Tuesday 29 September 2020

Districts of the Wicked City 7: The River

It curves through the city in a great lazy meander, its waters discoloured by coal dust, its surface dotted with floating refuse. Here and there the chemical run-off from some adventurous serpent-folk laboratory creates shining puddles of oily, iridescent colour that spread across the water, to the delight of the shrieking children who splash and paddle in its shallows at low tide. Throughout the harvest seasons it is choked with fleets of barges, carrying confiscated wheat, barley and chickpeas from the surrounding fields and villages to feed the teeming and ravenous mouths of the city's people. For the rest of the year traffic upon the river is dominated by the skimming rowboats which carry passengers back and forth along its banks, evading the perpetual gridlock of the city's roads and bridges. There are still a few fishermen who ply their trade in its waters, but the fish in the river have grown scarce and strange in recent decades, and the fishing boats grow fewer every year. 

Shadman Malik bridge, Samarkand. (Built 1502 - this photo is from 1871.)

Shamans who commune with the spirit of the river upriver of the city say that he appears to them as a fine young man, proud and strong and straight-bodied, full of stories of the lands he has passed through and the hills he has made green. Those who commune with him downriver of the city find him terribly changed: an old man, haggard and shaking, wheedling and demanding, forgetful and irrational and vindictive. (Within the city, of course, the spirit will not appear at all.) Beyond the edge of the city's farmlands the river winds down into the desert, depleted by a thousand irrigation channels, and is lost in a maze of sediment-choked wadis. It does not reappear again. 

The riverfolk of the Wicked City are a breed unto themselves, a hardy race of scavengers who live among the mud and damp of the city's ruinous riverbanks. They make their homes among the leaning buildings that hang over the water at alarming angles, straining against their subsiding foundations, slowly losing their decades-long battle with gravity. They work on the wharves when work is to be had, caulking hulls, weaving ropes and nets, loading and unloading cargoes, and carrying passengers from bank to bank in agile little boats with sails like swift red wings. When work grows slack they take to salvage, digging amidst the muck in search of coals dropped from barges, or diving down into the basements of flooded buildings in search of something worth the taking. They swim like eels and stink of river-mud. A lifetime at the oars covers their bodies with braids of muscle, but the river's pollutants eat into their lungs and stomachs, and they usually die young. 

Turkmen boatmen, 1863.

Everything ends up in the river in the end. Toxic sludge from serpent-man drug-labs. The rusting hulks of crashed scrap-racers. The regalia of fallen noble houses, hurled into the water by their despairing heirs as the triumph of the Wicked King became inevitable. Mutilated statues from the king's statue network, their stone eyes gouged out to prevent them from witnessing who it was that toppled them into the river. The bodies of unfortunates murdered by the city's gangs, weighted down with rocks and thrown from the wharves at midnight, the river their only grave. Every riverman has stories about times they found more down there than they bargained for. Huge river-snakes swimming in from the Rubble. Flooded sinkholes leading down into the Maze. Sealed caskets of antique silver. Bullet-riddled corpses with bricks in their pockets, their faces still covered by the unmistakable death masks of the Secret Police

Most mysterious of all are the vast flooded spaces that extend beneath the temples and palaces that once lined the river in what are now the ruined districts. They may be little more than heaps of rubble on the surface, but the riverfolk swear that beneath them lie immense vaulted chambers, storerooms and basements and dungeons filled with river water, their treasures and secrets hidden beneath darkness and slime. Some of the most daring river scavengers are already in negotiations with the Scrap Mechanics. They want to hire digging tools and diving suits. They want to tear their way into the flooded vaults and drag their contents back into the light. 

One of them even hired a shaman from the steppes to ask the Downriver Spirit if he knew what was in them. The spirit claimed to have forgotten. But there was a crafty and desperate look in his demented eyes that suggested he may not have been telling the entire truth.

Thursday 24 September 2020

The march of empire

I've mentioned before that the setting of ATWC is loosely pegged to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which for the peoples of Central Asia were an era of imperial encroachment. Equipped with new gunpowder weaponry and a greatly improved logistical base, the Eurasian empires of the early modern period - Romanov Russia, Ottoman Turkey, Safavid Persia, Mughal India, and Qing China - were able to project force into the steppe, mountains, deserts, and taiga much more successfully than their predecessors. By the time the Nerchinsk Treaty of 1689 was signed, many once-impassible regions such as Azerbaijan, Sibera, Mongolia, and Afghanistan had been more-or-less carved up between them.

In ATWC, this hasn't happened yet. The steppe and taiga khanates still enjoy an uneasy independence, but every observer of current affairs can tell that change is on its way. Travel down the Great Road and you'll find foreigners everywhere: some southerners and some easterners and some westerners, but all carrying splendid-looking documents from far-off imperial courts and flanked by serious-looking men wearing strange military uniforms and carrying guns. They are always on the move, these foreigners. They study local languages. They map and survey and observe and inquire. They preach new religions, or disturbingly unfamiliar interpretations of old ones. They hold secret meetings with local princes that go on long into the night. Their horsemanship is comically terrible by steppe standards, and they possess a knack for starving to death in deserts that the locals find quite astounding, but despite these failings they carry themselves with a strange confidence. They seem convinced that the future belongs to them.

For the Tsar!

Wherever you go in the steppe khanates, or in the oasis kingdoms of the Great Road, you can bet that agents of foreign empires are there too. (They haven't made it very far into the taiga yet, but they're working on it.) Roll on the tables below to find out what they're up to.

Who is here? (Roll 1d8)
  1. Merchant-adventurers, scouting out the region's goods and markets on behalf of some far-off trade consortium, watched with loathing by local traders who have operated in this area for centuries. 
  2. Missionaries for some foreign faith, armed with official letters from a distant emperor, scornfully surveying the local temples.
  3. Negotiators come to arrange a treaty between a nearby ruler and some distant imperial state, speaking the local language very badly and looking extremely pleased with themselves.
  4. Explorers on horseback accompanied by local bearers, making notes and checking compasses, steadily filling in the blank areas on their maps.
  5. Scholars affiliated with a far-off university, surveying local customs and monuments and nodding sagely to themselves. 
  6. 'Archaeologists and antiquaries' (read: grave-robbers with fancy licenses), poking around in the ruins outside of town and casually asking where exactly your ancestors are buried.
  7. Military advisers decked out with the very latest in modern firearms technology, offering to help the local rulers modernise their pitifully outdated cannons and fortifications in exchange for a little quid pro quo.
  8. Roll again, but they're actually spies from a completely different foreign empire, here in disguise to watch over the activities of their rivals as part of some complicated game of international intrigue. 

For the Sultan!

Who leads them? (Roll 1d8)

  1. Bright-eyed true believer who genuinely believes that absorption into the greater imperial polity is the best thing that could possibly happen to a benighted backwater like this one.
  2. Dead-eyed veteran of the imperial war machine, whose utterly impersonal brutality makes even the most savage khans shiver.
  3. Long-term field agent who went native years ago, and now identifies more with the khanate they're posted to than the distant empire they supposedly serve.
  4. Embarrassing failure from a minor imperial house, sent out to the back of beyond with strict orders not to return home until they've actually accomplished something.
  5. Disgraced courtier who knows full well that they've been sent out here as a punishment, and resents it bitterly.
  6. Bookish academic convinced that their years of study in the archives have allowed them to understand the region much better than the people who actually live there.
  7. Enterprising merchant who sees the whole region as a series of mouth-watering opportunities for economic exploitation. 
  8. A member of a local ethnic group with a painstakingly acquired imperial education, who has carved out a precarious place for themselves as an intermediary between their country and the empire while feeling painfully out of place in both. 

