Playing the Game – Session 62 – Return to Portasbol

Playing the Game – Session 62 – Return to Portasbol

Skull Pile llustration by Alex Damaceno @gnarledmonster "The World of Weirth is a setting much like a Hyborian Age, with danger at every turn, Swords & Sorcery magic, demons and mad prophets.
Tribes Of Mipokop And Nomads roam the savanna, while peasants and hedge wizards hide behind the walls of even the meanest thorp. A powerful Ley Line crosses the land, creating transient Gateways to the Faerie Realm.

Meanwhile the influence of Demons And the Belowdark waxes, threatening to cover the world in darkness, a suffocating nightmare that wells up from horror-filled dungeons underground.

Check the World of Weirth (TM) tab above for more info, including a draft of the Player’s Guide.

Session 62 – Return to Portasbol

The group of PCs known as “Team A” has returned to Portasbol, the wild river-side town where the campaign began. Only two of the players are original, and 4 of the characters. But everyone was looking forward to finding out what was going on in this rat’s nest of crime and smuggling!

Herethrudr - Saringa NPC
Herthrudr, Saringa NPC (designed on HeroForge)

The first thing they did on arrival was get back in touch with one of the party Mentors, Herthrudr the Grey. She is (allegedly) involved with the smuggler’s organization known as the Iron Ring. They deal in all sorts of products, including drugs like Mushroom tar and Moon Snow, both made in the county of Vorxiya and smuggled down into Laralla.

Here in Portasbol the Iron Ring re-package their contraband and trade goods for sale in Laralasbol, just one day’s travel downriver.

One thing the Iron Ring do not traffic in is slaves, the practice of slavery is mostly illegal in Laralla and is very much looked down upon. Indentured servitude exists, and is strictly regulated through the Cult of Kylarra (goddess of Justice), through Oaths and Geas.

Through his underworld contacts, Lieres was able to arrange for the party members able to undertake Level Training to do so.

Level Training has been a consistent difficulty for the group. They have been doing a lot of traveling, mostly to small villages and out-of-the-way places where level training was not available, due to the lack of appropriate trainers. Currently they have a bit of a liquidity problem, in that they have a good deal of treasure, but a large portion of it is tied up in jewelry/items of a magical nature.

After the training was complete the group was able to spend some time working with local contacts to identify some of their treasures, catch up on news, and plan their next moves.

Rumors

The PCs were able to get some very good information about what has been happening since they left town, about 5 months ago.

Party Communications

Lieres has been in touch with Herthrudr and her contacts in the Iron Ring. They offer to subsidize the orphanage in Portasbol for the 30-some children left in Zan’s Forge. A group of Drovers and guards are dispatched with the next caravan (7 Gielach) of supplies for the Observatory to bring the children back.

  • A Xythian woman of noble breeding and a southern accent named Azirite meets with Lieres, introduces them to her associate, the scholar Abazion Lazu.
  • Lazu is most eager to inspect and evaluate any and all items the party might have recovered from their explorations.
  • The Dingleman is also interested in meeting with the group, about some unusual goings-on in the crypts below the ruined tower.

The following conversations happen with various party members, over the course of two days (7 & 8 Gielach).

A Conversation with Master Ploon (7 Gielach)

NPC Master Ploon
Master Ploon – NPC (designed on HeroForge)

Master Ploon has returned from a long absence. He invites you to his home, and has a lovely reception in his Salon. After wine and some tasty delicacies, he invites you to sit and attend to an important issue.

Ploon reminds you that he had once asked you to retrieve a large enameled sphere from a certain mausoleum in the Portasbol graveyard. Sadly, you were unable to do so. He has since learned it was retrieved by the Magister Thaumaturge.

For those of you who may not know, the sphere was brought here a few years ago, by Chodonakis, in a large 6-wheeled wagon, guarded by a full troop of Zygarian Cavalry. The laborers told Ploon that they heard a woman’s voice from inside.

Chodonakis became very wealthy, he also became obsessed with the great Alfenstone blocks near the river, painting them from many vantage points. 

Ploon tells you he suspects Chodonakis discovered something, something very important about those stones. The magic of the sphere was only able to help him so much in his quest, but it gave him enough of a clue that he sent more than one expedition of explorers into the catacombs beneath the ruined tower. No one seems to know what became of them, or if they actually discovered anything.

