Thursday, 1 December 2016

[Actual Play] Team Tsathogga Terrorises Territory: Tunnel-Town Traumatised by Thaumaturgical Thuggery

Team Tsathogga is still alive! Even though most people probably wish they weren't. (You can read about their previous adventures here and here and here.)

Their attempts to persuade the ape-man-gladiator-robot to leave his arena proved fruitless, so the PCs explored a bit more of the island, creeping up on the village of the purple-monster-worshippers from a concealed approach; there, they saw the giant purple cloud-monster hovering over the village and raining purple slime down upon it, which the villagers scooped up and deposited in a large pit. Noticing that the villagers always wore hooded robes dyed with this slime when outdoors, the PCs began to suspect that these garments were the key reason why the monster didn't regard them as prey like everyone else. Slinking back through the woods, they had a near-encounter with another band of village hunters out searching the island for them, but by using illusion magic they were able to send their hunters rushing off to the north while they fled hastily to the south. Returning to the hidden tunnels beneath the island, they got some much-needed rest in the relative safety of the subterranean zone.

Speaking to the tunnel-dwellers, they learned that their ancestors had once been able to operate many of the ancient machines down in the tunnels, but that most of these had broken down over the centuries and the knowledge of how to repair them had been lost. The PCs offered to use Comprehend Languages spells to help the tunnel-dwellers translate any texts that might be helpful; this offer was relayed back to their elders, and soon the PCs were blindfolded again and marched off to meet the tunnel-dweller's archivist, an elderly woman who requested their aid in translating parts of various ancient technical manuals left over from the serpent-man empire. The PCs did so, even if they understood almost none of what they were reading, winning the gratitude of the tunnel-dwellers.

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Some instruction manuals are best left unfollowed.

They also overheard a group of tunnel-dwellers listening to a recorded message, and asked the archivist about this. She explained that it was this message which had initially prompted their ancestors to flee into the tunnels: a transmission in which a woman calling herself Commander Elizabeth Lockheart had declared that the destruction of the serpent-man empire had begun, and urged all slave populations to abandon their masters and await their liberation. In the weeks after the message arrived, the serpent-man settlements on the islands were reduced to rubble by orbital bombardment: but no liberation army ever arrived, no further transmissions were ever received, and her people had been hiding down here ever since. Comparing this story to the doctrines of the Church of the Bright Lady, the PCs began to strongly suspect that the Bright Lady herself might be no more than a deified folk-memory of Commander Lockheart, although they agreed not to mention this theory to the Church forces already active on the islands.

Returning to the eastern island, the PCs discovered that the church expedition was under new leadership: Captain Matthew had made a supply run to the mainland, and picked up the Elder Amelia, who had assumed command of the mission. Unfortunately his ship had been wrecked by the cloud-monster on the island's east coast on its way back, leaving the expedition with two crippled ships and no way back to the mainland until one of them was repaired. With supplies only sufficient to feed her soldiers for a month, and relations with the ape-men getting strained due to competition over very limited foraging opportunities in their forest, Amelia was keen to gain access to new food supplies. Her preferred target was the clan of crazed, mutant ape-men who apparently inhabited the north-east of the island, but she was unwilling to make a frontal assault on their heavily-forested lair except as a last resort. The PCs discussed the situation, and eventually agreed to sneak in with a group of hand-picked soldiers as an advance party under the cover of darkness; they would take up positions on the hillside above the cave that the ape-men used as a lair, and engage them as they emerged, thus preventing them from harassing the main body of soldiers as they advanced up the valley.

Of course, no plan survives contact with the enemy. The ape-men heard the PCs blundering around in their forests and sent sentries to see what was going on: some spectacularly inaccurate arrow-fire from the party achieved nothing except letting the ape-men know that they were under attack, and before they knew it the PCs and their soldiers were skirmishing in the dark with a whole bunch of crazy ape-man mutants, with the main body of Amelia's forces still more than a mile away at the bottom of the hill. Making desperate use of Cause Fear and Darkness spells as stalling tactics, they managed to hold the ape-men up for long enough for the soldiers to advance halfway up the valley, at which point half the ape-men grabbed their children (and a big, suspicious-looking book) and fled into the night, while the other half stayed behind to fight a rearguard action. The PCs and their allies made short work of these, with Circe's healing magic sufficing to cure the injuries they sustained in the process.

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And then it was kinda like this.

This fight left the PCs and their allies as masters of what had been the territory of the mutant ape-men, but Hash was keen to find out what was in that book. A conversation with the local non-mutant ape-men, who had come to see what all the fuss was about, soon revealed that the book had been discovered by one of their own in a weird ruin generations ago; soon afterwards he and his family left their village, and his descendants had become more and more crazy and isolationist with each passing generation, until they were reduced to the freakish creatures that the PCs had just dispossessed. Weirdly enough, learning that its previous possessors had been turned into lunatic mutants just made Hash want the book even more, so Erin found the tracks of the escaped ape-man mutants and the PCs set off to see what had become of them.

Following the trail led them to a morbid scene. In a ruined building, the book lay open on a stone; in front of it lay the corpse of a mutant ape-man, cut open, apparently so that its blood and guts could be used to draw a circle around the book. All around this circle lay the corpses of the other ape-people, adults and children alike, unmarked by any kind of obvious injury - as though they had simply dropped dead where they stood. Finding this whole scene deeply suspicious, Hogarth fired a Magic Missile spell into the nearest corpse - and, sure enough, they all instantly jerked into motion! Rather than emerging separately, however, the animated corpses crawled together into a huge mound which then proceeded to shamble out of the building, clawing at the air with a dozen waving arms.

Huge though it was, this corpse-blob-monster wasn't very fast; and so, once it had emerged from the building, Tod saw his chance for glory. Eager to impress his new comrades, he ran around behind the monster, leapt into the ruin through one of its windows, and tried to grab the now-undefended book - but as he crossed the circle of blood, he was hit by a blast of necromatic energy and killed on the spot. Seconds later, his corpse began to animate, crawling out to join the rest as part of the blob. The rest of the PCs retreated before this horror, and after crawling a few hundred yards the corpse-monster turned around and headed back to the ruin, apparently intent on guarding the book.

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Dead PCs so far: six. Alas, poor Tod...

Circling back to the ruin, Circe produced her trusty Poking Stick (made from ancient lashed-together bones from the caverns beneath her distant hometown) and leaned in through the same window Tod had used to make his ill-fated entry, trying to prod the circle of intestines away from the book - but the moment she touched them, she was struck with a wave of magical energy that hit her like a club. When she reported this to the party, her near-indestructible comrade Skadi volunteered to take her place, on the grounds that it would take a whole lot of club blows to bring her down. Unholy magic tore at her mind, but Skadi just kept pushing until the circle was breached, at which point the supernatural assault abruptly ceased. Unfortunately, a speculative arrow fired into Tod's corpse proved that the corpse-blob-monster was still very much active; so the party led it away from the building while Hash climbed in through the window and grabbed the book, instantly becoming obsessed with keeping it safe and protected the moment his fingers touched its pages.

A surreal scene followed. The PCs fled the scene, but the corpse-monster, though slow, simply wouldn't stop chasing them (or, rather, chasing Hash); no matter how far they ran, sooner or later it always appeared on the horizon behind them, waving its dozens of arms angrily in the air. Hours passed, and darkness gathered, and night and exhaustion forced the party to slow its pace, and still the monster pursued. Realising that it was soon going to catch up with them, the PCs sought shelter with the tunnel-dwellers, claiming that they wanted passage to the southern island and neglecting to mention that they were being chased. However, any hopes that they might have had that the concealed hatchway would foil the creature died when they heard dozens of hands beginning to scratch on the other side of the hatch...

The tunnel-dwellers were not pleased, and began angrily blaming the PCs for leading a monster to their home - but their recriminations were cut short when the corpse-blob ripped open the hatch (which had only been hastily repaired since its mauling by Hologram Head's minions eleven days earlier) and threw itself down the shaft, only to rise again as a heap of broken-boned but still animate corpses whose shattered arms now waved like fleshy tentacles. PCs and tunnel-dwellers alike panicked and ran; some of the tunnel-dwellers threw crude explosives at the beast, and Kroak blazed away at it with his laser sword until the battery was flat, but these attacks did not suffice to destroy it. As the tunnel-dwellers scattered, the PCs followed one at random into a twisting area of half-collapsed tunnels, but he soon outpaced them and the glow of his light-globe faded into darkness. Lighting torches, the PCs saw the horrible monster closing on them fast and knew that it was time to make a stand.

