Once again, unlike the game default, this campaign takes place in an alternate Catalonia, in the year 1697. The Catalonian Republic is now a distant memory, but ruins from the time of its suppression dot the countryside. Prince Franco’s forces, dispatched by the court in Madrid, rule the coastal cities with an iron hand, while the Saint Hernandad Society and the Inquisition scour the land looking for rebels and heretics. Off the main roads, however, the law is weak, and the grip of power very tenuous. Bandits, monsters, revolutionaries, hermits and much stranger beings prowl the forests and mountains, and only good steel and a brace of pistols can guarantee survival…]
Exactly two months have passed since three adventurers routed the rapacious bandit leader and defrocked clergyman, the Capuchin, and saved the damsel he had wanted to marry in the mockery of a wedding ceremony. Our company has changed much in these times: Jean-Fado de Béziers had retired to the small lakeside town of Lagoscoro with a pretty widow, and the cheerful Little Juan Cordial had joined his brother’s band of highwaymen and freedom fighters, while losing Rodrigo Cordial, his oldest, Franciscan brother. Two more 6th level characters (the highest in Helvéczia) followed them: Farkas Cserei, the Transylvanian scholar had decided to return to his homeland, and Santiago, the revenge-obsessed Aztec, had forgiven his defeated mortal enemy, and disappeared from Migalloc (although some might suspect a pretty Gypsy girl had played a role in this decision). It was time for Álvar Díaz Garcia Vega de Valencia y Vivar, who has since claimed the sword of El Cid, and become the greatest swordsman of Catalonia, to go his own way. Leaving the great city of Migalloc, he parted from his companions, and rode towards the estate of Don Santiago Serrano, where the cruel aristocrat was known to keep slaves captured from the mountain villages.
The others pressed on towards the ranges of the Picos del Bosque, where they had heard rumours of an enchanted garden belonging to the mythical Hesperides. Diminished in numbers, the company now included:
- Father Taddeo Previti, 5th level Italian Cleric, and a member of the Holy Inquisition (yours truly);
- Gérard Pradas, 6th level Occitan Student, now in possession of the game’s most formidable destructive spell, as well as an intelligent giant parrot calling himself Jago, and a nest’s worth of giant raven hatchlings (captured way back after the adventure with the Capuchin);
- Guiellmo Gallardo de Barcino, 1st/2nd level Catalan Duellist/Student, a freethinker and pamphleteer recently returning from Engeland;
- Rupert van den Rosenfluyt, 3rd level Dutch Vagabond 3, a wandering botanist looking for rare cultivars;
- Benito Cortizo de Soto, 2nd level Gallego Vagabond 2, a low-born scoundrel; and
- Luís Bartolomeu Lopes de Coimbra, 2nd level Portuguese Vagabond, a sailor following a mysterious treasure map.
|Into the Picos del Bosque|
On the forest trail, the company found a camp of loggers clearing the forest. Inquiring about the way to Altinadea, their intended destination, a woman stirring an enormous cauldron of soup pointed them north: the village would be to the north-west, but just a little way to the north, there would also be closer shelter: the cloister of Saint Agnes. Father Taddeo immediately seized on the opportunity, and guided the group towards the place, where they might find a place to rest, and the father might learn useful spells. By mid-afternoon, they had spotted a walled enclosure with vegetable gardens, side-buildings, and a central structure. A dozen robed monks were outside in the fields, offering friendly greetings. They were not nuns, as expected, but brothers; and they welcomed the travellers, asking them to leave their mounts at the stables before joining them in prayer.
Father Taddeo happily led Eusebio, his donkey, to a manger, and returned to the brothers who were already explaining the way to Altinadea to his companions.
“¡Manos arriba! Hands in the air! You are now the prisoners of the Capuchin!” one of the monks shouted, levelling a blunderbuss at the party, while a heavy-set, greying man in monks’ robes strode forward with something that had previously seemed a rake, but was actually a concealed Lucerne hammer. Multiple guns, and as many swords, were pointed at the party. The Capuchin looked at the guests before him very carefully, but he recognised no one, especially not those who had previously spoiled his wedding. Unfortunately for the brigands, this was a party of six heavily armed and freshly rested adventurers aching for a fight, and soon found themselves outclassed. They fled in several directions; and the Capuchin shamefully beat a hasty retreat, catching a bullet in his cuirass, and riding off on his horse amidst curses and invective. The garden was entirely deserted.