For the Shah!

What is their true objective? (Roll 1d12)

  1. To lay the groundwork for the conquest and annexation of the region by the empire they serve.
  2. To change the region's culture and religion in ways that will align it with the empire.
  3. To gain revenge on the descendants of the nomad warlords who terrorised their empire generations ago. 
  4. To suppress the bandits and raiders based in the region, who are disrupting the empire's overland trade.
  5. To gain access to the natural resources of the region and exploit them for everything they're worth. 
  6. To turn the local rulers against their imperial rivals, who are also active in the region.
  7. To establish new trade routes and markets for the empire's merchants and manufacturers. 
  8. To bring down the local regime and replace it with one more amenable to their empire's interests.
  9. To establish a military alliance with the local rulers, in the hope of securing troops to fight in some distant imperial warzone. 
  10. To loot all the valuable books, treasure and antiquities they can get their hands on, on behalf of some far-off imperial archive or museum. 
  11. To establish covert diplomatic ties with the Wicked City. (All the empires insist loudly that they would never bargain with a state so obviously impious, but many of them do so anyway, albeit in secret. Empires always have uses for another delivery of cut-price muskets and clockwork soldiers!)
  12. Roll again, but the second roll is just a cover story: they're actually part of a rebel faction within the empire, secretly gathering allies and resources for a planned uprising. (Yes, if you also rolled an 8 on the first table, this means they're actually spies posing as rebels posing as something else. Welcome to the Great Game!)

For the Shahenshah!

How much backing do they have? (Roll 1d8)

(All imperial representatives travel with fancy letters declaring that anyone impeding their mission will face the wrath of the entire empire, but ink is cheap and armies are expensive. If push comes to shove, will anyone back home really care?)
  1. Less than zero. This mission has been deliberately set up to fail, as a deniable way of getting rid of someone inconvenient. No matter what happens to it, the empire will do nothing to intervene.
  2. Zero. This mission is essentially a punishment assignment for people who've made the wrong enemies. No-one in power will care if they don't make it home alive.
  3. Minimal. This mission is a gamble by some minor minister or provincial governor, who would very much like it to succeed but doesn't really have the resources to properly support it. Minor levels of military and/or financial reinforcement will be sent if they are in truly desperate need.
  4. Local. No-one really cares about this mission back in their distant imperial capital, but one local faction (roll 1d4 - 1 = religious group, 2 = ethnic group, 3 = political faction, 4 = merchant consortium) would like to see it succeed for private reasons of their own, and is willing to commit substantial resources to bring this about.
  5. Financial. This mission is being financed by someone with extremely deep pockets, and carries letters of credit that allow them to call upon staggering amounts of money on demand. 
  6. Military. This mission is being backed by someone with a lot of soldiers at their disposal, who is perfectly willing to send a whole lot of men to their deaths if it will help ensure the mission's success.
  7. Covert. Although only minimally supported by its notional patrons, the mission is actually being backed by another imperial power, for nefarious reasons of its own. They are willing to offer it substantial support, but only in indirect and deniable forms. 
  8. High. This mission has the full backing of the imperial government, which regards it as a strategic priority and are willing to launch large-scale military or diplomatic reprisals against anyone impeding or threatening it.
For the Son of Heaven!

Friday 18 September 2020

Condensation in Action 9: Carrion Crown

As I try to get back into the groove of blogging again, I thought one good way to do it might be via another Condensation in Action post. I find these useful as mental exercises: looking at someone else's material and thinking about what I'd keep and what I'd cut, and why, is helpful practise for my work as a writer and GM of my own adventures. As usual, this post will take a massively bloated Pathfinder adventure path and hack it down into something that someone might actually be able to play. This time, the series in my crosshairs is Carrion Crown. 

Previous Condensation in Action posts can be found here:

Carrion Crown was Paizo's first attempt to do a proper horror-fantasy campaignIt's set in a mock-Eastern-European region which was clearly meant to be Pathfinder's answer to Ravenloft, and the whole campaign walks the PCs through a sort of 'greatest hits' version of the pop culture horror canon. Book one: ghosts. Book two: Frankenstein. Book three: werewolves. Book four: Cthulhu mythos. Book five: vampires. Book six: fantasy undead. 

All Adventure Paths are uneven, but Carrion Crown is extreme. Part one is a good low-level dungeon crawl in a haunted prison. Part six is a good high-level dungeon crawl in a haunted church. Almost everything in between is incoherent rubbish: one contrived fight scene after another with only the most tenuous tissue of railroaded plotting to hold them together. In this post, I'm going to be channelling my own inner Frankenstein as I cut out the best bits and try to stitch them together into NEW LIFE...

The Backstory: This adventure is set in a desolate region that was ruled, centuries ago, by an infamous necromancer called The Whispering Tyrant. The Tyrant was eventually defeated in battle, and his haunted stronghold, the Gallowspire, was left to fall into ruin. The whole region has had an evil reputation ever since.

Recently a young aristocrat named Adivion Adrissant, whose two main interests were necromancy and genealogy, discovered that the Tyrant's line was not extinct, as had previously been thought: he had a living lineal descendant in the form of one Count Galdana, a local nobleman. Upon learning this, Adivion came up with a terrible brilliant plan: using the unique magic he had researched, he would call the Tyrant's soul down through the generations into Galdana's body, allowing him to learn sorcery from one of the greatest necromancers in history! To help him gather the necessary reagents, he used his charisma, wealth, and connections to gather a small cult of debauched followers. Calling themselves the Whispering Way, they believed that the returned Tyrant would make them kings and queens in exchange for their assistance with his resurrection.

Adivion's plan required four specific components: the ectoplasmic essence of a powerful ghost, the heart of a werewolf alpha, the magic from a powerful holy item, and Galdana himself. Ever impatient, Adivion has sent his followers out to grab all these at once, hoping to rush through the Tyrant's resurrection while he is still young and beautiful. The consequences of these none-too-subtle acquisitions have destabilised the whole region... which is where the PCs come in.

The Hook: The default starting point is for the PCs to be passing through Ravengro, when the locals beg them to investigate their haunted prison. However, given that Adivion's actions have pretty much thrown the whole region into chaos, the PCs can start from just about anywhere, as all the threads connect to one another in the end. 

Harrowstone: The ruins of this infamous prison stands on the edge of the town of Ravengro. Once a place for the imprisonment and execution of the region's most notorious criminals, it burned down fifty years ago in a fire started during a prison riot, and has been abandoned ever since. It is also famously haunted, which led the Whispering Way to pick it as a good site from which to acquire the ghost essence their ritual required.

The Harrowstone fire claimed the lives of guards and prisoners alike, and ever since the ghosts of Harrowstone have existed in a kind of stand-off, with the ghost of the prison warden acting as jailer to the ghosts of his prisoners in death just as he did in life. Unfortunately the Whispering Way grabbed the warden's ghost in an ectoplasmic siphon, and now the murderous ghosts of Harrowstone are on the brink of breaking out. Only the ghost of the warden's wife, Vesorianna, stands between them and freedom.

Ravengro: Everyone in this town knows that something terrible is happening. Everyone's got stories to tell about nightmares, hallucinations, episodes of missing time, and poltergeist activity. Everyone blames the ghosts at the old prison, but any locals who go near the place get chased off by skeletons. As Vesorianna's hold over the ghosts weakens, the manifestations of the haunting grow more extreme: torches flame up and cause house fires, zombies shamble from the cemetery, screaming flaming skulls hurtle through the sky by night. The letter V starts turning up on buildings, daubed in blood: then, a few days later, the letters VE, and so on. (This is the work of the Splatter Man: see below.) If the haunting isn't stopped before he spells out the whole name VESORIANNA, then the ghosts of the prison will burst their cage and the whole town will be abandoned amidst mass spirit possession and indiscriminate poltergeist activity. The people will beg (and, if necessary, bribe) the PCs to help lay the ghosts in the prison to rest.