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Maybe stealing that book wasn't such a good idea after all.

Arrow-fire proved ineffectual. Swords worked a bit better, but the sheer mass of the beast meant that it just kept coming. Finally they tried fire, ramming their torches into whatever parts of the blob looked most flammable, and ultimately Erin succeeded in setting light to it by shoving his burning torch into the long, greasy hair of Tod's corpse. As the blob burned, one of its component corpses grabbed Skadi by the face and tore open her cheeks with its nails, adding to her already-impressive collection of scars. Then the PCs disengaged and fled, watching from a safe distance as the corpse-heap was consumed by flame. Finally the fire burned out, leaving them alone, lost and exhausted, deep in a maze of tunnels beneath the earth. There was no sign of the tunnel-dwellers - but, as Hash peered into the darkness, he had an uncomfortable feeling that they were being watched...

Monday, 28 November 2016

Condensation in Action: Rise of the Runelords Edition!

It will come as no surprise to long-term readers of this blog that I have something of a love-hate relationship with Pathfinder's Adventure Paths, and with Rise of the Runelords in particular. I've used them to complain about adventure design, the depiction of violence, villain design, linearity, and the conceptual density of published RPG books. But, at the same time, there's a lot of material in Rise of the Runelords that I rather like; and whenever I look at it, I have the most frustrating feeling that there's actually a perfectly decent adventure lurking just under its surface. I think that, if stripped of its rather tiresome Pathfinder Adventure Path trappings, it could easily be turned into a pretty decent OSR-style adventure: nothing mind-blowingly original, but a solid fantasy romp with some memorable situations, locations and NPCs.

So, rather than just moaning about it, I'm going to use this blog-post to boil Rise of the Runelords down to what I think are the strongest and most OSR-friendly parts of it, kinda like I did for the Kingmaker AP here. Except I like more of Runelords than I did of Kingmaker, so this is going to be a pretty long post. (Rather shorter than the 427-page version published by Paizo, though!) As per my discussion of 'old-school space vs new-school time', I have completely ditched the idea that the various parts of the adventure are supposed to happen in any set order. Everything is present and active simultaneously, and the PCs can move freely between all of them at will, rather than being railroaded from one to the next along a set progression.

Those of you who've already read Rise of the Runelords will spot that this condensed version skips parts 4 and 5 entirely. This is because, in my view, they're pretty much pure filler: part 4 is just a reprise of the end of part 3 on a larger scale, and part 5 is a near-perfect example of a pointless filler dungeon. They only exist in order to dole out enough XP to get the PCs the requisite level for part 6, which is an obligation that this version doesn't have to meet.

So. Here we go!

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Rise of the Runelords: Condensed Edition

Adapted from the original adventure path by James Jacobs, Richard Pett, Nicholas Logue, Wolfgang Baur, Stephen Greer, and Greg Vaughan. 

The Backstory: Thousands of years ago, there was an empire ruled by seven evil wizards who called themselves the Runelords, each of whom drew their power from one of the seven deadly sins. The greatest of them was Karzoug, Runelord of Greed, who made his capital in a legendary golden city high up in the mountains. This city was called Xin-Shalast.

At some point, a horrible catastrophe befell this empire. (In the original this was an asteroid strike, but anything big and destructive will do.) Seeing it coming, Karzoug placed himself in suspended animation in a pocket dimension within his palace; he also put his chief apprentice, Khalib, into temporary stasis along with several of his most powerful minions, with orders to awaken him once the catastrophe was over. Unfortunately for Karzoug, Khalib's fellow apprentices sabotaged the stasis spell after the Runelord went into suspended animation, thus ensuring that neither Khalib or Karzoug ever awoke. Karzoug's various contingency plans were all vapourised in the catastrophe, and he and Khalib have been slumbering ever since.

A few years ago, a stone giant sorcerer named Mokmurian broke through the cloaking spell which hid the ruins of Xin-Shalast from the outside world, and accidentally woke Karzoug from his sleep. Karzoug promptly mind-controlled him, and compelled him to wake up Khalib and the other minions; but the Runelord's magic had grown weak over the millennia, and he was now little more than a ghost. In order to regain his power he required as many greedy individuals as possible to be marked with his seven-pointed-star rune and then offered up to him as sacrifices, their souls powering the Runewell which would permit his return. To these ends he sent out two shapechanging lamia minions, Lucrecia and Xanesha, to harvest souls for him, while Mokmurian was dispatched to raise him an army in preparation for Karzoug's return to the world.

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Runelord Karzoug.

Meanwhile, in the coastal town of Sandpoint, the reactivation of Karzoug's Runewell caused an ancient and long-forgotten Lesser Runewell built by the Runelord of Wrath to flare into sympathetic life, sending a ripple of fury through the community. One of the people affected by this was a young woman named Nualia, the embittered daughter of the local priest: under its promptings, she locked her father inside his church and then set fire to it, burning him alive. The people of Sandpoint believed she died in the fire: in fact she fled to the nearby city of Magnimar, where she was taken in by the cult run by Xanesha and became a worshipper of demonic powers. Returning to her home province, she set herself up as a goddess among the local goblins, and began planning her revenge upon Sandpoint.

When the adventure begins, the activities of Lucrecia, Xanesha, Mokmurian, and Nualia have begun to impact upon the surrounding area, but there is no sign that anything connects them. It will be up to the PCs to join the dots between them, disrupt their plans for Karzoug's resurrection, and finally travel up to Xin-Shalast to confront Karzoug and Khalid themselves before they are able to return the Runelord to the world...

The Hook: The PCs are in Sandpoint, attending the consecration of the new church built to replace the one Nualia burned down, when suddenly the crowd is attacked by goblins! There's lots of fire and violence and chaos, and when the fighting ends two sinister facts are revealed: first, that someone deliberately let the goblins into the town by opening the town gates, and second, that under the cover of the fighting someone has stolen the bones of the previous priest from their crypt. The community implore the PCs to protect them from the goblins and help them work out what's going on.

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Nualia's goblins on the rampage in Sandpoint.

Sandpoint: This is a small coastal town which, unbeknownst to its inhabitants, is built over the ruins of an ancient lesser runewell of wrath. It contains the following significant NPCs:
  • Aldern Foxglove, a local nobleman, secretly a serial killer in the employ of Xanesha's cult. As the adventure progresses, he will claim ever-more victims in and around the town, who will have nothing in common except for the fact that they are all uncommonly greedy individuals. All the corpses will be left with seven-pointed stars cut into their flesh. Aldern is secretly a ghoul, but he conceals his undead nature well, and kills most of his victims with knives rather than claws to prevent them from rising as ghouls in turn. He lairs in Foxglove Manor a short way outside Sandpoint, and has unleashed a few of his ghoul minions on the surrounding Farmlands, pretty much just for the hell of it. He and Nualia are unaware of one another's missions.
    • Over the first few days of the adventure, he will swiftly become obsessed with whichever one of the PCs makes most of an impression on the local population, and will start leaving them taunting messages on every kill. 
  • Lonjiku Kaijitsu, the owner of the local glassworks, who has a longstanding deal with local smugglers: they smuggle goods on and off boats using the tunnels under his glassworks, and dispose of the occasional corpse in his furnaces. He has a daughter, Ameiko, and a half-elf 'son' called Tsuto, who he hates as proof of his dead wife's infidelity. Tsuto is secretly Nualia's lover, and blackmailed Lonjiku into letting the goblins into the town: Tsuto then stole the priest's bones during the chaos and fled the town, joining Nualia at Thistletop. Shortly after the adventure begins, Tsuto will return to Sandpoint and lure his father and his sister Ameiko out the glassworks. (See Sandpoint Glassworks, below.) 
  • Brodert Quink, a local historian and eccentric, is full of wild theories about the history of Sandpoint and its vicinity, most of them baseless. He will, however, be able to accurately identify the seven-point-star symbol as the emblem of an ancient magical empire, which built the now-ruined bridge in Magnimar and the dam up in the hills over Turtleback Ferry. (See Magnimar and The Dam, below.) He will also be able to tell them that the legendary capital of this empire, Xin-Shalast, was supposedly high up in the mountains, but no-one has ever been able to find it.
Sandpoint Glassworks: These are a fire risk, so they're out of town, which suited the smugglers who used the tunnels under them just fine. When these tunnels were dug, the smugglers accidentally dug their way into the runewell of wrath underneath the glassworks, but bricked the intersection up again after encountering the monsters inside. With Tsuto's help, Nualia has recently demolished this barrier and enlisted the Runewell's inhabitants as allies, but this change has not yet been noticed by anyone else.
  • A few days after the adventure begins, Tsuto comes to the glassworks with a band of goblins and massacres the workers; he then lures his stepfather and sister out to the glassworks, where he murders Lonjiku (and encases him in glass) and imprisons his sister, hoping that he will be able to persuade her to join him and Nualia. PCs who come there hot on his trail will find him here with his goblins, who will attempt to throw them into furnaces and burn them with molten glass; PCs who wait too long will find only bloodstains and the entrance to the Runewell, Tsuto and his goblins having already dragged Ameiko off to Thistletop.
Runewell of Wrath: A small complex of ancient rooms reached via the smuggler's tunnels under the glassworks. 
  • The runewell is ruled by Erylium, the abandoned imp familiar of the long-dead wizard who built them, who has been stuck down there for thousands of years with only a bunch of ancient zombies for company; since the runewell reactivated she's also been able to brew up a bunch of horrible mutant creatures called sinspawn, using ambient wrath that the Runewell has been soaking up from the surrounding area. 
  • Recently she has acquired a new champion in the form of Koruvus, a goblin hero from a nearby tribe who wandered in by accident and was warped into a mutant freak by drinking from the runewell's cursed waters. If he could be weaned off the waters by the PCs, he could be a valuable ally in prying the local goblins away from Nualia's leadership.
  • Erylium has been acting as a kind of mentor to Nualia, and can reveal a good deal about her if questioned by PCs cunning enough to play upon her craziness and loneliness.
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Sinspawn attack!

