Saturday, October 31, 2015

Building a Mystery Part 2: Adding Flesh to Bones

Happy Halloween, readers! When we left off at the end of Part 1, we had the skeleton of a Call of Cthulhu convention one-shot.  In this post, we'll begin to add flesh to that skeleton and develop it into something that will knock the socks off six players when they sit down to my table, unsuspecting.  The steps covered here are not always ones I go through one at a time; often, and indeed in this case, I've got multiple trains of thought and development running in my head simultaneously, and I'll flow back and forth between steps, as ideas I come to in one train inspire me to revisit ones in other trains.  I'll try to break this process down into steps that a reader could follow and work from.

The skeleton I had at the end of the last post was "the Duchess of Holdernesse is 103, has no blood descendants to inherit the title but plenty of people looking to inherit the property and money associated with the title.  The property, Holdernesse Hall, is reportedly haunted by the ghost of a murdered ancestor, whose appearance may affect the resolve of those seeking wealth from the aging Duchess.  The Hall itself is built atop the ruins of a buried Roman temple."

Much of this is taken from the novel The Evil of Pemberley House, with additional material coming from Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Priory School" and Ken Russell's psychedelic film adaptation of Bram Stoker's The Lair of the White Worm.

I finished The Evil of Pemberley House on Wednesday, and re-read "The Adventure of the Priory School" Thursday on my lunch break, along with another Sherlock Holmes story: "The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual," which I think will also find its way into the delicious stew of this adventure, and I'll be re-watching THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM over this weekend to refresh it in my memory.

This is, for me at least, an important part of the fleshing-out process; by reacquainting myself with the media I want to borrow from, I can sometimes pick up on elements that I didn't necessarily remember from prior read- or watch-throughs that will make for a richer adventure, or, (as in the case of being inspired to reread "The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual") my memory will be jogged and some other bit of inspiration will be brought to my conscious attention.


One thing that occurred to me today is that, by moving the time-period of events from 1972 to 1928 and keeping the Duchess of Holdernesse 103, the events of "The Adventure of the Priory School" don't quite work; if we place that adventure in 1904, when it was published, then the Duchess was 79; far too old to be having a 10-year old son.  Even if we set the events far earlier in Sherlock Holmes' career, say, 1882, she's still too old to have a 10 year old son.  So we need to either make her a significantly younger woman, or rewrite Holmes' interaction with Holdernesse Hall (given the popularity of the BBC's Sherlock, and Holmes' enduring popularity as a character, I believe that the players will respond very positively to following in Holmes' footsteps).  

I did some brainstorming between files while at work today, and jotted down some notes during my afternoon break on how I'd adjust the back-story.  Here's what I came up with:

"During a period of estrangement between the Duke of Holdernesse and his wife, during which the Duchess was on the Continent, the Duke was the target of a blackmail scheme, threatening to make public his predilection for prostitutes.  The Duke hired Sherlock Holmes to retrieve the incriminating documents from the blackmailer, the notorious Charles Augustus Milverton.  During the course of this, Holmes determined that the Duke's secretary, a young man named James Wilder, was Milverton's agent in the Duke's household, funneling information to the blackmailer.  He also determined that Wilder was the Duke's illegitimate son, and that he'd taken part in the scheme to further his own desires - to be officially recognized as the Duke's son and thus be placed in line for inheritance.  Milverton was sent to the gallows, Wilder was forgiven by the Duke on the condition he leave England for good, and with Wilder out of Holdernesse, the Duke and Duchess were able to reconcile.  The Duchess returned to Holdernesse with a young boy she adopted in France following the death of his parents.  The Duke would die of a heart attack three years later in 1885, leaving the Duchess to run the estate."

I think that's pretty solid back-story for the Duchess right there, and can form part of the knowledge of the Hall that at least a couple of the PCs are privy to from the start.  Plus, if I go through with the idea that one or more of the PCs is a grandchild of James Wilder, it sets up conflict between them and the Duchess, and I love interpersonal conflict in Call of Cthulhu games, which I will come back to later.

Even better, with the popularity of Game of Thrones, players who grokk ideas of bastard sons and muddled lines of inheritance are at an all-time high.

So moving on from the Duchess, what's the deal with the ghost? Above I mentioned a "murdered ancestor" but my thought processes on this point (and I literally have a page on my notebook where I have written and underlined, "What is the deal with the ghost?") ran more in the direction of "died unpleasantly."

