Friday, 1 December 2017

[Actual Play] 'Nath, I am your father!': Team Tsathogga fake it until they make it

Sorry for the gap between posts - work has been crazy lately. Team Tsathogga have continued to meet, though, so I'll try to get caught up with their wacky adventures as best I can...

This actual play write-up covers one of the most complex and elaborate exercises in deception that the Team Tsathogga party have carried out to date - which, if you've read any of their past adventures, you'll know is really saying something. (It's not their most elaborate scam, though: that would be the time when Sophie tried to convince everyone that she was actually 'Lady Penelope', a noblewoman afflicted with the curse of contagious amnesia, and went around saying things like 'You don't remember me either? Alas! The curse has struck again!') If it's difficult to follow in places, just imagine what it was like for me trying to GM it!

So - having incinerated the eastern half of Xam's Old City, destroying most of the myrmidon infestation in the process, the PCs had to face the fact that they'd sworn loyalty to both of the pretenders to the throne of Qelong: King Nath, whose followers still controlled the western half of Xam, and Queen Beja, whose army was currently struggling to hold the line against the myrmidon mob to the east of the burning city. Hash's keen elven vision allowed him to see the problem from their vantage points on top of the city walls: each time the queen's men hacked one of the Myrmidons down, the silver ants animating it poured out of its body and swarmed over the soldiers in glittering tides, climbing into their mouths and noses, and causing their shield wall to disintegrate as the men threw down their spears and shields to claw desperately at the ants swarming across their faces and into their orifices. Already the queen was signalling from the top of her elephant for the men to fall back, in a retreat that was swiftly turning into an ill-disciplined rout. Not wanting to give the myrmidons a chance to create a new infestation to replace the one they'd just incinerated, the PCs climbed down from the city walls and rejoined the queen's army on top of a nearby hilltop, where her shaken soldiers watched the myrmidon mob pinning down the men who hadn't been able to escape fast enough and vomiting great torrents of silver ants onto their faces - the first stage, no doubt, in transforming them into more of their own. Something would have to be done, but the queen and her army were in no hurry to re-engage with so horrible an enemy.

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How can we fight so horrible a foe?

Fortunately, the PCs had observed the myrmidons for long enough to work out that their behaviour was extremely predictable: they marched in straight lines, swarmed potential victims, avoided fire and deep water, ate all the organic material they could get hold of, and pretty much nothing else. They thus proposed that the queen's outriders should approach the mob on horseback, get close enough to attract their attention, and then ride off - then pause, wait for them to approach, and ride a bit further, and so on, until the myrmidons had been drawn well away from the battlefield. Then the PCs and a band of hand-picked volunteers would sweep in with oil from the army's baggage train, pour it all over the now ant-infested soldiers and corpses, and then set fire to it, incinerating the ants and removing the threat of a new infestation. The plan worked pretty much perfectly: the myrmidons took the bait, with only a few of their number left behind to guard their new victims, whom the PCs and their followers easily took down. Oil and fire put paid to the ant swarms on the battlefield: and when the PCs realised that the remaining myrmidons were moving much more clumsily than before, presumably because so many of the ants animating them had left their bodies and been destroyed, they rode back to the queen's army and rallied them for one final attack, in which every second man would wield a burning torch rather than a spear. It was a bloody business - the myrmidons stood and fought to the last - but by beating them down and then using the torches to incinerate the ant swarms as they poured from the broken bodies of their hosts, the queen's soldiers were finally able to destroy the last remnants of the infested force - although the PCs insisted on them setting fire to all the surrounding grasslands, just in case any of the ants had escaped.

Queen Beja's army had suffered heavy losses, but the queen herself was elated: with the myrmidons dead, and King Nath nowhere in sight, surely there was now nothing that could stop her claiming the throne of Qelong. Of course, all the bridges across the river had been torn down to prevent the myrmidon infestation from spreading into the western city, so her army would need to march upriver, ford it, and then march back - but then, surely, victory would be theirs! Surveying the queen's depleted, war-weary and dispirited troops, and remembering the strength of the fortifications which still protected the western half of the Old City, the PCs weren't so sure. Volunteering their services as scouts, they rode out of sight, used their ring of water walking to cross the river - Sophie put it on, and took turns carrying the other PCs over the river on her back - and headed back to see the commander of Xam's remaining defenders, General Ngour.

General Ngour, of course, was entirely unaware of the fact that the PCs had been working with Queen Beja. As far as he knew, everything they had done - first sending their monster to wreck the eastern city, and then burning it with the myrmidons inside - had been done in the name of King Nath, and he now begged for their help in dealing with the queen's forces as well, knowing that it would only be a matter of time before her army descended upon Xam. He knew that she didn't have enough men to storm the city, but his soldiers were already living in a state of virtual famine, and couldn't possibly withstand a siege of any length. (The general population had reached the 'starving to death in the streets' stage weeks ago.) When the PCs broke the news to him that they couldn't call their giant purple monster back to crush the queen's army, he implored them to try to find out what had become of the king and his remaining forces, who had been last seen fleeing to the south after being defeated by Queen Beja's army in the field.

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'We'll be back aaany miiiinute, guys!'

Looking at their maps, the PCs had a suspicion about where the king might be: the riverside city which was first defended and then abandoned by the Company of the Hawk, which had since been depopulated by the myrmidons and would thus have been both empty and defensible by the time the king's men reached it. Skirting around the queen's forces, which were still trying to work out a way of getting their horses and elephants over the river, they headed south through the day and into the night, until the sight of lights glimmering on the previously deserted walls of the city revealed that their suspicions had probably been correct. Coming closer, they saw that these lights belonged to the king's sentries, who nervously demanded to know their business. The PCs replied that they had come with urgent messages from General Ngour; and a few charm person spells later, they found themselves on their way to meet King Nath, who had taken up residence in the fort at the city's heart.

Talking to the king's soldiers soon revealed that they were, if anything, even more demoralised than Queen Beja's were. Half their men had fled or deserted after the defeat inflicted upon them by the queen, and those that remained were deeply dispirited by the days they had spent cooped up within this creepy depopulated city, which they seemed desperate to leave despite the safety provided by its walls. A brush with the myrmidons during their retreat had convinced them that Xam was probably now uninhabitable, and they were delighted to hear that General Ngour still held out on its western bank. Enquiring why they were so eager to leave their current station, the PCs learned that when they had taken possession of the fort they had found some very disturbing things inside it, which convinced them that the whole place must be cursed or haunted or both. When they asked to see this for themselves, they were shown a network of rooms previously occupied by the Company of the Hawk, containing alchemical distillation equipment, vivisection tables, surgical equipment... and pits containing huge numbers of picked-clean human skeletons.

Her curiosity piqued, Circe decided to use a speak to animals spell to question one of the carrion crows perching on the battlements, and asked it exactly what had happened here before the Myrmidons arrived. In exchange for some food, the crow told her that as refugees streamed into the city from up-country, the 'bird-flag men' had systematically taken all the sickest and most curse-stricken of them and carried them inside the fort, from which none of them ever emerged. (It also mentioned that the company's commander had been accompanied everywhere by a strange silent bird which never ate, which to its corvid eyes had seemed far creepier than all the mass-murder.) Concluding that the Company had clearly been up to something extremely unwholesome, the PCs staged a series of made-up rituals of blessing and exorcism to make the soldiers feel better, before going to see the king, who was finally ready to receive them.

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Yes, this is a Civ 4 screenshot. You try finding a better picture of a miserable-looking Khmer Empire king...

It swiftly became apparent that King Nath was a broken man. Depressed and exhausted, he could no longer muster the energy for any kind of action, despite the urging of his officers; and only the knowledge that Queen Beja would surely have him killed if he surrendered kept him from abandoning the war on the spot. When the PCs described the military situation, his commanders urged him to march forth and attack the queen before the walls of Xam, so that her army would be caught between General Ngour's men and his own; but the king seemed deeply unenthused by the prospect of yet more fighting and bloodshed, and argued that the safest course of action was for him and his men to remain where they were. So the PCs formed a plan.

And it was a great plan. And it was a crazy plan. And this is how it went.

The first step was to persuade King Nath that Queen Beja had suffered such heavy losses in her battles with the myrmidons that she was now willing to negotiate a treaty at a pre-arranged location by the river. The king's officers were sceptical, but the king jumped at the chance to secure even a temporary pause in hostilities, and gave orders for scouts to ride forth to check whether these might be genuine negotiations rather than a trap. The party then left the city - supposedly to inform General Ngour of the king's position - and rode to the queen's army, which had almost reached the walls of Xam. They told her that they had found the king's forces, and that King Nath was so broken-hearted by defeat that he was now willing to surrender to her unconditionally... at a pre-arranged location by the river. Having become uncomfortably aware that Xam's defenders would not surrender without a fight while they still believed the king might be riding to their rescue, she also sent outriders to check whether this offer might be genuine. The PCs then rode off towards the coast on some trumped-up excuse or other, before sending Hogarth, Sovan, Circe, and Sophie circling back to - where else? - the pre-arranged location, which they had already visited on their march upriver, and had chosen for its natural acoustics and the presence of a big, spooky tree. Both of those would become important later.

