Sunday 24 March 2019

Echoes and Reverberations 6: Zweihänder

This is the sixth in a series of posts on the various 'dark Eurofantasy' RPGs that appeared in the wake of the abrupt demise of WFRP 2nd edition. Like Shadow of the Demon Lord, Zweihänder started life as someone's attempt to write their own personal 'WFRP 2.5', pointedly taking a completely different direction to the one chosen by FFG for the official WFRP 3rd edition. (The game's author, Daniel Fox, described WFRP 3 as 'sugar-coated' and 'too much like D&D'.) It began back in 2013, as an attempt to create a WFRP retroclone called 'Project COREhammer' on the Strike to Stun forum - but swiftly grew into a game in its own right, boosted by a successful kickstarter campaign in 2016, and in 2018 it won the Best Game award at the Ennies. You used to be able to get a free no-art version of the game from Drivethrurpg, but that seems to have vanished now. I've only read the 688-page (!) free version, so it's possible that some changes have been made between this and the latest (674-page) version of the game.

Image result for zweihander rpg

Zweihänder is basically what happens when someone's document of house rules for WFRP 2 gets so big that it turns into its own game. It addresses all the standard complaints that people have been making (and house-ruling) about WFRP since the 1980s, like 'why are some careers so much better than others?', 'how come a naked dwarf can ignore getting hit in the face with a battleaxe?', 'why does the game have all these stats that barely ever get used?', and the ever-popular 'why do I miss so fucking much in combat'?

In Zweihänder, every career offers the same number of skill and stat increases. The number of ability scores has been condensed down to seven. Numbers are higher across the board, making PCs more likely to succeed at whatever they're currently attempting. The combat and damage system has been rewritten: WFRP's system of wound points and critical hits has been replaced with a series of damage thresholds that forces players to roll on ever-more severe injury tables depending on how much damage they've taken, while combat now involves each character receiving three 'action points' per round, which they can choose to use to move, attack, perform special manoeuvres, and so on. Every monster comes with a sheaf of special rules, D&D 4 style, to make sure that fights will play out differently depending on the specific combatants involved. It all looks like a lot of work to me, but I'm very lazy about these things, and tend to lose patience with combat systems more complex than 'roll WS or under on 1d100 to stab the goblin in the face'. The same 'rules for everything' approach can be seen in the game's rules for social interactions, chases, wilderness travel, and just about everything else. A game that actually used all these rules would be far too heavy for my tastes, but I suspect that most groups will just mix and match, just like in every other RPG.

Image result for zweihander rpg

All of these are the kind of WFRP house rules that I can imagine a group making in the late 1980s, probably shortly after being exposed to GURPS, and represent a continuation of the changes that WFRP 2 made to WFRP 1. However, Zweihänder also includes some more 'modern' elements of game design. The four most important of these are Peril, Corruption, Fortune, and Professional Traits.

Peril is the way that the game tracks stress, fatigue, and all those other negative effects that fall short of actual injury. As you gain more Peril, your skills become less effective; if the Peril just keeps coming, then eventually you reach the point where you're so wrecked that you automatically fail at everything you attempt. I like the idea of this: I've written before about how I wish D&D had better ways of modelling the impact of hunger, exhaustion, cold, fear, and all the other cumulative stresses of the adventuring life, and I like the elegance of rolling them all together into a single mechanic that can cover everything from choking a guy out to someone being so terrified that they become totally non-functional, rather than trying to model them all separately.

What I'm less convinced by is the specific effects of Peril, namely disabling your skill ranks and pushing everyone steadily towards the level of untrained amateurs. If anything, I'd expect the reverse: the guy who's performed a task a thousand times before is precisely the one who's going to be able to perform it under crisis conditions, because even if his mind is currently blank with panic his hands are still going to remember what to do, whereas the half-trained amateur who relies on conscious knowledge rather than muscle memory might manage just fine under normal conditions, but is likely to be useless under pressure. It'd be easy to flip this, though, so that skill ranks were the last thing rather than the first thing to go as the Peril piles on.