Sandpoint Farmlands: As the adventure begins, these farms are just starting to suffer from the depredations of the ghouls unleashed upon them by Aldern Foxglove. The farmers are an independent-spirited bunch, and will initially try to deal with the problem on their own.
  • Several days after the adventure begins, a farmer will stumble into town half-mad with terror, gibbering about all his neighbours being eaten by scarecrows. The ghouls have been attacking people, infecting them with ghoul fever, and then draping them with sacks and tying them to sticks in the fields as makeshift scarecrows as they transform into undead. PCs going out there quickly enough will be able to save some of them, though others will already have turned, and will rip themselves from their frames and attack as soon as they get close. More ghouls lurk in the nearby farms, whose liveries mark them as servants from Foxglove Manor; one of them, the caretaker, even has the key to the manor hanging around his neck.
  • If the ghouls are not stopped in time, eventually a small army of them swim downriver into Sandpoint and attempt to massacre the whole population in the night.
Foxglove Manor: A horrible haunted house outside Sandpoint, built by one of Aldern's ancestors, who tried to turn himself into a lich but was interrupted in mid-ritual by his horrified wife, with consequences that proved fatal to them both; now the whole house is haunted by their ghosts, and those of subsequent generations of the family who have been driven to various horrible ends. 
  • Aldern, true to family tradition, murdered his own wife, Iesha Foxglove, in a jealous rage, and locked her body in the attic before fleeing to Magnimar and joining Xanesha's cult. He returned a changed (and undead) man, and now lairs in the basements, telling himself that the weeping and screaming he can hear behind the attic door must just be his imagination. In fact, Iesha has risen as a vengeful revenant, and if released from the attic by the PCs she will unerringly hunt Aldern down and attempt to tear him apart with her bare hands.
  • As well as the ghosts, ghouls, visions, and hauntings which beset anyone exploring around the house, the grounds are also infested with carrionstorms: enormous flocks of half-undead ravens infected with ghoul fever, which descend in their hundreds on anyone wandering the estate.
  • The soul of Vorel Foxglove, the original wannabe-lich, is trapped within a vaguely-humanoid patch of fungus on the wall of the deepest, dankest sub-basement. Burning and consecrating it will bring the haunting of Foxglove Manor to an end.
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Aldern by day.
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Aldern by night.

Thistletop: This is a maze of small, twisty goblin-tunnels through thistles and thornwoods, several miles down the coast from Sandpoint. Just offshore is a small, round island - actually the head of a giant long-sunken statue of Karzoug, although this is far from obvious now. Nualia has taken over the whole area, and has left her goblin minions to guard the woods while she and her companions remain on the island.
  • The statue head contains an ancient demon, bound there during the days of Karzoug's empire, and - like Erylium - stuck there ever since. It's been reaching out to contact psychically-sensitive goblins in their dreams, which has led the goblins to regard the site as a holy one, home to a mighty monster that will one day emerge and kill their enemies, but none of them have ever been bright enough to find the secret door it's trapped behind. Nualia is getting close, though.
  • The goblins have very mixed feelings about abandoning their traditional leaders to follow this scary human woman, but none of them are brave enough to stand up to her. She's particularly resented by their shaman, Gogmurt, who could easily be persuaded to lead an uprising against Nualia if he was sure he was going to be on the winning side, especially if Koruvus joined in. 
  • As well as her lover, Tsuto, Nualia is guarded by two mercenaries, Orik (fighter) and Lyrie (mage). Orik is infatuated with Lyrie, and Lyrie with Tsuto; clever PCs may be able to manipulate this fact to set the band at odds.
  • Nualia herself is of part-Celestial descent, as evidenced by her metallic-silver hair. Always feeling herself to be a bit of a freak, and burdened by the massive expectations placed on her as the local priest's literally angelic daughter, she had a brief adolescent affair with a passing traveler who abandoned her as soon as he discovered she was pregnant. Her father's complete lack of compassion at this, and the traumatic miscarriage which followed it, left Nualia extremely susceptible to the influence of the reactivated Runewell of Wrath. Now, as a member of Xanaesha's cult, she wields terrible black magic, and intends to use her father's bones in a ritual to burn the angelic 'taint' from her body and turn herself into a half-Fiend, instead. She wears a seven-point-star talisman, a gift from Xanesha.
    • A week or so after the adventure begins, Nualia will complete her ritual, annoint herself with the ashes of her father's bones, and undergo a transformation into a half-fiend.
    • A few weeks after that, she will finally locate the secret door, unleash the demon, and lead it and the goblins in a full-scale attack on Sandpoint. The resulting fighting will generate enough wrath to make a wave of sinspawn come rushing out of the Runewell under the command of Erylium, further adding to the chaos. If she succeeds in destroying Sandpoint, Nualia will lead her warband up into the hills to join Lucretia at Fort Rannik.
Magnimar: This is the nearest big city, built around the ruins of an immense bridge built in the days of Karzoug's empire, which once connected the mainland to an island out at sea. The city's slum district is directly under the bridge, placing it in perpetual shadow: this is where Xanesha is hiding. It's common knowledge that Aldern Foxglove spent the last few years in Magnimar, and talking to Orik, Lyrie, Tsuto, or even Erylium can reveal that Nualia did, too. The city has recently suffered a rash of unexplained disappearances.
  • A few days after the adventure begins, rumours will reach Sandpoint of the strange disappearances plaguing Magnimar.
  • Aside from the disappearances, the current talk of the town is the strange departure of a local mercenary and sword collector named Viorian Dekanti. A few weeks ago, Viorian was seen rushing out of town, waving an ancient sword and ranting about a city in the mountains. All the servants at her house were found dead, and no-one has seen her since. (She's currently in Xin-Shalast - see below.)
  • The disappearances are, of course, the work of Xanesha's cult, The Skinsaw Men. They have been abducting Magnimar's greedier citizens and offering their souls up to Karzoug in sacrificial rituals, before disposing of their corpses using the log-splitting machinery in a lumber mill owned by their leader, Justice Ironbriar. As a prominent city official, Ironbriar has been preventing the effective investigation of the murders, but the PCs can track the cult down by investigating Aldern and Nualia's movements during their time in Magnimar (or through ordinary detective work on the disappearances).
  • Xanesha is hiding in a rickety, abandoned clocktower under the remains of the Magnimar bridge, which locals call The Shadow Clock. Ironbriar, Nualia, and Aldern all met her there, so interrogating them could reveal her location; otherwise, the PCs can figure it out by watching where the trained messenger ravens kept by the cult fly when they are released. She's guarded by The Scarecrow, an intelligent flesh golem created decades ago by Vorel Foxglove, whom she has adopted. If intruders defeat the Scarecrow, she'll try to stop their futher ascent by cutting the ropes which hold up the tower's huge bells, dropping them on the PCs as they ascend the tower's unstable stairs. She wears a seven-pointed-star talisman, just like Nualia, and her papers include a substantial (though not inherently incriminating) correspondence with her sister Lucrecia in Turtleback Ferry. 
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Skinsaw cultist in cult regalia.

