Thursday, May 31, 2018

Session Report - Descend into Brimstone - 20 May 2018

Archibald (innkeeper, 1st level Thief)
played by American John

Louis Black (politician, 1st level Warrior)
played by Petra

Nell (innkeeper, 1st level Warrior)
played by Todd

Session 3
A trainload of fur trappers passed through town, bringing along a barbarous Canadian holiday from the savage northern hinterlands during their stopover. Axes were thrown, foul-smelling fermented beaver meat was consumed, gravy was poured onto potatoes, and pretty much every drop of alcohol in town got drunk.

The Canadians are gone, back on their train, bound for who knows where, but the whole town is dragging in the aftermath of the celebration. Seems like half the damn town is laid up with one thing or another - hangovers, alcohol poisoning, beaver poisoning, gravy poisoning, and alcohol withdrawal while we wait for a new shipment from back east.

Meriwether, Eldon, Ethel, and Blaze were all hiding out in the cabin nursing unbearable hangovers. Sweet Nell had a pretty bad headache, but she felt up to another trip down into the mine. Louis Black had a sweet new beaver-fur hat, and bragging rights after drinking a handful of fur trappers under the table.

Archibald, Louis, and Nell decided to continue their search for the demon shrine the Freemasons had found and the Mexican police had been searching for. Louis loaned Archibald some money to help him buy thieves' tools, and Archibald repaid the favor immediately by forging lift tickets for all three of them. The were pretty fine craftsmanship, but the elevator attendant in the Gallows barely even looked at them, only glancing down for a moment before going back to holding a glass of cold water against his throbbing forehead.
The group decided to take a slightly different path than they had before, to avoid the high-gravity area where their friend Daniel and Officers Benicio and Shia all died. They traveled northwest into a region with enormous natural tunnels, where the gravity felt lighter and put a spring in their step. The group found another waterfall, and were attacked by a giant centipede that had been drinking from the pool. Louis drew his elephant gun and annihilated the creature with a single shot. Nell complained about her headache, and when she went to drink from the pool, found a statuette in the catch basin. It was a carving of a bat in Aztec style, with Aztec writing on the base. They wrapped up the statue and decided to show it to Meriwether, since his service in the Mexican-American War had seemingly familiarized him with some of the art from the region.

They continued northwest, arriving in an area of medium mining tunnels. They crossed another stream, possibly a tributary of the semi-circular stream they had found running around the northern side of the Maw. They also found an entrance to one of the Yellow Jacket Mining Company's claimed mine tunnels. The sound of insects chittering, omnipresent on the entire level, seemed somehow louder from inside the mining tunnel. They decided to pass it by.

They turned north, and entered another area of huge natural tunnels. This area also had increased gravity, and Archibald thought it might border the other high-gravity region they encountered before. It seemed there might be no way to enter the northwest quadrant without passing through an exhausting slog in high gravity. They found a pool with stagnant, cloudy water, which they declined to drink from, and found a mule wearing Yellow Jacket livery, with a pick and shovel strapped to its sides. They decided they would return the mule to the mining company in exchange for a finder's fee. With the lost animal following, they continued north.

As they traveled north, they passed into an area of man-made corridors, the floors and walls covered with stone tiles. They found an unusual doorway, one decorated with images of ants and a woman with the lower body of an ant. They decided this must be the shrine, and prepared to enter. Archibald the thief recognized that one of the tiles had a false surface, and underneath was a bear trap. It took him several tries with his crowbar to trigger it safely.

Unfortunately, while he was disarming the trap, they were approached from inside the shrine by a giant soldier ant. The ant bit Archibald in the back, wounding him badly. All three friends fired on the ant, but in the confusion, none of their shots harmed it. The ant attacked again, tearing into Archibald's gut and sending him tumbling to the ground bleeding. Louis used his magic cat gauntlets, sounding a musical note that visibly rippled through the air like a pebble tossed in a pond, lifting the ant off the ground and causing its carapace to fracture. The fight continued until Louis managed to stab the ant in the chink between its head and thorax, causing a gout of fluid to burst from the wound. The ant was still alive, but its morale failed; it ran past the group and down the hall.

Nell and Louis rolled over Archibald's body to see if he might still be alive though unconscious, but a look at the wound and the lake of blood left on the floor showed that he was truly dead. They tied his body to the back of the donkey, and returned south into the area of high gravity, deciding to leave further exploration of the shrine for another day. They passed through the enormous natural tunnels without incident, but their time in the mine and the difficulty of traversing this area began to fatigue them.

Nell and Louis force-marched the rest of their journey, although neither of them suffered injury as a result. As they passed the Yellow Jacket mine, a worker ant emerged from the mine and quivered its antennae at them, but they hurried ahead of it, and the creature didn't follow.

After passing through the final easy passage traveling southwest, they returned to the lip of the Maw and made their way back to the elevator. The elevator operator was surprised to see the donkey. Nell and Louis hadn't heard the news before now, but Yellow Jacket had a whole team of miner's trapped down here somewhere, and this donkey was the first sign of any of them in a week. The elevator operator put them in contact with the mining company, which paid for the return of the donkey, and offered them $50 a head for each miner they could manage to return alive.

Nell had other ideas though. She wanted to take the lump of demon ore and trade it to someone who might be able to magic Archibald's body back to life, or at least back to unlife to go to work as some kind of zombie servitor. Louis backed away slowly from the mad look in Nell's eyes, and explained he might have to sit that part out, as he would likely be busy making social visits to his numerous mistresses and bastard children. Meriwether seemed surprisingly open to the idea though. Apparently he saw this kind of thing all the time when he was in the army. He was particularly interested in the statue they'd found. He recognized it as Camazotz, the so-called Death Bat, a likely enemy of the demon Hezzemuth.

Canadian beaver-fur hat
$10 finder's fee for return of the Yellow Jacket donkey
contract with Yellow Jacket Mining Company for return of lost miners
statuette of Camazotz the Death Bat (worth $90, or usable as a holy symbol by a worshiper of Camazotz)

Archibald (killed by giant ant)

1 XP for out-drinking the raucous Canadians (Louis only)
1 XP for forging lift-tickets (Archibald only)
1 XP for giant centipede encounter
1 XP for rescuing donkey
1 XP for bear trap
2 XP for giant soldier ant encounter
1 XP for fleeing giant worker ant encounter
2 XP for negotiating with Yellow Jacket
4 XP for exploring four new hexes
Total: 12 XP for Sweet Nell, 13 XP for Louis Black

Running graveyard (and session of demise)
Archibald the 1st level Thief (3), Officer Shia "the Beef" the NPC Mexian police-officer (2), Daniel the plumber (2), Officer Benicio "the Bull" the NPC Mexican police-officer (2), Luther the factory-hand (2), Jed the miner (1), Henry the huckster (1), Lilly the clerk (1), Bill the livery-stabler (1), Harry the butcher (1), Rusty the auctioneer (1)

This week's random campaign event was "Sickness." The reason I was hosting this game, instead of playing in my regular Sunday game, was because two of my fellow players in the regular game are Canadian, and planned to spend the Saturday beforehand celebrating Victoria Day, aka May Two-Four, which traditionally involves throwing axes, eating beaver tails with maple syrup, and consuming celebratory quantities of alcohol. (Or so they told me, the whole thing sounds really made up.) My description of the event was meant to be poking a bit of gentle fun at my friends, not to indicate any serious anti-Canadian sentiment. 

