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.


  1. As always a solid session write up Anne, and lots of references for me to investigate as I slowly circle around the idea for my dwarven city crawl, or maybe a return to the Black City; I can't decide just yet.

  2. Thanks, Todd. Keep circling. I think your dwarf city idea sounds cool, and I'd love play it even while it's in progress.

    What this has got me thinking about it is a BPBM megadungeon that draws on the "layers of the past" idea, so that each level is before an earlier of the big six extinctions. It's also got me thinking that that project should be more keyed minicrawl than proc-gen minicrawl.

    So playing this has both been fun, and has been giving me a lot of ideas.