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Review: Cthulhu City

January 17th, 2018

Cthulhu City - Gareth Ryder-HanrahanGreat Arkham.

The year is 1937 and the little towns of Dunwich, Innsmouth, and Kingsport have been swallowed up by the cosmopolis of Great Arkham. This sprawling city of cyclopean skyscrapers, dimension-twisting alleys, and Dagon-touched mobsters has no place in history as we know it; it may not even have a place on Earth at all.

Great Arkham is a place where the Stars Are Coming Right. (Or perhaps they already have.) The skein of reality is stretched taut across the Mythos here, and horrors intrude into the daily lives of the citizens. Most have learned how to shut out, suppress, or deny what surrounds them. Some exploit their secret knowledge, embracing damnation and slow obliteration for the temporary blaze of glory. Others, like the PCs, fight back (or seek to escape).

Unfortunately, those are the ones most likely to find that the frontiers of the city are shut to them: Geography warps. Trains break down. Or the enigmatical and terrifying Transport Police (supposedly fighting a never-ending battle against a strange plague of “typhoid” which is never cured) will enforce a quarantine and turn would-be émigrés (escapees?) back… or detain them in facilities where inexplicable and alien lights gleam from barred and shuttered windows.

If that doesn’t immediately sound kind of amazing — a sort of Dark City mixed with glasshouse panopticon mixed with an obscene glut of Mythosian truth that would be almost pulp-ish if it wasn’t so overwhelmingly nihilistic — well… I guess Cthulhu City isn’t for you.

If it does sound amazing, then I’m happy to report that in many, many ways Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan has delivered brilliantly on the concept. He has stitched together a vast array of Mythos elements — something which, in my experience, often goes awry — into a cohesive whole, and in the places where things don’t necessarily quite work out he adroitly turns the weak joint into a point of strength by tying the inconsistency into the bleak, existential horror of the whole thing.

And despite the Kafka-esque oppression inherent to the entire concept, Ryder-Hanrahan nevertheless weaves into the tapestry enough hooks of hope that those not interested in embracing hopelessness, despair, and inevitable destruction can fight back against the darkness.

The result is a rich, intriguing, and potentially very rewarding setting that will allow you to frame unique scenarios that would otherwise be impossible to create. And that, in my opinion, is very high praise indeed.

RESERVATIONS

Unfortunately, I now need to damp that enthusiasm a little bit with a number of reservations.

The first thing I’ll note is that Cthulhu City is sort of an Advanced Trail of Cthulhu in terms of its setting. It assumes that the GM will be possessed of a fairly vast knowledge of the Mythos both broad and deep, and so frequently contents itself with merely making evocative allusions to various elements of the Mythos with the expectation that you will recognize the reference and fill in the details. (Perhaps the most surprising allusion, for me, was to Roger Zelazny’s A Night in Lonesome October, which is a truly delightful book that I make a point of pulling out for a rereading each Halloween season.)

Which is probably fine. Because Cthulhu City really shouldn’t be anyone’s first foray into the Mythos. So whether you build up that stock of Mythos knowledge by voraciously consuming everything Lovecraft (and the other likely suspects like Ramsey Campbell and August Derleth) wrote or by running a campaign or three of Mythos-tinged horrors, Cthulhu City will be waiting for you.

The second thing I’ll note is Ryder-Hanrahan’s technique of describing the setting through “multiple truths”. The book, for example, doesn’t resolve the question of whether Greater Arkham is an intrusion into our reality; a dimensional pocket; a poor recreation of 20th century life by an alien civilization or some future epoch; the true history of our world scooped out of the timeline by intrepid heroes in order to make reality a better place; or something else entirely.

Ryder-Hanrahan drills down and uses this approach at every level of the setting. Every NPC, for example, is described in three different versions — Victim (generally meaning a problem for the PCs to solve); Sinister (someone actively aligned with the Mythos); and Stalwart (a resource or patron for the PCs to benefit from). Every location is given a Masked (the Mythos may be there, but isn’t overt) and Unmasked (the site is a source of immediate danger) version. (Often multiple versions of each are given. There’s at least one NPC who is presented in six different versions.)