PCs who do some investigating can discover that the town's troubles began shortly after the arrival of a group of travellers who stayed a few days, supposedly in order to 'study the local landmarks', before riding on to Lepidstadt. (These, of course, were the Whispering Way cultists who abducted the warden's ghost.)

Approaching the prison: The prison graveyard, where executed convicts were buried in unmarked graves, has collapsed into a sinkhole, and mud-dripping skeletons of the vengeful dead will come staggering out to drive off those who come too close. Once these are defeated or bypassed then the prison ruins can be entered, but poltergeist activity within is rampant: floating brands try to burn intruders, hurtling scalpels fly around the prison infirmary, rusted chains fly up to bind and strangle, etc. Most dangerous of all is a rusted furnace containing the bones of a prisoner burned alive by sadistic guards: now his bones burn eternally, and the furnace lashes out with great tongues of flame at anyone who approaches. If his bones could be cooled (e.g. by throwing water on them) the furnace would go out. Vesorianna's ghost waits beyond, haunting the way down to the cells below.

Vesorianna's ghost. I'm sure there's a totally legitimate in-universe reason why the damage to her clothes persists but the damage to her skin does not.

Vesorianna: Like her husband, she died in the fire. Now she tries to hold back the teeming ghosts in the dungeons below, though her grip is weakening. She will tell PCs that the ghosts do not regard her as the true warden, and will thus not obey her, and begs them to retrieve her husband's badge of office from the dungeons beneath. If they tell her about the bloody letters in town she will realise that this is the work of the Splatter Man, and plead with them to stop him before he finishes spelling out her name. If the PCs can return her husband's badge to her, then she will take her place as the new warden of Harrowstone and force the ghosts of the prisoners back into their cells. However, if the Splatter Man finishes spelling out her name before this happens, she will lose all her power and become a mere wraith wailing around the ruins of the prison. 

Vesorianna saw the Whispering Way cultists who abducted her husband's ghost. She can describe them to the PCs, and tell them they spoke about heading to Lepidstadt next, but won't volunteer this information unless they help her with the prison situation. 

The dungeons: Here most of the prisoners died in their cells, burned by fire, suffocated by smoke, or crushed by rubble from the collapsing prison - but not before they got their hands on several of the prison guards, who were decapitated by the Lopper. (See below.) Now the ever-burning skulls and skeletons of the murdered guards roam the corridors attacking trespassers, in two separate patrols: one of headless flaming skeletons, and one of flying burning skulls. The cells are also haunted by the ghosts of four notorious criminals - the Lopper, the Piper, the Mosswater Marauder, and the Splatter Man - which each haunt a different part of the cells, and will attempt to stop the PCs from recovering the warden's badge of office.

The Lopper: A mad axeman who was imprisoned in the prison's oubliette. Now his axe-wielding ghost pops out of the oubliette to try to decapitate anyone nearby. Completely fixated on his axe, which can be found elsewhere in the prison: anyone wielding it can wound him, and destroying it banishes him.

The Piper: A serial killer who dosed his victims with paralytic poison, then used his pipes to call flocks of tame stirges to suck their blood. His ghostly piping has called stirge swarms to his section of the prison ruins, where they now nest, and if anyone approaches his bones he will pipe a tune that causes their muscles to seize up and blood to trickle out of tiny bleeding holes in their body. His pipe is still locked in an evidence locker in the warden's old office, and destroying it ends his haunting.

The Mosswater Marauder: Crazed by the death of his wife, this man murdered several people and smashed their skulls to pieces, convinced his dead wife could be revived if only he could find a piece that exactly matched the missing fragment of her skull. Now his ghost roams the prison whacking people with its ghostly hammer, accompanied by the floating, ghostly, incomplete skull of his wife. He has obsessively collected and reassembled every skull in the prison (apart from the flaming ones), and his cell is full of them. Destroying these skulls will banish him.

The Mosswater Marauder.

The Splatter Man: In life, a crazed serial killer with a gimmick - he would taunt his intended victims by writing their names in blood on walls and objects, then arrange for their deaths in apparently random (but extremely messy) accidents. Now he's a ghost, and causality runs the other way around: if he writes someone's name on something in blood, then that object will catastrophically break / fail / collapse when they come close, harming or killing them in the process. He keeps a herd of rats around for this very purpose, telekinetically draining them of blood. The strongest of the ghosts, he's sometimes able to slip past Vesorianna's guard and possess random villagers as they sleep, forcing them to write letters in blood on the walls of buildings in the town. If he finishes writing her name then her power will be broken, and he and the other ghosts will be free. His ghost haunts the torture chamber where the warden was murdered during the original prison riot, and where his rusted badge of office is still to be found. (No shortcuts on this one: the PCs are just going to have to run the gauntlet of his splatter traps to get the badge. Clever PCs can protect themselves by using fake names while in the dungeons, as he has no supernatural means of learning what their names are, and only a real name will trigger his traps.)

Lepidstadt: This large university town is currently in uproar. Everyone knows that the nearby swamps have been haunted for years by a hulking monster, the so-called Beast of Lepidstadt, who is blamed for dozens of murders and disappearances: but a few days ago the creature, which turned out to be an intelligent flesh golem, was caught breaking into the university archives! Now it's been captured and is being held for trial - and subsequent execution, as soon as they can figure out a way to actually kill it.

PCs who investigate the affair will swiftly realise it doesn't make much sense. When the monster was captured it was wandering around in a state of addled confusion, randomly smashing things, but if questioned it seems alert and articulate. It didn't break anything on the way in, heading instead for a single cabinet and smashing it open, and only afterwards began its random rampage. The seastone idol that the targeted cabinet once contained is now missing, even though everything else the Beast smashed is clearly present (albeit in pieces). And the Beast itself claims to have no memory of the entire affair, and also denies being responsible for any of the other murders it's been blamed for, claiming that it's been living peacefully in the swamps ever since it was first abandoned by its creator. (This isn't quite true - it has a bad temper and has killed a few people who antagonised it over the years - but it is innocent of the murders it's being accused of.) 

In fact the Beast was mind-controlled by the Whispering Way into carrying out the robbery, using the machine at Castle Caromarc (see below). They used the Beast to steal the idol, which they needed to trade to the Deep Ones at Ilmarsh, and then left it behind to take the blame. The last thing the Beast remembers before his memory blank is seeing a group of men approaching. PCs who come to Lepidstadt from Ravengro will be able to match them to the descriptions of the men who stole the warden's ghost. The Beast promises to help the PCs find them if they can help save it from execution.

Investigating the murders: The murders that the Beast is being tried for were actually committed by a pair of body-snatchers named Vorkstag and Grine, who have mastered a horrible technique for disguising themselves using preserved and flayed-off human faces. There are two main charges: a string of disappearances at a village in the swamps, and an arson attack on an asylum which stood on an island in a nearby lake. 

