Sunday, September 10, 2017

Book Cover Trends - White Face Dark Background

Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge (released May 2015)

The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson (released September 2015)

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith (released April 2016)

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Keep Your Frenemies Closer in Scarabae

Here is a summary of my third adventure in the weird Gothic world of Scarabae.

This time around, Traviata was re-joined by the pugilist Mortimer and the werewolf-ish Leonid, alongside the dragonborn sorcerer Viktor. The tiefling fixer Koska had called the group together to retrieve a missing master recording - a glass disc inscribed with magic, used to mass-produce wax cylinders - belonging to the ultra-avant-garde ultra-goth noise musician Yvana Gallows. Koska was visibly gaga over Yvana's celebrity (and deep pockets) and had busted out the bubbly for the occasion. Mortimer seemed pretty agog himself, while Traviata spent the entire meeting frowning, scowling, and biting her tongue while Yvana explained how burdensome it is to be just. so. famous. for your art. Yvana was convinced that the recording was stolen by someone hoping to profit off her celebrity by black-market retailing the soon-to-be bestselling album. She was sure she could re-record it, but thought the original version was special and had a certain je ne sais quoi that might be impossible to recapture. Mortimer and Leonid seemed smitten, nearly tripping over themselves volunteering to return the album. Viktor kept his wits, and negotiated hazard pay if anyone died during the recovery. Traviata experienced massive cognitive dissonance at the idea of helping one of her enemies, but talked herself into it by convincing herself that the attention and scandal that bootleg copies of the album would attract would mean even more undeserved fame for Yvana than if it were released normally ... and by securing a promise to see her own name in print in the album liner notes if the group was successful.

(Jack described Yvana Gallows as a black-clad Andy Warhol figure. Somehow she also reminded me of the artist character in KJ Bishop's short story "The Art of Dying." I had a lot of fun playing up the social awkwardness of this situation with Jack. He played Yvana as someone who's very thoughtless about how her actions affect the people around her, and as someone who somehow manages to both humble-brag and brag-brag with nearly every word she says. Meanwhile, I had originally conceived Traviata as someone who thinks of every artist more successful than her as an enemy. And while I haven't thought a lot about Traviata's opera career, I've been assuming that "more successful artist" is basically every artist. So Traviata already hates Yvana on principle, especially hates listen to her praising herself, and especially especially hates finding herself in a situation where she's doing Yvana a favor. The idea of Traviata practically turning red with anger, and having to stop herself from interjecting a response to everything Yvana said - this is slapstick comedy material, and a different type than the adventurers-as-Keystone-Kops variety of slapstick that D&D usually produces. So as I said, the social scenes were very fun, but this whole adventure produces a crisis for Traviata's characterization that I'll come back to at the end.)

The group debated a variety of ways to track down potential thieves through their fences or vendors, but decided to check out the recording studio first. Their plans for any kind of social investigation went right out the window (or rather, right down the sewer grate) when they saw how the thieves broke in to the studio - by cutting through a metal sewer grate to come up through the floor, using cutting tools or cutting magic that left salt residue all over the scene. So, rather than look for the thieves' social contacts, they decided to just look for the thieves directly by going into the sewers. Leonid's wolf nose pretty quickly picked out the smell of salt, and the group followed his nose into the tunnels. They found a patch of salty hand- and foot-prints, like someone fell into the water and then left a residue on the tunnel floor. Then they found a giant disused subway worm hanging from the ceiling.

(I can only hope that the sewers in Scarabe look like the ones in The Third Man. Scarabae has biotechnology - giant hollow worms that serve as subway trains, giant hollow beetles that replace elevators scrabbling up the sides of buildings. It's a Weird city, and these details fit the aesthetic perfectly.)

The group climbed up into the broken old worm-train, where their combined weight made it fall off its mounting brackets and into the water - where it immediately went berserk and started speeding down the tunnel at breakneck pace. A couple of masked men dressed in palm (or fern?) frond clothing, carrying oversized white salt axes, managed to leap aboard and attack the investigators, and then disintegrated into salt themselves when they were defeated. Then the worm-train crashed, and since Leonid's player's internet connection died, we decided that he basically did break his neck in the crash, or at least that he was knocked unconscious for the rest of the adventure.

