Tuesday, 19 September 2017

[BLOG] Don’t Nick the Bucket: Further Zine Insights into Early D&D

The buckets are not what they seem.” The well-known proverb has never been so right as in the following case of doppelgängers, endless corridors, and wooden buckets. Actually, I stole the topic of this post from a G+ discussion, where Jon Salway posted the front page of a flyer Games Workshop used to promote OD&D in 1976, and Zach H followed it up with the reverse, displaying an example mini-dungeon called The Dungeons of the Ground Goblins, penned by none other but Steve Jackson (the Fighting Fantasy author, not the GURPS designer). Apologies in advance to everyone involved, but theft is a small price to pay for reposting this tiny piece of D&D history – and this is a story about theft anyway.

Readers of this blog might remember a post from March discussing the early days of D&D fandom in Britain, as seen through the scanned issues of Chimaera, one of the country’s many Diplomacy zines. The pièce de résistance is found in issue #18, with an introductory article penned by one Paul Cook, a resident of the Isle of Wight, and containing a sample dungeon level offering a selection of the tricks and encounters you might find in your typical D&D game. I praised the level for its simple ingenuity, complexity and varied challenges, an obscure but cool example of early game design. Was it one of Paul Cook’s levels from Castle Hope, his personal megadungeon? Or was this a one-off to showcase the game for zine readers? Could there be more to it hidden away in an ancient campaign folder? Was Paul Cook still around somewhere to share it? Material like that invites a lot of speculation. Then I came across the post linked above, and it turned my theories right on my head.

Doppelgänger!

Doppelgänger!

Looking at the two sample levels reveals an uncanny resemblance. The first thing I noticed was the endless corridor – “Great! A common trope circulating in British D&D fandom,” I thought. This was followed by another discovery: there was that bucket again. Yes, like the one from Chimaera, this sample level also contains a bucket encounter, its “no special significance” once again sure to terrorise and frustrate the players. Then I started to pay proper attention and look closer, and noted all the other ways the two dungeons mirror each other.
  • The way the level is laid out and the rooms are clustered isn’t identical, but it is eerily similar, with a southern axis connecting two downwards stairs along a linear corridor, and two main branches/room groups to the north. That room complex to the southeast is fairly blatant – you just can’t miss how similar the two versions are. There is something similar going on with a looped corridor to the east, although it leads to different rooms, and has different surroundings.
  • There is something mysteriously described as a “space room” in Cook’s level, dropping the players down to Level 5. It is a fuzzy, irregular kind of place, although not a full-blown cavern – a small grotto off one of the corridors. The explanation is found in Jackson’s level: the transport mechanism is a “space warp”, and it leads to Level 4.
  • The level connections are similar: there is the entrance (from a “house in the village” in Cook’s version, and the “base of a hollow trunk” in Jackson’s), two stairs down to level 2 on opposite sides of Level 1 (this struck me as a really cool feature), a sloping passage to Level 3, the “space room” to Level 5/4, and a trap door/pit to Level 7/5. The only thing that doesn’t map across the levels is a sliding door to Level 3 found in Cook’s version, and there only.
  • The monster encounters are less straightforward to compare, but both levels have a room with a zillion goblins – in Cook’s version, there are 40 of them in room 17, guarding 100 gp and a ring of tree wishes (yikes!), and in Jackson’s, they have a force of 30 in the large room 14, only carrying a measly 150 gp among the lot, and having some information to share. Five orcs guarding 50 gp and a +1 sword become five berserkers carrying 25 gp each, and the leader wielding a +1 sword. A powerful Wizard disguised as a harmless old man in Cook’s version crops up as a “dungeon caretaker” who can answer questions in room 10. Cook’s version has a minotaur guarding 20 gp and a curse scroll, Jackson’s has a gorgon with a pretty damn good treasure horde.

It is almost certain Jackson’s dungeon level was first – the corruption of the “space room” seems to confirm it, and the dates match: it was first published in the May 1976 issue of the UK Games and Puzzles, in September 1976 in the US People’s Computers, and in February 1977 on the promo fliers seen in Jon’s G+ post. Interestingly, if Paul Cook copied his dungeon from Steve Jackson, he must have done it very quickly, as a first impression: Chimaera #18 is dated June 1976, a mere one month after the dungeon’s original appearance – but not on promo material; rather, in a general gaming magazine. Considering zine production times, it is not impossible (Chimaera had a brisk publication schedule with up to two issues a month), but it is still impressive in its own way.

All in all, it is almost surely Steve’s dungeon. And yet, in an odd way, Paul Cook’s much rougher revision comes out not as a degradation, but as an improvement. Beyond the elements already discussed, Jackson’s dungeon mostly consists of monster lairs with treasure. Cook’s dungeon, on the other hand, has a shrinking room that crushes careless players, an acid fountain, the wizard-as-old-man thing, and unbalanced monster/treasure combinations which are likely the results of random generation, but are bound to be interesting precisely because they raise interesting questions. This time, the goblin lair is not to the side, but it is chock in the middle of the southern section, potentially blocking descent to Level 2 in both directions. The goblins are just numerous enough to pose a genuine risk for low-level parties, but they have an attractive prize in the form of the ring of three wishes. That’s an interesting dilemma right there. The treasures are more random, but they are also more interesting – the minotaur’s curse scroll? The orcs’ fear wand? There is something there that’s not there in the less unbalanced, but more pedestrian Jackson version. I am more interested in learning what lies under Cook’s Level 1 than Jackson’s (granted, there was probably nothing).