The story behind Bess of Pemberley's death, as given in The Evil in Pemberley House, is a bit long and involved - long and involved enough that it's not something that can be conveyed quickly and effectively at the gaming table, and not something that the players are likely able to hold in their memories once conveyed.  Rather than reiterate the sad story of Bess five or six times in a three-hour session, I decided to come up with a simpler tragedy.  Here's what I came up with:


"In 1728, Lady Elizabeth, the Duchess of Holdernesse, threw herself off a balcony to her death after having three miscarriages in as many years.  She was 21 at the time of her death, and this year (the year in which the scenario will take place - 1928) is the two hundredth anniversary of her tragic passing.  It is said her ghost appears in the room that was once her bed-chambers three nights every year -- the night before, the night of, and the night after the anniversary of her death, precisely at the stroke of midnight each night.  Moreover, her presence is felt year-round at Holdernesse; in two hundred years, no woman has successfully carried a pregnancy to term while living in the Hall, invariably either experiencing a miscarriage or failing to conceive entirely.  Every Duke of Holdernesse born since 1728 was born abroad due to Elizabeth's Curse, as it has become known."

This fits very well with the whole Gothic theme; a woman driven mad by personal tragedy, the implied judgment levied against her for failing in her "duty" as a wife to provide children for her husband, the rules governing her appearance and a very thematic curse that is ambiguous enough that it's reality could be argued for either way, and which also explains why the current Duchess never had any children by the Duke.

We will revisit both the Duchess and the Ghost of Lady Elizabeth later on, when we go whole hog into fleshing out NPCs, but for now I think we've got a good handle on back stories for them.  So the final thing to address in this blog post is Holdernesse Hall itself and the Roman ruin underneath it.

Regarding Holdernesse Hall, the description given of Musgrave Hall in "The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual" really jumped out at me - a large L-shaped building, the short side having been built in the 16th century, and the long wing having been a more recent addition.  The inhabitants of the Hall live almost exclusively in the newer wing, with the original building having become largely a storage unit for the accumulated bric-a-brac of 400 years.  I would say then that the Roman ruins underneath Holdernesse are underneath the old wing that no one really goes in much any more.

To this, I want to add "Mary's Tower," a structure from The Evil in Pemberley House that gets its name from the legend that Mary, Queen of Scots once visited.  This is an open-topped stone tower, three stories tall, with a circular ramp on the inside from the ground to the second floor, and a narrow set of stairs leading from the second to the third.  I'm including this for two reasons: One, that it's the sort of thing players are likely to get interested in and want to explore (and which would make a fun site for me as a Game Master to place a skirmish against cultists or the like) and Two, because it reminds me of the open-topped tower used as a summoning site in August Derleth's posthumous collaboration with Lovecraft, The Lurker at the Threshold.  I'm going to locate this tower about thirty feet from the old wing of Holdernesse Hall, and on a slight diagonal; this may lead the players to believe that the structure predates the Hall, with the physical separation creating a sense of chronological separation.

Finally, in true Gothic fashion (or at least, in true, "I really like The Hound of the Baskervilles" fashion), I'm thinking about putting Holdernesse Hall, and the nearby town of Lambton, on the edge of, or just inside, a desolate, windswept moor.  A moor, or moorland, in this case is an area of uncultivated hill country characterized by low-growing shrubs and grasses and acidic soil, often dotted with bogs or marshland in between the hills, making the land dangerous to cross.  This creates a further sense of geographical isolation once the Investigators make their way to Holdernesse Hall, and a sense that the land itself is as unforgiving and treacherous as the NPCs in the Hall.

In the real-life Dartmoor, which formed the basis for Doyle's Great Grimpen Mire in The Hound of the Baskervilles, the granite hills are often weathered to bare stone at the peaks, with these outcroppings called tors.  I like that imagery and I think I'll include some of these tors in Lambton Moor -- in fact, I think I'll have one particularly large tor be known as Snake Hill, and have local legend state that the Holdernesse Serpent, before being slain by the first Duke of Holdernesse, laired there.

The Lambton Worm or the Holdernesse Serpent?

Now for the Roman ruins underneath Holdernesse; Roman temples don't really offer much excitement in terms of architecture, being commonly either rectangular or circular structures - however, they don't have to, because we're not designing a D&D dungeon crawl here.  A simple rectangular structure under the old wing is probably all we really need - maybe add a circular "inner temple" for interest's sake, and to house a pit or other entranceway into a cave system wherein the Thing in the Ruins lairs.

Now, obviously, the Investigators should have no prior knowledge that there's a Roman-era temple under Holdernesse Hall; kind of gives the game away too quickly, doesn't it? I would have it be known to people who have lived in Holdernesse or in nearby Lambton for some time that the Hall was built on a foundation dating back to the Roman occupation.  Maybe the first Duke of Holdernesse bricked off the temple when he built the Hall, or maybe he was unaware of it - it is a buried structure, after all, and only later did one of his descendants find it.  Maybe there's a room connected to the temple that's accessible from the Hall (perhaps being used as a wine cellar by generations of Holdernesses) but the doorway which would connect to the temple is bricked up and plastered over.

