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.)

Friday, August 4, 2017

Session Report - Into the Redlands - 22 July 2017

Emil Durkheim (shaman 1)
Totem, the raven totem-animal
two wild dogs
Petruccio (human 0)
played by Emily

Hitch Huxley (mage 1)
Gambino, the loyal manservant (human 0)
Scarface (human 0)
played by Corey

In the third week of spring, Emil Durkheim met up with Hitch Huxley and his manservant Gambino. Hitch was an imposing figure, tall and long-limbed, hairless and wearing a metal skullcap, wearing black and gold robes in a mockery of religious garb. He also spoke in an angry falsetto voice; Hitch was a former castrato singer in the church choir. Since reaching adulthood, he'd abandoned the church, devoted himself to the study of esoteric lore and black magic, and generally transformed himself into one of the scariest men in Lesserton. Gambino was athletic, but easily winded, foolish, and basically useless without Hitch's instructions.

When Emil ran into Hitch Huxley, he was in the middle of trying to set up his own network of spies and informants by co-opting a couple of the messenger boys who spent their days running across town to deliver news and messages. Usually working for a copper coin a message, the boys were awed when Hitch gave them silver, tempted when his promised them the chance to earn gold, and then scared witless when he told them that if they got caught they were fired, and if they talked they'd be killed. The boys, "I-I-I'm Jack Kelley sir, and dis is my friend, D-D-David," confirmed that they knew some other boys they could recruit, "Well, dere's my buddy Spot Conlon, and David's got a little brother, Les." Hitch Huxley ordered Jack and Spot to hang around the Market Square and sent David and Les to the Heights. He commanded them to listen for business opportunities, steal anything they thought they could get away with, and generally report any chance to make money they heard about to him. "And remember, if you talk, you die!" he reminded them before the kids ran off in terror.

Sensing that Huxley was a man of ambition, Emil approached him about heading into the ruins of ancient Mor. Hitch Huxley had recently heard rumors about the great wealth and treasure to be found in the ruins, so he was receptive to the white-robed shaman's sales pitch. (Emil had recently heard that Lesserton had no real thieves' guild, that all the beggars and pickpockets were disorganized and worked alone, and that stories about a thieves' guild were just lies meant to frighten people. For the sake of his new friend, Emil hoped this was true.) They decided to hire some guards to come with them for protection. Emil turned up young Petey once again, now wearing his late brother's old armor and carrying his spear, and going by the ancient name Petruccio. "It'sa me! Petruccio!" Hitch didn't trust loyal Gambino to protect him enough, and hired a menacing-looking young man named Scarface to come along as well. Scarface had a single long scar running diagonally across his face, and spoke with sinister sibilant S's. "Sssure thing, bosssss!"

With these preliminaries taken care of, the next morning the group set out for the ruined city, Emil Durkheim accompanied by Petruccio, two excited wild dogs, and his totem-animal raven, and Hitch Huxley accompanied by Gambino and Scarface. Walking the old road, they made it to the banks of the moat by noon, where the orcish guard seemed thrilled to see Emil and Petruccio again. "Hey! It's Mister Appleseed!" The orcs were happy to let the pair across the bridge for free, and asked them to check in with the boss of the Trollbridger Clan on the other side. Hitch tried to follow close on Emil's heels, but the guard stopped him. "Excuse me. I don't know you. You wanna cross the bridge, you gotta pay the toll." Hitch eyed the length of the rope span across the moat, and decided against intimidation as a tactic. Just before crossing, Emil called out that the orcs were fond of canned food, much to Hitch's relief. "Are those canned yams? Oh, those are exquisite!" One payment later, and the entire group was across the bridge. Once they were through the broken section of the city wall, the leader of the Trollbridgers approached them. He informed Emil and Petruccio that his tribe, although still involved in the lucrative bridge industry, had mostly moved into orchard, where they had adopted the dogs living there. The orcs were concerned, however, about the buildings bordering their new territory. If they could be sure the buildings were empty, they'd like to move in, but if they weren't empty, they didn't want to risk walking into a dangerous situation, or risk being ambushed by something coming out of the buildings in the night. The boss offered free passage over the bridge, and free shelter in the buildings once they were cleared, along with an unspecified financial reward, if Emil and his companions could verify the safety of the buildings. After a brief conference, they agreed, and set out along the clear passage to the orchard.