It is also odd how this thing happened at all. What was Cook thinking when he appropriated and republished Jackson’s much better circulated dungeon level instead of building a similar one from sketch? Was it because it had the aura of semi-official status since it was published in a real magazine? And then what about the changes he had made to the original design? It is one of the uncanny little mysteries we will probably never learn the answer to, and yet it remains fascinating over 40 years later. It is one story among many, and it is – my sincere apologies – more than just a drop in the bucket.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

[REVIEW] Deep Carbon Observatory

[REVIEW] Deep Carbon Observatory (2015)
by Patrick Stuart and Scrap Princess
Self-published

Deep, dark, carboniferous
Deep Carbon Observatory describes a journey through a land flooded and devastated by a natural and magical catastrophe, progressing from the human fallout in a coastal town and the surrounding countryside to the catastrophe site, then even stranger landscapes leading to a very old, very alien place revealed by the receding waters of a massive, ancient reservoir built by an extinct civilisation. Half Lovecraft, half Nausicaa and half Apocalypse Now, it delves into the heart of darkness, first within humans, then within increasingly more inhuman realms.

The module is a guaranteed campaign changer. The themes and revelations – which are very Lovecraftian without actually reusing Lovecraft’s stories or the Mythos – would upend any mediaeval fantasy campaign world, and aside from having severe consequences even beyond the cataclysmic destruction of the adventure area, put everything known about the setting in a new perspective. Suddenly, everything is different, and a lot of things you thought significant or personally important has been revealed to matter very little. Like Death Frost Doom, Deep Carbon Observatory would end as many campaigns as it would launch. Is this a bug or a feature? You will have to decide, and you’d better do it in advance. But if you go in, it will be memorable, although not necessarily in a way you’ll like.

Let’s make this abundantly clear: it is misery tourism pure and simple. Everything and everyone in the module is dead, dying, or at the very least going through a seriously bad phase. There is nothing the characters or the players can do to undo the catastrophe, very little to make the local situation measurably better, and absolutely categorically firmly nothing to alter whatever they discover about their world at the eponymous Observatory. Everything is relentlessly negative and depressive, sometimes to the extent it feels petty on the “unbelievably ancient man kept hideously alive by a dark device” level (or my personal favourite, “3d6 women lounge here, made of spikes”, which, to its credit, made me laugh). Sometimes it is funny in a wry way (“A Biopsy of the Tarresque [sic] – It didn’t go well”), but more often than not, it is just negative negative.

I don’t want to dwell too long on the ethics of fictional worlds, but there is something about this which bothers me on a personal level. It bothered me in the otherwise excellent Carcosa, and it bothers me in the premise and details of this module too. So many evils are visited on the hapless residents of this little corner of this fantasy world I don’t even know about that it somehow feels unjust. Of course, the existence of evil is the wellspring of adventure, but can you really make a difference at all? And are you in the wrong for exploiting their suffering for vicarious entertainment? Running the adventure, the players (and their characters) are faced with choices which test their morality to the limits. They can’t save and help everyone, and their actions are liable to result in even more evil than they started with – with inaction perhaps even worse. They will dirty their hands whether they become involved with the area’s kill-or-be-killed struggles, or leave it to burn and focus on their personal interests. Some will find that interesting. I’d probably just throw up my hands and find a good, stiff drink. This is personal, unenforced opinion: I don’t really want to play or run this adventure, but you might.

Then again...
(found on the Ten Foot Polemic blog)
Then again, this is also an imaginative, fantastic adventure, one of the best about going into a strange and forbidding place full of things which will eat your face. You get to feel properly out of your depth, and that’s a rare feeling in RPGs (again, Carcosa did it, although in a completely different way). It is a proper, epic journey “up the river” (you could also say up shit creek), encountering weirder and weirder things as you progress. From disaster-struck human lands, you venture into a forbidden place governed by the dead, insects and fish, the fungal and the mineral realm, and things beyond the ken of humanity. Things get less and less recognisable, and by the time you are at your destination, it is like that expedition into the heart of R’lyeh, with Great Cthulhu looming somewhere around the edges. There are odd technology-as-magic things to encounter; grandiose remains of destroyed or extinct cultures; and an underground storehouse of strange wonders that drives home how utterly alien this past is, and how little they had scratched the world’s surface. It is Lovecraft’s cosmic imagination without the overused and increasingly tiresome Cthulhu chic polluting the Internet, and that is a welcome sight.

This imagination is also in evidence in the individual pieces that make up the module. There is probably not one encounter, NPC or item that doesn’t have a twist of some kind. It is all new – some sort of D&D in new clothes, or perhaps D&D visited by Geoffrey McKinney’s vision of Gamma World (see the post at Sep 22, 2006 5:50 pm or this one on human insignificance). They are little vignettes, but they fit together into a coherent whole. There is an evident interest in geology and natural sciences; a rarity in adventure design, which is used to develop rather imaginative encounters. If you like geology and think that book on minerals would make for a good Monster Manual, this is your module. I loved the geo-samples room, which is ridiculous, bizarre, and hilariously funny.

Deep Carbon Observatory is also fairly interactive (with slight problems): you can experiment with things, learn a little bit about them, and taken together, they work well as an adventure (which not all visionary products do). Although the nature of the upriver journey makes the affair mostly linear, there are enough decision points and dynamic elements (like a rival band of adventurers/assassins, and a “what happens if the PCs do nothing” section) to allow for variation and player engagement (although the decisions don’t truly make much of a difference in the long term). And of course, the Observatory is a very interesting dungeon on its own, presented from a cross-section cutout perspective, and describing 44 rooms filled with wondrous, sometimes incredibly dangerous junk (it is the rare example of the cabinet contents dungeon which actually works). Together with the 40 overland encounter areas, you have a lot of things to play with.

