World yet. Wood elves, dwarves, humans, and high elves - high elves! - are all given equal amounts of attention in the corebook as possible PC races, and there's a lot of emphasis on the fact that the characters are heroes, with the expected party composition clearly closer to the 'elf, dwarf, and wizard' mix of traditional D&D than the 'boatman, agitator, ratcatcher' mix of classic WFRP. The careers list is weighted towards traditional 'adventurer' careers like Witch Hunter rather than 'scum' careers like Bonepicker, and it is apparently possible to buy 'healing draughts' - basically D&D healing potions - in any Old World settlement. And as for the setting... well... I'll let the book speak for itself:

'The greatest realm of the Old World is the Empire, a land of courageous men ruled by a wise Emperor.'
'Those who serve the Empire strive to defend it against many enemies. The Imperial armies guard the borders against invaders. Witch hunters scour the land for witches, Chaos cults and mutants. Roadwardens and shipswords protect the Empire’s highways and riverways from bandits and beastmen. However, the Empire is a vast place, and the Emperor’s servants cannot be everywhere.'
'“On my first visit to Altdorf, I was surprised by the number of races rubbing shoulders with each other in the narrow streets: men of every nation, intractable dwarfs and portly halflings. I even met a few of my own kind, as well as a curious representative of those elves who remained in these parts after the exodus. What surprised me more was how they all seemed to get along... well, most of the time.” – Suriel Lianllach, High Elf envoy'
'Under the current Emperor, Karl Franz of Altdorf, elected in 2502, the Empire enjoys a renaissance of strength and prosperity. Karl Franz realised that the Empire could not stand alone against its many enemies. His ambassadors have secured alliances with the other nations of men, and rejuvenated the ancient friendship with the dwarf holds. Envoys sail between the Empire and Ulthuan, and high elf merchants are no longer an unusual sight in the markets of Altdorf or Nuln. The Emperor also strives to maintain the Empire’s unity. Relationships between provinces have always been fractious, but the Emperor rewards those Elector Counts who display loyalty. Those who do not receive a visit from his stern champion, Ludwig Schwarzhelm. They never stray again.'
A great realm of courageous men ruled by a wise emperor, whose stern champion ensures the unity and loyalty of the nobility. Armies, roadwardens, and witch hunters all working in unison against threats from within and without. Formal alliances with the High Elves. Humans, elves, dwarves and halflings all getting along happily together in the streets of Altdorf. The Emperor rides a griffon, and, according to Omens of War, he also has a pet dragon. It's not quite the way I remember the setting from 1st edition.

FFG's business model of releasing boxed sets rather than books had a number of knock-on consequences. Most boxed sets consisted of a box of cards and tokens, plus a book that told you how to use them; whatever pages that the book had left over then contained either some setting information, or an adventure, or both. Even when the new cards obviously represented the main purpose of the set, something had to go into the book, and this resulted in a proliferation of weird filler material. So Omens of War, the boxed set containing the cards and tokens for advanced combat styles, also contained an oddly superfluous book about the armies and military history of the Empire, while Black Fire Pass, the boxed set containing cards for advanced dwarf careers, contained a whole book about, um, Black Fire Pass. (It's not very interesting.) Perhaps the most extreme example of this was the decision to bring out one boxed set for each chaos god, each including a book containing an adventure, some new rules - the disease rules, for example, were in the Nurgle box - and then a heap of filler to round out the page count. Get ready to be told that Khorne likes blood and skulls and also violence over and over and over and over again.

With so many of the books in the line devoted to trivia like the military history of the Empire, the edition was only ever able to present a very superficial version of the WFRP setting, with a heavy focus on the Reikland province and very little on the wider world. The presentations of religion and magic essentially recapitulate the 2nd edition versions in a more condensed form, though I was pleased to see a greater emphasis on the way in which the invention of the printing press is shaking up the religious hierarchies of the Old World, and on colour magic as a deliberately crippled form of sorcery taught to the humans by Teclis to limit their magical potential. The colleges of magic described here are less restrictive institutions than their 2nd edition counterparts, doubtless to make it easier to play as an adventuring wizard; unfortunately, they've also become even more boring. (The 2001 Realms of Sorcery interpretation of the colleges remains my favourite version.) The chaos books, as I've already mentioned, are huge disappointments - much weaker than the 2nd edition Tome of Corruption, which was itself already much weaker than the 1st edition originals. They repeatedly stress that there is no good reason to join a chaos cult and you'd have to be totally crazy to do so, and then go on to blithely assert that all four gods have loads of cults packed with fanatical cultists ready to devote their lives to them for no damn reason at all. The 2nd edition presentation, where most chaos cultists didn't actually know that they were chaos cultists, made a lot more sense. 