The king's scouts and the queen's scouts had met one another, each confirmed that the other one was expecting a meeting there, each checked that the other side didn't have a hidden army lurking nearby, and ridden back to their respective commanders: so all that was left was for the PCs to conceal themselves near the Spooky Tree and wait for the armies to arrive. The next day, they did - each approaching with great caution, and clearly expecting treachery from the other. They drew up well over a bowshot apart, obviously ready to retreat at the first sign of things going wrong, and their respective heralds rode forwards. The king's herald announced that the king was willing to hear the queen's proposals for a cessation of hostilities. The queen's herald replied incredulously that the only thing the queen had come to hear were the terms of the king's surrender. Discomforted, each started to ride back to their army for further instructions... when the miracles began.

It started with a great cloud of mist which erupted from nowhere, right in the middle of the field. (Obscuring Mist.) Then the mist was lit up from within by an unearthly golden radiance. (Light.) Then a regal figure rose out of the mist, wearing the royal crown of Qelong, its face obscured by the an unbearable blaze of glory that radiated from its kingly but vaguely-glimpsed features (Illusion and another Light.) And in a thundering voice - which was actually just Hogarth yelling out from inside the mist, trying to sound suitably sepulchral - it cried out: 'NATH! I AM YOUR FATHER!'

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Old Hamlet's ghost, from the 1948 film Hamlet. This was pretty much the effect they were going for.

Amazement struck the assembled forces. Was this really the old king's ghost? Nath pushed forwards to the front of his army, eager for a closer look; Beja, mores suspicious, sent her court magician forwards to check it out instead. The mage incanted, and his eyes widened - and then suddenly the glowing figure gestured at him, and spectral hands appeared from nowhere, wrapped around his neck! (Choke.) Gasping for breath, he stumbled and staggered and collapsed, while the 'ghost' declaimed: 'THIS MAN KILLED ME SECRETLY WITH HIS BLACK MAGIC! ON THE QUEEN'S ORDERS, HE PLACED A SPELL UPON ME WHILE I WAS SLEEPING IN MY GARDEN!' (Hogarth was basically just paraphrasing Hamlet at this point.) 'NOW WITNESS MY VENGEANCE FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE!'

All eyes turned to Beja. Furious, she opened her mouth to deny the spectre's charges - but no sound came out. (Silence.) In a mounting panic, she struggled to speak, but no words emerged. 'SEE HOW HER LIES ARE SILENCED!' roared the ghost. 'IT IS SHE WHO HAS BROUGHT THIS WAR UPON YOU, UNTIL THE LAMENTATIONS OF THE PEOPLE BECAME SO LOUD THAT THEY DISTURBED MY MEDITATIONS IN HEAVEN! UNITE NOW BEHIND MY SON, NATH, THE ONE TRUE KING, AND BRING PEACE TO QELONG! RENOUNCE THE TRAITOR QUEEN AND YOU SHALL BE FORGIVEN!'

It wasn't about being believable. It was about telling people what they wanted to hear. The PCs had mingled with both armies, and knew that the soldiers on both sides were demoralised and exhausted, kept going not by the hope of victory but by the fear of defeat: and so when this mysterious, supernaturally-powerful figure appeared to offer them a chance to change sides without repercussions, many of the queen's men were eager to grasp it. As the men nearest the apparition began to waver, King Nath rode forwards and called out: 'Father! Is it really you?'

'IT IS!' roared Hogarth. 'YOU ARE THE TRUE HEIR TO QELONG! BEHOLD! EVEN THE TREES BOW DOWN IN HOMAGE!' From within the mist, Circe cast Warp Wood: and the large, spooky tree nearby began bending, bowing down towards the king as he approached. Amazed by this miracle, more and more of the queen's forces began falling to their knees: and her officers, realising that they would soon have a mutiny on their hands, began ushering her away while she continued to try, vainly, to speak in her own defence. Seeing her departure, the 'ghost' cried out: 'TRAITOR! MURDERESS! FALL!' (Command.) Beja promptly threw herself off her own horse, landing on the ground in an undignified heap: her officers, who knew a lost cause when they saw one, spurred on their horses and rode for the hills. As the apparition continued to furiously denounce her as the cause of all Qelong's sufferings, her own men, seeing which way the wind was blowing, turned on her and unceremoniously clubbed her to death.

'TREAT THE QUEEN'S FOLLOWERS MERCIFULLY, MY SON!' The 'ghost' boomed. 'THEY WERE DECEIVED BY HER LIES! BRING PEACE TO THE LAND! RESTORE THE LOST GLORY OF QELONG!' And with that the old king vanished, apparently ascending back up to heaven, while the glowing mists dissipated into nothing. (Sophie, Sovan, and Circe concealed themselves under an illusion of a perfectly ordinary patch of grass, while Hogarth, standing nearby under the cover of an invisibility spell, couldn't resist a last, mournful cry of: 'Beeeee gooooood....') Aside from the bodies of the queen and her magician, the only remaining sign of the miracles which had occured there was the tree, still bent to the earth as though bowing: so the soldiers rushed forwards to snap off leaves and branches, brandishing them like relics, while a quick-thinking officer began orating about how one day a stupa would be built here to commemorate the events of this day. King Nath was kneeling on the ground in tears, crying out: 'Father! Come back! I still have so many questions!', while around him gangs of cheering soldiers from both armies celebrated the end of the war. The PCs sneaked off, rejoined their comrades, and nonchalantly wandered back to Xam just in time to see the king re-installed in what remained of the royal palace, where they feigned surprise at hearing about the remarkable sequence of events that had finally brought peace to Qelong. When General Ngour told King Nath about the way that they had destroyed the myrmidons, Nath was happy to confirm that he would raise statues in honour of their foreign gods within his royal temple... just as soon as he'd finished rebuilding it.

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Dream big, team Tsathogga! Dream big!

Nath invited them to stay in Xam for as long as they liked, but the streets of the still pestilent and famine-stricken city held little appeal: and so, promising to return one day to help reconsecrate the new temple, they rode east, picked up the faithful band of followers from Pralaj who were still waiting for them on the beach, and sailed north to pass the winter on the Purple Islands.

And thus Team Tsathogga's time in Qelong ended, rather remarkably, in peace and victory: their biggest success yet, and by far their most heroic. (As Hogarth's player mused: 'We seem to have shifted from being villains into being heroes. Maybe we've started believing our own hype...') More crazy antics still lay ahead of them: Hash's 'to do' list of mysteries to investigate was terrifyingly long, and as soon as spring came he was planning to drive his comrades back out into the world once more. But for now it was time to rest on their laurels, and cultivate their golden lotus addictions, and reflect that, for a bunch of murderous cultists of an amoral alien frog god, maybe they really weren't such bad people after all...

(Closing note: Ken Hite's Qelong is amazing and everyone should buy it. Normally I pick and choose which bits of an rpg book I actually want to use in my campaign: this time I used virtually everything, and it was awesome. This 53-page book provided material for something like 24 hours of actual play, which is pretty amazing given the speed at which we tend to burn through content, and the trailing plot hooks it left behind will no doubt provide the basis for many more sessions to come. I recommend it very highly indeed!)

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Thursday, 9 November 2017

[Actual Play] Fire, acid, and laser beams: pest control, Team Tsathogga style

This week's Team Tsathogga session began with a serious debate over whether Qelong in general, and the city of Xam in particular, were worth saving. The whole place was drenched in magical radiation, rotten with plagues and curses, shattered by civil war, and now infested with evil psychic ants... might it not be best just to carry their new followers off with them to the Purple Islands, and leave Prem and his monks to wipe the rest of the nation clean? Hogarth suggested that they should at least have a go at turning this crisis into an opportunity, so they asked the soldiers who had escorted them in to see their commanding officer, General Ngour, at what used to be the royal palace. Half-delirious with sleep deprivation, the exhausted general listened to their wild claims about being monster-slaying wizard-heroes in the service of a giant frog, before telling them that if they could save the city from the ant-monsters, they could have as many temples to their freaky frog god as they wanted. He also asked them to confirm that they were loyal to King Nath, the rightful ruler of Qelong, who had marched east with most of what remained of his army to fight the evil usurper, Queen Beja. The PCs nodded sagely and withdrew.

In the city outside they encountered Mei, the Golden Lotus nun they had met on their first visit to the city, who pressed them for news of what they had encountered up-country. She had heard nothing from her superiors in the Temple of the Golden Lotus for months, and was shocked when the PCs told her of Master Prem's coup and his radical plans for the nation. Assuring them that such a 'hard reset' of the Qelong valley would be impossible while the stupas near the river's mouth remained out of his hands, she promised to pass word of this new threat on to her fellow monks on this side of the river, but explained that she had no means of doing the same on the east side, in the lands where Queen Beja held sway. The PCs told her that they'd try to do this themselves, on one condition - that she provide them with a skilled gardener capable of cultivating golden lotus flowers, which they insisted that they wanted to introduce to the Purple Islands for 'meditational purposes'. Bewildered, Mei agreed to hand over one of her horticulturally-talented novices, Dara, who eagerly agreed to the whole arrangement as soon as she realised that it would give her an opportunity to get out of Qelong before the situation deteriorated even further.