Of course, the cult of the Thing in the Ruins would need access to the temple still, and they couldn't very well keep their pagan godling a secret if they had to get into the Hall every time they needed to offer sacrifices or whatnot, so maybe there's a tunnel, either manmade or a natural fissure, connecting the temple to Snake Hill on the moors.  In fact, I really like that idea; the cultists steal out to Snake Hill and sneak into the temple through this secret passageway; maybe it's really narrow and low-ceilinged so you have to slither through it on your belly like a snake.

Hell - if one of the Dukes of Holdernesse in the past (say, perhaps, the husband of Lady Elizabeth) was a member of this cult, maybe he bricked up the entranceway in his basement for plausible deniability and established the tunnel to Snake Hill.  To tie this back to Lady Elizabeth's ghost, maybe that Duke revived the cult and awoke the slumbering Thing in the Ruins, and some malign emanation produced by the horror are what caused Lady Elizabeth's miscarriages, and those of subsequent Duchesses.  After all, the ones who miscarried in the Hall conceived and carried healthy children successfully to term when away from Holdernesse Hall.

This post is running exceedingly long and starting to get into things I want to cover in a separate blog post, plus I really want to get a screening of LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM in before Gina gets home from work - she's not much of a horror fan, and the sight of Amanda Donohue wearing nothing but blue body paint and a gigantic bladed strap-on will get me the side-eye.  So I leave you with the song retelling the story of John D'ampton, as the movie names him:


Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Building a Mystery: Creating a Call of Cthulhu One-Shot from the Ground Up, Part 1

I've been reading the novel The Evil in Pemberley House, by Philip Jose Farmer and Win Scott Eckert - a part of the "Wold Newton" universe of shared fiction, it thrusts Patricia "Pat" Wildman, daughter of James Clarke Wildman (better known as Doc Savage), into a scenario right out of Gothic fiction, despite it's 1970s setting; learning that she stands to inherit the once-noble estate of Pemberley House and the titles that come with it, she struggles with whether or not she wants it, whether or not the estate is actually haunted, and whether or not her insane relatives are trying to murder her or seduce her as a prelude to murdering her.  It's a pretty enjoyable read, and I'll be writing a full review over at my other blog, Paperback Perils, within the next couple days.

While reading it, it occurred to me that the basic set-up here could be used as the skeleton to hang a Call of Cthulhu one-shot on, and from there it didn't take long for me to decide to do so; my home convention, Running GAGG, is rapidly approaching, event submission is already up and eager to take my games, and with it being the 20th annual Running GAGG, and my first as a member of the Cult of Chaos, you goddamn better believe I want to up my game.

Self-reflection being the key to self-improvement, I've been thinking very seriously about where I fall short and where I can improve as a game master, especially when running Call of Cthulhu at conventions.  To that end, I think I will be best served by writing out, and presenting to the world to comment and offer feedback on, my methods of building an adventure.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then we'll begin.

Step One: What's the Situation?


The first step, at least in this instance, is to come up with the skeleton of a situation; I won't say an adventure, or a mystery, because we're not at that point yet; for now, we're just at the point of coming up with a situation.  I often take my situations from other media; for example, at Queen City Conquest last month, I ran Call of Cthulhu adventures taking their situations from the 1977 made-for-TV movie SNOWBEAST and from an unproduced episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Take a look at various movies, books, comics, etc.  You'll find something.

In this case, our situation is "the Duchess of Holdernesse is probably going to die soon, there are people who want that Holdernesse money, and the house may be haunted by a brutally murdered ancestor."

Because this is going to be a convention game, I need to be mindful of my audience; chances are, I will know few, if any, of my players before I arrive to run this game.  This is less a problem at a very small con like Running GAGG that I've been attending for years, because there are a number of "familiar faces" who sign up for my events year in and year out, but the point stands.  So I need to be real careful about what sort of material I include; to that end I'll be leaving the rampant sexuality of The Evil in Pemberley out of the adventure.

Now, this doesn't necessarily sound like a Call of Cthulhu adventure yet, but we're getting there.  Certainly, the idea of buried family secrets coming back to haunt the current generation is a very Lovecraftian one, and I'm making a note of that to ensure I come back and develop that theme more fully in this adventure.