The text is mostly very well written. It never over-elaborates on superfluous details, and often manages to capture the gist of things with excellently chosen phrases. A formerly flooded valley, now revealed by the breakage of a monumental dam, has a floor like “one blue-grey bacterial mat”, or “rough-textured semi-flesh”. The spike women, actually a group of salt dryads have “hearts of black diamond”, “set within the chest like jewels”. The module crams a generous amount of material into a 86-page digest-sized booklet, sometimes communicating its ideas through terse descriptions, sometimes the implications which may develop from the encounter, and the occasional random table (these are uniformly excellent). The sketchlike art by Scrap Princess is a good accompaniment to the text. It works as illustration, and it works as something evoking a certain mood. It is good art in much the same way Erol Otus is good art.

I like the way the adventure is presented. Although it practically invites endless blather about which-ancient-civilisation-did-what-and-why, it doesn’t beat around the bush, and doesn’t even have the obligatory wasted pages on the “adventure background” (something dreadful has happened, now do something about it) or the “adventure hooks” (something dreadful has happened, now do something about it) – it starts in medias res, and proceeds with the action until it is over. Everything is in the context of an adventure, and almost everything gets as much detail as it needs to make sense of it. For dealing in such esoteric subjects, Deep Carbon Observatory is surprisingly straightforward, and its brevity makes it very GM-friendly.

It doesn’t always work. Beyond the misery tourism aspect, I have the suspicion a lot of the content and the tangents will never see the light of actual play; not in a campaign, and certainly not in a one-shot, where a lot of the module will amount to a weird inscrutable dungeon with weird inscrutable treasure. It is a classic, although not severe example of “hidden depth”. Hidden depth is not entirely wasted content, since it informs the GM’s perspective, and makes for something which exists and operates by its own logic, but probably cannot be fully comprehended by the players. But in the observatory proper, there is sometimes too much of it.

And that’s Deep Carbon Observatory. You can probably run a very good, very miserable, very odd adventure with it if your players are into that sort of thing, or at the very least, you can annoy them with random interjections of “But is it art?

No playtesters were listed for this adventure.


Rating: **** / *****

Thursday, 24 August 2017

[CAMPAIGN JOURNAL] The Inheritance #12: Arghul the Demented

The Sea Puffs [Tengeri Puffancs] had just pulled into the port of Baklin, carrying a cargo of oil, Kassadian wine, and passengers bound for the island and perhaps beyond to the Twelve Kingdoms. Drolhaf Haffnarskørung immediately noticed a group of twenty or thirty men wearing worn white robes, and still looking lost in the Baklin harbour. Sensing an opportunity, he approached one of them, a bearded, middle-aged fellow and inquired of their purpose.
We are a group of pilgrims, kind stranger. We are looking for affordable food and lodgings before we press onwards into the wilds” came the answer.
I would recommend The Inn: the rooms are clean and the rates are reasonable. And what would be your ultimate destination?
Oh --” the pilgrim smiled, “it is a long way, through many travails and hazards. We are making a pilgrimage to a sanctuary of wise and kind mystics, where we might find enlightment.
Drolhaf continued to press the matter: “I and my companions would gladly accompany you through the dangers of the wilderness. There is strength in numbers, and maybe we, too, could gain from wisdom.
I shall tell our leader, Brother Runcius” – the man pointed at one of his companions, a stern fellow with a decorative wooden staff. “If only such helpful and kind-hearted strangers would receive travellers in every port, instead of the usual cheats and reprobates!
Have you never had to be disappointed in your fellow men?” interjected Lafadriel Hundertwasser.
The pilgrim laughed before rejoining his companions. “You can bet I have.

Where is Harrgon Torsk when we need him?!” fumed Armand the Scumbag.
They had tried the Golden Plate and The Inn, but he was nowhere to be seen. At last, they returned to the Murk, the cathouse where they had spent the previous night, now full of off-duty sailors and fishermen returning from the fish market. However, their man wasn’t here either.
All right, if you see him, just tell him to look for us at the Inn” an exasperated Armand explained to the barman.
The fat slob scratched his bald pate. “I’ll try to remember that.
Armand sighed. “Here is an electrum coin.
The fellow seemed much more interested. “I will immediately chisel the message on the surface, Sir!

I love this!” enthused Phil the Terror of Turkeys as they returned to the darkening street. “Everyone is so corrupt you can just buy their favours. It is so... honest.
Let’s think about our current opportunities first. Let’s go to that houndmonger whose beasts have dug up that crawlway. With a bit of luck, it is still undiscovered, and whatever is down there will be ours.
Yeah, but let’s not attack the owner if we can help it” suggested Drolhaf.
Give him money, you mean?” blurted Gadur Yir.
You are getting too civilised for your own good” laughed Phil.
But first, dinner!
That’s a good idea” nodded Gadur Yir. “I need to rest, I still feel very weak from that poison.
What a little ----“ giggled Phil. “We need to do it now. You are strong enough, and we have Gunnar the Beheader with us as a backup fighter.

***

The City of Baklin
Accepting the plan, they rounded the harbour and made their way to the eastern part of town. Beggars and shady fellows squatted in the doorways, and sounds of merriment came from a night dive where a bunch of orcs were dancing to the tunes of a fiddle, while two were outside, one supporting the other as he disgorged his former meal on the cobblestones. Then there was quiet again; the crumbling towers of the Masters’ Guild squatting over arcades with boarded-up storefronts, and side streets disappearing into dark dead ends.