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So the PCs headed back over the river to the east, trailing their desperate entourage of refugees behind them. In their cunning little minds, a plan was forming. The myrmidons were mostly in the eastern part of the Old City of Xam, which was hemmed in by the sea to the north, the river to the west, and city walls to the south and east: they had poured into the city through the gap in the fortifications which the mercenaries had torn during their assault, but if that gap could be plugged, then the myrmidons could be trapped inside. They knew the ants couldn't swim, and General Ngour had told them that they were vulnerable to fire, and the old city was made of wood... but how could they rebuild the walls, when any work crew they brought to bear would be instantly swarmed and destroyed? They had an idea. An idea that involved ancient archanotech and tentacles.

Giving the infested city a wide berth, they headed for the nearest stupa on Hash's sketch-map, which turned out to be full of terrified soldiers who had fled from the recent rout of King Nath's forces and were now hiding from the queen's army. They told the party that the king's remaining soldiers were probably falling back towards Xam - where, of course, they were highly likely to become Myrmidon-bait. The PCs advised them to flee the area while they still could.

By this point their food supplies were running very low, so the party decided to delegate, ordering a few of the most able-bodied refugees to head east and west: west to find King Nath's army and warn him not to get too close to Xam, and east to warn any monks they could find to defend their stupas against Prem and his followers. The rest followed them to the secluded cove where Captain Matthew's ship lay at anchor, ready to carry them back to the Purple Islands. Only half of them could be carried aboard it at a time, so the families drew lots to see which would go first: the winners were then loaded aboard, and the ship sailed north until it reached the bay outside Erin's village, where the first ship-load of Qelongese refugees had already built themselves homes. Leaving the new arrivals to get settled in, and only mildly distracted by learning that Titus and Zenobia's marriage had broken down already - she'd moved back into her father's house, and he'd moved back into his mountain full of zombies - they called together their old friends Erin, Zeth, and Atella, and explained their plan. They would use the mind-projection machinery in the village to take control of the giant purple tentacle monster which hovered over the islands, fly it across the hundreds of miles of water between them and Qelong, and use it as a remote-control wrecking ball with which to smash up the myrmidon-occupied areas of Xam and fill in the gap in the city's walls, thus trapping the ants within a contained space where they could be roasted at leisure.

This was not a small undertaking. Just using the machine to make the monster fly from one island to another caused painful headaches and copious bleeding from the eyes and ears - controlling it for this long was unprecedented. But the PCs had done their maths, and calculated that at 1d4 damage per use of the machine, their collective hit point total plus the average hit point yield of all their available healing spells would probably be enough to get the thing all the way to Qelong: and after bribing Zeth with a crawling hand for her growing mad science laboratory, they dragooned the three ex-PCs into helping out as well. Each person was to insert their head into the machine, take control of the monster, and force it to fly as far south as possible until they passed out; they would then be pulled out of the machine and replaced by the next person in line, while the party clerics healed them up in preparation for another round in the mind-melter. It would all work out fine!

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The solution to all our problems!

So, all through the afternoon, they took turns inside the machine. One by one they placed their heads inside the magical purple cloud which allowed them to take control of the body of the monster; one by one they were yanked back out, screaming, shaking, and vomiting blood. Controlling the weird, inhuman body of the beast came more easily to some of them than others - Sovan turned out to be especially good at it - but collectively, they were able to force it to fly right the way across the sea until the harbour of Xam came in sight. Hit points and healing spells alike were running dangerously low, but they weren't about to stop now: so Hogarth assumed control of the monster and sent it smashing down into the city, crushing the old wooden buildings into kindling wherever it went. The myrmidons fled before it, many of them retreating into the two largest buildings still standing, the temple and the old fort: so Hogarth made it smash those, too, sending the creatures flying, and revealing heaps of bloated human bodies beneath each of them from which the silver ants crawled in seemingly endless swarms. Guessing that these luckless souls had become incubators for their eggs, Hogarth made the monster roll its enormous bulk around on top of them, squashing them to paste. Then the strain became too much for him and he passed out.

Skadi was up next. Taking control of the beast, she found it rolling around happily in what had once been the basements of the fort, popping swollen, egg-filled corpses into its many mouths; but, forcing it up, she made it brace itself against the rubble of the fort and start to push it in the direction of the breach in the city walls. Foot by painful foot, the monster shoved this heap of broken masonry through the streets, crushing entire houses in the process, their timbers simply adding to enormous pile of wreckage it was forcing onwards. Finally, Skadi managed to make it shove this accumulated heap into the breach in the walls, plugging the gap. Then she passed out, too; and it was left to Circe to make the beast dunk itself thoroughly in the water, washing off the innumerable silver ants which now clung to it, before relinquishing control of the creature and allowing it to fly away back home.

The PCs spent the next day groaning, bleeding, and vomiting, gradually recovering from their ordeal with the help of copious quantities of healing magic. There was no time to waste, though - and as soon as they had the strength to walk (or at least stumble), they requisitioned all the ethanol from the labs of the tunnel-dwellers, before boarding Captain Matthew's ship once more and ordering him to sail back to Qelong. (Meanwhile Dara, left behind on the island with the refugees, made a start on a nice new golden lotus garden for Sophie.) Returning to the cove where they had left the rest of their followers, they found them, and a large number of men from King Nath's defeated army, imprisoned inside a crude stockade, watched over by a detachment of Queen Beja's spearmen. As their ship approached within yelling distance, the commander of Beja's men called out to them, saying that their followers had been apprehended as suspicious persons, and that his unit had been stationed here to see if there was any truth in their wild claims that a band of foreign magicians would soon be returning to carry them off over the seas. When the PCs affirmed that they were indeed powerful magicians, the commander insisted on escorting them to meet Queen Beja, who was currently making a triumphal progress towards Xam after defeating King Nath in the field. Worried that the queen's soldiers might soon become myrmidon-bait, the PCs reluctantly agreed.

Queen Beja's army turned out to be pretty unimpressive: seven hundred soldiers in tattered wargear, marching in ragged formation around two malnourished elephants. Parting the threadbare curtains of her gilded palanquin, the queen listened to the party's wild stories about the hordes of ant-monsters awaiting her in Xam, before benevolently decreeing that if they would swear allegiance to her cause and rid her of the regrettable pests infesting her capital city, they would be welcome to place icons of their barbarian gods in her royal temple just as soon as she got around to rebuilding it. Grumbling, the PCs accompanied her on her lackadaisical march to Xam, where, sure enough, the approach of her army brought a few clay-covered myrmidons stumbling out of the shanty town of abandoned shacks and tents which surrounded the city's east side. Unimpressed, the queen ordered her men forwards to clear the shanty town and prepare a path for her triumphal approach.

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This is an Angkor Empire army. Queen Beja's army looks like a bargain-basement version of this.

To the party's total lack of surprise, things rapidly went wrong. The more noise and disturbance the queen's army caused, the more myrmidons came stumbling from the shacks, shrugging off arrow fire, gathering in growing mobs that swiftly drove the soldiers back out into the open, and clubbing down stragglers with their heavy, clay-encrusted hands. Yelling out to the queen's men to use fire, not blades, the PCs swiftly animated two of the fallen soldiers with Command Corpse spells, equipped them with flaming brands, and sent them off to set light to the abandoned shanty town. As the fire spread, more myrmidons rushed out to avoid the flames, lurching towards the hastily-assembled shieldwall which the queen's men had raised up around her elephants. But there seemed to be only a couple of hundred of them in all... which meant that the vast majority were still trapped within the city walls. For now.

It was now obvious to the PCs that if the main body of the myrmidon army escaped from the old city, then it would be pretty much game over for the whole eastern half of Qelong. The queen's forces wouldn't stand a chance against them, and once her army had been crushed - which it surely would be - then there would be nothing left to stop the myrmidons ravaging everything east of the river. Breaking away from the queen's men, they rushed towards the city walls, climbing up to the battlements by scrambling up the slope of rubble which their remote-control monster had piled into the breach. Looking down into the old city, they saw the myrmidons swarming like ants, heaping up bits of broken wood and stone against the walls, building a ramp that would allow them to climb out and gain access to the tasty, tasty humans outside.