I'm also beginning to think about what era of Call of Cthulhu I want to set this adventure in - the three biggies are the 1890s, the 1920s, and the modern day.  The novel taking place in the 1970s, I'm tempted to make it a modern game, but I think I'm actually going to go with the 1920s -- doing so preserves the clash between gothic horror and "modern" scientific sensibilities, which I like, and also makes it easier for me to tie in some of the Sherlock Holmes canon, as the novel does, without the Great Detective showing up to overshadow the PCs.  The Duchess of Holdernesse, in the 1880s, hired Sherlock Holmes to find her kidnapped son, with the reveal that the Duke's secretary was secretly his illegitimate son who kidnapped the legit son in order to force his father to publicly acknowledge him and allow him some measure of inheritance (joke's on him, British inheritance didn't work that way).  I think that's great, and ties back into the family secrets, and allows me to make one or more PCs the offspring of that bastard, giving them a deeper tie to the story.

What's the Twist?

This doesn't have to be an M. Night Shyamalan level twist.  It's my way of saying, "how am I twisting the situation to make it more original?" I generally try to avoid leaving a situation as is, because that makes it too easy for players to recognize what I'm ripping off and generally makes for a flatter, less exciting session, and the last thing I want, especially for a convention game, is a flat, unexciting session.  So here's where I'm bringing in elements of another piece of media to mix things up - For example, with my "Nightmare on the Slopes" game at Queen City, I twisted SNOWBEAST by bringing in the bank robbery and monster-in-a-cave elements from the '50s B-movie BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE, and the "psychic leads investigators to alien horror" element from THE CRAWLING EYE.

The Twist is where I tend to add supernatural/Mythos elements, as well as any other red herrings or complications to keep the adventure from being too linear - though as is often the case, these are best used sparingly, especially in a convention game where you're typically restricted to a four-hour block, and personally I try to keep my convention games to about three hours, giving people more time to get food or, if it's an evening game, I try to be mindful that my players might have a long commute home afterwards.

With this adventure, we already have a supernatural element, however tenuous it may prove to be over the course of the development process, in the form of the Holdernesse Ghost.  I've actually never used ghosts in a scenario I've run, which is kind of surprising upon reflection and also suits me nicely here - one of the ways I've been trying to challenge myself lately in adventure design is to forbid myself the use of more common monsters - Mi-Go, Deep Ones, Ghouls - and find ways to make adventures work with less-common foes.  Having never used a ghost before, it's fair game for me as a "less-common" monster.

But how can I twist the situation presented by the neo-Gothic atmosphere of The Evil in Pemberley House? Well, the nearest town to Pemberley House (henceforth Holdernesse Hall, for my purposes - according to Farmer and Eckert, Holdernesse is an alias Doyle used in the Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of the Priory School" to disguise the real participants in the events depicted, part of the conceit of the "Wold Newton" universe of shared fiction) is the fictional town of Lambton.  Lambton brings to mind the legend of the Lambton Worm, a local dragon in the northeast of England.  This brings me to Bram Stoker's novel The Lair of the White Worm, or more accurately, to Ken Russell's psychedelic film adaptation starring Hugh Grant and Amanda Donohue.

If you couldn't tell, the Twist is where my wide-ranging reading in occult literature, conspiracy theories, cryptozoology, and near-encyclopedic knowledge of trashy horror movies tends to come most in handy.

So what can I bring into "The Haunting of Holdernesse Hall" (my tentative title for this one-shot; I've found that players seem to respond well to alliteration) from THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM? Well, what if Holdernesse Hall was built over top the ruins of a Roman-era temple, and descending into the Hall's cellars is a descent into structures built during Hadrian's day? And what if that temple were dedicated, not to one of the familiar, anthropomorphic Roman gods, but to something loathsome and foul, something that dwelt there long before the coming of the Romans, the Britons, the Saxons, etc.? What if it dwells there still, buried but undying?

If we do this, then it turns the initial set-up -- the Hall, the ghost, the inheritance -- into something of a red herring, a means of bringing characters together before all Hell breaks loose.  Or is it a red herring? Can we tie the Thing in the Ruins to the Holdernesse of today? I don't see any reason why not.  Gothic fiction, from which this adventure is drawing heavily already, loves to deal in Dark Secrets; perhaps the cult that worshiped the Thing in the Ruins in centuries past has continued on, furtive and isolated, to the modern day, drawing in adherents here and there, never growing particularly large - and who's to say that one of those adherents wasn't a member of the Holdernesse family?