Turtleback Ferry: This is a small fishing town beside a lake up in the hills above Sandpoint, protected from the monsters that lurk there by the Black Arrow Rangers, who are based in the nearby Fort Rannik. For the past few years, Lucrecia has been operating a gambling barge on the lake, using its games as a way of identifying the most greedy locals; she would then offer these individuals 'special membership', the mark of which was a seven-pointed-star tattoo somewhere on their body. Each of these people believes that only a few people have been offered such a deal, but in truth there are now scores of them in and around the town. Just before the adventure begins, Lucrecia deliberately sinks her barge and goes up into the hills, planning to engineeer a flood which will wipe Turtleback Ferry off the map and offer its marked inhabitants up as a mass-sacrifice to Karzoug.
  • Several days after the adventure begins, word reaches Sandpoint that the (in)famous gambling barge, The Paradise, has sunk in the lake near Turtle Ferry, to the disappointment of some locals and the relief of others. PCs who dive down into the lake to investigate its wreck will discover signs that it was sunk deliberately.
  • A couple of weeks after the adventure begins, word arrives that none of the Black Arrow rangers - normally a common sight in Turtleback Ferry - have been seen there in weeks, and the locals are starting to worry that something might have happened to Fort Rannik.
  • Several weeks after the adventure begins, if the PCs haven't yet stopped Lucrecia, a massive flood obliterates the town of Turtleback Ferry. (See The Dam, below.)

Fort Rannik: This fort high in the hills above Turtleback Ferry is the base of the Black Arrow Rangers. Unfortunately for them, Lucrecia was able to gain control of several key members of the organisation (via blackmail, debts, seduction, and use of magic), whom she used to ensure that the rangers were scattered over a wide area on the day her minions struck. Each man individually thought he was doing nothing worse than delaying a patrol so as to permit some trivial act of criminality to pass undetected, but collectively their actions allowed Mokmurian's ogres to ambush and massacre the rangers one band at a time, before storming the badly-undermanned fort. When the adventure begins, Fort Rannik has only just fallen to the ogres.

  • The Ogres are an undisciplined bunch, high on overconfidence after defeating their ancestral enemies. Any halfway-decent plan to trick them will probably work. Interrogating captured ogres will swiftly reveal that their clan was recently taken over by a stone giant named Mokmurian, who wore a seven-pointed-star symbol, and that a bunch of their clan-mates are currently at work sabotaging an ancient dam in the hills.
  • Lucrecia is believed dead by the people of Turtleback Ferry, but is actually here, lording it over the ogres and waiting for the flood. She wears a She wears a seven-pointed-star talisman, just like Nualia and Xanesha, and her papers include lots of maps and notes about an ancient dam in the hills and a substantial (though not inherently incriminating) correspondence with her sister Xanesha, all sent care of Justice Ironbriar in Magnimar. If she sees the fort is about to be retaken she will flee to join Mokmurian in the ogre lair.
  • The last surviving rangers are huddled in the cells, too weak to fight, while the ogres eat them one by one. If the PCs wait more than a few weeks to retake Fort Rannik, they'll all be dead; otherwise, they can tell a sorry tale of misdirection and betrayal. The traitors themselves are all dead, their souls offered up to Karzoug by Lucretia, but examination of their corpses will show they all had Lucretia's star-tattoos.
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Lucrecia in her human form.

The Dam: A huge and ancient stone dam up in the hills, built by Karzoug in ages past. Lucrecia led the ogres down to the hidden flood controls, which they are busily wrecking. If they aren't stopped, then several weeks after the adventure begins all the floodgates will kick open at once and a whole lake's worth of water will be dumped into the valley below, wiping out Turtleback Ferry.

The Ogre Lair: High up in the hills is the lair of the Kreeg Ogre Clan. After Karzozug's empire fell, one of his generals built a petty kingdom in these hills, and the ogres still regard the seven-pointed star as a symbol of superstitious dread: as a result, Lucrecia and Mokmurian had little difficulty in taking over the clan and using the Kreegs as footsoldiers. The ogres are currently at work forging weapons and armour for what Mokmurian assures them will be a great war soon to come.
  • Several weeks after the adventure begins, panicked stories will begin to filter down into Sandpoint and Magnimar of ogre raids on the surrounding countryside.
  • Mokmurian the stone giant sorcerer is here, leading the ogres. He wears a seven-pointed-star talisman, just like Nualia, Xanesha, and Lucrecia. Karzoug can see through Mokmurian's eyes, and if the giant is captured he will directly take over Mokmurian's body, mocking the PCs before detonating the giant's brain within his skull.
  • The ogres will happily boast about how Mokmurian told them a great army was going to descend on the region from a hidden city in the mountains, and how they would have the honour of fighting in its vanguard and eating all the humans for miles around.
Xin-Shalast: Karzoug's ancient capital now lies in ruins. His magic still hides it from the outside world, and only someone who wears one of his seven-pointed-star talismans will ever be able to find it; anyone else will simply wander in circles until they give up or freeze to death. (Mokmurian found it through a mixture of special magical research and blind luck.) If one person in a group has such a talisman, they will be able to see the path to the city where everyone else sees only mist and snow, but if the non-wearers are actually dragged into the city proper then they become able to perceive it normally.
  • Xin-Shalast's population mostly died when the empire fell; those that survived did so by hiding underground, becoming a race of skulks calling themselves The Spared. They currently languish under the cruel rule of a vampire decapus whose ancient prison they accidentally mined into, but if liberated they will happily aid the PCs.
  • Karzoug's enormous stronghold currently stands almost empty, inhabited only by a handful of his giant and lamia minions, his apprentice Khalib (who is currently grief-stricken about letting his boss down by oversleeping for several thousand years)and his new champion, Viorian. Viorian was unfortunate enough to be the owner of the Karzoug's ancient Sword of Greed when its master awakened; he recently used his power over the blade to take over her mind and compel her up to Xin-Shalast to fight for him. If the sword could be taken off her, she'd eagerly join the PCs against Karzoug. Any PC who attempts to wield the Sword of Greed will suffer the same fate as Viorian did. 
  • Deep within Karzoug's stronghold can be found his ultimate contingency device: a one-use, one-way time portal. Only Karzoug can use this portal. Once he is strong enough to return to the world, he plans to use it to bring his army from ancient Xin-Shalast (just before the cataclysm) into the present day, giving him a force capable of carving out a new empire in his name. The device is pretty resilient, but a sufficient quantity of magical damage will wreck it beyond repair.
  • Karzoug himself lurks within a sealed demiplane, The Eye of Avarice, which can only be reached by stepping into a magical golden fire that burns within the heart of his stronghold. This is guarded by his final defender, the fanatically loyal lamia priestess Most High Ceoptra.
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Xin-Shalast. (That's Karzoug's face carved onto the mountain at the back!)

The Eye of Avarice: This tiny demi-plane of gold and fire is where Karzoug lurks, waiting for enough greedy souls to be sacrificed to him for him to finally regain his mortal form and re-enter the world.
  • If Lucrecia succeeded in destroying Turtleback Ferry, AND Xanesha's cult (including Aldern) were not stopped until they had sacrificed a large number of victims (or were not stopped at all): Karzoug is pretty much at full strength, and will be nightmarishly difficult for the PCs to defeat. A few months after the adventure begins, he will emerge from the Eye of Avarice, summon his ancient legions through the time portal, and proceed to conquer a new kingdom for himself. (If the PCs have already destroyed the portal, then the world will 'only' need to deal with an angry archmage.)
  • If Lucrecia succeeded but Xanesha was stopped, or vice versa: Karzoug is a powerful, wraith-like being, who will not be easy to defeat. If at least some of his minions are still active out in the world, he will gradually accumulate the power he needs to manifest, but this will take at least several months.
  • If both Lucrecia and Xanesha were stopped: Karzoug is a plaintive, ghost-like creature, howling among the ruins of his ancient achievements. Defeating him should only be moderately difficult for a well-equipped party. Even if some of his minions are still active, it will take him years to accumulate the power he needs to manifest in the world.
Epilogue: Karzoug's death sends out a magical shockwave across the whole of his ancient empire's magical infrastructure network. The magic concealing Xin-Shalast will dissipate: the PCs will have only a short time to strip it of as much of its legendary wealth as possible before treasure-seekers descend upon it like vultures from every direction. And far away, in six more hidden chambers beneath six more forgotten ruins, the other six Runelords will begin to stir...

