Adventure the Fourth: Saint Atsun’s Day
Boulder the Templar’s order needed him to escort the remains of Saint Atsun from the city docks to the small chapter house the order maintained elsewhere in the city, a task not only complicated by the threat of evil apostate knight, Sir Osric, but by the fact that getting a wagon across town can be a chore on the best of days.
Characters included Oscar Gordon, Wilson, Ahthera, Micah, Boulder, Geth (one of the Rogue/Mage playbooks – the Dilettante?), and Haragrin (a Young Warlord).
I always wanted to run the old Slayers of Lankhmar module (actually more its sequel Avengers in Lankhmar) and this was my riff on that. Also I really like the Road Warrior. I handed the players the city map, showed them where the docks were and where they had to go, and sat back. For each district in between I had a series of timed encounters. There was a whole bunch of possible events: a cult parade, a naval press gang looking to abduct crew, a belligerent band of barbarians searching for a lost companion (he’d been press ganged), a cursed pilgrim, and a belligerent drunk of a wizard named the Dread Mancuzo. Depending on time of day and which streets the players went down determined what they encountered.
The party avoided most of the above save for one trap by Sir Osric’s goons (Micah hopped on the horses when they bolted, removing his shirt in case any ladies might be watching), a pie eating contest (Wilson’s wendigo side manifested here when he won the contest, swallowed the contents of a garbage pail, and tried to eat one of the other pie-eating contestants), and the Dread Mancuzo who they found in a partially ruined tavern harassing a serving girl. He started to drunkenly lob fireballs about. Oscar knocked him out and Ahtera managed a well-placed kick to his nuts. Oscar then hired the harassed serving girl to help out around their headquarters.
Of course Osric was waiting for them at the chapter house where there was a big showdown. No one died although Oscar took an arrow that put him out of the fight, and Mancuzo would return in the next adventure.
Oscar and crew fought a ghost, bought a house, and set up shop as monster-therapists.
Adventure the Second: Tooth Soup
Oscar Gordon, Boulder, Ahtera, and Micah (now Micah) investigate the horrible deaths at a local bathhouse. They discover a secret passageway into the city sewers and learn the bad way that the tunnels serve as the lair for some magic-warped monstrosity. This adventure was a way to point towards the undercity as a potential area for dungeon-delving. The party encountered hints to other things such as a Midian-like community in the sewers, but never followed up on it. There was lots of running around, slipping into dank water, and jokes about poo gas. The monster was basically the creature from The Host. No one died.
Adventure the Third: The Mold Dwarf’s Due
An Elfin prince exiled to the city hired Oscar Gordon to rescue his mortal child from the evil Volod Brothers, a trio of mold dwarfs. The Volod’s have plans on selling the child once they return to the Twilight Realm, and some ancient truce prevented the prince from openly stopping the dwarfs. The party consisted of Oscar Gordon, Boulder, Micah, Ahtera, Wilson, and Nibless (Nibbler?).
First the party had to enter the fairy realm via a portal in the city park (Micah got charmed by a dryad and had sex with a tree, when he wouldn’t leave the tree Boulder punched him out), then they had to traverse a corner of the Twilight Realm (Wilson the Village Hero ate some cursed food and unbeknownst to him slowly began to transform into a wendigo over the next few adventures). Finally they caught up with the Volod Brothers and their thrall-borne carriage. The kid was rescued but the Volod Brothers survived, and Nibless, got killed in the fight. I only remember this because the guy that played Nibless was two for three with his character fatalities.
Also this was the adventure where the Beyond the Wall playbooks became tragic like an After School Special. Not that this was a bad thing.
Nibless and Wilson had the backstory of being childhood friends that had a small village adventure and now have come to the big city together. And what happens on their first adventure: Wilson gets cursed, and Nibbless killed (although I think his fate was even worse than that. He was incapacitated in the fight with the Volods, but had stabilized at 0 HP. Unfortunately he was too far away to be rescued when the rest of the party ran, so… it’s best not to think of his fate, left for dead and abandoned by his best friend in the Twilight World.)
I found my old notes from the game I ran back in the summer of 2014.