"The Haunting of Holdernesse Hall" is already shaping up nicely; I'm going to draw this post to a close, and next time I'll discuss the process of putting flesh on the skeleton we've outlined.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Miscellaneous Magic Swords

I suppose, with this gaming blog, I should provide game-able content that others can use instead of just blathering in reviews and play reports.  So here are some magic swords I came up with and decided not to include in Devil's Canyon:


  1. Tempest-Toss'd: This +1 Longsword, +3 vs. aquatic monsters, is carved from the jawbone of a Leviathan and covered in scrimshawed runes, stained with the ink of a Kraken.  The wielder cannot be drowned while carrying this sword, and on a natural 20, the target's lungs fill with water.  
  2. Night-Haunt: This +1 Shortsword has a cross-guard shaped like bat wings, and the blade is lacquered a flat black.  On a natural 20, 2d6 giant vampire bats descend from the skies (or emerge from a deeper cavern) and attack the target for one round before dispersing.  
  3. Tulwar of Ologoi-Khorkoi: Appearing as an enormous two-handed scimitar with a serrated blade and a hilt resembling a twisted coil of intestine, this +3 Bastard Sword seems to writhe in the wielder's hands, thirsting for blood.  The blood of any slain by this sword coalesces into a worm-like creature (3HD, AC as leather, attk 1 for 1d6 damage + poison) that serves the wielder for one round before burrowing into the earth.  
  4. Goliath-Bane: This +1 Longsword, +3 vs. Giants may look ancient and rusted, but was once held by a legendary giant-slayer, and stories of the havoc wrought with this blade have filtered through all giant communities.  In addition to its normal qualities, the wielder may strongly present this sword to any giant and force the giant to save or flee in unreasoning terror.  
  5. Athame of the Alkhalest: This slim, lightweight +1 Shortsword (half the normal weight) can be used by Magic-Users in addition to the normal classes, and can, three times per day, be used as a Wand of Acid Arrow (or equivalent, as per your ruleset of choice).  
  6. Blade of the Pentacle: This +1 Shortsword, +3 vs. Undead deals an additional 1d6 of electrical damage on a successful hit, and can strike incorporeal undead as readily as the more full-bodied variety.  It glows with a permanent blue light and carries a faint whiff of ozone.  Five pentacles are etched into either side of the blade, along with runes rumored to have come from the legendary Sigsand Manuscript.  

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Review: How to Game Master Like a Fucking Boss (Kort'thalis Publishing, 2015)

Google Image Search didn't bring up a good clear cover image,
so here I am being a goof with my copy.
Being the best game master I can be is a point of pride for me.  I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by excellent game masters when I was in college, even living in close quarters with several of them, and I took every opportunity to study their styles and dissect what they did that I liked and figure out how to incorporate what I liked into my own style.  It sounds kind of creepy when I say it out loud, actually.  In addition, I've read every "Dungeon Master's Guide" I've been able to get my hands on, as well as the advice offered in a half-dozen other role-playing games.  I'm constantly on the look out for ways to improve my delivery at the table to provide the best game I can, every time.

In short, game mastery is something of an obsession of mine.

That being said, Venger Satanis has thoroughly impressed me with his wonderfully lurid "How to Game Master Like a Fucking Boss." Much like the rest of his work (My hand to Crom, I am not writing these reviews to kiss his ass or because I got freebie review copies and don't understand how payola works and why it's wrong.  I just really dig his stuff), HtGMLaFB is as much a toolkit as it is anything else, with random charts and blank dungeon maps included in addition to columns of advice organized seemingly by what order the ideas occurred to him in.

Much of it is advice I've never seen in other books - and it's really solid stuff.  Things that shouldn't need to be said, like "dress comfortably, but nicely, in clean clothes without holes in them" -- but given that conventions I've been to lately have had to include GM protocols that said, "take a shower, if your players complain about your BO we will ask you to leave," clearly it does need to be said.

There's certainly a level of idiosyncrasy - advice on using matching dice, for example, or refusing the shorten "Game Master" to GM - but overall the themes of self-respect, respecting the players, taking the time to get organized, understanding what you want and what your players want, and putting in an appropriate level of effort are all things that any game master worth his salt should know and take to heart.

In keeping with Venger's style of doing things, the index comes in the front of the book, taking the place of a table of contents.  Most of the column headings are easy enough to figure out what they're talking about to making finding specific information you want an easy enough task.

At this point, How to Game Master Like a Fucking Boss is probably the second most referenced book at my table, right after the Swords & Wizardry core book.  And that's high praise indeed.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Murderhoboes Session 4: Don't Eat the Worm

We had an excellent session today, and I think I'll largely let the write-up speak for itself, though let me just say (with no small amount of pride) that my girlfriend Gina, playing Elf Fighter Brunhilda Von Sass, proved herself a natural at roleplaying, really got into her character and the act of dungeon-crawling.  So without further ado, let's get into things:

Dramatis Personae:

Johann Borscht, Bringer of Meat, Breaker of Snakes, Dwarf Fighter 3
Yngwie Magnusson, Dwarf Thief 2
Legolas "Baphomohawk" Jones, Elf Magic-User 2
Brunhilda von Sass, Elf Fighter 1

While sitting around the Chunderdome listening to current gossip regarding the caves and debating which rumors to follow up on, the PCs were approached - not by a person, but by a glowing green sphere, floating serenely through the air, perfectly smooth and roughly the size of a cantaloupe.  Coming to rest in the air above their table, the voice of Meinrad the Star-Gazer echoed from it.  He explained that he had a job for them, if they so desired; he would pay them 1200 GP in star-sapphires if they would go investigate the castle of the wizard Ambrose the Golden, and find out why he's not answering his crystal ball - also, to pick up a copy of the Complete Astronomical Treatises of Trioculus the Thrice-Mad, which Ambrose had agreed to loan to Meinrad.

