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.)

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