Thus began OPERATION KILL IT WITH FIRE. The PCs incinerated the myrmidon ramps with volleys of ethanol-filled molotov cocktails. They used Command Corpse spells to animate fallen myrmidons, ordered them to grab as many burning brands as they could hold, and sent them into the city to set it alight. They used laser bracelets and flaming arrows to ignite the smashed-up buildings which their monster had crushed into kindling while it was doing its giant wrecking-ball impression. Every time the myrmidons tried to build a new ramp, they dropped oil and tar on it and then torched it. Seeing what was happening, General Ngour rallied his men on the west bank and ordered them to start firing volleys of pitch-dipped arrows across the river, contributing to the growing firestorm. When, in desperation, the myrmidons just started climbing up on top of each other in order to escape the burning city, Sophie and Hash used Magic Missile spells to blast away crucial load-bearing myrmidons, sending the rest tumbling to the ground in heaps. Finally, the silver ants animating the myrmidons began abandoning their doomed bodies, pouring out of them in glittering streams and climbing straight up the side of the walls - a move which the PCs responded to by pouring acid over them and incinerating them with sustained fire from their one remaining laser bracelet. (Laser bracelets run out of power when a 1 is rolled on their attack roll. Jack's player rolled over sixty d20s over the course of the battle without rolling a single 1!) As the flames closed in on them, the ants were driven together on the wall, climbing on top of one another in a single roiling mass - until Skadi dropped a perfectly-placed acid bomb right into the middle of it. Circe swore she could hear their collective psychic scream as they died.

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Just burn fucking everything, OK?

With the old city now a single sea of flames, the PCs turned back towards the queen's army, which somehow seemed to be losing its battle with a myrmidon mob it outnumbered more than three to one. But with the main swarm destroyed, the greatest threat was surely over. What remained of Qelong had been saved. Hadn't it?

Hadn't it?

Beg the Frog God for mercy! The worst may be yet to come!

Monday, 6 November 2017

Localism: the adventure as microclimate

We started with the stories, and in the stories almost everything was unique. There was one maze, inhabited by one minotaur. There was one chimera. There was one golem made from stitched-together human corpses. There was one vorpal blade. One holy man once turned sticks into snakes. Early D&D took these and expanded them into types, so you could meet 1d6 minotaurs, or 1d3 flesh golems, or cast Sticks to Snakes for the third time that day, or kill your fourth chimera and find your second vorpal sword in its lair... but it still didn't quite have the assumption that everything could be found everywhere. The game assumed that there were populations of elves and dwarves and halflings around the place for you to recruit PCs from, but there was no expectation that every region had a population of thouls.

As time passed, standardisation set in. Creatures like mongrelmen, originally created to play specific roles in specific scenarios, were added to the generic D&D repertoire: no longer just one particular remnant population in one particular forbidden city, but a monster race who could potentially turn up anywhere. One-off oddities like the Froghemoth were rewritten as species. It became accepted that the swamps of all D&D worlds contained populations of bullywugs and lizard men, just as all D&D underdarks had populations of derro and duregar and drow. You were doing something noteworthy if you didn't include them.

What had been a tendency in the AD&D days became official policy with third edition. With everything suddenly available as a PC option, everything had to be everywhere - because otherwise, what would you do if somebody wanted to play one? Every single book came with a long list of new races, classes, and prestige classes, each of them trailing a sad little paragraph about 'Illumians in the world', or whatever, which supposedly told you how to integrate them into your campaign setting. Default D&D-land became a place where dozens or hundreds of intelligent species rubbed shoulders on the streets of every major city, practising dozens of different forms of magic (each with their own guilds and academies), and worshipping hundreds of different gods (each with their own churches). It got crowded. 

DiTerlizzi tieflings
Yes, Sigil was great. But surely not every D&D city should have to be like it!

The trouble with this kind of 'top-down' approach, where every race and class and god and form of magic is assumed to be more-or-less universal, is that it gives each individual addition a very heavy 'footprint' on the setting. If the same gods are worshipped almost everywhere, then adding a god means adding a new temple and a new religious order to almost every city. If all your monsters are widespread species rather than one-off freaks of nature, then adding a monster means finding a place for it in your ecosystem - and, if it's intelligent, in your cities and cultures as well. But more isn't always more: and while adding a goblin ghetto to your human city could lead to some interesting world-building, if it's just one of twenty-seven non-human enclaves scattered around the city's outskirts then it shrinks from something important and noteworthy into just being part of a long list of token background elements.

Recently, I've been increasingly moving away from this sort of model, in favour of one in which most monster populations, divine cults, schools of magic, and so on are assumed to be intensely local. Maybe that shrine to the Queen of Storms up on the mountaintop is the only place in the world sacred to her, and the three old men who tend it are her entire priesthood, and no-one outside this valley has even heard of her. Maybe the lizard-man tribe who live in this swamp are the only lizard-men in the world, the result of magical meddling by some long-dead magician who once inhabited these lands. Yes, if your PCs kill them all, that means there are no more lizard-men - but so what? It's not like you're in any danger of running out of monsters...

There are a few things I like about this approach. It lets me use enormous numbers of different monsters, divinities, and so on within the same campaign setting, without making the world feel overcrowded: sure, there may be a hundred-odd intelligent races, but they live in a hundred different places, rather than all jostling together through the streets of every major settlement. It provides an easy way of differentiating areas: a wood full of trolls is going to be a very different sort of place to a wood full of hobgoblins, and can fulfil a very different role in the campaign world, rather than both of them just being 'generic monster-haunted fantasy woodlands'. It means that each thing is much more rooted in the campaign world: gnolls go from being 'one of a dozen annoying low-HD creatures who populate wandering monster tables' to 'those creatures which inhabit the badlands east of the City of Fallen Spires', with all the specific resonances and relevances that go with that. Perhaps above all, it preserves a sense of strangeness, of never knowing what's over the next hill or what might be living in the next valley. Top-down settings feel familiar and cosmopolitan: everywhere you go, you'll encounter the same creatures, the same religions, the same magical traditions. But more local settings can be much more mysterious, with the PCs genuinely not knowing whether, say, ettercap exist in this campaign world until they actually happen to encounter one.

Source: captvinvanity                                                                                                                                                      More
'Bugbears can only thrive under very specific environmental conditions...'

This sort of intensely local setting design obviously fits in with more sword-and-sorcery style settings, where the world is full of isolated pockets of strangeness, rather than the more 'joined-up' worlds typical of high fantasy settings; but I think that it can also be used to lend settings a more down-to-earth, folkloric, quasi-historical sensibility. In most folkloric traditions, every moor or forest is associated with its own specific supernatural denizens: Black Annis lived in the Dane Hills, the Yeth Hounds lived in Wistman's Wood, and so on. Entire pagan mythologies, with their own distinctive pantheons, existed in regions which in many campaign settings would only be a dozen or so hexes across. (How much space would Wales or Lithuania take up on your campaign map?) The traditional, 'naturalistic' D&D approach acts to flatten out those regional variations, collapsing all these distinctive figures into one race of trolls, one race of hags, one pantheon of gods, and so on. But if you want a world which is at once more varied and more grounded, I think there might be something to be said for thinking of adventure locations as unique geographical and cultural microclimates, featuring creatures and gods and forms of magic entirely unknown elsewhere. Don't feel you have to pick just one of D&D's many, many takes on, say, fish-men: take them all and put them in different bodies of water. Go small-scale. Go local. Zoom in for a change!

Friday, 27 October 2017

Cults, cultists and D&D

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This came up in response to my recent post on mapping generic OSR-land. When I drew the map, I covered it with cults until I started running out of map-space to put them in. Gus L's comment, on the associated G+ thread? 'Needs more cults.'