The bestiary draws on the wargame, and it shows. Chaos marauders live only to fight and kill. Greenskins live only to fight and kill. Demons live only to fight and kill. Beastmen live only to fight and kill. Trolls and giants live only to fight and kill. Cultists are fanatics eager to kill and die for their dark masters. Undead tirelessly attack the living until hacked apart. It's little more than a parade of cannon fodder. Skaven are presented here as a race of sneaky, paranoid cowards, rather than as the apocalyptic threat they were described as in 2nd edition. Compared to previous editions, the published adventures make greater use of adversaries such as goblins, dark elves, trolls, and dragon ogres. Coupled with the much greater emphasis on non-human PCs - there are even rules for playing an ogre! - this further enhances the sense of WFRP 3 as the most 'high fantasy' version of the RPG to date.

In conclusion - if you're looking for setting or background material, then WFRP 3 offers very slim pickings. In quantity, it's inferior to WFRP 2; in quality, it's inferior to WFRP 1. The system looks clever, though I have my doubts about how well it would work in actual play, but seems a poor fit for the themes and setting of WFRP. For fans of WFRP 1 and 2, the most valuable thing about it is probably the adventures, some of which are rather good, and most of which could be very easily adapted to other editions of the game. I'll cover them in my next post. 

Wednesday 7 November 2018

[Actual Play] The Deathfrost Mountain Adoption Agency: Team Tsathogga performs a hostile takeover

I'm sure a lot of people have played Death Frost Doom over the years. I'm sure many of them ended up killing the undead cultists, or getting killed by them. Team Tsathogga may be the first ones to end up adopting them instead.

Image result for death frost doom

For readers familiar with the original scenario, I should say that the Devourer cultists of my own campaign are not identical to the Duvan'Ku of Death Frost Doom. The Duvan'Ku are figures of transcendent and cosmic evil; the Devourer cultists are just victims of history like everyone else. They did some awful things over the years, but ultimately they were still people, which is very much the way I prefer my fantasy cultists to be. I mention this because, without it, the narrative that follows is unlikely to make much sense.

Having cleared the way to the shrine within Deathfrost Mountain, the PCs disguised themselves. Over the years, Circe had pieced together a full set of Devourer cultist ritual regalia from her various victims, so she donned that and took the lead. Tiny went next as her demonic servant, his inhuman appearance for once serving as an asset rather than a disadvantage. Skadi was worried that she might be recognised from her previous visit to the mountain, so she put on full mourning dress, complete with a full-face veil, which she had purchased ages ago as part of some complicated scam or other back in Glasstown. Sovan borrowed Sophie's academical gown, and hid the golden lotus flowers growing out of his head beneath her mortarboard. Thus garbed as the Priestess, the Widow, the Master, and the Demon, figures of immense but unspecified symbolic importance, they descended beneath the earth. (Titus, Sophie, and Runt Ape brought up the rear as the rather less symbolically resonant figures of The Scruffy Old Man, The Powerlifter, and The Beast of Burden.)

The shrine was as spooky as ever, unnatural cold and all. They found the undead cultists waiting for them in the chapel, blades drawn, poised to leap upon them and attack the moment they entered - which they had no intention of doing, in case the disembodied spirits of the priests of Vorn still haunted the chamber, waiting to possess any mortal who set foot within. Calling out from the threshold, Circe announced that they were followers of the Devourer, members of a daughter cult founded by cultists who had survived the purge of the Deathfrost Mountain shrine. Henryk had found them, she claimed, and told them of the cult's plight, and they had travelled here to set them free, although Henryk himself had regrettably not survived the journey.

Image result for human skeleton in leaves
We will remember him. Briefly.
By their standards, it was actually a pretty credible cover story. Circe certainly looked the part in her ritual regalia, and as far as the cultists knew, only followers of the Devourer had the ability to command vat-grown demons such as Tiny. The PCs knew that the undead cultists trapped in the woods outside had gone to seek aid from living followers of the Devourer - and who else would have any reason to open their shrine back up again? The wary poses of the undead relaxed a little, their fleshless jaws clacking in approval, and out of the darkness strode the imposing figure of their leader: the Dead King.