The dagger came without a warning from above, missing Armand the Scumbag by an inch and clattering noisily on the cobbles. Phil the Terror of Turkeys spotted a dark shape on a rooftop above them, but the apparition disappeared and they could hear sounds of clattering footsteps over the shingles.
Son of a ---“ Armand swore, and started climbing the balconies and sagging timbers of the precarious building, followed by Drolhaf, who soon found himself unable to progress after the much more nimble Kassadian. Gadur Yir, Gunnar the Beheader, Lafadriel and Phil quickly looked around for traces of other assailants, but there were none in evidence. Meanwhile, Armand mantled up on the roof, and saw the cloaked figure from behind a thick chimneypot, just in time to see another dagger pass him by and fall down to street level. He lunged forward to catch the assassin, but the man was quicker, descending a rope and beating a hasty retreat through a crooked street. Armand cocked his crossbow, fired a bolt, but by the time the missile could have connected, his quarry was far away.
Darling?! There is someone outside on the balcony!” came a woman’s whimpering voice from behind a door where Drolhaf was still looking for a way up to the top.
Shhhh. Just keep quiet, honey – maybe he’ll go away – just keep quiet” someone answered, not entirely convinced of his own argument. Drolhaf sighed, spat, and climbed down the way he came, followed by a morose Armand.

The daggers were freshly treated with poison” Phil showed a greasy sheen on one of the recovered blades. “This was no chance ambush.
It is out of the question it was meant for me!” protested Armand. “What have I done? What happened in Kassadia, stayed in Kassadia. There is no way the fathers of those fine ladies would still be angry at me!
I know this sort of thing and it was for you, rest assured” countered the hobbit.
“’Who could have done it?!’ I ask the cruel stars – but they don’t answer!” declaimed Lafadriel Hundertwasser.
Armand, it may be may be time for you to change your name” explained Phil.
How so? I am not a creative soul!
Lafadriel mused: “Perhaps you could be Armand the Knave.”
Finding no solution to the mystery of the sudden attack, they continued to the houndmonger.

***

The dog pound was a vacant lot by the city walls where a house had once stood, closed off by a fence of tall wooden poles driven into the ground. Inside, a pack of ugly-looking curs were fighting over a few measly scraps among piles of debris and rubbish. The only building stood in the northeast corner, a wooden shack with a smoking stovepipe chimney.
But how do we get in? I don’t fancy dealing with those mutts.”
“Easy” Drolhaf grabbed a handful of stones, and hurled them at the shack. Exclamations came from inside, the door flew open, and a group of burly, bad-mannered chaps with sticks and clubs came to investigate, led by a colossus wearing furs and a spiked flail. They looked ready for a brawl, but the Northman quickly calmed them with a handful of coins, explaining them their problem with the crawlway leading below the city.
As you well know, the undead may be lurking down there, and we both know what that means. The knights of Yolanthus Kar will be over to seal off the passage, and you gain nothing. With this arrangement, we both stand to profit.
Tarbus Rolf, the leader of the gang, seemed to like the proposition.
And how about the dogs? Do you eat them?” asked Gadur Yir.
Now just a minute!” spat the bearded giant. “I respect these filthy beasts. Just because I catch ‘em and sell ‘em, don’t mean I’m doing that.
Indeed!” mused Lafadriel aloud. “These are the noble monsters of the urban wilderness.
For an instant, everybody froze. Tarbus Rolf’s eyes went wide, and at last he muttered “What the fuck?!” The situation was awkward as everyone was searching for something appropriate to say, but at last, Armand broke the silence.
So this is where they don’t bark anymore?
What?! ...no... they still bark here. Ask your orc pals at the Skinned Cur towards the harbour. I sell ‘em the mangy curs, and they cook ‘em in their soup – can’t say I like it, but money’s money.”
That’s the pub we passed on our way here. Very interesting” noted Armand.

Tarbus Rolf ordered his men, and his young assistant Bipkin to bring lanterns and a table where they would illuminate the opening while the company was down there, and watch for trouble coming. The dogs had dug a deep pit into the rubble of the yard, revealing a tight passage westwards. Drolhaf and Phil descended first, followed by Gadur Yir and Armand the Scumbag, and finally Lafadriel Hundertwasser and Gunnar the Beheader as the rear guard. The irregular crawlway travelled some 20’, where it opened into the ceiling of a deeper and larger cavity. Peering down, the light of a thrown torch revealed an irregular chamber, half-filled with a cave-in. A quick underground stream rushed through the room to their east, a rough set of stairs descended to the north, and there was a fairly wide, rubble-choked passage to the west. As Drolhaf looked, a stone below his hand gave way and clattered down the side of a tall rubble pile, but he kept his balance and avoided the fall.

They descended with a rope left in place to cover their escape if something happened. The place was cool and damp, colourful stalactites hanging from the ceiling, particularly thick where the stream flowed through the passage and disappeared down a natural drain. The floor was strewn with stones, some natural and some chiselled, as well as odds and ends like broken pottery, bones, corroded metal scraps and various animal skulls.
Phil picked up a few pieces of junk – “We will show these to the dupes and tell them this was all we found.”
Gadur Yir examined the eastern, natural part of the cavern. On careful examination, he felt a slight draft coming from the north, and discovered the rock formations were concealing another chamber.