Why do we love cults and cultists so much? There are at least ten really obvious reasons:
  1. Tradition. Evil cults have always been a big part of D&D: as Gus L recently reminded us, Temple of the Frog is all about invading a cult temple, and that has a decent claim to be the first D&D adventure module ever printed. Other highly influential early D&D adventures, such as B4 The Lost City and N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God, also prominently featured weird cults. 
  2. Influence. Evil cultists are the default enemies in both Call of Cthulhu and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, which have both been enormously influential on subsequent weird fantasy gaming. And they got the idea from weird fiction authors like Lovecraft and Howard, who also used a lot of cults as antagonists. 
  3. Moral clarity. It might not be OK to kill the barbarian just for being a barbarian, or the orc just for being an orc - but if someone voluntarily chose to join the cult of Skull-Fang The Planet-Fucker, then that's on them. When you stab them to death in mid-ritual, you can legitimately say they had it coming. 
  4. Dungeon-Friendliness. 'It's an ancient tomb' is probably still the number one explanation for why an underground complex full of monsters, magic, and treasure is lying around in the middle of nowhere: but if 'it's a cult temple' isn't number two, then I'd bet it's pretty close. Cultists need somewhere to gather in secret; they need somewhere to perform their horrible rituals; they need somewhere to store their mundane and magical treasures; and they probably have both the motivation and the ability to create traps and summon monsters to protect themselves. Instant dungeon. 
  5. Appropriate Scale, Disproportionate Influence. If the city is being openly ruled by the Dark Warlord of Woe, then it's often going to be pretty tricky for the PCs to meaningfully take him on: storming his fortress, or fighting his entire army, are going to be beyond the capacities of most D&D groups. But if it's being ruled secretly, from behind the scenes, by the cult of the Dark Sorcerer of Shadows, then saving it is totally within the reach of a party of 4-6 homicidal lunatics. Those 20 soldiers you just hacked down are probably less than 1% of the Warlord's army, but those 20 cultists you just slaughtered might well be the Sorcerer's entire cult.
  6. Easy Excuse for Magic and Monsters. Why can the cult champion vomit rivers of boiling blood at his enemies? Because he's a cultist. Why can't the party wizard learn to do that? Because they haven't devoted their life and their sanity to Skull-Fang the Planet-Fucker. 'It's a gift from their dark patron!' is effectively an open excuse for giving your cultists anything from minor mutations to demonic guardians to actual world-ending powers.
  7. Scalability. Directly linked to 6, above. Unless there are whole armies of them, then 'drive off the goblins' is always going to be a low-level adventure. But 'destroy the cult' could easily be an appropriate job for level 1 novices or level 10 champions, depending on just how much evil mojo they possess.
  8. Easy Excuse For Violence. I personally hate enemies that attack on sight and fight to the death, especially if they're supposed to be intelligent humans. But if you really want some, then 'they're cultists' is a pretty good excuse. They attack on sight and fight to the death because they know that, if they don't, Skull-Fang will eat their souls.
  9. Cultists Love MacGuffins. The rituals and requirements of cults are so arbitrary that it's very easy to hang adventures around them. Why do your PCs have to defend the Jewelled Skull? Because the cult it's sacred to will do anything to regain it. Why do they have to retrieve the Ebon Dagger? Because the cult can't summon their monster-god without it. And so on.
  10. Easy Excuse For a Final Boss Fight. If you attack an army, then it's usually going to hit back immediately, with as much force as it can muster. But if you attack a cult temple, then there's an inbuilt excuse for the GM to save the worst until last. It's only when you finally breach the Inner Sanctum that the High Priest, enthroned in his place of power, is able and willing to summon the Horror From Beyond. And you have an easy excuse for making it a load-bearing boss, too: of course the rest of the cult will scatter when you hack their god to bits right in front of them!
Cultists, in other words, are easy to build D&D adventures around... maybe too easy. They're a narrative shortcut, a way to explain why the otherwise extremely unlikely combination of elements which constitute a generic D&D scenario should exist in the same place at the same time. But the shortcut only works if you assume the existence of a very odd bunch of people, namely the kind of people willing to behave like cultists in D&D adventures. Why, exactly, is Patricia the Priestess willing to sit in a dark room for twenty-four hours a day, on the off-chance some intruders wander in for her to stab with a sacrificial dagger? Because she's a cultist. OK. But why is she a cultist? What can possibly have happened to her to make her decide that signing her soul away to Skull-Fang the Planet-Fucker would be a good idea?

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A lot of adventures gloss over this stuff, and clearly expect the PCs to find it unremarkable that some random cult leader was able to round up ten, or twenty, or a hundred people from the surrounding community who were so impressionable or crazy or desperate that they were willing to act as his personal cultist army. And I'd buy that if the cult activities were a bit less extreme: if all that most of the cultists were expected to do was wear big robes, chant creepy prayers, and maybe intimidate people who persisted in asking awkward questions about exactly what happens at the old standing stones on the night of the new moon. But most D&D cults are hardcore, and expect their cultists to demonstrate fanatical loyalty even when their own lives and/or souls are on the line. Where is your average dark magician supposed to find dozens or hundreds of people like that?

(Lovecraft himself isn't very helpful on this topic, because - like many people in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries - he saw socially deviant behaviour like crime and cultishness as being basically genetic. If you have the wrong heritage, then you'll just naturally gravitate towards worshiping giant tentacle monsters. It's probably fairly obvious why that's a line of explanation I'm reluctant to make too much use of, though...)

I've often found myself thinking about this as I read D&D adventures, and Warhammer adventures and, perhaps above all, Call of Cthulhu adventures. Who are these people? Why do they do these things? Call of Cthulhu had a standard way of dodging this question, in the form of its concept of 'cultist-level insanity': Cthulhu Mythos cultists had Sanity scores of 0, indicating that their minds had been so shredded by exposure to supernatural forces that acting like cultists was now the only thing they were capable of. But that always struck me as a bit of a cop-out answer, especially as they often didn't seem all that mad in other respects: no delusional or irrational behaviour, just a rewrite of their life-goals to read 'summon Cthulhu at all costs'. 'They're all mind-controlled or possessed' is even more of a cop-out: at that point you're not really dealing with people, just with zombies who happen to still be technically alive. In fact, mind-controlled cultists come closer to the original zombie myths of Haiti than any modern-day undead shambler.

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If they're not mindless drones, though, then why do they do all this D&D cultist stuff? Brainwashing? Fear? Drugs? Desperation? Greed? Are they upholding an old family tradition? Do they think the ends justify the means? Do they have some kind of value-system so bizarre that they believe what they're doing is actually a good thing? Are they just hopelessly devoted to their leader, driven by the deluded conviction that if they just kill one more person, then their sexy, charismatic Dark Master will finally give them the attention and recognition they deserve? Whatever it is, it must be something pretty powerful, or they wouldn't be sitting in an underground temple someplace waiting for the PCs to break in and kill them all.

Regular readers of this blog will already have guessed where I'm going with this. Cultists who are cultists because they're cultists are narratively convenient, but they're also kinda boring: they can't be bribed or intimidated or reasoned with, so the only way to deal with them is through yet another commando raid on yet another evil temple. But if the cult leader has to rely on more mundane means to keep his followers in line, then the PCs can disrupt or exploit them: they can steal the drugs he has them hooked on, or engineer a situation that will shatter his illusion of omnipotence, or offer his desperate followers some kind of hope for the future that doesn't involve feeding people to demons.

I understand that sometimes the whole reason you're using cultists in your adventure is precisely because you want antagonists who are basically human zombies - foes who have organisation and intelligence and whatnot, but who will never say or think anything other than 'Die, infidel, in the name of the Planet-Fucker!' But if you're not, you can still get all the advantages listed above while still making them into actual people - with the added advantage of helping to differentiate each cult from the last one. A personality cult built around an charismatic leader and his adoring devotees is going to be very different from a conspiracy of ambitious, amoral individuals who worship demons as a get-rich-quick scheme, and is open to very different kinds of solutions, whereas yet another bunch of robe-wearing, dagger-waving lunatics is only going to be differentiated from the last lot by the exact kind of magic and monsters they have in their inevitable Evil Temple.

In my current Team Tsathogga game, the PCs basically are cult leaders, and it's been fascinating for me to watch the various schemes they use to impose and shore up their made-up religious authority. There's some good drama right there. Might as well use it, right?

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Wednesday, 25 October 2017

[Actual Play] Severed hands in lobster-pots: The Sinister Schemes of Team Tsathogga

Man, it feels as though all I use this blog for these days is actual play reports. But the crazy keeps coming, and someone has to record it all for posterity, right?

So the PCs were last seen fleeing into the night, after escaping from the Temple of the Golden Lotus. They were convinced that the monks were up to something sinister, but their captive sadly succumbed to massive brain trauma without reawakening - probably something to do with being hit on the head with a fucking door - so they needed someone else to question. Heading to the nearest stupa indicated on Hash's sketch map, they noticed that it was evidently being maintained and inhabited, with neat channels of water and gardens of golden lotus growing around it. Concluding that this would be a good chance to learn more about what the monks were up to, they dressed Sovan up in the dead monk's robes and sent him in to pose as a messenger from the temple, ostensibly to warn them about the dangerous band of travellers who had just escaped from it. The monks within thanked him for the news, and asked him whether these people were associated with 'the old order'. Sovan, bluffing desperately, guessed that they probably were, and the monks looked serious and sad and said that it was tragic that such divisions had been necessary, but that the work they were doing had to be done, regardless of the cost to themselves or anyone else. Was it not for that very reason that they had come here, reclaiming this stupa from the hungry ghosts who had haunted it? Sovan agreed heartily and left as quickly as possible.

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Monks: 1. Hungry Ghosts: 0.

Concluding they needed to know more, but fearing that the power of the stupas was protecting the monks from mind-altering magic (which they had seemed oddly resistant to back at the temple), the PCs hit upon a plan to lure them out by staging a 'hungry ghost' of their own. Using Command Corpse on the dead monk's body, they ordered it to start stumbling and moaning around near the stupa, while illusion magic was used to give it an unearthly glow. Sure enough, the monks came rushing out to exorcise it, at which point the PCs unleashed a barrage of Hold Person and Charm Person spells which left them all either paralysed or charmed. Leaping out of cover, the PCs then staged a heroic 'battle' with the animated corpse, before telling the charmed monks that they were secret foreign agents of the Golden Lotus who had come to save them from this undead horror. (At this point Circe went off on a mad tangent about how the paralysed monks had been frozen by the weight of their guilt and would only recover if everyone started confessing their sins, but the rest of the party shushed her.)