He had clearly been a big man in life, but his huge spiked armour made him seem much bigger and bulkier, and the familiar hilt of Kal'Thalax the Demon-Slayer protruded from a scabbard at his hip. He spoke in a voice like a trumpet, his words amplified by the bugle-like mouth sculpted into the full-face helmet he wore, shaped like the face of a snarling demon. A golden crown that was clearly never made to fit him had been hammered into the metal brow of his helm, and wherever he went he was surrounded by an honour guard of eight black-robed skeletons with masked faces, carrying drawn swords before them. As he began to declaim in their general direction, the PCs rapidly concluded that he was an arrogant, self-obsessed narcissist over-fond of the sound of his own voice, and probably a usurper to boot. Spending two years buried alive with him in a subterranean shrine could not have been much fun for the other cultists, especially as he seemed to be the only one who had retained the ability to speak.

Clearly assuming that the PCs simply represented a fresh supply of minions, the Dead King demanded to know where the rest of their cult was so that he could take command of it. When Circe replied that they were far away, he demanded to know how she had reached the shrine with a demon in tow without being spotted, and was told in response that they possessed mysterious powers of moving across the land unseen. He insisted that they would all have to join the mother-cult in the work of gathering sacrifices to resume the flow of liquid time to the Hissing Prophets, but Circe smoothly one-upped him by stating that she had been to see the Hissing Prophets in person, and that they were no longer in need of liquid time. (She neglected to mention that this was because the PCs had killed them all.) With the lapse of their sacrifices the Purple Islands had returned to the world, and a new dispensation was at hand.

This was big news for the cultists. For them, the Purple Islands were the holy stronghold of the Hissing Prophets, the legendary homeland their ancestors had left six centuries before, which had been suspended outside the timestream ever since. The Dead King was not pleased at being thus upstaged, especially when Circe added (truthfully) that during her visit to the islands she had communed directly with the Devourer herself. (It's the collective godmind of an ancient alien race that committed mass ritual suicide. The snake-men accidentally tuned into it while trying to make contact with the rest of their species using a psychic scanner made from a bunch of brains in jars. Of course Circe tried the head-set on.) He insisted that, as the ultimate leader of the cult, he should be taken to the islands to meet with the Hissing Prophets himself, there to be rewarded for his services and informed of the new dispensation. The PCs promised to use their mysterious powers of concealment to convey him and his honour guard unseen across the land and sea, so he turned around and ordered the rest of the cultists to remain hidden in the dark, there to await his inevitable glorious return. Then he and his honour guard followed the PCs up the ladder out of the shrine.

Image result for ladder into darkness
It's a traaap...

It was, of course, a trap. As soon as the Dead King dragged himself through the trapdoor, Sovan slammed it shut and cast Hold Portal on it, trapping half his honour guard below the ground, while the rest of the party set upon him with weapons and spells. A furious and desperate melee ensued in which Runt Ape was killed outright, while Sophie, Circe, and Tiny were all terribly injured. Skadi had both her body and her mind torn open by the claws of the Dead King, and was left a bleeding, amnesiac wreck, cowering in the corner of the cabin. The Dead King seemed almost impervious to weapons, so Circe made a grab for the hilt of Kal'Thalax, which leaped from Dead King's scabbard into her hand, eager to be wielded once more against its ancient adversaries. Then she rammed it through a chink in his armour while Sophie blasted him to bits with Magic Missile spells. Titus wept briefly over the fallen body of Runt Ape, but soon consoled himself by resurrecting him as a zombie instead.

