Sunday 24 February 2019

[Actal Play] 'First we steal the flying boat, then we airlift the giant squid': Team Tsathogga meddle in other people's plans

Still trying to catch up with my actual play writeups. Let's see if I can close the gap.

As per my previous write-up, the PCs had made their way to shores of a lake at the bottom of a 'haunted' valley in the Stonemoors. They wanted to know what was up with the strange group of people on the island in the middle of the lake, but were uncertain how to investigate without revealing their presence. As they discussed their options, they were surprised and overjoyed by the unexpected arrival of their old friends Jack and Hogarth, who told them that their zombie bird had finally completed its mission and summoned their ship back from Kingsport. It now lay at anchor outside a small fishing village whose inhabitants had told them about the party's plan to explore the hidden valley, and Jack and Hogarth had hurried to join them.

(The timelines for all this don't really stand up to close examination. But it was the first time that Jack and Hogarth's player had been able to join us for over a year, so I was willing to handwave some times and distances to get him back into the action as quickly as possible.)

Thus reinforced, the PCs opted to scout out the island by sending Hash over the water under the cover of Invisibility, wearing the ring of water walking. Sneaking into the house, Hash noticed drag-marks on the floor, as though something heavy was regularly dragged from the building into the water and back again. The woman they had spotted before was clearly in charge, and seemed to be at work on some fantastically complex wood-carving project - presumably related to the odd recesses on the deck of the ship, which were clearly intended for the insertion of some large blocky object and some surrounding panels of wood. Noting that the magic filling the valley seemed to be emanating from beneath the lake, they questioned a passing fish using Speak to Animals, learning that some kind of enormous squid-monster lived at the bottom of the lake and sometimes came to the surface in response to the call of the humans on the island, carrying 'something shiny' with it. Intrigued, Circe went underwater using a Water Breathing spell - and, sure enough, at the bottom of the lake she found a gigantic squid-beast, clutching a crystal casket in its barbed tentacles.

Striking up a conversation with this monstrous creature, Circe learned that it had originally been washed downriver into this lake from some half-remembered grey upland, long ago, and had gorged itself on the local fish stocks until it grew too large to leave. Then it had slumbered until the coming of the witch-woman on the island, who had befriended it with offerings of meat and blood, and had entrusted her precious casket to its care. It had dreams, sometimes, of a vast expanse of cool water, which it felt must exist out there somewhere - but every time it tried to leave its lake, the crushing pressure drove it back below.

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No squid-monster wants to end up like this.

Eager to learn more, the PCs staged a disturbance on the shores of the lake, hoping to draw off some of the men from the island. Sure enough, half a dozen of them came rowing over in their longboat to investigate. Sophie concealed the party beneath an illusion while she cast Charm Person spells on several of the men, including their leader. She then modified the illusion to include the image of herself peeking out from behind a tree, in order to gauge from the reactions of the men whether the charm spells had taken effect. When they ran towards her, she tried to back off while maintaining the illusion, so that they wouldn't bump into the concealed PCs - but the strain of concentrating on an illusion while picking her way through the forest proved too much for her, and the illusion started glitching, causing the illusionary Sophie to first appear to get stuck inside the tree, and then to start ragdolling disturbingly across the floor. Realising that the game was up, she dropped the illusion - but fortunately her charm spell on the leader had been successful, and when she told him that she was a famous and benevolent sorceress named Freya he was only too willing to believe her. He agreed to take her to the island, where she also managed to successfully Charm the witch-woman, who consequently accepted her story without question. The rest of the party went with her, ostensibly as her retinue.

The witch told 'Freya' that her name was Hild, that she was a devotee of the Blood Queen - an ancient goddess whose worship had long since been suppressed on the mainland - and that she had come to the valley to build a flying ship. The idea had come to her back on the Black Isle, when strange monsters had dropped from the sky: she and her people had captured and tortured them, and the creatures had revealed that many worlds existed up beyond the moon, and that it was possible to travel between them by means of a ship with an appropriate power source. (Tiny bristled at hearing of his comrades being thus abused, but fortunately his inhuman features were hidden beneath his armour.) The 'sky-beasts' had also told her that such a power source could be found on the Holy Mountain, so she had obtained it and carried it here so that she could work on her ship. The PCs deduced at once that the removal of this power source - the crystal casket, presumably - must have caused the drought in the east, and thus the war in the Stonemoors, but Hild made clear that she had no intention of parting with it, especially as her flying ship was so nearly complete. She also had no patience with their absurd claims about not being able to use it to fly to other planets because space was full of 'hard vacuum'. If there was nothing in a space, then obviously that space was full of air. That was what air was, right?

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Our Mars mission begins!

Promising to return to Hild with magical assistance, the PCs retreated to form a plan. Tiny wanted revenge on her for presumably torturing a bunch of his comrades to death, and the rest of the party were keen to get their hands on the power source and/or the flying ship. They didn't fancy taking on the squid, but they were confident that it could be bribed with the promise of a one-way airlift to the ocean. First, though, they needed to fulfill their promise to the skeleton cultists that they had escorted all the way from the shrine of the Devourer: so, returning to Fort Tiny, they loaded them aboard Captain Matthew's ship, with Titus's headless zombie marsh giant tied to the deck like a bale of cargo. Sailing back to the Purple Islands, they dropped Titus back at his home within Zombie Mountain, as getting his face eaten by fish had massively dampened his enthusiasm for further adventuring.

