Thursday, 15 March 2018

[Actual Play] The Glasstown Job: Team Tsathogga pull off the crime of the century

So, remember when I said the Team Tsathogga PCs were planning a heist? This is how it went down.

The target was the Glasstown Academy of the Magical Arts, the kingdom's premiere institution of magical learning. When the ruthless mercenaries of the Company of the Hawk returned from Qelong, they brought with them a glass orb filled with akoum: the destructive magical radiation that had brought Qelong to its knees, which they had distilled in concentrated form from the corpses of innumerable victims in their unspeakable murder-castle. They then sold this orb to the Glasstown Academy. Abraxus, the head of the academy, and Hagen, the leader of the Company, had been carrying out research on it in a secret laboratory ever since.

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It was this orb that the PCs wanted to steal - partly because they had long-standing grudges against both Hagen and Abraxus, and partly because they had become convinced that their subterranean war with the Science Fungoids would only end if they could find a way to destroy the Demonspore, and smashing open an orb full of concentrated evil magic right on top of it seemed as good a way as any to pull that off. Their previous attempt to break into the academy had been thwarted by Hagen's soldiers, but they had since been neutralised: recognising that the true lifeblood of any mercenary company is money, the PCs broke into Hagen's castle and stole all his gold months ago, and had watched with grim satisfaction as most of his followers proceeded to desert him. They knew the lab itself was guarded by mirror men, so they had taken the precaution of commissioning a mirrored mask, of the same kind that the Glasstown wizards used when dealing with such creatures, in the hope that this would help to protect them. And they had started rumours among the townsfolk of Glasstown that the Academy was up to something awful and unholy, relying on illusion magic and the assistance of Sophie's ever-talkative college buddy Becky to keep the stories in circulation. Now, after months of groundwork, they felt that the time had come to make their move.

Their first step was to get one of their own inside the academy. Most of the PCs were persona non grata in Glasstown due to their previous run-ins with the authorities, but their new companion Norm - an elf drug pusher whom they had befriended in the underworld - was still unknown there, and could just about pass for a (very odd) human: so he was sent into Glasstown with a bag full of gold, with instructions to pose as a foreign nobleman interested in enrolling in the Academy. The wizards were rather alarmed by Norm's strange behaviour and even stranger dress sense: but his willingness to pay their outrageously inflated enrollment fees, coupled with his obvious magical talents, were sufficient to override their doubts and allow him to register as a student. Norm promptly rented a house in Glasstown, and smuggled the rest of the PCs into it under the cover of illusion magic - all except for the obviously inhuman Tiny and Princess, who set about constructing a hidden encampment in the woods several miles from the town.

Step two was to obtain a following among the students. Still posing as a newly-arrived foreign nobleman with more money than sense, Norm threw a lavish masquerade party for his new classmates, at which the wine and drugs flowed like water: using this as cover, the masked PCs then circulated among the guests, using Charm Person spells to recruit the more impressionable students into a made-up secret society. Over the next several days they gathered a group of eleven followers, inviting them to secret meetings at which they were plied with mystical-sounding platitudes, invented initiation ceremonies, and enormous quantities of mind-altering drugs.

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A bit like this but with way more narcotics.

Step three was gaining access to Abraxus. To these ends, Norm pretended to be completely starstruck, and approached the academy with a deal: he would give them a unique manuscript that he had brought with him from his 'family library', and all he wanted in exchange was a chance to have dinner with his academic idol. After seeing the manuscript - actually a copy of Magister Sorn's research notes on the snake-man ruins of the underworld - the wizards happily agreed, and soon Norm found himself at dinner with Abraxus, stealthily spiking his food with inhibition-lowering drugs.

After massaging the mage's ego with copious flattery, Norm told him a shocking secret: it had come to his attention that a rogue scholar named Simonides was delivering secret lectures to the students, free of charge, which undermined and ridiculed the teachings of the Academy. (The meetings of the 'secret society' had attracted enough attention to make this semi-plausible: it was obvious that something odd had been going on in Glasstown over the last few weeks.) Worst of all, the ideas which Simonides was promulgating had been blatantly and clumsily plagiarised from the research of Abraxus himself! Overcome with anger, Abraxus demanded that Norm reveal where this Simonides was to be found, so that he could be arrested: but Norm persuaded him that Simonides had a cult following among the students, and arresting him would only turn him into a martyr. Far better, he suggested, for Abraxus to come in secret to one of his lectures, and then defeat him in a public debate right in front of his followers, exposing him for the charlatan he surely was!

So the stage was set for step four: the fake lecture. The following night, in a rented room, 'Simonides' (actually Circe) held forth to an audience consisting of the PCs and their eleven student followers, all disguised in masks and robes. Outside, Norm stood with a spare robe and mask, waiting for Abraxus. And in a shadowy corner, swathed in cloth, lurked their ally, the Sister of Seraptis: a monster of the underworld with mouths in the palms of its hands, whose fangs injected a sedative poison which reduced its victims to a state of confused docility. The plan was to coax Abraxus inside, have the creature grab him and drug him, and then exploit his bewildered state to gain access to the laboratory in which the orb was held.

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Free education, Team Tsathogga style.

Unfortunately for the PCs, Abraxus didn't come alone: he brought Hagen with him, eager to give his fellow researcher a chance to witness what he was certain would be his spectacular victory over 'Simonides'. Norm explained to Abraxus that Hagen couldn't join him inside, as he only had one spare robe and mask, and otherwise the effect of Abraxus revealing himself to the crowd would be ruined: so Abraxus reluctantly agreed that Hagen could wait outside, at least until the true confrontation began. Norm then led the masked Abraxus into the hall, where 'Simonides' was delivering a lecture composed of mystical gibberish, plagiarised research, and demands for free education. Trembling with rage, Abraxus tore off his mask and began denouncing Simonides as an imposter, challenging him to a debate on magical theory which would prove the true depths of his ignorance to everyone present, but 'Simonides' replied that Abraxus couldn't possibly compete with his 'hands-on teaching style'. Then the Sister grabbed Abraxus from behind and sank its poisonous teeth into the back of his neck - and one failed saving throw later, the master mage was reduced to staring blankly at the audience, apparently lost for words.

There was no time for the PCs to exult in this victory, however, as they knew Hagen would still have to be dealt with. Hoping to lure him inside, Norm yelled out that Abraxus had just suffered a stroke - but the only response was an odd creaking sound from the roof. Cautiously, the PCs moved out into the street outside, but Hagen was nowhere to be seen. Then, from somewhere, came a sound like the cawing of birds - and abruptly the students (and half the PCs) began to scream in abject terror as the world seemed to warp around them, the walls cracking and sliding, their bodies seemingly sloughing apart into heaps of hideous carrion. The shrieking, panicking audience fled into the street, and by the time Sovan managed to calm everyone down with a Dispel Magic spell, Hagen had already taken the opportunity to slip into the building and was starting to drag the stricken Abraxus upstairs. And what, exactly, was that huge flapping thing on the roof?

Sovan ran inside to try to stop Hagen - but the mercenary mage made a hook-fingered gesture and Sovan fell, psychically pinioned to some cosmic crag, helplessly hearing the approach of terrible wings. With dreadful effort he forced himself to move, casting Hold Person, but Hagen shrugged off the spell and the strain of casting it nearly killed him. Seeing Sovan collapse in the doorway, Hash and Skadi ran in and started firing arrows - but their shots simply tore holes in Hagen's clothes, revealing the glinting shirt of enchanted mail he wore beneath it, as he continued to haul Abraxus upstairs. Meanwhile the creature on top of the house - which seemed to be Hagen's pet bird, somehow grown to monstrous proportions - was tearing the roof away with its talons. Panicking students were fleeing in every direction, tearing off their masks while howling about visions and monsters, and from a nearby window the ever-reliable Becky looked out and screamed: 'OmiGAWD! The curse of Anthrax and Judacus has come again!'

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The situation was now deteriorating rapidly. Sophie cast Magic Missile on the bird, but while the blast caused a rain of apparently mummified flesh and dusty feathers to pour down into the street, the creature seemed undeterred by the damage it had sustained. Circe tried her snake-man pain wand, but the bird didn't even flinch. Skadi charged upstairs in pursuit of Hagen, and threw a vial of space-acid into his chest: ashen-faced with pain, Hagen responded with a spell that sent Skadi staggering back, torn by spectral talons. Then the very real talon of the giant bird reached through the roof and lifted both Hagen and Abraxus into the air, despite the volley of spells and arrows that the PCs hurled after it, and proceeded to wing its way towards the academy.

The party considered fleeing - but decided that with Abraxus sedated, Hagen badly wounded, and Glasstown in a panic, this was really too good an opportunity to miss. So instead they rushed to the academy, where the bird had dropped Hagen and Abraxus off on a balcony, before shrinking rapidly to normal size and following them inside. Hash cast Invisibility on himself, scaled the wall and tied a rope to the balcony; inside he could see Hagen slumped in a chair, talking to two men in academic gowns, who were taking turns to examine the unresponsive Abraxus. The rest of the party crossed the street and climbed the rope under the cover of an illusion spell cast by Sophie, who remained lurking in the alleyway below - but her illusion couldn't cover the inside of the chamber, to which she had no line of sight. So instead Pole cast Obscuring Mists, and under the cover of this sudden fog cloud the rest of the PCs swarmed up into the room - just in time to hear one of the academics incant a Dispel Magic spell. Instantly the mists vanished - and for a single, frozen moment, the two sides stared at one another in horrified recognition...

Hash moved first. His bow was already in his hands: now, with lightning speed, he sent an arrow across the room, burying itself fatally between Hagen's eyes. As the mercenary mage dropped, so too did his pet, which was now very obviously nothing more than a long-dead mummified bird. Sovan moved next, unleashing a Hold Person spell which froze both academics where they stood. Swiftly, Hash and Skadi bundled Hagen's corpse, the two paralysed magi, and the drug-befuddled Abraxus out of the window, down the rope, and over to Sophie,  while Sovan rushed out and started dragging furniture across the stairwell, forming an improvised barricade to keep anyone else from coming up.