The Midden under Baklin
The fragile limestones broke easily under their blows, revealing an extension of the cave. They entered, Gunnar hanging back to watch the northern passage. The petrified remains of what might have been a fire pit stood in the northwest corner, laden with charred wood turned into stone and crystal. Around the ancient fire, four hunched figures stood frozen in limestone, already covered with creamy lime deposits. Their low brows, deep-set eyes and crude rags betrayed them as the inhabitants of a previous age; and the petrified chords around their necks as the victims of violence, probably human sacrifice. Drolhaf collected a handful of dark, indigo crystals from the ashes of the fire pit.
Something is coming” came Gunnar’s whispered warning.
Something?!
Three small shapes emerged from the darkness and floated into view. They were round, disembodied eyes, the size of a large apple, scrutinising the cavern. Although everyone was hidden, they identified their targets without trouble, shooting paralysis rays, magic projectiles, and life-draining rays until they were at last dispatched.
Well done, Gunnar! We are lucky to have you protecting our back” said Armand.

Continuing the search of the cavern revealed another set of stalactites blocking the way to the south. Breaking them with a warhammer and creating an opening, the company peered into a larger cavern, dimly illuminated by glowing mushrooms on the muddy floor. More dark figures were slumped against the walls, another row of the petrified primitives. They wore what looked like vests woven from bark, their mouths frozen in terrible grimaces.
There are about two dozen of them, give or take” whispered Phil.
A little further to the east, they discovered something even more ominous. A crude throne of hewn stone rested against the wall, occupied by a massive, brutal figure of the same people as the dead around him. He was caked over with layers of limestone, but his empty eye sockets seemed to peer forward with malevolent intensity, and around his neck hung a crudely chiselled crystal glowing with a deep crimson hellfire. Recalling the abandoned mines, Gadur Yir shuddered and raised his shield in a defensive position as he passed by the throne, ready for anything...

...the brute stood up as pieces of limestone broke off from the mummified flesh, making a horrible crunching sound. The crystal on his chest burned vindictively, and all around, the dead broke from their limestone shells and lurched forward. The unnatural apparition’s voice came like from the depths of the grave:
I am Arghul the Demented! Before me are heaped meat and blood, for I am famished and need gorge myself!
Run!” cried Gadur Yir, and, still defending himself from stray blows, bolted forward into a southern side passage.
Drolhaf turned and fled back the way he came.
After Drolhaf! Don’t bother with Gadur Yir!” cried Armand the Scumbag, and the rest of the company followed.
Shambling corpses pursued them both, but Arghul the Demented went for Gadur Yir... who had found himself in a dead end room where he could only made out the ancient remains of what looked like decaying sacks. Gulping, he turned to face the coming horde of flesh-hungry undead, and his stomach turned as he felt the charnel stench of the prehistoric warlord. Arghul came at him and the half-orc raised his weapon to counter-attack. Two sets of sharp claws caught him square in his breast, and he froze, unable to move. There were horrible gnawing and rending noises and the cracking of bones in the cavern as Arghul the Demented and his followers feasted for the first time in many years.

The other half of the company found themselves back in the cavern with the campfire and the four inanimate corpses.
This is a small opening – we can defend it!” exclaimed Drolhaf, readying his weapon to brace for the incoming horde. They fought, as the dead lunged at them and tried to push through or drag them back into their cavern. One corpse managed to take advantage of Armand’s weakness, and entered the cavern, but Gunnar the Beheader struck it down before the others could follow, and took the place of the wounded Armand. The dead retreated a little, and stood with hateful empty eyes.
Now what?!
Arghuuuul... Arghuuuul...” the corpses howled as they gave way to their warlord. Arghul the Demented came, followed by undead carrying the torn-off, bloody limbs of poor Gadur Yir. The crystal was almost burning on Arghul’s massive chest, a dreadful eye of fire in the darkness. The cold stench of the grave filled everyone’s nostrils, and Lafadriel almost dropped his weapon as he started retching. Drolhaf quickly quaffed down his potion of heroism, but was caught by Arghul’s sudden attack, and froze as the triumphant dark form towered above him...

...desperately, Phil threw the burning lantern at the undead, while the others yanked Drolhaf’s passive body back into the cave, and turned to flee. Arghul howled triumphantly, and the wave surged forward. Gunnar the Beheader held them back as he was retreating as well as he could, but he miscalculated. Arghul’s claws tore him limb from limb [he received two critical hits for a total of 34 Hp damage, bringing him down to -24 Hp], and once again, the hungry undead fell upon their prey to satiate their terrible appetites. The company – what remained of it – quickly clambered up the rope to the crawlway, emerging shaking and chalk-white from the pit before Tarbus Rolf and his surprised companions. As if they had sensed something, the dogs were baying and howling in maddened fear.
What – what about the half-orc? And that other guy?” asked the houndmonger.
They... stayed behind.
What of this one? He seems... he doesn’t move none.
Do you know a good pathologist?” asked Lafadriel.
A what? Shouldn’t we... shouldn’t we just call the knights of Yolanthus Kar?
We will take care of that” responded Phil the Terror of Turkeys.

***

The next morning at The Inn, a morose group of adventurers were eating their breakfast in sullen silence. Redragon and Grindragon brought cold meats, resin-flavoured beer, cheese and sausages, and a bottle of Kassadian red especially for Armand.
Let’s think about Lady Callodric’s stolen shipment” recommended Drolhaf Haffnarskørung. “Where will the valuable pieces turn up? That’s our clue. They will never sell the things we are really looking for, but the rest will lead us to our target.
Someone stepped up to the table. He was olive-skinned, with curled hair, simple clothes and a mace hanging on his belt. He introduced himself as Drusus the Historian, and mentioned how Harrgon Torsk had sent him here to find a company of like-minded adventurers.
We could use a man like you” nodded Armand. “We have just lost two good fellows in an unfortunate series of events. It concerns the living dead.
In the Valley of Barzak Bragoth? I have heard of them” inquired Drusus.
No, they are below our feet.
The Historian jumped. “You mean the Inn!
No... in the poetic sense of the expression” Lafadriel Hundertwasser interjected to correct Armand.