Ultimately, this “three versions of the truth, pick one” thing doesn’t work for me. I see what Ryder-Hanrahan is doing. I even praised the similar approach used by Kenneth Hite in the core Trail of Cthulhu rulebook to present the Mythos entities as a catalog of mysterious possibilities instead of an encyclopedia of cemented facts. The problem is that when you apply the same technique to specific setting material, the setting material stops being specific and the tack-on problems become significant.

To start with, I’d rather have two or three times as many cool things, instead of having a handful of things which could be cool in three or four or five different ways. But the bigger problem is how this lack of specificity turns everything into mush. For example, consider Aileen Whitney: “Whitney’s father is a wealthy businessman. A member of the city council visited the family home in Old Arkham one night to discuss a proposal with her father, and Whitney overheard the terrible thing they plotted together.” Which city councilor? It can’t say, because the book doesn’t know which councilors will be cultists. What terrible thing? It never explains, because any explanation would force some other quantum uncertainty in the book to resolve itself.

As a result, the book is filled to the brim with these half-formed ideas. It makes for a very mysterious and enigmatic reading experience as you pour through the tome from one cover to the other. But the problem, for me at least, is that these half-formed ideas just… aren’t very useful.

If you said to someone, “Hey, I need an idea for a scenario this week?” and they responded by saying, “You could have an NPC tell the PCs that they heard somebody plotting something horrible!” would you consider that particularly useful? I wouldn’t. Useful would be the actual thing they heard; the meaningful meat that would serve as the scenario concept.

What we’re left with instead are hooks to vapor.

POOR ORGANIZATION

The other major problem with Cthulhu City is its poor organization.

The bulk of the book is made up of the “City Guide”, which is broken into sub-sections each describing one of the city’s ten districts. Virtually everything in the book — NPCs, locations, etc. — is grouped into these districts, but the district you’re currently in isn’t indicated by the page header, so as you’re flipping through the book it’s impossible to orient yourself. Worse yet, the districts are presented in a completely random order.

The book contains no general index (a major failing), but does include a couple of appendixes, one of which lists which NPCs and locations can be found in each location. This helps a bit, but there’s not really any logic to where the NPCs are listed (particularly generic NPCs): Sometimes they’re listed where they live; sometimes where they work; sometimes it seems as if they were just placed in a district that was otherwise a little light on generic NPCs.

Information is also just kind of randomly scattered around, without any cross-referencing. For example, on p. 126 the NPC description of Mayor War notes that, “A portrait of Ward hangs next to one of Curwen in the foyer of City Hall (p. 119); the resemblance is uncanny.” The page reference to City Hall is useful, obviously, but the problem is that neither the foyer nor the painting is mentioned in the description of City Hall. (It’s possible that the “foyer” here is a reference to the “Main Rotunda” in the City Hall description, but if so that’s just another example of the book’s inconsistencies.) So if the PCs go to City Hall and you look up its description, you’ll never include the Ward and Curwen portraits.

The book is peppered with this sort of thing. Reading through it, I was constantly noting really cool details that I was confident would never make it into actually play unless I took the effort to work my way through the entire book and carefully annotate it.

Which, collectively, is the primary problem with Cthulhu City: Between the “choose your own setting” vagueries, the tack-on problem of frequently needing to do the bulk of the work to complete the vaguery, and the need to reorganize a large portion of the book so that it doesn’t go to waste, you end up saddling the GM with a workload roughly equivalent to writing the book in the first place.

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

It’s also a shame that the illustrations in the book are so uniformly poor in quality: Boring compositions, atrocious anatomy, stiff poses, and crude in their overall execution. Another problem is that so many of the pieces appear to be (badly) attempting an “evocative” effect, which in practice means that they’re virtually always directly contradicting the description of the city given in the text. (Even the cover, which is gorgeous and, like so many of Jerome Huguenin’s paintings for Pelgrane, perfectly sets a mood, suffers from this problem by depicting a vision of the city which does not reflect that presented by the book.)

Cthulhu City is such a unique and unusual vision of the Mythos. It would have benefited greatly from a well-executed visual component.

The book also features an 18 page scenario. It’s a very good scenario, but one that is curiously unconnected with Cthulhu City. A few place names are dropped, of course, but these are all of a generic character and you could easily drop this scenario into literally any location without any effort at all. This is most likely an additional consequence of the “choose your own city” design of the book (a scenario would necessarily need to deal with specifics, and therefore it cannot interface with any of the characters, organizations, or locations described in the book without locking them into one form or another), but it’s another missed opportunity to provide the GM with clear direction.