Meanwhile, Pole and Circe ran up the stairs to the secret lab, the location of which they had discovered during a previous botched break-in. The unfortunate servant who tried to stop them was hit by a Command spell ('faint'), fell down the stairs, got whacked on the head by Sovan, and was then shoved under a large, heavy item of furniture as part of the barricade. Using keys taken from Hagen and Abraxus, they unlocked the door, flinching as a magical alarm went off: but when other members of the teaching staff came running, they found the stairs barricaded, with Sovan yelling out that he was holding Abraxus hostage and would kill him if they came any closer. (Meanwhile, yet another luckless servant who spotted all the shenanigans outside got shot in the neck by Hash before he could raise the alarm. Team Tsathogga may be many things, but genuine heroes they are not.)

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High-speed barricade building is a skill every adventurer should learn!

Donning the mirrored mask, Pole stepped into the lab - and found himself face-to-face with the mirror men, who the party had been terrified of ever since their first brush with them at level 1. His mask ensured that they didn't attack him on sight, but the mirror men still wouldn't let him go anywhere near the orb, and insisted that they would only negotiate with him if he showed them his face - something he was intensely unwilling to do. With the situation on the stairs getting increasingly desperate, Pole requested the mirror men to speak to him at noon the next day, which they agreed to do. Then he, Circe, and Sovan fled down the rope as the barricade was blasted apart by a bunch of angry wizards below.

Fortunately for the PCs, Glasstown was still in a stage of upheaval, with terrified crowds convinced that the wizards had unleashed some awful monster upon them yet again. Using all the chaos as cover, they escaped over the walls and fled back to Tiny's hidden camp in the woods, using the Sister to sedate their two captive academics into submission before the Hold Person spell wore off. After looting Hagen's body for spellbooks and magic items, they questioned Abraxus about the nature of his bargain with the mirror-men, learning that Hagen had provided him with some 'undesirables' whom he had handed over to them, feeding their hunger for faces, in return for their service as guardians. Only he and Hagen were permitted to enter the lab, and only he could renegotiate or cancel their contract. The next day, at noon, the PCs spread a suit of stolen reflec armour out on the ground as an improvised mirror, and Pole leaned over it wearing his mirror-mask. Sure enough, his reflection began speaking to him: and after a few more failed attempts to get the mirror-men to change their position, Pole simply had the still-drugged Abraxus come over and release them from their contract. Given that only Hagen and Abraxus had been able to go into the lab safely, the PCs guessed that it would be quite some time before the rest of the Glasstown staff realised that the mirror-men inside it were gone. Now all they needed to do was get someone inside the academy.

That night, Sophie approached Glasstown from the west under the cover of illusion magic, accompanied by the Sister and her three new thralls. At the same time, Sovan and Hash crept towards the town from the east under the cover of darkness. When they were just out of sight of the city walls, Sophie stripped the three men naked and tied them together at the ankles, and the Sister ordered them to walk towards the city walls, crying out that they had escaped from their captors in the hills to the north. Sure enough, as soon as Abraxus and the other kidnapped professors were sighted from the city walls, a general alarm went up, with wizards and constables rushing out to bring them into safety and check for any signs of an ambush. While the town's guards were thus distracted, Sovan cast Strength and Silence on Hash, Hash cast Invisibility on himself, and then the silent, invisible elf slipped over the walls and hurried through the streets to the academy.

Scaling the walls and climbing through a window, Hash found the lab guarded by two armed men - but he could see in the dark and they couldn't, so he shot out their lamp and used his heightened strength to shove them both downstairs while they stumbled around in the darkness and magically-induced silence. Using Abraxus' stolen key he unlocked the lab door, relying on Sovan's Silence spell to hush the alarm: the mirror men had departed with the cancellation of their contract, so nothing remained to stop him from grabbing the orb and fleeing the town under the cover of a Darkness spell. He then rejoined the others at Tiny's camp, and the whole group hastily decamped in the direction of Bright Meadows, confident that by the time Abraxus and the other academics recovered from the Sister's poison they would be far away.

But before he left the academy, Hash left a note pinned to the wall, written in an elegant, flowing hand:

Witness the vengeance of Simonides!
The curse of Anthrax and Judacus is upon you!!

Sunday, 4 March 2018

RPG books as fiction

It seems to me that the majority of RPG books are in denial about their true function.

Most setting books maintain the pretense that someone's going to pick them up and run them, as written, straight out of the book. That someone out there will really run a whole campaign set in Your Made-Up Campaign World, just the way you wrote it, and that when their players ask them 'Who's the mayor of this town?', they're actually going to page through your Big Book of Made-Up Facts and give the answer that you've written down. Similarly, most adventure modules pretend - rather endearingly - that someone is actually going to run them exactly as written, right down to the read-aloud text. Monster books pretend that someone will actually use their monsters in play, giving them exactly the descriptions and statistics assigned by the book. And so on.

But even the briefest comparison between the way most RPG books are written and the way most actual RPG campaigns are played will demonstrate that this can't possibly be the case. For a start, how long is the average campaign, these days? Thirty sessions? Twenty? Ten? A 10-30 session campaign doesn't need whole continents worth of detailed setting information: one home base with 5-10 adventure sites scattered around it is closer to the mark. And yet campaign settings continue to be written as though PCs will wander around in them for years and years of real-time, roaming from city to city, province to province, like a band of high fantasy Marco Polos. They trade on the fantasy of a D&D campaign as something that might run more-or-less forever, rather than reality that you're usually looking at five or six interconnected adventures at best.

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No-one is ever going to use your road-by-road random encounter tables!

Adventure modules are, in theory, more realistic propositions, but they are produced - and purchased - in a volume that bears no resemblance to the rate at which they could actually be used. Plenty of people have bought all the D&D 5th edition hardback adventures - but playing through them all as written, at a rate of one session per week, would require a group to have been doing nothing else since 5th edition was released in 2014. The Pathfinder adventure paths are even more extreme: the Paizo forums are full of people who've read them all, but I would be surprised if anyone in the world had actually played them all as written from beginning to end. (You'd probably need to have been meeting twice a week, continuously, since 2007!) Then there are all the innumerable third-party modules which Bryce wades through so heroically over at tenfootpole. Many of those adventures probably aren't run as-written by anyone other than their playtesters (if they even have any), but people still buy them and read them. Browsing through the module reviews on RPGNow, DrivethruRPG, or DM's Guild, it rapidly becomes apparent that reviews by people who have actually played the modules, rather than just read them, are in a tiny minority.

Bryce often points out that the vast majority of adventure modules are written in a way which makes them almost useless for their supposed purpose of 'running a game in real-time at the table'. This is so obvious, and so trivially demonstrable, that its continued persistence strongly indicates that this is in fact not what most adventure modules are being used to do, and probably not even what most of their purchasers want them to do, even though it's exactly what most of their authors assert they are actually for. I strongly suspect that the same is true of most published campaign settings, monster books, etc, most of which similarly seem to be written with much more of an eye to being read than to being used. Not that there's anything surprising about this: after all, if people only bought the adventure modules, supplements, and campaign settings that they actually, seriously intended to use as-written, then the whole RPG book market would be a fraction of its current size. In the last two years, I've directly used six RPG books - Liberation of the Demon Slayer, Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence, Demonspore, Qelong, Death Frost Doom, and a couple of bits from Petty Gods - but, thanks to the magic of pdf-only bundle deals, I wouldn't know how to begin counting how many I've read. A hundred? More?

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Oh, Bundle of Holding. This is all your fault.

Skerples recently argued that there are three kinds of modules, which he calls 'modules as novels', 'modules as manuals', and 'modules as art'. I think he's onto something, and I don't think that it's only modules that his division applies to. Furthermore, I'd suggest that these three kinds of RPG writing correspond to three different ways of using RPG books:
  • RPG books written like manuals are best adapted to being used as-is at the table. Nothing else stands much chance of surviving contact with the chaotic process of actual play. 
  • RPG books written as art are best adapted to being used by people who are preparing or running RPG campaigns, and who are looking for material to adapt or borrow for their own games. Their true purpose is not to be used as-written, but to inspire GMs to come up with better material than they might otherwise have done. 
  • RPG books written as novels are best adapted to being read as a rather esoteric form of genre fiction.
This third one is one of the dirty little secrets of the RPG industry: that lots and lots of RPG books are bought and read by people who don't use them in play, and who know that they have no realistic prospect of ever doing so. RPG books written like novels proliferate not only because many people have no idea how to write useable adventure modules, but because that's precisely how they will be read by a large segment of their target audience. For such readers, reading the book, and imagining what the experience of playing it at the table might be like, takes the place of actually playing the game. As Skerples notes, 'If you're a big established game company with well-entrenched rich IP, your gamebooks can become storybooks.' (Anyone who remembers the bad old days of 1990s RPG metaplot will recall how literally this used to be the case!)

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Thanks to 'adventures' like these, you too can have the thrilling experience of watching passively while super-powerful NPCs do things which will later be important to the metaplot!

If you don't do it yourself, it can be a bit counter-intuitive to think of RPG books being read as fiction. After all, the world is full of actual stories by professional authors, most of which are rather better-written than the average RPG sourcebook: so why read an RPG book when you could read a novel instead? But I suspect that what such books primarily provide, which traditional adventure fiction does not, is a form of meta-fantasy: not a chance to imagine yourself as a fantasy hero, but a chance to imagine yourself as part of a group of RPG players who are, in turn, imagining themselves as fantasy heroes as they experience the material in the book. People read RPG rulebooks, and they imagine how much fun it would be to play a character with a certain set of abilities. They read monster books, and imagine how much fun it would be to encounter those monsters during an RPG session. They read setting books, and imagine how great it would be to participate in a campaign set in that world. They read adventure modules, and imagine how much fun those adventures would be to play in. Then they put them back on the shelf and do something else, instead.