In the orchard, they saw that the orcs had established camp, and a dozen happy wild dogs were running between the trees. Emil Durkheim's dogs greeted the members of their old pack, but continued to follow the shaman as he and Hitch Huxley headed to the cluster of buildings to the northeast. They saw three structures standing amidst the piles of broken stone and fallen bricks. The first structure they entered was two stories - apparently just two rooms from a larger destroyed house. The group first circled the outside of the structure, then lit a lantern and went inside. They searched the room, then went upstairs and search again. Although they found nothing of note, they took a moment to look out the open doorway that used to lead to an adjoining room, and saw a view of the orchard. Satisfied, they went back downstairs and outside and walked to the next building. Again, they searched outside the lone freestanding room, then went inside and searched again. They found a hole in the floor with a ladder leading down. Gambino dropped to his belly and held the lantern down as low as he could, revealing what appeared to be an old root cellar. Hitch took the lantern and went down alone, checking the crumbling burlap bags and low piles of disintegrated root vegetables. Again, they left and walked over to the final building in the area. They circled the final small structure, and again, deemed the exterior relatively safe. They refilled the oil in their guttering lantern and headed inside. Their search revealed a third safe, empty building, and they left to return to the orchard.

Back among the trees, they talked to the orcs. Emil and Hitch reported that the first group of buildings they'd searched was safe, and asked if there was any reason the orcs were afraid of going in themselves. The orc leader claimed that several members of the clan had spotted a dangerous looking swarm of biting insects in the area. He also pointed out that his group wasn't particularly large, and it was always dangerous trying to claim new turf with so many gangs of unsavories squatting on other portions of the ruins. Satisfied that they had a better understanding of the situation, Emil and Hitch took their group to the buildings southeast of the orchard, due south of the previous block. The first structure they encountered here was a complete house in relatively good repair. The plaster was damaged where the decorative lintels had fallen away from the windows and doors, but the faded red tile roof was still intact. Lighting their lantern again, they went inside. The group immediately noticed that the air in the building was colder than in any of the other buildings, colder than the shade from the roof could explain. It was also unaccountably humid, almost clammy. They saw a staircase leading up, with another set of stairs heading down to the basement under the stairwell. While the others searched the room, Hitch rigged up a short span of twine strung with the cheapest goat-bells he'd been able to find, and tucked the ends between loose bricks to create a makeshift tripwire alarm guarding the basement stairs. Satisfied that he wouldn't be ambushed, he led the others upstairs, where the temperature was normal and the air was dry once again. They went back downstairs, and Gambino led the way into the basement, with Scarface close on his heels. They only made it about halfway down the basement steps though, because the room was flooded with at least 5 feet of rainwater. The lantern light reflected off the flooded basement, casting dancing lights onto the ceiling. Emil's dogs started barking, so the group wasn't surprised when a giant toad surfaced and attacked!

The toad lashed out with its freakishly long tongue, grabbing Gambino by the neck, dragging him into the water, and then biting off the poor servant's head. Hitch responded by shoving Scarface off the steps and into the water. "Gee thanksss." Scarface waded to the center of the room, but couldn't pierce the toad's blubbery hide with his dagger. Hitch headed down the steps to take Gambino's place, and Emil and Petruccio crept down to join the fight. The toad opened its giant mouth and tried to gobble up Scarface, nearly killing him. The wounded hireling floated on his back and paddled himself back toward the stairs to get away. Emil had tied a rope to his rune-carved spear, and threw it at the beast (fumble!) but he lost his footing on the steps, and dropped the end of the rope. Hitch felt worried about the group's chances at this point and cast a spell to summon warriors to his side, singing out in his pure soprano. Upstairs, they heard running footsteps and voices calling out "For glory! For Valhalla!" and four blond muscular men carrying a variety of oversized weapons appeared in the doorway. The men tore off their shirts and swan dived flawlessly into the water. In an instant, they'd hacked the frog into quarters, and at Hitch's command, carried the parts back to him. "For the feast! Tonight we feast!" Hitch urged them to make sure the room was safe, and for several minutes, the four warriors pearl dived to the bottom of the room over and over, finally marching up the steps bearing piles of silver and gold coins in the fabric of their shirts. Knowing that time was short, Hitch called on his warriors to run after him to the next building. "Onward! Onward to glorious battle!" (Emil retrieved his spear, helped Scarface out of the water, collected the and freshly butchered frog meat, and followed at a slower pace behind.)