(But, to reiterate, it’s a very good scenario: Clever, horrific, and almost certain to be incredibly memorable. If nothing else from Cthulhu City ever reaches my table, this scenario certainly will.)

Also: Maps without keys. Drives me nuts.

CONCLUSION

I’ve spent a large number of words discussing what holds this book back from greatness. But I don’t want that to necessarily detract from the fact that the book is very good. When I say that it’s brimming with ideas, features a fantastic scenario, and positively sizzles with a uniqueness which is all the more remarkable because it is enhanced by the well-worn elements which somehow add up to a whole so much larger than the sum of its parts… all of that is true.

And all of it is a very good argument for why you should immediately buy a copy and start devouring its contents as quickly as possible.

But…

I am, personally, held back from giving Cthulhu City my full-throated endorsement because, at the end of the day, I recognize that the book’s flaws add up to a sufficiently bulky workload that I will almost certainly never actually use any of it.

Which, ultimately, is enough for me to drop the Substance score by a full point and, with a heavy heart, slide the book onto my shelf to collect dust.

Style: 3
Substance: 3

Author: Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan
Publisher: Pelgrane Press
Print Cost: $34.95
PDF Cost: $20.95
Page Count: 222
ISBN: 978-1-908983-76-3

 

Ten Candles: Magic Academy

January 15th, 2018

Ten Candles - Stephen Dewey

MAGIC ACADEMY

St. Nicholas (1873)

It was only a couple of months ago that you climbed the helioport mooring mast atop the Empire State Building and boarded the invisible dirigible that took you to the Academy for Sorcerers, Empire State Building - Mooring PostWizardesses, and Assorted Practitioners of the Magical Arts.

You didn’t know what you were getting into when you took that strange standardized test in the fourth grade; the one everyone else in the class (including the teacher!) seemed to have forgotten about by the next day. And you weren’t really sure what it meant when the invitationis litteras arrived in the mail, sealed with the sigil of the dragon’s eye in green ink.

But it has been, if you’ll pardon the pun and for lack of a better word… magical.

You’ve begun your study of the five elements, the twelve mystic ciphers, the seven esoteric elixirs. You’ve learned the use of the curcurbit, ambix, the nineteen tebie needles, and mercuric cinnabar.

The Academy itself was a never-ending puzzle box that slowly unfolded itself before your seven senses. Even when you think you’ve learned its every nook and cranny, there’s another new marvel for you to discover.

Aztec Ballcourt

You love it so much here that you elected to stay through the holiday break this year. Maybe that was a mistake, because that’s when the Dark came. The teachers tried to penetrate its mysteries, but they met with little success. And then the Headmaster vanished and They came.

No one’s quite certain what’s happening beyond the Academy grounds now. You’ve lost contact with everything beyond the Styxian Moat. For a time, it seemed as if the Academy — protected by lights lit eternal and fueled by ley lines — was a bastion, but something else has become clear now: The magic is dying.

Areas of Note: dormitory quads, Ulama ballcourt, the crystal ball chandelier, headmaster’s office, the old druid stones, caverns subterrene, auditorium stella, Elysian gardens

Goal: Revivify the magic, slip forth this mortal coil, and/or seek sanctuary beyond the Dark

Dragon's Eye Sigil

IN THE SHADOW OF THE SPIRE

Session 6B: Return to the Depths

In which a sheen of blood signals terrors from beyond the grave, and numerous clothes are ruined much to Tee’s dismay…

The Complex of Zombies - Justin AlexanderThis installment of Running the Campaign is going to discuss some specific details of The Complex of Zombies, so I’m going to throw up a

SPOILER WARNING

for that published adventure. (Although I guess if you’ve already read this week’s campaign journal, the cat is kind of out of the bag in any case.)

Interesting conundrum:

  • D&D has zombies.
  • D&D can’t take advantage of the current (and long ongoing) craze for zombie stuff.