The skeletons were dropped off with him, on the island that they regarded as the sacred homeland of their ancestors, while the PCs hastily went off to brief Ambie, the snake-man toddler that they had raised from an egg, on how he was to play the role of child-prophet to the cultists. Fortunately (?) he was scarily intelligent for his age, and proved quite capable of receiving their homage at the huge ceremonial festival that the PCs set up to welcome them to their new home. Ambie reassured the skeleton cultists that the rest of the Hissing Prophets were off assembling an army in the name of the Devourer, and that their task was now to restore the original shrines and alters of their faith, now fallen into ruin, in expectation of their imminent arrival. The skeletons clacked their tongueless approval, and proceeded to dance all night to the beat of Ket and Sovan's drumming.

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Everyone knows that skeletons make the best dancers.

The next follower they needed to get rid of was Ron the Bat-Man, who was demanding to be taken to the underworld as quickly as possible. Insisting that he needed more magical training, the PCs rather heartlessly dumped him in the mad science laboratory of their old friend Zeth, who was happy to take him on as an assistant in her horrific ongoing researches into the Grimoire of the New Flesh. It was there that their ex-comrade Erin, who was now de facto king of the Purple Islands, caught up with them and told them that Elder Amelia had been asking after them with increasing urgency - so they left her a skull, accompanied by a message that she should place any letter that she wanted them to see in front of its eye-sockets, as they would check it via Skull Sight every three to five working days. Finally, having thus effectively invented email, they loaded up every dried golden lotus flower that Dara could spare from her gardens to feed their horrible drug habits and sailed back to the Stonemoors. Along the way they picked up a message from Amelia via Skull Sight, insisting that they return at once so that she could speak to them in person about a number of pressing topics, but they figured that they'd kept her waiting for a year and a half already, so waiting a little longer wouldn't do her any harm. (There was also a letter from Ron begging them to please come back and rescue him from the terrifying madwoman they'd left him with, but they just ignored that one.)

Returning to the Stonemoors they found the people were full of fear, convinced that the men of the east would come raiding again as soon as they'd finished laying in stores for the winter. Progressing to the haunted valley they found that Hild and her men were still present, but in a state of high alert that implied that Sophie's Charm spells had worn off during their absence. Not wanting to give away their presence, they had Tiny remove his helm and stomp around on the shore, posing as a 'sky-beast' drawn by the power source (which, indeed, he was), He was spotted at once, and Hild and half her men rowed out to seize him, while the PCs lurked in ambush in the trees overhead. They hoped to re-charm her - but the plan fell apart when she leapt ashore and immediately started using some kind of ghastly blood magic on Tiny, causing great clouds of blood to burst from his orifices. Frantically the PCs threw spells down at Hild and her men, but while her followers succumbed to Hold Person spells, nothing seemed to work on Hild. She fatally exsanguinated Sophie with a single ripping gesture, and when Skadi grappled her she made her blood start boiling with a touch, so that only a well-timed Dispel Magic from Sovan saved her life. Finally the whole party jumped on top of her, held her down, and beat her up, before slaughtering her paralysed followers. They then remembered that they'd left Ket tied to a tree further up the valley the whole time, and retrieved him half-mad with fear and confusion after being exposed to innumerable semi-solid illusions in their absence.

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Hild's blood magic spells were all shamelessly copied from old Thaumaturgy powers from Vampire: the Masquerade.

Sophie's death was a shocking event: she had been part of the party for years, and had accompanied them on innumerable adventures. Circe insisted on burying her in a frog-shaped grave, just as she had buried Jill years before. Skadi agreed, but requested (and received) permission to ritually butcher and eat her first, so that Sophie's legendary strength could live on in her. Hild, meanwhile, was kept tied up and gagged under the supervision of her own deceased followers, whom Hogarth had raised as zombies. That night, the rest of Hild's men - stranded on the island by the fact that their boat was on the far shore - tried to escape by swimming, but Tiny heard the splashing sounds and kicked Skadi awake. Skadi donned the ring of water walking, ran over the water, and whacked them on the head one after another with her snake-man shock baton, cracking their skulls and sending their convulsing bodies down to be eaten by the squid.

The next day, Circe went beneath the lake using Water Breathing and asked the squid to yield up the crystal casket, promising in exchange that they would use it make the ship fly, and then carry it to the sea. The squid agreed - but only once the ship was actually ready to take off. It did allow Circe a closer look at its treasure, however - and, to her surprise, revealed not the featureless arcanowave power cell that she had expected, but a kind of crystal coffin. Within it lay a woman, apparently in suspended animation, wearing heavy cold-weather clothing and clutching a golden starburst symbol in her hand - and all at once the random illusions plaguing the valley made sense. They weren't just designed to confuse and terrify intruders. They were the sleeping woman's dreams.

Image by Ashley Stewart.

Who is she, though? Can the PCs get the ship airbourne, and, if so, what havoc will they inflict with it? Does anyone care that this 'power source' might be the only thing capable of restoring peace to the Stonemoors? And who will be Sophie's replacement? Discover the depressing truth in the next installment of the adventures of Team Tsathogga!