Corruption seems to have grown out of WFRP's insanity point system. Anything likely to cause trauma - suffering serious injuries, witnessing horrible events, channeling weird magic, collapsing under a huge mass of Peril, etc - inflicts Corruption points. Using drugs and alcohol to temporarily blunt the effects of injuries, Peril, madness, or diseases also inflicts Corruption, as your short-term remedies exert a long-term toll on your mind and body: a brilliant bit of game design that I wish I'd thought of myself. At the end of every session you roll 1d10 and compare it to your Corruption score: equal or less means you gain 1 'chaos rank', higher means you gain one 'order rank'. (If you gained more than 10 in a single session, you get one chaos rank automatically for each ten points and then roll again against whatever's left.) Ten chaos ranks earns you a disorder. Ten order ranks earns you a fate point.

Where it gets weird is that Corruption also serves as the game's morality system. Corruption points are given out for evil actions, meaning that a PC who keeps being bad will go crazy just as fast as one who keeps getting traumatised, and a PC who does both will go mad twice as fast as either. This really does strike me as an attempt to make the same mechanic do two not-very-compatible things at once: and if I were using the system I'd be very tempted to decouple Corruption from fate points, and to reserve it for actions and experiences that caused mental strain, regardless of their moral status.

Image result for zweihander rpg

Fortune points are just reroll tokens. You can use them whenever you want, but then you have to hand them to the GM to use against you whenever they want. I'm really not sure about this: when I GM, it's very important to me that I try to run the world impartially. I think you'd need a very clear 'gentleman's agreement' between players and GM about whether the GM's tokens were to be used to make the game more interesting or more deadly, as otherwise I can imagine a lot of bad feeling being generated the first time the GM uses a bunch of fortune tokens to turn a trivial injury into a mortal wound.

Professional Traits are unique abilities that each career - sorry, 'profession' - grants to its members. Each profession grants exactly one special ability, and everyone who joins that profession gets it: so all Footpads can sneak attack, all Ratcatchers can speak to rats (yes, really), and so on. Some of these are really, really specific: Investigators, for example, get an ability called 'True Detective' that allows you to have visions, granting you extra clues 'when Intoxicated or under the effects of Deliriants', i.e. you are Rust Cohle. (Hope you didn't want to play any other sort of investigator instead!) I understand the desire to give the professions a bit more mechanical differentiation, but these traits strike me as needlessly narrow, and I probably wouldn't use them myself. I'm quite happy for each profession to just serve as a bundle of skill and stat increases.

Zweihänder's attitude towards its setting is a bit perplexing. It presents itself as a setting-agnostic toolkit suitable for use in any kind of low fantasy early modern setting, including seventeenth-century Earth, but its gods, monsters, and magic system have all been straightforwardly borrowed from WFRP. They're all here: orcs, skaven, Sigmar, Ulric, daemonettes, fimir, zoats, dragon ogres, slann, bog octopi, chaos dwarves, the chaos gods, the winds of magic... the entire Warhammer bestiary and cosmology, just with changed names and slightly modified descriptions. (Even mostly-forgotten oddities like WFRP's gnomes make the cut - as a PC race, no less!) Some of the changes are quite inventive, like the idea that goblins started out as chaos-tainted human children, but mostly they just look as though they've been subjected to tokenistic rewrites for copyright purposes. The bestiary gets most interesting when it goes furthest off-script: I liked its various giant intelligent animals, and I loved the idea of an order of jackal-headed vampire knights who use their long, forked tongues to drink the blood of their enemies. The vast majority of it, however, consists of straightforward Warhammer expies, clearly intended to allow published WFRP adventures to be run using Zweihänder with a minimum of fuss.

The Zweihänder core rulebook also includes an adventure, called 'A Bitter Harvest', which is essentially a rather grim historical adventure in flimsy fantasy drag. (The author even notes that it was inspired by an incident from the Baltic Crusades.) The PCs find themselves stuck in a village as raiders approach: the same raiders who attacked the village years before, abducting all the women and children who were hiding in a cave nearby, and carrying them off as slaves. But all is not as it seems: the leading men of the village actually sold the location of the cave to the raiders in exchange for being left alone, and one of the captured women - who was enslaved by the raider's leader, but has since come to effectively control the warband - now leads the raiders back towards the village in search of revenge on the men who sold them out. The roads have been cut, so the PCs need to find some way of resolving the situation, probably by uncovering the village's true past and leveraging what they've learned in order to buy it some kind of future.

