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.)


  1. Great write-up. Sounds like an interesting session.

  2. Thanks! It was a lot of fun. Jack said that he re-skinned one of the islands from your Azurth Adventures Digest to create the Saline World. I was flipping through my copy which arrived yesterday, and I see that he chose to handle the mummy differently than you did (which was lucky for our characters, I think, since what you keyed up might have killed us!)