But Armand wasn’t listening. He was clutching at his throat, wracked with terrible pain. He fell whimpering on the floor, his eyes bulging, but at last he forced his fingers into his mouth, and he vomited profusely.
Treachery!” cried Phil, and everyone in the common room jumped to action. Redragon and Grindragon came running, and a group of off-duty guardsmen ran up to Armand to see what was up.
Poison... I have been poisoned...” Armand muttered, too frail to even stand up.
Poison!” hollered one of the guards.
Everyone has been poisoned! It is a mass poisoning! Help!” cried a terrified merchant, then shrunk back disappointedly when it turned out it was just that one person.
The wine! The only thing he has touched we haven’t was the wine! It was Grindragon who had brought a bottle of wine… especially for him! Arrest the dwarf at once!
Grindragon’s ruddy face went white, and he broke down sobbing as the guards seized him and tied his hands behind his back. Redragon was close to breaking down.
Why have... you done this?” asked Armand, still reeling from the venom.
Grindragon fell on his knees to plead for his life. “It was not me, Sir! I just brought up the bottle in the morning to warm it for you, just as you ordered. Please, Sir! I did not do anything!
It is the Sacker for you, knave!” snapped a guard, preparing to lead him away, but Armand bid him stay a moment.
But I didn’t order anything, Grindragon. Explain yourself – now!
It was – it was right there on this slip of paper, you see, Sir? The one you left under our door” stammered the confused dwarf, producing a brief written message.
Armand examined the paper carefully, trying to focus his eyes. Then, rising to his knees and supporting himself by the counter, he said: “You can release him. He is telling the truth. But this is not my writing.

As the two dwarves were beside themselves with relief, and the guards released Grindragon on Armand’s word, Greg examined the bottle.
As I have guessed. The wax seal has been tampered with” he nodded. “This is a strong poison, and expensive. Someone wasn’t looking at saving his money when he tried to kill you. You are a very valuable man, my friend.

Excuse me? Is there a certain Drolhaf – ah, here you are, gentlemen!” came a voice from behind them. The newcomer was Harkell the Butler, Lady Callodric’s manservant. “I would have word with you in private – and quickly.
They went up to their room, where Harkell explained the reason for his visit. In the morning, a dreadful discovery had been made in Hightowne: Tomurgen the Bard, who had spoken of the enchanted flower to Lady Callodric, and who promised to say more once it was retrieved, was found murdered in his own home. He had not come out in days, and there was no answer when the lady’s messengers were looking for him. Finally, the watch opened his apartment to discover the corpse, which was now in the House of the Dead maintained by the knights of Yolanthus Kar, awaiting transportation to the Valley of Barzak Bragoth. For now, the watch resealed the apartment, and posted a guard at the entrance.
We will seek out Lady Callodric in a few hours, Harkell. Thank you for your warning.
To make sure, Armand tried to conceal his features as well as he could under the circumstances; changing clothes, altering features and cutting some of his hair.
But what could be the reason?” he protested. “Because I had asked after Sarbit the Gravedigger?
Phil shook his head. “Harrgon Torks could be in it, though. He has underworld connections – anything for money, no?
I must have gone somewhere where I shouldn’t have” grumbled Armand. “For now, please call me Yil the Mysterious. It is not much, but every little counts.

***

The company’s first visit went to Hightowne, to visit the knights of Yolanthus Kar. The House of the Dead was an austere building next to Fantagor the Kassadian’s gaudy palace. Stepping inside, they found themselves in a cool antechamber, guarded by stern-looking knights in black full plate armour. Drolhaf approached one of the older-looking ones to ask for one of the superiors. The knight bid them wait while he fetched a man, tall of stature and valiant of step. He had piercing eyes and dark hanging moustaches, introducing himself as Sir Boron of the Cliffs [Vitéz Sziklay Boron]. Sir Boron took the report about undead beneath the city very seriously.
I will consult the venerable Chrisostom the Reedy [Kákos Krizosztom], the eldest knight in this house. Alas, our order is stretched thin over the island, so that we cannot draw sword to dispatch these foul monsters at once. For the nonce, I recommend that the opening should be blockaded and any entry strictly forbidden.
I would gladly contribute to the cause, Sir Knight” suggested Drolhaf. “To contribute to the safety of the place, I would gladly commission a small, securely locked crypt in the name of Gladuor, my patron god.
A crypt! Surely you know that no crypt or grave might be raised on the island, and no dead may rest elsewhere but the Valley of Barzak Bragoth.
Let’s call it a ‘protective structure’, then. I would gladly do it, in memory of our companions, who now rest there... well, were eaten there, but that’s beside the point. And there is another matter, Sir Boron” he probed further. “It has come to our attention that Tomurgen the Bard has been found murdered.
Sir Boron’s expression darkened. “Verily, it is so! This old and beloved man, whose song had lifted the hearts of so many before he withdrew after his wife’s death, was slain by treachery, by a swordstrike to the back. Cowardly and shameful conduct, and an ignoble end to a long and distinguished life.
Do you believe there are assassins lurking in this town?” asked Armand. “Are they known to exist here?
No, not here...” the knight pondered. “But aye, in Gont, they say their evil lurks.
If it was a sword, it need not have been an assassin. But the slayer is out – and may he be brought to justice” said Drolhaf.