The noise of the battle was easily heard amidst the otherwise deathly stillness of the mountaintop, and within moments of the last skeleton falling the PCs heard voices from outside, calling them to emerge and identify themselves. Circe swiftly ripped off her Devourer cultist regalia and stepped outside with Sovan and Sophie, only to see the soldiers from the watchtower regarding them warily from horseback, accompanied by a man in furred robes who appeared to be a priest of Vorn. Sophie, Sovan, and Circe claimed to be secret agents of the Grand Duke of Vornheim, and gave their names as Medusa, Attila, and Alecto, respectively. (Circe's player is a classics student.) Taking advantage of his foreign appearance and academical garb, 'Attila' claimed to be an expert occultist from far Qelong, and began lecturing the men on how the evil spirits from beneath had almost escaped on their watch, while 'Medusa' surreptitiously cast Charm Person spells on the corporal and priest. Both men were soon convinced that 'Medusa' really was the secret operative that she claimed to be, especially when the PCs started waving the heads of the recently-vanquished Devourer honour guard at them, and on her authority they obeyed the instructions of 'Attila' to promptly begin carving all kinds of ritual markers in a mile-wide circle around the site. Their absence gave the PCs a chance to heap more rocks on top of the trap-door to the shrine before sneaking Tiny, zombie Runt Ape, and the totally non-functional Skadi away to their concealed camp in the woods nearby.

A round of healing and Dispel Magic spells the next morning managed to get Skadi back to something resembling her old self, although enormous gaps remained in her memory, as though the tapestry of her mind had been shredded by terrible claws. Tiny tried to persuade Kal'Thalax that demons weren't inherently evil, but the intelligent sword was having none of it, and kept trying to spin around and stab him until the PCs trapped it under a rock. Discussing their options, the PCs decided that with the Devourer cult now leaderless, they had an ideal opportunity to seize control of it for themselves. After all, they could hardly be less appealing leaders than the Dead King seemed to have been...

Sneaking back into the cabin, they descended into the shrine and found the remaining undead cultists once again waiting for them in the shrine, lurking in anxious defensive postures behind improvised barricades. Assuring them that they meant them no harm, the PCs explained that the Dead King had been a false and unworthy leader, who would have left them all entombed in the cold darkness while he alone sought the rewards and glory that were rightfully due to them all. The PCs would do more for them, much more: they would use their mysterious magic to hide them from the sight of men. (Here Circe cast Invisibility to Undead, which to the undead really did make it look as though she had simply vanished.) They would lead them out of this now-redundant shrine, and across the land and sea to the Purple Islands of their ancestors, there to meet with Ambie, last and greatest of the Hissing Prophets.

(Ambie is an adopted snake-man baby whom allies of the PCs have raised from an egg. He's currently about 18 months old. Explaining why the last and greatest of the Hissing Prophets is a toddler is a bridge that the PCs will cross when they come to it.)

Image result for baby snake face paint
There was a lot of jaw-clacking and a lot of obvious dissent, especially from the four surviving honour guards. But the rest of the cultists had had a pretty demoralising two years: first awakened prematurely from their holy sleep to find themselves inhabiting their own mute embalmed corpses, then stumbling out into an unfamiliar world that had moved on without them, and finally being driven back beneath the earth and sealed away in the dark by the Grand Duke's soldiers, with only a grandiloquent megalomaniac over-fond of his own monologues for company. The PCs at least held out the offer of something more than darkness and imprisonment. Slowly at first, and then with increasing momentum, the robed undead swept out of the shrine to stand beside the PCs. Sophie - sorry, 'Medusa' - slipped out to send the watchmen off to do some more pointless busywork, and while they were thus distracted the other PCs led their new followers out into the woods, where they started work on teaching them basic sign language.

And so Team Tsathogga found themselves the leaders of forty-six confused undead murder-cultists, thirteen of whom were children, and all of whom had awakened at random from sleeps of between one and six centuries in duration. They found themselves committed to somehow leading this ragged warband to the Purple Islands, a distance of nearly one thousand miles as the crow flies, and much, much further as the skeleton stumbles. But they'll make it work somehow. Probably. Maybe.

What combination of low face and high tragedy - but probably mostly low farce, to be honest - awaits this mismatched band in the outside world?

Only Tsathogga knows all! 

Thursday 1 November 2018

[Actual Play] Mistakes were made: Team Tsathogga return to Deathfrost Mountain

After a gap of six months, I finally got the Team Tsathogga group into the same room at the same time again. This is what happened.