From the large building emerged two dozen nuns, who had been under siege from the concealed brigands just when the newcomers arrived. Worse, one of them, Sister Agnes, had disappeared. She was known to often wander off and seek out an abandoned old house to the east for meditation, and perhaps she was still there. If the fleeing bandits would get their hands on her, the consequences would be terrible. The nuns also recommended caution, as there was rumoured to be a large black dog living in the area, which came straight from Hell – and would drag its victims down with it. Since sunset was approaching, time was of the essence: the eastern mountain trail too narrow and treacherous for horses, the company proceeded on foot through the thickets and forests.
The ruined house was found by nightfall: it was dark inside, and there were signs of long abandonment. A lonely owl sat ominously on a nearby tree branch. Seeing no light but wary of an ambush, they approached and called out for those inside to come out; but as there was no answer, they entered the ramshackle building. A small eerie light illuminated the only room: a transparent, sad old man. Father Taddeo raised, then lowered his cross: the apparition was not hostile. Indeed, the spirit introduced himself as a Hermit who had lived in this small house, but receiving no proper rites, could not go on to Heaven, and was stuck wandering this world. Worse, the devil had stolen away his physical body, making burial impossible. After questioning him further, it turned out the spirit had seen Sister Agnes: and she, too, had just been seized by devils, and taken down to Hell. Worse, she had drawn the interest of none other but Don García Deselvado, one of the aristocrats of the infernal court, and the second highest-ranked in Catalonia – below the mighty Don D himself! Don García had decided to marry the pretty Agnes, and the wedding was set for tonight: all manner of guests would present themselves at the high occasion.
“And how might we follow in their tracks and save the worthy sister?” Gérard inquired.
“The black dog runs at night! Go you to the crossroads, and follow if you dare!” spoke the apparition.
“Thank you, oh noble spirit. We will try to recover your body as well.”
“Just remember! He who goes to a wedding, should bring wedding presents!” whispered the pale lips.
|The Black Dog Runs at Night|
“Don’t lose it!” whispered Rupert van den Rosenfluyt, and broke into a jog. They entered the forest on the trail of the beast, through branch and bush, and passed a dark opening leading underground. Now they were beneath the earth, and lit lanterns to see the cavern descend downwards, their guide gone. There was a thick smell in the air, and the walls were dark with soot. Here and there, sulphurous gasses hissed from cracks in the walls. The black dog had not gone far, in fact: pressing on, they found themselves before a pair of enormous wooden gates. The hound had settled itself on a large pile of skeletal remains, and was busy gnawing on an enormous, juicy bone.
“Well, here we are – he gates of Hell. Are we sure we want to pay a visit?”
“Very sure. Who is a bad boy?”
The dog growled, but gave them no further heed. They opened the heavy portals, which swung outwards to let out billowing smoke and the stench of sulphur. They entered, and the gates closed behind them, to reveal a gallery of vividly painted frescoes and plush couches. If this was indeed Hell, it was a remarkably comfy part of it.
|The Church of HELL|
On examination, the frescoes proved to be tantalisings depiction of the seven cardinal sins. Benito and Luís were lost in the study of two particularly fetching ones (having failed their Temptation saving throws), and had to be dragged onwards. The next chamber was an anteroom. Stairs descended downwards, while from forward came the sounds of music of merrymaking through a heavy door. Opening it just a crack, Benito Cortizo spied a room with about a dozen thin, spindly apparitions of smoke resembling small devils, dancing to the tunes of unseen musicians. Another door lead further on. After short discussion, Father Taddeo suggested that Sister Agnes would probably be kept imprisoned, and she might be found deeper down. Taking the stairs, they found themselves in a small baptismal chapel, but it was a most unwholesome place: it was built upside down, with pews and a font of dark water on the ceiling, and tiny baskets hanging from ropes. There was a most unholy reek here.
“The water does not pour down from the font! It is an unholy magic!” proclaimed Father Taddeo. “If we sanctify it with holy water and good incense, the wedding may come to a bad end if it starts at all. Help me stand on your shoulders so I can reach this...”
“I do not like those baskets. We will stand ready with guns drawn.”
|It is upside down, and EVIL!|
“I have a plan,” said Gérard Pradas. “I am good at calligraphy: we will forge a letter of introduction to Don Deselvado from... the arch-devil of Lust? Do you know a suitable name, Father?”
“That would be Belphégor.”
