Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Consequences of Failure

Continuing on the theme from Responsibilities for Failure

As we played more of the Crown of Kings, which is heavily referee directed (not just me, but Steve Jackson and Graham Bottley too!) it dawned on me that the differences between failure in a player directed game (sandbox) and a referee directed game ('railroad') are not just about where responsibility for failure lie. There are differences in the consequences of failure. 

- The more a game is player directed, the more likely it is that failure is part of the play, and that the consequences are suffered by the characters (and the rest of the game world).

- The more a game is referee directed, the more likely it is that failure is play ending, and that the consequences are suffered by the players (including the referee).

These thoughts occurred to me as I saved the PCs from a TPK at the hands of the EARTH SERPENT. Each Serpent has a weakness which, if not exploited, would require the party to make a very lucky series of dice rolls if they are to triumph. The players knew that each serpent had a weakness, but had inadvertently managed to bypass all opportunities to learn these secrets as they marched across the Baklands. Nevertheless, they plunged headlong into an encounter with the Earth Serpent, and experimented with water, other stones, MUD, etc. as they sought its weakness in the midst of the chaos of combat. However, an early fumble on the part of the Serpent saw it lose contact with the ground, squealing in agony as it's underbelly crumbled away. The party also saw that the Serpent left a shallow trench as it slithered towards them, the stones and earth absorbed into its body. A (Cramer) said something along the lines of, 'maybe we need to pick it up', but even after D (Ho Lee) cast YOB, all the party thought to do with the GIANT was have it attack the Serpent. Without a (strong) reminder, the party were heading for a death spiral.

So why did I save them with such an insistent reminder, when I condemn characters and whole parties to their doom in our D&D games? Why didn't I let them die, as they should have?

Because the game is largely referee directed. Not only do the PCs have a mission, it is the mission. There is no game outside the 'adventure path' - this is not a sandbox. Not only that, but the 'adventure path' is narrowly defined, with a limited course of action. Or, at least, though there might be a wide range of action within an 'episode', the success criteria are very specific. The game is a quest, with progress in a 'direction', and in 'travelling' in that direction there are a series of encounters. To fail to survive one of those encounters is game ending - the quest has failed. Sure, they could retreat, but only to press on for Mampang severely weakened. To choose to do otherwise is to fail in the quest, and is therefore game ending.

If I had invested the time in this to make it my own personal Titanic sandbox, and was running a player directed game, this would have been a TPK. Why? Because then, faced with the Archmage stealing the Crown of Kings, the players could react and then act, and in doing so direct the game, rather than being directed by Jackson, Bottley and Bartlett. They could ignore the threat. They could flee from it, and catch the next boat for Khul. They could try to unite the Lendleland barbarians into a Great Horde that would sweep the Archmage's armies from the Old World. They could conduct diplomatic missions to Brice, Gallantria, etc. to try to unite the forces of Good. They could quest for magical artefacts or lost magics that could defend Analand against the coming invasion. They could make the dangerous journey to Mampang in order to present themselves as champions willing to fight for the inevitable ruler of the Old World - the Archmage. OR they could take 'the quest'. And they could fail in any one of these, and I would let them, because those were the fates chosen by the players and their characters, and we could all enjoy the consequences as they would be the consequences of play.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Responsibility for Failure

The more a game is player led, the more the players are responsible for 'failure'. This includes 'failure by dice' - the players are making the decisions re: action and risk.

The more a game is referee led, the more the referee is responsible for 'failure'. This includes 'failure by dice' - the referee has set the obstacles in the path of the players.

I've been thinking about this for a while, running the Crown of Kings - a referee directed 'quest' - reading around the edges of a prospective Traveller sandbox campaign (hence, 'referee') - with Book 0 An Introduction to Traveller [get Classic Traveller free here] being a fine introduction to roleplaying games in general - which has included re-reading the advice of running and playing a sandbox game in Stars Without Number. I've also been playing LA Noire, an absolutely rubbish game, in that it is almost entirely linear, with success almost guaranteed, and the only penalty for failure is to play the exact same component of the case again.