I'm really enjoying using a random campaign event generator each session. It certainly helps give a sense of the campaign world being alive and separate from the players' direct control. Having two weeks of downtime between the start of each expedition is working pretty well so far, part of me wonders if I should up it to a month. If I did, I also wonder if there should be separate lists of events by season, to make spring, summer, winter, fall feel different from one another. Part of me also likes the idea of adding in something like Hill Cantons' "chaos index" so that the campaign world responds - not to the players' explicit desires to what should happen next, but instead to how much trouble and disorder they cause. That's not really necessary, and not worth the work at the moment. But one idea I like from Black Powder, Black Magic is that the War in Hell somehow mirrored the Civil War. If killing in the mortal realm somehow causes (or is caused by?) fighting between demons in Hell, then the players leaving a trail of bodies behind them seems like it should carry a risk of unleashing some kind of metaphysical chaos.

Louis continued to be the MVP of combat, obliterating their first enemy with a single shot, and dealing enough damage to the giant soldier ant to trigger its morale roll. The soldier ant is the most dangerous thing they've faced so far, and if the second attack had been on anyone but Archibald, they might've all come out alive. Unfortunately for Archie, I've been rolling the dice to decide who gets attacked, and his number came up twice in a row. I'm glad I remembered to check morale for the ant, and I'm going to try to remember to continue checking it for groups of insects in the future. Thinking about this combat made me wonder if I should have been doing reaction rolls for the insects this whole time. The soldier ant was guarding a demon shrine, so of course it attacked, but the other insects they've encountered so far might not need to be automatically hostile. It works nicely to create a funnel-like environment for zero-level characters, but leveled characters probably deserve the chance to get through some encounters without needing to fight. I could decide to do that going forward, or I could decide that there's a good reason the insects have all been hostile so far, and that if the players address that reason, then the hostility will stop. I'm leaning toward the second reason so that the change in their behavior will be linked to some goal the players accomplished, rather than me just changing my ruling for no good (in-game) reason.

The players have found both the sites I prepped so far for level 1, so I may need to prepare another "point of interest," although it sounds like their next adventure in Brimstone will be out in the field, rather than down in the mine (more on that in a second). Playing through like this, the feel of the game is not quite what I want it to be. First, it feels very open. In principle, each hex is supposed to represent a tangled maze of tunnels, which is why it takes an hour to find the way though. In practice, the players walk in, encounter whatever there is to be seen, and then walk out in whatever direction they choose. It makes me wonder if I should be using a mechanic more like Papers & Pencils' "flux space", where the players enter, declare which exit they wish to try to find, roll for encounters, and risk getting lost each time, until they map it successfully, at which point they can navigate more easily. In demonstration, it seems like this should work out. This could be combined with making some of the hexes complexes of rooms (4, 8, 12) instead of flux spaces. This would likely make each hex feel less like a single open room and more like a labyrinth of tunnels. The cost of making this change though would be to slow the game down considerably. Alternatively, I could lean into the idea of it being very open down there, making it less like a real mine, and more like a hollow earth / lost world environment.

Second, the level feels very empty. The random tables have succeeded in placing a single winding stream, fed by multiple waterfalls, a couple dead-end hexes that are cut off on five of their six sides, and a couple chasms that block travel in one direction. However, in each hex there's only a 2-in-100 chance of a demon shrine appearing as a complication, and a 1-in-20 chance of a "point of interest". (Since features are rolled twice for each hex, I guess this becomes closer to 10% rather than 5%, which makes for about 3 points of interest per level, on average. That maybe sounds alright, but the thing about random tables is that in small environments you never get the average result - you get "too many" repeats of some things and no appearance at all of others.) These are the only mini-dungeon-like structures. There are also chances to find caves, caverns, empty mines, and faction-controlled mine entrances, but so far I haven't been treating those as mini-locations - although maybe I should be. Writing a small random generator to create explorable mine-shafts would create definite mappable locations (and give a logical place to find some of the treasures and have some of the encounters). Making caves/caverns real locations might prevent each hex from feeling like it's just an open space.

Third, the movement rate is a little awkward. (Or it would become awkward if I changed anything else.) The characters get a number of movement points which are equal to the average of their Stamina scores. I've been treating this just as 12. Moving through each hex costs 2 movement points (unless it has high gravity, which makes it 4, or low gravity, which makes it 0). This is just about enough to go in, come back, and get out in one session, with a chance, but not a certainty, of forced marching to make the last couple hexes. On the one hand, this freedom of movement lets me get through every session in a couple hours. On the other hand, it contributes to the feeling of openness. Getting to move 12 spaces, instead of 6, would give pretty much total freedom of movement, which would likely make the problem worse - unless it was combined with flux space. Combining flux space with the current movement rates might slow the game to a true crawl and make camping mandatory. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but if you goal is to get the players in, back, and out in a couple hours, having to talk your way though several nights of camping could be too much of a slowdown. 12 moves a day, combined with flux space, and with a few more obstacles that limit crossing into whichever hex you chose, might be able to make the whole thing feel like more of a maze, and less like a giant open plain, a single enormous cavern that contains the entire level. Ruins of the Undercity and Mad Monks of Kwantoom are probably decent guides for how to make location generators for making caves, mines, shrines, points of interest.

I'm going to continue to playing this as written for now. I want to be sure I understand what I'm tinkering with before I try taking it apart and putting it back together. The issue I most need to think about before my next game is what sort of quest to send them on the resurrect Archibald (and what sort of quest-giver will accept their demon ore in return). I suppose that if I want to play a game that alternates between default underground exploration and player-driven above-ground questing, that I need to think about how I want to design the quests. I know that when I played in Carl's game, he sent us on several, but I have no idea how he came up with them. If I had some kind of random quest generator for this game, I guess it would generate some people who are capable of trading demon ore for magic items, along with some seeds of ideas of what task they want done in order to broker the exchange. (A list of magic items would be nice, but not really necessary, since there are so many out there.) You could use this generator a few times to generate rumors, so that players who don't have a goal in mind know what sorts of things are possible, and what treasures they could go for if they have nothing better to do with their ore. You could also use it each time the players propose a quest to accomplish a goal of their own choosing, to help figure out how they're going to accomplish it. I would also want the generator to have a chance of making quests that are recursive - to do the favor for one person, you need something from someone else, who wants a favor of their own to provide it. That structure is common enough in fairy tales, and I experience it once in Carl's game; it's very satisfying when multiple quests come to fruition in a single session. That's far beyond my needs for right now. Right now I just need one quest for next session, whenever that will be. But I mean, to play this kind of game consistently, week after week, a generator would help. Yoon Suin or Stars Without Number would probably be a good role model for that kind of situation generator.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Dungeon of Signs' Characters I Want to Play (part 1)

The Dungeon of Signs blog has officially stopped updating. Which makes this a good time to revisit some of the author's, Gus L's, best ideas, or at least the ideas I liked best. This is something I could, perhaps should, have done sooner. This first post will be about character creation ideas from the Dungeon of Signs.