This is a good adventure, filled with a rich tangle of interpersonal relationships, and the moment when the PCs discover what the 'heroes' of the previous battle actually did in order to get rid of the raiders should come as a genuine shock. The parts leading up to the siege are very linear, but the way in which the PCs resolve the main situation is left completely open, accommodating everything from the PCs assassinating the woman leading the raiders to them joining her in her search for revenge. (How often do you see that in published adventures?) That said, I had two issues with it. The first is that this is heavy stuff, much heavier than the standard-issue cultist-whacking that makes up most WFRP adventures. Not all groups are going to be comfortable unravelling a community's history of trauma and sexual violence, especially when there's no cathartic moment where you stab the bad people and make all the problems go away. The second is that, as I've indicated, this is barely a fantasy scenario at all. Supposedly the raiders are orcs (although they don't really act like it), and supposedly the woman has established control over them by dosing their food with alchemical potions, but this is little more than fancy dress, largely irrelevant to the real story. If your group plays fantasy RPGs for stories of magic and monsters, rather than sad stories of human weakness, then this might not quite fit the bill.

Overall, while I quite liked Zweihänder, I felt that it was aiming at a terribly small target market: people who had enough issues with WFRP that they weren't happy to just carry on playing WFRP 2, but who still liked it enough that they weren't prepared to abandon it for Shadow of the Demon Lord or D&D 5 or OSR D&D instead. That seems an awfully specific demographic of players... but, then again, Zweihänder is now an 'adamantium bestseller' on DrivethruRPG, so maybe there are a lot more of them than I thought. If you like the core ideas behind WFRP but want a more balanced career system and more options in combat, then give it a look. But main takeaways from it was that any WFRP-style system would probably benefit from some kind of 'peril track' to record just how tired, hungry, cold, sick, scared, and miserable everyone currently is, and that the world needs more jackal-headed vampire knights with serpentine tongues.

Image result for zweihander rpg

Monday 11 March 2019

New B/X Class: The Gothic Villain

My reading has taken me, once again, back to the Gothic fiction of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, where the villains have dark eyes, the heroines have white dresses, the castles have secret passages in every room, and the plots make no damn sense whatsoever.

This class is my tribute to the absurdist horror fiction of yesteryear. It should bring a touch of melodramatic lunacy into any campaign.

[Edit: Dandibuja has now drawn an illustration to accompany this class! You can view it here.]

Gothic Villain

Related image

To-Hit and Hit Dice: As Fighter.

Saves: As Thief.

Weapons and Armour: Gothic Villains can use any weapon, but cannot use shields or any kind of heavy armour, as these would get in the way of their dramatic gesticulation.

XP per level: As Magic-User.

Dark Secret: All Gothic Villains harbour Dark Secrets, although at the beginning of their career they only know a fragment of the terrible truth. At level 1, roll 1d10 on each of the following tables to generate a secret, as follows:
  1. I...
  2. My husband / wife...
  3. My mother...
  4. My father...
  5. My brother...
  6. My sister...
  7. My son...
  8. My daughter...
  9. My whole family...
  10. My one true love...
  1. ...murdered...
  2. ...stole the inheritance of...
  3. ...committed adultery and/or incest with...
  4. ...was deliberately driven mad by...
  5. ...usurped the rightful title of...
  6. ...imprisoned and faked the death of...
  7. ...was ruined and degraded by...
  8. ...was tricked into committing treason by...
  9. ...was lured into heresy and blasphemy by...
  10. ...was seduced into a life of shameful vice and crime by...
  2. husband / wife.
  3. mother.
  4. father.
  5. brother.
  6. sister.
  7. son.
  8. daughter.
  9. whole family.
  10. one true love.
(If this results in something totally bizarre, like someone usurping their own title, then just roll with it. Maybe everyone involved was drunk and/or mad at the time.)

Every time the Gothic Villain goes up a level, they will discover another fragment of the horrible truth. Roll again on all three tables. If this results in something they should really have known already, like the fact that their own daughter murdered them years ago, then feel free to include however much amnesia and mistaken identity is required to make the whole thing work.

Example: Eduardo rolls 1, 7, 5, so his initial Dark Secret is that he was ruined and degraded by his own brother. When he reaches level 2 he rolls 6, 4, 9, and discovers that his whole family also conspired to drive his sister mad. On reaching level 3 he rolls 4, 1, 9, and learns that whole family - who he's been regularly interacting with since the campaign began - were actually murdered by his father. Maybe all these people are ghosts? Or impostors? Maybe they faked their own deaths? Or maybe he's just going mad? Just another day in the life of a Gothic Villain...