Hitch and his summoned warriors ran into the building, saw a staircase, and ran up. The upstairs was empty as well, and for a moment, Hitch worried there'd be no second battle for his berserkers. It was only a moment though, because then the air filled with the sound of buzzing, then tiny biting flies swarmed in through every window, converging in the center of the room and then descending on one of the warriors, who fell dead to the floor as the insects rapidly stripped the flesh from his body. Hitch stepped forward to pour lamp oil over the body and light it, and the flies exploded away from the body, before reforming in a smaller cloud that before. Hitch ordered two of the warriors to secure the basement, then handed the remaining berserker a bottle of oil and told him to pour it over himself. "Witness me!" screamed the warrior, "Tonight I die victorious!" The flies descended on the second man and began biting him, and Hitch set him alight. The warrior grasped the insects toward him, and waved his blazing arms at the ones trying to escape, sending the few surviving insects out into the ruins. Hitch saluted his second warrior as he fell to the ground and was consumed entirely by the flames. Going downstairs, he met up with Emil and the others, where they found piles of gold and silver coins set at the top of the stairs, alongside two gemstones. Taking the lantern from Petruccio, Hitch went down to the basement, searched, but saw no signs of violence and no remaining trace of his warriors. Returning upstairs, Hitch helped the others pack up their supplies as the lantern went out again.

By now the group was tired after hours of searching and fighting, and the sun showed that it was late afternoon, or perhaps early evening. They returned to the orchard, where they presented the frog meat to the tribe. The leader - cheftan Emeril - was pleased, and even more pleased when Emil offered up his garlic. "That'll really kick it up a notch! Bam!" Everyone dined on garlic frog legs with apple sauce, the the humans bedded down, feeling safe surrounded by so many warrior guards. Scarface now had a second scar from the frog bit, forming a giant X across his face.
In the morning, they learned that there had been a brief disturbance in the night when a giant rhino beetle landed among the trees, ate some leaves, then flew off again. The cheftan didn't seem worried, "Eh, this kind of thing happens all the time," but Hitch and Emil were quite worried about the danger the beetle might pose to their new comrades. Emil decided to consult his revered ancestors, invoking a ritual that allowed him to commune with their wisdom. (The player, Emily, announced "my ancestors are not from New Jersey!" right before we started the consultation, so I made them ambiguously British and decided to dial back the silly voices a little bit.) Emil praised his ancestors repeatedly while asking their advice, and thanked them profusely for the information they offered. He asked if the rhinoceros beetle could be killed - and learned that his present forces might just barely be up to the task, although it might be a costly victory, and success was by no means assured. He asked if the beetle was alone - and learned that it was not with others of its kind, but it was also not alone in its lair. Finally, he asked if the greatest treasure in the city was nearby - and was told that the city's greatest treasures were obscure, and probably located in the citadel or palace, but that there were treasures nearby to the northeast and the south. To decide which of the nearby treasures to seek, Hitch and Emil questioned the orcs more about the beetle, and learned that it had flown off to the northeast. They set out, first passing the three empty ruins they'd searched initially, before arriving in a section with three intact buildings.

Circling the first building, the group was unable to discern if it was occupied from the outside. The contrast of the interior shadows was too dark to see inside in the bright sunlight, at least not without holding a lantern through one of the empty windowframes. Instead, they went in as a group through the front door, where they saw a group of three orcish hunters mending a rope net. Hitch invoked the authority of the Trollbridger Clan and tried to frighten the hunters into surrendering, but the toughs picked up their spears instead. Scarface ran forward and shivved the lead hunter in the gut, stabbing him a dozen times in rapid succession. Hitch threw his dagger at one of the other hunters, hitting him in the shoulder, then backed up behind his friends. Petruccio charged forward with his brother's spear, running through the injured orc and slaying him. Emil sicced his two dogs on the last hunter, and they brought him down and mauled him to death before Emil recalled them. Flush from the fast victory, the group checked the bodies and found that they had a bag of loot, holding gemstones, scrolls of ancient writing, and two bottles of unidentifiable liquid. Each hunter also had a crude scarification of a flying insect on the palms of their right hands.
A moment later however, the giant rhino beetle burst out of the basement, cracking the plaster around the door as it stormed up the steps. The beast was enormous, its body as long as two people laid end to end, and its horn rising to human head height even when the insect held its head right near the floor. The group backed away as the beetle sniffed and gored the dead orcs' bodies, then turned in several circles trampling the corpses to paste. Emil tentatively approached the giant, offering it his hand. Two nostrils at the end of its horn sniffed Emil's outstretched fist, then snuffed. The insect then turned away from the group, waddled out the front door, and flew off in a buzz of wingbeats. The group breathed a sigh of relief that the giant insect hadn't attacked them, then gathered up the swag, the net, and all three of the orkin spears from the floor. The group then descended into the basement where the beetle had been, and saw that it was basically empty except for some leaf bedding, and another ladder leading down to another root cellar. Searching there turned up a cache of silver coins, which the party pocketed before walking over to the next building and heading immediately inside.