Claiming to have just arrived from overseas, they quizzed the monks on what they were doing out here, and learned that they were performing one part of an immense geomantic working which was designed to cleanse the whole kingdom of Qelong from the evils afflicting it and put the naga back to sleep... at the small price of 'moving the remaining population painlessly on to their next incarnations'. It was the disagreement over the necessity of this rather drastic plan which had led to the fissuring of the order, and the apparent slaughter of most of the moderates by the hardliners. Reassuring the monks that they were totally on their side, and that the super-secret foreign Golden Lotus cult of which they were the agents would remember their tragic but necessary sacrifices forever, the party ran off before the Hold Person spells wore off on the paralysed-but-uncharmed monks.

Grim though their solution was, the PCs had to admit the monks had a point: if no other way of ending the land's corruption could be found, Qelong would soon be nothing more than a blighted, depopulated monster-factory. With renewed urgency they headed for the hills - but along the way they chanced across a strange road, cut through the fields in a completely straight line, wide enough for several people to walk abreast. Following this odd path to the south-east, they found its origin point appeared to be a strange metal container embedded in the earth as though fallen from a great height, covered in strange snakeman glyphs and warning signs, with a hatch hanging open on one side and a few human finger-bones lodged in the handle. For a moment they thought that this unremarkable-looking object might be the fleet beacon they were looking for, but a Comprehend Languages spell soon revealed otherwise, translating the snakeman script as reading WARNING: PROJECT MYRMIDON BIOWEAPON. HANDLE WITH CARE! Wisely, the PCs decided not to handle it at all.

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Probably harmless, though, right?

As they ascended into the hills, the miasma clinging to the land became worse and worse. Noting that their mechanic droid, Princess, was unaffected by it, the party started using her as a scout, sending her to look over each ridge and report back. First she found an abandoned village, which actually turned out to be infested with a swarm of horrible skittering severed hands that chased the PCs from the area. Next she found a crude fort built on a larger-than-human scale, which the PCs concluded must have been built and then abandoned by the vatspawned demons who had answered the call of the fleet beacon. Then she went over the next ridge and didn't come back. Following cautiously, peering into a miasmic haze so powerful that they could barely see through it, the PCs saw what could only be the fleet beacon itself embedded in the hillside: a shining metal object the size of a house, with one demon watching over it from a crude watchtower, and several more pinning Princess to the ground and piling rocks on top of her. One panel high up on the beacon's side was hanging open, and what looked like a human corpse in a ragged silk robe was dangling down from it, its upper body apparently embedded in the beacon's inner workings.

So the party faced a problem. They needed to somehow deactivate the beacon if Qelong was to be saved, but the waves of arcane radiation pulsing off it were so powerful that they'd probably just melt if they came too close. Their first bright idea was to set fire to the dangling corpse with flaming arrows, in the hope that the flames would be sufficient to cripple the beacon's mechanisms; they thus took up position on a ridge overlooking the beacon, although even getting within bowshot of it meant absorbing so much malefic radiation that Jack and Sophie started sweating blood. Hash began firing flaming arrows at the corpse, hitting on his third attempt. The demons assumed they were under attack, and started advancing cautiously towards the ridge, shields held high over their heads; but the party fled as soon as Hash had hit his target, and the demons showed no interest in pursuing, clearly prioritising the protection of the beacon. The corpse burned and fell, but the beacon's malefic energies remained as strong as ever.

The PCs then came up with a new plan: seeing that dead flesh was apparently unaffected by the radiation, they decided to use the crawling hands from the abandoned village as delivery systems for improvised acid bombs. To these ends, they went to the edge of the village, dug a series of shallow pits, put pungi sticks at the bottom, and covered them with leaves and branches. They knew from their earlier conversations with refugees that these hands would have been severed because the dark energies of the land's curse had become so concentrated in them that living flesh simply came apart under their touch, and assumed that the same would be true now in their severed but animate state: so Skadi, who was to act as their bait, put on her gas mask and armour to ensure that every inch of her skin was protected from their touch. The party then lurked in wait in the bushes, holding pots, buckets, and even gongs and cymbals looted from the temple at Pralaj - anything big enough to trap a hand under, basically - while Skadi walked into the village and tried to look tempting.

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They're coming! Run away!

Sure enough, scuttling hands soon came swarming out of the houses and began crawling towards her. Skadi fled, leaping over the pits: the hands pursued, and lacking any intelligence some of them fell and were impaled on the spikes below, leaving them flexing uselessly in holes. Skadi led the rest of the mob into the bushes, at which point all the other PCs jumped out, slammed their improvised traps over the hands, scooped them up with lids, and scattered, while the animated hands bounced around frantically inside their crude prisons. The remaining hands gave chase, with Jack, Sophie, and Hogarth blazing away over their shoulders with lasers and magic missiles to thin the pack; but Sovan stumbled as he ran, and one of the hands gleefully threw itself at his face, causing his forehead to split apart and blood to pour down into his eyes. Desperately, he tried to catch it inside the same pot that he was already carrying one hand in, knowing that if he was too slow then both hands would escape and probably kill him; but one good Dexterity roll later, he nimbly used his pot-lid to flip the hand off his face and into the pot before its current inmate could leap to freedom. With the remaining hands now lasered to death, the PCs then circled back and used long pairs of tongs to extract the ones caught in their pits, dropping them into yet more improvised lobster-pots.

They were now the proud owners of nine evil severed hands in boxes. For their plan to work, Hogarth would need to control them using Command Corpse spells, so they retreated to the abandoned fort to rest; but their sleep was tormented by headaches and nightmares, and memorising new spells proved impossible. Descending from the hills, they dosed themselves up with extra large helpings of golden lotus tea (to which both Circe and Sophie were now becoming somewhat addicted), and spent another day resting: but they were once again interrupted, this time by a booming voice calling out from the trees nearby: 'Hu-mans! Vord! VORD!'

It was good news, for once. Vord was their demon ally, who they had last seen in the foothills of Deathfrost Mountain, marching off towards the distant call of the beacon; and while the demons calling to them were clearly not Vord himself, they obviously knew him and had been told by him to watch out for them, as their references to 'green-skin' (Jack) and 'purple-hand' (Hogarth) demonstrated. (Jack and Hogarth had been left permanently discoloured in two separate magical mishaps the year before.) Warily they followed the demon messengers, who led them back into the hills and away from the beacon, into a deep valley filled with dead trees. There, in a hidden camp in the thickest part of the forest, they found Vord - looking much the same as ever, except for huge masses of scar tissue around both ears.

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Vord's welcoming new home.

Vord was delighted to see them, and they exchanged stories, hampered somewhat by the fact that Vord was now clearly rather hard of hearing. He told them of how he had come to the beacon, and found thousands of his kin assembled there, waiting for their 'commanding officers'; how he had told them that the empire which had created them was long dead, and they were now free to do as they chose; and how they had built a fort and claimed the lands around the beacon as their own, safe in the knowledge that its radiation would protect them from any human encroachment. But then the snake-men had come from the Purple Islands, in some kind of flying machine whose loudspeakers played their hateful command codes in a continuous loop, hijacking the genetic programming locked into the vat-grown brains of the demons and forcing them to obey. Vord had escaped by stabbing himself in the ears the moment the machine crossed the horizon; a handful of other demons, absent from the fort when it arrived, had also slipped the net, and had been gathered together by him here. All the rest, enslaved once more by their ancient masters, had been marched away into the jungles of the west, leaving only the ten sentries who now watched over the beacon itself.

The PCs told Vord that the beacon's energies had corrupted the river and all the lands watered by it, bringing untold suffering to the people of Qelong, and that it now had to be deactivated before the Naga awoke. Vord agreed that putting the Naga back to sleep would be best for everyone, but he was very unwilling to risk the lives of his followers, and reluctant to kill the sentries unless he had to: after all, they were only doing what they had been programmed to do, and he knew only too well what it was like to have your free will overruled by someone else's override codes. The party decided to give their 'acid-hand' plan a test run, and used a Command Corpse spell to control one of the hands, sending it crawling towards the beacon with a jar of space-acid strapped to its back, with orders to throw itself into the exposed machinery; meanwhile the PCs staged a distraction, involving lots of noise, poorly-aimed arrow-fire, and a dancing purple snakeman conjured with a Purple Simulacrum spell. While the demon guards were trying to work out what the dancing purple snakeman could possibly mean, the hand completed its suicide mission and threw itself into the machinery, causing a noticeable distortion in the energy pulsation but no obvious reduction in its strength.