And all this got me thinking about the reaction to the my self-mocking rant on lauding the Pathetic Aesthetic. In some places, it was discussed as if I was advocating dick-refereeing - placing characters in unwinnable situations by fiat, or delighting in killing them off. If you are responsible for the failure of your character, in the process of making meaningful decisions on the part of your character, then failure has been part of play. It is the consequence of your characters interaction with the 'world'. However, if the majority of your play has been largely referee led, then it is likely at least some of the times your characters' failures were the responsibility of the referee, which is likely to leave a far more sour taste in the mouth. It will feel like play undone, or play unrealized. 

*Note, when I write 'player led', I'm not talking about collaborative storytelling, or anything like that - I'm talking about players having a significant degree of freedom in determining the actions of their characters. 

Thursday, 19 September 2013

The Great Gates of Khare

More from the Crown of Kings for Advanced Fighting Fantasy. Earlier play reports: One, Two, Three, Four. Cramer's gender changes during these reports - that is my mistake, not some weird Chaos effect.

Ever since playing far too much Frontier: Elite II on the Amiga, I have associated this music with adventure. It was one of the pieces of music that played as you dropped out of hyperspace. Given that my post-Crown of Kings thoughts have turned to Traveller...

After gathering their breath, taking mere moments on Titan but a week on Earth, the party had forgotten what they had planned to do next. I didn't realise that the party had forgotten as, consulting the map made by A (Cramer) and remembering some of what they had been told in the Wayfarer's Rest, they were decisive and headed straight to the Temple of Courga.

A remnant of a lost culture, the Temple of Courga is a ziggurat built from the same stone and in a similar fashion to the walls of Khare. The path to the temple is flanked by looming statues of heroes and minor gods. These statues appear to have been drawn from a number of cultures and time periods - the idols of other tribes, cities, or times paying homage to the Goddess of Grace. It appears, though, that she has been forsaken by Khare, as what might once have been sacred gardens are now the city's rubbish heap.

The party picked their way through the trash, lit a torch and stepped into the temple. Their temple glittered with gold, silver, and jewels. Several ornate goblets rested on each pew, but all eyes were drawn to the huge, golden, jewel encrusted statue of Courga. She was unlike any representation of Courga with which the party were familiar. Rather than a 'realistic' portrayal of a slender, beautiful woman, facing them was something from an ancient culture - an idealised representation of a woman, crudely voluptuous to the eyes of contemporary Old Worlders.

A strange music filled the temple. Looking up, the party saw that a number of small openings are cut high into the walls. While these admit little light, they transform the ziggurat into a huge musical instrument, played by the wind itself. They also see Gargoyles, six of them, eyes fixed on the Goddess. 

Mopsy, a worshipper of Telak, son of Courga and her brother Fourga, God of Pride, stepped up and placed his last gold coin on the steps at the base of the statue. The party were able to read the plaque which reads: "On Courga's face you kiss across // and finish with the lips // for answers to your questions you // must err not else me spits". Mopsy motioned to kiss the statue, but Ho Lee and Cramer cautioned against it, reminding the knight of the story of the sailor. Unwilling to risk their lives without any further clues as to the correct way to kiss a goddess, the party left the temple. But not before they discussed whether to loot the temple. It was agreed that to prise out the huge gems that were Courga's nipples would be sacrilege, and I reminded the players that this was a world in which gods are most certainly real and make daily interventions. However, Ho Lee tried picking up one of the goblets. With a noise like the grinding of stone, the GARGOYLES (yes, capitalised - these are MONSTERS, not statues) turned their heads to stare down at the potential defiler. Ho Lee gently put the goblet down, and the Gargoyles turned back to stare at the goddess.