The moment they entered, however, they saw that the sunlight hitting Scarface's back was casting a giant shadow on the far wall, much larger than anyone else's. The shadow began to move menacingly, but Petruccio was ready, throwing his bloodstained ancient spear into the thing's chest. A hole of sunlight opened around the spearpoint, now stuck in the wall, and wisps of shadow stuff drifted away from its sides near the injury. Emil threw his spear of rune-carved white oak, and Scarface threw his new orkin spear, but both weapons clattered off the wall and seemed to have no effect on the monster. Emil sent his dogs forward. One barked and growled at the creature, while the other bit at the shadow and tore away a mouthful of shadow stuff - which it immediately began spitting out. Hitch worried about what would happen if this monstrosity were ever allowed to attack, and called out in his clear high voice, summoning his magical berserkers. Cries rang out behind them - "For victory! For Valhalla!" - and four burly warriors burst into the room from behind, nearly tearing down the far wall as they hacked the shadow creature to pieces which evaporated as soon as they separated from the main body. Hitch called to the warriors to follow him, and again, they ran across the gravel to the next building and rushed inside.

There they found a great green pulsating ooze on the floor. "For the glory of Valhalla! For the glory of victory!" Three of the berserkers hacked at the slime (one fumbled) but ended up coated in the "blood" of the creature without seeming to harm it. Hitch ordered them to secure the basement, then poured oil on the ooze and lit it. Emil and the others entered the room behind Hitch in time to watch the green slime turn black and burn out, leaving an oily black slick on the floor. In the basement, they heard screams of agony that unnerved them. "Witness me! Tonight I dine in Valhalla! I die glad and glorious!" They were further unnerved when they heard a buzz of wings behind them. The giant rhino beetle landed and blocked the front door, sticking its head into the room. Worse, at the same time, three more livid green gelatinous blobs emerged from the basement stairs and began slinking toward the group! Emil turned to the beetle, and began petting its giant horn. Hitch handed out flasks of oil to Scarface and Petruccio. All three lit the wicks on their military flasks and tossed them at the creeping oozes. All three hit and burst into flame! The oozes continued slinking forward, on fire, then stopped and guttered out, leaving nasty burnt oil patches on the floor. The beetle seemed to be focusing on Emil, rather than the battle, and nuzzled the side of the young man's face with the end of its horn, making a pleasant rumbling vocalization, then backed out of the room and flew off again. The group went down to the basement, where they found the last warrior, who handed over sacks of coins before running up the stairs and disappearing. "Witness me!" The group searched the room, but found nothing more.
They returned upstairs, where they saw another giant toad, this one staring wide-eyed at the four smoldering patches of burnt slime. The shocked-looking toad turned its gaze from the floor to the party, then looked back at the floor, then back at the party, then hopped quickly away. The group gave the room a once over, but found nothing new, then returned to the house where they found the shadow and searched there as well.

Satisfied that they had cleaned out the inhabitants of another block of buildings, they returned to the orchard and related their tale to the orcs. Cheftan Emeril agreed with the group's opinion that although those buildings were now empty, they were not necessarily safe, especially since the giant rhinoceros beetle seemed to be living in one of the ruins. He also explained that the scarified fly hunters probably belonged to a gang from the far east side of the city. The leader called for his group to bring forward their latest proceeds to pay the group for their help. They had 5 gold coins, "Sorry, the bridge business has been a little slow lately," and what looked like a silver tiara. Hitch Huxley made a shocked face as he examined the tiara. He realized it wasn't silver, it was platinum, and set with several flawless pearls. The group happily accepted their payment, and bagged it before the cheftan could notice its full value, then returned the half-day's march to Lesserton.