Sunday 17 February 2019

[Actual Play] 'We should have started using this zombie bird trick ages ago': Team Tsathogga's sojourn in the Stonemoors

More actual play. You can read the previous installment here.

So the PCs were deep in the Cold Marshes, half-starved and far from home, when they heard the booming of drums through the mist and realised that the ghost drummers had caught up with them. They didn't know what the ghost drummers were, but after everything that had happened they were pretty sure they were bad news, and scrambled off to find a defensible bit of relatively dry land as quickly as possible. There they drew up their skeleton followers in a formation that Tiny dubbed 'the Death Hedgehog', gathered in a tight circle with spears pointing outwards in every direction. The mist around them was full of drumbeats that seemed to come from everywhere at once, louder and louder, until the sound seemed to be almost on top of them. Then, quite unexpectedly, a child-sized figure came skipping out of the mist towards them. As it came closer, they could see it was a tiny animated effigy, apparently made from twigs and scraps of cloth, topped with a lump of wood with a crudely carved face on it. It carried a piece of bark in its little wooden claws.

Everyone loves dolls, right?

Warily, the PCs allowed it to approach as it hopped over to Circe and proffered the piece of bark to her. The bark was covered in unfamiliar symbols, but after casting Comprehend Languages Hash was able to translate it as a crudely scrawled demand that they hand over all their magic in exchange for their lives. The little effigy stood stock-still before them, its head tilted to one side, while the PCs discussed whether they might be able to somehow scam their way out of the situation. Then, evidently feeling that it had given them ample time to surrender, it leapt straight upwards and lunged for Circe's face. She grabbed it just before its tiny wooden claws made contact with her skin, and promptly smashed it against the nearest rock.

Instantly the unseen drums boomed out in unison - and, in response, the marsh all around them erupted with flailing limbs. Dozens of leathery bog mummies burst from the mud and charged their mound from all sides, hurling themselves fearlessly onto the spears of the Death Hedgehog and dragging their impaled bodies down the shafts, their slimy fingers clawing in the air. Titus' zombie giant smashed one to the earth, breaking every bone in its body: but it just carried on moving, writhing bonelessly across the floor like leathery snake, trailing its shattered limbs behind it. As the melee intensified, two things swiftly became clear. The first was that they were outnumbered and likely to be overwhelmed. The second was that the bog-corpses all writhed and struck and slithered in time to the beat of the unseen drums.

Reasoning that the drums were somehow being used to control the corpses, Sovan cast Silence 15' radius on Ron - and, sure enough, every bog mummy within 15' of the bat-man instantly stopped moving. Sovan then made frantic circling gestures, and Ron - ever quick on the uptake - flapped into the air and began flying in circles around the battlefield. Wherever he passed, the bog corpses stopped moving, blunting the impact of their advance and granting the skeletons some much-needed respite. As he passed overhead, Hash took advantage of the momentary lull to cast Invisibility on himself and slip out through the skeleton lines, determined to locate the source of the drum-beat. His keen elven ears soon distinguished that it was coming from several points at once - so, approaching the nearest one, he saw through the fog a huge, six-legged, crocodilian marsh beast, atop whose back sat a wild-looking man beating rapidly at a crude skin drum. Hash promptly drew his bow and shot the drummer in the back, before fleeing into the mist as his monstrous mount began to sniff the air.

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Run, Hash! Before it smells your fear!

Back on the mound, things weren't going so well. The bog corpses just wouldn't stop coming: Zombie Runt ape was pulled down and torn apart by sheer weight of numbers, and even Tiny was getting worn down. However, as one of the drums fell silent (thanks to Hash), the PCs noticed a small but noticeable decrease in the momentum of the bog mummy attack. Concluding that silencing the drums was clearly the only way to win this, they waited for Ron to fly overhead and then burst through the skeleton lines and out into the marshes, determined to take out the drummers as quickly as possible. Spreading out, they hit three more of the drummers almost simultaneously with a volley of spells and missiles, halving the momentum of the attack. Two of their mounts were scared away with mind affecting magic: the third one jumped on Skadi and started eating her alive, but Sovan and Circe poured so much healing into her that her body just grew back as fast as the beast could shred it, and it ended up wandering away looking rather nonplussed. As one drum after another fell silent, the remaining drummers began beating a retreat, and the bog corpses slithered back off the spears of the skeletons and poured away into the marshes to follow them. The skeletons skewered some of them to the ground to prevent them from getting away, but as the drumbeats moved out of earshot they slumped down into the marsh, clearly inanimate corpses once again.

The losses had been heavy: Tiny was covered in wounds, as usual, while Zombie Runt Ape and seven more skeletons had been destroyed in the fighting. On the plus side, they had scooped up the drums of the four fallen drummers, and had even thoughtfully captured one of them alive so that he could teach them how to use them. Once they had slapped him awake, this captured drummer - whose name turned out to be Ket - told them a miserable tale of how his people lived in service to a fell witch of the swamps, who made their drums and bred the great marsh-beasts that they rode upon, and who was regarded with fear by all the inhabitants of the Cold Marshes. The drums, he explained, had the power to command the corpses of the drowned, but learning to use them was a demanding process that took years of practise to master. Undaunted by this news, the PCs told him that if he wanted to live, he was going to have to serve as their new percussion teacher. Then they dragged him off with them and headed on westwards, eager to get out of these horrible swamps as soon as possible.