  • The village was targeted by Vorkstag and Grine because of the preservative qualities of its soil. They emptied its graveyard one grave at a time, and when demand outstripped supply they started murdering locals. Their first victim was a local poacher whose face Grine wore in order to infiltrate the community, and the actual murders were carried out by Vorkstag wearing the face of a horribly deformed man, ensuring that any witnesses would be led astray. The villagers still boast of how they drove the 'Beast' out of their boneyard, but a careful search of the site will reveal a secret stash containing medical tools and the poacher's preserved and flayed-off face. If the tools are shown to local manufacturers of medical implements, they can identify them as part of a bulk order sold to Vorkstag and Grine Chymical Works.
  • The asylum doctor had a two-way deal with Vorkstag and Grine, buying bodies from them in bulk for his own medical research while selling them the corpses of his own more physically unusual patients. He eventually became suspicious about exactly where all these fresh corpses were coming from and tried to break off the deal, at which point Vorkstag put on his monster face, killed the doctor, and burned the place down. Witnesses report seeing the 'Beast' fleeing the scene, but a careful search of the burned-out ruins reveal hidden dissection rooms below, and charred but still legible account books showing regular payments to and from Vorkstag and Grine Chymical Works. 
The Chymical Works: Vorkstag and Grine are still very much in business, running a horrible chemical company that supplies the university laboratories with all sorts of chemicals and compounds derived from human corpses. Their tightly-sealed compound, notable for the foul black smoke that pours day and night from its chimney, is staffed by freakish and horribly acid-burned workmen. Within, alchemical zombies float in pools of ice-water below the chemical works proper: these wretched creatures retain their intelligence only as long as Vorkstag and Grine give them regular alchemical injections into their brains, which they use to retain their loyalty. (If the PCs can steal the relevant chemicals and a box of syringes for them, they'll turn on Vorkstag and Grine in an instant.) In a locked room hangs a wardrobe full of flayed-off human skins, and a stack of hatboxes containing flayed-off human faces, which Vorkstag and Grine use for their horrible disguises. One of these is the deformed face that people at the village and asylum misidentified as belonging to the Beast, which should be enough to clear its name.

The skin wardrobe. Ewww.

Castle Caromarc: If the PCs save the Beast, it will tell them that the men who controlled it must have done so using the machines of its creator, the reclusive Count Caromarc. If they don't save it, then as it is dragged off to execution it will roar and bellow that its 'father' Count Caromarc will never forgive them for this, which should point them in the same direction!

Caromarc built the Beast years ago as a substitute child, after the death of his son. Unfortunately he liked the idea of being a father much more than the reality and soon got bored of it, leaving the neglected Beast to wander off into the swamps: but he recognised that having a nigh-indestructible golem on call might still be handy, so before it left he built a machine, the Bondslave Thrall, which allowed him to seize control over its body remotely from the comfort of his own castle. (The Beast has no memory of what it does while under the control of the machine.) The Whispering Way tried to recruit Caromarc, but when he rebuffed them they locked him in a cage to starve and used the Bondslave Thrall to force the Beast to steal the seastone idol from the university for them. Caromarc barely ever leaves the castle anyway, so his disappearance has not yet been noticed by anyone else.

Castle Caromarc has two main guardians. The main castle is roamed by a clattering hook-clawed apparatus that attacks anyone not accompanied by someone wearing the count's livery: fortunately uniforms can easily be looted from his various dead guards and servants. The count's private rooms - his museum, library, and laboratory - are protected by a blind flesh golem, accompanied by a fluttering cloud of six mind-bonded homunculi: these act as its eyes, allowing it to see six different places at once, but killing them all will leave it blind and easy to evade. Caromarc himself is locked inside a cage in his own lab, which has become the web-swathed nesting place of his latest creation, an awful human-spider hybrid monster released by the Whispering Way on their way out. He would have long since died of thirst were it not for his faithful mute homunculus, Waxwing, who sneaks in every day with meals of crumbs and water under the cover of its ring of invisibility. Waxwing will invisibly observe the PCs as they move through the castle, and will attempt to guide them up to the lab to free his master. The Beast has no desire to return to the castle, but clever PCs might locate and use the Bondslave Thrall to force it back there to fight Caromarc's guardians on their behalf. 

Count Caromarc: If the PCs save him, Caromarc will be hugely grateful, and will happily tell them about the Whispering Way. He knows that they came to Lepidstadt from Ravengro, and that some of them were planning to take the stolen idol to Ilmarsh, while others headed for the Stairs of the Moon in the woods nearby to seek out the local werewolves. He also recalls them discussing some kind of plan involving the nearby city of Caliphas.

The Stairs of the Moon: A ruined shrine deep in the woods, now used as a meeting place for the local werewolves. A band of Whispering Way cultists led by Auren Vrood (see below) ambushed the local alpha here, killed him, and stole his heart for their ritual: Auren then went on to Feldgrau, while his assistants carried the heart to the cult's leaders at Renchurch. Now the two leading werewolf packs - the Prince's Wolves and the Demon Wolves - are engaged in a civil war over who should be the next alpha, much to the consternation of the humans in the nearby villages, who are terrified by all the howling from the woods at night. PCs can pick a side in the battle if they like, or just interrogate a random werewolf to find out what's going on and then leave them to fight it out.

Feldgrau: Two decades ago, the people of this remote village were massacred in a petty war. The only survivor was a boy named Auren Vrood, who lived for in the ruins years as a traumatised scavenger before being found by Adivion Adrissant, who was on a bit of a dark tourism kick at the time. Adivion adopted Auren and taught him necromancy, and now he's returned to animate his slaughtered community as skeleton warriors to take revenge on the world in general. The werewolves know full well that he was involved in the murder of their previous alpha, and as soon as their civil war is settled they'll descend in force on Feldgrau to avenge him, even if it means fighting through Auren's nascent skeleton army. Auren is stubbornly loyal to Adivion's cause, but he's also rather unhinged, and PCs can potentially learn a lot about the Whispering Way's various plans in Ravengro, Lepidstadt, Ilmarsh, Renchurch and Caliphas by secretly listening to his ranting, goading him into making Evil Villain Monologues, etc. 

Ilmarsh: This town is under the protection of Deep Ones in the nearby bay, who watch over it in exchange for regular sacrifices. The Whispering Way came here because they needed a powerful holy mace, the Raven's Head, which was lost beneath the bay centuries ago. The Deep Ones agreed to retrieve it in exchange for the return of their seastone idol, which led the cultists to stage their break-in at the university. They've since picked up the mace and headed on to Renchurch via Caliphas.

PCs visiting Ilmarsh may want to amuse themselves by raiding the local not-so-secret temple to Dagon, or by exploring a ruinous manor house in the swamps nearby which houses the town's leaders: its foundations incorporate an ancient and unholy stone circle, and it is guarded by an ambibious marsh giant who serves as the Deep Ones' champion. They probably won't want to explore the underwater lair of the Deep Ones themselves, which is in any case guarded by a giant octopus. All they really need to do is kick in enough doors to learn that the Whispering Way carried the idol here, swapped it with the Deep Ones in exchange for something powerful from beneath the sea, and then left for Renchurch via Caliphas

The Stupid Fucking Vampire Subplot: So there are these three witches, right? Except one of them is about to get burned at the stake, so she distributes her consciousness into a massive swarm of spiders and they all run off into the mountains. And while they're up there they find this accursed immortal knight called Konas, who is just a suit of plate mail armour with blood constantly seeping from between the joints, and they magically control him into working for them. And then they meet Adivion and I can only assume that he was really fucking high at the time because he's like, hey, why not use your magic blood knight to make addictive strength-boosting blood potions for vampires and then use them to make some young vampires murder some old vampires and then we'll have an army of vampires and that'll come in useful, somehow, I guess. So now the city of Caliphas is full of vampires killing other vampires and the PCs might want to look into that at some point. If you only cut one part of the whole adventure, make it this one.