The PCs regrouped and reconsidered. Damaging the mechanism didn't seem to be helping, but the only person who might be able to safely turn it off was Princess, who was currently in captivity. Consulting with Vord, they formed a new plan: they would go back up to their sniping ledge and try to non-lethally incapacitate as many demons as possible with magic, at which point he and his followers would charge the remainder and try to bring them down without killing them. One volley of Light and Hold Person spells later, half the demons were either blind or paralysed, and Vord and his comrades ran in to grapple and bludgeon the rest, with only one of them getting killed in the process. Mentally programmed as they were, the captured demons simply wouldn't stop struggling, so Vord and his followers ultimately dug a huge hole and buried their captives up to their necks in earth, hoping that they'd eventually find a way of deprogramming them. They then moved the crude watchtower over to the beacon, allowing the now-rescued Princess to climb up to the exposed panel. After several hours of intensive tinkering with the burned and acid-damaged machinery inside, the faithful droid mechanic was able to safely deactivate the beacon's power source, ending the magical radiation being vomited into the water, air, and soil of Qelong. Before they left, however, Jack looted a magic ring from the corpse they had burned earlier - seemingly the body of a Qelongese magician who had tried and failed to deactivate the beacon months before - which some experimentation revealed to be a ring of water walking. Given Jack's crippling phobia of drowning, this made him feel very much safer.

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Jack-the-Fighter! Su-per-star! Do you think you're what they say you are?

This was a major achievement: but the surrounding area was still a blighted, poisoned wasteland, the Golden Lotus monks were still presumably planning on performing their magical hard reboot of the Qelong valley, and the snakemen would presumably be instantly aware that the beacon was no longer emitting its signal. After making sure it could not be easily turned back on again by removing several key components and burying them under Vord's hidden camp, the PCs decided to leave before the snakemen and their demon army came back to find out what had happened; so, bidding farewell to Vord once more, they headed back down into the lowlands, giving the Temple of the Golden Lotus a wide berth. After several days travel, during which Sophie's golden lotus consumption reached alarming levels, they returned to the ruined town of Pralaj, where the handful of remaining people bemoaned their now poisoned river - surely nothing to do with all the space acid the PCs dumped into it during their fight with the naga-kin! - and begged to accompany them downriver; so, with a straggling trail of seventy-odd malnourished refugees now limping along behind them, they headed on towards the city where they had seen the foreign mercenaries on their journey upriver. Not wanting to tangle with a numerous and well-organised force, they left the refugees camped several miles away while the party crept off to scout the city under the cover of darkness.

They found the city desolate. The same straight path that they had found emerging from the Myrmidon capsule, much wider now, had apparently intersected with the river and then simply carried on down its bank, unable to cross the water, until it reached the city wall. The city's gates were broken open, and no sign of life could be seen within. Entering cautiously, the PCs saw no people, no animals, no life of any kind... just scattered bones, picked clean, and a single silver ant, gleaming in the moonlight, which Circe scooped up in a bowl. Growing increasingly anxious as they realised that the city seemed to contain no organic materials at all - no scraps of leather, no rags of cloth - they began to hurriedly retreat, only to hear crashing sounds from a building, from which soon stumbled a bulky humanoid figure caked in a thick layer of clay, completely enclosing it apart from its eyes and mouth. From its crude mouth-hole poured a stream of silver ants, swarming across its clay-covered body. The party fled, woke the refugees, and told them that they needed to get across the river as soon as possible, ultimately rigging up a crude rope-drawn raft with which to ferry everyone across to the far side. (The ring of water-walking helped, as it allowed Jack to simply walk over the river carrying the rope to which the raft was attached.) The next day they continued down the river, seeing the broad, straight trail that the ant-creatures had cut along its other bank, but hoping that none had managed to cross to their side of the water.

As they drew near the capital of Qelong, which stood at the mouth of the river, they were stopped by a patrol of exhausted-looking horsemen, who made a half-hearted attempt to question them about which pretender to the throne they were loyal to before simply giving up and confessing that everything had fallen apart. First the mercenary soldiers had come charging downriver under cover of darkness: well-equipped and highly motivated, they had been easily able to breach the city's fortifications, fight their way down to the harbour, capture all the genuinely seaworthy ships, and sail away, all within the space of a few hours. After them had come the horde of refugees from the city the mercenaries had abandoned, bearing awful stories about ant-monsters covered in clay... and then the monsters themselves had arrived, implacable and unstoppable, smashing their way through the already-breached fortifications and into the city itself. Everyone who could had fled, and all the bridges over the river had been torn down, leaving the whole population crammed onto the river's left bank. The right bank was in the hands of the ant-monsters, now.

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As they approached the city, the PCs saw the situation for themselves. In one half of the once proud royal capital, thousands of refugees crowded together in a seething mass of human misery. In the other half, over the river, stumbling figures lurched in mobs through the streets, covered with glistening ant swarms and a thick armour of clay: victims of PROJECT MYRMIDON. Circe tried to use Speak With Animals to talk to her captive ant, but all she heard was psychic static. This was not an enemy which could be tricked or reasoned with. Staring grimly over the river, Hash began muttering that maybe the Order of the Golden Lotus had the right idea about Qelong after all...

Will the PCs save Qelong from this out-of-control bioweapon? Will they abandon it to its fate? If they leave, how will Sophie obtain a new supply of the golden lotus petals she now takes three times a day for 'medicinal purposes'? Have faith in the Frog God! All shall be revealed!

Thursday, 12 October 2017

[Actual Play] The Lotos-Eaters: Team Tsathogga Head Upriver

So, the last installment of Team Tsathogga's adventures saw them perched on top of their improvised wall near the flooded temple that the naga-kin were using as their headquarters, ready to take on whatever emerged from it after the sun went down. As the darkness gathered, Hash's nightvision picked out slithering forms moving out of the building, taking up positions on its sloping roof: then the temple bell rang out once more, and a single figure leaned out from the tower. Covered in robes of embroidered silk, once-gorgeous but now foul with river-slime, the figure held out its hands towards the PCs and began orating at them sonorously, its words rising and falling like a chant as it gestured eloquently towards them with its clawed and misshaped hands. Unfortunately, the PCs had used up all their Comprehend Languages spells earlier that day, so none of them had any idea what it was saying.

Seeing the PCs make no response to its oratory, the figure appeared to grow angry. Turning to address its followers, it began to speak to them, gesturing furiously towards where the PCs crouched on their makeshift barricade. Alarmed by the awful sounds spilling out of the darkness, the rest of the PCs begged Hash to do something about the situation - so he drew back his bow, and loosed an arrow right into the orator's body. Stumbling back, the robed figure howled a curse and gestured at Circe, but her deranged faith in the Frog God defended her from its magic: and with a shot that only an elf could possibly have made successfully, Hash's second arrow sliced through the darkness and silenced him forever.

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Lizard Man, by GutsBerserk. No matter how mysterious you look, you'll still drop to an arrow in the eye...

As their leader dropped, the naga-kin went berserk, charging out of the temple to assault the barricade from all sides. Unable to see what was happening outside their narrow circle of lamplight, the PCs hurled more acid bombs and gas grenades at the naga-kin surging through the floodwater towards them, horribly aware that more were clambering up onto other parts of their makeshift wall as they did so; then, as more of the mutant beasts came rushing at them along the top of the barricade, they unleashed a storm of spells and arrows at them, while Circe held down the button on her looted snakeman pain-wand and blazed away with it for all she was worth, sending naga-kin tumbling down in agony on every side. Subjected to this withering bombardment, the creatures broke and ran, howling, into the night; and once the sounds had faded into the distance, the PCs descended, cautiously, to explore what lay within the temple itself.

Within lay a disturbing scene. Circles of bloated, mutated children, their skin discouloured by long immersion in river-water, knelt in silent circles around a central pit, in which had been heaped all the wealth that the naga-kin had looted from this once-rich trading town: skeins of torn and filthy silk, sodden books, ink-run calligraphic scrolls, and once-beautiful painted screens all lay heaped in the floodwater, slimy and ruined and foul. Here and there, however, gold still glittered in the PCs lantern-light - and seeing that the children merely watched them silently as they advanced, Skadi's criminal instincts rose to the fore, and she pushed forwards and began probing the pile with a stick. When this brought no immediate retribution, she succumbed to greed and started stuffing items of jewellery into her pockets.

The effect was dramatic. The items heaped in the pit pulsed, heaved, and then burst upwards in a shower of sodden finery, as an immense creature hurtled upwards: a gigantic snake with four heads, each face resembling a human woman with fanged mouths and long, long trailing waterfalls of hair. The naga hurled itself upon Skadi, tearing bloody chunks out of her body with its four mouths, while her companions rained attacks upon it: the space acid they hurled at it burned ragged holes in its body, while Hash used a Light spell to blind one of its heads and Hogarth cast a Choke spell to throttle a second. Finally Skadi shoved her shock baton into one of the holes burned into the creature's flank and electrocuted it from the inside, killing it: and as it crashed down its body dissolved into a wave of venomous river-water, rushing rapidly out and killing the naga-kin children where they knelt. The PCs fled for the tower steps, with variable success: but such was Skadi's hardihood that she fought off the mingling venoms burning in her bloodstream and staggered onwards, bearing wounds upon her body which would have killed any four normal men.

(Skadi passed three saves vs poison in succession, any one of which would have killed her. She really earned that treasure!)

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It was a bit like this, but much less heroic. Art from Kenneth Hite's Qelong, naturally.