I should start off by saying that although this was the last session I wrote up, it's not the last session that the group played before the break. It was followed by multiple sessions set in the underworld, which were mostly devoted to complicated inter-species politics and guerrilla warfare. The consequences of the party's often-chaotic and frequently catastrophic intervention into the lands below the earth included the following:
  • Liberation of the Toad Folk from the rulership of the Science Fungoids.
  • Near-extermination of the Toad Folk in ensuing war with the Science Fungoids.
  • Death of the Toad Folk hero and ex-PC Kroak in battle with the Science Fungoids.
  • Loss of Kroak's prized laser sword in pool of space acid, damn it all, that thing was irreplaceable.
  • Discovery of the location of the secret Science Fungoid 'Demonspore' project. Projected assault on demonspore called off on grounds of looking too bloody dangerous. 
  • Obliteration of Science Fungoid agricultural base through detonation of stolen magical WMD.
  • Discovery of multiple strange new underworld races: shriekmen, adherers, fishmen.
  • Innovative use of adherers to foil Science Fungoid gas warfare, because your enemy can't deploy their gas weapons if all their firing slits have been glued shut with lumps of super-sticky underworld humanoids first.
  • Discovery that any number of zombies can be defeated by having a very large woman squish them one at a time with a very heavy iron door.
  • Deployment of a giant maggot-vomiting zombie vampire toad based bioweapon in war with Science Fungoids, with mixed results.
  • Contact established with the fishmen of the Nightmare Sea, great new source of information on the sleeping gods imprisoned beneath the world by the ancient empire of the snake-men, PCs plan to totally get around to freeing some of them one day.
  • Loss of the Sister of Seraptis, utterly traumatised after near-death experience inside the stomach of a Science Fungoid warbeast, really just wants to go back to her creepy temple and chill for a few decades if it's all the same to you.
  • Heard rumours about some kind of unholy underground empire called the Realm of the Fallen Queen, probably nothing to worry about. 
  • Titus the necromancer hears the call of the Sleepers beneath the Nightmare Sea, and has to be bribed into returning to the surface with promises of unimaginable necromantic awfulness hidden beneath Deathfrost Mountain. 
  • Establishment of trade relations between the surface world and the Navigator Houses of the Nightmare Sea. (These guys, pretty much.)
  • Sale of loyal goblin tribes into debt slavery to Navigator Houses of the Nightmare Sea, huge potential for future profits, everyone wins except the poor old goblins.
  • And, last but not least, the acquisition of a noble albino simian named 'Runt Ape' as a mount and bearer.
So after all that the PCs came stumbling back up to the surface, blinking in the moonlight, and headed for the nearby village of Bright Meadows. As they approached it, however, three figures on horseback emerged from the shadows of the village and moved to meet them. Hastily disguising their more bizarre companions - Runt-Ape, Tiny the demon, and Titus's zombie servants - with illusion magic, the PCs watched as the riders approached, their weirdly-similar faces revealing them to be 'angels' (roving agents) of the church of the Bright Lady. Their travel-worn clothes implied that they had come a long way, and they regarded the PCs with wary distrust, clearly poised ready to fight or flee at a moment's notice.

(Exactly why the angels of the church all look so similar has long been a topic of speculation among the PCs. Hash suspects cloning. Circe suspects incest.)

Hailing the PCs, the angels declared that they had ridden from Ingria in pursuit of a fugitive wanted for violating graves, animating corpses, and breaking into the house of a terrified young wizard to force her to teach him spells at knifepoint. (General nodding and muttering of 'So that's how Titus learned the Light spell...') Shuffling their necromatic buddy to the back of the group, the PCs unconvincingly claimed to know nothing about it. The angels didn't seem persuaded, but weren't about to pick a fight with a heavily-armed band with three times their own numbers, so they withdrew back towards the village. The PCs recovered their horses, slept for a few hours in the hovel of Circe's elderly friend Edith, and then rode north in the morning, certain that they were being followed at a cautious distance.

Their plan was to return to Deathfrost Mountain: partly as a bribe to Titus, partly in the hope of reclaiming their lost sword Kalthalax the Demon-Slayer, and partly just to find out what happened there after they fled the region pursued by well over a hundred skeletons. Using their superior knowledge of the countryside - Skadi and Circe had both grown up in Bright Meadows - they evaded the angels in the hills, sending Titus's zombies off on a sacrificial mission to lay a fake trail while they rode up a riverbed in the opposite dircetion. Titus complained about the loss of his servants, but was persuaded to try riding on Runt Ape's shoulders instead, and soon became quite fond of his new steed. Joining the trade road to Vornheim, they disguised themselves with illusions and fell in with a band of traders, carrying a cargo of furs north. Glad to have more companions to scare off the goblins in the woods, the traders told them about the disruptions to the fur trade caused by the flooding in the northern provinces, and the new fashion for fur trousers among high-status men. (The PCs realised at once that this fashion had been started by their old friend Jack the Fighter, who had turned fur trousers into his signature fashion accessory after looting them from the corpse of a dead climber on Deathfrost Mountain, although naturally no-one else could pull off the look as well as he could.) Tactful enquiries about plagues of undead in the Vornheim region prompted one of the traders to explain that there had been a terrible series of attacks on villages by undead monsters the previous year, but that as far as he knew these had been successfully suppressed by the combined efforts of the Grand Duke of Vornheim and the Church of Vorn.