The next day's travel finally brought them to the coast, or what passed for it: a vast region of saltwater marshland in which the land faded imperceptibly into the sea. To their delight the area was teeming with birds, which their skeletons proceeded to net, spear, and shoot in great numbers, finally bringing their weeks of near-famine to an end in one enormous all-you-can-eat open-air bird roast. Their ship lay hundreds of miles to the south, but now that they had reached the sea they knew that all they had to do was send Captain Matthew a message and then stay put, and he would eventually be able to reach them by simply following the shoreline. To these ends they had Titus reanimate the corpse of a particularly sturdy-looking bird, hooked a skull on its talons (so that they could keep track of its progress via Skull Sight spells), shoved a message in its beak (giving orders for Captain Matthew to come and find them at the northern edge of the cold Marshes), and sent it off south with instructions to follow the coast until it reached Kingsport and then land on the only ship in the harbour that had distinctive purple-stained timbers. They then ascended into the hills to the north and waited for rescue.

It was a long wait. The zombie bird was maddeningly literal-minded, following every contour of the coastline, thus multiplying the length of its journey: so Tiny instructed the skeletons and the zombie marsh giant to built a fort on the hilltop, both to keep them safe and to make them harder for the ship to miss. As Fort Tiny rose around them, the other the PCs demanded that Ket give them ghost drumming lessons, although only Sovan showed any aptitude for it. The rest of them decided to wander off into the Stonemoors instead, and passing over the hills they soon found themselves in a windswept country of rocks and moors and streams, dotted with old grazing trails but with hardly a sheep to be seen. The hunger-bitten people in the first little fishing village they came to revealed the reason: just as the cave dwarves had warned them, the Stonemoors had been ravaged by war.

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Clan feuds and sheep rustling had always been common among them, as had slaving raids by the ships of the Black Isle, but this was something new: the year before, the eastern clans had risen in a great confederacy and marched west, led by huge red-skinned men who seemed invincible in battle. Their chiefs declared that the rivers of meltwater which ran through their lands from the Holy Mountain had run dry, and the consequent drought had reduced them to famine - so, rather than sit at home and starve, they had come instead to seize all the flocks of the western clans and drive them away into the east. Every clan that had attempted to meet them in battle had been routed, and the rest had no choice but to yield up all their sheep and supplies to the invaders, who left them with barely enough to survive the winter. Some of them had even become so desperate that they had started making hunting trips into the Cold Marshes, although what with the ghost drummers and the marsh giants not all of them returned. Their greatest fear now was that the red men might return again in the autumn, and seize what little they had left.

Skadi, who remembered all too well what it was like to be a starving peasant herself, was indignant at their plight. She set Sovan and Circe to work helping out with Cure Disease and Purify Food and Drink spells, and organised the skeletons into hunting parties to start gathering food in the swamps. Circe used Water Breathing and Speak to Animals spells to strike bargains with some large local fish, promising them food in exchange for driving shoals of smaller fish into the nets of the fishermen. As they travelled up the coast, feeding the hungry and curing the sick, they heard rumours of a haunted valley a day's travel inland: a place whose woods had, for the last couple of years, apparently been thick with terrifying apparitions. Working out that this haunting had apparently started at roughly the same time as the drought in the eastern Stonemoors, and that the location of this valley furthermore correlated with Tiny's instinctive sense that a fairly powerful source of arcanowave radiation lay somewhere to the east, they decided to pay the place a visit.

Scouting came first, of course, so they rigged up another zombie-bird-and-seeing-skull combo and sent it down to the lake at the bottom of the valley, where the radiation appeared to be coming from. Looking through the eyes of the skull, they saw a longhouse built on an island in the lake, with a longship tied up on the shore - clearly a seagoing vessel, and one that could never have sailed down the narrow stream leading into the valley. Sending the bird back with instructions to look in through the house's windows, they saw a band of men inside smoking fish, their muscular arms and backs bespeaking lives spent on the rowing-bench, while a tall woman with long dark hair worked on some kind of intricate woodcarving by the fire. The woman then looked up, saw a zombie bird carrying a skull outside her window, and threw a knife at it - and while the bird flew onwards on its preprogrammed route, someone came up behind it and smashed it to bits. Their curiosity piqued by what this odd band - raiders from the Black Isle, by the looks of them - could be doing in the middle of a 'haunted' valley, the PCs decided to go down and take a closer look for themselves.

Descending the thickly-wooded slopes the valley, the PCs found themselves assailed by strange visions: burning vulture-men, icy ghouls, and glimpses of the frost-slicked streets of some frozen city, where metallic clanking sounds filled the air and a huge tower loomed in the distance. Although these were clearly illusions, they were much more 'real' than any they had previously encountered - audio-visual, semi-solid, and cold enough to leave the party genuinely shivering - and they even used Dispel Magic spells to nope out of a couple of particularly nasty ones. Finally they reached the shores of the lake, and the illusions vanished - or so they thought. But then Hash, ever eagle-eyed, pointed out that although it was still the middle of the day, the pole star could be seen distinctly shining in the sky above their heads...