Related image

The Home of My Ancestors: The Gothic Villain starts play as the owner of a decayed castle, abbey, or manor house, located somewhere horribly inconvenient, such as the top of a mountain, the depths of a forest, or the middle of a swamp. Bits of it keep falling down, and its once-fine furnishings are warped and worthless, but its staff of servants (all of whom are too old, inbred, sycophantic, and/or insane to leave) maintain it well enough to prevent it from actually collapsing. Although it is instantly obvious to everyone else that this building is a total liability, the Villain will be insanely proud of it, and must always devote at least 50% of all treasure earned to restoring their family home. No matter how much money is spent on it, however, the house will remain the same rickety deathtrap it has always been.

While on the grounds of their estate, the Villain may mobilise a number of family retainers equal to their Charisma multiplied by their level. These retainers are normal 0-level humans, but they are extremely devoted to the Villain (morale 10) and obey the Villain without question. They cannot be brought more than a day's journey from the estate, as the outside world bewilders and terrifies them.

If the Villain dies without naming an heir, the House will be abandoned by its servants and sink into utter ruin within 1d6 months.

Obey Me, Miscreant!: The Gothic Villain begins play with a single cringing minion, who obeys them out of greed and fear. Each time they go up a level, they gain an additional minion. If a minion dies, then the Villain will automatically obtain a replacement after spending 1d6 days in any inhabited area, as malcontent weirdos with strange deformities are attracted to them like moths to a flame.

Generate each minion by rolling 2d12 on the following tables.

  1. A fighter (half your level, round up) who...
  2. A thief (half your level, round up) who...
  3. A cleric (half your level, round up) who...
  4. A magic-user (half your level, round up) who...
  5. A slow-witted brute (STR 15+1d3, INT 2+1d3, HD equal to half your level, round up) who...
  6. A well-trained ape (HD equal to half your level, round up) who...
  7. A seductive harlot (equal chance male or female, CHA 15+1d3) who...
  8. A disgraced scholar (INT 12+1d6, has mastered a number of fields of knowledge equal to half your level, rounded up) who...
  9. A master infiltrator (capable of disguise, ventriloquism, imitating voices), who...
  10. A Scooby-Doo villain (dab hand at faking apparitions with aid of wires, phosphorous, and magic lanterns), who...
  11. A corrupt detective (capable of spotting clues and following trails, can try to frame people for crimes with a success rate of 10% per level), who...
  12. A band of ruffians (a number of 0-level thugs equal to your level+1) who...
  1. ...has hideous facial deformities.
  2. covered in distinctive scars.
  3. missing a body part (roll 1d4: 1 = eye, 2 = arm, 3 = leg, 4 = ear). 
  4. a dwarf, giant, or hunchback (equal chance of each).
  5. always drunk.
  6. addicted to horrible narcotics.
  7. ...has some kind of weird psycho-sexual obsession with you. 
  8. a kleptomaniac.
  9. a pyromaniac.
  10. a compulsive liar.
  11. a slave to their bizarre sexual fetishes.
  12. ...experiences irrational bursts of rage at inconvenient moments.
Minions will put up with most forms of ill-treatment, but will not obey orders that are obviously suicidal. Their base morale is 8, adjusted for Charisma as usual. 

Related image

Dread Gaze: At level 2, the gaze of the Villain grows so powerful that it can leave people transfixed with fear. If the Villain catches the eye of an intelligent target (including animals), the target must save or be effectively paralysed for as long as the villain carries on staring at them. During this time the Villain cannot take any action other than walking, talking, and staring, and the effect ends at once if either the Villain or the target takes any damage. Once someone has successfully saved against this ability, it cannot be used on them again for the next 24 hours. 

Full of Scorpions is my Mind: By level 4, the Villain has uncovered so many Dark Secrets about themselves and their family that by brooding on them for 1d6 minutes they can throw themselves into a frothing rage, during which they gain a +2 bonus to-hit, damage, and saves vs. mind-affecting powers. This rage lasts for a number of minutes equal to the Villain's level. During this time the Villain will rant, rage, and literally chew the scenery, making any kind of stealth impossible until they have calmed down. 