Why? Because zombies in D&D were designed as the patsies of the undead world. In the early 1970’s, when Arneson and Gygax were adding undead to their games, zombies were turgid, lumbering corpses that had been yanked out of a fairly obscure film called Night of the Living Dead. (Even Romero’s sequels wouldn’t arrive until 1978, and modern zombie fiction in general wouldn’t explode until the ‘80s.) Even skeletons, backed up by awesome Harryhausen stop-motion animation, were much cooler and had more cultural cachet.

 

From a mechanical standpoint, the biggest problem zombies have is their slow speed. In AD&D this rule was, “Zombies are slow, always striking last.” (Although in 1st Edition they were probably better than they would ever be otherwise, as their immunity to morale loss was significant.) The 3rd Edition modeling of this slow speed, however, was absolutely crippling: “Single Actions Only (Ex): Zombies have poor reflexes and can perform only a single move action or attack action each round.”

They were further hurt by a glitch in the 3rd Edition CR/EL system: The challenge ratings for undead creatures were calculated using the same guidelines as for all other creatures. But unlike all other creatures, undead (and only undead) could be pulverized en masse by the cleric’s turn ability. This meant that undead in general were already pushovers compared to any comparable opponent, and zombies (which were pushovers compared to other undead) were a complete joke.

(The general problem with undead was, in my opinion, so limiting for scenario design in 3rd Edition that I created a set of house rules for turning to fix the problem. There’s some evidence that these house rules are actually closer to how turning originally worked at Arneson’s table.)

In short, you could have a shambling horde of zombies (as long as the horde wasn’t too big), but it wouldn’t be frightening in any way.

Which is kind of a problem, since “horror” is literally what the whole zombie shtick is supposed to be about.

REINVENTING ZOMBIES

My primary design goal with The Complex of Zombies scenario was, in fact, to reinvent the D&D zombie into something which would legitimately strike terror into the hearts of PCs. James Hargrove described the result as, “… more or less Resident Evil in fantasy. Which rocks. And it rocks because it’s not just zombies but zombie-like things. Bad things. Bad things that eat people. Bad things that are just different enough from bog standard zombies to scare the crap out of players when they first encounter them.” Which I absolutely thrilled at seeing, because that’s exactly what I was shooting for.

One could, of course, simply have gone with a souped up “fast zombie, add turn resistance”. But I wanted to do more than that. I wanted to create a zombie-like creature that would actually instill panic at the gaming table. And the key to that was the bloodwight and its bloodsheen ability:

Bloodsheen (Su): A living creature within 30 feet of a dessicated bloodwight must succeed at a Fortitude save (DC 13) or begin sweating blood (covering their skin in a sheen of blood). Characters affected by bloodsheen suffer 1d4 points of damage, plus 1 point of damage for each bloodwight within 30 feet. A character is only affected by bloodsheen once per round, regardless of how many bloodwights are present. (The save DC is Charisma-based.)

Because the bloodsheen was coupled to a health soak ability that slowly transformed desiccated bloodwights into lesser bloodwights, the resulting creature combined both slow and fast zombies into a single package. The bloodsheen itself was not only extremely creepy, but also presented a terrifying mystery (since it would often manifest before the PCs had actually seen the bloodwight causing it).

Eventually, of course, the players should be able to figure out what’s happening and be able to put a plan of action in place to deal with it. (“Cleric in front, preemptive turning.” will cover most of your bases here.) But the design of The Complex of Zombies is designed to occasionally baffle or complicate these tactics.

Which, in closing, also brings me to another important point about using scenario design advice: I’ve had a couple different people who purchased The Complex of Zombies contact me and say, “Hey! Why isn’t this dungeon heavily jaquayed? Isn’t that your thing?”

The Complex of Zombies - Map

Well, no. My thing is designing effective dungeons.

The Complex of Zombies uses a claustrophobic, branching design in order to amp up the terror. Multiple doors create “airlocks” that prevent you from seeing what’s ahead, but also cause you to lose sight of what’s behind you. Its largely symmetrical design creates familiarity and allows the PCs to benefit from “unearned” geographic knowledge, but that familiarity is subverted with terrible, hidden mysteries so that the familiar becomes dangerous. The progressive, three-layered depth of the complex meant that every step forward felt like a deeper and deeper commitment to the horrific situation. Finally, virtually every navigational decision meant turning your back on a door. (And the myriad number of doors became daunting in and of itself when the bloodsheen could be coming from behind any one of them.)