The PCs agreed, and the sphere shot a beam of green energy out, manifesting Meinrad's teleportation chain on the table.  The PCs each grabbed hold and pulled, teleporting them to the outskirts of Ambrose's property.


Here, the first thing they saw was a 12' tall guy with grass for a beard, branches growing out of the top of his head and bark for skin swinging a club at a bunch of soldiers in yellow and blue livery who were hassling him with spears.  Intervening, they quickly learned that this was the Woodsman, a forest spirit whom the wizard Ambrose had taken in and given a home and purpose to - and who was being blamed by the guardsmen for Ambrose's disappearance, on the grounds that his tower was completely covered in thorny, fire-resistant vines and who else could have caused them to grow overnight?

Unconvinced, the PCs asked the captain of the guards to take them to see the tower, which he did; here, the PCs were introduced to Aureus and Halycon, a pair of young adult Gold Dragons allied with Ambrose, currently trying and failing to claw or burn their way through the vines completely covering the northwest tower of the keep.  They also met Bernard, Ambrose's apprentice and castellan, who explained that the vines even penetrated the stone in places, forbidding entrance to the tower through the interior doors as well as sealing off the outside.  Some experimentation proved that Baphomohawk's X-Ray Pulse Rifle damaged the vines better than dragonfire did, and Bernard suggested using it against the interior door, where the vines were thinner, promising them magic items from the castle vaults in exchange for getting in and finding out what happened to Ambrose.

They managed to burn their way through the vines coating the interior door with the X-Ray rifle, though the vines fought back, entangling Johann, Yngwie and Baphomohawk (and nearly killing the poor goat-headed mage in the process) before being overwhelmed by Brunhilda and her bastard sword.

Entering, they found themselves in a lounge designed for entertaining guests, where Brunhilda quickly found a secret liquor cabinet and applied a moral litmus test to the rest of the party - having argued vehemently against Yngwie looting the tower in full hearing range of Bernard, she proceeded to put Ambrose's most expensive and magical liquors in her bag to see what the rest of the party would do.  Their outrage at her actions convinced her that they were people she'd be willing to continue adventuring with.

Searching the rest of the floor, they found a smoking room containing a wide variety of pipes, cigars, and an eight-foot tall hookah of ivory, crystal and brass; they also found Ambrose's study.  Heading to the second floor, they discovered Ambrose's bed chambers, a walk-in closet full of robes in various shades of yellow, and a bathroom with indoor plumbing.  The bed was rumpled and the bed-curtains torn, suggesting a struggle took place.

if I had been smart, I would have bought Gummy Worms for
this session.  
Brunhilda and Johann went down to double-check the study, intent on opening Ambrose's desk to see if they could find any evidence of him having enemies or recent fallings-out, while Yngwie and Baphomohawk (and more importantly, Baphomohawk's talking dog Asheron) carefully searched the bedroom.  While the study proved fruitless in regards enemies, Yngwie did find a fat green worm slithering slowly across the carpet; picking it up drove it wild, and he carefully put it in a small leather bag.

Going up a flight of stairs, they found themselves in Ambrose's disorderly, overflowing library, books piled in haphazard arrangements and spilling off of mismatched shelves.  Also in this room, they encountered two guys in filthy ringmail armor, ragged bile-green cloaks, and their faces painted to resemble skulls.  When Brunhilda demanded to know their business, they attacked, charging in with heavy maces (the heads shaped like stylized skulls), though one stumbled over a book and came sliding in towards Brunhilda.

Attempting to intimidate that one, Brunhilda tried to stomp on his arm and slam her swordblade down an inch from his neck...and instead chopped his arm completely off, killing him instantly from massive blood loss.  They managed to incapacitate and bind the second one for interrogation - learning that they'd come to Ambrose's tower seeking the Gilded Skull of Malygris, all that remained of an ancient lich who'd been an adherent of their death-seeking Worm Cult.  They also learned that there were four more cultists elsewhere in the tower.