Most of these ideas come from Gus L's HMS Apollyon campaign, which was probably his longest-running series of posts. He also wrote ideas for the Anomalous Subsurface Environment, an Underdark exploration campaign, and his take on OD&D, the Fallen Empire - all of which I'll talk about later - but most of what he wrote was for campaigns set in a megadungeon-sized ship, lost in some extradimensional sea (including a high-class fop-slaughter campaign that I'm especially fond of). HMS Appollyon is one of the OSR settings that's inspired me most, and it's one of the closest matches to my own aesthetic, alongside the original out-of-print Engines & Empires, Heriticwerk's Wermspittle, Tales of the Grotesque & Dungeonesque's now-deleted pre-2013 gothic campaign ideas, and Into the Odd's Electric Bastionland, all set in a kind of fantastical, urban, long-19th-century rather than the Dark-Age-Medieval-Renaissance pastiche that forms the default D&D setting. It occurs to me as I write this that I haven't done much in this aesthetic in some time. (It's also not lost on me that two of my inspirations no longer exist on the internet, and exist for me at all anymore as a handful of downloads and memories.) The endings of things always feel melancholy.

Let's start with fighter skills. In this system, fighters can only use weapons they're skilled with, and as they improve their skills, they both fight better and learn new kinds of attacks. Later, I believe Gus L switched to a system that combines X-in-6 skills with X-out-of-6 tiered abilities, so some or all of what he wrote here may have been reincorporated into the tier system, but this is a starting point.

For me, when I first saw this, there was something revelatory about the idea that a character improving their skill in something didn't just become more likely to succeed, they also gained new abilities related to that thing. At that point, the only other model I'd seen was D&D 3.0/3.5, where characters could take feats that lets them use their skills to do new things, such as tacking the Tracking feat to use the Wilderness Survival skill to follow tracks. In retrospect, Gus L's approach reminds me a little of Tekumel, where a warrior starts out knowing how to use spears, maces. and axes, and learns to use swords, slings, bolas, etc by gaining levels. But at the time, this was my first exposure to the idea, and it expanded my ideas about what was possible in this game.

Ship's steward by Gus L of Dungeon of Signs
Thieves on the HMS Apollyon follow a code like the Vory, living by stealing, refusing to do honest work or cooperate with law-enforcement, and they all have tattoos documenting their careers. Alongside thieves are assassins, dirty fighters, "murderous thieves,pretty much the most antisocial character class one can play." Specialist characters can become engineers, who learn to use grenades, fix machines, and pilot "boiler plate", which is robotic/cybernetic armor somewhere between the original Iron Man suit and steampunk mecha. Gus L's original version of thief skills include weapons and armor like the fighter, but instead of tactics, fortitude, and agility, they have the option to learn the full array of typical thieving skills, alongside business skills like appraisal, wilderness skills like animal training, and magic skills like hedge magic and huckster faith. His revised version of thief skills is intended to work alongside the tiered-ability system I mentioned earlier.

The idea that D&D thieves could be modeled on specific, historical real-world criminals was a new idea when I first read this, and alongside Land of Nod pointing out that D&D's magic-user spells are based on real world occult beliefs, and that D&D's cleric spells are based on miracles described in the Bible, it opened up my own ideas about how to use real-world ideas to inspire gaming material. Thieves as Vory is still my favorite version of the classic "thieves guild" idea, too.

Clerics in Gus L's games don't just have a few spells determined by their deity or domain, they have all their spells determined that way. Much like wizards in the GLOG, each deity's clerics gets their own spell list. Actually, if I understand correctly, they each get three spell lists, since each deity gets three avatars, and each avatar offers a list of spells. Gus L's first take on this was for clerics who worship animal-gods or primal-gods. These spells were mostly reskins of existing spells, a spell to detect secret doors becomes "Sight into the Hidden World," and a spell to summon a familiar becomes "Avatar of the Great Ones." His next spell list was for clerics who worship rats, and this was the first time he wrote using the three-avatar approach. These are also mostly new spells, mostly based on rat-like abilities. "Speak with Rats" is basically a more limited version of a spell to talk to animals, but something like "Insignificance Charm," is more unique to rat priests. He wrote three posts with spells for clerics in his HMS Apollyon setting who worship the leviathan, clerics who worship a force of primal chaos that threatens to sink their city and drown the residents. The first post was about the whirlpool as an avatar for the leviathan, the second was about the brine witch avatar, and the third about the leviathan's devouring maw as a kind of synecdochal avatar for the whole beast.

Gus L imagined lawful clerics too. He thought clerics on the Apollyon might worship the ship itself. Likewise, in this Fallen Empire setting, he imagined clerics who worshiped the empire, which is really very similar to real-world kingdoms where the king is worshiped as a god. He also had a larger vision for the religious landscape in his HMS Apollyon setting, and house rules for clerical turning power.

Imperial cultist by Gus L of Dungeon of Signs

Illusionists in Gus L's games are halfway between wizards and thieves. He also allowed magic-users to specialize as necromancers (not surprising, given his interest in the undead), and as alchemists. As he did for fighters and thieves, he wrote a list of skills for magic-users. He thought it was important to reskin the "magic missile" spell so that each caster manifested their power in a different way, and he wrote a similar reskin list for the "lightning bolt" spell.

He also wrote a more detailed reskin for the "floating disc" spell, wherein an earth elemental takes the form of a bronze frog, swallows up your treasure, hops along beside you for the spell's duration, and then vomits it back out onto the floor. It's an evocative image for a spell that otherwise bores me, and it raises an important idea. If your spellcasters are using Vancian magic and can only memorize one copy of each spell, then a variant version of an existing spell becomes a valuable treasure, because it becomes a way to cast the same spell twice. Even a relatively mundane spell can become somewhat interesting when you describe it well and when scarcity lends it value. (Needless to say, "floating disc" also becomes more valuable if you track encumbrance in some way, or if you find treasures too big to carry by human hands, both of which were features of Gus L's campaigns, at least according to his play reports.)

The HMS Apollyon setting includes a handful of monstrous character classes. The first is the merrowman, a kind of catfish-like humanoid. Merrowmen started out as a monstrous NPC faction, but Gus L later decided to make them playable characters. The notable thing about merrowmen is that they're biomancers. They grow weapons and armor out of dead bodies, rather than manufacturing them by conventional means, and while these are usually of standard quality, he hints that they might occasionally grow powerful magical items this way. The other cold-blooded, magic-using, anthropomorphic animal class on the Apollyon is the frogling. Instead of grotesque body horror magic, though, froglings are elementalists.

I love the idea that while there are both fish-people and frog-people, they are totally different from one another, almost seeming to come out of two different sf/f genres. Merrowmen embody some kind of New Weird, biopunk, body-horror aesthetic, while froglings are more like young-adult, high-fantasy Pokemon catchers. The minigame of raising the rank of your pet elemental by having it defeat and eat wild elementals feels very videogamey, but in a good way. Gus L's descriptions of the wild elementals aboard the HMS Apollyon is also one of my favorite things he's written. Consider just this sample description of two variant types of water elementals:

"Abyss - Strange and powerful elementals formed from the highly compressed waters of the deep sea. Considerably denser and stronger than normal water elementals, any creature captured within them will be crushed by the terrible pressure that their waters contain. Weed - Elementals that have taken in enough earth essence to spawn life within themselves and are full of algae and weeds. The plant life perhaps links these creatures more closely to the material plane, but as a practical matter it allows them to choke and entangle in addition to the normal pummeling and drowning attacks of a water elemental."