What do the illusions mean? Who are the red men? Do the PCs even really care, or will they just leave the Stonemoors and never come back as soon as their ship arrives at Fort Tiny? Will these writeups ever catch back up with the actual game? Some, none, or more of these questions may be answered in the next installment of The Adventures of Team Tsathogga! 

Wednesday 13 February 2019

Echoes and Reverberations 5: Small But Vicious Dog

Back in 2011, Chris Hogan - author of the OSR blog Vaults of Nagoh - wrote a hilarious 36-page free RPG called Small But Vicious Dog, with the aim of combining 1st edition WFRP with B/X D&D. Like many 1st edition WFRP fans, Hogan was openly contemptuous of WFRP 3rd edition, and SBVD plunged defiantly back in the opposite direction to WFRP 3's more new-school, high-fantasy take on the setting. In Hogan's own words:
Welcome to a fantasy world where the men are Baldrick, the dwarves are punk, and the dogs are small but vicious. Welcome to a world of bawds, grave robbers, excisemen and witch hunters; a place where “Blather”, “Flee!” and “Mime” are legitimate skill choices; and where all material on the insidious threat of Chaos is officially interchangeable between settings.
Hogan's blog hasn't been updated since 2013, but Small But Vicious Dog lives on. You can download it here for free.

SBVD is, essentially, a collection of rules hacks for making B/X D&D look more like WFRP. Some parts of it are just B/X in WFRP drag: so Constitution is called 'Toughness', melee attack bonus is renamed 'Weapon Skill', hit points become 'wounds', and so on. The four base classes are Academics (who get magic), Rangers (who can shoot people), Warriors (who can hit people), and Thieves (who can sneak attack people). Each character also gets a Career, which in turn grants them some Trappings and a Career Skill. The combat-oriented career skills, like Dodge Blow, have specific rules effects. The rest just give you a thing that you can do by rolling equal to or less than your relevant ability score.

PCs start with 6 'wounds' (i.e. hit points) plus their initial hit dice, and they also get 'fate points' which act as 'get out of death free' cards, just like in WFRP. They also get one more fate point and the ability to increase one ability score by one point each time they level up, to mimic the way that the stats of WFRP characters rise as they progress through their careers. Hogan writes a lot about how doomed and miserable the PCs should be in SBVD, claiming at one point that 'Nothing better evokes the spirit of the source material that inspired SBVD than making the PCs suffer', but between their fate points and their increasing ability scores and their extra HP (sorry, 'wounds'), SBVD PCs are actually much tougher than their B/X D&D counterparts.

Other parts of the game have also been modified to make them a bit more WFRP-y. Falling to 0 HP - sorry, 'wounds' - means a roll on the critical hit table rather than automatic death. There are some rather clever rules to differentiate weapons from one another, making them more like their WFRP equivalents: so two-handed weapons make you attack last but let you roll damage twice and keep the better option, daggers can be drawn as a free action, firearms ignore armour at close range but may misfire, and so on. There are rules for the various psychology effects from Warhammer, like Frenzy, Stupidity, Fear, Terror, etc. The biggest change is the magic system, which ditches spells per day in favour of a WFRP 2 style system where you can cast as many spells as you like, but each casting carries a risk of (possibly catastrophic) side effects. Further rules cover social status, drugs, disease, medicine, insanity, and hirelings, which gives a clear sense of the kind of material that the game is intended to focus on. The rules only cover characters of levels 1-3, but it would be easy to extend them into higher levels.

This is all well and good: but at the end of the day, SBVD is very much D&D rather than WFRP. The careers system is a superficial varnish over the class system, rather than being integral to the game as it is in WFRP, and nonhuman PCs don't even get to have careers (or classes). Advancement is still mostly a matter of getting more hit points (as in B/X D&D) rather than improving across the board (as in WFRP). XP also comes from finding treasure rather than completing scenarios, which is a big change from WFRP, and likely to motivate very different player behaviour. 

The best thing about SBVD is its gleefully demented take on the Warhammer setting. At the very moment when FFG were trying to convince people to take WFRP seriously as High Fantasy Drama, Hogan was writing things like this:
All dwarves are beer-soaked beards on legs who stop mining only to fight, drink heavily and/or sing about mining. They consider everything they say and do to be SRS BZNZ and nurse a grudge like a Bretonnian nurtures a fine vintage wine. All perceived similarities between Dwarves and Yorkshiremen are coincidental. 

There’s a 10% chance that any dwarf character created is a Troll Slayer, a kamikaze no-pants dwarf with a big orange mohawk, prison tats, a two-handed axe and a burning desire to ragequit life as violently as possible. 

All elves are metrosexual minstrels and archers who fly into fey rages when provoked. The elven ability to lose it in spectacularly violent fashion has been clocked at “Nought to Feanor in 4.2 seconds”. Most PC elves are filthy tree-hugging pseudo-Celtic Wood Elves, although the Sea Elves who hang out in coastal cities seem to be a kind of Elven gap year backpacker.  