Getting out of the wreck, the remaining characters saw that they were on an island with a Himalayan pink-salt-crystal sun shining overhead. At this point, the group assumed they were in some kind of deep underground cavern, presumably where the city's sewers empty into a natural underground river or lake ... but the weird salt-lamp sun was pretty disconcerting, and suggested that they were much deeper into some kind of Hollow Earth situation than should really have been possible. They saw a village in the distance and a black ziggurat closer by. They snuck around the edges of the island, and managed to come at the ziggurat from the side. Four of the six temple guards in front of the building spotted them anyway and came around for a fight, and after those were defeated, the group took out the two who stayed guarding the door. Mortimer's flurries of blows, and Viktor's magic slippers that let him stick to the walls of the building were the real stars of this fight. Also, again, every time one of the guards died, they just dissolved into piles of salt.

(We had varying theories about what Jack is calling "the saline men." Initially, I think we suspected golems or living statues or some other magical constructs made of salt. Then we might have thought that these were normal humans who'd somehow been magically transformed to salt - or at least I thought that. The waterfall we found inside the ziggurat maybe seemed to support this idea. But by the very end, we realized that we were in a different kind of place with different physical laws, and that being made of salt was nothing special, it was just these people's ordinary condition.)

On the ground floor of the temple, we passed through a foyer into some kind of grand burial chamber. There was a salt-crusted mummy on display at the center of the room. The walls were covered in simple stick figures depicting various kinds of artists making art, and their audiences shunning them. So there was a musician playing to an audience of people covering their ears, a painter showing a painting to an audience of people covering their eyes, etc. Viktor was able to read the hieroglyphs, and learned that this was the burial chamber of Razo the Unlistening, a religious leader who taught that all art is sinful, and exhorted his followers to steal art and ritually destroy it. Traviata was incensed by a religion of people with "bad taste" passing judgment on art. Mortimer accused her of being the same as the Razors, since she was disparaging Yvana's "popular music" earlier in the adventure. Traviata tried to brush him off - "They hate the wrong art!" - but his comments really cut into her. Further back was a waterfall coming out of the wall of ziggurat and stairs leading up. The group was afraid to touch the water or get too close, but dipping in a spear caused it to become either covered in or transformed into salt.

The group went upstairs and found six Razor priests. Mortimer tried to reason with them and/or present them with a logical paradox (that their temple used art to teach them to hate art) but their faith was impervious to his attempts to out-logic them. The priests had a special ritual where they covered their ears, shut their eyes, and chanted "no, no, no, no," which caused them to grow giant salt crowns which then fired at the adventurers. Viktor cast a badass thunderwave spell that slammed half the priests, and Mortimer tore through them with another flurry of punches. They peeked under the back door and saw the ankles of another priest. Traviata managed to spill some acid under the door, which let the group get the drop on him. The high priest of Razo was still a tough opponent, despite the advantage of numbers and surprise. He swatted a spell right out of Viktor's hand, somehow turning the magic to salt, which swirled around the room and then fell to the floor. He also summoned a human-sized magic hammer that attacked by itself, and exploded more salt crystals from his head. Viktor and Traviata both went into shock and started dying while Mortimer saved the day by pummeling him to dust. Mortimer continued saving the day by saving his two friends' lives, and barring the door so they had time to recover.