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Timetable of Events (if not disrupted by PC action):

  • Adventure Begins: The consecration of Sandpoint's new church gets gatecrashed by goblins. Tsuto Kaijitsu steals the bones of Sandpoint's previous priest during the confusion.
  • First few days: 
    • Aldern Foxglove starts killing greedy people in and around Sandpoint, and becomes obsessed with one of the PCs. 
    • Tsuto Kaijitsu lures his stepfather and sister out to the Sandpoint glassworks, intent on murdering the former and kidnapping the latter. 
    • Ghoul attacks begin in the nearby farmlands.
    • Rumours reach Sandpoint of strange disappearances in Magnimar.
  • Next several days: 
    • A farmer stumbles into Sandpoint raving about killer scarecrows.
    • Nualia completes her ritual at Thistletop and becomes a half-fiend.
    • Word reaches Sandpoint that the gambling barge Paradise has sunk near Turtleback Ferry.
  • A few weeks later: 
    • Nualia frees the Thistletop demon and attacks Sandpoint.
    • Word reaches Sandpoint that none of the Black Arrow rangers have been seen in Turtleback Ferry for weeks. (By this point, all the captive rangers at the fort will have been eaten by the ogres.)
  • A few weeks after that:
    • Lucrecia's ogres wreck the dam, and Turtleback Ferry is wiped out by a massive flood.
    • Panicked stories of ogre attacks reach Sandpoint and Magnimar.
  • A few months after the adventure begins: If the PCs have not yet disrupted his plans, Karzoug returns to the world, summons his army through time, and begins conquering a new empire.

NPC Quick Reference Guide (which the official edition, unbelievably, doesn't have!)
  • Aldern Foxglove: Disguised ghoul, aristocrat, and serial killer, a descendant of Vorel Foxglove and a member of Xanesha's cult, The Skinsaw Men. He lives in Foxglove Manor, and has turned the servants into ghouls. He is currently murdering the greedier inhabitants of Sandpoint as offerings for Karzoug. Before joining the cult he murdered his wife, Iesha Foxglove - he has never returned to the scene of this crime, and is unaware that she has risen as a revenant.
  • Ameiko Kaijitsu: Daughter of Lonjiku Kaijitsu, the owner of the local glassworks. Has a rocky relationship with both him and her half-brother Tsuto. Something of a wannabe adventurer.
  • Black Arrow Rangers: Order of rangers based at Fort Rannik. Recently massacred by the Kreeg Ogre Clan, who are keeping the last handful of survivors prisoner in the fort.
  • Brodert Quink: Eccentric local historian who lives in Sandpoint. Can identify the seven-pointed star as the symbol of an ancient magical empire, whose legendary capital, Xin-Shalast, no modern explorer has ever been able to find.
  • Erylium: The imp familiar of a long-dead magician, who has been imprisoned in the runewell of wrath under the Sandpoint glassworks since the fall of Karzoug's empire. The smugglers working with Lonjiku Kaijitsu accidentally mined into her lair, but promptly bricked it up again. Tsuto told Nualia about this, though, and she had the wall torn down again, talking with Erylium and coming to view the imp as a kind of mentor. Erylium has some zombie and sinspawn servants, and can brew up more of the latter in her runewell if the locals get angry enough. She is also served by Koruvus.
  • Ghouls: The servants of Foxglove Manor, transformed into undead by Aldern Foxglove. Currently murdering farmers in the Sandpoint Farmlands.
  • Goblins of the Sandpoint region: Currently united under the leadership of Nualia, but uncomfortable about following a human. Could be persuaded to rebel by Gogmurt and/or Koruvus. 
  • Gogmurt: A goblin shaman, very unhappy about the fact his tribe has been taken over by Nualia. Would rebel against her in a second if he thought he'd win.
  • Iesha Foxglove: Luckless wife of Aldern Foxglove, who murdered her in Foxglove Manor, before locking her body in their bedroom and fleeing to Magnimar. The curse of Vorel Foxglove prevented her soul from escaping the house, and now she has risen as a vengeful revenant. If released from her room she will hunt down Aldern and try to kill him.
  • Justice Ironbriar: Leader of the Skinsaw Men cult in Magnimar. A high-ranking city official, who has been using his status to ensure their murder spree goes largely undetected. Owns the Magnimar lumber mill, which the Skinsaw Men use for cult meetings and corpse disposal. A devoted servant of Xanesha. 
  • Karzoug: Ancient Runelord of Greed. Currently a ghost stuck inside the Eye of Avarice.
  • Khalib: Karzoug's apprentice, who was supposed to wake him up several thousand years ago. Currently in Xin-Shalast, looking for a way to make amends for his epic oversleeping.
  • Kreeg Ogre Clan: A clan of ogres currently active at Fort Rannik, the ogre lair, and the dam. They serve Lucrecia and Mokmurian.
  • Koruvus: A goblin hero who went exploring in the smuggler's tunnels under the sandpoint glassworks shortly after Nualia tore down the wall which separated them from the runewell of wrath. He wandered into the runewell, drank its cursed waters, and was enslaved and mutated by their magic. Now he serves Erylium, but if he could be weaned off the waters he could be a great ally in persuading the goblins to rebel against Nualia.
  • Lonjiku Kaijitsu: The owner of the Sandpoint Glassworks, and a collaborator with the local smuggling gangs. His now-dead wife had an affair with an elven traveller, and her half-elf son, Tsuto, was the result; Lonjiku has always hated Tsuto for it, and the feeling is quite mutual. He has a slightly better (but still pretty awful) relationship with his daughter, Ameiko.
  • Lucrecia: Shapechanging lamia sorceress; sister of Xanesha, and one of Karzoug's key minions. Ran the Paradise gambling barge in Turtleback Ferry, which she used to mark all its greediest citizens for sacrifice. Used her hold over several of the Black Arrows to engineer the fall of Fort Rannik, and now works with the Kreeg Ogre Clan to destroy the dam in order to destroy Turtleback Ferry as a mass sacrifice to Karzoug. Has one of the four talismans.
  • Lyrie: A mercenary magician currently employed by Nualia. Has a crush on Tsuto. Knows Orik is infatuated with her, much to her irritation. Currently based at Thistletop.
  • Mokmurian: A stone giant sorcerer, who discovered Karzoug's resting place in Xin-Shalast and accidentally woke him up. Now mind-controlled by Karzoug, he leads the Kreeg ogre clan at the ogre lair. Has one of the four talismans.
  • Most High Ceoptra: A lamia priestess, and the final guardian of the Eye of Avarice in Xin-Shalast. A fanatical follower of Karzoug.
  • Nualia: Embittered part-celestial demon-worshipper. A member of Xanesha's cult, and self-proclaimed goddess of the Sandpoint region's goblins. Currently based at Thistletop. Has one of the four talismans.
  • Orik: A mercenary swordsman currently employed by Nualia. Infatuated by Lyrie, and jealous of the fact that she prefers Tsuto. Currently based at Thistletop.
  • The Scarecrow: An intelligent flesh golem built by Vorel Foxglove. Currently serving as a bodyguard to Xanesha in the Magnimar Shadow Clock.
  • Sinspawn: Horrible monsters created by Elyrium at the Runewell of Wrath. She can only create them when there's a high amount of intense anger in the nearby area. 
  • Skinsaw Men: A murder cult led by Justice Ironbriar on behalf of Xanesha. Both Nualia and Aldern Foxglove are members. Currently murdering greedy people in and around Magnimar.
  • The Spared: A tribe of skulks which live in the tunnels under Xin-Shalast. Currently being ruled and terrified by a vampire decapus, and happy to aid anyone who can get rid of it for them.
  • The Thistletop Demon: An ancient demon summoned during the days of Karzoug's empire, and left stuck within its summoning circle inside Thistletop when the empire fell. It has been contacting the nearby goblins in their dreams, and they believe it is a sacred monster but have no idea how to free it. Nualia is currently trying to discover a way into its secret room to release it.
  • Tsuto Kaijitsu: Embittered half-elf, the half-sister of Ameiko Kaijitsu and the stepson of Lonjiki Kaijitsu, who hates him as the living proof of his late wife's infidelity. The feeling is mutual, and Tsuto has been plotting revenge on Lonjiki and Sandpoint for years. He is the devoted lover of Nualia, but would like to save his sister from her rampage if at all possible.
  • Viorian Dekanti: A mercenary and collector of antique swords from Magnimar, she was unlucky enough to be the current owner of the sword of greed once wielded by Karzoug's champion. Karzoug used the sword to take over her mind, kill her servants, and force her up to Xin-Shalast, where she now serves as his champion. His hold over her would be lost if she was parted from her sword.
  • Vorel Foxglove: Ancestor of Aldern Foxglove, and builder of Foxglove Manor (and of The Scarecrow, which inhabited it until Aldern gave it to Xanesha). A necromancer and wannabe lich, whose ascension to undeath was terminally interrupted by his wife. Their spirits, and those of their miserable descendants, now haunt Foxglove Manor, trapped forever within its walls. 
  • Xanesha: Shapechanging lamia sorceress; sister of Lucrecia, and one of Karzoug's key minions. Leader of the Skinsaw Men cult in Magnimar, and mentor to Nualia, Aldern Foxglove, and Justice Ironbriar. Lives in the Magnimar Shadow Clock, guarded by The Scarecrow. Has one of the four talismans.