Rumour has it that the Elven homelands are contested in an endless war between two mighty and ancient factions: the louche-and-arty vs. the darker-and-edgier. The origin of their interminable strife is unknown, although it probably began as a spat over the relative aesthetic merits of art nouveau and gothic revival styles. 
If you only know Warhammer from its later, more serious incarnations, then this will read like parodic caricature. But here are some extracts from the actual (real, official, canonical) description of the Lothern Sea Guard from 1985:
The job of Captain of the Guard of Lothern is not a popular one. Few jobs are popular in the Elf Kingdoms, as Elves despise all forms of work. Perhaps it is because of this that important or responsible positions tend to fall to eccentrics. D'roi Haisplinn, Captain of the Guard of Lothern, is a case in point; a neurotic, homicidal maniac. At dusk he can be seen pacing the battlements of the great lighthouse of Lothern, cackling madly and, perhaps, torturing an underling.

The battlecry of this regiment is based up the age old tradition of challenging strangers during the hours of darkness. In Elvish the cry is 'Elo Cailor Gotda Liet', which is popularly supposed to translate as 'Hello, Hello. What's going on here then?'

Amongst Haisplinn's many deeds of infamy the destruction of the 'Halfling House' Inn and rest home, must be one of the basest. Many Halflings were slain, or suffered horrible and embarrassing torture at the hands of the Guards. Haisplinn's only motivation seems to have been that Halflings are short, ugly and have very poor dress sense.
Hogan's interpretation of WFRP as absurdist black comedy, concerned exclusively with the miserable lives of the poor, mad, and desperate and their comically doomed attempts to get rich quick, very much emphasises one aspect of the Warhammer world over others - after all, high fantasy elements have also been present in the setting from the very start. It does, however, neatly summarise what many people find most distinctive and appealing about WFRP, and acts as a welcome reminder of just how crazy the setting used to be, back before everyone started trying to take it so damn seriously.

The bestiary for SBVD is a bit of a treasure trove, featuring all kinds of mostly-forgotten weirdness from the early days of WFRP, and rejoicing in the now deliberately-forgotten fact that the Warhammer world was once overrun by killer puffins, 'carnivorous laser slugs', and other nonsense. The write-ups of these creatures are often accompanied by jokes about how poorly they've fared in subsequent editions of the game:
The Bog Devils are monocular amphibian humanoids of evil aspect. These ancient terrors of the wetlands have been driven to the verge of extinction by divisions among their creator gods, and by the inexorable expansion of Ratmen and Dark Elves into their conceptual niche territory

[Zoats] have a long and convoluted history. They originated as druidic defenders of the forest, and then went into space as the shock troops and diplomats of an alien hive race before disappearing entirely. They appear to have vanished into a combined time travel/ret-con portal, returning as fearsome lightning-powered Dragon Ogres. Suffice it to say these guys are weird, a bit confused and not to all tastes. 
There's a lot to like, here, but at the end of the day I'm not sure how useful SBVD actually is. As Hogan himself repeatedly points out, B/X D&D and WFRP 1st edition are already pretty similar, which makes it easy to adapt material for one game for use in the other even without a halfway house ruleset such as this one. Rather than an actual game to be played as-written, it's probably best viewed as a collection of suggested house rules and monster write-ups, which people who want to make their D&D games a bit more WFRP-esque can borrow from as best suits the needs of their individual campaigns.

I'll end by quoting Hogan's own list of things to remember about SBVD, which serve as a useful manifesto for the kind of black comedy WFRP spirit that the game embodies:

1. The world is not fair. 
2. The gods hate you, and your suffering amuses them. 
3. 90% of people are corrupt, greedy scum. The remainder are vicious fanatics. 
4. Everyone has an agenda, sometimes several. 
5. It can always get worse, and generally should. 
6. If in doubt, Chaos did it! 
7. If it appears that Chaos didn’t do it, check harder. 
8. Glowing green rocks = bad. 
9. There are no such things as Skaven. 

Tuesday 12 February 2019

Zak Smith and associated awfulness

Probably everyone who reads this blog has already heard about Mandy Morbid's revelations that her ex-boyfriend, Zak Smith, abused her (and other women) for more than a decade. On the off-chance that you haven't, you can read her account of event here, which she has asked to be shared as widely as possible:

(13/2/19 edit: Vivka Grey has now also posted an account of Zak's abuse of her, too, confirming and extending Mandy's narrative. You can read it here.)

I'm in the relatively fortunate position of being someone who's never worked with Zak, never gamed with him, never publicly defended him, and honestly never much liked him. (There's a reason I never added his blog to my blogroll.) But I did buy and read his books, and I did recognise his importance to the 'artpunk' wing of OSR D&D. I shall certainly not be purchasing any of his work hereafter.

Disturbingly, James Raggi of Lamentations of the Flame Princess - Zak's chief publisher - has maintained a deafening silence since the story broke. Raggi has published some of my favourite RPG books in recent years, and I have recommended Lamentations and its supplements to people many times, in many contexts. But as long as he continues to promote and publish Zak's work, I can no longer do so in good conscience. I appreciate that it sucks for a small publisher to invest heavily in an author, only to discover that he's actually a serial abuser of women. But he that toucheth pitch shall be defiled.