That’s like a century ago in RPG campaign years.
This game went on after the end of the Vaults of Ur game (Dennis Laffey at What a Horrible Night to Have a Curse did a great job documenting that game) and was a real live face-to-face game. Most of these players have left Korea since then, one of the problems with running a game for
migrant workers expats. Trying to remember who played who from the initiative rosters scrawled in the margins has been fun.
We met once a week at a local coffee shop and used Beyond the Wall as our system. It was a city campaign and I riffed heavily on the 1st edition AD&D Lankhmar supplement, the map from the Mongoose supplement, and Trey Causey’s Weird Adventures. One of the regular players ran a cleric (Oscar Gordon) that wanted to be a therapist to monsters, and that provided the tone for the adventures: very episodic, monster-a-week flavored, using small self-contained dungeons. Sunday night, I’d post five potential clients offering Oscar Gordon and his crew various jobs, and they’d decide which one to take. Often a client or two stuck around for a week or two.
It was an open table game and I run hot and cold on that format since an open table isn’t really tenable as a format for a long term campaign. It’s more a stage the campaign goes through as it finds its legs. Ultimately, the game will coalesce around a core of regular players and the openness as a trait will fade away. Also, you’ll have situations where players who have invested time in the game over weeks will resent when one of the non-regular players shows up with a buddy, and the buddy spends the whole game being a pest for their own amusement. In the end we had two or three core players who showed up week-to-week and a roster of maybe five or six other potential players who would stop by if their schedules permitted.
The roster was something like this:
Oscar Gordon (a Devout Acolyte), Boulder (a Templar), Ahtera (The Nobleman’s Wild Daughter), Micah (the Young Woodsman), and Wilson (the Village Hero) were all fairly regular. Nibless, Geth, and Fellborn were all some variety of magic-user run by the same player who had awful luck, and Haragrin and Ekniv were fighter-types and random drop-ins for a session or two who were friends of other players.
As with everything else in life I’d do it differently now, but that said I’d resume this campaign next week if I could.
Anyway, over the next week or so I’ll post write-ups of the adventures we ran. They were a lot of fun.
Adventure the First: Every Haunted House, a Home
Oscar Gordon, Boulder, Ahtera, and Micah (although he was named something else early on) arrive in the big city and decide to look into reports of a missing noble last seen exploring a haunted house. They spend half the adventure doing a careful room-by-room search of the house, find the noble (dead), and then accidentally activate the haunt when not-Micah tries to rob something. Neat gimmick with this adventure was to have the players explore the whole dungeon, encounter nothing at first, then have the monsters appear once they were deep into it (zombies, skeletons, a living statue, and the ghost of the necromancer who originally owned the place). Everyone survived, and Oscar Gordon used his reward money from the dead noble’s family to buy the house and set up shop as a monster-therapist in the city.
And so it began…
Back in October 2016 I was on twitter whining about the fact that I couldn’t find anything to read in my particular corner of genre interest (a contemporary, well-written space-opera novel but short) and this started an exchange between myself, Paul Jessup, and Joe McDermott swapping book recommendations, the upside of which was Joe sending me an advance copy of his latest book, The Fortress at the End of Time. I’ve been a fan of Joe’s stuff since I read his book Last Dragon, so gladly agreed to writing a review of the book after reading it.
(The downside of that conversation was its eventual, though not unexpected, wrangling over how good or bad a book Moby Dick is…)
The short answer then is I liked it. A lot. The Fortress at the End of Time is very much my particular corner of genre interest as it reads a bit like a mash-up of Walter M. Miller JR’s A Canticle for Leibowitz and Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppes. While it’s not much of a space-opera it does deal with a galactic civilization. I’d call it more military SF, if milSF were truer to the modern day experience of the military – a lot of boredom and drudgery with a sideline of diplomacy in a place far away from home – than, say, any iteration of Space Hulk. (Another book in a similar vein might be Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword.)