“Splendid! Belphégor will wish the newlyweds good fortune, and recommend that they consummate their wedding night in the baptismal chapel, an auspicious sign for strong offspring. We can turn that to our advantage, or at least delay the festivities.”
They proceeded forward to the dancing room, carefully covering their ears to defend from some sort of devilish music. The wispy smoke-devils were dancing happily, and invited the wedding guests to join them. They didn’t know anything useful, and weren’t interested in their letter, so the characters tried passing through the dance floor, but the devil spirits were very ardent, and tried to drag them into their wild frolic. Benito and Luís failed to save vs. Temptation, and joined. A melee ensued to drag them away and destroy the devils; they were dispatched, but Luís lay dead on the floor, his heart stopped due to the heavy dancing. Searching the room, there was still no trace of musicians, but someone had carelessly left a decorative walking stick worth 7 golden Escudos in a corner, as well as a lost pouch with 30 copper Maravedi, and 90 silver Reals. Luís also had a treasure map on his person, which Don Guillelmo dutifully pocketed.
The next door was quiet, and the opposite side revealed a room piled with a mouth-watering feast of juicy meats, piled fruits of known and unknown varieties, and bottles of the most noble Tokaj wines – well known for their curative and invigorating properties. [And among the Habsburgs, the wine of wedding nights!] Spiral stairs descended downwards, and from a door further on came arguing voices. On more careful scrutiny, the bottles of Tokaj were found to be tampered with, and filled not with wine at all, but piss.
“Blasphemy! Now I really believe we are in hell!” exclaimed Father Taddeo. [This is where session one ended.]
Listening through the keyhole of the next door, Rupert van den Rosenfluyt heard the boisterous laughter of three card players.
“Devil take you, you cheated!”
“It was a twenty-one!”
“I hereby wager the molar of Judas!”
“That’s a fake too! Put up the real money!”
Rupert shrugged and opened the door, while Father Previti melted into the shadows. The room held a card table, around which two devils were playing cards with a manacled prisoner for a large sum of coinage. The devils were friendly enough, and encouraged anyone to sit down and play a hand. Their prisoner slid to the side and hurriedly said, “Very good, and I liked the game too! But I shall be going now, and let these fine gentlemen take a seat.”
“Wait just now! You are not going anywhere. You have not wagered your soul yet!”
Father Taddeo had heard enough. Someone’s salvation was at risk! He exclaimed from behind the door:
“Do you know what you are not expecting?”
The devils shrugged dumbfounded, then one hollered back: “Your mother!”
“Yeah, your mother!”
“Incorrect answer. The Italian Inquisition, that’s what! In nomine Patris et Fili et Spiritus Sancti!” yelled the father, charging the card players with his heavy staff. A short melee developed, and the devils found themselves completely outclassed and surrounded. One tried to flee, but was blocked by Father Taddeo and Don Guillelmo, and seeing this, they both surrendered. The miscreants proved slippery and tried to strike a bargain, but finally, when the father promised he would baptise both of them if they didn’t confess, they explained that the wedding was taking place downstairs, down in the main chapel.
“Now give back the money to that poor man you have dispossessed,” demanded the inquisitor.
“That’s robbery! It is our money, we swear!” they protested to no effect, as their winnings, were transferred at gunpoint to the company’s purses, half to the freed captive, and half split among the others. Two bottles of real Tokaji were also liberated; Don Guillelmo quickly took one. With this, the devils were ordeed to stay in the room, and Benito dutifully jammed the lock with some bent cutlery. Rupert unlocked the manacles of the former prisoner, who introduced himself as Miguel – he had just been playing cards at the inn in a far-away town in his native Castilia, and found himself in this room after blacking out from too much wine. The company was whole once again.
|Miguel the Gambler|
Descending a deep set of spiral stairs, they arrived at a corridor running left and right. From the right came cacophonic organ music, and there seemed to be further steps down; the other direction was more quiet, with occasional creaks or squeaks.
