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.
|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!