Caliphas: This large and decadent city has been thrown into consternation by the mysterious recent disappearances of some of its palest and most fashionable citizens, including the sinfully sexy Adivion Adrissant (who has, of course, left for Gallowspire to resurrect the Tyrant) and the ludicrously wealthy Count Galdana (who was abducted by Adivion). The other vanished notables were just vampires murdered as part of Adivion's shadow war. PCs looking into these disappearances will soon be sought out by Quinley Basdel, a dhampir thief whose vampire mother was among the victims of the recent killing spree. He can confirm that all the disappered other than Adivion and Galdana were old high-ranking vampires with plenty of mind-controlled spawn, all of whom are free now - but while the PCs will probably instantly suspect the spawn, the city's vampires have never even considered the possibility, because vampire spawn are normally unable to act against their own makers. Even a small amount of investigation by PCs without these particular blinders will reveal that the spawn were the killers, and that they've all been making regular visits to a winery outside the city ever since: this is where the witches give them the addictive bloodbrew which boosts their physical and psychic strength, allowing them to overcome the mind control of their sires, and encourage them to pass it on to other spawn like themselves. The witches currently have a small army of vampire spawn bloodbrew junkies coming and going from their winery by night, which is attracting some attention among the local population. 

The Winery: If the PCs raid the winery they'll find the two still-human witches, Aisa and Hetna, in there making bloodbrew potions using the blood that constantly leaks out of the accursed blood knight, Konas, while their spider-swarm sister, Oothi, acts as lookout, watching through a million eyes. They also have a sideline in distilling vampire essence from all those murdered vampires, with the objective of making potions of youth for their human patron, Countess Carmilla Caliphvaso, who owns the winery. Aisa and Hetna are absolutely terrible at OpSec, and their winery is full of incriminating (and rather spicy) correspondence between them and Adivion about the plan to resurrect the Tyrant, the cult's base at Renchurch, their activities in Ravengro, Ilmarsh, and Lepidstadt, etc. Konas is slow but borderline-unkillable, but killing Aisa and Hetna will break their control over him and allow him to flee back into the mountains to sulk for another few centuries, causing all the vampires junkies to die in agonising withdrawal pangs once the bloodbrew supply runs out.

Konas. From dark knight to vampire drug factory.

Renchurch: This ruined church, deep in the wilderness, is the stronghold of the Whispering Way. (If the PCs befriended the Beast or the werewolves, now would be a good time to call in their favours!) It is haunted by the ghost of an ancient heretic, the Grey Friar: steeped in centuries of evil, the Friar sees Adivion as a bit of an idiot, but is willing to work with him in the hope of bringing his old buddy the Whispering Tyrant back to the world. Adivion has stashed the kidnapped Count Galdana here, and the Grey Hermit is preparing him for his transformation by slowly leeching his mind and soul away, reducing him to a blank slate ready to be overwritten by the Tyrant's spirit. 

The church is guarded by a pale, crooked-bodied, three-armed giant in a black robe, as well as by a host of ghostly monks, the slaves of the Grey Friar. If the alarm is raised, the ghosts will ring the great, cracked bells, and waterlogged corpses will come lurching from the monastery pond, reduced to bog mummies by centuries in the earth. The nearby graveyard has been desecrated so many times that very earth has become furious, and now seeks to devour anyone who steps on it unless they obviously come to repair its tombs and rebury its plundered bones. (Clever PCs can use this against their enemies.) The iron doors of the church are built from hundreds of rusted, cursed swords, which snap outwards to decapitate intruders unless deactivated via a hidden switch nearby.

As PCs enter the church, its unholy power will wash over them: whispers fill their minds, weapons rot and rust, armour tarnishes, and holy symbols suddenly become loathsome to the touch. They will be stricken with nausea, and those who succumb will find themselves vomiting up floods of flesh-eating beetles that promptly try to eat them alive. The church is also guarded by a terrible undead wolf with human hands instead of paws, whose gaze causes sickness, and whose proximity induces crippling weakness and fatigue. Fortunately for the PCs, these supernatural security features have rendered the Whispering Way cultists within so complacent that they spend most of their time snorting mummy dust and inhaling ectoplasm from hookah pipes, and are consequently unlikely to mount any kind of effective defence. The one asset they do have is a giant life-draining lens that they use to turn human captives into ghouls, which they will attempt to deploy in battle as a potentially powerful but extremely inaccurate weapon. Once they are defeated, the way to the catacombs will be clear.

Renchurch Catacombs: Here bloated ghouls, created by the lens above, gorge themselves on corpses. Stuffed human heads line the walls: when intruders approach they begin gulping convulsively, sucking all the air out of the room, requiring PC to move quickly to destroy them before they suffocate. Sinkholes in the ground flood unpredictably with icy water mixed with worms, dead flesh, and bones. Side-rooms house the ghosts of dead necromancers who act as tutors to the cultists, and a collection of skulls and jawbones: matching a skull with the right jawbone allows the spirit trapped within to speak, but attaching the wrong jawbone just results in maddening chattering sounds that will bring the ghouls running. In the deepest subterranean shrine the Grey Friar himself hovers over Count Galdana, draining his life-force away by inches, surrounded by unholy ever-burning flames: these are piled high with the charred bones of all the human sacrifices burned within them, which will animate and leap out as flaming skeletons to defend the shrine from intruders. If these are defeated, the Grey Friar will simply vanish, letting the PCs take Galdana rather than risk his own immortal existence for the sake of Adivion's plan.

If saved, Galdana will gradually recover from his ordeal, but the ritual components the PCs have been tracking - the werewolf heart, the ghost essence, and the Raven's Head - aren't here. By interrogating Galdana, a captured cultist, or one of the talking skulls, the PCs can learn that Adivion took them with him to Gallowspire, where Galdana was meant to be brought for his final transformation.

Adivion in his stupid tryhard necromancer outfit. What a loser.

Gallowspire: Once the stronghold of the Whispering Tyrant, this tower stands in the middle of a ruined city of sulpherous sinkholes, impaling gardens, and pavements of skulls that turn to bite the feet of anyone who tries to walk upon them. It is surrounded by a perpetual storm of screaming spirits, and two giant zombie knights guard the gate. Countless rusted hooks hang from the tower on the ends of chains, with impaled bodies dangling from them - these are, of course, animated, and will swing out to grab at anyone who comes within reach. Adivion, being a massive drama llama, is sitting right on the top of the tower with the ritual components around him, practising his evil villain speeches and waiting for his followers to bring Galdana to him.

As soon as Adivion sees the PCs approaching the tower, he will realise that the game is up. Instead of waiting for Galdana, he will use the prepared ritual on himself, naively assuming that his own necromantic talents will be enough to keep the spirit of the Whispering Tyrant under control. The result will be a bit like locking a wannabe teenage Satanist in a room with Vlad the Impaler, and by the time the PCs get to the top of the tower Adivion will be in a pitiful state, screaming and pleading and babbling as his body disintegrates under the impact of the Tyrant's assault from within, his voice intermittently drowned out by the roars and whispers of the Tyrant himself. He's not part of the Tyrant's bloodline, and he hasn't been properly prepared for the transformation, so the result will never be more than a massively-imperfect synthesis of his own collapsing body with the Tyrant's undying will. Even that adds up to something pretty dangerous, though, so the PCs should really kill him before the Tyrant manages to integrate himself any further...