They recovered the high priests awesome green-salt mask, a globe of glowing pink salt, a potion, and Yvana Gallows' master record. Traviata again criticized the Razors, and Mortimer again acted as her conscience by forcing her to confront her own flaws. "How are you any different than them? You hate Yvana too." "I don't hate her because she's bad, I hate her because she's more popular than me!" This admission / realization really shook Traviata, and probably helped prevent her from doing anything intemperate. She used her theatrical skills to disguise Mortimer as the high priest. He went up to the top of the ziggurat, which was a stage open to the village below. None of the villagers were watching though, so he didn't have a chance to try to provide them with any new prophetic guidance. On the way back out of the temple however, the group used Traviata's alchemical acid to etch away the figures rejecting the art, leaving only the images of artists behind. They also destroyed the salt-shell surrounding the body of Razo, and discovered that his corpse had long since desiccated and disintegrated, which saved them the trouble of destroying that too.
They got back on the worm-train, used the controls to drive it back along the path they'd followed to the island, and discovered that they'd passed through a magic portal on the way to the island. The island wasn't underground; it was on another planet, maybe even another plane of existence. Between the two of them, Viktor and Traviata managed to close the portal almost down to nothing, but left it slightly ajar in the hopes of returning to it in the future. They took the train the rest of the way back to the studio, and emerged to return the record to Koska and Yvana. Mortimer proudly handed over the record, and even played a harmonica solo for Yvana. Yvana was once again pretty thoughtless about the hardships the group had been though, although she agreed to pay the hazard fee since Leonid "hadn't made it back" (he hadn't made it back to Koska's, but his friends had dropped his sleeping body off at his apartment.) Traviata ended up getting infuriated again, although too late to do anything about it. After the adventure was over, she ended up buying a copy of Yvana's newest wax cylinder, the one she helped save, and hate-listened to it in her lab while brooding about how she had failed to exact revenge on one of her enemies, and about how Mortimer's words had confused and hurt her. Mortimer, meanwhile, discovered weeks later that Yvana had recorded a new single, where she stole the melody from his harmonica performance and gave him zero credit for writing it.

(So, obviously there is a meta-game reason why this session went the way it did. Obviously I was not going to skip out on the game just because Traviata wouldn't want to go on this mission, nor was I going cause the other characters to lose out on the small fortune Yvana was paying, or risk them getting beaten up or killed by her bodyguards, just because Traviata might want to do something impetuous. Those decisions were driven by my desires as a player - to play the session rather than skipping it, and to be a good teammate to my fellow players. My social contract with the other actual human beings playing the game overrides any within-game fictional need for my character to do stupid, destructive things.)

(But, those decisions also mean that Traviata has to do some serious soul-searching after this session. She could have tried to destroy Yvana's record, but let it get delivered without a scratch on it. She could have tried to kill or maim Yvana - she certainly killed enough saline men - but never lifted a finger against her. And Mortimer's attempts to act as her conscience meant that she was confronted with how ugly her hatred for other musicians really is, and how much her own opinions resemble the beliefs of a religion that she condemned for being too opinionated - or at least for being incorrect in its opinions. Traviata, as I originally conceived her, started out halfway to being a villain. In this session, she had the chance to be a villain and didn't take it. So what should she do next?)

(One option would be to have her pursue the other half of her personal mission - to help other sick and innocent people. Saving the patient and nurse from the clinic, and turning over the evidence to the Court of Wands are all steps in that direction. She could become a better person, learn to let go of her anger. I don't know if I'm ready for her to fully commit and become just good, however, instead of the interesting chaotic individual she is right now.)

(Another option would be for her to redouble her efforts on her next adventure - find someone who's enjoying the professional success she wanted but never got, and ruin that person's life. We'll see, but I don't necessarily think that's going to happen. Part of the social contract between players, I think, is not engaging in a lot of really self-indulgent spotlight stealing while everyone else is forced to sit on their hands, and I don't want to break that part of the contract either. Traviata could also lash out and try to physicalize her roiling, conflicted emotions. Smash her own treasures, burn down her apartment, hire the rescued nurse to amputate her leg and replace it with the wooden prosthesis. This probably runs into the self-indulgence problem again, unless it's handled as "downtime activities," although I suppose I could play her a little more angry and erratic throughout the session.)

(A more promising solution would be for Traviata to lean into her alchemy and mad scientist-ness. She's about to level up and learn to cast spells, and her alchemical acids and fires are about to get more powerful. She could also help fund Viktor's research into the portal and/or try to build a machine to help open and close the door to the Saline Realm. If she has enough cash, she could even hire Koska to put together a team to go collect alchemical salts and reagents from the other side of the portal. The leg thing fits here too, because it's totally a mad scientist-y thing to do, and it can happen off-camera and between sessions. This is probably the direction I'm going to try to take her.)