Unfortunately Ploon’s available manpower is somewhat reduced. Recently, the trading House he helps lead had a bit of a battle beneath the city, in the caves adjacent to their storage facility by the river. A wicked cult of cannibals was living down there, digging new tunnels and building shrines to an evil, rat-god of some kind. These cultists wore leather rat-masks made of human skin with obscene, lolling tongues.

Ploon’s men were able to kill many of them, and cause a cave-in, trapping the monstrous fiends within the tunnels. In addition, the secret “back entrance” in the House Ghuul warehouse has been filled in and sealed by magic.

These rat-cultists are suspected of being responsible for at least three murders, the first being when Kalder and Lieres were first in Portasbol, back in Zazel of last year. They are suspected in the disappearance of several boat parties as well. Fighting this cult has strained his organization’s resources somewhat. Ploon has finally discovered a tantalizing clue to what Chodonakis was looking for: a lost city of the Ancients called Vars Pomtok.  He would like you to attempt to get into the Master Thaumaturge’s tower on some pretext, looking for a way to access the magical sphere. He wants one of you to put your hand upon it and ask, “Where is the city of Vars Pomtok?” This lost city could be an absolute treasure trove of magical artifacts from before the Cataclysm!

Ploon tells you this information is worth 10,000 SP and an invitation to lead the expedition to the ancient ruin itself.

A Conversation with Dingleman Xhoon (8 Gielach)

The Dingleman meets you in the common room of the Green Dragon. Xulidar Thoon, the proprietor of the Inn, seems impressed that you are meeting with the Count’s representative and is surprisingly obsequious to the older man. (Thoon has been rather rude and peremptory with you as customers prior)

Xhoon tells you there was a bit of a fight, a blood-bath really, down in the catacombs beneath the ruined tower a month ago. The House Ploon sailors discovered a coven of rat-worshippers had made their home in the tunnels adjacent to their storage areas. Ploon says they were cannibals, even recovered some, er, evidence. Proper Lamentations were made, while Ploon’s men fought their way into the lair and killed an unknown number of these cultists. Apparently there was a cave-in of some kind and it has cut off access to these tunnels.

So, now, Ploon says the matter is concluded. Yet just before Darkness Falls Thaumaturge Gralax paid and equipped an experienced group of soldiers-of-fortune to enter the ruins, with a team of miners & diggers, ordered to find the central shrine. A priestess of Kylarra accompanied them, to purge the stain of Chaos from the catacombs.

They never returned.

Xhoon says he is prepared to offer you a license to explore the underground workings indefinitely, if only you will find and purge the rat-god shrine. Please do not disturb any of the townsfolk graves or tombs, but anything else you discover, particularly in the Alfenstone portion of the complex, is yours to keep. He understands this is a dangerous task to ask of you, but hopes that this offer of 100% of the salvage will be enough to convince you.

A Conversation with Azirite (8 Gielach)

Azirite invites Aziagos, Kossas and Katokas to an afternoon tea. She wants to discuss a business proposition.

She tells you that she has a client in Laralasbol who is very interested in getting some special leather for a dress-costume she is to wear to a fancy ball in Laralasbol next month. She says she knows where there is a very special source of unusual leather that can be had, in the tunnels beneath the ruined tower.

She suspects you know what she means, Aziagos, when she describes a six-legged, gape-mouthed horror.

She offers 500 SP for each (mostly) complete skin you can bring to her. The more, the merrier, as she expects there to be quite a boom in the market for this exotic leather after the costume ball!

Almost as an afterthought, while she is saying goodbye, she says, “*Oh, I almost forgot. If you could be so good as to perhaps collect some of the creature’s blood for me, I will pay 20 SP for each flask of it.*” And she hands you a small cloth sack, half-full of clinking objects.

Later, when you look in the bag, you count 8 small (6 ounce) glass phials, with waxed glass stoppers. Each is inscribed with a *Hex of Freshness*.