Aftermath: The death of Adivion means the end of the Whispering Way, and the end of the line for its various accomplices. The estates of Adivion and Countess Carmilla will be seized, and the grateful Count Galdana will see to it that the PCs are generously rewarded from both these funds and from his own vast personal fortune. If the PCs retrieved the skulls from beneath Renchurch, they will also be in possession of an incredible unliving library of magical knowledge, much of it otherwise lost to the ages. Equipped with such knowledge, they might even start speculating how to bind or banish the ghost of the Whispering Tyrant for themselves....

Friday 11 September 2020

City of Spires part 3: Crungon Walo Wide

Hubert Robert, Ancient ruins (the Arch of Titus in Rome), 1754-1765, color on paperboard, Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts.

'The Ruin' is a fragmentary Old English poem in the Exeter Book, written by an unknown Saxon poet contemplating the ruins of a Roman city. Fittingly enough, 'The Ruin' has itself been ruined, its pages partly destroyed by some ancient fire. But what remains is pretty powerful stuff.

At the start of the pandemic, as the death tolls soared and the lockdowns began, two lines from 'The Ruin' became absolutely lodged in my head.

Crungon walo wide, cwoman woldagas

swylt eall fornom secgrofa wera

[Slaughter ranged widely, plague days came,

Death took all the brave men away.]

The subject matter is bleak, but the verse is wonderful. (Read the first line out loud, slowly. Notice the way the first three words reach out and fall back like dying men, and the way the word 'woldagas' looms up suddenly, like Death on his pale horse rising up over the horizon.) It's an excellent early example of the 'aesthetics of ruin' I described here, mingling awe at the achievements of the ancients with sorrow at the obviously catastrophic nature of their fall. As the year has gone on, it's also become a bit of a touchstone for me in relation to the 'City of Spires' campaign.

In a response to my 'aesthetics of ruin' post, Arnold K described 'Starfighter Samwise' as 'the ruiniest thing I've ever written'. Well, City of Spires is the ruiniest thing I've ever run. It's set in a ruined city built on top of another ruined city. The population is a remnant of a remnant. The trade routes are fading ruts in the desert. The priests are all dead and the local religion consists of things that people vaguely remember hearing about in sermons from their childhood. The clockwork machines are rusting and broken. The irrigation networks have collapsed from lack of maintenance and the wells are choked with sand. There are very few real villains: just a whole lot of badly damaged people groping their way through the wreckage of their lives, with figures who initially seem terrifying repeatedly turning out to be pitiable upon closer examination. If ATWC is about evil, then City of Spires has mostly ended up being about loss. 

(One of the most effective moments in the campaign so far came with the PCs barricaded inside a ruined house, while the Weeping Lady, a blind, flying monster who haunted the city by night, scratched and clawed at the timbers. As she scratched, she kept calling out in some ancient tongue, and at last the group's scholar was able to translate her words: 'Who's there? Is anyone there? What's happening? What's happened to me?' The party's shift from seeing her as a terrible threat to just a poor, maimed, lost thing hiding in the night was very gratifying to see, even if they remain rightly wary of her capacity for extreme and indiscriminate violence.) 

Landscape With Ruins (Capriccio) by Giovanni Niccolo Servandoni, 18th century architect and artist

As well as giving the campaign a consistent aesthetic register - rust, ash, tarnished metal, rags, rubble, malnutrition, sand - the ruination of the setting has made it much easier to work with, actual-play-wise. In true post-apocalyptic style, the armed forces of the various factions are closer to street gangs than armies. The clockwork machines are all damaged and malfunctioning. No-one has much in the way of magic, or technology, or resources, or control over anything outside their own respective patches of turf. Everything is so smashed and broken that even a handful of opportunistic lunatics like the PCs are regularly able to make a real difference. 

It's also made the hexcrawl elements I mentioned in my last post much easier to run. In a setting where everyone is just barely scraping by at the bottom of the pyramid of human needs, strengths and weaknesses tend to be obvious, and the objectives of each faction are usually of an extremely straightforward and easily legible kind. We need food. We need protection. We need to destroy our rivals. We have a field. We have a castle. We have a well. Everything is stripped down to its most elemental forms, which makes it much easier for the PCs to interact with them. Complexity can be reserved for those rare groups and individuals who have managed to drag themselves a few rungs up above the daily struggle for bare survival. 

Crungon walo wide, cwoman woldagas / swylt eall fornom secgrofa wera. If you want to make a setting easier to game in, hit it with a dose of the old crungon. Take all the brave men away. Turn your PCs loose in the wreckage. The setting's loss may well turn out to be the campaign's gain. 

Thursday 10 September 2020

City of Spires bonus post: Naked Spiderman and the Crab Balloon

We played another session of City of Spires last night. Various things happened - barge sabotage, crop burning, resume faking, Crime Tribe diplomacy, the usual - but one incident in particular is going to stay with me forever. The incident in question was that of Naked Spiderman and the Crab Balloon. 

Twisted Designs balloon animals created by Cody Freeman Brisbane | Balloons,  Balloon animals, Balloon fish
A Crab Balloon. Please don't google 'Naked Spiderman'.

The situation was this: the Scaleboys, thuggish rulers of the City of Spires, were setting out on their horrible vulgar gilded barge to collect tribute from their vassals on the other side of the river. This tribute-gathering-cum-extortion expedition was led by none other than Zal, their chief enforcer, against whom the PCs harboured a serious grudge. The only Scaleboy to have passed twice through the mysterious House of Scales, Zal was a mountain of a man, a mass of bulging muscles and imbricated scales squeezed into a slashed silk peach-and-crimson doublet. Reasoning that anyone that big and heavy would probably sink like a stone in water, the PCs decided to try to sink his barge and drown him in the river mid-crossing.

Here was their plan: first, they made an improvised dogcatcher pole, using a thick wire lasso attached to the end of a metal rod. (They have plenty of wire because the Weeping Lady vomits/exhales massive impaling clouds of the stuff at them every time they fight her.) Second, they made an improvised snorkel using a long, thin wooden tube. Thirdly, their mutant crab-man cleric Crabface cast Levitate on himself and sank beneath the water of the river: his mutations allowed him to breathe underwater, and the Levitate spell ensured that he would neither rise or sink, simply being carried along at an even pace by the current. Fourthly, Barnabus the magic-user stripped down to his loincloth, put on the snorkel, stowed a sealed jar of corrosive sludge under one arm, and slid into the river until only the tube of the snorkel was above the water. The plan was that Crabface would hold Barnabus's legs, and the two of them would drift downriver on an intercept course with the Scaleboy barge, passing just under it and allowing Barnabus to reach out and cast two Dessicate spells on the timbers of its base before pouring the corrosive sludge over the side. The timbers would shrink, the sludge would eat a hole in the barge, water would pour in, and the barge would hopefully sink: then Crabface would be able to swim up from beneath Zal, grab one of his ankles with the dogcatcher pole, and Levitate right down to the bottom of the river, pulling Zal down to drown in what would hopefully appear to be a mere accident rather than a targeted assassination.

The first part of the plan went well. Barnabus cast his Dessicate spells and stealthily poured in his sludge, the timbers shrank, and the barge started filling with water: but there were a lot of people in it, all with crates and barrels on-hand for collecting tribute in, and they were collectively able to bale a lot of water, making the barge unlikely to sink before it reached the other bank. Deciding more sabotage was necessary, Barnabus popped up from the water and began using a Mage Hand spell to pull their buckets away, yank oars out of line, and generally fuck with them: several people on the barge saw a strange naked man sticking out of the water casting spells at them, but they were all too busy bailing to do much about it. With the barge sinking fast, the Scaleboys and their servants began grabbing onto crates and barrels and preparing to swim for the far shore: at this point Barnabus cast a Light spell on Zal's eyes, hoping to blind him, but the huge Scaleboy shook it off. Then Crabface decided that he would try a Light spell too... and that's when everything started to go wrong.