There was one stage in design where I considered linking Area 4 and Area 11 with some form of secret passage. But there are only three possible uses of such a passage:

  • The players use it to “skip ahead”, which wouldn’t really give them any significant geographical advantage due to the nature of the scenario, but would disrupt the “pushing deeper, committing more” theme of the scenario. (I wanted depth in the dungeon’s design and this would have flattened the topography.)
  • The players miss the first instance of the passage, but find the second. After a moment of excitement, they end up backtracking to an earlier part of the dungeon, which in most instances is going to be accompanied by the “wah-wah” of a sad trombone sounding the anti-climax as they trudge back to where they were and continue on.
  • The bloodwights could use it to circle around behind the PCs and ambush them. The bloodwights were so deadly, however, that a clear line of retreat was really kind of essential for the whole scenario not to become a TPK. (There’s still a risk of this happening if the PCs don’t play smart, but that’s on the players.)

To sum up: Design guidelines are rules of thumb. Following them blindly or religiously is not always for the best. In this case, minimal jaquaying was the right choice to highlight the terrors of the bloodwights.

Ptolus - In the Shadow of the Spire

IN THE SHADOW OF THE SPIRE

SESSION 6B: RETURN TO THE DEPTHS

April 29th, 2007
The 21st Day of Amseyl in the 790th Year of the Seyrunian Dynasty

Elestra did, in fact, feel much better come the morning. The group felt that they would need more magical healing before their endeavor was complete, so they took the time to stop by Myraeth’s Oddities and pick up a partially spent wand of healing before heading back to Greyson House.

They found that the watchmen had left. In their place, the front door had been crudely boarded shut. Agnarr casually ripped the boards off the door, and the party headed back down into the dusty tunnels.

Agnarr carried Elestra across the pit of insanity, and the rest of the party crossed without incident. About two hundred feet further down, the tunnel abruptly ended in an open doorway. A brass frame in the shape of a door dangled useless from a broken hinge and old dusty shards of glass lay scattered on the ground.

Beyond the door there was a large chamber of the same cream-colored stone. Thick filigrees of dust and grime suggested long neglect and emptiness. Off to the left and the right there were sturdy iron doors. Across the chamber the hallway seemed to continue.

Testing the doors, they found one of them locked. Tee tried to pick the lock, but failed, so they decided to try the other door, which was unlocked. Opening it, however, they found nothing more than a short hallway with another door at the end of it.

Ranthir, meanwhile, noticed that the hinges for the first door were on this side of the door. He pointed this out to Tee and Tee was able to pull the hinges out. Then Agnarr stepped up and heaved the door to one side.

Behind the door they found a set of narrow, cramped hallways. There were many more of the sturdy iron doors.

Tee headed carefully into the area, keeping her eyes peeled for any sign of danger. Reaching an intersection she peered down another hallway and spotted a corpse near the end of it. She beckoned Agnarr to follow her closely and began making her way down towards the corpse.

About halfway down the hall, Tee suddenly started sweating profusely. She wiped the back of her hand across her forehead and, when she pulled it away, she was horrified to find it covered in blood. Looking down at her arms she could see that blood was literally oozing out of her pores. “Oh gods! Get out! Get out!”

Tee and Agnarr rushed back out of the cramped hallway into the larger room where the rest of the group was waiting. After a panicky description of what had happened, the group ascertained that Tee was no longer bleeding (although her clothes had become hopelessly stained). Agnarr had never been afflicted at all. Tee wondered if, perhaps, it was a curse which affected only those of elven blood. Agnarr decided to head back into the area and see if the corpse was, in fact, an elf as well.

But as Agnarr drew near the corpse he, too, found himself afflicted by the bloodsheen. He started to turn back towards the entrance, but as he did so the corpse suddenly lurched to its feat. In his booming voice, Agnarr cried out: “By the red elk!” He drew his sword.

The dry, gray skin of the corpse cracked open as something tore itself out from the inside, like a snake shedding its skin. It emerged as a glistening mass of raw muscle, pulsing with thick veins of crimson-black blood. Its fang-like teeth glittered as its mouth parted in a ghastly, hissing, guttural growl.