“The chapel is that way,” noted Rupert, leading by example. Down the stairs, they came to an anteroom again, with a very large double wooden gate. All kinds of blasphemous statues were carved on the inverted portal (as everything is the opposite in Hell), and from beyond came the music and the sounds of backwards Latin preaching. Very quietly, they opened the door, and peered in, unnoticed by the wedding guests.
|The Infernal Wedding|
This was a large, dark gothic hall, with statues of Judas, some ram-headed demon, and other illustrious evildoers. The congregation, a ragged host of miscreants and knaves, had their backs turned, and the adventurers quickly noticed the Capuchin and his surviving men – the brigand leader was in high spirits, loudly sharing tasteless jokes about the wedding night. On two sides of an altar, two grinning devils played pranks and sommersaults, while before it stood the bride and groom: the crying Sister Agnes, and a finely dressed, bespectacled arch-devil licking his lips in anticipation – Don García Deselvado! The don seemed to be playing a puppet with his left hand while holding the nun with his right, and the purpose of the strange act was soon clear: the priest, a lifeless old corpse reciting a litany of backwards Latin, was visibly controlled by several strings dangling from the ceiling.
|Don García Deselvado|
“It is from Don Belphégor, my Lord, and it concerns your wedding night! Aren’t you going to read it?” Miguel inquired.
Don Deselvado cast an irritated glance at the Spaniard, but relented, and, continuing his puppetry, handed Sister Agnes to the newcomer for a moment while unrolling the parchment. He scanned the message quickly, then spoke: “That’s all good. Give him some drink for his troubles.”
The two devils made Miguel chug a large bottle of brandy, gaily explaining: “Oh, this is Hell, amigo! We do everything backwards. The happy wedding has already been consummated!”
Miguel, coughing from the alcohol, glanced back at the portal, and showed a quick sign. He lunged forward, seizing Sister Agnes and yanking her on the floor as a volley of fire cut across the temple. Don Deselvado was hit with a bullet from Benito’s gun, but remained standing, and held on to his half of the nun. Father Taddeo, who had meanwhile snuck up to the organist’s nest and positioned himself behind him, seized the hapless devil and hurled him down from the balcony, breaking his neck on the stone floor. Don Deselvado tried to pull Agnes back, rolling a very high score, but Miguel rolled a natural 20, and jumped with her towards a northern archway, leading to an upwards staircase. All Hell broke loose in the Church of Hell, and Gérard Pradas chose this moment to throw the egg of a black rooster, procured through unholy practices and fermented for weeks in manure and sulphur, at the congregation, while speaking Latin words. The Fireball detonated in the midst of the agitated wedding guests. Don Deselvado was hurled back but mostly unhurt, but the Capuchin was torn limb from limb along with his men, and the surrounding revellers and the two sommersaulting devils. Further detonations came from the Capuchin’s grenades, and there was a tremendous racking sound as the ceiling shook and caved in, burying the centre of the church, and separating the company.
Father Taddeo stood up, still reeling. From the northern door came Miguel. Don Deselvado, seeing he was in peril, fled through a door to the west, abandoning the stunned Agnese. Knowing that raising the alarms would not do them much good, Father Taddeo reached for the last resort: his trusty Bible, which he opened at a random passage, and read aloud:
“Book of Ruth, 4:4! ‘No sooner had Boaz gone up to the gate and sat down there than the next-of-kin, of whom Boaz had spoken, came passing by. So Boaz said, “Come over, friend; sit down here.” And he went over and sat down. Then Boaz took ten men of the elders of the city, and said, “Sit down here”; so they sat down.”
To his horror, Don Deselvado found himself unable to move, compelled by the Good Book to stay where he was. Father Taddeo advanced with an ugly look in his eyes.
“Don García Deselvado, for your deeds against this innocent sister, I shall do the worst thing to you that I can inflict upon you. I shall baptise you.” and he took out the holy water, the incense, and raised his Bible. Don Deselvado emitted a pitiful cry, and pleaded for mercy, offering vast riches and infernal powers, but the father baptised him, and the arch-devil was burned into a pile of ashes.
Meanwhile, the larger part of the company retraced their steps to the feasting room, still hearing the devilish card-players from behind the door, guessing whether it was safe to come out. By approximate measures, the baptismal chapel was somewhere above the Church of Hell – might there be a secret door they had overlooked while fleeing from the pudding? They returned, hoping the monster has returned to the font on the ceiling. Unfortunately, it did not: it pounced on the characters, and with one slurping sound, swallowed Gérard Pradas, who was now struggling mightily to get it off with his remaining spells before getting devoured. A secret door opened, and Father Taddeo, Sister Agnes, and Miguel stepped into the chapel, joining the melee.