RPGs are hardly alone in this: it's well-known that people buy cookbooks on cuisine they'll never seriously attempt to cook, guidebooks on places they have no real intention of visiting, magazines full of detailed reviews of things they'll never be able to afford to buy, and so on. Reading about things usually isn't as satisfying as doing them, but it's much easier and less risky: reading an adventure module and daydreaming about playing it is a pleasant and undemanding way to spend an hour, whereas actually running it would require time, organisation, commitment from several people, and a real risk of failure or disappointment. I'm pretty sure that Paizo, at least, are well aware that more people buy their adventure paths to read than to play. Their whole business model makes a lot more sense once you recognise that they are primarily in the business of putting out monthly installments of shared-universe fantasy serial fiction for an audience of long-term subscribers, rather than that of producing usable adventure modules for people to actually run at the gaming table.

(Thus Bryce's endless complaints about D&D modules which dictate what the PCs should do, thus nullifying the point of the players turning up in the first place. Once it's understood that, in many cases, there are no players and never will be, the complaint becomes moot...)

Now, reading RPG books as fiction is a pretty harmless pursuit - and it's certainly one I've engaged in myself at various points in my life, when my circumstances made actual gaming impossible. However, problems can arise out of mismatched expectations - and the books themselves often aggravate this, by pretending to be things that they quite transparently are not. I recognise, of course, that the same book can serve different functions to different people: after all, many groups apparently do play through Pathfinder adventure paths exactly as-written, even though I struggle to understand how. But all too often, RPG books are riddled with what I've sometimes seen described as 'cargo cult design': the insertion of material (e.g. backstory, read-aloud text, extensive NPC statistics, price lists, floorplans, etc) simply because the authors have seen those things in other RPG books, rather than because they actually help the book to function in its primary role. Of course, I don't expect any author of RPG books to actually admit that their books are primarily intended to be read as fiction rather than used at the table: doing so would destroy the whole illusion on which the 'RPG book as fiction' subgenre is built. But I think that a bit more honesty and clarity about whether a given book is actually intended for use directly as-written or as a source of indirect inspiration, and a bit more effort devoted to matching form to function, could often go a very long way!

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Team Tsathogga: the state of play

This week's Team Tsathogga session was a bit of a milestone for the campaign: the first time we devoted an entire session to the PCs just travelling from place to place, gathering information and making arrangements with their various allies. No-one got stabbed. Nothing got stolen. It was all just long conversations and complicated overland travel. (The PCs are currently planning a heist, though, so I'm sure things will be back to normal next session.)

When I started this campaign, I deliberately kept things very simple. Most of the players were completely new to RPGs, so I wanted to keep set-up time to an absolute minimum: they rolled up some 0-level characters, I told them 'you're a bunch of serfs who have been sent by your community to retrieve a magical sword believed to be hidden in some nearby caverns', and off they went. One side-effect of this was that their PCs didn't really have any ties to their home village. The in-character reason for this was that their PCs were the kind of socially isolated (and thus socially expendable) people that you'd expect a medieval community to pick for a subterranean suicide mission. The out-of-character reason for it was because I didn't want to waste time on it: I wanted to get them into the dungeon ASAP, and allow all the character development to emerge organically from actual play.

But the result of this, which I really hadn't foreseen when we started playing, was that the dungeon then became their home. They made friends with the elves, and the goblins, and the toad-men. They became Tsathogga cultists after discovering a temple to him down in the underworld. As they've travelled further across the world, encountering all kinds of bizarre monsters in the process, their first question has always been 'can we ally with it?' rather than 'can we kill it?' Two and a half years of game-time later, they've ended up with a network of friends, allies, contacts, and minions so extensive that entire sessions can be consumed in managing them, as became apparent this week.

Anyway. This is a snapshot of their current situation.

Current party members:
  • Circe, Warlord High Priestess of the Frog God (Cleric 5).
  • Hash, elf adventurer (Elf 5).
  • Norm, elf drug pusher (Elf 4).
  • Pole, toad-man fungus-brewer (Cleric 4).
  • Sophie the Muscle Wizard, college dropout (Magic-User 5).
  • Sovan, half-man half-lotus (Cleric 5).
  • Skadi the Indestructible (Fighter 5).
  • Tiny, demon scout (Fighter 5).
Current Followers:
  • Hallgerd, Dark Folk emissary of the Navigator Houses of Nox.
  • Princess, an ancient engineer robot from space.
  • The Red, a giant riding toad.
  • The Sister of Seraptis, a four-armed underworld creature of uncertain origin, kept drugged at all times for safety.
  • Spy Rat, rodent espionage expert extraordinaire.
Ex-party members (now allies of the party):
  • Atella, craftswoman (Fighter 4)
  • Erin, king of the Purple Islands (Fighter 3)
  • Hogarth of the Purple Hand (Magic-User 5)
  • Jack the Fighter, too pretty to die (Fighter 5)
  • Kroak, toad-man revolutionary (Cleric 3)
  • Zeth, mad scientist (Magic-User 4)
  • Ambie, a baby snake-man who is being raised by Zeth under carefully controlled conditions.
  • Andrew and Sarah, angels of the Church of the Bright Lady.
  • The Archivist, keeper of the Great Machine and leader of the Purple Islands tunnel-dwellers.
  • Becky, an undergraduate student at the Glasstown Academy of Magical Arts.
  • Captain Catherine, mercenary captain, Jack's one-time lover. 
  • Dara, a Qelongese nun turned golden lotus farmer.
  • Dopey, Spacy, Sleepy, Trippy, Zoned, Stoned, and Manic, seven drug-addled elves whom the PCs reunited with their families.
  • Elder Amelia, a senior cleric in the church of the Bright Lady and a secret alien.
  • The Fleshdregs, a gang of misunderstood mutant monsters living in a forest, protected by sympathetic outlaws. 
  • General Ngour, commander of the garrison of Xam.
  • Goblin Jack, Hogarth's goblin apprentice, a necromancer of great ambition and little talent.
  • Grik, Grak, and Gruk, goblins, the Low Priests of the Frog God.
  • Hash's mum, who cooks great fungus pasta.
  • King Nath, current ruler of Qelong.
  • Marcus, a psychic head-in-a-jar recently attached to an alchemically-animated zombie body.
  • Matthew, a grizzled sea-captain.
  • Mai, a senior Qelongese cleric.
  • Navigator Hafdan, governor of Stoneport and representative of the Navigator Houses of Nox.
  • The Putrescence, a giant purple cloud-monster controlled via an ancient brain-melting machine.
  • Sergeant Ribbet, mutant toad-man soldier, who governs the goblin warrens in Circe's absence.
  • Tad and Wort, toad men who owe their lives to the PCs.
  • Tarsh and his daughter Zeniba, sub-chiefs of the Purple Islanders.
  • Titus, an elderly cave-dwelling necromancer, brother to Marcus.
  • Toad-man rebels hidden throughout the forces of the Science Fungoids, who pretend to be loyal to their masters, but still secretly follow the teachings of the Frog God and look to Circe and Kroak for deliverance.
  • Vem, a huntress, now war-leader of the people of the Purple Islands.
  • Volf, a medical student, Jack's one-time boyfriend.
  • Vorn, leader of the Free Demons, and his followers.
  • Several tribes of goblins.
  • A swarm of twenty giant projectile maggot vomiting zombie vampire toads.
  • 30-odd (very odd) mutant toad-man soldiers.
  • A large village inhabited by a combination of Qelongese refugees, ancestor-worshipping fishermen, converted cultists, and mostly-reformed cannibal savages.
  • A hidden community of tunnel dwellers, who have preserved ancient scientific knowledge long thought lost on the surface world.
Notable Assets:
  • Cleaver which infects anyone injured by it, gradually turning them into spore zombies.
  • Chest full of stolen gold.
  • Collection of magic daggers.
  • Demon-slaying sword. (Dropped it on Deathfrost Mountain, totally going back for it some day.)
  • Dwindling supply of space acid.
  • Evil madness-and-mutation-inducing necromantic spellbook in a locked lead-lined box.
  • Forest of hallucinogenic fungi.
  • Garden of narcotic lotus flowers.
  • Gas mask.
  • Half-finished demon in a spawning vat.
  • Huge quantities of drugs and poisons.
  • Laser bracelet.
  • Massive favour owed by the King of Qelong.
  • Monster creation workshop (work in progress).
  • Network of psychic brains in jars, currently tuned directly to the god-mind of the Devourer.
  • Sailing ship.
  • Shock baton.
  • Snake-man pain wand.
  • Space suit (ape-man sized).
  • Ring of Water Walking.
  • Vampire toad spawning grounds.
  • The brainwashed demon army of the snake-men.
  • The Company of the Hawk.
  • The Devourer cult.
  • The Golden Lotus adepts loyal to Master Prem.
  • The Order of the Divine Surgeon.
  • The staff of the Glasstown Academy of Magical Arts.
  • The Science Fungoids.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

When all you have is a hammer: item-based problem-solving in OSR D&D

When players in a D&D game are confronted with a problem or an obstacle, the first thing they often do is look over their character sheets to see if they have anything that will help them to overcome it. The first place they'll usually look is at their spells and abilities, and plenty of OSR writing has been devoted to discussing the kind of abilities which are likely to lead to inventive and entertaining problem-solving rather than brute-force solutions: a magic-user with the spells fireball, acid arrow, and magic missile is inevitably going to approach situations very differently to one with fly, invisibility, and ventriloquism. But the second place they tend to look is their equipment list - and the role of items and equipment in OSR games is one I see much more rarely discussed.

The single most iconic item in fantasy fiction is the sword: but the sword, while deadly and beautiful and symbolically powerful, is in many ways a very boring object. It's a specialised weapon of war, designed for a single purpose: you can't dig holes with it, or cut down trees with it; or even efficiently break objects with it. All you can really do with a sword is either stab someone, or threaten to stab them - and doing either of those tilts situations very rapidly in the direction of violence. When all you have is a sword, every scene looks like a fight scene.

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If I had a sword, I'd sword things in the morning! I'd sword things in the evening! I'd sword thing's all day!