(And then finally, I guess Traviata could try doing more art. She liked using her knowledge of operatic storylines to help figure out the haunted apartment, and using her experience with stagecraft to lower the team "from the skylights" into the clinic. She likes singing to inspire her teammates - and give them temporary hit points before battle. If she could find a way to feel more successful as an artist, she might not feel so angry at people like Yvana all the time. The opportunities for this kind of fulfillment are likely to be limited though, at least compared to the chances to become a better alchemist, so we'll see, but this will probably not be the primary direction of her future growth.)

(I've been reading a little bit about the Burning Wheel family of games, and it sounds like they're supposed to facilitate character growth and decision-making like I've been talking about here. I don't know how I feel about trying to systematize that however. Part of me likes that it's basically a completely optional part of the game - I really don't spend as much time thinking about the emotions of most of my other characters, but there's something special about Traviata. Part of me also wants to learn a little more about how they handle it mechanically, to see if there's any part of it that I would ever want to bring in as a house-rule in my own games. 5e has some characterization mechanics, with things like the background bond, ideal, goal, and flaw, and with things like gaining and spending inspiration. But I wonder if anything in the Burning Wheel games would point to a way to modify those things a little to encourage or reward a character's emotional journey or development.)

Monday, August 21, 2017

Playtesting Dragon Heresy

Last year, I played in a couple playtest sessions with Gaming Ballistic, and I recently found the play reports while poking around on his blog. The test was for Dragon Heresy, which is an in-progress 5e clone that will no doubt be on Kickstarter and for sale one day.

(For those interested, Dragon Heresy differs from 5e in two main ways. First, the setting is in fantasy-Scandinavia instead of the Forgotten Realms. Second, it employs several variants the standard D&D combat rules, for example "vigor" and "wounds" replace standard hit points and armor acts as damage reduction instead of as something that lets you avoid getting hit altogether. It stands in relation to 5e in simultaneously the same ways that both Iron Heroes and Arcana Unearthed stand in relation to 3e.)

The first play report is here.

In the first session, the characters were tasked with recovering some forgotten crown jewels and documents proving something like the authenticity of the jewels and their hereditary connection to some current nobility.

I played a rune-casting barbarian, a new archetype from Dragon Heresy who can express dwarven runes while raging. (If I recall, most of the runes allow the barbarian to deal or become resistant to different kinds of damage. The other new archetypes for the other classes seemed cool and flavorful as well.)

The highlight of the session was fighting an angry hill giant. The revised combat rules mean that characters and monsters have more "vigor" than they would ordinarily have hit points, but they also have many fewer "wounds" - so attacks that directly target the wound reserve, which includes missile attacks, are more powerful.

The second play report is here.

In the second session, we fought a couple of wights riding ghostly horses. In this fight, the things that don't improve with level - the way that hit points and vigor do - worked against us this time. Another character fell off a parapet and nearly died from the fall, because "wounds" are fixed at 1st level, and falling goes straight "wounds" not "vigor." My character also nearly died from sheer exhaustion. Raging increases exhaustion, rune-casting increases exhaustion, (and possibly, being touched by a wight increases exhaustion) - and again, the amount of this a character can endure is fixed at 1st level. Running yourself ragged remains dangerous throughout your character's life. So despite the wights probably not being as dangerous as the giant, both our characters nearly died in this fight, because the same damage-rule asymmetry that we turned against the giant got turned against us this time around.

Those were the only two playtests that I participated in. Not long after I played, he launched a Kickstarter for a standalone volume of his variant grappling rules, which is now for sale as the book Dungeon Grappling.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Michael Lewis's Real World Dungeon I Want to Explore - The Hanford Nuclear Site

If I were creating my own "Appendix N" of inspirational literature to base my games on, the first book I'd add to the list would be Roadside Picnic by Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky.

I'll write about it more another time, but the basic scenario is ideal for adventure gaming - an abandoned site (the zone), filled with invaluable treasures (swag) and incomprehensible dangers; adventurers (stalkers) sneak into this site, hoping to avoid death and disfigurement and to return with enough wealth to retire; conditions inside the site defy ordinary laws of physics and perceptions of reality; and the adventurers return to the site over and over, as much from curiosity and wonder as from greed.

