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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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! 


  1. Could you comment, please, on how your table handles those situations in which "well, I just happened to stitch together this useful costume over the years..."? Is this based on actual play, or are you using retroactive 'discovery' that these items have been assembled? Various indie RPGs in recent years have been big on such retroactive measures (Blades in the Dark especially), and I'm curious whether you have a mechanical system for them or are just using the Rule of Cool. Thanks!

    1. No, it really happened over multiple years of play. Circe took a ritual mask and dagger from a Devourer cultist she encountered beneath Bright Meadows; years later, she stole various other items of ritual regalia from the burial vaults beneath Deathfrost Mountain. She picked up some of the holy books of the cult from the shrine, and others from the library of Titus the necromancer on the Purple Islands. If she's able to pass herself off as a Devourer cult priestess these days, it's because she's had a lot of opportunities to learn about their practises over the years!