Everything I Own Is Poisoned: At level 6, once per day, the Villain may retroactively declare that any object within their power or possession that someone has just interacted with - the dagger they just stabbed someone with, the glove they were wearing while shaking hands with someone, the doorknob someone just turned, whatever - was actually covered in poison. The person who touched it must save or take 1d6 damage per level of the Villain. If the poison was on something they ate or drank, then the damage rises to 1d10 per level. 

Illustration from the Midnight Assassin

Into the Oubliette! At level 8, once per month, the Villain may send a lettre de cachet to mysterious allies of his family. The next time the person named in the letter leaves their home, a band of mysterious masked men will attempt to abduct them. They must make a saving throw: if they pass, the attempt fails, and the lettre is wasted. If they fail, however, they will be dragged off with a bag over their head and thrown in a secret dungeon somewhere, where they will be kept for 1d6 days per level of the Villain before being pulled out and released without explanation at a random location 1d100 miles from their home. (Roll 1d8 for direction: 1 = 1d100 miles north, 2 = 1d100 miles north-east, and so on.) The location of their prison is so secret that even the Villain will not be able to locate them during their imprisonment. 

Ruin Has Come: At level 10, the Villain may enter some kind of institution (a castle, a temple, a university, etc) accompanied by his full retinue of minions, and simply... self-destruct. Unless the leader of the institution is higher level than the Villain, then over the next 1d6 days the institution disintegrates into crime, madness, factional warfare, corruption, and vice, before collapsing into spectacular ruin in a final institutional flame-out that consumes the lives of the Villain, his minions, and (1d6 x 10)% of the institution's members, including its entire senior leadership. All sane and decent people will abandon the institution immediately thereafter. 1d6 weeks later, one scion of this fallen institution will return home, seize control of whatever remains of it, and begin their career as a new level 1 Gothic Villain. 

Image result for mysteries of udolpho

Sunday 3 March 2019

[Actual Play] 'If you run out of air up there, just stick your head in this bucket!' Team Tsathogga take to the skies

This actual play write-up describes how Team Tsathogga got their hands on a radioactive flying ship. So now nothing is safe.

My previous post described how they captured the blood witch, Hild, at the bottom of a haunted valley in the Stonemoors, along with the ship she'd been hoping to fly to the stars in and the crystal casket (complete with a mysterious sleeping woman) that she'd been intending to use as a power source. Only Hild had any idea how to get it airbourne, and she was not inclined to help them after their slaughter of her followers, many of whom had been her kinsmen; but Tiny pointed out that she'd tortured and murdered several of his kinsmen in order to find the casket in the first place, so she could hardly claim that she hadn't had it coming. Besides, he explained, he and his fellow 'sky-beasts' had never wanted to be on this planet in the first place, and just wanted the ship so that they could fly back to their own home beyond the sky. Clearly no stranger to the logic of blood feuds and shipwrecks, Hild suggested that, as the representatives of their respective clans, they could agree that all this murder had left them even, with no remaining blood guilt on either side. She then offered to hand over the ship to them if they would return her to her people on the Black Isle. Tiny agreed, but went one better: if she gave him the ship, he would show her where to find an alternate power source, so that she could make a second ship of her own.

So Hild set to work on the remaining carvings for the ship, watched day and night by a bodyguard of her own dead kinsmen, now reanimated as zombies under Hogarth's control. The PCs knew that if they were going to use it they would need a crew, so they sent Captain Matthew back to the Purple Islands to fetch them some islanders who knew their way around a sailboat - and a few weeks later Matthew's first mate, Isaac, returned to the valley, accompanied by five adventurous young fisherfolk. Soon afterwards Hild finally finished the carvings, which now clearly formed a kind of circulatory system intended to channel the magic of the casket through the timbers of the ship. The carvings were installed, with the casket plugged in to act as their heart, and to the wonder of all present the ship rose out of the water to float about ten feet in the air. The rest would be down to wind and sails.

The flying ship turned out to be very tricky to handle. Moving against the prevailing winds was almost impossible. Attempting to 'land' on rough terrain would obviously lead to the hull getting ripped off. Ascending or descending was a matter of angling the sails up or down and hoping for the best. But, for all that, it really could fly... at least as long as its carvings and power source remained intact. For some days, Isaac and his men experimented with flying the ship into and out of the valley, while the giant squid-monster watched them suspiciously from below the water, waiting for the PCs to fulfill their promise to carry him to the sea.