Agnarr retreated to the intersection and held his ground there. Tee, hearing his oath, rushed in as well, taking up a position behind him and using her longbow to shoot over his broad shoulders.

The undead monstrosity, pulling free from the dry husk of its former flesh, dashed down the hall at them. As it drew near, the bloodsheen returned – coating their flesh in a scarlet which gleamed in the flickering light of Agnarr’s sword. It made the barbarian’s grip on his sword slick, and he struggled to bring it to bear in the narrow quarters. Meanwhile, the monstrosity’s claws darted in again and again, raising hideous bleeding welts.

Elestra tried to work her way into a position where she could attack the creature too, but as she worked her way around the massive barbarian she inadvertently left her back open to the undead horror, which didn’t hesitate for a moment before tearing a huge, gaping gash across her back. She managed a single feeble and ineffective swing of her blade and then cried out in pain as her skin broke out with the bloodsheen and the wound on her back gushed a sudden torrent of blood. She fell to the floor, unconscious.

At that moment, a sudden pounding came at two of the doors behind Tee. She spun around and lowered her longbow as a desiccated corpse battered down one of the doors and shambled through it into the hallway. She fired true, but her arrow seemed to simply stick in the dead flesh of the creature.

Dominic, meanwhile, rushed in – hoping to heal Elestra and Agnarr. But the bloodsheen took him and weakened him and he was forced to turn back.

Ranthir fired bolts of eldritch might at the first creature. These had some effect, but did not seem to dissuade it. But Ranthir, in studying the creature, saw now that its wounds were visibly healing themselves.

Tee fired another arrow at the second creature. This seemed to knock it back a step, but still had little effect. So she dropped her bow and drew her dragon-hilted longsword. A tense battle between steel and claw ensued, while at her back Agnarr bled from wound after wound after wound.

With Elestra bleeding to death, Tee struggling, and Agnarr becoming weaker with every passing moment, it seemed that flight was the only possibility. Dominic stepped as close as he dared and called upon the might of his god to drive back the foul abominations. He repeated his call to the Father and raised his holy symbol high, but the creatures still fought in a frenzy.

Agnarr, trying to clear a clean path of escape for Tee, attempted to physically push his foe back down the hallway… but a claw snapped out and left a gaping wound in the side of his neck. He stepped forward again and, this time, managed to force it back a step – but he earned another grievous wound to the opposite side of his neck in payment for it.

At that very moment, Dominic’s holy strength found some meager purchase: The desiccated corpse clawing at Tee turned in sudden terror and fled. Tee, seizing the opportunity, plunged her sword deep into its exposed back. It jerked and then collapsed into a cloud of dust.

Tee cried out in joy. Agnarr turned to see what was happening… and left himself perilously open as he did. The creature’s claw found a crease in his sturdy leather armor and dug deep. The sheer force of the blow slammed Agnarr into a corner of the wall, and when the claw ripped free it was followed by a gout of blood. Agnarr fell to his knees and then collapsed.

Tee, badly wounded herself, fled for her life. She raced through the outer chamber and back into the long hall.

Ranthir was out the door before her, but Dominic – the words of his holy invocation still echoing on his lips – was laggard in his escape. The undead thing, bursting into the chamber on Tee’s heels, saw the seemingly defenseless priest and rushed straight at him. Its razor-like claw lashed out, punching deep into the priest’s stomach.

Blood bubbled to Dominic’s lips, but there was a strength deep in the priest’s frail frame – a strength born of his god perhaps. He smiled through the pain – a sickly grimace – and the words of his prayer grew loud again. He grasped the forearm of the creature – still buried in his stomach – with one hand and held it tight as he reached out with the other…

A single burst of holy light and it was done. The creature crumbled back into the dust from whence it had come and to which it now rightfully returned.

Dominic sagged to one knee. His hand closed over his ghastly wound and, with a gentle wave of holy energy, sealed it. Then he was quickly back on his feet and rushing down the hall to where Elestra and Agnarr lay.

Agnarr was still breathing, although his breaths were shallow and rasping. Elestra’s wounds, however, had bled her dry and her breathing had stopped for the second time in as many days. Dominic quickly spent the last of his holy strength on Elestra, barely managing to restore the breath of life to her. As she awoke, he used the wand they had purchased from Myraeth to awake Agnarr.