Threatening the cultist with both death and immortality (a bluff by Baphomohawk), they also learned that this cult wasn't interested in death, but rather in undeath - that those who were faithful servants of the Worm God Kyuss would serve forever as undead, a fate to be envied.  Having learned as much as they thought they would from him, Johann casually decapitated him.

Brunhilda dressed herself in the attire of the cultists, and Baphomohawk did her makeup to make her resemble the skull-faced weirdos, so that they could maybe bluff the remaining cultists.

Finding them two stories up in the attic, the bluff worked long enough for Yngwie to sneak around and kill two cultists with his laser pistol - exploding one cultist's head and boring a golf ball-sized hole through another's chest - before they caught on, at which point the party quickly executed the other two, having learned that their leader, a wizard named Azederac, was in the catacombs under the castle and could be accessed via trapdoor under the couch in the lounge.

Descending, they decided to try the bluff again - with Brunhilda acting as a cultist who'd caught an intruder (Johann) who appeared tightly bound, but was in fact free to act; the "Chewbacca Deception," if you will.

Azederac, but with a headscarf instead of a fez.

Azederac, a tall gaunt man dressed in bile-green robes and a black headscarf, was busy waterboarding Ambrose with potions of Inflict Light Wounds in which green Kyuss-worms swam, and at first seemed completely taken by the deception, and was seemingly eager to discuss the theology of Kyussism with Johann.  To prove a point, he called over a thoroughly worm-infested walking corpse, its facial orifices overflowing with fat green worms.  At the sight of this thing, Brunhilda and Baphomohawk panicked and retreated, while Johann dropped the captive act and swung his battle axe at the undead horror.  Yngwie, meanwhile, took a potshot at Azederac with his laser pistol.

The undead thing clawed at Johann, and worms shot from its eyes and mouth at him, but he deflected the attempts at infestation while Yngwie continued to shoot at the wizard, who was soon revealed to be a reanimated mummy.  With the elves recovering their composure and returning, Azederac blasted the party with a Sleep spell, to which only Johann proved resistant.  Cutting the worm-infested corpse in half, he stepped over it and challenged the undead wizard.

Shrugging off Azederac's Magic Missile, Johann charged, decapitating the mummy with a single swing of his axe.  The corpse collapsed into dust, and so did the magical vines he'd raised around the tower.

Waking the rest of the party, Johann carried the barely-alive Ambrose upstairs, where Bernard was waiting with several healing potions, two of which Johann gratefully drank while Brunhilda pocketed a third.  The rest were poured down Ambrose's throat, reviving him.

Explaining what had happened  - and noting that the Kyuss-cult had been operating under bad information; he'd sold the gilded skull of Malygris some months back - Ambrose happily rewarded the PCs with 200 GP apiece as well as the magic items promised by Bernard; the PCs received a Bag of Holding, a Cloak of Elvenkind, a Chime of Opening and a Ring of Protection, +1 for their troubles, in addition to a magic staff, the Staff of Decay, and a pair of Bracers of Armor they'd taken off Azederac's remains, plus the reward of 1200 GP from Meinrad, which they received upon delivery of the book.

Tallying up the party's wealth, they quickly realized they had enough money banked for Johann to purchase the Cosmic Ray Cannon from Old Man Walter.

***

This was really a last-minute adventure.  I wrote it yesterday in about an hour, from ideas loosely assembled Friday while at work - on a break I happened to read Chris Kutalik's blogpost Derailing Castle Amber, then pulled up the module and read it on lunch, and spent the afternoon thinking about how to incorporate more Clark Ashton Smith into D&D; the Kyuss cult was originally going to be a cult of Mordiggian, Smith's "Charnel God," and then I decided I wanted to use Sons of Kyuss out of the Fiend Folio as "muscle" for the cult, and then it turned into a Kyuss cult.  The names "Azederac" and "Malygris" of course come from Smith.

Azederac here isn't a standard D&D mummy, but rather a Carcosa-style mummy, being a reanimated sorcerer with full intellect and spellcasting ability - kind of a "diet lich." He ended up being 7th level because I needed him to be a high enough level to cast Plant Growth, to account for the vines encasing the tower.

Overall the session went really well; the players were really jazzed up and wanted to keep going even, but I had to call time because it was getting late (and I knew Baphomohawk's player had work).  Baphomohawk and Yngwie both hit 3rd level, while Brunhilda hit 2nd, and we'll handle leveling up and shopping at the beginning of next session.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Module Review: The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence (Kort'thalis Publishing, 2014)

Gina took one look at my copy, and said, "Is this
why you want me to play? Because it's a big butt
game?"
Venger Satanis gets me.  He's running D&D through a filter of Troma movies, Ralph Bakshi, Russ Meyer, heavy metal, the Heavy Metal movie (that's Taarna's ass to the left), 80s toyetic cartoons, Pat Benatar music videos, Gor novels...I'm assuming there's Mexican masked wrestlers and 50s muscle cars in the mix somewhere too.  Because that's what the inside of my brain looks like 24/7.  The difference is that Venger has the mad glint in his eye and vented his brain onto paper and put it up for sale.