***

Well, that was interesting. Shall we go down again before they get involved?
Maybe we ought to check on Harrgon Torsk to determine if he is innocent.
And I would like to seek out the Skinned Cur” said Armand. “An old acquaintance from Kassadia who could help me can be found there.
I know what I’m doing – will be right back” said Drusus the Historian, leaving behind the company, and heading for the tower of Slarkeron the Wizard. Peering into the garden filled with tall hedgerows and twisted statues, he wrote a quick letter of introduction to the mage, where he listed his skills and requested that he learn from his better. Finding no mailbox, he opened the iron gate and took a step into the garden. A leering gargoyle seemed to watch him with its dead stone eyes. Drusus held up the rolled-up parchment.
Give it to your master. I am of the guild myself, and would like to learn.
The stone monstrosity came alive, and hissed malevolently. “If you are of the guild, just step forward.
...but truthfully, I have not yet taken my Master Exam. I’ll be back.
Drusus left the message before the statue, and quickly backed out of the peaceful but sinister garden.

To their luck, they found the cheerful Harrgon Torsk at the Inn, and at once, invited him up to their room.
I have received your message. How may I be of service?
After listening to the company’s theories, his eyes narrowed and he bluntly stated “No. The painting wasn’t taken by local professionals. This is the work of outsiders... and if that they be, these professionals will see that they leave town one way or another.
There is the wizard who smells of mint. What of him?
Ah, yes, I have discovered his identity for you. You are dealing with Filodont the wizard. He has been seen in Baklin multiple times. He comes and goes with his adventuring companions. The last time, he met a pretty hobbit girl named Lizadorn.
What of her?” asked Phil, his interest piqued.
She left town with another of her kind named Boffo Badgervest [Borzbekecses Boffó].
You may have more trouble on your hands than these adventurers” said Armand. “There was Tomurgen’s recent murder, and two attempts on my life. Assassinations seem to be getting awfully common around here.
The roguish Harrgon seemed none too happy when he heard the news, but at last he came up with a plan. “We... let’s say we can offer you a safe place to hide. Go back to the Murk and tell the bartender the phrase ‘yellow ribbon’. A safe room and a means of escape will be at your disposal.

Harrgon left, but as soon as he did, something else turned up. A messenger boy came, calling for “Armand”. Armand – now Yil the Mysterious – concealed himself in a corner while the others took the letter for him. Nervously, Armand put on gloves, and took every precaution known to man to avoid a trick with poison as he opened up the envelope. It contained a slip of parchment, a pre-paid, one-way ticket to Kassadia on board the Sea Puffs.
If I show up, they might as well kill me there and then” Armand protested.
They really want to see you in the Valley of Barzak Bragoth” agreed Drusus the Historian.
They considered who might want Armand dead, and who might have put the hit on him. Bella, the prostitute at the cathouse, for asking too eagerly about the local thieves? Someone from Baklin’s ruling circles? Was it just Harrgon Torsk, trying to milk them for easy money?

Just a moment” Phil hissed. “Hear that? Footsteps!
He snuck out, and returned at once. “I saw a nondescript man. Maybe too nondescript. Bull’s neck, balding, baggy pants. He was loitering in the corridor before our room, and is now climbing up to the next floor.
They looked at each other, and everyone went their way. Phil quickly looked out their window, seeing two porters involved in an argument next to a broken down cart carrying newly made shingles. One of the porters was balding, and the other looked similar to the first one. Phil and Lafadriel went downstairs to check them out, while Armand and Drolhaf followed the bull-necked man upstairs, seeing him disappear behind a door. They briefly hesitated, then followed inside, where they spotted their surprised quarry resting on his back, enjoying the air coming in through the open window.
What the???” the man asked.
Stop! We were following a thief” snapped Drolhaf as he scanned the area, and looked through the window. His worst assumptions seemed to be confirmed as he spotted a red handkerchief tied to the windowsill. Was the man signalling someone?
I wish you would explain...
Now, make no mistake. We have no quarrel with the guild.
The – guild?
None else.
Uh-huh... I think the guild is fine. Very fine.
Don’t play the innocent” growled Armand, as Drolhaf climbed out the window to check the rooftop above them. “And... what is that there? Come back, Drolhaf!
What is what?!” the man acted genuinely confused as Drolhaf Haffnarskørung climbed back in.
He was writing a message. Come on. Read it, Drolhaf.
With pleasure! It is unfinished. Let’s see – ‘Dear Arhalia. I am involved in a risky venture. The cargo has safely arrived at the discussed location. Also...’ That’s all he wrote” he put down the piece of paper.
Hm. I can’t make sense of it. Still...
Er... could you please explain me what’s going on?
Nothing. You carry on with your business. We could have made a mistake” said Drolhaf as he took one long, last look at the fellow before leaving the room. The man sighed, sauntered to the window, still looking at them incredulously. Just as they left, Armand saw out of the corner of his eye that he had taken off the red handkerchief, and shaken it vigorously before wiping his forehead.
The handkerchief! It is too late... it was the handkerchief all along! He has given the signal, Drolhaf. Now they know I am in here. We must leave at once.

Down in their room, they recounted the story to the others, who had come to a similar dead end with the porters. “They said their cart broke down. Didn’t react when we told them about a ship ticket, but that could have been their sheer professionalism. Said they were potters from some coastal dump” recalled Phil.
We have to get going.
Disguising Armand as well as they could, they quickly left The Inn through a back door, passing through a street with only a few passers-by. There was a pervasive, almost nauseating feeling of being watched; seemingly respectable citizens and strolling servants appeared to take an unhealthy interest in their group. Every rooftop looked like a potential hive of assassins. Then, a little boy walked up to the company.
Have you brought the milk?” he asked.
It will be done” answered Lafadriel, and they left the spot as fast as possible.