“Nobody expects the Italian Inquisition! Now begone, you infernal aspic!” the Father tried to exorcise [turn] the pudding, to no effect. The fight continued, and even Sister Agnes joined in with a torch to avenge the wrongs done to her. The gelatinous horror was defeated, the gambler Miguel striking the last blow. Rupert van den Rosenfluyt was unconscious, and the others were badly wounded, Gérard at a single hit point. Worse, the father’s attempts at medicine almost ended up killing Gérard, who passed out from the pain, and was ony saved by the last healing spell, while Rupert had to be resusciated with a swig of Tokaj wine.
There was one last challenge before leaving this hellish place. The outside gate was guarded by the Black Dog, and obviously, it would not allow them to pass outside as easily as inside. Rupert had brought a large bone from the feasting table, while Father Taddeo again reached for his Bible. Unfortunately, the growling hound did not care for the scrap of old meat, and when the Bible was opened to a New Testament verse, the passage had no relevance for the situation. The Black Dog stood up and attacked, while Don Guillelmo heroically tried to hold it back. It breathed a cone of fire, and while none died, Gérard was at -4 Hp again (one shy of death), and everyone was badly hurt. Miguel muttered a curse and threw the mummified body of the Hermit at the creature: “Go chew on this!” He turned and fled with Gérard on his strong back, quickly followed by Father Taddeo, and then the others, Don Guillelmo being the last to head for the surface...
EPILOGUE: Returning to the Cloister of Saint Agnes, the nuns were overjoyed to see the return of their lost Sister, thanking the adventurers profusely. They, in turn, decided to stay until Sunday, and enjoy the hospitality. Father Taddeo continued with his doctoral work, “A Most Useful Treatise on Deviltry & Other Sins, with Practical Applications towards their Expurgation Through the Element of Surprise”. He also gained easy permission to memorise the spells found at the cloister: from the first level, Bless and The Bountiful Herbarist; and from the second, Protective Circle and Withdraw Poison. Rupert van den Rosenfluyt and Gérard Pradas, who found their adventure a little too virtuous, tried to pick up a few comelier nuns with honeyed words and roguish charm, in which Rupert easily beat his rival for the attentions of one Sister Margarethe. “And that is how we do it with your colonies, too,” remarked the crafty Dutchman, which only shows us the wickedness of Godless Calvinism.
|Watch out, sin!|
TO BE CONTINUED
Designer commentary: This long session report is a fairly an accurate recapitulation of what Helvéczia intends to deliver: fast-paced, colourful, and hazardous adventures in a fantastic paraphrasis of historical Europe, drawing liberally from swashbuckling stories, odd legends, folk tales, and modern fantasy alike. It is not a serious study in historiography, nor an exercise in physical or social realism. Instead of grimdark – a tone that I have long felt to be creatively exhausted – its tone mixes picaresque adventure, romance, low comedy and a grotesque element. It does not shy away from the dark side of late 17th century Europe, but it is not a catalogue of atrocities; rather, it is a celebration of a certain time and its people. As such, it has a touch of the strange and alien: it is firmly rooted in the pre-Enlightment mindset, of deeply held religious conviction, military virtue and obstinately held tradition, but also relentless social climbing, low-class mischief, and an interest in the lives of extraordinary scoundrels and never-do-wells (the player characters). Is it fun? We think so.
|Luís Bartolomeu Lopes |
de Coimbra: By the Time
You Remember His
Name, He is Dead
We could see the forms of magic at play, and their differences: Father Taddeo would memorise his spells at the churches and convents he visits (always doing his best with a limited and ever-changing repertoire), while Gérard Pradas would have to procure rare magical components for his spells, which he has obtained from rare manuscripts and copied into a spellbook. (I do not know how he obtained that egg for the rare and supremely useful Fireball even as a player, although I am starting to have ideas about those giant raven hatchlings he carts around on the journey...) We could also see a use of the Holy Bible as a last-resort saving mechanic; but not its counterpart, involving a deck of cards and bets against the Devil himself; nor a third, very hazardous random table for those cases where nothing helps and you must seize the last shred of hope.
As for adventure design, these sessions combined a wilderness expedition with dungeoneering. Helvéczia tends to have relatively small dungeons (although this is relative – the first supplement, to be included with the boxed set and also sold separately, has a much larger one), and in general, has an emphasis for situation-based mini-adventures which it calls “penny dreadfuls”. Wilderness expeditions and strange things in backwoods areas are of a particular interest, which also feature heavily in the Catalonia campaign – we have by now explored much of the south-western quadrant of the hex map, and our travels have brought us to its central areas. Helvéczia has a high interest in wilderness adventures, either as overland hex-crawls, or localised point-crawls describing a smaller area.