Friday, 25 November 2016

200th post spectacular: the big book of B/X classes!

B/X D&D is a beautifully simple, elegantly minimalist masterpiece of RPG design. So what better way to show your appreciation of its grace and clarity than by throwing twenty-two new and totally unplaytested classes into the mix?

A while back, Chris Tamm (of Elfmaids and Octopi) said he'd like to see a book of my classes: so here, in celebration of ATWC's 200th post, I present a free downloadable pdf document containing ALL TWELVE of the B/X classes I've written for the blog over the last year-and-a-half, along with TEN of the classes I've written for ATWC itself, translated out of the weird B/X variant I actually use in my games and back into standard B/X D&D terminology. None of them have been playtested, but I've tried to keep them balanced with the default core classes. if anyone out there does use them in a game, I'd love to hear how it goes!

Aside from The Extras, who really do need a bit of explanation to make any sense at all, I've only included the actual rules information for these classes. If anyone downloads this and then finds themselves wondering what, say, the Sirtya actually are (and why they ride around on clouds by singing to them), then feel free to look up the original posts in the blog archive, all of which present these classes with at least a little bit more context...

I'll get around to that Rise of the Runelords thing later.

So, with no further ado, I present:

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  • Angels!
  • Blue Folk!
  • Brass Men!
  • Children of the Pines!
  • Clocktopi!
  • Deep Ones!
  • Disciples of the Word!
  • Extras!
  • Ghouls!
  • Goblins!
  • Half-Trolls!
  • Inquisitors!
  • Mesmerists!
  • Noncombatants!
  • Orcs!
  • Patchwork Girls!
  • Renunciates!
  • Sandshapers!
  • Sirtya!
  • Snake people!
  • Skaven!
  • The Unkindness!

This book truly has something for everyone! Download it! Ruin your B/X campaign today!

Monday, 21 November 2016

Conceptual density (or 'What are RPG books *for*, anyway?')

I recently picked up Shadows Over Vathak for free in an online sale (summary: a perfectly good two-page setting document mercilessly stretched out into an interminably lengthy setting sourcebook), and it got me thinking about, well, ideas...

Imagine this situation: you're running a game of D&D, and your players arrive in a new place - a tavern, a market, whatever - and you happen to mention that one of the people hanging around the place is a dwarf. This dwarf has no special significance: you just came up with him on the spur of the moment, as the kind of person who might be in a place like this in D&D-land. But one of the PCs latches onto him. She asks questions about him. She goes over and talks to him. She wants to know what a dwarf like him is doing in a place like this.

At this point, you might have any number of brilliant ideas about how to work this dwarf into your campaign. But even if you don't, there are three options which are always available to you.

Option one is the path of least resistance. 'His name is, um, Dain Steelbeard. He's a blacksmith. He's short and muscular and he has a massive beard. He's in town to buy, um, mining equipment for his clan, who operate an iron mine up in the hills.' Anyone with even the most basic knowledge of traditional fantasy can come up with this stuff ad nauseam. It's boring and cliched, but it'll do until something more interesting comes along.

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If he isn't called Dain Steelbeard, I bet someone else in his clan is...

Option two is the path of free-association. 'His name is, um, Ronald Cakeman. He's a cat trainer who travels the land in search of designer shoes. His beard is dyed bright green and he's wearing a bowler hat. He's embroiled in a sordid bisexual love triangle with a centaur and a harpy and his sorrows have driven him to drink. And he rides around town on a yak.' Coming up with stuff like this is easy because it is meaningless random bullshit. It's more fun and colourful than yet another beer-loving, axe-swinging dwarf with a bad Scottish accent, but it's also more disruptive and less likely to cohere with the rest of the setting. Too much reliance on this sort of free association will quickly turn your game into surrealist nonsense.

Option three is the path of filler. 'His name is Dain the, um, Corpulent. He's really fat. He has bright green eyes and he works as a carpenter, repairing the local mill. And he hates mice.' This is the kind of stuff you can get off any one of a thousand 'random NPC traits' tables. Random detail about occupation. Random detail about appearance. Random detail about personality. Just enough to distinguish him from the next dwarf, but nothing that's actually particularly meaningful or interesting. After all, why should your players care that he has bright green eyes?

Now, there are all kinds of other, better things you might do with him as well, but these three options are always available as a kind of baseline minimum. You can always fall back on cliches or invent random nonsense or string together plausible but irrelevant details until they accumulate into something resembling a (rather boring) person. They are the most basic implements in the GM's toolbox.

I think it thus follows that, if an RPG supplement is worth reading (let alone buying), it has to give you more than that. The contents need to be something better than you could come up with, unaided, simply by following cliches and/or random madlibbing and/or coming up with irrelevant filler. Otherwise, how have they improved your game?

I say this because quite a lot of them don't. Like, they'll detail an orc tribe, in enormous detail... and it will all be exactly what you would expect from the words 'orc tribe'. They'll be fierce and warlike and brutal and love violence and live in a cave and have a thuggish chief who likes throwing his weight around and a creepy shaman who's always demanding more sacrifices and you could have thought of all that yourself. It boils down to 'this orc tribe is a tribe of orcs who look like orcs and think like orcs and act like orcs and fight like orcs'. Sometimes entire campaign settings will be like this, spending hundreds and hundreds of pages telling you that, yes, the not-Vikings sail around in longships and raid coastal settlements and the not-Egyptians build giant monuments to their dead Pharaohs and all the other stuff that you could have guessed just from being given the most basic overview of the world. There's no added value.

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Orcs who are angry violent savages? And fight with axes? My mind! It is blown!

Or else they'll take the filler route, and just fill their word-count with irrelevant detail. The headman of this village is tall and old and cheerful. The headman of that village has a long black beard and drinks too much. Maybe this isn't exactly what you would have come up with if you were inventing these NPCs out of whole cloth on the spur of the moment... but the chances are that if you had just made something up on the spot, then whatever you did come up with, possibly with the help of a random table or two, would have been just as good. What's the point of writing things down in full detail when a single 'random NPC quirks' table could have done the same job a hundred times over?

You've hopefully all read Zak's 'One More Idea' method for adventure writing, where you start off with something totally basic ('a room with three weak monsters, then a room with one big monster') and just keep going back over it, adding one more idea to each concept each time, until it's developed into something interesting enough to run: his example shows how adding just three ideas to each adventure element is enough to get you from a bare skeleton to a compellingly weird, densely interconnected scenario. But that only works if each idea is actually adding something worth having. If your first concept is 'dwarf'' and your next five ideas are 'loves gold', 'hates orcs', 'massive beard', 'expert blacksmith', and 'fights with an axe', then frankly you might as well have stopped with idea number one.