Hammers, picks, and axes are a bit better, because they all allow you to interact with your environment, as well as being useful for killing your enemies. Bows are better still, because arrows can be used as delivery systems for all kinds of other things, such as fire, ropes, messages, or holy water. (The Thief video game system took this concept to hilarious extremes.) But the best kind of objects are the ones which have a whole range of uses. Consider, for example, a large bottle of spirits... you could share it with people to make friends. You could give it to someone as a bribe. You could use it to get someone drunk so they didn't notice your nefarious schemes. You could use it to clean a wound. You could use it as a battlefield anaesthetic. You could use it to start a fire. You could use it to wash sticky contact poison off an object. If you've swallowed something you really shouldn't have, you can drink it all in one go to make yourself vomit. And, yes, if it comes right down to it, you can smash the bottom off the bottle and stab people with the pointy end.

If players have this stuff on their character sheets, then they're much more likely to approach situations in inventive ways. If your equipment list reads 'longsword +2, warhammer +1, bow with 12 explosive arrows', then your PC is likely to act as if you were playing an MMO: all you have are tools for killing things, so the only meaningful question is exactly which tool will help you to kill this particular thing fastest. But if it reads 'fishing rod, porcelain mask, bag of marbles, vial of phosphorous', then you're much more likely to start acting as if you were in an old Monkey Island adventure game, instead, and start dreaming up all kinds of crazy 'use fish with blanket on ogre' style solutions to the problems which confront you. If that's something you're keen to encourage, though, there's a certain level of difficulty involved in getting those sorts of objects onto their character sheets in the first place. Old-school adventurers are much more likely than their new-school equivalents to arrive at a dungeon entrance carrying crowbars, hatchets, flasks of oil, skins of wine, ten-foot poles, hammers, mirrors, and whatnot. But very few PCs are going to weigh themselves down with eight or nine pieces of random junk just in case they turn out to be useful later.

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'So, this is what I'm planning to take with me into the dungeon...'
Fortunately, most D&D PCs are total magpies when it comes to anything magical or valuable - and if you're running a game in which gp = xp, your PCs are basically guaranteed to hoover up every valuable object they stumble across. The trick is to make them valuable enough that the PCs won't ignore them, but not so valuable that they won't want to risk losing or breaking them as part of their latest crazy scheme. About 10gp per level should do the trick.

So here's a handy list of 100 valuable objects suitable for placement in dungeons or treasure hauls, which also double as problem-solving fodder. PCs will pick them up with the intention of selling them later, and ultimately they probably will: but between acquisition and sale they'll have them written on their character sheets, ready to catch their eyes when they look down at their equipment list for something that might help them to overcome their latest obstacle, and prompt them to start thinking: 'Hang on. If I use the glue with the hat on the goblin, then this just might work...'