Acting on the Information

The party decided to delve the ruins beneath the shattered Tower of Zenopus once more. For some of the PCs it was the first time, and the members of the original party gave them a quick run-down of what to expect. Mostly centipedes, ten-legged rat-lizards and the aforementioned six-legged horrors known as Tunnel Stalkers.

The group decided to enter the tunnels through a previously-discovered “secret” entrance to the catacombs via a mausoleum in the graveyard. They had passed out this way last time they were here, though they were in a bit of a hurry, as the party was running out of resources and Lieres was running out of blood (he was seriously injured, and, until healed by the Nurdiyans of Zan’s Forge, walked with a limp).

The mausoleum itself was unchanged from the last delve, but the secret staircase had opened up into a new, larger chamber, with more passages leading out of it. The doors were strangely of new, green wood, slightly warped in the damp of the tunnels and needing to be forced open.

Dungeons in Weirth are part of the Mythic Underworld, and as such, doors can only be opened on a 1-2 rolled on a d6. These doors also have a nasty habit of closing behind people after they have gone through. More than once this has slowed down an exit or retreat.

Before they could enter the tunnels proper, they encountered some giant ants, which they dispatched easily. The room was likely connected to the further ant lair by a narrow tube in the wall, some 4′ in diameter. The PCs decided not to explore it, rather, they blocked it up with wood after chopping down the door.

They followed the direct route, as best they remembered, discovering a large, oval chamber with a 30′ cliff they remembered from before. It even had the bronze spikes and rope ladder they made, still hanging over the edge! Except now it also had a 20′ diameter pool of bubbling mucus. They tossed some items in to see what happens, but it just continued to bubble and reek of ammonia. They shrugged and moved on.

The scent of ammonia is a signal that manifestations of the Belowdark are near. The Belowdark is a malevolent sentience, somehow connecting the underworld of Weirth to the Outer Darkness, where eldritch horrors dwell. This connection involves disgusting walls (and other surfaces) seemingly made of meat, with great orifices that give birth to multitudes of centipedes, the horrific Graverats, and the most dangerous yet: the Tunnel Stalkers!

six-legged frog monster with shark-like mouth and 5 spider eyes

The centipedes can be found everywhere, their venom ranges from mildly irritating to incapacitating. The Graverats tend to lair in areas of loose rubble, coming out from time to time to eat centipedes. The Tunnel Stalkers roan anywhere they like, feeding on Graverats and any intruders. Particularly virulent instances of the Belowdark have been known to vomit forth Vampyr bats, enormous four-armed white apes, and 20-foot-long white cobras.

At the end of a long, dirt tunnel, shored up with more of the new, green wood, they came to the catacombs and small tombs they had explored before. Only now, all of the niches were emptied, the bodies and trinkets were gone, and new areas of construction were visible.

Almost immediately the party was attacked by a small group of undead Cultists, Freshly dead Returners, dressed in the hacked and blood-stained robes of the Rat-cult. These mockeries of men still wore their rat-face masks, fragile wooden frames with a pale, translucent leather stretched over it in the shape of a rat’s snout. There was a rawhide “tongue”, dyed red, hanging out of the mask’s mouth.

The party chopped these creatures down and performed a Lamentation so their souls could properly journey to the next plane. The group followed the back trail of the Returners, passing through areas they had visited previously, noting that the niches in the walls that once contained bodies of the dead, hundreds of years old, were now empty. Two of the burial chambers they had previously entered were also emptied.

The complex itself is arranged in a bit of a circle, and after passing through an echo-ing chamber of falling gravel (lined by strange, alien artworks, bas relief carvings of humanoids with highly elongated heads, all painted an obsidian black. the proportions of the figures were not human, nor were they Skarn.)

World of Weirth Lieres comicThey passed several more familiar tombs, including the one where they laid out Lieres while attempting to heal him enough to be dragged out!

As they followed the tunnel, they came upon more new construction, freshly carved tunnels in the ancient white stone (called Alfenstone, allegedly an artifact of the Alfen before the Cataclysm).

Once again they were attacked by a larger group of Returners, coming out of a passage they had never seen or explored. After defeating and Lamenting these men, they followed the backtrail once again. This time it led into an abattoir!