It is a scenario that other authors have revisited, often in more-or-less overt homage to the Strugatsky brothers: Nova Swing by M John Harrison, Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky, Annihilation and the other "Southern Reach" books by Jeff Vandermeer, Spill Zone by Scott Westerfeld, as well as the sections describing the Cacatopic Stain and the Scar in China Mieville's Perdido Street Station and The Scar. (Spill Zone is especially interesting to me because it mashes-up the tradition of Zone stories with the new trend of 1980s-aesthetic weird and horror fiction: Beyond the Black Rainbow, Paper Girls, Beyond the Silver Scream, Stranger Things, Tales from the Loop.)

I once read a review of Andrei Tarkovsky's film Stalker, an adaptation of Roadside Picnic, that suggested the film took on a new life after the Chernobyl incident, because the film's images of a town overtaken by plants and wildlife, a town surrounded by fences and guarded by the military, a town where simply being present can be deadly because of invisible reality-warping forces, because those images eerily prefigured the appearance of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone 14 years later.

I am sometimes drawn to the idea of games that incorporate elements of the real into the fiction of the game. Fighting real animals instead of "monsters," stealing real objects instead of "treasures," exploring real places instead of "dungeons." (Not really fighting, really stealing, or really exploring, of course, but rather having fictional encounters with things that are real.) When I think about the dungeons I want to explore, I think of real places that I will never visit, because they are distant, or inaccessible, or illegal to enter.

I recently read a description of the Hanford Nuclear Site, a site where plutonium was once produced, and where plutonium waste is now cleaned. The United States government, through the Department of Energy, spends $3 billion per year, and employs 9000 people for the clean-up. The article where I read the description is a very good, very disturbing read. And just as people looked at Chernobyl and thought of Stalker, I read of Hanford, and I think of Roadside Picnic.

There is something Lovecraftian about nearly everyone's attitude toward knowledge about Hanford, at least as described in the article. It is an attitude of not wanting to know, because people have already planned and decided to act a certain way, and knowing might cause them to be aware of information that would compel them to act differently, or at least to feel guilty about continuing to act the way they decided. Nearly everyone wants their billions of dollars, their thousands of jobs, their yachts, their wine, their bistros - or else they want to stop spending that money entirely and all-at-once - and almost no one wants to know information that might change their plans, either way. It is an attitude of intentional in-curiosity on the part of almost everyone around Hanford, and it is so different from the all-consuming curiosity that drives the stalkers who enter the Visitation Zone in Roadside Picnic.

Below is a long quote from the article, describing the Hanford Nuclear Site, very lightly edited to focus on the description of the site.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Iditarod & Medevac in Scarabae

Here is a summary of my second adventure playing in the New Weird city of Scarabae.

The Scarabae campaign is open-table and episodic. Each time I've played, a broker of some sort has offered the team of player characters a job, we've accepted, and it's been off to the races. Our first adventure was brokered by a dwarven banker who was trying to evict the nightmares that were squatting in a bank-owned property. This adventure was brokered by tiefling woman who I gather is a sort of fixer or agent to the underworld, although her involvement in the job seemed to be more out of ethnic solidarity than because it involved anything particularly illegal. She wanted the group to deliver medicine to another tiefling, who was a patient inside a clinic that was temporarily cut off from the outside world.

Specifically, the clinic was "cut off" by an army of white-robed cultists surrounding the building and killing anyone who got too close.

(My first thought was "This reminds me of what an abortion clinic looks like when it's being besieged by anti-rights activists." My second thought was "Wouldn't it be a short adventure if our characters were hyper-religious and agreed with the cultists?")

The characters knew they wouldn't be able to fight their way through, but Traviata had an idea. Remembering her days in the theater, she thought of using ropes to lower the party down to the roof of the clinic by using the nearby residential towers as a kind of scaffolding. After they bought the ropes, she got to go down first, Peter Pan style, or perhaps, Mission Impossible style. There was a skylight on the roof, and melting a hole in the glass using her alchemical acid seemed like the quietest way in, at least quieter than smashing the glass with a club.

(If I hadn't thought of using stage wires to lower down, I'm sure we could have found a way up from the sewers under the building. Traviata isn't much good in a fight, so I like when she gets to help in other ways. It's clear that her past in the opera is still an important part of her identity; I wonder if that will change as she has new experiences during her adventures.)