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Why do actions have to have consequences? It's so unfair!

Parting from their new friends in Vornheim, the PCs took up residence at an inn - and here a problem presented itself. Runt Ape and Tiny were too large to pass as humans, so they had to be magically disguised as horses - but Sophie could only keep up the illusion on them if she was with them, which hadn't been a problem on the road, but became one once the PCs went to their rented room and the 'horses' went to the stables. Thinking quickly, the party explained that Sophie was their indentured servant, and was thus unworthy of a bed and had to sleep in the stables with the animals. Stuck in the stable all day while the snow fell endlessly outside, Tiny passed the time by constructing extremely clumsy ice sculptures when no-one else was around - but as he was disguised as a horse, these were universally attributed to Sophie, who was becoming quite ill in her freezing and draughty accommodation. The pathetic combination of her chattering teeth and her pathos-inducingly-awful ice sculptures moved the pity of the innkeeper, who roundly berated the party for treating their servant so horribly, and the PCs grudgingly hired a private house for her and the 'horses' to stay in while they waited for the winter to pass.

Meanwhile the rest of the party were making enquiries in Vornheim. Everyone seemed to know about the revelation of the Devourer cult in the city thirty years ago, and the destruction of their horrible temple up in the mountains: the priests of Vorn were particularly proud of the fact that five of the holiest men of their order had sacrificed themselves to seal their evil away forever. (At this point, the PCs guiltily remembered the five frozen skulls that they had gleefully looted teeth from during their last visit to Deathfrost Mountain.) Evidently the seal had not been perfect, however, for last year the villages around the accursed mountain had been attacked by mobs of undead. The Grand Duke's cavalry had ridden out, crushed the undead, and buried their evil temple beneath heaps of rocks, but rumours of the living dead continued to filter out of the forests to the west.

Research in the city's cathedral library suggested that the same mountains were holy to Vorn, god of iron, time, and rain; and while the official line of the clergy was that Vorn spiritually inhabited the mountain range as a whole, the writings of his oldest prophets described him specifically as buried beneath it. Putting two and two together, the PCs concluded that Vorn must originally have been another of the alien hyperintelligences imprisoned beneath the surface of their world by the snake-men, which explained why the snake-men of the Purple Islands had sent the original Devourer cultists to establish their temple in that specific place: Vorn, they realised, must be buried inside Deathfrost Mountain, with the cultists somehow using him to distil the liquid time that their snake-man masters had used to isolate the Purple Islands from the timestream. Unimpressed by the gloomy monks of Vorn, they sought information instead from the city's criminal element, who mostly hung around a low tavern called the Fearful Sapper. By posing as a strung-out addict desperate for a fix, Circe was able to get in touch with the ageing drug dealer who, many years before, had supplied the cult with its purple lotus powder. Then spy-rat followed him home and Skadi broke in and stole his stash. After experimenting with smoking, swallowing, and sniffing it, they concluded that the chief qualities of the drug were to induce hazy euphoria and fortify the mind against magic, and brought it along to use in their raid on the temple of the Devourer.