Reading this makes me feel like there should be some classes that act like Pokemon hunters. Those games are popular for a reason, and having a character who catches and raises pet monsters creates a source of motivation that's necessary if you want to have player-driven sandbox play. Having a minigame to increase the ranks, or tiers, of some ability that's separate from level progression seems to be very typical of Gus L's vision for D&D. Also typical is the way that merrowmen have three subclasses, one warrior-like, one thief-like, and one mage-like. This is something that shows up again and again in his writing, including the last character class he posted, for playing vikings. Another innovation, and one I also like, is Gus L's way of handling ability score modifiers. Starting from AD&D forward, D&D games have included paired +2/-2 modifiers for non-human ability scores. Instead, Gus L recommends that for abilities where the non-human is likely worse than humans, they roll 2d6+1 instead of 3d6, for abilities where they are very average roll 2d6+3, and for abilities where they are likely to excel compared to humans, they roll 2d6+6. It's a different way of handling the same idea, but one I rather like, especially because it keeps all scores within the 3-18 range.

Merrowman by Gus L of Dungeon of Signs

Frogling by Gus L of Dungeon of Signs

The other non-human character classes Gus L makes available are the passenger, a kind of nobility that inherits its status and right to receive service from its ancestors first-class tickets back when the Apollyon was an earth-bound vessel. Since then, they've intermarried with demons and other supernatural entities to maintain their stature and their wealth, making them a bit like elves or tieflings. If there's going to be a noble character class, it seems like there should be a servant class as well, and there is: flying monkeys. I don't quite know why or how Gus L chose flying monkeys to be livery-wearing bellhops aboard his ship, but they're a perfect fit, although I suspect they make better hirelings than player characters. The final option is the draugr, an undead class.

Flying monkey by Gus L of Dungeon of Signs

In addition to his character classes, Gus L also wrote a random starting appearance table for characters on the Apollyon (who might be drawn from seafarers from many eras, on many worlds) and rules for gaining and using reputation (see what I mean about minigames to increase tiers/ranks being typical in his work?) Driving home the diverse origins of Apollyon residents is a d100 table for hirelings and their personality quirks, as well as another one especially for passenger-class characters, and rules for buying a dog.

While Gus L's own non-human character classes help to define their setting, he also wrote interpretations of horrible halflings, horrible dwarves, and horrible elves - all ostensibly for the Anomalous Subsurface Environment, but they're so evocative they're likely to color your view of the awful demihumans in any game you play. I especially like his take on dwarves as a society of debt-prisoners, ruled over by the few, rich, debt-holder dwarves. Why are dwarves gruff, surly workaholics who're obsessed with gold and jewels? According to Gus L, it's because they're desperate to pay off their hereditary debt. I even like his account of why dwarves have beards. The few debt-holder dwarves are all clean-shaven, but if any debtor dwarf so much as trims his own beard, it's likely to get a kind of "if you've got time to lean, you've got time to clean," reaction from his debt-holder, including some kind of bump of interest rate, balloon payment, or other reprisal.

The final character contributions I want to talk about from the Dungeon of Signs are Gus L's meditations on character competence and character death. The two are related. Old versions of D&D are highly lethal - hit points are few, combat is deadly, skills are unlikely to succeed, hazards are save or die, and in an open world, there's nothing but good information gathering preventing players from wandering into a situation far beyond their ability to handle. Characters will die, often. How should the players, and the judge, understand the meaning of that situation? My preferred answer is slapstick black comedy, but Gus L offers a different answer:

"The idea that dying to everyday horrible like banditry, bar fights, ergot madness, food poisoning and disease is commonplace suggests that dying to poisoned spikes and the rusty weapons of the unquiet dead is at least somewhat glamorous and perhaps a better fate then what awaits characters who decide to stay at home. ... The first level fighter is a 'veteran' - a warrior and slayer of men on distant dusty battlefields, hard to frighten, adept with tactical stratagem, knowledgeable about ambush and survival. The first level thief knows every dire mechanism that the merchant houses use to protect their wealth, has a fair grasp of standard poisons with the danger sense and ferocity of a startled alley cat. Magic-users are learned, filled with powerful secrets and observant and clerics blessed and protected by divine favor.  Yet the hazards of the underworld are far more dangerous then back alley brawls with hardened toughs, and the depths monstrous strangeness far more terrifying then breaking the final desperate shield wall of a band of sea raiders pursued back to their longship. The alternative is to view the characters as complete incompetents, weak willed, unskilled at the arts they profess and incapable of basic survival without specific player input. ... One must take the player's word that their characters are not incompetent wastrels and act accordingly."

Of course, all of this isn't advice for avoiding character death, not really. It's advice for avoiding capricious character death as a result of "killer GM-ing," but the in old-style D&D character deaths will happen. A lot. What Gus L has is not advice for avoiding character death, it's advice for making sense of it, making it fair, accepting it. He has three good articles about it. In one sense, they're just articles about what to do when your pawn gets captured in fantasy chess. But in another sense, they're articles about how to deal with loss, about what to do when some part of your shared imaginary world, something that exists only so long as you keep talking about it together, what to do when that comes to an end.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Those GOD-DAMN Bird People in Scarabae

I was able to play one final session in Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque's online Scarabae campaign last year.

After this game, I picked up a new shift at work, which prevented me from playing anymore online games during the Scarabae timeslot. Also sometime after this game, the referee, Jack, renamed Scarabae "Umberwell", and he's been posting a lot of new ideas and hosting a lot of new games in the renamed city.

I harbor some hope that I'll get a chance to venture back to the weird city of Umberwell-Scarabae in the future, but for now, this post is a swansong.

At the end of Travita's previous adventure in Scarabae, Yuriko, the adopted daughter of her tiefling "odd jobs" broker Koska, was kidnapped by anti-city cultists called the Children of Fimbul.

Traviata may have been experiencing a bit of an identity crisis over her previous failures to sufficiently punish "the guilty" (basically, other, more successful artists) but the other half of her life's mission was to protect "the innocent" (herself, and other people who remind her of herself) - and Koska's daughter Yuriko certainly qualified! So together with her previous companions, Khajj the minotaur cleric, Crumb the kenku artificer, and Viktor the dragonborn sorcerer, and a new ally, Dr Aleister Whiffle the human fighter, Traviata boarded a steamship bound for Zarubad, the trading port nearest the jungle where the Children of Fimbul are believed to be holed up with Yuriko.

Zarubad proved to be quite different from the close, dark, dirty streets of Scarabae. Traviata had passed from a city where it seemed to always be night (or at least draped in impenetrable fog) to a city bathed in sunlight, the hot glow like being fixed in the opera's limelight, the wide streets a crowded riot of colored fabrics and flowers, the air thick with the scent of spices and sweating bodies.

