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.

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