An enormous beast of flesh and mucus was found in a pit in the center of the chamber and as they entered, it surged out of the pit. This creature appeared to be formed from the remains of many Unlamented (or cursed) individuals, those captured and sacrificed by the cult. A running battle ensued!
The PCs fled down a corridor they hoped would lead back to the starting point, and they were correct. As they formed up to confront the slow-moving monster (that rolled over and through the flaming oil they threw in its path, seemingly with no effect!) a large group of Returners entered the chamber from the other side!

Facing enemies on two sides, they split their attention and (due to the large number of henchmen) laid down withering fire from bows and slings. Those facing the Returners stepped forward into battle, with Aziagos being able to strike multiple times. Three of the party members were bitten by the monstrous blob during the fight, and those wounds continued to suppurate and bleed until after they had killed the creature and had time to attend to the wounds.

It took several rounds for this creature to be killed, and it felt pretty tense. The PCs kept throwing oil, not knowing it had no effect, plus the creature was able to Regenerate d6 HP per round. The tide was turned in their favor when they finally knocked out the last of the Returners and were able to then all focus attacks on the blob.
Despite the lateness of the hour they retained the presence of mind to check the pit for treasure and, as a last minute reminder, to perform the Lamentation for the victims of this horrible curse.

Returning to the Surface

Playing with 1:1 Timekeeping (of a sort) means the party needs to get out of the dungeon (or wilderness, or at least to someplace safe) by the end of the session. The party carried their wounded out, back through the tunnels, and into town. Chariton had suffered a nasty bite on his leg, which was going to require 4 full days of bed rest.

Since we were sort-of playing “catch-up” with the calendar (the other party ran into some scheduling issues, so I froze this one in place for a couple of weeks), the party now has one to two weeks, of game time (one week IRL), to rest and recover. They can also perform downtime activities, or even some training.

This activity is open to all of the players during the week between sessions. We usually use the Discord channel, where each player has a private comms channel for personal activities, and a Downtime channel for party activities.

Player Response

We had added a new player this session, yet I didn’t pull any punches and ran things the way I always do. We had done a little bit of chatting about the game, but he was excited to just get stuck in and “see what happens”. I did a little poll of the players afterward, to get a feel for how this session went, as we were picking up on a group of PCs that hadn’t been played in five weeks!

Responses in their own words, below the fold:

StoutBarbarian

So, my thoughts on session one are as follows: I think that the below dark is definitely a vicious and dangerous place, and the Lovecraftian influence shows in the scant bio organic architecture, as well as the abomination we fought. I love the touch that, no matter the side, the dead have to be venerated or else their bodies rise to assail the living, especially because as a 3.5 vet I feel some atropus familiarity here and I dig that. The lethality of undead has lost its touch over the additions and it’s honestly refreshing to be scared of where I am again. As for the world so far, as it was my first session I don’t have too many thoughts just yet, as I’d rather wait until I’ve seen one or two locales before weighing in on that. I am excited for the next session, and I’m still thinking up what to work on in my down time.

Abraham’s Holy Terror

I was feeling like dread and danger throughout the exploration as we got deeper in I was questioning the wisdom of the group and myself in heading down there.

When the dancing girls smoked several of the zombie rat maskers it provoked my cocky feelings and made me feel like were going to be an even more interesting addition to the collective than I anticipated.

Get the strong feeling theres something terrible festering down there and if its not sorted out then its going to become an even more horrific mess, if such a thing is possible.

The mutant zombie horror of many heads was creep af and I was worried its corrosive or poisonous bites were gonna kill everyone when at first it seemed managable.

Tense. Exciting. Fun. Creepy.

There is a Devil’s Advocate in the group, and he had some very relevant criticisms.

The Annalist

NPC Lore Drops
How the DM conveys information is a delicate task. How do you give information without leading the choices of the players?

And as this is a game, we can’t expect to have the granularity of a real world and if we did, the players would like to have an equally mundane experience as we do in real life.

We want to get to the good stuff!

So in the case of last session:
I had never been in Portosbol before. When you asked what our players were doing to prepare the week before the session, I was a bit lost for what to do. We had essentially just ended a big adventure and hadn’t had a chance to get any new leads or plan ahead. The other PCs having contacts in town that would contact us was great.