So this is where RPG books come in. They give you better material to work with. They are full of examples where the author added one more idea, and that idea was really good. Slumbering Ursine Dunes, for example, gave me neanderthal Cave Dwarves with flint hammers and stone-and-metal Robo-Dwarves with robotronic eyes and evil space elves who talk and dress like Ming the Merciless, and since reading it I have had that many more options available to me when thinking about what the random elves or dwarves hanging around my games might be like - options which aren't just the same old cliches, and which are likely to be much more powerfully imagined and conceptually coherent than whatever randomness I might ad-lib on the spur of the moment. Most RPG supplements, even pretty dull ones, will have at least one or two such ideas buried somewhere within them. But the really good ones will have stuff like this on almost every page.

This is what I think of as 'conceptual density', and it is, bar nothing, the single thing that I look for most in RPG materials. A weak book will take one moderately interesting idea - 'What if a bunch of kobolds started worshipping Cthulhu?' - and eke it out over ten, or twenty, or thirty pages, filling in all the gaps with either cliche material (kobolds doing either generic kobold stuff, generic Cthulhu cultist stuff, or a mixture of the two) or with the kind of random details which are no better or worse than the stuff you could have come up with on the spot. A good book will use that one idea as a kind of basket into which it proceeds to stuff as many other new ideas as possible. Think of the sheer number of ideas packed into, say, Qelong: war-torn fantasy Cambodia and animated stupas and a river which is a Naga and it's stirring in its sleep and its dreams are warping people into monsters and a magical device is leaking arcane radiation into the water and it collects in people's hands and the villagers cut people's hands off to be safe and those hands then animate and crawl around the countryside strangling people and and and and... 

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and and and it's all going to fucking kill you, but at least getting eaten by a miles-long snake-river-goddess with four heads will be original...

I guess what I'm getting at is that, quite a lot of the time, I feel that a lot of the content in RPG supplements - especially adventure modules - is superfluous. 'Trolls raid nearby settlements, capturing villagers to sacrifice in an ancient stone circle in the hope of awakening their ancient monster-god' is a decent enough basis for an adventure. But if everything that follows is just pretty much exactly what your reader would have expected based on that description - trolls acting exactly like trolls normally do, villagers being cliched fantasy villagers, the monster-god being a gribbly tentacle beast straight out of Cthulhu Central Casting, and so on - then you might as well have left it as a one-line adventure prompt rather than writing a whole module about it. The extra page-count should be justified by its content: it should be full of stuff that is, on average, better than most people are going to be able to come up with on the spot. 

My favourite RPG supplements are the ones in which the page count corresponds to the number of actual ideas, and thus maintain a very high level of conceptual density. One or two ideas in one or two pages is fine. Dozens of ideas in dozens of pages is fine. But a handful of ideas stretched out over dozens or hundreds of pages, Shadows Over Vathak style, is just wasting everyone's time.

Probably coming next: behemoth Pathfinder mega-campaign Rise of the Runelords distilled down into a single blog post!

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

[Actual Play] The Further Adventures of Team Tsathogga

Team Tsathogga rides again! (For the previous installment of their adventures, see here.)

Having struck a bargain with a holographic head in a box, the PCs promptly started plotting to betray it. They gathered up their new followers in the village they'd taken over, plus a group of soldiers from the church expedition, and marched this assembled force over to Hologram Head's workshop, where it was busy repairing the robot-men they'd crippled in their previous encounter. Claiming that this warband was going to descend into the control tunnels on its behalf and kill all the people who had once tried to delete it, they soon persuaded the megalomaniacal head to show them the location of the hidden hatch that went down into the tunnels below. The surviving robot-men then smashed the hatch open, revealing a narrow shaft with metal ladder rungs set into the walls, descending deep into the darkness.

Volunteering to go first, Jack climbed down the ladder into the unknown. Finally dropping to the bottom, he found himself surrounded by nervous-looking men in white robes, holding glowing globes and pointing strange metal implements at him. A tense dialogue followed, in which the robed men explained that the holographic head - which they called 'the mad one' - was the result of their failed attempt, decades earlier, to re-establish contact with 'the Great Machine' which their ancestors had once been able to speak to. Unfortunately, instead of awakening the Great Machine, their meddling had merely caused it to bud off an insane secondary personality; they had believed it deleted, however, and were very alarmed to hear of its survival. They pleaded with Jack to destroy the head, insisting that if it was allowed to plug itself back into the Great Machine, as it desired, the results would be catastrophic for everyone.

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Yes, it's basically these guys from Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Minus the psychic powers.

Jack climbed back up, reassured the head that there didn't seem to be anyone down there, and set about 'briefing the troops' (i.e. telling everyone to betray the head on his signal). Meanwhile, the robot-man carrying the head moved closer to the hatch so that it could peer down into the darkness - so Circe, unable to resist, cast a Command spell ('Run') on it. Failing its save, the robot-man promptly ran straight into the open pit, dropped a hundred feet, and was shot to pieces by the men waiting below. The rest of the robot-men attempted to avenge this betrayal, but were set upon by the PCs and their solders and pin-cushioned with spears and arrows before they had a chance to strike back. Thus ended Hologram Head's brief bid for world domination.

Keen to learn more about these weird tunnels, the PCs climbed down for an extended discussion with the tunnel-dwellers, who were still very unhappy about having had their entrance hatch exposed. They explained that they were the descendants of human slaves who, in the last days of the serpent-man empire, had fled underground into the control tunnels and simply never came up again. The ancient machines provided them with the necessities of life, although many of these (including the Great Machine itself) had failed or fallen silent over the centuries. They also told the PCs that the tunnels connected all three islands. The PCs, realising that this provided a potential way of travelling between islands without risk of being eaten by the Putrescence, asked if the tunnel-dwellers would escort them to the other islands; reluctantly, the tunnel-dwellers agreed, but only on the condition that the PCs agreed to be blindfolded during the journey.

Several hours of blindfold tunnel-walking later, the PCs emerged through another hidden hatch onto another island, hiked a short way, and made camp. In the night, Hash's keen eyes spotted a group of creepy robed figures crawling out of the nearby woods: he quickly woke everyone as the figures surged to their 'feet', revealing only slug-like masses of oozing slime beneath their hoods! Brandishing torches from their campfire, the PCs held the slug-men at bay; and after making a variety of horrible slimy noises (which might have been an attempt at communication) the creatures slunk back into the woods.

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The next morning, the PCs explored some nearby ruins, at the centre of which was a crude stone altar stained with blood and marked with crude inscriptions: a Comprehend Languages spell soon revealed that these were merely rantings about how something called The Devourer was coming to consume the world. A horrible slimy noise alerted them to the fact that the slug-creatures they had met in the night were now emerging from the ruined houses all around them, quivering in obvious expectation of a sacrifice. Thinking quickly, Circe pulled on the ritual vestments she stole from a dead priest of The Devourer several sessions ago, grabbed Jack by the throat, and told them - gesturing at the sun - that she would sacrifice him in the evening, when the time was right. The slug-creatures reluctantly oozed back into their hovels, and the PCs fled for the hills.

Avoiding the island's central peak after seeing large flying creatures circling it, the PCs made their way around the coast until they came to a small walled village, where they were warily welcomed by the inhabitants. The people explained that, a few decades ago, something had caused the dead to rise on the island, and the area around the central peak was now infested with zombies - thus the village walls. The PCs explained that they had come from the mainland, and claimed that they would try to evacuate the villagers from their now-cursed island if only they would adopt the party's (made-up) dualistic religion, and accept the worship of the Bright Lady and the Frog God. The chief explained that his people revered the spirits of their ancestors, but Circe and Erin agreed that they could continue practising their quaint traditions alongside their new religion provided the real gods were given their due. Enthused by the idea of being able to go and live somewhere that wasn't full of ravenous walking corpses, the villagers lent the PCs a boat, with which they rowed around the edge of the island and returned to the hidden hatch.

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Switching religions doesn't seem so bad now, does it?