Here’s what Fortress is about: Ronaldo Aldo is a young military officer sent to a far away military outpost located in orbit above a desert world, the Citadel. Actually it’s not Aldo himself, but his clone that’s sent as intergalactic travel is conducted via ansible, which is a bit like a Star Trek transporter. About a century before the novel’s events a war took place between humanity and another intergalactic species with the other species disappearing beyond an empty expanse of space. The outpost where Aldo is sent serves as a forward listening base in case the aliens return, but in reality it’s a horrible posting full of drudgery, boredom, and a high suicide rate.
Between the corruption of his fellow officers, the institutionalized sexual harassment, and the feud between the military outpost and the civilian monastery on the planet’s surface, Aldo quickly finds himself at a loss in dealing with those around him. Part of his problem is that he’s more than a bit of a sanctimonious prig who alienates those around him even when he’s doing the right thing. The other problem might be a bit more meta, in that the book is a first person confession by Aldo regarding a crime it takes over two hundred pages for him to come straight out and confess. As another reviewer on Goodreads said, “sometimes you wish you could punch Aldo in the nose” and that’s the truth. Even when Aldo commits his justifiable from the reader’s perspective defiant act of rebellion, he can’t escape that priggishness that makes you dislike him.
Now, like I said this book is very much in my little area of interest. Whether other folks enjoy 1st person Miller/Buzzati* mash-ups that have a good bit of crunch to them, but no answers (and you can’t riff on The Tartar Steppes and simply provide answers…) I can’t really say. When I finished the book, I had to wonder who else would go for something like this besides other weirdos like me, and we’re not much of a stable niche market. That Tor/Macmillan would put this out makes me immensely glad and continues my impression that the Tor.com novella series is a fascinating experiment, and The Fortress at the End of Time fits well in that list.
* Wasn’t Buzzati a Fascist? Yes. Yes, he was. If you feel weird reading him, you can always read Gramsci alongside him.
Ever notice how you never see what people read in the month of December because they’re always posting Year’s Best lists and stuff like that? Yeah, me too. So there will be none of that here. Instead you just have the same old end of the month review. Enjoy!
The Dark Domain by Stefan Grabinski: Read this! If you at all like dark, weird, and old fiction it’s well worth your while to track this down. Grabinski’s sort of considered Poland’s Poe, and his work certainly has the old horror vibe, but he wrote in the earlier part of the 20th century and Grabinski’s obsession are all his own. Demon-haunted trains, dueling your own doppelganger, coal smoke elementals, undead gravediggers, sex with ghosts – if any of that sounds cool, read this book. You’ll not be disappointed.
The Quiet Woman by Christopher Priest: I blathered about this book two posts ago.
The Fortress at the End of Time: I’ll likely blather more about this book later this week. I liked it quite a bit. It’s military SF, as long as you realize for a lot of people being in the military means being extremely bored extremely far from home.
Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction by Annalee Newitz: A fun, fascinating book about mass extinction that makes you feel hopeful that humanity might manage to adapt to most apocalyptic scenarios and manage to bounce back against a hostile universe. Newitz’s approach is to look across species boundaries to see what strategies have worked for animals along with looking at those used by human populations to survive. To this she also adds the “remember” part and tries to capture ways fiction, and in particular, science-fiction can point a way forward. A neat book.
Drinking Sapphire Wine by Tanith Lee: I did not read this version. I wish I had, because who doesn’t love 70s cleavage… I mean, the e-book was full of horrible typos. Anyway this is the second book in a series I haven’t read any other book in and despite that I quite liked it. It’s SF of the gender-swapping far future society that’s all David Bowie//Studio 54 scenesters all the time variety and it embraces that notion absolutely and completely, but the real story happens when the narrator gets exiled from that society and takes up gardening outside in the desert. Somethings you could only get away with in the days of cheap paperback novels. But I really should read more Tanith Lee, because this was fun.
And that’s all.
This year I was toying with the idea of writing about the books I don’t finish and talking about those, but really I haven’t found anything in a book I didn’t like that wasn’t covered in this post here.
I guess one reason I’d add to the list of why I might stop reading a book is a personal one regarding subject matter: I find losers and dirt-bags of most varieties far more interesting to read about than good students no matter how corrupt the system those students struggle against. It’s a shame, but that’s the truth. And it’s also number one on that list.