There’s also the issue that the other guys care about the redhead situation and I, and Katokas, just…don’t. Mostly because it feels like I am coming in on the second or third book of a series and that’s a huge pet peeve of mine. I always watch/read a series from the beginning.
Bas Relief Giants
Zero reaction to this other than what I asked in game; if they bear resemblance to the black statues we saw outside Nulub’s Quarry. Which is irrelevant as it’s totally different characters.
Cannibal Cult
Is this resolved? Doubt it.

We never found anything that resembled a lair. Only some minor shrines.

Again, I’m not familiar with Portosbol and the other guys said these underground passages all connect.

Honestly, we found out exactly ZILCH about them.

Maybe they don’t even live down there? Maybe they are Portosbol citizens that come down below the city secretly to worship their rat god. Maybe it’s a bunch of psycho aristocrats that started a cult for shits and giggles and are eating poor people.

Who knows?
General Reaction
Full disclosure, I thought the session was kind of boring…

WHAT!?

Yea, sorry.

Not that that should be a big deal. Nothing can be 100% exciting 100% of the time. And we have had some AWESOME sessions in this campaign so far. I’m not bothered by one dud. We basically just wandered around for a bit and ran into a few, less than exciting, encounters.

“But what about the human flesh blob!?” Yea that was freaky and unsettling in theory, and certainly at first I was grossed out. But let’s examine what actually transpired: We walked away from it and shot at it over and over. It was essentially just a bag of hit points.

AGAIN, I’m not bothered.

It’s more important to me that it’s what was supposed to happen. I.e. something killed those cultists and didn’t lament them. So they turned into zombies. We went down there next and ran into those zombies. That’s what happened and so that’s what should have happened. The freakazoid blob is actually more interesting NOW than last session:
How did that happen?
Did someone make it?
Will it happen again?

Final Thoughts
I am pretty anal about note taking, which means if I can’t take good notes, I usually end up taking no notes.

I feel I spend a lot of thought and energy in the moment of a session and that’s more valuable to me than good note keeping.

and, finally, a lengthy response from Megagoon

 

Personally, I found this adventure to be one of the most enjoyable to date. For a number of reasons.

I Living Dungeon

First, you managed to keep the dungeon alive.  I don’t know if it was my poor mapping last time because we were distracted by emergency, but I ended up with a very different feeling map in the last time I played. There seem to be new rooms carved, or at least reshaped. The dungeon clearly changed in ways and that meant that we could never become comfortable just hand waving our way through.

This is important to me because when I ran Temple of Elemental Evil some years ago, I found that my players became really comfortable with the upper floors. They knew the layout and had particular rooms they would simply state were their destinations. Even when I restocked the dungeon or had their secret chamber campsite discovered, it still didn’t engage them the same way. They took the layout and content of the dungeon for granted. I was worried that I would see more of the same from our group now.

This is an area we’d already explored, although not as well as we should have. The fact that we were trying to get a dying comrade out of the dungeon meant that we weren’t really paying attention to what we were seeing. The gravel fall, the weird icons, the strangely placed grave, they all took a back seat to immediate need. Giving us an opportunity to explore at a slower place meant we could take more of it in and ponder more.

II Picking up on Old Threads

The undead cultists were a really neat touch. We knew they were there before, although they hadn’t been such an important part of the campaign. Suddenly, they are much more interesting. What killed them all, why they are running loose, and if that’s the design of their rap God are all questions that need to be answered.

III Some Self-Reflection

In retrospect, I feel like we were too hasty leaving Portosbol the first time. Running out of the Dingleman’s warrant and having Maisara despair, plus the hooks that were pushing us in another direction all made us feel like we had to leave. It left the situation in Portosbol feel unresolved, and I’m glad we are back to finishing this dungeon.

I suspect part of it was acclimation to newer editions. Even though I started playing D&D around 1986 with very old school groups, I have never really stopped playing the game. And because of it, I experienced a lot of the tonal shifts in slow motion, whereas a lot of OSRguys tend to be people who left the hobby in the late 90s or early nineties, and then come back to it a decade or two later.

One gets used to DM’s having plots, or at least having an agenda, and as a player I have learned to play along with it. If I get handed hooks I make it a point to try to take them up in order to make it easier for the DM to run the game.