Next time - the fate of Vodka Gimli!

2200 silver coins
95 gold coins (including 5 in payment from the Trollbridger Tribe)
5 gemstones of unknown quality
1 platinum tiara
2 scrolls with ancient writing
2 bottles filled with unknown liquid

(This comes out to 1975 gp worth of treasure, plus the magical items. Divided into 2½ shares, each share is 790 gp, meaning that Petruccio and Scarface will each want 197 for their ¼ share. Assuming that Emil Durkheim and Hitch Huxley keep the tiara for now, they have enough in cash and gemstones to pay their hirelings, but they'll either need to sell the crown, or one of them is going to have to either borrow money or write the other an IOU to settle things between them. Or who keeps the crown can figure into their negotiations about how to divide the magic items. One of the scrolls has a lot more writing on it than the other, so that may figure into their decisions about how to divvy the loot.)

Gambino (eaten by a giant toad)
5 magical berserkers (2 eaten by insects, 3 transformed into slime)

1975 from treasure
71 from the giant toad
65 from the insect swarm
30 from the Fly Hunter orcs
83 from the shadow
152 from the green slime

(This is 2376 XP total. Divided into 2½ shares, each share is 950 XP for each player, and 237 XP for each of the hirelings. In retrospect, I wonder if I only should have awarded 38 XP for the original green slime, with no additional experience awarded for fighting the berserkers who were transformed. It's something I'll try to consider the next time the sort of monster that can make copies of itself.)

(Corey is probably my most experienced player. He plays Laetoli, Beastmaster, Will, and Kerhs in my Island of the Blue Giants campaign. He also comes to the table with a lot of previous experience as a player. In chatting, I've learned that his resume includes the Red Dragon Inn chatroom, Werewolf: The Apocalypse LARPing, and the new Star Wars: Edge of the Empire game. He actually hasn't played using the B/X or ACKS rules before, but he's obviously familiar with the tactics of old-school play, as evidenced by his decisions to buy and then deploy so much lamp oil. Corey is the first player in this campaign to roll a "failed character" - the ill-fated Gambino had slightly above-average Strength and Dexterity, but the rest of his ability scores were very low, so he became a free henchman instead of a player character. I also offered Corey the option to either accept the standard starting equipment, or to roll for the chance at better or worse equipment. He got the "eunuch sorcerer" template, which paid off very well the summon berserker spell and 95 starting gold. Summon berserker comes from the ACKS Player's Companion, so in this campaign, it's possible for elves to learn that spell at random, but human casters use the shorter lists from the Core Rules. So receiving the spell in his template is pretty much the only way Hitch Huxley could learn the spell, which unarguably affected the group's tactics throughout the night. All that extra starting money paid for lanterns, a lot of military-grade lamp oil, and some other useful equipment that didn't come into play. The eunuch sorcerer is a master of intimidation, which is what let Hitch Huxley attempt to start up his own network of spies and pickpockets by screaming at a bunch of children.)

(Being able to summon magical, suicidal vikings who want to die gloriously in battle once a day certainly affected how the group played! It feels like a very powerful spell, but in a way, the effect it creates is also not very far beyond what the group could create for themselves by really spending big on their retainers. The biggest effect the berserkers have on play isn't just that the players are suddenly able to win in battle, it's that they suddenly have an incentive to pick as many fights as they can, as quickly as they can, knowing that the berserkers will vanish whether they die in combat or not. I think that combat should always take up a full exploration turn no matter how many rounds it lasts, so the "30 minute" duration - 3 exploration turns - means that he berserkers can be in two, or at most three combats before vanishing. The berserkers were one factor that let the characters win so many fights in this session. Another was the fact that the hirelings rolled really well in combat. They players were rarely surprised, won initiative almost every time, and Petruccio and Scarface both got in some impressive hits. The group might have done nearly as well, even without their magical reinforcements. A third factor leading to their success was the liberal application of flaming oil, a time-honored old-school tactic. I'm not particularly enforcing any kind of encumbrance rules, but I should think about any upper limits I want to set on how much oil a single character can carry. One thing I've been thinking about recently is how, for a rule to matter at the table, it has to be simple enough to remember and enforce regularly. Any kind of complex rule just gets replaced with the ultimate alternate rule, "ignore this." You would think that making movement rates and encumbrance matter would call for more detail, but I'm thinking it might call for more simplicity instead. Using the character sheet itself as a reminder or enforcement mechanism probably helps a lot too. Anyway, the other effect that the berserkers had - beyond me getting to do a lot of warboy viking voices - was that their deaths really heightened the tension in both fights where they died. Pitiful Gambino getting eaten by a toad was a little scary, but it really freaked my players out when the insect swarm skeletonized one of the vikings, or when they could hear the whole group of them screaming in agony from the basement after they touched the green slime. The monsters this week were relatively dangerous for 2-3 HD creatures, but still - they had unusual attacks and invulnerabilities, but what they didn't have was that many hit points. Showing the monsters killing the strongest warriors the team has had on their side so far really amplified their appearance of threat and difficulty.)