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One Hundred Items for Problem-Solving
  1. A spool of very fine wire copper wire. Useful for setting trip-wires, rigging up pulleys, and conducting electricity. Worth 10 gp to jeweller or mechanic.
  2. Bag of small, extremely bouncy rubber balls. Worth 10 gp to an entertainer or parent.
  3. Antique but functional fishing rod, complete with box of tackle and line, suitable for hooking all kinds of different things. Worth 10 gp to an antiquarian (or someone who really needs a fishing rod).
  4. A vial of white powder which, if swallowed, acts as a powerful emetic. As well as its obvious medicinal uses, it could be used to incapacitate someone with violent vomiting, or to force some horrible monster to vomit up the person it just swallowed whole. Worth 10 gp to a doctor.
  5. A large box of shiny silver pins. Can be used to pin things together, or scattered over the floor as improvised caltrops. Worth 10 gp to a tailor.
  6. Several jars of thick, high-quality actor's face paint. Useful for disguise, camouflage, pretending to be an orc, etc. Worth 10 gp to an actor.
  7. Large, highly polished metal mirror. Handy for reflecting light and lasers, setting up tricks with smoke and mirrors, etc. Worth 10 gp to just about anyone.
  8. A box of perfumed candles with different scents and sizes. Can be lit in different combinations to create various combinations of light and scent; can also just be squashed down into wax if you need to take an impression of something. Worth 10 gp in any large settlement.
  9. Broad-brimmed fisherman's hat. Waterproof and wide enough to conceal most of the wearer's face. Could be used as an improvised boat for carrying small objects across water. Worth 10 gp to anyone who spends a lot of time in the rain.
  10. Finely-made snorkel. Worth 10 gp to a swimming enthusiast.
  11. Several bars of high-quality scented soap. Extremely slippery when wet. Worth 10 gp to any member of the middle or upper classes.
  12. Large, ornate drum. Generates incredible amounts of noise when beaten. Worth 10 gp to a musician.
  13. Bag of strong chilli powder. Stir it into food for a murderously hot meal, or blow it into people's eyes and noses as an irritant. Worth 10 gp to a chef.
  14. Vial of strong acid. Handy for etching, ruining locks, pouring on people you hate, etc. Worth 10 gp to an alchemist.
  15. Several tubes of white powder, which cause itching and intense irritation on contact with skin. Pour one into someone's clothes and they'll be itching around for days. Worth 10 gp to a practical joker.
  16. A very long pair of pincers, ornately moulded so their nippers resemble the jaws of a dragon. Useful for pulling nails out of things, and for picking up objects you'd rather not touch. Worth 10 gp to a smith.
  17. Academic gown, hood, and bands. Handy if you want to look clever, or infiltrate a university. Worth 10 gp to an academic tailor.
  18. A box of high-quality costume jewellery: obviously fake on close inspection, but from a distance it'll look as though you're wearing a king's ransom. Handy if you're baiting a trap, or if you want to pretend to be richer than you are. Worth 10 gp to actors. 
  19. An engrossing and well-written mystery novel: it's not very deep or clever, but pick it up and you'll soon be wondering where the last six hours went. Handy if you need someone to be distracted without realising it. Worth 10 gp to book collectors and people with boring jobs.
  20. Intricately made wind-up clockwork toy. Can be used to carry small objects, depress pressure plates, set off traps, etc. Worth 10 gp to a mechanic or wealthy parent.
  21. Bag of glitter. If poured out, gets everywhere and is irritatingly difficult to get rid of. Anything that has been glitter-bombed will be highly visible by torchlight in the dark, making it a potential anti-stealth or anti-invisibility countermeasure. Worth 10 gp to entertainers.
  22. Box of bladders, which can be inflated like balloons and used as floats. Add a candle to turn them into crude hot air balloons. Worth 10 gp to a jester.
  23. Bottle of coloured ink, rare and hard to get hold of. Handy for making marks and staining things. Worth 10 gp to a scribe.
  24. A blood-curdling sermon about all the awful things the gods are going to do the world, and how richly we deserve them. Handy for putting the fear of God into people. Worth 10 gp to zealots and misanthropes.
  25. A long, strong, extremely stretchy elastic cord. Useful for bungee jumping and launching things out of improvised catapaults. Worth 10 gp to engineers or daredevils.
  26. Sturdy and well-made spiked mountaineering shoes. Excellent for walking over icy and/or uneven surfaces. Worth 10 gp to mountaineers.
  27. Weighted medicine ball. Aside from its uses in weight training, can be rolled like a bowling ball to knock things down. Worth 10 gp to fitness enthusiasts.
  28. A box of soft moulding clay: just add water and reshape as desired. Worth 10 gp to a sculptor.
  29. A bag of flash powder. When lit, it emits a blinding flash of light. Worth 10 gp to entertainers.
  30. A large, well-crafted, heavy-duty drill. Given time, it can be used to drill holes through stone. Worth 10 gp to a mason or a miner.
  31. A thick, heavy blanket covered in beautiful embroidered decoration. Can be used to bundle people up in, muffle objects to prevent them making a sound, pack fragile items, etc; you can also just wrap it around you as protection against the cold. Worth 10 gp to anyone who cares about staying warm in style.
  32. Large bronze fire-fighting syringe, capable of sucking up a couple of liters of liquid and then projecting it in a high arc over a distance of several yards. Worth 10 gp to anyone who lives in a fire-prone city (which is most of them).
  33. A bottle of potent weedkiller. Handy for clearing overgrowth, and extremely toxic to plant creatures (and, if swallowed, to non-plant creatures as well). Worth 10 gp to a farmer or gardener.
  34. A large jar of talcum powder. As well as its obvious uses to absorb moisture and reduce friction, it can be used in larger quantities to soak up dangerous liquids, or scattered around to mark invisible creatures. Worth 10 gp to any maker of cosmetics.
  35. A pair of finely-made ice skates. Worth 10 gp to anyone who lives in a cold climate.
  36. A stack of cheaply-printed pamphlets full of wild conspiracy theories, each supported by just enough evidence to sound plausible if you're not too well-informed and don't think about them too hard. Worth 10 gp to an agitator.
  37. A hand-cranked propeller. Can be used as a fan to direct or disperse gases, or to propel something through water. Worth 10 gp to an engineer.
  38. A joke book, full of genuinely hilarious (if rather mean-spirited) jokes. Give it to someone and they'll be laughing for hours. Worth 10 gp to jesters and entertainers.
  39. A long wooden box and two silvered glass mirrors, fitted together to form a crude periscope. If you pulled out the mirrors they'd be worth 10 gp each.
  40. A box of high-quality fireworks. When lit, they hurtle straight forward and explode, creating stupendous amounts of noise, sparks, and coloured smoke. Worth 20 gp to entertainers.
  41. A tiny steam engine. Add fuel and water and it spins around uselessly, but tie it onto something else and you could use it to power mechanism, drive a tiny steam car, or similar. Worth 20 gp to an engineer.
  42. A large net with an amazingly fine mesh, attached to a rope for throwing and hauling, and ringed with wickedly-sharp riphooks. Worth 20 gp to a fisherman.
  43. A foot-high black silk top hat. Useful if you need to make yourself look taller and/or classier. Worth 20 gp to a gentleman.
  44. A well-stocked box of herbs and spices. Can be used to add some flavour to the blandest meal - or to disguise the taste of whatever you've just added to someone's food. Worth 20 gp to a chef.
  45. Unnervingly lifelike doll. Likely to be mistaken for a real child at first glance. Worth 20 gp to a collector.
  46. Waist-length wig made from human hair. Useful for quick disguises and smuggling - you can hide a lot of objects under that much hair. In a pinch it could be used, Rapunzel-style, as a substitute rope. Worth 20 gp to people who wish they had more hair than they do.
  47. Stack of stamped certificates for academic qualifications, all filled out with the same almost-illegible name. Handy for people who want to pretend they have knowledge or status they don't really possess. Worth 20 gp to spies, charlatans, or college drop-outs.
  48. Wind-up clockwork music box. When cranked, plays the same tune over and over again until it winds down. Worth 20 gp.
  49. A deck of marked cards and a pair of loaded dice, both skilfully made. Worth 20 gp to a gambler.
  50. A sheet of strong, stretchy tarpaulin. Can be used as a tent, or as a waterproof covering for valuable objects; can also be stretched between two people and used as an improvised trampoline. Worth 20 gp to a sailor or traveller.
  51. Several tubes of brightly-coloured oil paint. Worth 20 gp to an artist.
  52. A box containing hundreds of tiny silver bells. Can be tied to strings, tripwires, etc for use as an alarm system. Worth 20 gp to a dancer or musician.
  53. Vial of glowing liquid: briefly emits light equivalent to a candle when shaken vigorously, but otherwise just emits a dull green glow. Can be painted over things to make them glow with an unearthly greenish light. Worth 20 gp to an alchemist.
  54. Vial of strong, fast-drying glue. Capable of bonding stone, glass, wood, or metal. Worth 20 gp to a craftsman or alchemist.
  55. Bottle of stimulants. A spoonful will keep you awake: drinking the whole bottle will keep you jerking and jittering around wildly for the next 48 hours. Worth 20 gp to watchmen or university students.
  56. Large bag of marbles, made from semi-precious stones to entertain some long-dead aristocratic child. Handy if you want to make something roll, or make someone trip over. Worth 20 gp to rich people with small kids.
  57. Expensive and strong-smelling perfumes. Handy for leaving scent trails, or masking your own smell. Worth 20 gp to anyone vain and/or high-status.
  58. A powerful magnet on the end of a stick. Worth 20 gp to an alchemist or engineer.
  59. A box of tooth-achingly sugary confectionery. Worth 20 gp to anyone with a sufficiently sweet tooth.
  60. Fashionable chopines (platform shoes) with eight-inch wooden platforms. Handy if the floor is six inches deep in something you really don't want to walk in. Worth 20 gp to any dedicated follower of fashion.
  61. A crude gas mask, made from a filter attached to a leather hood. Allows moderately safe movement through smoke, gas, etc. Worth 20 gp to an alchemist.
  62. A box of strong, tightly-coiled metal springs. Worth 20 gp to an engineer.
  63. A bag of grey powder which turns into fast-drying cement when mixed with water. There's enough here to make a couple of cubic feet. Worth 20 gp to builders in a hurry.
  64. A primitive hang-glider made from cloth and bamboo. Capable of carrying one human-sized passenger, provided they're not carrying anything too heavy. Worth 30 gp to adrenaline junkies.
  65. A fiery political tract, full of stirring revolutionary rhetoric, cataloguing the crimes of the ruling classes and calling upon the people to rise up. Handy if you want to rile up a mob in a hurry. Worth 30 gp to an agitator.
  66. Several large marionettes on strings. If skillfully operated, they could almost pass for real children when seen from a distance. Worth 30 gp to an entertainer.
  67. A bottle of alchemical lubricant. Makes things extremely slippery. Suitable for internal, external, and industrial use. Worth 30 gp to engineers or sexually adventurous individuals.
  68. Bag of smoke bombs: if thrown against a hard surface, they explode into a huge cloud of choking smoke on impact. Worth 30 gp to thieves, entertainers, and wannabe ninja.
  69. Suit of high-quality fur clothes, lined with fleece. Capable of keeping the wearer warm even in extremely cold conditions. Worth 30 gp to anyone who lives or works in cold environments.
  70. Ceramic mask painted with enamel to resemble a ferocious demonic face. Disturbingly realistic, especially if only glimpsed briefly. Worth 30 gp to an actor or collector.
  71. Bottle of strong, high-quality vodka. Can be used for cleaning, starting fires, or making people very drunk. Worth 30 gp to any connoisseur or alcoholic.
  72. Military medals from a recent campaign. Handy for making good impressions and convincing people of your valour and prowess. Worth 30 gp to a mercenary (they're good for business!) or collector.
  73. A sturdy magnifying glass. Handy for examining things close-up and concentrating light. Worth 30 gp to a sage or a craftsman.
  74. Ten yards of sturdy chains, connected together with three high-quality padlocks, their keys still inside them. Useful for connecting and/or restraining things. Worth 30 gp to a smith, jailer, or bondage enthusiast.
  75. Chess set with beautifully carved pieces. You'd be surprised how many dungeon occupants fancy themselves as chess masters. Worth 30 gp to any chess enthusiast.
  76. Sturdy pair of spectacles set with tinted glass, allowing even very bright lights to be looked at safely. Worth 30 gp to anyone with sensitive eyes.
  77. A book of rather moving and hepfully non-specific love poetry. Memorise some of it for next time you need to persuade someone just how much you adore them! Worth 30 gp to lovers or book collectors.
  78. Huge Gone With the Wind-style hooped ballgown. Has skirts wide enough to hide virtually anything under, up to and including another person. Worth 30 gp to a belle.
  79. A vial of sluggish fluid which acts as a powerful painkiller when swallowed. Can be used as an anaesthetic, or as a crude but effective knock-out drug. Worth 30 gp to a doctor.
  80. Engraved silver trumpet. Creates a loud, clear, piercing note when blown, audible from a great distance. Worth 40 gp to a herald or musician.
  81. An ornately engraved pipe and a pouch of fine tobacco, which has a very distinctive smell when smoked. Worth 40 gp to a smoker.
  82. A meticulously-catalogued collection of tiny feathers, taken from many different species of bird. You could blow them in someone's face to cause sneezing or tickling, or just to impede visibility. Worth 40 gp to a collector.
  83. A bottle of alchemical sleeping pills. Taking one will make you drowsy; taking a whole handful will knock you out for hours. Worth 40 gp to a doctor or insomniac.
  84. A signet ring, bearing the crest of a well-known noble family from a couple of provinces away. Very useful for forging documents. Worth 40 gp to a forger. 
  85. A primitive diving suit: leather suit, fish-bowl helmet, leather air hose and pump. Incredibly cumbersome to use. Worth 40 gp to a diver.
  86. A box of thin magnesium strips. Individual strips can be used as flares, or the whole box can be burned as an incendiary. Worth 40 gp to an alchemist.
  87. A leather bullwhip, marked with a monogram which implies it once belonged to a famous archaeologist. Not great as a weapon, but in the hands of an agile wielder it can be used to grab objects, swing from branches, pull levers, etc. Worth 50 gp to a collector.
  88. A jewelled ring, with a hidden panel concealed beneath the jewel, on which is painted the personal coat of arms of the reigning monarch. Handy if you want to pretend to be some kind of secret agent. Worth 50 gp to a jeweller.
  89. A box of valuable incense. If burned, emits quantities of thick, richly-fragrant smoke. Worth 50 gp to a priest.
  90. A small hand-cranked electrical generator. Capable of giving people minor electric shocks (no damage) if cranked vigorously. Requires a conductor such as wire or water to convey the electricity over a distance. Worth 50 gp to a wizard or engineer.
  91. A sturdy spyglass. Makes far-off things look closer. Worth 50 gp to a sailor. 
  92. A beautiful white wedding dress. Handy for faking tragic apparitions. Worth 50 gp to anyone who enjoys dreaming about their wedding day.
  93. Finely-embroidered clerical vestments. Useful if you want to pretend to be a high-ranking man or woman of the cloth. Worth 50 gp to a cleric.
  94. A waxwork model of a half-dismembered corpse. Looks horribly realistic when seen from a distance. Good for scaring people off. Worth 50 gp to a medical student or someone with extremely morbid taste in art.
  95. An umbrella made from alchemically-treated leather, which is not only waterproof but also highly resistant against fire, acid, etc. Worth 50 gp to an alchemist or adventurer.
  96. Several bottles of strong, fast-drying dye in a variety of bright colours. Can be used to stain objects, clothes, and even skin in different hues. Worth 50 gp to a dyer. 
  97. A protective suit made from alchemically-treated leather: it won't stop a fireball, but it is highly resistant to heat, acid, or fire. It's very stiff, though, so moving around in it is rather clumsy. Worth 50 gp to an alchemist or adventurer.
  98. A lovely porcelain tea set. Brings a touch of class to any social occasion. Worth 50 gp to an aristocrat or social climber.
  99. A flask of alchemical coolant. Drop it into a bowl of liquid to freeze it into ice, or put it into a crate to create a crude refrigerator. Worth 50 gp to a chef, noble, or alchemist.
  100. Fop's clothes: powdered wig, extravagant cravat, scented gloves, ultra-tight trousers, the works. Great if you want people to simultaneously regard you as highly important and yet not worth taking seriously, which can be a very useful combination. Worth 100 gp to an actual fop.
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Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Their Name is Legion: Team Tsathogga move into the monster-making business

One day, long after the adventures of Team Tsathogga have been forgotten, a dusty case in some as-yet-unbuilt museum on their world will preserve as its most prized possession a human skull, stained with old blood and enscribed with ancient runes, with a severed and mummified human hand folded inside its cranium. A nearby plaque will inform the curious that the engraved skull is that of Anthrax the Destroyer, and that the hand once belonged to his killer, Judacus the Betrayer, and that the relics of these legendary heroes of the ancient world must never be parted, lest doom and destruction fall upon all nearby.

It will all be lies.

The relics are fakes.