The group started examining the clinic, and found several empty hospital rooms, with fresh-made beds, visiting chairs, and the smell of antiseptic. The place gave Traviata the creeps, since it reminded her of her time being treated for tuberculosis. They also found the bedroom of the clinic's proprietor, a dwarf who decorated his bedroom with a huge gaudy crest of a scalpel being forged on an anvil, and a huge guady painting of himself wielding the scalpel like a sword. The proprietor was nowhere to be found, but the group did find his library. They discovered a half-dozen texts written in Deep Tongue detailing the summoning of aberrant monsters. Traviata also found a book on lungs and lung diseases and tucked it into her bag.

(Traviata picked the lock on the dwarven doctor's bedroom door. Traviata was also the one to decipher the alien texts. I had a bonus language that I hadn't assigned yet, so Deep Tongue it was. Again, I got to do some nice characterization by portraying Traviata's fear of hospitals, and her interest in lung diseases.)

The characters checked the two closed rooms next. The first closed room had the body of a halfling with an exploded head. The halfling's brain - presumably! - had grown tentacles and a beak, and was now eating the halfling's dead body. There was a nasty fight. Erron, a half-elven bard, took a tentacle to the shoulder, but made his saving throw, so he got a very nasty scar, but no burrowing baby grell parasite. Traviata had a tentacle wrap around her leg and then inject into her calf. She also made her save, but dropped to 0 hit points and went into shock. Our pugilist wrestled the monster into submission by grappling all of its tentacles, and our warlock blasted the helpless creature to pieces. Erron the bard helped stabilize Traviata, and she spent the next hour regaining consciousness while the group barricaded themselves in the room.

Fig 1 - The Grell (the first monster?)
(This encounter got me thinking a bit about the conventions of the horror genre. What makes the army of uncanny white robed figures really scary? The fact that we don't have enough hit points, attacks, or bullets to simply fight our way through them. What makes this monster "horrific" instead of just "gross"? The fact that we could hardly kill the thing, and it nearly killed two of us. Being badly outgunned by enemies that are almost too strong for you to fight seems to be part of what makes this "horror." The uncanny stillness of the clinic was another part. There were no wandering monsters, no sense that the clinic was active or alive. Instead, what makes it "horror" is that the monsters are not all over, they are only at "the end," waiting for you to come to them.)

After this incident, they relied more heavily on the warlock, who claimed to have an imaginary friend who could scout ahead. I like to think that all the other characters thought he was just making this up, but the scouted information proved accurate, and helped us think we could avoid getting ambushed again. We'd used the invisible familiar before, but we really stepped it up after Erron and Traviata almost died. The next closed room had the tiefling patient the characters were hired to find in the first place. We injected him with his medicine, learned that he couldn't walk, learned that he'd been attacked by the brain monster and definitely hadn't made his save, and then debated what to do next. I don't think we seriously considered just leaving, having fulfilled the contract to deliver his medicine, although a couple players joked that we should. We did seriously consider just pulling him out with us and calling it a night, but Mortimer the prizefighter was moved by the patient's pleas to rescue his favorite nurse, and Traviata felt guilty about potentially allowing an infection to spread untreated. Ultimately, we decided to send the warlock's imaginary friend downstairs, and the followed it to look for the nurse.

(After waking up, Traviata used her "inspiring leader" feat to sing to the other characters and empower them with temporary hit points. This is a useful ability, but there's no way to use it without seeming like a diva - which is why it's helpful that Traviata is literally a diva. I enjoyed Traviata's mixed feelings here. On the one hand, she nearly died and had a permanent wound that might still turn out to have a parasite in it. On the other hand, she didn't want to risk the monsters escaping from the clinic and spreading infection around the city. On the other other hand, the tiefling patient, Alphonse Damajin, was obviously an active carrier of the disease, and the humanitarian act of bringing him out of the clinic might endanger the lives of others. It was a real ethical dilemma, but of course, Traviata planned to decide based on her tumultuous emotions, rather than any kind of rigorous cost-benefit analysis.)