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The correct method of taking the drug was fortuitously discovered just as Hash was starting to pull his trousers down.
By this point the worst of the winter cold was over, and Hash was becoming fixated on a talented young actress he'd seen performing in an epic tragedy. (The rest of the PCs, phillistines that they were, had only gone along for the sake of the bawdy farce performed afterwards.) The decision was taken to leave town and head back to Deathfrost Mountain: so, equipping themselves for a journey through the snow, they told everyone that they were leaving to search for their missing cousin among the Tear-Eater tribes of the north, before promptly turning west as soon as they were out of sight of the city walls. In the foothills they found villages whose traumatised residents spoke vividly of the horrors of the year before, describing how they had been attacked first by roving mobs of undead that seemed confused and moved seemingly at random, and then by extremely purposeful robed skeletons who abducted people in the night and carried them off into the forests, never to be seen again. (The PCs guessed these corresponded to the victim skeletons from the mass grave and the cultist skeletons from the temple vaults, respectively.) The villagers insisted that the undead still stalked the woods, so the PCs took to roaming through the forests with Detect Evil spells active, looking for anything other than Circe that registered as supernaturally evil. The first such skeleton they detected was hiding at the top of a tree, and Tiny's thrown rock brought it down rather too effectively, crashing to earth in a heap of broken bones; but a few days later they found a second one hiding in some bushes, flushed it from cover, lassoed it, and tied it to a tree trunk. They noted that it wore the remnants of its burial robes, although these had been worn to rags, and concluded that it was one of the reanimated Devourer cultists they had accidentally unleashed on their last visit.

The skeleton was initially uncooperative: but Bless spells caused it pain, and the threat of their repetition was enough to get it to 'speak'. It couldn't talk, but carefully untying one hand allowed it to scratch its answers to their questions on tree bark. A long interrogation followed, in which it revealed that its name was Henryk, and that the risen Devourer cultists were completely nonplussed at being awakened so early, long before the arrival of their god. Their leader, the Dead King, had told them to resume their sacrifices in order to restore the supply of liquid time to the Hissing Prophets - but that had only succeeded in bringing the Grand Duke's men down on them, and now most of the risen cultists were trapped inside their own temple. Of those caught outside when the temple was blocked off, some had gone to Ingria to seek aid from Llegh, the Devourer cultist who had created the Fleshdregs after infiltrating the Order of the Divine Surgeon and penning the Grimoire of the New Flesh, in the hope that his experiments with liquid time might have allowed himself to prolong his own lifespan. None, however, had yet returned, and the rest were reduced to cowering in in the woods in bushes, bemoaning their separation from their fellows and the loss of their enchanted rest.

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Turns out life as a skeleton cultist isn't all fun and sacrifices...

By this point, the PCs were feeling a bit sorry for Henryk, even if he was an undead murder-cultist. They questioned him on the nature of the blob-creature they had encountered in the shrine, and learned that it was 'the divine parasite', somehow fused with the captive god below in order to distil liquid time from its breath: its song had kept the dead cultists in peace and their dead victims in torment, which explained the crazed state of the mass-grave skeletons which had attacked the region. They tried to persuade him that they were secretly allies of the cult, but he wasn't buying it. They tried to persuade him that the Hissing Prophets were dead and they had killed them, but of this he would not be convinced, no matter how much looted snake-man wargear they waved in front of him. They rather cruelly cast all their spells on him, one after the other, to see which ones worked on ensoulled skeletons and which ones did not. Then they took a quick vote on whether or not to kill him, picked 'death' by four votes to two, and Tiny pulled his skull off.

Discussing what they had learned, the PCs reached a conclusion: the Dead King had to go. Once he was out of the way they might be able to take control of the remaining undead cultists: failing that, they'd just have to kill them all, but one way or another they were determined to get back into the temple and learn what it had to teach them, captive god, liquid time, divine parasite, and all. Ascending the mountain, they saw that a watchtower had been built to keep guard on the site of the shrine, with shivering soldiers sitting huddled around a brazier at the top; so they circled around and approached the site under the cover of an Obscuring Mist spell, which brought them back to the strange petrified cabin that concealed the shrine's entrance. The duke's soldiers had heaped felled tree trunks on top of the cabin, evidently hoping that the strange wood-petrifying powers of the place would eventually turn their heap of wood into a hill of stone; but the trees were still wooden enough to part under the power of a Warp Wood spell, and the PCs slipped unnoticed into the cabin. Inside they found that everything had been smashed to pieces in the fighting, and rocks piled up on top of the trapdoor. Putting his ear to the ground, Hash could hear a pathetic scraping sound coming from below - presumably the sound of a skeleton attempting to dig upwards through the stone, a task that would obviously take many years to accomplish. Tiny and Runt Ape set to work lifting the rocks away, and after a few hours of exhausting work the trapdoor down was revealed. The scraping sound had long since stopped. Presumably the skeleton digger had run off to tell the Dead King that someone was approaching from above.

As the cold air of the shrine blasted upwards from the trapdoor, the PCs steeled themselves to descend, once more, into the darkness within Deathfrost Mountain...