This has been a bit of a final straw moment for me, and the eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that I've removed the word 'OSR' from my blog's title. I still believe in the value of OSR playstyles, and I still prize the creativity to which OSR D&D has given rise. I still think that people like Scrap Princess, and Patrick Stuart, and David McGrogan, and Luka Rejec, and Zedeck Siew, are doing fantastic work that deserves to be widely read and richly supported. But so many leading figures in the OSR 'movement' have turned out to be awful people that I just don't really want to associate myself with it any more.

I applaud Mandy for her strength and courage in going public with this, and I hope that her life gets much easier and happier from this point onwards.

I'll have a post on Small But Vicious Dog up soon.

Sunday 3 February 2019

[Actual Play] 'Shut up and eat your marsh giant': The Terrible Travels of Team Tsathogga

I'm a few sessions behind on my Team Tsathogga write-ups, so I'd better start trying to catch up. This one is mostly about food.

To recap: the PCs were midway through an epic journey to lead a band of skeleton murder-cultists across the Great Northern Wilderness to the sea, with the ultimate aim of shipping them off to the Purple Islands to meet their two-year-old snake-baby prophet. They had used Charm Person spells to win the assistance of some local cave dwarves, who had told them that to reach the coast they would need to pass either south-west through the Cold Marshes, home of the marsh giants, or north-west through the Stonemoors, whose inhabitants were currently embroiled in some kind of clan war.

The party took a quick vote, and decided to opt for the marshes - and after noticing that the bushes around them were increasingly full of suspicious rustling sounds, as though a large force of small, stealthy creatures were gathering in ambuscade, they furthermore decided that it would be best if they allowed the enchanted cave dwarves to return to their homes before their clansmen decided to try reclaiming them by force. Bidding farewell to their hairy, leather-footed guides, they ascended the mountain range that lay before them, before descending into a swampy lowland region on their windward side. Sovan used Levitate to ascend high into the air, and could see a distant fire burning, far to the south: but the PCs were wary of encountering the locals, and decided to head westwards towards the sea, instead.

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Travelling through the marshes was utterly miserable. The land was covered in cold mist, reducing visibility to almost nothing. Their dog sleds proved worse than useless in the muddy terrain, so they abandoned the sledges and brought the dogs along as a whimpering pack at their side. Frequent bogs and streams blocked their path, forcing them to zig-zag across the land, and making their westward progress painfully slow. Their skeleton followers had standing orders to spear every fish or marsh bird they encountered, but the cold swamps were desolate, and the party found their food supplies dwindling. Hash and Sophie soon started suffering from trench foot, which Sovan treated with Cure Disease spells. They were thus in a pretty wretched condition when, on the ninth day, they finally encountered the marsh giants.

They came booming out of the mist just as the PCs were attempting to ford a shallow stream: eleven huge figures, twelve feet tall, encrusted with mud and slime. Their skin was marked with irregular patches of green scales; weird fronds and fins protruded from their bodies, and gill-slits flared red along their necks. Their only clothes were crude loin-cloths made from the hides of animals, and they carried uprooted marsh-trees as clubs. Their leader, a huge individual with facial tendrils like a catfish, demanded tribute in exchange for safe passage through the swamps, and the price he had in mind was steep: all their metal goods, all their 'shiny things', and, in particular, every metal blade they owned that was large enough for a giant to use. The PCs tried to haggle, but he seemed obstinate, so Sophie stealthily cast Enervate on him in the hope of getting someone more reasonable to deal with. Suddenly feeling very tired, he went to sit down for a bit, while negotiations were resumed by his second-in-command, a female marsh giant almost as large as he was.

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The PCs offered to perform various magical services for the marsh giants, but to little effect: the giants clearly felt that they were negotiating from a position of strength, and regarded the PCs as a windfall to be exploited as thoroughly as possible. Tiring of their demands, Circe took from her pack the six flasks of horribly cursed water that she had collected from the unholy fonts of Deathfrost Mountain, telling the giant's leader that these were priceless potions that would enhance the strength of anyone who drank them, and offering them to her as their price of passage. Wary of a trick, the giant demanded that she drink one first - so she deftly pretended to drink one (while actually spilling it down her front), while Sophie stealthily used illusion magic to make it look as though the 'potion' was making Circe's muscles swell. Eagerly, the giant snatched the other five from her, tore their lids off, and poured them down her throat. A few seconds later her head exploded in bloody ruin as hundreds of new eyes began growing and bursting inside her eye-sockets, while thousands of new teeth erupted from her jaws, tearing her head right in half.

The giants watched for a moment in utter shock - and then they roared and charged. Tiny yelled for the skeleton cultists to volley them with javelins as they crossed the river; Hash fired arrows, Sophie threw Magic Missiles, and Skadi lobbed one of her two remaining snake-man gas grenades, sending two of the giants crashing down, choking, in the mire. Circe slammed down the trigger of her snake-man pain wand and waved it at the giants frantically, but it only took down one of them before its battery burned out and horrible black smoke started coming out of its machinery. Their leader was sufficiently slowed by Sophie's earlier spell for a combination of magic and archery to take him down as he waded through the stream: but as the rest crashed forwards, the party heroically scattered and left their skeleton phalanx to receive the charge. (Tiny proved the exception, boldly standing his ground and getting beaten half to death with a tree-branch for his trouble.) As the giants started smashing up the skeletons, Skadi hurled her very last gas grenade right into the middle of the melee, relying on the fact that the giants needed to breathe and the skeletons didn't. Two more giants succumbed to its choking fumes, and began to be swarmed by the skeletons; so, seeing the battle turning against them, the four giants still on their feet each grabbed one of their poisoned comrades and began beating a fighting retreat back across the stream. The giant stricken by Circe's pain-wand was overrun by stabbing skeletons and killed where he lay, but the rest escaped into the mist, leaving three of their number lying dead in the marsh.