The characters went downstairs from the bedroom first, and found a kind of staff break room that combined a kitchenette with set-up for boiling used surgical instruments. Traviata pocketed a random handful of clean surgical tools, including a bone saw. Next, they went downstairs from the patient rooms next, and found the waiting room and the front door. Off the waiting room, they went into the surgery, where they found a dead troll with a half-dozen open wounds that obviously had parasites inside. Traviata really wanted to burn the body, but decided not to for fear of fire spreading the the clinic. Then the suite and supply closets off the surgery, we found more medical books, more medical instruments, and a variety of prosthetic limbs. Traviata took a wooden lower leg to potentially replace her injured limb. We also found the nurse, who was clearly traumatized by the initial parasite attack, and was prepared to defend herself with a scalpel. When we led the nurse back through the surgery to go upstairs, three of the parasites had emerged from the body, looking like creepy alien spiders, and there was another dangerous combat. Fortunately, these parasites only injected poison, not larvae, because a couple of characters failed their poison saves during the fight. This combat ended the same way the last one did, with Mortimer grappling a monster, and Tobias the warlock magically obliterating it.

Fig 2 - The Neogi (the second monster?)
(I knew we should have burned that body! The waiting room was decorated with Vetruvian Men from a dozen different species. The idea reminded me of the pencil drawings that decorated the first page of every chapters in the 3rd Edition D&D rulebooks. The medical texts and the prostheses were ecumenical with regard to species as well, really emphasizing what a diverse city Scarabae is. It's interesting how high fantasy, space opera, and the new weird all describe societies where dozens of non-human - but human-like - species coexist not just in the same world, but often in the same city. The three genres all use the same building blocks, but then assemble them in different ways, and certainly to different effects. But what this means is that it's relatively easy to take the elements of a story or game in one genre, and then reassemble them in a different genre. So Pathfinder's high fantasy easy transforms into Starfinder's space opera; and 5e supplies the component parts of Scarabae.)

Fig 3 - The Neh-Thalggu, or The Brain Collector (the second monster?)
After defeating the spider-like parasites, the characters did burn the infected body, and led the nurse back through the first floor. Between the waiting room and the break room should have been the doctor's private office, where they saw a line of discarded clothing items leading to an acid-rimmed hole in the wall. Nope! The characters brought the nurse upstairs, re-united her with the patient, and then hoisted them both back up the ropes to the apartments overhead. As they climbed, they saw all the cultists filing into clinic in an orderly and ominous fashion. They returned Damajin to the tiefling broker, so that she could reunite him with his family, then took samples of materials from the clinic - the dead brain-like parasite, one of the dead spider-like parasites, and the larva the nurse extracted from Dramajin's shoulder and stored in one of Traviata's glass vials - and delivered them to the Court of Wands. The representative of the wizarding guild seemed entirely disinterested in the evidence, much to Mortimer and Traviata's dismay.

(I'm still finding my legs in Scarabae. Erron and Tobias seemed convinced that the parasite attack was caused by the doctor who ran the clinic performing unethical experiments, while Traviata assumed that it was an "exotic" illness that was brought into the city by a traveler from outside. Erron and Tobias also seemed to assume that contacting the Court of Wands would be useless, while Traviata was definitely surprised that they weren't taking the threat of a deadly communicable disease more seriously. If the opportunity arises, she might try to investigate the matter more without the Wands' help. She might also decide to replace her own injured leg, even if it doesn't contain a parasite larva. That seems like a suitably mad-scientist kind of thing for her to do.)

Fig 4 - The Fleshwarper (a possible future for Traviata?)
(In my first adventure in Scarabae, Traviata drew on her history in the opera to realize that the shadows and wraiths inside the haunted house were acting out aspects of an event, and that the key to defeating the haunting was to act the event out entirely, but with a better or more satisfying ending. But she didn't originally realize that they would also have to kill the monsters. Using dream logic could defeat the haunting as a whole, but it couldn't defeat the individual haunts. Both drama and violence were necessary. Traviata is good at drama, but not very good at violence, and maybe still not very good at understanding the uncanny blending of these multiple logics inside Scarabae. One thing I should do before my next session as a player should be to look up 5e's rules for reloading crossbows and firearms. I've only been using Traviata's shotgun in the first round of combat, but if it can be reloaded and reused, then she can probably do more to help win at fights.)