It’s a passive way of playing and a bad habit that emerged during the years when World of Darkness was the trendy thing to play.

It was reinforced by sticking with the 3rd Edition of the game as the story gamers started dictating the trends and dialogue. I can remember a period of time where even the staff of Wizards of the Coast were referring to D&D as a “living novel,” and talking about the need to balance player agency and DM plot. That the DM should even _have_ a plot was not questioned.

And I might add that you have so much going on, that it is hard to not want to plunge headlong into things. Especially the prophecies that we keep seeing unfurl. I am ready to charge back to Saam’pul and explore the labyrinth now.

So there is a lesson there to me. Don’t let the presence of adventure hooks and NPC requests distract me from what I am l most interested in doing.

IV Some Misgivings

On the other hand, I will say that some of the other players interested in “leveling up” before we pursue the prophecy grates on me.

I personally see leveling in Dungeons & Dragons as a bit of a trap: At the end of the day, your character doesn’t get any more powerful. The game scales to the character. Once you are level two, you are going to be plunging into the second level of the dungeon, where all the monsters are mathematically tuned so that they are just as challenging as the first level monsters were on the first level of the dungeon when you were a first level character.

It gets you into a cycle of grinding that has you do things like explore areas you don’t want to explore to look for treasure, because you feel a metagame pressure to get experience points, rather than an in-game pressure derived from immersion.

As Lieres, I want to get the redheads to where they need to be and close the gates of death. I don’t want to be dicking around in the ruins under Portosbol. As Kalder, I want to explore the labyrinth, and get my damn gauntlet back by following up on rumors about Alcastra, but I need to balance that with the rest of the parties desire to go gather up trinkets. At least I can be comforted by the fact that I might yet find the mask down there, whatever it is.

The drive for experience points and particular gold piece totals without a specific plan to spend them just doesn’t sell me, because I see through the motivational system. It’s why I spend a lot of time playing Fantasy games that have no level system like icrpg and Tiny Dungeon.

And it’s why I didn’t feel the need to turn back when a party of second level player characters was running into trolls. I figured we could beat them by wit and cunning strategy.

You are a flexible DM, and know how to work with us when we get clever.

V Combat

Speaking of strategy, let’s talk about combat. You presented us with a hell of a lot of tactical puzzles in the last session. The enemies weren’t tough, but cramped quarters and the need for careful observation of our party order made a big difference in the experience. You made zombies feel scary in context. And I’m still trying to figure out where the heck they are all coming from.

The head jelly was absolutely badass. Especially once it started inflicting bleeding toxic wounds on the party. That added a big sense of desperation. When the zombie showed up at our back while we were trying to build a skirmish line I was sure we were going to lose a few PCs

Well done! This is how combat should feel in d&d. Stressful, and like a tactical puzzle where we have to keep our wits or lose our characters.

VI Timing

As a final note, I am having some struggles with one to one time right now. We couldn’t choose to just stop session in mid battle, because we would be throwing away the characters that we had worked so hard to build up. But holding out until 2:00 a.m. after a day of wiping snotty noses and fighting to keep fevers under control was brutal. I was a wreck the next day.

I feel like we need to work harder at getting into active play more quickly. and that involves among other things as players clamping down a bit more on meanderings and fruitless strategizing when you have insufficient time for playing.

 

LFG Playtest Campaign 1 - The Shadow of Evil Chaos is an experiment with a new (to me) game system, Low Fantasy Gaming, and a new magic hack designed to bring the atmosphere of danger from the pulp novels of Swords & Sorcery. We are playing fully online over a Discord Voice server, using some home-brew maps, art and characters designed on the HeroForge 3D printing site.
Follow all of the posts here: LFG Playtest Campaign 1.

2 thoughts on “Playing the Game – Session 62 – Return to Portasbol

  1. Sounds like the campaign is going along quite well. I like that you included responses from players. It is a useful learning tool as a gamemaster to see what others are doing and what kind of effect it had on the players. Well done!

    1. I do like to poll the players on their POV, especially when adding someone new and/or changing Game Mastering tactics.
      We are playing with a Hybrid 1:1 Timekeeping, and it is proving to be very interesting!

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