The skeletons were shaken by this encounter: five of their own had been destroyed by the giants, and would thus never see the 'promised land' of the Purple Islands. Tiny reassured them as best he could, while the rest of the party resolved to find somewhere to hide and rest for the night, not fancying their chances if another giant warband happened to emerge from the mist. When they returned to the site of the battle the next morning they found the corpses of the slain giants gone, with drag marks leading off into the west. Their bat-man ally/apprentice, Ron, volunteered to don their invisibility glove and fly off to see what had happened to them: a few hours later he reported back that a band of marsh giants, some of them obviously adolescents, were retreating back through the marshes to the west, dragging the bodies of their slain kin behind them. Heartened by this news, the PCs concluded that the force they had defeated the previous day probably represented the main strength of the local giants, and began scheming how best to get their hands on the marsh giant corpses so that their necromancer buddy Titus could re-animate them as really massive zombies. After all, if they had zombie giants to ride around on, they wouldn't have to carry on wading through the fucking swamp...

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Travelling in style!

So the giants went west, and the PCs followed at a cautious distance, using Ron as an advance scout. Soon the giants reached their village - a crude circle of half-submerged dug-out houses, surrounded by a huge earthwork - and, after a brief ceremony, deposited the bodies of their dead in a deep pool just outside their earthen rampart. Four of their number remained on watch: one more, apparently the fastest runner among them, was dispatched off into the marshes to 'fetch the ghost drummers', while the rest retreated back into their homes. Gathering in the mist outside, the PCs hit upon a plan to retrieve the corpses. They would wait until nightfall: then, under the cover of a Darkness spell, Circe and Titus would advance to the edge of the pool. Meanwhile Ron, wearing the invisibility glove and bolstered by multiple Strength spells, would carry Sophie high into the air above the village. At a prearranged signal, Ron would drop from the sky and Sophie would strafe the village with Magic Missile spells, thus distracting the watchmen while Circe cast Water Breathing on Titus and pushed him into the pool. Then all that Ron and Sophie had to do was keep the giants occupied while Titus swam to the bottom, found and reanimated one corpse, ordered it to drag out a second corpse, and escaped into the night.

Of course, no plan survives contact with the enemy. Sophie's Magic Missiles distracted the marsh giants, alright, but they responded with a volley of thrown rocks that caved in her ribs and skull and left her clinging to life by a thread. Ron panicked and flew off to Circe as fast as his wings could carry him - which, due to him being invisible at the time, looked to the giants as though Sophie's mangled, unconscious body was flying away under its own power. Meanwhile Titus disappeared into the pool - only to burst up screaming a couple of minutes later, clutched in the arms of a headless zombie marsh giant, with half a dozen carnivorous fish clinging onto his face and body. As Titus ripped these away in blind panic, tearing off whole lumps of his own face in the process, his giant zombie 'steed' went crashing away into the swamps, cradling its master in its arms. The marsh giants cried out in horror at this new apparition, and were on the verge of giving chase - when Hash, thinking quickly, conjured an illusion of Sophie's mangled body flying back out of the sky, hands extended as though to spray yet more Magic Missiles down upon them. Terrified by the reappearance of a magical, flying foe who was apparently unhindered by being obviously dead, the giants fled for cover, allowing Circe to heal the real Sophie and Sovan to heal Titus while the party retreated into the night.

The PCs thus found themselves in possession of a single headless zombie marsh giant. A Preserve Corpse spell protected it against further decay, and the decision was taken to hollow out its chest cavity, allowing Titus to sit inside its thorax with his head sticking out of its neck-hole and steer it around the marsh like a slimy zombie mech suit. As their food situation had, by this point, become quite desperate, they furthermore decided that to waste not was to want not, and that the resulting heap of disgusting, putrifying marsh giant offal would be that evening's dinner. Purify Food made it technically edible, but the resulting meal was so awful that Skadi, cannibal gourmet that she was, chose to chew on the ancient flayed-off human faces she had salvaged from the Deathfrost Mountain shrine instead. (She claimed that they counted as jerky.) Titus rode inside the giant; Hash and Sophie rode on its shoulders; Ron rode inside the now-vacated howdah on Zombie Runt Ape's back. Everyone else just had to carry on wading.

For several days they trudged westwards, relying on the food their skeletons were able to scavenge, going hungry as often as not, and ultimately even butchering and eating some of their loyal dogs. The monotony of the marshes seemed endless, broken only by Ron's constant whining about his regression to skinny nerd status after all the Strength spells wore off, and his endless attempts to come up with contrived reasons why Sovan should waste all his spell slots on making him buff again. But they knew that the sea could not be far, now. Perhaps the ghost drummers, whatever they were, would not catch up with them. Perhaps their journey was almost at an end.

And then, one day, as the cold mist hung white and heavy around them, they heard from a distance the unmistakable booming of drums...

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