(For the most part, I had this session's encounters mapped out ahead of time. It was a nice slow simmer of tension that the first block of buildings they entered was completely empty, but the dice decided that, not me, and if they'd gone somewhere else first, they'd have found whatever was there. Lesserton & Mor had me roll a d4 to determine how many buildings were in a group, a d% to determine the size of each buildings, a d2 to decide if there was a basement, another d2 to decide how deep, a d20 to determine if each building was occupied, and then a d6 to determine what kind of occupants. I also followed the Labyrinth Lord dungeon stocking advice to give each empty basement a 15% chance of containing unprotected treasure on the lowest level. I'm glad I took care of it ahead of time, because I think it would have been too much time watching me roll dice if I'd tried to do it during play. When the players first asked the orcs if they'd seen anything dangerous in the area, I just rolled on the wandering monster table, expected that whatever I got would be the next thing they encountered when they finally came upon a wanderer. The fact that I got the insect swarm - which was in the next group of buildings they went to - was a happy coincidence.)

(I was surprised that the fleeting overnight appearance of the giant rhinoceros beetle from the wandering monster table grabbed my player's attention so much. First, they were afraid of the beetle as a threat, then it kind of became a sympathetic figure, and even a potential future ally. I rolled a d12 to determine the clock direction the beetle flew off in overnight, so it ending up in one of the remaining hexes of unexplored buildings was a coincidence, although a nice one. The group of orcs I'd rolled up as the occupants for that building were described as "fly hunters," so it made sense that they'd be hunting the beetle, and since I knew it flew to that hex, it made sense that the reason the orcs were in that building was because they'd cornered the beetle in the basement. The second time the beetle showed up, it's because the group was set to encounter a wandering monster, and the result on the table was roaming orcs. Since they'd just beaten a group of roaming orcs, I decided that meant the beetle showed up instead. The beetle becoming affectionate was the result of Emil Durkheim rolling high on the 2d6 reaction rolls. The beetle flew off overnight in the first place because of its reaction roll, and the giant toad that showed up after they killed the slime kept on hopping for the same reason. Lesserton & Mor recommends that neutral reactions in the ruins are likely to result in the wanderer giving the party their space unless they make trouble, which I think is good advice. Some combat may be unavoidable - although you can run from it! - but not every encounter has to turn into a fight unless the players themselves are feeling bloodthirsty.)

(Besides the encounters with the rhino beetle, the other really unplanned event of the evening was the size of the payout for investigating those buildings. Before the start of the session, I knew a couple things. I knew that young Petey was going to change his name and become much more interested in Imperial history and culture. And I knew that the bridge orcs were going to move into the orchard, adopt the wild dogs, and start thinking about hiring the players to check out the buildings. I hadn't thought much about what kind of payment they'd have, so I decided that they would just offer up one standard share of orc treasure from the Labyrinth Lord rulebook. I knew from stocking the buildings that this could result in a very variable payout - just look at all the magic items the fly hunters were carrying! - but I hadn't seriously considered the possibility that it would amount to all that much. So imagine my surprise when, at the end of the session, I had the players get out their d%s so we could roll up the orc treasure together, and they end up rolling a 1500 gp item of jewelry! For all the fighting, and all the basement hordes they uncovered, the players had cleared less than 1000XP for the evening up to that point - still good compared to their first ventures! - and with one roll of the dice, they end up closing in on 2500. Petrucio and Scarface are definitely promoted to 1st level fighters at this point, and even with their quarter shares, they've got enough experience to be on a path to 2nd level, and enough cash to really get into trouble back in town.)