There were no such people as Anthrax the Destroyer or Judacus the Betrayer.

Team Tsathogga made the whole thing up as part of a demented plan to steal a magic bomb.

* * *

I don't even know where to start describing what Team Tsathogga have been up to since they left Qelong. The whole 'Anthrax and Judacus' scenario was so bizarre and convoluted and ultimately pointless that I'm really not sure I can do it justice. The short version is that they created a fake relic, complete with a fake legend and a fake haunting, as part of an over-complicated plan to gain access to a sealed laboratory and steal an orb full of evil magic: exactly what they would do with this orb once they had it was never really settled, although some of the PCs tapped into their inner Bond villains and suggested using it to hold a city to ransom for ONE MILLION GOLD PIECES. However, their efforts led the sorcerer who owned the orb to call in his mercenary soldiers to defend it, leaving his half-built castle nearly undefended: so the PCs promptly gave up on the whole 'fake haunting' plot, rode off to the castle, and stole all his castle-building money instead. Then they ran away.

Knowing that the mercenaries would be hunting for them, the PCs fled to the one place they knew they would never be followed: the goblin warrens beneath Bright Meadows, whose inhabitants worshipped Circe as the prophet of the Frog God. On her last visit to the warrens, Circe had ordered the goblins to start breeding maggots, with the vague intention of using them as a living weapon against the Science Fungoids: her reasoning was that maggots ate both mushrooms and dead flesh, so they would probably be eager to devour the spore zombies of the Fungoids. In the intervening year, the Maggot Trench in the goblin warrens had grown to monstrous proportions: and when they heard from their friends among the toad-folk that the Science Fungoids had become more oppressive than ever as their mysterious 'great project' neared completion, the PCs decided it was time to put their maggot-based war machine into action. All would be well, they reassured the toad-folk. They had a terrible bioweapon on their side, which would devour the minions of the Science Fungoids. It had many mouths. It was always hungry. Its name was Legion.

It was a trench full of maggots.

Quite aside from the rather underwhelming nature of their 'secret weapon', there were serious logistical problems involved in deploying it. The Toad Folk and the Science Fungoids were separated from the goblin warrens by a miles-wide underground lake: how could the maggot swarm be carried across? Once they were over the water, how could they be herded in the right direction, through miles of tunnels, into the mushroom forests of the Science Fungoids? A delivery system was needed. And, after some careful thought, the PCs found one.

Their logic went like this: Preserve Corpse spells obviously prevented corpses from being eaten by insects, otherwise there would soon be nothing left of them. So preserved, animated zombies could be hollowed out and filled with maggots, safe in the knowledge that they would not be eaten by their passengers. The goblins ate their dead, which meant they didn't have a supply of corpses to hand, but the nearby spawning grounds of the vampire toads offered more promising pickings: the needle-fanged vampire toads sacred to Tsathogga simply drank the blood of those who perished, rather than consuming their flesh, and the presence of those same vampire toads meant that other would-be scavengers had a hard time getting access to the bodies of the dead. With the aid of the goblins, the PCs retrieved the waterlogged bodies of dozens of large vampire toads, dried them out, cast Preserve Corpse on them, and had their necromancer buddy Titus animate them as zombies. Then they filled them with as many maggots as they could contain and commanded them to swim across the lake, ready to engage the forces of the Science Fungoids, with orders to vomit maggots onto every fungus-creature or spore-zombie that came within range. Thus reinforced, the PCs set off for the mushroom forests, keen to put their new weapons technology to the test.

And thus Team Tsathogga more-or-less accidentally invented the giant projectile maggot vomiting zombie vampire toad. And the world was never the same again.

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  • Giant Projectile Maggot Vomiting Zombie Vampire Toad: AC 10, HD 1-1, saves 15. Attacks: 1 bite (1d6 plus blood drain: instead of making new attacks, the toad hangs on for an extra 1d4 damage per round until it or its victim dies) or 1 projectile-vomit (save or be covered in ravenous maggots, -1 to all rolls and 1 damage per minute until maggots are somehow removed). Each toad contains enough maggots to vomit once. If a toad which still contains maggots is killed by a melee attack with a heavy weapon (maces, greatswords, anything liable to make it pop), its killer must immediately save or be covered with maggots, as per its vomit attack, as the toad explodes in a giant maggot-burst.

Their name is Legion. 

Friday, 19 January 2018

The functions of distance: some reflections on Tomb of Annihilation

I've now read the latest WotC campaign-in-a-book, Tomb of Annihilation. The premise is that PCs have to slog through a massive jungle to get to a lost city (a reimagined version of the 1981 Dwellers in the Forbidden City), beneath which is a massive dungeon (a reimagined version of the 1975/1978 Tomb of Horrors). If you want a full review of it from an OSR perspective, Gus L has a very thorough one here.

Like Gus, I thought that TOA was one of WotC's better offerings. I've written before about how trap dungeons strain my credulity - if the traps represent a serious attempt to kill intruders, why do almost all of them have built-in escape systems which are accessible from within the traps themselves? Are we supposed to believe that Acererak cares about playing fair? - but if you want a dungeon full of traps, there's plenty here to borrow ideas from. The ruined city isn't as good as the 1981 original, being marred by a silly CRPG-style collect-all-the-magic-keys quest, but the yuan-ti temple is pretty well-done. My favourite bit of the book is actually the jungle section, which features a bunch of good locations and random encounters: I liked the sheltered princess being raised in isolation by bird-men, the delusional medusa living in her ruined garden, and the floating rock inhabited by an elf who claims to be a normal wizard but is actually a lich with cupboards crammed full of animated corpses, while the undead tyrannosaurus which vomits up zombie warriors in battle looks like it would make for an especially memorable encounter. But the jungle? That jungle is just too fucking big.

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I know I've written a lot on this blog about the potential advantages of long distances. I am totally on board with the idea of making a party of PCs slog for weeks or months through the jungle in order to reach the Forbidden City. What I can't see the point of is having hundreds of miles of monster-infested jungle between the main adventure sites. Putting two hundred miles between the starting city and the bird-men is fine: but the bird-men live fifty miles from the medusa, who lives seventy miles from the floating rock, which is almost two hundred miles from the ruined city itself, all in an environment where the standard movement speed is ten miles per day, and where you'll have an average of two random encounter every three days. I haven't counted the exact number of ten-mile hexes in area covered by the adventure, but it can't be less than two thousand, across which are scattered thirty-odd adventure locations.What's the point of that? Quite apart from the sheer drudgery of playing through an interminable jungle trek every time the PCs leave one location for another, it makes it much harder to get the inhabitants of these various areas involved in one another's lives: instead, each of them functions almost like an isolated little world. (Compare and contrast Curse of Strahd, where the whole campaign takes place in an area that would fit into just two hexes in Tomb of Annihilation, meaning that everyone is constantly up in one another's faces and events from one area can easily cascade into another.)

If you're going to do a hexcrawl, especially one which covers a huge area and involves long journeys from place to place, I really think that the percentage of hexes with stuff in them needs to be quite high - that, or you need a random encounter generator robust enough to fill all those blank spaces on your map with genuinely memorable encounters. The locations in TOA are good, and the random encounters are pretty good as well, but there's just not enough of either of them to prevent the journey through this two-thousand-hex map from dissolving into either tedium or abstraction. (And once you reach the stage where the GM just starts saying 'OK, after twenty days in the jungle you reach the ruined city', why are you even running a hexcrawl?) I find it very hard to believe the module was actually run as written by the playtesters. No group would tolerate forty random encounters with wandering monsters on their way to the actual adventure.

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Tomb of Annihilation campaign map. Imagine trekking through all that with a 66% chance of a random encounter every single hex.

If I was going to run TOA, I think I'd split it into three: the 'home base' city on the coast, a month-long but largely-abstracted journey through hundreds of miles of jungle, and then a single 'adventure zone' for hexcrawling, with all those thirty-odd adventure sites packed into a grid of, say, forty-nine ten-mile hexes. That's still a huge amount of territory - over three thousand square miles of jungle! - but it means that every time the PCs explore a new hex, they have a better than 50% chance of finding something interesting in it, and that it's much easier to get all those interesting things to interact with one another. Rally the bird-men against the goblins. Get the lich to adopt the princess. Trick the medusa into making a surprise visit to the yuan-ti temple. It's much easier to make all those things happen when all those groups are living quite close together, rather than being separated by an entire Amazon Basin's worth of impenetrable jungle. The large distances still matter, because safety and resupply are a month's travel away and the PCs have to plan accordingly, but they no longer get in the way of entertaining play.

Otherwise, even encounters with zombie-vomiting undead dinosaurs are going to get boring pretty fast...

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Monday, 15 January 2018

Condesation in Action 5: Cults of the Sundered Kingdoms

This installment of 'Condensation in Action' is going to be different to the last four, because this time the Pathfinder adventure path I'm condensing isn't actually one of the official ones from Paizo. Cults of the Sundered Kingdoms is from Frog God Games, and I got it bundled in with a whole bunch of other stuff in the recent Humble Bundle they did with Kobold Press. It started life as a bunch of different modules that Frog God released for D&D 3rd edition, which were then repackaged along with some information on their setting (the titular Sundered Kingdoms) and nailed together into an adventure path for Pathfinder. The adventures have a good fantasy-horror vibe to them, but the level of bloat is unbelievable. We're talking about an adventure path which manages to turn a sequence of six straightforward 'find the cult, smash the cult' adventures into a book that is four hundred and thirty-seven pages long. 

Given that virtually all of these adventures revolve around the kind of one-dimensional fantasy cultists I've recently been complaining about, there's not a lot of scope for the kind of socially-focused, nonviolent-solution-oriented adventures that I usually try to turn adventure paths into. Some of the material in it appeals to the horror fan in me, though, so I'm going to do what I always do. I'm going to rewrite it, de-railroad it, and then cut it to the bone. There's got to be a serviceable short horror-fantasy hexcrawl in there somewhere...

Cults of the Sundered Kingdoms: Condensed Edition

(NB: Hexes are 6 miles across.)