After a while, they emerged at the Murk, mostly empty in the afternoon save for a bored group of girls chatting over tea in one of the booths.
Armand walked up to the counter and whispered “yellow ribbon” to the barkeep, who nodded and ushered him up the stairs.
Remember, second door to the left. There’s a bell – one ring means ‘okay’, two is for ‘company’, three for ‘boat’.
Armand took stock of his safe room. He quickly discovered a wardrobe outfitted with peeping holes, a comfortable couch, and a second door opening to nothingness – he could see the bay below him, and a pier with an anchored boat close by. Finally, he collapsed on the couch, and tried to get some rest. The others took a good look at their surroundings. Phil the Terror of Turkeys was quickly discovered by the bored prostitutes, who immediately dragged their little darling into their booth for some tea and pastries. Drolhaf examined the bayside front of the Murk, while Lafadriel called for a girl.
The thing is, I have tastes which may be called... peculiar. I am attracted to the rooftops. Take me to a spot where we can look over the tavern without being seen.
How romantic!
She did, in fact, know a spot. They climbed up on a crooked roof, where Lafadriel settled himself next to a chimney pot before shooing away the girl.
Now be off with you. No; bring me some tea while you’re gone. I need to think.

***

There was only one among them who did not stay at the cathouse. Drusus the Historian, more interested in his own endeavours, parted ways with his newfound companions, and made for Hightowne. Approaching Slarkeron’s garden gate, he examined the garden carefully. All seemed peaceful, but the letter was gone. He opened the gate, walked forward among the torsos decorating the carefully tended hedges. Slarkeron’s tower rose like a crooked finger in the background. Drusus looked around, and cast an inquiring look at the gargoyle, but it was silent and unmoving. Shrugging, he continued, passing by a narrow path leading deeper into the hedge maze. A wide, straight path lead up to the tower door, flanked by marble benches. There was a sweet, coying smell in the air that was almost maddeningly intoxicating. Drusus stepped forward, and almost plunged headfirst into a deep pit. Pit? There was no pit before him, just the garden path, and the sweet smell. He withdrew, thought. He felt something in the pit of his stomach, and spoke the words of a protection from evil spell – just in case. Turning back, he made for the exit, which now seemed much, much further than it was the way in. Space was strangely crooked and it seemed to have treacherous gaps and discontinuities. The open gate beckoned. Concentrating on stepping through the opening, he walked through the arch, and found himself in a cool, dark hall.

Colourful panes of glass illuminated this chamber of the tower. Glass apparatuses and weird instruments stood around; astronomical symbols decorated the walls and ceiling.
You have come to me?
Drusus spun around, finding himself face to face with an ancient man with white hair and milky white eyes shot with something looking like spiderweb.
You have the nerve, to come here and lie about yourself. You are no guildsman!
I just wanted your attention, great Slarkeron” bowed Drusus. “I would like to learn from one such as you.
Mmhmmm. I see the spark of talent within your insolence. I will take you for an apprentice – after you do something for me. You see -- ”and he pointed at thin glass panes fastened together with metal clamps, containing the cross-sections of brains. “I have long been seeking the secrets of cognition. Where does it stem from? How does it work? The secret of brain fluids must be innumerable! I will take you in if you fulfil just one of the tasks I set before you.
And these would be?
First, bring me the brain of a mind-scanner. Second, bring me proof whether transcendental meditation, this new fad I have been hearing about, is fraud or reality. Third, go to the Valley of Barzak Bragoth, and descend to the catacombs there to seek the stone statue’s brain and Nibel’s tablets. Then, and only then, my apprentice you will be.
I surmise these are hard tasks” responded Drusus. “But I will embark to complete them.
Very good. I promise that ere you return with one of these tasks completed, I will use your excellent brain for noble purposes.
Slarkeron drew a rectangle in the air, and where his fingers traced its sides, a silvery light spread, until it emerged into a fully formed shimmering rectangle. Drusus bowed again, walked through the portal, and found himself back in the street, before the gates to Slarkeron’s garden.

(Session date 6 August 2017).

***

Notable quotes:

Marvin, offtopic: “One day, I’d like to be as manly as him.” (referring to another player stirring his raspberry syrup with a hunting knife)

***

Referee’s notes: This was a long game, starting early and concluding in the evening with a steak dinner, so the writeup is also lengthier than usual. In this adventure, the last of the original characters died, and with that, the campaign will inevitably go in new, perhaps entirely unforeseen directions (although the current group does know about the Inheritance, even if they have not pursued it). By now, the number of possible plot threads to follow has grown considerably, so we should be fine in that area.

It was very much a fun session (Arghul the Demented was particularly great, for which I must express my thanks to my Gamescience dice), but some admonishment is in order. For all they did (and they did a lot), the players did not do very well this time. In the first half of the adventure, they pursued a side plot that was much less urgent than the others they were involved in, and even managed to walk into clearly telegraphed danger right after finding a way below Baklin. Sure, the battle could have gone another way (as the players assumed in our post-game chat), but this was carelessness, and they had to pay for it dearly.

If the first half was about rash and foolhardy action, the second half seemed to involve more than the proper share of inaction and indecisiveness. I had a lot of fun cranking up the paranoia to the point of absurdity, but the action did not really move forward. If the players have powerful enemies who want them fail, then they surely succeeded at stalling them while they advanced whatever schemes they had in mind. Or to put it this way: there is a reason D&D is an adventure game where resourceful and decisive action tends to save the day. If you do something, even if you fail, things keep moving and you will get to try something else or at least pick up the pieces and move on. If you stay put, you may be safe, but you get nowhere. Pick your battles carefully, but fight them when you can. Things are inevitably more complicated, but this is the gist of it.


And that should be the lesson for our next game session this Sunday.