The pounding of fists upon iron was still echoing through the narrow halls. Something was trying to beat its way out to them. So, with Elestra’s condition hopefully stabilized, the group fled as quickly as they could back into the ancient passage and across the pit of insanity. Ranthir made sure to grab the boards which spanned the pit and pulled them across to their side.

REST AND RECUPERATION

The party was in a sorry state: The wound on Elestra’s back still ached and oozed. The two deep wounds on either side of Agnarr’s neck were still more than apparent. All of them had bled profusely from their pores, leaving their clothes grotesquely stained (except for Dominic whose holy vestments apparently shunned the filth) and their skin coated in coagulating gunk.

Despite their condition, they dragged themselves across town – attracting more than a few disdainful stares as they went. When they returned to the Ghostly Minstrel, Tellith took one look at them and shooed them back outside while she fetched some buckets of water to wash the worst of the filfth off them. There was, in fact, a specially designed trough to one side of the building which sloughed the water away.

“You can never be too prepared,” Tellith said and smiled.

“Does this happen often?” Tee asked.

“More often than my mop can bear,” Tellith replied.

When Tellith was satisfied, the party headed upstairs and gave themselves a thorough and proper cleaning.

When they reconvened in Elestra’s quarters, Dominic gave their injuries a thorough examination. He concluded that his gift of holy energy from Athor the Father would be strong enough the next day to rid them of their injuries, but only barely. As such, they would wait until the day after to journey back down to the ancient complex they had discovered.

Ranthir decided to spend the afternoon at the Delver’s Guild Library to see if he could find any reference to the blood-drenched creatures they had faced. (Perhaps they had some weakness.)

Ranthir had little luck in his research, but the rest of the party tried a different tack: They headed down to the Delver’s Guild office in the Undercity Market.

As they entered, Gorti Jurgen greeted them with a big smile. Agnarr quickly spoke up, “Do you know anything about undead who cause you to bleed from your pores?”

Gorti’s eyes grew wide, “Oh no… I don’t know anything about that.”

“Do you know anyone who would?”

“Not exactly. You should check at the library.”

“We’ve got a man on the job there already.” Agnarr looked around and tried to spot somebody with the air of experience to them. He saw a muscular, bald fellow leaning against the wall. The man had a scar which ran from his right temple down through a milky eye to his jowls. Agnarr strode over to him.

The man eyed him up and down as he came and grunted. “What do you want, barbarian?”

“Do you know anything about creatures like this?”

The man shrugged. “They sound like undead who cause you to bleed from your pores.”

“Exactly!” Agnarr jubilantly walked out.

While Agnarr had become the center of attention, Tee idly scanned the postings on the wall. She noticed that, in addition to the usual postings about equipment for sale and wanted expertise, there were several pro-Republican and several anti-Republican flyers posted as well. Once Agnarr was gone, she went over to the scarred man and asked him if he did, in fact, know anything. He didn’t.

They came up out of the Undercity Market and headed over to the Ghostly Minstrel. Agnarr had already hit the bar, hoping to soothe the ache from his wounds with a few women and a lot of alcohol.

A letter had arrived for Elestra. It was from Iltumar Shon and written in a crude hand:

Mistress Elestra—

I think I have a riddle to match your skill:

Oft I must strive with wind and wave.

They wish to capture what I must keep;

But in lying still am I strong in strife.

I can master them both if my grip holds out;

If the rocks bring succor and lend support.

Iltumar

Elestra was too tired to truly puzzle over the verse. Folding the letter carefully, she headed up to bed. The others soon followed her.

NEXT JOURNAL ENTRY

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Banksy - Blind Water Sniper

A subject somewhat related to hidden vs. open difficulty numbers is the matter of open and hidden stakes. In other words, whether or not the players know why they’re rolling the dice.

In most cases, of course, the stakes are known: If you’re trying to jump over a crevasse, the dice roll is determining whether you do so or not. But there are action checks where that isn’t necessarily true: If the GM calls for a Perception test while the PCs are traveling through a jungle, the players don’t necessarily know if it’s to notice a tribesman lying in ambush, a hidden treasure, a treacherous piece of terrain, or something else entirely.