Setting: This adventure takes place in a distant province that no-one cares about: a region of damp, misty hills, right on the edge of the wilderness. There are only three things that most people know about the area:
  1. It's got a port town which should, by rights, be a backwater, but the local merchant's guild somehow manage to wring a real profit out of the place.
  2. The main exports are wine and precious metals, though in recent years the wine's been pretty substandard.
  3. It has a horrible reputation for monsters, hauntings, and heresies. Seriously, man, don't even go there. All the locals are probably cultists or something.

Everyone Hates Backstory: Thousands of years ago, a prehistoric warlord invaded this region. Unable to defeat him in battle, the holy men of the indigenous inhabitants called upon forbidden powers, sacrificing themselves to empower six obelisks with dark magic that would allow their clans to defeat the invaders. (They are located at 01010104010803020501, and 0805.) It worked, but the obelisks have remained magically tainted ever since, broadcasting a low-level hum of demonic power into the surrounding area. The region has been plagued with cult activity of one kind or another ever since.

About a century ago, Lord Wynston Mathen, a crusading knight notorious for both his piety and his brutality, was granted a fief in the region in recognition of his services in some far-off holy war. Unbeknownst to him, his wife, Madrana, was secretly a witch, who bathed herself in the power of the obelisks and bore her husband not-quite human children as a result. When the knight discovered this, he killed first her, then his children, and then himself. But one child escaped the purge, hidden from his murderous father by servants loyal to his mother's coven; and their descendants still live in their old manor house today, nurturing the awful thing in the pit that their ancestress first brought there in its larval form.

As the Thing in the Pit has squirmed its way towards full maturity, its psychic emanations have harmonised with those of the obelisks, increasing their power. Cult activity in the region is on the rise. The Mathen family is getting bolder, making pacts with the ancient monsters of the forest, carrying out murders and abductions almost at will. The authorities are getting worried: social order seems to be breaking down across the region, and they don't know why. Perhaps, for a suitable fee, the PCs would be willing to investigate...?

A Quick Note on Cults: Even though the villagers at 0101, the Mathen family at 0105, the monks at 0108, the cultists at 0703, and the bandits at 0805 all serve the same dark powers, the influence of the obelisks has led each of them to do this independently. They are not aware of one another's activites, and will not regard each other as natural allies if they encounter one another.

The Hexcrawl

0101: Deep in these woods, in a hidden valley, an isolationist clan live in a fortified village, with one of the six obelisks standing proudly at its heart. They are descended from the original inhabitants of the region: only they still remember that the obelisks were originally enchanted in order to drive invaders from their lands, and they regard them as sacred sites. Unfortunately, countless generations spent living in the tainted magical aura of their obelisk has rendered them fearful, violent, and paranoid, suspicious and terrified of the world outside. They are currently convinced that the soldiers they killed at 0202 were just the advance forces of an invading army, and are preparing for a battle to the death.

The clan have preserved their language and culture through a brutally-enforced culture of xenophobic insularity, and will frantically resist any attempted contact from the outside world. Any outsider who does stumble across them is assumed to be a spy and executed at the foot of a great tree which stands just outside their village: the corpse is then devoured by the gigantic three-headed rook that lives in its highest branches, which the villagers regard with reverence. So total is their isolationism that the other inhabitants of the region don't even know they're here, attributing their occasional victims to bandits or spiteful fairies. Anyone caught in the traps at 0102 or 0201 will be brought here for questioning and execution. If the tribe's elders feel their world is ending - either because they're threatened with annihilation or because someone might actually bring them into contact with the outside world, which they regard as pretty much the same thing - they will awaken the toad-dragon at 0301.

0102: These densely-forested hills are littered with pits, snares, and deadfall traps, built by the villagers at 0101 both to supply them with game and to keep intruders away from their hidden village. Hunters from the tribe check the traps regularly to see who or what has fallen into them.

0103: These misty hills are home to a wretched band of mutants, abandoned by their creators. Formerly local miners or farmers, they were abducted by minions of the Mathen family, dragged down to their hidden laboratory at 0203, surgically altered, and then released into the hills when the results proved disappointing. Driven quite mad by a combination of trauma, dark magic, and brain damage, they now lope across the hillsides, alternately raging and weeping. They react to outsiders with fear and hostility, and are quick to resort to violence; but with time and care at least some of them could probably be restored to something like their old selves, albeit with more insect parts than they used to have. They will react with hysterical fear if brought anywhere near the mine at 0203.

0104: In a remote, mist-shrouded valley lies a hidden cave; in the depths of that cave lies a deep, dark pit, and at the bottom of that pit stands an obelisk, which was dragged in there during some now-forgotten time of trouble centuries ago. When Madrana first came to these lands with her oblivious husband, she recognised this obelisk's power, and placed within the pit a larval horror that she had brought from her far-off homeland; now, nourished by the obelisk's dark energies and a century's worth of sacrifices, the Thing in the Pit has become a huge, gibbering monster, covered in innumerable eyes, mouths, and bladed tendrils. It is the true 'father' of Miya and Marko (see 0105), and the Mathen family come to the cave regularly to worship the dark powers in secret and make offerings to the Thing in the Pit. It is the psychic emanations of the Thing, vibrating through the magical harmonies of the obelisk network, which has amplified their evil influence upon the region. If the Thing was killed, then the effects of the remaining obelisks would be greatly reduced.

0105: In this isolated hilltop manor-house live the Mathen family: Milo, his wife Mimi, his sister Mildridge, and Mimi's children Miya and Marko. (They are not Milo's children, though he pretends they are: their true father was the Thing in the Pit.) On the surface, they look like harmless minor nobility; their children seem sweet and innocent, and their servants are very good at pretending to be dim and amiable yokels. In fact, none of this is true. Milo, Mimi, and Mildridge are all accomplished dark magicians, the servants are murderously-committed cultists, and Miya and Marko aren't even properly human: their small bodies are inhumanly resilient, they are capable of singing songs which warp the minds of those who hear them, and they are unnervingly capable wielders of carving knives and meat cleavers. (Milo also conceals a squirming mass of six paralysing tentacles beneath his clothes.) Family and servants alike have been born and raised within the witch-cult Madrana founded, and are extremely hardened to violence.

The Mathens believe that this is their big moment: the Thing in the Pit is growing to epic proportions, Mimi's horde of carrion moths (see 0302) is multiplying rapidly, and the magical vibrations from the obelisks are getting stronger than ever. Emboldened by the social breakdown across the region, they have made an alliance with the giants at 0402 and seized the mine at 0203, planning to turn it into a monster-factory. Their problem is that they're making all this up as they go along: when Wynston Mathen killed Madrana and her children, the knowledge of her original plan for the Thing and the obelisks died with her, and now they're just guessing that 'kill lots of people and make lots of monsters' is the kind of thing she'd approve of. They dream of ruling the land as terrible kings and queens, but have only vague and impractical ideas about how to bring this about.

The Mathen mansion is extremely dangerous, with mutated humans and animals locked in the outbuildings, and several generations worth of undead ancestors thumping around in the attic. There's also a network of secret passages hidden within the walls, complete with concealed peepholes for surreptitious spying: for most people these narrow crawlways can only be moved through slowly, but Miya and Marko delight in running through them at high speed, and have rigged up spring-loaded blade traps at strategic points in case anyone tries to follow them. The laboratories at the top of the house contain some unfinished mutants who the family are currently 'improving' in their spare time. These pitiful creatures are half-mad with trauma, but will happily aid any attempt to destroy their tormentors.

0106: On a lonely hillside stands a crumbling stone mausoleum containing the remains of Wynston Mathen, who was interred here after his suicide. Its doors are firmly locked, barred, and chained, supposedly to keep thieves out, but actually to keep the ghost of Wynston in: he is furious at the survival of his tainted family, and still hungers for their destruction. If the mausoleum is opened, his spirit will howl curses upon his descendants, and demand that the PCs swear a sacred oath to exterminate them: if they agree, then he will permit them to borrow the enchanted sword and armour he bore when crusading (which were buried with him), but if they refuse then he will resort to spirit possession. He is potentially a powerful ally, but he is just as violent and intolerant as he was in life, and insists that all problems can be solved with sufficient amounts of prayer, fire, and mass murder.

0108: In this desolate moorland stands an ancient abbey, the only manmade structure for miles around. For centuries it has been home to a contemplative religious order, who cast down the ancient pagan stones on this site and then built the abbey on top of them as a sign of the victory of their faith. As the psychic emanations of the Thing in the Pit have intensified, the order has been corrupted by the magical vibrations of the obelisk which now lies at the bottom of their well, and have degenerated into an awful parody of their previous selves. Now they enforce their vows of silence by sewing shut the lips of their novices, and kidnap travellers on the moors, either for forcible initiation or for ritual drowning within the well. Some of the victims thus drowned rise again as ever-dripping zombies, with purple lips and bluish, shivering skin: the monks conceal them beneath hooded robes and use them for manual labour.

The increasingly-crazed abbot has invited two special guests into the abbey. One appears to be a woman, but is in fact some kind of horrible flayed thing wearing a woman's skin: it handles all the tailoring work, including the sewing shut of novices' lips. The other are a family of pale, dwarfish creatures who perpetually mutter to themselves as they cook for the brothers (mostly thin gruel, suitable for pouring into the corners of stitched-shut mouths): their muttering clouds the minds of those who hear it, making coherent thought virtually impossible whenever three or more of them are in the same place, and they carry cruel concealed blades. If the obelisk was destroyed then the well would lose its power to reanimate the dead.

0201: More traps laid by the villagers at 0101 - see 0102.

0202: A battlefield. When stories of monsters in the hills reached the town at 0703, the local authorities sent out a column of soldiers to investigate: they got this far before being ambushed and slaughtered by the villagers from 0101. Now most are moldering in shallow graves: the survivors were dragged off for interrogation and execution at the village. Faint trails lead away to the north.