In order to cast Light, Crabface had to let go of Barnabus and float up to the surface. Barnabus knew how to swim, but he was really suffering in the cold of the water. He had spent the previous year at a continuous comfortable temperature thanks to a magical amulet: but he'd lent the amulet to his friend Lucius, who was currently sleeping rough on a hillside as part of his guerrilla war on the poppy fields used by the Scaleboys to make opium, and he was not coping well the cold autumnal river as a result. Barely able to move his freezing limbs, Barnabus was swept downriver by the current. 

Crabface cast another Light spell on Zal, but he shook that one off as well, and joined his minions in the water, swimming for the shore. Crabface swam up beneath him and grabbed for his leg with the dogcatcher pole, but missed, and soon Zal and the rest were in water too shallow for him to make another attempt without being seen. The Scaleboys clambered up out of the water, dripping and furious, and Crabface decided to swim downriver to see what had become of Barnabus. 

It was just as well he did. Barnabus had been carried downriver into the territory of the Crusties, near-mindless human/crustacean hybrids who nested in the flooded sections of the ruined, haunted mansion of the fallen House of Swords. As the Crusties closed in around him, claws clacking, Barnabus made a desperate choice: he cast Spider Climb on himself, held his breath, dropped under the water, and used Spider Climb to scamper along the bottom of the river and up the nearest bank. The Crusties tore at him as he went and he burst out of the river naked, covered in blood, and more dead than alive. It was at this point that Crabface spotted him. 

Seeing his friend being mobbed by the Crusties, Crabface tried to use his own part-crustacean nature to signal to them to call off the attack - but he only succeeded in confusing some of them, and others ripped into Barnabus as he tried to Spider Climb his way up the side of the House of Swords, causing him to drop bleeding and unconscious to the floor. Launching himself out of the water, Crabface grabbed him and used Levitate to fly straight up: the Crusties tore at him, too, and by the time he was out of their reach he had only 1 HP left. (Barnabus was on -1 HP and rapidly bleeding to death.) Collapsing onto a crumbling ledge, Crabface used Cure Light Wounds spells to drag them both off death's door. But Levitate only allowed him to move straight up and down, which was no use: only the sky was above them, and the furious Crusties were circling the building below.

But Barnabus still had Spider Climb active. And that, it turned out, was all they needed. 

Normally, Barnabus would never have been strong enough to carry Crabface. But Crabface still had an active Levitate spell, so lifting him wasn't an issue - he just needed something to pull him sideways. Adjusting his dogcatcher noose, he tied it around Barnabus's waist: then he held onto the pole, and levitated a few inches into the air. Barnabus, still dripping, bleeding, naked, and white with cold, then got down on all fours and began spider-manning his way across the tops of the walls, leaping from building to building, trusting to his Spider Climb spell to allow him to stick onto whatever surface he landed on. Crabface, tied onto him via the pole, floated behind him like a big, ugly mutant balloon, drifting over the ruined buildings until they had left the furious crusties far behind...

...and thus it was that, when the rest of the party came to rescue them, they were greeted with the sight of Naked Spiderman and the Crab Balloon, clambering over the rubble to meet them. It was a sight that would haunt them for the rest of their days.

* * *

Emergent nonsense like this is my single favourite thing about oldschool sandbox play. The threats were real: given the number of attacks he faced, I worked out later that Barnabus had only had something like a 16% chance of surviving his encounter with the Crusties. The solutions grew out of desperate improvisation, making use of whatever random tools the PCs had access to. And the result was something that just about made sense in context, but was so compellingly bizarre that we'd never, ever have come up with it on our own without the force of random results and enforced creativity to push us into action. Naked Spiderman and the Crab Balloon is now going to be the unofficial logo for the whole campaign. 

I'll get back to the 'lessons learned' posts soon!

Monday 7 September 2020

City of Spires part 2: The city as hexcrawl

As I mentioned in my last post, one of my objectives for 'City of Spires' was to create a version of ATWC with a lower barrier to entry, suitable for running with new players with minimal introduction. 'You're in an animistic Early Modern Central Asian clockpunk setting' was never going to fly. It would have required hours of explanation - and whenever I'm gaming with new players, I always feel that I've failed unless we can be actually playing within about ten minutes of sitting down at the table. 

So I resorted to my standard level 0 opening gambit: 'you're displaced peasants who have been forced to leave your community for the first time in your lives'. This set-up ensures that the ignorance of the players is matched by the ignorance of the characters, allowing them to learn about the setting together, through exploration rather than exposition. (Always show. Never tell.) This, in turn, changed their relationship with the city, which for them became an unknown zone to be explored, hexcrawl-style, one district at a time. In the first session they wandered in through the ruins of the southern suburbs and just started looking around. They've never really stopped. 

The current player-facing version of the city map. Note that even after a full year's play, large areas remain unexplored.

Hexcrawls and cities make for a somewhat awkward combination. Hexcrawling in, say, a forest makes perfect sense: anything could be in there, and the only way you'll be able to find out what's where is to walk in and start looking around. But urban geography is purposive, designed to channel people towards the key landmarks and areas of economic activity. Only flâneurs and lost tourists just wander around a city block by block to see what they will find, but to experience a city in the way it's designed to be experienced means losing the 'one thing at a time' quality that makes hexcrawls so useful as a way of introducing players to settings. 

My solution was, essentially, to make the outer city into a wilderness. Only the inner northern segment with the market and the palace was still densely populated enough to function like an actual city: the rest was ruins, rubble, scavengers, survivors, outlaws, lunatics, and monsters, and had to be hexcrawled in exactly the same way as any other dangerous wilderness area. (In ATWC terms, I combined the Streets with the Rubble and stretched them out right around the city.) But everything in the outer city was still connected with things in the inner city, whether through trade, enmity, vassalage, or simple shared history. As a result, as the PCs bounced around the southern ruins interacting with its various weird and wonderful inhabitants, they learned more and more about their relationships with each other and with the still semi-functional city on the other side of the river. By the time they reached the city proper they came not as total outsiders who needed to have a whole setting's worth of information thrown at them at once, but as people who already understood most of what was going on there through seeing the effects it had had on the communities beyond. 

The most crucial bit of design I had to do in writing up the city was to make sure that everything connects, using a version of this method, thus ensuring that encounters with one group led naturally to learning about (and often meeting with) others. The stockade-dwellers pay tribute to the city's rulers, and resent it. They also want to drive the devil-worshipping bandits out of a nearby temple. The bandits seek the magic hidden in the seclusium. The seclusium contains a resurrected thief who wants to take over the nearby slaver gang. The slavers make their money selling slaves to the city's rulers. The power of the city's rulers depends on their control of a giant iron serpent. The pit the serpent rose out of is inhabited by subterranean rot farmers. The rot farmers are upset about losing control of part of their territory to some kind of worm cult. The worm cult came from a distant necropolis. The true mistress of the seclusium, trapped in suspended animation, originally resurrected the thief in the hope of robbing that same necropolis. And so on, and so forth... it didn't matter where the PCs started, because everything ultimately led to everything else. In consequence, one year on they are ludicrously networked, and able to deal fluently (and often manipulatively) with a range of NPCs and factions which would have been simply overwhelming if presented to them all at once. 