In an attempt to get at much free swag as possible of Koska's dime prepare for their upcoming expedition into the jungle, the group split up in the market and began shopping and listening for rumors. The jungles south of Zarubad were supposedly full of biting insects spreading a disease called "monkey fever" so Khajj and Aleister bough gourds full of liquid insect repellent, and Traviata, retaining her sense of civility, purchased cones of incense she was certain would keep her safe. Crumb heard rumors of an undead paladin haunting the jungle, once charged with defending his god's temple, but cursed after abandoning his duty. Traviata heard about an ancient lost city somewhere in a basin or crater, allegedly filled with magic, which she thought would be a likely hiding spot for the Children of Fimbul, if they could find it.

Unfortunately, no matter how many maps they bought, every drawing seemed to disagree with all the others. The local guides likewise had nothing but ill-words for one another, so the group hired the most self-promoting specimen, a young woman named Salome, who was only too happy to tell them that all the other guards were frauds, charlatans, and thieves out to rob them of their wages. Traviata took an instant liking to the young woman and trusted her implicitly. On Salome's advice, they finished shopping by buying a canoe, a barrel of water, tents and mosquito netting, and a few other camping supplies, and finally set out into the jungle.

Collectively, the group decided to take the western branch of the river that led into the jungle. It was rumored to go deeper than its twin, and Salome claimed that it led all the way to a depression where lobster people lived. Traviata thought this "depression" sounded an awful lot like the "basin" she knew they should be headed towards, so it was decided. In less than a day on the water, they passed into the jungle itself, and as they did, the sky went dark from the canopy overhead, and the air filled with the sounds of frogs, insects, monkeys. On the third day, Khajj and Traviata both had good luck while fishing, supplementing their dry (though spicy and flavorful) rations.

On the sixth day down the river, they found a clearing that looked like an abandoned campsite. They found evidence of recent digging and dug it back up, finding a cache containing folded wooden tables and chairs, perhaps left by someone planning to return later. On the seventh day they found a more permanent campsite ... or rather, they found the remains of a more permanent campsite, since the place had been burned to the ground, with nothing but the scorched shells of cabins and long-buildings remaining. They were about to return to their canoes when Khajj spotted a statue he was sure had religious significance - a giant image of a man carrying a crocodile on his back. He was intrigued, but when he asked Salome, she knew nothing about either campsite, and had never heard of such a statue or image before, and Khajj felt the first tremors of misgiving pass through his heart. Searching the campsite further revealed no clues, only that whoever burned the place also seemed to have broken and wrecked everything that wasn't consumed by the fire, except for a tarot card depicting Strength, found in the mess hall.

Khajj's mighty heart fluttered again, and he remembered a human parable that might make sense of the statue. The first man who stood on a riverbank spoke to the first crocodile to come up onto the land. The two made an agreement with each other, that each would carry the other in times of danger. The crocodile began by carrying the man across the river, then climbed aboard the man's shoulders where it remained for the rest of his life, leaving the man feeling burdened and deceived. Salome said she'd never heard that story before, and Traviata too felt the first whispers of doubt begin to tickle her ears.

The statue had a doorway with stairs leading downward built into its base, and the group decided to investigate. They arrived in a long hall, and though Viktor's lizard eyes could spot a door at the far end, his spell to create a magical hand couldn't reach it. Mighty Khajj led the group through the darkened hall, and his canny senses noticed a pit trap in the center of the floor, and, after the group had sidled around that, the trigger for some other trap just ahead. Crumb was able to trigger the trap from a distance, releasing a huge scything blade that swept across the hall, and then ran forward and spiked the trapdoor shut. Finally close enough, they asked Viktor to open the far door with his mage hand, although just as he did, everyone but Salome experienced a kind of premonition and fell to the floor to take cover. As the door opened, Salome was thrown backward down the hall, as though by the shockwave from a silent, invisible explosion. Inside the door they found a spiral staircase leading up into the statue itself, with the skeleton of a giant lizard or crocodile scattered around the foot of the stairs. Aleister felt very worried that the bones might somehow reanimate, but Triavata thought that the skull would make an excellent crown and put it on. (A lot of my characters end up doing things like this. It might be my fondness for hats.)

To ease Aleister's mind Viktor cast a spell to sense magic and examined the bones. They were ordinary, but when he looked at the staircase, he noticed that several of the steps were somehow enchanted, and marked them out by drawing on the steps immediately before and after each one. They made their way safely to the top, where they found a large globular jug hanging from the wall by a strap. Guessing it might be important, Traviata tried to identify the object, but Victor simply pulled it down, in a hurry to return to safety outside. Somehow the jug had been weighing down the lever it had been hung from like a coat peg, and when it was removed, the lever popped up, and the entire structure began to collapse. Even the statue itself seemed to rain down upon them. Crumb, Traviata, and Salome were all nearly crushed, but Khajj rescued Traviata and hearty Salome somehow stayed on her feet and managed to pull Crumb's body to safety. Aleister and Viktor clung together, limped out side-by-side. Outside in the wreckage, Khajj and Aleister administered aid to Crumb and Traviata, saving them from death. Finally safe, the group made camp for the night on the shore.

In the morning, Traviata fully examined the clay vessel and found it to be an alchemical jug, an enchanted object capable of generating gallons of fresh water and other liquids. Before leaving, the group made a final sweep of the campsite. Khajj found and tamed a baby bird that was being kept in a pen by the remains of the barracks. Salome had never seen a bird like it before, but Aleister was able to match it to a drawing from the guidebook he bought in Zarubad - it was an axe-beak, a fearsome jungle predator. Khajj seemed quite pleased to have a new pet. Viktor meanwhile decided for some reason to enchant a pebble to make light, then threw it down the military latrine. Surprisingly, he found a human body down there, a solider wearing scale armor and carrying a warhammer. Crumb climbed down into the horrible pit and retrieved the soldier's belt pouch, which contained five small gemstones. After bathing in the river, he was allowed back in the canoe, and the group continued downstream. For the rest of that day, and four more days after, they continued down the river, eating fresh fish, drinking fresh alchemically-treated water, and hearing distant roaring sounds like some animal loud as thunder, growing closer the further they went downstream.

On the evening of the thirteenth day, the river ran out, widening out to a mudflat and disappearing down a sinkhole, perhaps continuing somewhere far underground. The group left their boat by the "shore" and approached a plateau that stood over the jungle in this spot. Salome claimed success and bragged that she had successfully led them to the "depression" she'd told them about, brushing off all questions about the lobster people who were supposed to live there. Traviata wondered if the plateau could really be the lip of some great crater, and if so, if it could be the "basin" that held the lost city she still suspected the Children of Fimbul were using as their jungle hideaway, the place they were keeping poor Koska's kidnapped daughter, Yuriko.

Viktor led the way, using his magical slippers to walk up the wall as easily as he walked across the ground. As he strolled up the cliff-face, he saw a boulder, practically a whole island made of stone, floating in the air above the jungle far too high up for any method of approach the group currently had on-hand. He passed carvings of winged lizards and curling flames. Eventually, he reached a landing and threw down a rope to his friends, inspecting the rotted remains of a wooden door set directly into the wall of the plateau. After his friends joined him, Viktor used his mage hand to push the last remnants of the door out of the way, when he heard a frail woman's voice call out from inside: "Hello? Who's there?" An impossibly old-looking woman toddled out of the doorway, short, stooped over, wrinkled and wizened with age.