(Speaking of town, at the moment, I'm not sure how I'm going to handle Hitch Huxley's sneakernet of child sneakthieves. The easiest solution would simply be to make the kids another source of rumors. Another obvious option would be to roll on some kind of "town events" or "campaign events" table, but unfortunately, Lesserton & Mor doesn't supply one of those. So far, I've avoided having players roll on a town events table because they keep going out adventuring. I conceptualize town events as being like wandering monsters - as a potential hazard that threatens you when you spend downtime in the city. Because I haven't tried to have the players roll on the town events table yet, I hadn't noticed that I don't even have one. Lesserton does have a table to determine if attempts to search for adventure are successful, unsuccessful, or result in a mishap, along with a list of the potential mishaps. What it does not have is an obvious list of occurrences for a successful search. In the Shadow of Mount Rotten has a "what happened to the tribe?" table that might work, although it's intended to be campaign events affecting stone-age orc tribes, not dark-age human neighborhoods, so I'll have to see if I can make it work. Otherwise, I will probably try to consult some of my other gaming materials to see if I can find something serviceable. I've been thinking about what you need to run a successful campaign, and I think that a random table of hirelings and a random table of town events should probably make the list of necessities. I think anytime one of Hitch Huxley's teams suffers a mishap, that pair of kids is probably going to retire. Long term, if he wants to make himself the head of a criminal network, he's going to need to hire some actual criminals. There could also potentially be some repercussions from press-ganging a group of children into a life in intrigue, but I'll let the dice decide that. If Scarface or Petruccio get into any trouble carousing, the newsies will probably bring word of it back to the party.)

(The other thing I'm not completely sure how to handle is Emil's interactions with the giant rhinoceros beetle. As a shaman, Emil has the power to take on animals as hirelings. I think that places most insects off-limits, but that's not really my main concern here. The problem is that the thing has 12 HD. I feel like it would be out of the question that a human NPC who was nearing the apex of wealth and worldly power would agree to let themselves be hired on as the personal assistant to a novice adventurer, particularly not on any kind of long-term basis. On the other hand, I think that if the beetle shows up again, and if Emil gets another good reaction roll, it should maybe follow him around until the end of the session - or until it fails morale, but I doubt that will happen since it should take a lot to scare something this dangerous. Of course, if Emil rolls badly, it might also try to kill him and his friends - but it would have to be a pretty bad roll since he's fairly charismatic, and I think he gets an additional reaction bonus with animals. So the issues to decide become whether the beetle is only wandering or if it has established a lair, what the chances are of encountering it inside its lair if they visit that, and what the chances are of encountering it as a wandering monster. I feel like encountering it again should be more likely than simply rolling "giant rhinoceros beetle" on the encounter table again - there's only a 1% chance of that happening - but I'm not sure how much more. I'm tempted to say that there's a 2-in-6 chance of finding it in its lair, and that there's a 1-in-6 chance of each wandering monster turning out to be their beetle, but I'm not sure if that's too high or just right. I suppose the only way to find out for sure is to try. And honestly, wandering monster encounters haven't happened that often so far. Anything lower than a 1-in-36 chance per in-game-hour of encountering the thing, and it will probably never happen, and that's not what I want either. I don't want a certainty of finding it again, but I do want the chance of it happening at random to be large enough to be meaningful, and 1-in-600 per in-game-hour just isn't large enough.)

(One final consideration. I've been running each session as 1 week of game time. I wonder if I should be incorporating a week of downtime between outings however. The pros of doing this would be a more realistic adventuring schedule, so Emil Durkheim, for example, would have gone on 3 adventures in a month-and-a-half, not 3 adventures in three weeks. Another pro would be that if I did want to incorporate town events, the week of downtime would be the sensible opportunity for them to happen. The con of allowing for downtime - at least in this campaign so far - is that Vodka Gimli is currently set to make her first save against death at the end of next session. Stephanie, Vodka's player, hasn't been available for the last couple sessions, but might be free next time, and able to take a proactive role in saving her character's life. If I were letting two weeks pass each session, then Vodka Gimli would have had to survive one save already, and would be about to make another, all without Stephanie having much chance to get her character any medical treatment. I'm not sure how much weight to give this con, however, since this feels like a unique problem, not a common occurrence.)