Perception tests are, in fact, probably the most common form of this. (Since they literally determine whether or not you’re aware of something.) But the principle can be applied to other tests and reactive mechanics, too. Calling for a saving throw against undetected dangers or unknown spells before explaining what the consequence of a failure will be is a great way to ratchet up the anxiety at the table (particularly if it’s the exception rather than the rule).

I’ll sometimes do the same thing with Sanity checks in Call of Cthulhu, Stability tests in Trail of Cthulhu, and similar mechanics: Call for the check (the magnitude of which in Trail of Cthulhu can foreshadow just how bad things are about to get) and then describe the eldritch horror, allowing the players to immediately respond according to whether or not (or how badly) their character failed the test.

(Enabling this immediate, immersive response to narration by preemptively resolving a mechanical component which might normally follow the narration is why I also roll initiative at the end of each encounter and keep it stored for future use.)

One potential pitfall of such checks, however, is that you’re unable to take advantage of a player’s familiarity with their own character: If you’re asking them to make a saving throw vs. fireball, it’s much more likely that you’ll forget that they have a +2 bonus to saving throws involving fire than it is that they will. And if you do forget, then the subsequent revelation can deflate as the mechanical resolution needs to be revisited.

ROLLING MEANINGLESS DICE

The existence of hidden stakes also opens the opportunity for another technique: Rolling meaningless dice.

This generally falls into two categories. First, rolling dice behind the screen for the sound effect. That can be valuable as a tool of misdirection, but it’s not primarily what we’re talking about here.

Second, having the players roll for checks that don’t mean anything.

Now, we’ve already established that dice should only be rolled if the potential failure state is interesting, meaningful or both. And if it is neither, you shouldn’t roll the dice. If that’s the case, it would seem to follow that you should never have people rolling meaningless dice.

But here’s the exception: You only roll if failure is meaningful or interesting… but sometimes you’ll roll the dice because the character believes failure could be meaningful or interesting and saying that dice will not be rolled will reveal information that the character does not have.

Searching for a trap that isn’t there is an obvious example of this.

Paradoxically, the reason you roll the meaningless dice generally isn’t to the benefit of the meaningful role; it’s to enhance the meaningful roles of the same type. For example, there’s seemingly no harm in cutting to the chase with exchanges like:

Player: I search the hallway for traps.

GM: There are no traps in the hallway.

It even seems to follow logically from the principles we’ve established. The GM is defaulting to yes (the “yes” in this case being “yes, your search of the hall is successful in determining there are no traps”; don’t be fooled by the presence of the word “no” in what the GM said). But if do that a dozen times and then have this interaction:

Player: I search the hallway for traps.

GM: Okay, make a Search test.

The player automatically knows there’s a trap in that hall before they even pick up their dice. The GM’s pattern of behavior has revealed metagame knowledge that puts the player in the position of knowing something that their character does not.

And sometimes metagame knowledge is unavoidable (but in this case, it’s unnecessary). And sometimes that’s desirable (but in this case, there’s nothing being gained). And some players believe it won’t make any difference (but for someone who values immersion, it will). In my experience, nothing ever seems to be gained from this interaction and almost always there is something lost, so I recommend rolling the meaningless dice and preempting the loss.

USING MEANINGLESS DICE TO EFFECT

In some cases, you can deliberately use this effect reactively.

For example, as I’ve discussed previously in Metagame Special Effects, I not infrequently call for Perception checks even when there’s nothing to perceive. In addition to camouflaging which Perception check failures are important and which aren’t, this can also be an effective technique for heightening paranoia at the table.

The biggest reason I do it, though, is that I’ve found it’s the single most effective way to refocus the table’s attention on the game world when extraneous distractions and chitchat have derailed the players. (You’d think that just saying, “Okay, let’s focus.” would be equally effective, but I’ve found that it isn’t. Ask people to focus in a kind of general way and they engage in a “focusing process”. Ask them to do something specific and concrete, on the other hand, and they become immediately focused.)

Eventually, of course, all of my players eventually figure out that I’m frequently “crying wolf” with these checks. But it doesn’t matter: The more experienced heroes may no longer be quite so skittish or paranoid as they jump at imaginary shadows, but the tool still works.

And, of course, in a dangerous universe filled with wandering encounters, some of the Perception tests you use to refocus the table won’t be meaningless at all.

Go to Part 14

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