Viktor tried engaging the woman in conversation, with mixed results. "Victor? Are you the Victor who brings the bread? No one has brought me bread in a long time." Eventually he learned that the woman, who insisted on being called "Nanny" was especially perturbed by a group of "those GOD-DAMN bird people" who, she claims, keep breaking into her home and stealing her things. She gives Crumb a long, evil look until Viktor is able to regain her attention.

Noticing that "Nanny" keeps grumbling about how things are "not like they were in the OLD days," Viktor tries asking her what the old days were like. "Oh, you mean the OLD days? You mean before those GOD-DAMN bird people came around and started ruining everything?" Yes, those old days. It emerged that in the old days, Nanny was a bit of a literal hell-raiser, dancing naked in the woods, summoning demons from the Pit, and performing other bits of black magic just for the fun of it. "Not like these punk kids these days, no respect, and not like those GOD-DAMN bird people neither!" Traviata asked if Nanny could use some of her black magic to cast a spell to locate a lost child. Nanny readily agreed, but it quickly became clear that she thought they were finding the child so that they could put together a good, wholesome, old-fashioned human sacrifice. Aghast, Viktor tried a different tactic, and asked the easily-distractable old woman if she could help them find some people who'd moved into the area recently, some people who were practicing dark magic, but doing it like a bunch of PUNKS and AMATEURS, not the RIGHT way, not like Nanny and her friends used to do it in the OLD days. Nanny (again) readily agreed, and wandered back inside to cast her spell. Khajj wanted to sneak away immediately as soon as the woman was out of sight, but the others persuaded him to stay and hear her out.

(Now, Traviata is a smart woman, but she's not very emotionally complex. She has two goals in life, feels like she hasn't been doing enough to accomplish one of them, and then finds herself face-to-face with an actual honest-to-goodness wicked witch who lives in the forest and wants to cook a child in her oven. It shouldn't be a surprise what happens next. And - if you think more carefully about the tropes of D&D than I was at the time - it also shouldn't be a surprise how that works out for her. I WAS surprised, but you shouldn't be.)

While the group waited, Vikor used his magic shoes to walk around the perimeter of the plateau, and saw the wreck of a sailing ship, looking to all the world like it was fresh out of the ocean, lying broken atop the jungle canopy. He returned just around the same time Nanny was finishing up her hour-long spellcasting ritual. She emerged carrying a hand-drawn map that called for them to backtrack several days back up the river (Khajj shot Salome a withering look) and would have them end up near the shipwreck Victor saw. "Now you want to avoid this spot here, here, and here ... that's where those GOD-DAMN bird people make their filthy nests ..." She started mumbling again until Viktor assured her they'd use the map to get revenge on the AMATEURS for her. "Yeah, really show 'em what black magic should look like! Now in my day, in the OLD days, we would have skinned them alive before roasting them on the..." Again, she began to ramble at some length before Viktor cut her off again. "Victor? Oh Victor! Oh are you the one who brings the bread?" At this point it was Traviata who cut her off, play-acting at feeling happy and offering her a celebratory drink to her health. Despite seemingly having her fill of all the scenery she could chew, Nanny happily accepted the beverage and quaffed it in one gulp.

What Nanny actually drank was magical, alchemical poison, which would have killed a lesser being, but mostly just seemed to make her angry! She immediately slashed Traviata with her fingernails, nearly killing the poor singer. Nearly everyone else attacked Nanny with their guns or spells, and all of them bounced off her iron-hard hide, although Salome managed to cut Nanny with her scimitar, drawing first blood from the old crone. Nanny retaliated by slashing Salome, again, nearly murdering the woman with one stroke. Nanny continued to shrug off almost everything the group could throw at her, though Aleister's magical singing spear was able to pierce her flesh as well, as Nanny continued to savage Salome, who at this point was only kept alive by Khajj's quick thinking and magical healing touch. Finally, at the end, Aleister managed to pin her down with his singing spear, Crumb used his magical firearm to put an enchanted bullet into her, and Salome, whirling around like a pirouetting ballerina, swung wide her scimitar and lopped Nanny's head clean off, ending the fight.

That was the end of the night, and as I said, I never made it back to find out how the adventure ended, although in fairness, I don't think Jack ever made it back to this particular plotline either. After the new year, he changed the city's name and began running a slightly different sort of campaign there. When Traviata next sets foot in Scarabae-Umberwell, it will be a far different place than she remembers. I imagine her stepping off a boat on the docks, her memories of Zarubad already fading, unable to remember why she ever left the dank and gloom of her home, to rediscover anew what weird delights await her in the remade Umberwell.

Monday, May 21, 2018

New Chart-Topping Songs in Scarabae

My character has a new hit single!

From the album's liner notes:
Jeremiad Street Asylum, by Traviata Maru. A tragic opera aria about a woman who visits her lover in a madhouse after he has been exposed to an unspeakable horror from the Far Realm.

This is an exciting time for Traviata!

The song is clearly based on her visit to the Heigelman Clinic, and the horrors she beheld there.

Next time you find yourself in Umberwell or Scarabae, but sure to pick up a copy on wax cylinder!

Friday, May 18, 2018

Book Cover Trends - Just One Letter

V by Thomas Pynchon, 1963
Z by Vassilis Vassilikos, 1966
G by John Berger, 1972
C by Anthony Cave Brown, 1988
S by John Updike, 1988
H by Elizabeth Shepard, 1995
Q by Paul Nigro, 2003
Q by Luther Blissett, 2004
Z by Michael Thomas Ford, 2010
C by Tom McCarthy, 2011
Q by Evan Madery, 2011
F by Franz Wright, 2011
H by Jim Elledge, 2012
Y by Marjorie Celona, 2012
Z by Therese Anne Fowler, 2013
HHhH by Laurent Binet, 2013
S by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst, 2013
F by Daniel Kehlmann, 2014
J by Howard Jacobson, 2014
X by Ilyasah Shabazz, 2015

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Session Report - Descend into Brimstone - 13 May 2018

Louis Black (politician, 1st level Warrior)
played by Petra

Archibald (innkeeper)
Luther (factory hand)
Daniel (plumber)
Meriwether (infantryman)
played by American John

Detective Guillermo "the Bull" (man-at-arms)
Officer Benicio "the Bull" (man-at-arms)
Officer Shia "the Beef" (man-at-arms)
NPC allies

Session 2
Louis Black and his friends enjoyed some very short-lived fame after their expedition down into the Brimstone Mine, but they were bumped out of the limelight by some city-slicker Freemason architects from back east. That trio - Balthazar, Melchior, and Abendego - seemed like they were all over town, buying rounds for the house, and crowing about their great architectural discoveries down the Maw. For a week now, all anyone's wanted to talk about is those three hotshots and their fancy-dancy statuette of some blackstone lady from some ancient build site.

Well sir, Louis Black had heard just about enough about those three to last him a lifetime, when some newcomers approached him, said they still remembered his expedition, and wanted to know if he could apprentice them. Immediately taking a liking to the four deferential sorts, Louis was happy to regale them with some tales of his own before they headed over to the Gallows to purchase tickets down the Maw. Unfortunately for them, they all had a round of free beers pressed into their hands and had to listen to a rousing chorus of "He's a Jolly Good Fellow" before they managed to get onto the elevator to head down the shaft.