0203: This mine was a crucial part of the local economy until recently, when the increasingly emboldened Mathen family decided to seize it for themselves. Their mutant monsters swiftly killed or captured the miners, and Mildridge Mathen has set up a hidden laboratory in the depths of the mine, where she is experimenting with transforming her captives into monstrous minions using a combination of surgery and black magic. (The rejected cast-offs from this process can be found at 0103.) Now the mine appears empty and abandoned, but in fact creeping, black-skinned monsters loyal to Mildridge crawl silently along the ceilings, reaching down with their long, long arms to strangle intruders in the dark. Mildridge herself can usually be found working in the laboratory, grafting tentacles onto her luckless victims.

0204: The people of this mining village are in a state of panic: monsters have been sighted in the hills, people have been disappearing from the outlying farms, all the workers from the mine at 0203 have vanished, and the the soldiers who marched off into the mists to deal with the problem were never heard from again. (They were slaughtered at 0202.) Many of the residents have already fled. People speculate wildly that the ghost of Mad Lord Wyston, who slaughtered his family so many years ago, has escaped from his tomb at 0106 and brought an army of devils from hell to destroy them all. If the giants at 0402 are not stopped, it is only a matter of time before they stomp down to the village and level the place, eating all the people and livestock they can catch in the process.

0207: A funeral procession of hooded monks walk along the road towards the abbey at 0108, singing dolefully and carrying a chained coffin. The monk at the head of the procession carries a bell, whose mournful tolling can be heard from a great distance: he is the only one who will speak, informing anyone who asks that his brothers are under vows of silence, and that the coffin contains the corpse of a pious man whose last request was to be buried in the abbey churchyard. Attentive PCs will notice the coffin keeps moving slightly, as the (live, but bound and gagged) man inside it struggles to escape. The monks plan to carry the man to the abbey, where they will lower the coffin into the well, drowning its occupant and potentially raising him as an undead servitor.

0208: These pathless moors are inhabited by a few wandering lunatics in threadbare robes, escapees from the abbey at 0108. Their scarred lips bear witness to their status as ex-initiates, and if questioned they moan and whimper about needles, locked coffins, and something dreadful in the well.

0301: In a half-flooded cave in these wooded hills lives an ancient bat-winged toad-dragon, slumbering the centuries away in a pool of mud and slime. The only people who know of its existence are the villagers at 0101, who regard it as the last line of defence between themselves and the outside world, to be awoken only in times of dire emergency. If disturbed, it will ravage the surrounding countryside in a grumpy croaking rage before retreating to its cavern to sleep once more.

0302: Another of the obelisks once stood here, but it toppled centuries ago and has been overgrown and forgotten by the world. It was recently rediscovered by the Mathen family, and Mimi Mathen has been deliberately channeling its power into a nearby cave system in order to mutate the large moths that live there into huge, carrion-eating horrors whose wings emit a mesmeric drone that reduce all who hear it to imbecility. These moths now infest the hills around the obelisk, and Mimi, who regards them as her pets, visits them regularly.

0306: This impoverished moorland village is mostly devoted to sheep-farming. Its people are a superstitious breed, who mutter darkly about strange and evil goings-on out on the moors at night. They know there's something odd about the monks at 0108, but selling supplies to the abbey is an important part of the local economy, so they don't do much about it except warning people to be careful when travelling over the moors.

0402: A gang of mutant giants camping in a valley. These brutish creatures, their minds and bodies warped by the influence of the dark powers they worship, usually dwell much deeper in the wilderness, but the Mathen family has enlisted them as allies and now they are raiding the surrounding countryside. They're bold enough when terrorising peasants, but have no intention of risking their lives and will flee from serious opposition. They're currently waiting for one of their number to return from his foraging expedition to 0403.

0403: This farmhouse is currently under attack from one of the mutant giants from 0402, who is trying to steal livestock for their dinner. If the PCs try to intervene he will throw living sheep, goats, and members of the farmer's family at them as improvised missile weapons in an attempt to scare them away. If this proves ineffectual he will flee towards the camp at 0402.

0407: Formerly the best vineyards in the province, these fields have been warped by the effects of the cursed water from 0408. Now the grapes grow huge and disturbingly blood-coloured, and anyone eating too many of them will experience first rages, then madness, then mutations, just like the unfortunate guests at 0408. (Drinking wine made from them would be even worse.) Monstrous mutant rats infest the fields, gorging themselves on the tainted grapes and anything else unfortunate enough to wander into their territory.

0408: This large and luxurious manor house was built by Arvath Morrick, a winemaker and amateur alchemist, who grew rich on the profits of his vineyards at 0407. Five years ago, he held a grand feast to celebrate the marriage of his daughter, Larissa - but when he failed to invite his long-term rival Kyran Eldoran, who had once hoped to marry Larissa himself, the embittered man decided to curse the whole wedding party. A dabbler in the arcane arts in his youth, Kynan hacked a large chunk off the obelisk at 0805 many years ago, planning to study it further when he got the time. When he heard about the wedding, he decided to amplify its rage-inducing powers and then bribe a servant to throw it into the fountain which provided the manor with its drinking water, hoping that it would cause so much fighting and aggression that the wedding would be ruined (and maybe even called off).

Unfortunately for Arvath and his guests, what Kynan had actually achieved was less a controlled amplification than a drastic short-circuit, which simply resulted in the entire store of magical energy within the rock being transferred into the water. The food and drink at the wedding feast turned most of the guests into mindless, feral beasts, who began attacking people and animals at random. Arvath barricaded himself and Larissa into his study, gave her a dose of a potion to place her in an alchemically-induced state of suspended animation to delay the effects of the water she'd already drunk, and then killed himself before the madness seized him. Ever since, the Morrick manor and its grounds have been roamed by feral monsters that were once the wedding guests, who hunt in howling packs and live off grapes and rat-meat from the vineyards at 0407.

If the rock was removed from the fountain, then the curse would end - but the fountain is dangerous to approach, as the clouds of water vapour it emits contain so much magical energy that they gather into animate, semi-sentient clouds of poisonous mist, and try to pour themselves down the noses and throats of any who approach, thus perpetuating the curse. The manor house is full of valuable objects (albeit mostly thoroughly vandalised by the now-feral guests), and if Larissa was removed and restored from her alchemical sleep, her surviving relatives in the town at 0703 would pay a handsome reward for her recovery.

0501: Deep in these woods stands an ancient tower of bone, the home of the demon revered by the cultists at 0703. Its doors have remained shut ever since its master was summoned away, and only powerful magic will now permit entry. Within, undead guardians and servitors wait endlessly for his return, empowered by the obelisk which stands in the tower's basement. If the demon's binding is broken (by breaking the crystal skull at 0703), then it will return here at once: the tower's doors will fly open, and it will begin preying once more upon the people of the surrounding area.

0507: This village is devoted to grape growing and wine-making, although its fortunes have been in decline ever since the loss of the best vineyards to the curse of Morrick Manor. (See 0407 and 0408.) Many of the village's leading citizens were guests at the Larissa Morrick's wedding when the curse took effect: their relatives are desperate to find a way of rescuing them from the cursed manor and restoring them from their beast-like state, but everyone who's tried to retrieve them has ended up falling victim to either the guests or the mists. Kynan Eldoran, the man responsible for the curse, lives in a large house just outside the village: horrified by the consequences of his deed, he has burned all his magical books and now lives on as a wretched, broken man. If he learned that Larissa was still alive, he would do everything in his power to save her. If the villagers discovered he was responsible for the curse, they would lynch him on the spot.

0604: The bandits from 0805 attacked some travelling traders here, murdering them and stealing their horses and wagons. Now a pack of wolves (actually transformed bandits) are busy devouring the half-eaten corpses scattered across the road, and will react with uncharacteristic savagery if disturbed. Cart tracks lead away into the woods to the south-east.

0703: This town is a surprisingly prosperous-looking place, with many fine public buildings and a quay and harbour which would not look out of place in a city twice its size. Almost all the wealth of the community is concentrated in the monopolistic hands of the local trade guild, the Merchant Venturers, who defuse resentment at their success by making regular lavish donations to the public good. In fact, the upper ranks of the Venturers are all part of a secret cult, which summoned and bound the demon from 0501 generations ago using an enchanted crystal skull: now they keep it locked in a shrine / prison beneath their guildhouse, and force it to grant them skill in persuasion and success in business in exchange for annual human sacrifices. When attending cult meetings, they wear plain white masks and deep purple robes. The time for their annual offering is approaching fast, and they're eagerly looking around for people who probably won't be missed - the more of them the better!

The demon (which looks like a gigantic blue-furred apeman with a snaggle-toothed mouth too wide for its head) deeply resents its captivity, and longs to return to its tower of bone. If anyone breaks into its shrine, it will start melodramatically declaiming things like 'Stop them, you fools, before they have a chance to break the crystal skull!', in the hope that the intruders will do just that. If the skull is broken it will instantly abandon its cultists and teleport back to 0501. Without its assistance, the Merchant Venturers will swiftly decline to just being a minor-league provincial trade association, taking most of the local economy with them in the process.

0805: An overgrown obelisk stands in a clearing in these dense woodlands. As the psychic vibrations of the Thing in the Pit have intensified, a handful of woodland-dwelling outlaws, vagrants, and charcoal-burners have found themselves drawn to this site, its power gradually making them ever-more bloodthirsty and bestial. Now they have become a bloodthirsty bandit gang, who prey upon the travellers on the road to the west; the longer they spend in proximity to the obelisk, the more feral they become, and many of them can now actually transform themselves into monstrous wolves. Their leaders have devolved (evolved?) into grotesque beastmen, and only leave the forest to rob and kill.

Concluding the Adventure: Killing the Thing in the Pit will cause the psychic emanations of the obelisks to gradually decline to their normal levels; the people who live near them will still tend to be strange, paranoid, and violent, but not to their current monstrous levels. Damaging the obelisks will reduce their effects further, but not end them - even if smashed to rubble, they will continue to broadcast low-level psychic emanations. Grinding them to gravel and scattering them across large areas would probably reduce their effects to barely-noticeable levels, though.

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