Image result for squid monster
Never double-cross a giant squid.

Meanwhile the party had acquired a new member: a cave dwarf named Elric, who had learned the rudiments of sorcery while serving as a porter and translator for a Glasstown expedition to the north. He had been hit by one of Hash's Charm Person spells months ago during the party's journey through his clan's territory, and had simply never recovered. Obsessed with the beautiful, androgynous stranger who had passed so magically through his life, Elric had undertaken a nightmarish odyssey to find him, finally stumbling half-dead into the valley and throwing himself at Hash's feet. More than a little creeped out by the arrival of this besotted, beard-covered stalker, Hash reluctantly agreed to instruct him in the arts of magic. Elric, for his part, lapsed happily into a life of submissive adoration that made everyone else deeply uncomfortable. He was, however, able to teach himself a spell to predict the weather from Hild's translated spellbooks, which made him very valuable to their ongoing experiments with the flying ship.

Once Isaac was reasonably sure he could fly the ship without crashing it, he piloted it down to the lake, where the squid monster heaved its enormous bulk onto the deck, its tentacles trailing overboard on all sides. It complained that the crushing pressure was killing it, but Elric had predicted a strong east wind, and the ship soon swept out to sea, where the creature gratefully hauled itself overboard and vanished beneath the water with a splash. (The PCs speculated whether the transition from freshwater to saltwater would kill it, but whatever unnatural force had spawned it apparently protected it against the shift in environments.) With the giant squid gone for good, the PCs then turned their prow east, to see what was going on in the parched lands around the Holy Mountain. Keeping their ship concealed with illusion magic, they spied on various settlements from above, witnessing preparations for invasion and war: they even saw one of the 'red men' with their own eyes, a brute of a man fully seven feet tall, with crimson skin and hair the colour of dried blood. Circe sent a summoned Spawn of Tsathogga to try to capture him, but the attempt was an abject failure, so the PCs contented themselves with summoning frog monsters to sow random chaos among the eastern clans, hoping thereby to delay their invasion of the west. Then they turned their sails south and began the long flight back to Qelong, where Tiny assured Hild that she would be able to find an alternate power source with which to build a new flying ship.

Qelong, it turned out, had begun to recover from the devastating civil war that the PCs had brought to an end two years before. The upcountry regions had been completely abandoned, left to whatever roving bands of brigands, cannibals, or lunatics still remained there; but along the coast the rice paddies had been brought back under cultivation, and the food supply situation was now merely 'dire' rather than 'utterly catastrophic'. Visiting their old friends King Nath, General Ngour, and Mei (who was now a senior abbess) in the capital city, Xam, they were gratified to see that the king's new throne room included spectacular frescoes depicting the appearance of his father's ghost and the miracle of the bowing tree, while the half-rebuilt royal temple included niches set aside for them and their weird heathen gods, just as they had requested. After making various enquiries about the state of the nation, the PCs flew upriver to the site of the now-deactivated fleet beacon, which had caused so much of Qelong's misery. There they met once again with Vord, who was having trouble keeping his free demon followers occupied: with no practical way of freeing their comrades from the mental enslavement of the snake-men, they'd had nothing better to do than endlessly maintaining the fort they'd built when they first arrived there, and were now in danger of slipping into suspended animation out of sheer lack of purpose. The PCs looked at him, and at Hild, and put two and two together. They'd give the demons something better to build than an old hill-fort. They'd set them to work on a space fleet. 

Image result for empty alcove
This space reserved for icon of Tsathogga.

Hild could sense the familiar throb of arcanowave radiation from within the inactive beacon, which she knew represented a potential power source for a second ship - but how could it be obtained? Climbing up to the exposed control panel of the beacon, the PCs saw a narrow shaft extending deep within it - but it had clearly been built for snake-men, thinner and more agile than any human. Hash's elfin build made him the obvious man for the job, so he stripped down to his underwear and oiled himself up, to Elric's evident delight. Then he wriggled down into the depths of the machinery, using Comprehend Languages to translate the snake-man glyphs as he went, until he found the reactor chamber - but the hatch was, unsurprisingly, locked. There was no room to swing a weapon down there, so the PCs decided to try blowing the door open with Magic Missile spells. With Sophie dead, however, the only person able to throw that sort of magical destruction around was Hogarth, who was far too stocky to fit down the shaft.