The group decided to try a different path than last time, heading northeast. They found comfortable passage through large mining tunnels, crossed an underground stream, and were stopped in their tracks by a 20' wide chasm. Just as they were turning around to double-back and find a new path, the low clicking and chittering that filled the air throughout the mines took on a new level of urgency, and they found themselves facing a giant ant with the chasm at their backs.

Louis drew his cavalry saber and commanded the others: "Charge!" Meriwether gave a quick salute before turning his rifle on the ant, and Archibald joined him with his pistol, although both shots hit the ground between the insect's legs. Daniel and Luther surged forward and bopped the critter on the head with their wrenches, but the durn ant turned and took a bit out of Luther's chest, putting an early end to him. Louis sensed impending disaster and surged forward, drawing his elephant gun, and planting his foot on fallen Luther's back before shooting a round down the ant's gullet, practically exploding it from the inside. Archibald and Daniel quickly relieved Luther's body of its valuables. Daniel took a second to compare Luther's little hand-wrench to his own oversized monkey-wrench before deciding to keep his original tool and tuck Luther's into his belt-loop. Louis congratulated the others, "You boys are learning from the best!" before giving loyal Meriwether a clap on the back. As they were leaving, Meriwether spotted a 100 peso-bill stuck to one of the ant's feet, and handed it over to Louis, whom he instinctively trusted as a superior officer.

Continuing northeast, they followed the stream into an area of large man-made corridors. Their passage north continued to be blocked by a chasm, although it narrowed to only 10' wide. Archibald asked if Louis had brought any rope, and upon learning that he hadn't, felt his esteem for the politician's supposed adventuring prowess diminish somewhat. They followed the stream to its source, bubbling up out of the ground, and found a lost donkey wearing a blood-stained serape draped over its back. They decided to adopt the tame beast, and it followed docilely behind them.

Turning south, they found huge natural tunnels, towering 20' over their heads. Exploring this expansive place, they came upon another donkey wearing the same style of serape. The two were apparently a pair, as they sidled up next to each other and began sniffing each other's manes. Daniel petted the new creature, and found more money under the blanket (another hundred pesos, in 20 peso-bills this time) along with a fist-sized nugget of demon ore. He took custody of them for the group. After another hour of searching though, they realized there was no way out of this section, and so returned back to the area of tiled corridors before continuing northeast.

Here they moved into an area of medium natural tunnels, and found three badly lost Mexican police officers - Detective Guillermo "the Bull", Officer Benicio "the Bull", and Officer Shia "the Beef". The police explained that they've been dispatched by the Mexican government, pursuing a pair of sisters - Salma and Penelope - who were devoted acolytes of the demon queen Hezzemuth, and had been convicted of multiple murders down south. Guillermo said that there were rumors of Hezzemuth sightings in the region of Brimstone, and that they came down into the mine hoping to find the demon's shrine, along with the murderous sisters. Things went very wrong though, and the police thanked the adventurers for the rescue. The two donkeys nuzzled into their owners, as relieved as the police to be reunited with them. Daniel breathed a sigh of relief that he'd already hidden the cash and ore before returning the donkey. Louis offered the group's help to gather intelligence and lead another search into the mine, if Guillermo could provide funding. Guillermo agreed, and said he was certain he could convince the Mexican consulate to wire him the money as soon as he could get to a telegraph office. A handshake later, and all eight men made it back to the surface where they temporarily parted ways.

Louis Black was very excited to have new allies.

Following a hunch, the group decided to actually listen to some of the rumors swirling around the local celebrity Freemasons. Archibald's prior occupation as an innkeeper guided him to find the best eavesdropping spots, and the group managed to plant a few leading questions so that someone else in the crowd was heard to ask them. They noticed that the statuette the three had been showing off depicted a cruel woman with the lower body of an ant, matching Guillermo's description of the so-called "pain mistress" Hezzemuth. Listening further, they learned that the architects were calling their discovery "the shrine of an ancient religion," and that it was somewhere in the northwest quadrant of the first level of the mine. What's more, the three claimed that the shrine held some kind of sulfur spring that acted as a portal to another world.

Feeling confident that they were on the right track, the group sold their pesos to the town money-changer, getting $20 American for their troubles. They used the cash to buy rope and a tent, and reconnected with Guillermo, who offered them $5 per person per day of their trip. They agreed, and Guillermo paid everyone's fares back down the Maw. In the spirit of being more prepared this time around, Louis also took along the contents of the mysterious oil-cloth-wrapped package he found last time - two bronze cat-faced gauntlets that seemed to hum and sing like tuning forks.

The group decided to start by going due north, entering an area with medium natural tunnels, two streams merging into one, and an old mine entrance. One branch of the stream came from the east,  from the area they'd explored the week before, and the combined streams flowed back to the west in the direction Louis and his other friends had been three weeks ago on their first expedition. They hoped to follow the water's other branch upstream by continuing north, but found that the tunnels narrowed so much they'd be crawling on their hands and knees, and Joseph and Maria (the donkeys) would never fit. Daniel volunteered to crawl ahead while the others waited for him.

Daniel discovered a waterfall that appeared to be the stream's source in this area. Unfortunately, he also discovered that there were no other passages out of the narrow tunnels, except back the way he came in. When Daniel emerged with this bad news, everyone else noticed that he was coated in some kind of purple dust. When he tried brushing himself off, he inhaled some of whatever it was, felt malign magical energies coursing through him, and promptly passed out. They placed Daniel over the back of Joseph the donkey, and pressed on to the northwest.

Continuing on the path to the mysterious shrine, the group continued through more medium natural tunnels, but felt weighed down by extra gravity, as Louis had once before. They knew that traveling through this region would exhaust them, and they'd need to make camp for the night soon. Unfortunately, they never got the chance. Again the ambient clattering and clicking rose to a fever pitch, and the group was beset by four giant ants and a giant grasshopper. The excitement was enough to wake Daniel.

An ugly, vicious combat followed. Archibald started by shooting the grasshopper, and Daniel sicced his pet baby alligator on it, and the alligator tore one of its legs off. The smell of insect blood must have driven the ants into a frenzy, because one tore into the grasshopper and killed it, and another shredded Officer Benicio "the Bull". Louis acquitted himself admirably with the elephant gun, obliterating his second giant ant with a single shot before being bitten twice while shielding the others from attack with his body. Guillermo and Shia worked together to kill another of the massive insects, and Daniel and Archibald followed their example, using teamwork to put a third ant in the ground.

And then things went wrong... Louis said the magic word - "myow myow" - to use his cat gauntlets, but only managed to send a visible wave of sound bouncing off the ceiling, sounding a musical note that reverberated for the rest of the fight. Guillermo missed his shot and killed Daniel. Poor Meriwether, perhaps still suffering from a head injury he got in his soldiering days, continued his string of missed shots, but this bullet went wide and killed Officer Shia "the Beef". Archibald finally ended the fiasco by taking up Daniel's massive pipe wrench and clubbing the final ant to death.