Plus, he looks a lot better without a full head of hair than I do.  He actually looks so much like my friend Mark that last time I saw him, I actually asked Mark if he was publishing under the name "Venger Satanis." He said no, but I've got my eye on him.  Nobody's ever seen the two of them in the same room...

But, as I do so often, I digress.

The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence is a sandbox setting that can be inserted into most other fantasy worlds, detailing a trio of gonzo science-fantasy islands crawling with mutant sorcerers, insane robots, homicidal sex maniacs, flying tentacled gorillas, spider-men (not the spandex-clad kind, but it's your game) and weirder things besides.  Floating malevolently overhead is the Putrescence itself, an entity also endearingly referred to as "That Which Rots from the Sky," ready to scoop up the unwary in its pseudopods and annihilate their souls within its essence.

As with everything Venger puts out, Purple is also a toolkit, filled with tidbits of advice, random tables (including more dark secrets to inflict on players seeking to rearrange ability scores and a wicked awesome magic swords table), a new character class, and more.

I've actually been borrowing pretty liberally from Purple for my current "Murderhoboes" game - if not in actual encounters (though some of them are there, even if the PCs haven't found them yet) then in anarchic, madcap tone.  If I ever run Purple as written, you'd goddamn better believe Old Man Walter will be there running a junk shop full of ray-guns.  And when one of the PCs in "Murderhoboes" finds a magic sword in the canyon, you'd goddamn better believe I'll be rolling on the chart (or better yet, having them roll the die without telling them why) in this book.

Venger Satanis has outdone himself with this, as he has with every project he's laid hands on.  So go back his Alpha Blue kickstarter, ya creeps.  I'm 99% sure it's got Rhonda Shear sex gynoids in it, so there ya go.

Hip Deep in the Weird Stuff

the campaign doesn't have to end like this...
Tomorrow I run session 4 of "Murderhoboes of Devil's Canyon," my sword-sorcery-and-superscience episodic game run using the Swords & Wizardry Core Rules.  And I'm beginning to wonder if I wasn't a bit disingenuous when pitching the game to the players - I think I sold it to them as a more standard, if "low-level, gritty, tomb-looty" instead of "save the world" D&D.  I know ray guns, ancient aliens and mutations were NOT in the original pitch I gave them.

Now don't get me wrong - they seem to be enjoying themselves just fine, and one of my players is saving up to buy an artillery piece best described as a "Cosmic Ray Cannon."  But I also know that players have been startled and at times not happy about their characters collecting random mutations, and I feel a little bit guilty about that.

So I think I'm going to dial back the mutagenic elements somewhat - instead of just a failed save when casting a spell or being exposed to radiation, I'm going to add a d6 roll into that - on a result of "6," save vs. mutation, otherwise nothing.  Also possibly allowing a casting of "Remove Curse" or something like that from a Cleric to reverse a mutation.

but it doesn't have to end like this either.

Secondly, I'm thinking a session that's a little less gonzo might be a good change of pace.  My girlfriend Gina is picking up dice for the first time ever in tomorrow's game, and she's afraid of her character A) mutating and B) dying horribly.  She's very much a bleeding heart (her words, not mine) - when she found out about Johann's ascension to demigod of the Yip-Yips, she was extremely concerned (still is, actually) that he was treating them well.  So even though her character isn't rolled up and on paper yet, she's still very concerned about her well being and safety.  And maybe a session of fighting goblins or zombies, if not necessarily safer, might have a greater illusion of safety than a session spent fighting giant fleas covered in screaming human faces and insane AIs buried under dungeons.

This is not to say I'm dialing back the whole campaign; I have ideas for where things are going to end up and what certain NPCs in the setting are doing, and things on the whole are going to get a whole lot weirder before they get anywhere resembling "normal." Johann will still be getting his Cosmic Ray Cannon (because it is awesome if he does and lame if he doesn't), and Yngwie will find some sort of magical bastard sword, for better or worse, as per his questioning of NPCs.  Things are going to trend towards weirdness overall, but I'm thinking the occasional dip into sanity will be good because it will give the return to Weirdness that much more impact.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Murderhoboes of Devil's Canyon: Audio Edition!

I realize I should be posting these here as well; I've been recording the audio of each session of Murderhoboes and uploading them to YouTube for peoples' listening pleasure.  Total audio length so far is something like seven hours.