Searching the body of the fallen priest revealed only a strange jewelled dagger, which Circe swiftly incorporated into her growing Evil Dagger Collection; so once the PCs had finished taking all the remaining unspoiled valuables from the heap of offerings, they headed off to inform the townsfolk of their victory. The next morning, the people headed out to the temple, where they gathered up the bloated, mutated remains of the people who had once been their friends, relatives, and, most heartbreakingly, children: but the surviving naga-kin seemed to have fled for good, restoring a measure of safety to the ragged survivors who remained. About half of them decided to take the opportunity to attempt the long, hazardous overland journey to the coast, while the rest opted to maintain their barricades and try to wait things out until the troubles finally ended. The PCs stayed with this latter group for a few days, recovering from their injuries; then, promising to check up on them during their return journey, they headed further upriver, towards the source of the Qelong's woes. By this stage Sophie was starting to feel a little strange, so they decided not to eat or drink anything which they hadn't cast Purify Food and Water on first.

Their journeys soon brought them to a fork in the river. Uncertain which way to proceed, they decided to make camp: each day they would catch one fish from each fork of the river, and Circe would use Speak to Animals to question them about what they had seen upriver, in the hope of deducing which fork would lead them closer to the fleet beacon. (For some reason, they opted to stay for exactly five days, on the grounds that their experiment wouldn't be 'scientific' unless they questioned five fish from each branch.) On the fourth day, they spotted a band of starving refugees stumbling out of the hills, several of whom were missing their hands: and in exchange for a few castings of Purify Food and Water the refugees told their miserable tale, explaining that the mutilated individuals were the victims of a curse which seemed to have befallen these lands, the power of which gathered in their hands until they had to be amputated in order to avoid afflicting everyone they touched. They also told the PCs that the east fork of the river would take them past the famous Temple of the Golden Lotus, the holiest site in all of Qelong, although what state it was in now they couldn't say. As Circe's fish-interrogations had strongly suggested that the east fork was the more seriously afflicted of the two, the PCs heard this news with considerable interest; and the next day, after questioning one more fish from each branch of the river, they headed down the fork to the south-east.

Once again they found themselves moving through abandoned villages, but with a difference: everywhere, in abandoned pools and overgrown gardens, they found swathes of gold-coloured lotus flowers. Detect Evil and Detect Magic spells revealed that these flowers were exempt from the air of evil and magic which hung over everything else in this blighted land: so, reasoning that they might be of use in warding away the curse the refugees had spoken of, they gathered the flowers and experimented with mashing them into a soup, which they then mixed with boiling water and fed to Sophie. Sophie experienced trippy visions of wheeling geometric shapes expanding in endless fractals, and spent the next few hours with blank eyes and a big, stupid smile on her face; but upon coming down from her trip, she reported that she was definitely feeling a bit less odd than she had been before.

(I was rather proud of the fact that the PCs worked out both the need to use Purify Food and Water spells on everything they ate and drank, and the potential value of the lotuses as anti-curse medication, entirely on their own, without the need for any hints or dice rolls...)

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That evening they came to the temple: a towering stupa surrounded by formal gardens laid out on geometric lines, in which the ubiquitous lotus flowers grew in great profusion. Here and there, serene, golden-robed monks and nuns could be seen tending the grounds, in striking contrast to the desolation which surrounded the stupa on every side. Hailing them, the PCs received a friendly greeting, and one of the monks went off to fetch a middle-aged nun from the stupa, who welcomed them in their own language. She invited them to stay at the temple, but insisted that the holy laws of their order would permit them to accept them as guests only for one day and one night, no more. Incredulous, the PCs pointed out that the land outside their temple was now a monster-filled wasteland of death and chaos, but the nun politely but firmly insisted that however regrettable the circumstances, they could not permit guests to remain with them for longer than twenty-four hours. Grumbling, the PCs then asked how the temple had been able to preserve itself from the horrors which had depopulated the rest of the region. The nun explained that they had been able to keep the ravages of the curse at bay through the rigorous maintenance of spiritual purity and the consumption of a special tea made from golden lotus petals, which she gave Circe a quick lesson in how to brew.

After a humble supper of plain rice and vegetable broth, the PCs were packed off to the guest dormitory, where they discovered that the temple had another guest that night: a man named Sovan, with a slightly wild, traumatised look about him. Sovan (who also happened to speak their language) explained that his village had turned to indiscriminate golden lotus consumption when the curse struck: many of them simply abandoned themselves to the lotus-visions and starved to death, but after overdosing on lotus blossoms he had experienced some kind of transcendent visionary experience from which he had emerged with miracle-working powers. Held captive for months by a cannibal clan in the hills, who found his healing abilities useful, he had finally escaped and fled to the temple for shelter and guidance - only to be told, to his disbelief, that even he would only be permitted to remain for one day and one night. Upon learning that the PCs were searching for the source of the evil which had befallen Qelong, he eagerly agreed to join their band.

By this point the party were intensely suspicious of their hosts, especially as Sovan confirmed that giving charity to the poor and desperate was meant to be one of their key functions: throwing people like him back out into the wilds went against everything they were supposed to believe in. Their suspicions were intensified by the fact that the number of monks in the temple was obviously far smaller than the number it was intended to house, and deepened even further when they found that they had been locked into their dormitory for the night. Deciding that something very odd was happening here, Skadi picked the lock and the PCs crept out to explore the temple: they took some food and lotus petals from the kitchens, and stole a bag of random scrolls from the library, where Hash also sketched a copy of a huge map of Qelong which hung on the library wall, illustrating the positions of all its many stupas. (Fully two-thirds of these had markers pinned next to them bearing sylised gold lotus designs, which made the party even more nervous.) Sneaking up the stairs behind the main prayer-hall they found a room above it, with two monks standing guard while two more meditated silently nearby; so, reasoning that something important was probably inside, they sent Sophie up to try to bypass the guards with Charm Person spells.

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Unfortunately, everything went wrong. The spells didn't work, and Sophie was promptly jumped on and restrained by four weirdly-calm monks, who pinned her down on the floor. The rest of the PCs, hearing her cries, decided they needed to get out of there, and sneaked back to their room, lay down, and pretended to have been asleep the whole time. Through the guarded door came the head monk, who looked entirely normal apart from the trippy golden mandalas in his eyes, and who gently requested that Sophie explain her presence at on doorstep. She claimed to have just been sleepwalking, but he was unconvinced, and gave orders for her to be locked in one of the storerooms beneath the temple. Shortly afterwards, the PCs were 'woken' by the same woman they'd spoken to before, who knocked on their door and explained that their comrade had been apprehended trespassing in the temple. Hash stealthily cast Charm Person on her, and begged her to intercede on Sophie's behalf: but she returned an hour later, visibly agitated, saying that there was no question of Sophie being released before she had been thoroughly interrogated, and the rest of them would still have to leave, without her, the following day. When asked if she could at least promise that their friend would not be tortured, all she could say was that if she was truly innocent, she would surely be released unharmed in due course.

After she left, the PCs agreed that they had to stage a jailbreak and rescue Sophie immediately. Being able to see in the dark, Hash sneaked out and began searching the complex, soon spotting the two guards posted outside a seemingly-normal kitchen storeroom; he returned for the others, and Sovan cast Hold Person to try to immobilise the guards, but they both shrugged off the effect and leaped forwards, yelling for reinforcements. Skadi shouldered her way to the front to take up her role as 'designated meatshield', flailing uselessly at the monks with her shock baton as they dodged and wove, pummeling her with nerve strikes which would have felled a weaker warrior: Circe's Command spell temporarily dropped one of them, but the other simply dodged or resisted everything they threw at him, yelling for help the whole time. But aid came from an unexpected source when Sophie, realising from the commotion outside that her friends had come to rescue her, charged at the door of her cell - and proved that all her weight training had paid off by smashing it clean off its hinges. Snatching up the falling door, she whacked one monk with it from behind, while trampling the other underfoot; Princess then pinned the still-mobile monk to the wall, her robot body impervious to his nerve strikes, while the rest of the party flooded forwards to pummel him into submission. Their rescue effected, they then fled for their lives, taking the unconscious monk (and the storeroom door) with them.

Pursuit was not long in coming. Seeing lantern-bearing monks running towards them across the gardens, the PCs ran for the perimeter wall, with Sophie propping her stolen door up against it to use as a gangplank. Hash ran straight up it to the top of the wall, and started pulling the others over; but the stompy metal feet of Princess crashed straight through the boards, and Skadi yelled that it was time for the robot to be abandoned to her fate. Circe, Sophie, and Sovan refused to leave her, throwing down ropes and hauling her up one bicep-straining foot at a time, until finally she crashed over the top and toppled down onto the other side; and with Hash's darkvision to guide them they fled away into the night, with Sovan advising them of little-known drover's trails that carried them deeper and deeper into the depopulated countryside to the east.

Just what are these gold-robed monks doing in their temple? Why are they so calm all the time? What do the markers on the map mean? What is up with that guy's eyes? Watch Circe and her minions comrades try, and probably fail, to discover the answers to these and other mysteries in the next installment of The Adventures of Team Tsathogga!