The only good fortune to emerge from the fight was that both sides recognized that the shootings were accidental, and neither made war on the other. Guillermo wept for his colleagues, and Archibald and Meriwether helped him tied their bodies to the backs of the two donkeys. Everyone agreed they should return to the surface, and the friends chose to leave Daniel's body behind, although Archibald brought the baby alligator back up into town. With his heart heavy and his morale failing, Guillermo declared that he would return to Mexico by rail to bury his friends. He paid Louis $5 American as promised, and gave Meriwether and Archibald each $10 for their help. He wrote Louis a letter of introduction that could be shown to any other police or Mexican officials, and gave him the information needed to contact the Mexican embassy by telegram. Hen then departed for his hotel, and presumably, the train station. Louis considered Archibald and Meriwether to be full-fledged members of his group now, and brought them round to the rented cabin, which after a week of recovery time would still have a month's rent prepaid.

The cat gauntlets look like this. I really do insist that the player really says "myow myow" out loud to use them.

200 Mexican pesos (sold for $20)
a nugget of demon ore
$25 pay from the Mexican government
a letter of introduction from Detective Guillermo "the Bull"

Luther (killed by giant ant)
Daniel (killed by friendly fire)
Office Benicio (killed by giant ant)
Officer Shia (killed by friendly fire)
Detective Guillermo (retired)

flat 10 XP each for Meriwether and Archibald for a successful zero-level expedition

1 XP for single ant encounter
1 XP for rescuing donkeys
3 XP for rescuing Mexican police and negotiation alliance
1 XP for intelligence gathering
3 XP for multi-ant and grasshopper encounter
7 XP for exploring seven new hexes (including Daniel's scouting trip)
Total: 16 XP for Louis

Running graveyard (and session of demise)
Officer Shia "the Beef" the NPC Mexian police-officer (2), Daniel the plumber (2), Officer Benicio "the Bull" the NPC Mexican police-officer (2), Luther the factory-hand (2), Jed the miner (1), Henry the huckster (1), Lilly the clerk (1), Bill the livery-stabler (1), Harry the butcher (1), Rusty the auctioneer (1)

I've been using Dreams in the Lich House's campaign events for his Black City campaign to generate ideas for what's happening in town outside of events the players set in motion. Last time I got "Whirlpool", which is supposed to be a navigational hazard that prevents new ships from coming to the trading island that houses the Black City ... but it occurred to me that it the removal of a navigational hazard (the railroad worker's strike) would mark a pretty good beginning to the campaign. This week I got "Bragging Rights", which means that an NPC adventuring party got deeper into the site and becomes a rival. I previously discovered that there were a group of three Freemason architects who'd been into the Maw, so I figured they would make a good set of rivals, and that their bragging would create a clue that the players could choose to follow-up on to find a Demon Shrine.

The way that I discovered the Freemasons is that I generated a couple of minidungeons to place in level 1. The "Features" table that I have the players roll twice each mini-hex has "Point of Interest" and "Demon Shrine" as two possible outcomes, so I decided to generate one of each to have on-hand. My original plan was to simply let them show up wherever the dice decided - but when the campaign event demanded that someone found one of them, I picked which one, and rolled a random hex number as its location. I used Kabuki Kaiser's Ruins of the Undercity to generate the Point of Interest, which I decided will be a giant ant colony (as described in the DCC Core Rules in the giant ant monster entry). I used Kabuki Kaiser's Mad Monks of Kwantoom to generate the Demon Shrine. My random generation of the Shrine using the Black Powder Black Magic rules suggested that there would be two factions present ("doing what?" you may ask - stay tuned!) and one of them is the Freemasons. After the players find the ant colony (even if they don't explore it fully) I may generate a second Point of Interest for the first level just in case. I'm certain that I didn't use Ruins of the Undercity exactly correctly. I usually forgot to check if a corridor would flow out of a door or run perpendicular to it, for example. It was a fairly quick way to get a layout I'd never have drawn on my own though, and although I modified the contents from the book's recommendations (in part to fit a different setting) it did work to spur on my own creativity, while adding features I wouldn't have placed left to my own devices.

One of my goals in running this campaign is to have something relatively low-prep on my part and low-commitment for the players. Essentially it's an occasional pick-up game for whenever my regular Sunday group can't meet. Using Carl's BPBM rules straight out of the zine, using Kabuki Kaiser's minidungeon generators rather than planning and drawing my own maps, it's all in service of the goal of maximizing potentiality and discovery at the table while minimizing everyone's investment of time outside the sessions themselves.

One thing I've noticed is that Carl and Eric must have changed their minds between vol 1 and vol 4 of Black Powder Black Magic, because the prices go from a likely dollar-standard to a likely dime- or penny-standard. Louis Black's elephant gun would have been out of reach using vol 1's prices, but I've decided to use vol 4 prices, since the list is much more comprehensive. The treasures they're finding seem appropriate to the new price list, especially since they keep finding things that they can exchange for only a fraction of their nominal value. 

For the most part, the procedural generation of the hexes has been going well, although I've noticed a couple things I would change if I were writing something like this myself. The tunnel types and diameters don't feel like they add much, with the exception of the ones so small they force you to crawl through. This is essentially the "terrain type" of each hex, but I remember as a player barely noticing this information, while as a referee I feel obligated to record it, even though it doesn't seem to matter a whole lot. I'm also, personally, not that fond of the two gravitational anomaly entries on the "Features" list. To me, they feel like part of the wrong genre. Features that reduce or increase the movement cost of passing though a hex seem like a good idea, but I feel like it would be more appropriate (at least in the upper levels of the dungeon) to have something like "very direct pathways" to reduce the costs and "very winding passages" or "very rough terrain" to increase it. The giant ants are also quite a formidable opponent for zero- and 1st-level characters. So far, they've only met 1 HD worker ants and not poisonous 3 HD soldier ants, but they've also met giant grasshoppers and giant centipedes, and those are both 3 HD. The ants also have a high armor class which makes it very hard for them to get a hit in, making combat longer, and thus deadlier, than it would otherwise be. The final issue I'm not sure how to handle at the moment is the demon ore. The rules give it a dollar value, and suggest that it can be used to manufacture magic items or fuel spellburn. When I played in his campaign, Carl didn't do that though. Instead, he made it possible to trade the ore with members of the spirit world, typically facilitated by a human broker, which meant completing a quest and getting a magic item in return. Since my players have found some ore now, I'll have to decide which approach I want to take.

By the luck of the dice, Louis Black turned out to be an expert marksman with that elephant gun, while Meriwether couldn't hit the broad side of a barn. It was gratifying to see that Louis could survive several ant-bites, when every zero-level so far has succumbed on the first hit. Like Blaze the servant from last time, Meriwether's been portrayed as very deferential, so I suspect he won't level up right away. Archibald was pretty handy. He seems perhaps a little thief-like to me, but we'll see. Daniel was brave and daring, and like so many favored zero-levels he met an early demise. I've noticed that the zero-level character you like most almost always dies in the funnel because you use them, and you end up leveling up someone you barely thought about until they were your sole survivor. I've tried to mitigate that problem a little by declaring that the monsters attack one of a player's characters, but then letting the player decide who's endangered and who stays safe and alive. We may not have heard the last of the Mexican government (or even the last of Guillermo) although I haven't yet decided how I'll know when another representative comes to join the hunt for Salma and Penelope. The next random campaign event may provide me a clue, or the players may take it into their own hands if they decide to telegram the embassy to offer their services and ask for back-up.