Another day of blindfold tunnel-walking brought the PCs to the third island, where the tunnel-dwellers were especially afraid to go, one of their own having recently gone missing there. Scouting the island, the PCs soon located the village which the church expedition had so disastrously attempted to contact, where the people wore clothes dyed with purple slime and worshipped the purple cloud-monster which roamed the islands. Some of the purple-clad villagers were busy excavating nearby ruins, so the PCs abducted two of them and interrogated them, learning that their current chief - who apparently had the ability to control the cloud-monster, at least to some extent, using something hidden inside his house - was obsessed with searching for 'relics of the ancient world'. Bullshitting wildly, Circe claimed that she too had worshipped this monster, until she received a revelation that it was only the emissary of even higher powers: she demonstrated her miraculous abilities, and told the captives to go and spread the word of the Frog God among their community. Then they released the villagers and ran away.

Heading to the far end of the island, the PCs came across a weirdly well-maintained arena, defended by a hulking half-robot ape-man which talked wildly of how the arena spoke to him, inspiring him to defend his title as champion of the ring against all comers. Further conversation soon revealed that he had been another victim of Hologram Head, but that he and one other robot-man had retained some measure of free will after their transformation: the two of them had escaped together on a crude raft, but after that his story became vague and confused. Concluding that the creature was somehow being mind-controlled by the arena itself, the PCs persuaded it that they were here as spectators rather than challengers, and went back into the ruins - only to come across a hunting party of armed men in purple, sent to capture them by force! Fleeing back to the arena, they told the ape-robot-man that a bunch of 'challengers' were coming to fight him, and then hid themselves. When the hunters arrived, the beast promptly butchered the first one he laid eyes upon, and the rest fled in panic. Concluding that anyone who was that good at killing people was clearly a useful person to have around, the PCs began speculating how they might free the creature from the arena's spell...

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Communities allied with: 2.

Communities antagonised: 2.

Chance of this whole archipelago ultimately becoming the birthplace of a weird new syncretic religion with Circe as a deified prophet-figure: A whole lot higher than they were a few weeks ago.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Summon Evil Hedgehog: A spell from 1854

My trawl-through of mid-nineteenth-century literature is getting weird, yo.
Nicodemus: The Black Art? Here is your very good health! - I wish you could see my master's room, after he has been trying to call up the devil! Lord, sir! there's no end of skulls, and chalk marks on the floor, and stench of sulphur, and what not - but I don't believe that, with all his pains, he ever brought the devil up.

Second Familiar of the Inquisition: Take another cup. - But he tries it sometimes!

Nicodemus: Punctually upon Wednesdays - about midnight, when the whole household have gone to sleep. But he's not up to the trick: he never could raise anything larger than a hedge-hog.

Second Familiar: But he has done that, has he?

Nicodemus: Of course! Anyone can raise a hedge-hog. But I'm not going to sit here all night seeing you drinking. I must go home to translate Plotinus, who was a respectable father of the Latin Church. Take my advice and go home too - you are both drunk. Where's my beaver? Don't attempt to offer me two, in case I put the phantom one on my head. I say - if there is a drop remaining in the bottle, you might offer it by way of courtesy. Thanks, and take care of yourselves. [Exit]

First Familiar: What say you to this story? A clearer proof
Of arrant sorcery was never given
Unto the holy office.

Second Familiar: It is complete.
He raises hedge-hogs! That's enough for me.

- William Aytoun, Firmillian (1854), scene 5
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New level 1 Magic-User spell: Raise Evil Hedgehog.

Summoning an evil hedgehog requires chalk, sulphur, and the skulls of at least six humans or large animals, and can only be attempted at midnight on a Wednesday. The spell is most commonly cast by novice magic-users, usually while drunk. Casting the spell requires a 30 minute ritual and the burning of lots of sulphur, at the end of which one of the skulls tips over and an evil hedgehog crawls out from underneath it. If cast by a magic-user of level 5 or higher, there is a 1% chance per level that something really dangerous shows up instead, so the spell is usually avoided by more competent magicians.

The evil hedgehog looks like a regular hedgehog, but more sinister. It can roll itself into a ball and bounce along the ground at a brisk walking pace, and will use this mode of transportation to follow its summoner around until the following Wednesday at midnight, at which point it returns to wherever evil hedgehogs go. During this time it will obey any non-suicidal instructions given to it, and can be used as a messenger, watch-hedgehog, carrier of very small objects, and so on. It cannot speak, but will communicate via biting - one bite for yes, two bites for no. Its teeth are very sharp.

The evil hedgehog can be ordered to attack someone, which it will do by running up their legs (inside their trousers or under their skirts if possible) and proceeding to maul their most tender regions with its spikes, teeth, and claws.This doesn't do any damage, but it's very painful and distracting, and its victim must make a save vs. paralysis each round to be able to do anything except shriek and try to knock it off them. Once the save is passed, the hedgehog is dislodged, causing it to bounce away and lie stunned and useless for the next 1d6 rounds: during this time, it can be killed by anyone willing to spend an action stomping on it. At any other time, killing the evil hedgehog requires a successful attack against AC 0 (AC 20 if you use ascending AC) due to its extreme bounciness. If killed, its explodes into a ball of sulpherous soot and its soul is banished back to Hedgehog Hell, there to await its next summoner. Targets who have very thick skin or proper armour are normally immune to the evil hedgehog's attacks.

Normal hedgehogs hate evil hedgehogs, and will shun them whenever possible.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Old-School Space vs. New-School Time

I have got to stop reading Pathfinder adventures.

The clue's in the name, I guess: the job of the adventures (and the adventurers) is to find the path. The path goes from point A to point B to point C, in order. It follows a plot, in the original sense of the word: a line plotted on a chart to show the route that something will follow. First this happens. Then this happens. Then this.

The characters move through space, but that's basically incidental. The whole adventure is plotted out in terms of time, and travel through time is (almost) always one-way. Even when they are plotted out spatially instead, they are often arranged in such a way as to heavily encourage a linear approach: long, narrow dungeons, encounter areas arranged along a road that runs from A to B to C, and so on. Freedom of movement is usually kept to a bare minimum.

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A 'plot'. You will start at Paris and end up at Limoges. You will go through Barcelona, Seville, and Porto. You will not visit Madrid along the way.

In most OSR adventures, by contrast, what's presented is space. A bunch of things are happening in a bunch of places: which ones you go to, and in what order, and what you do when you get there, is up to you. Instead of saying 'first this happens, then this happens', they say 'in this place this is happening, and in this place this is happening'. The primary movement of the characters is through space, which they are permitted to navigate freely, in three dimensions, rather than simply being marched down the one-way hallway of linear time.

What keeps striking me about the better-written Pathfinder adventures is how easy it would be to blow them open. Arrange them across space instead of time: turn scenes 1-10 into locations 1-10, and let the PCs wander between them at will. (I did a version of this for the Kingmaker adventure path here.) Pathfinder usually can't do this because its system is so restrictive that any encounter more than a couple of levels lower or higher than the PCs is going to be a cakewalk or a TPK, meaning that everyone always has to meet everything in exactly the right order. But OSR-style games don't usually have that problem, and in any case, most OSR players will understand that not everything is there to be stabbed in the face.

Take the first two chapters of Rise of the Runelords. As written, they're completely linear - first the PCs fight the goblins in the town, then they fight the goblins in the glassworks, then they explore the dungeon under the town, then they go to the goblin lair, then they investigate some murders, then they fight the ghouls in the farmlands, then they explore the haunted house, then they take on the cultists, then they assault the clocktower. But given a less restrictive system, all that content could be made available simultaneously. The PCs ask around in town, and they hear about weird murders and goblin attacks and old smuggler's tunnels and the big haunted house outside of town - and then what they do next is genuinely up to them. This also means that the clues to what's really going on can be uncovered in any order, leaving it up to the PCs to join the dots and work out what it all means, rather than having it all artificially spoon-fed to them in the 'right' order by the GM. And it means that the intra-NPC interactions really open out into a genuine web of relationships, because rather than only encountering each villain after the last one is safely dead, the PCs are free to ally with them, manipulate them, turn them against each other, and generally behave like the scheming little monsters they inevitably seem to be.

So if you've ever read a module which you quite liked in some ways, but were put off by its railroaded linearity, take a moment to think: can you un-railroad it? Sometimes the answer will be 'no': sometimes scene C requires scene B to have already happened, which requires scene A to have already happened, in which case nothing but a complete rewrite will save the adventure from being a total railroad. But sometimes modules pretend to be a lot more linear than they really have to be, and with only a small number of changes - essentially just a rearrangement of the same material across three-dimensional space rather than linear time - they can be turned into something much more in tune with an OSR sensibility...