This might sound like a lot of work, but it really wasn't, because all the complexity is emergent rather than scripted. Each faction could be summed up by a few lines: who they are, what they have, what they want, who leads them, how they relate to other groups, maybe 1-2 extra NPCs, and a few bits of key imagery that will ensure the PCs remember them. (This last bit is crucial. One of my players has yet to remember a single NPC name, but he remembers 'the electric skeletons' or 'the girl with all the feral peacocks' easily enough.) And I think it's a methodology that could potentially have wider application. You start with your Fancy Complicated Location, the one you've been wanting to use for ages but never do because you know your players would get lost in all the infodumps. Then you put it in the middle of a hexcrawl, full of groups that relate to various different aspects of it and each other, and you start the PCs off right at the edge of the map. By the time their drunkard's walk through the surrounding hexcrawl finally brings them to the central location, your PCs will have picked up an understanding of it by osmosis, and should be ready to fully engage with it in all its over-complicated glory. 

Just don't overstock the hexcrawl. That was my mistake. Thank God for extremely patient players.

Next: crungon walo wide...

The Old Temple | The Art Institute of Chicago| The Art Institute of Chicago  massive paintings by Hubert Robert. Description from pinterest.com. I searched for this on bing.com/images

Friday 4 September 2020

City of Spires part 1: Theory vs. Practise

16. John Soane's Rotunda of the Bank of England in ruins, Joseph... |  Download Scientific Diagram

There's a city over the mountains. The people call it the City of Spires.

In the days of your great-grandparents it was rich and proud and prosperous. Traders thronged its streets. Coloured lamps flared in every window. Gold poured through the silk-gloved hands of its laughing lords.

In the days of your grandparents the caravans from the west stopped coming. The roads were all closed, and could not be reopened. The city's markets fell silent. 

In the days of your parents the spires started to crumble. The wealthy fled. The poor whispered of strange sights in the twilight. People said that the city was under a curse.

In the days of your youth, war came to the city. Faction rose against faction, house against house. The palaces burned. At last a great iron serpent tore its way out of the earth and destroyed all before it until only its masters remained, preening self-crowned kings of a city of ruins.

Yesterday the local lord rode into your village with a retinue of mounted soldiers. He said that your hovels were equally offensive to the eyes and to the nostrils, and had furthermore produced no tax revenue worth collecting for the last nine years, so he was going to knock the whole place down and turn it into a game reserve instead.

Where shall we go?' the people asked him. And he shrugged and gestured down the road that leads to the City of Spires.


As I mentioned in my last post, for the last year I've been running a (modified) B/X campaign called 'City of Spires'. We're currently thirty-something sessions in, with something like a hundred hours of total actual play behind us. It is not yet a campaign on the same scale as my previous 'Team Tsathogga' game, which ran for seventy-odd sessions over the course of three years: but it still represents a pretty considerable amount of gaming, and I'm very happy with the way it's run so far.

'City of Spires' was my attempt to put my ATWC material to use in an actual game, and as such it's prompted me to think about the differences between writing setting material and actually using it. When I started this blog, back in 2015, I was between gaming groups, and I wasn't really writing for anyone except myself: in fact, if I'm honest with myself, the reason I wrote about a campaign setting was because I wasn't getting the chance to run one. As a result, I wrote my early ATWC material without ever having to confront the key question: 'nice idea, but how exactly can I use it in this week's game?'  This isn't any kind of repudiation - I don't think any of the stuff I've written for the setting over the years is unusable - but it is an explanation for why what I initially wrote and what I ended up running ultimately turned out to be two quite different things.

When the 'Team Tsathogga' campaign finally ended due to some of the players moving away, the remaining players and I agreed that we should start a new campaign at level 0, in some other region of the same campaign world. I saw this as a chance to finally use my ATWC material, but I immediately faced several problems:

  1. Some of my players had read the blog, meaning that they'd know all about the setting (including lots of things they really shouldn't know) right from the start.
  2. ATWC assumes an animist cosmology with little or no standard D&D magic. But the world of Team Tsathogga, which the new campaign was going to be set in, was already established to be a science fantasy setting with standard D&D magic all over the place. 
  3. ATWC is a fairly high-concept setting, and requires a high level of player buy-in. But I knew that some of the players would be new to gaming, and didn't want to shove them into the deep end any more than I had to. 
  4. It's just too fucking big.

That last one was the real reality check moment. I'd spent years sketching out the ATWC setting, and the assumed campaign arc that went with it - go to the city, bounce around interacting with its various factions, make occasional trips into the outside world in source of resources or allies, and ultimately stage a coup or revolution, storm the King's Tower, and confront whatever lurked in the throne room of the Wicked King. What I hadn't confronted was the sheer logistics of it all. I'd given the city something like forty different factions: just meeting everyone could easily be a year's play. Its government was a massive, deeply entrenched tyranny, and while I'd deliberately designed it to be riddled with weaknesses, assembling a revolution capable of overthrowing it would still require immense amounts of investigation, organisation and diplomacy. Vast, complicated social worlds are great fun to write about, but can easily be a nightmare to GM. How many sessions would it take to play out a 'proper' ATWC campaign, with the PCs starting as complete outsiders and ending up as revolutionary masterminds capable of bringing down the Wicked King? Fifty? A hundred? More?

Ralamb's Ottoman Costumes Book (1658) | The Janissary-Archives
'Sorry - which faction are you guys from, again?'

So when I came to write City of Spires, I essentially did so by running a 'Condensation in Action' job on my own setting. My key principle was: 'like ATWC, but smaller'. 

The family resemblance is still very strong. It's still set in a ruinous city on a fantasy Silk Road somewhere beyond the eastern borders of fantasy Persia. There's still a tyranny, and the PCs are still trying to overthrow it, and the focus of the game is still on gathering networks of allies from among the city's strange and desperate inhabitants. But the city is physically smaller, and the population is much lower, and the government is just gangsterism writ large rather than the totalitarian nightmare of the Wicked City. Everything's a lot more ruined, in line with the principles I laid out here that the more thoroughly wrecked a setting is, the easier it is for PCs to exert real agency within it. There are fewer factions, and they're smaller, and most of them only have 1-3 significant NPCs each. As a result, after 'just' thirty-odd sessions, the PCs have been able to explore most of the city, meet most of the factions, and assemble plans and forces for an upcoming coup that just might actually work. 

I've reused many parts of the original ATWC setting, albeit in modified forms. Versions of the Cobweb, the Blue Necropolis, the clockworkers, the snake men, the merchant houses, the street gangs, the Rubble, and the Streets have all appeared in City of Spires. But they all shrank. The Cobweb shrank to a single tower. The clockwork armies shrank to a single huge automaton. The merchant houses shrank to a single merchant and his household. The Hortlaks of the Blue Necropolis shrank to a single undead princess. And so on. Over and over again, I looked at something that could potentially take a whole campaign to do justice to, and decided instead to condense it into something that could be dealt with in a single session. 

I should be clear, here, that I'm not saying that every campaign needs to do this, or that sprawl and vastness is always a problem for games. In a pre-plotted 'adventure path' campaign, it doesn't matter how big or complicated the setting is, because the plot will always ensure that the PCs interact with exactly the right parts of it to bring their story to a satisfying and level-appropriate conclusion. At the other extreme, in a totally wide-open sandbox, it doesn't matter that the PCs may only have scratched the surface of the world around them by the campaign's end: the story is just whatever happened to happen, and that's OK. But if you actually want your PCs to gain a decent level of knowledge of and mastery over their sandbox environment over the course of the game, then it's important to tailor its scale to the likely length of the campaign, and to be realistic about how quickly complexity starts to snowball as the number of interconnected factions grows. If I was starting this one over again, I'd put in less rather than more, at least to begin with. (Did the city really need six noble houses?) It's much easier to add things into a sandbox than it is to take things out.

Next post: the city as hexcrawl!