Fortunately, Elric wasn't the only one who'd learned something from Hild's captured spellbooks. Hogarth had learned a spell that enabled him to take on the shape of anyone whose blood he had tasted: so, after a bit of mildly homoerotic blood-sharing, he was able to swap his own form for Hash's. (The spectacle of two oiled-up, stripped-down Hashes was enough to make Elric faint on the spot.) Descending inside with the aid of a Light spell, Hogarth blew the hatch open with repeated barrages of Magic Missiles, thus exposing himself to a massive dose of arcanowave radiation from the reactor core within. Gums bleeding, he retreated back up the shaft. Given that retrieving the active element from within the reactor would obviously be a death sentence for any living creature, the decision was made to flense the muscle off two of their zombies, on the grounds that their animated skeletons would be able to fit down the shaft and pull out the element, while Hogarth used Light and Skull Sight to see out of their eyes and shouted instructions from above. This gambit proved successful, and after much heaving and tinkering the skeletons emerged from the hatch dragging a super-dense lump of something black and balefully radioactive behind them.

A new problem now confronted the party: how could this inert lump of solidified arcanowave death be broken up into pieces small and light enough to be used safely as the power sources for more of Hild's ships? (Using the whole thing was clearly out of the question: quite apart from the fact that it was so heavy that it would simply drop right through the timbers, any human crew exposed to it would be dead of radiation poisoning within a day.) Tiny's efforts to break bits off it by whacking it with rocks, axes, hammers, etc barely managed to dent it, so the PCs developed a new plan: to drop it from an enormous height. The plan went like this: first, Tiny would use his innate paratrooper training to make Sovan a parachute. Sovan would use Strength spells to make himself strong enough to lift the lump, and then Levitate straight up. Each time one Levitate spell came close to wearing off he would cast another one, thus allowing him to ascend many thousands of feet into the air. A Resist Energy spell would protect him from the arcanowave radiation of the element he carried, and Circe would cast a Water Breathing spell on him, so that if the air became too thin to breathe he could simply stick his head inside a bucket of water and breathe that, instead. Once he attained his maximum height he would drop the element, which would fall thousands of feet at terminal velocity and hopefully shatter on impact. Then he would open the parachute and hopefully drift down safely to the ground below.

Image result for levitation
Just another 10,000 feet to go...

To prepare for this, Tiny spent a few days practising skydiving with Sovan by shoving him off progressively higher cliffs with a parachute strapped to his back. (Fortunately, Sovan has quite a lot of healing spells.) Once he was deemed ready, Sovan was send aloft with his horrible burden, while everyone else scattered in all directions. Over an hour later, the lump came crashing down like a meteorite and cracked apart, studding the whole rocky hillside with radioactive fragments. Shortly afterwards, Sovan was spotted drifting down and away on his parachute, and ended up having to be rescued from the branches of a tree in which he had become entangled, some miles away from the impact zone. Tiny selected a radioactive lump of roughly equal power output to the crystal casket for use as Hild's next power source, while the skeletons were tasked with collecting up the rest, putting them back inside the shielded reactor chamber within the beacon, and then holding its hatch shut from the inside FOR ALL ETERNITY - or until Hogarth gave them alternate orders, at any rate.

The PCs presented this rock to Hild as her new power source, and told her that Vord and his demons would be the workforce who would build her a new ship, and perhaps many more ships thereafter. Hild protested that the demons had no knowledge of shipbuilding, but Tiny just shrugged and told her to teach them whatever they needed to know. Leaving Hild fuming and furious in the custody of Vord, they flew back to Xam to pick up some ship-building equipment, before dropping it off at Vord's fort and promising to return 'at some point' to see how they were getting on with building their flying armada. Then they flew back to the Stonemoors, pausing only to stop off at the Purple Islands and swap out some of their crew for replacements after some of their crewmen had started to display alarming symptoms of sickness. Long-term exposure to the casket, it seemed, wasn't terribly healthy for anyone...

What impact will the arrival of the PCs have upon the war in the Stonemoors? Will they ever fulfill their promise to return Hild to the Black Isle? Where did the Red Men come from? And what use would a wind-powered ship be in space, anyway? All will be revealed in what appears to have become a weekly series of The Adventures of Team Tsathogga!