What then? I had to prompt the memories of the players. Who did you speak to last session? What did they tell you about? Eventually, they remembered that the High Priest of Slangg had told them about the Hidden Lord in Beggartown, and as Beggartown sits on the margins of the trash heap that surrounds the Temple of Courga within a few minutes the party were exploring a deserted warren of foul smelling shacks and shelters.

Deserted - the rest of the beggars busy at 'work' - apart from a blind old man, eyes painted on his closed eyelids, begging for alms. This is a fantasy adventure game, not real life, so the players reasoned that the beggar either was the Hidden Lord, or he was someone who could help the party find the Hidden Lord. However, as they knelt to speak to the pathetic wretch there was the flap of leathery wings and a hideous screech. Five HARPIES were swooping down to attack the old man. "He's found me!" the beggar wailed.

Told that the swooping Harpies would have a mechanical advantage (+2 to Attack Strength) in the open, and reminded that they were outnumbered, the players opted to protect the old man. Ho Lee and Cramer attacked the swooping Harpies while Mopsy attempted to drag the old man to the cover of one of the shacks. A complex series of rolls followed, in which the characters would outnumber one Harpy but would be outnumbered in turn by the remaining Harpies. And fumbles. Fumbles, fumbles, fumbles! Each character fumbled at least once, while at least one of the Harpies scored a critical hit on Mopsy.

Mopsy dragged the old man to a shack, and, with the Harpies advantage neutered, began to gain the upper hand. Cramer and Ho Lee fought, two against three, in the open for a round or two. Realising that this could only end in defeat, they made a dash for the shelter of a crude lean-to. D wanted Ho Lee to cast HOT (a fireball spell) on the next turn, but turns are simultaneous in AFF and the Harpies would be pursuing Cramer and Ho Lee and would be in the position to engage in melee that turn. I decided that in order for Ho Lee to cast the spell off without catching Cramer (and Ho Lee, perhaps) in the ball of fire he would have to make his Magic Test as if he was under missile attack. The casting attempt failed, but I ruled that only two Harpies could attack through the entrance to the lean-to, while Cramer could fight them both, protecting Ho Lee. With both of them low on STAMINA, Ho Lee cast WAL, buying them time to drink a Potion of Stamina each. I had offered D the opportunity to have Ho Lee feed a potion to Cramer in the middle of the fight - subject to a Test for Luck - but he wisely chose a different option.

While their cuts were knitting and their bruises vanishing, the Harpies tore at the lean-to. They would have ripped the roof off in - dice roll - three rounds. This time, Ho Lee had time to prepare (and had a fresh batch of STAMINA to burn) and successfully cast HOT. Boom! Screech! Having put paid to his opponents, Mopsy charged across to help and rolled a five and two. The party were into Irkutsk. 

The old man was indeed the remaining Hidden Lord. He was convinced that the ARCHMAGE OF MAMPANG was seeking to subvert the city by using him as a pawn. In order to hide from the Archmage he had hidden himself as a beggar and, in a gory countermeasure against magical scrying, had plucked out his own eyes. Now, that might well work, but he was, nevertheless, a little unhinged. He is convinced that the Harpies were agents of the Archmage - but in Khare, stuck between the Shamutanti Hills and the Baklands, who knows?

He knows one line of the Gate Spell, but he can't remember the second half of it. "By Courga's grace and..." is all he could remember. Well, A (Cramer) reasoned that it must end in -ide, given the other lines of the spell. But what? I looked at C (Mopsy). I could see the words he needed scribbled on his character sheet, jotted down when I described the relationship between Telak, Courga, and Fourga. After some time, C asked me if he could just roll against his Religion Lore skill. I said that I had already provided him with all the information, and had the old man interject and suggest that the party could always risk asking Courga for the answer. Luckily for whoever might be tasked with kissing a goddess, the players managed to drag, "and Fourga's pride", from their notes, and they were off to the North Gate. But not before the old mad had given them a silver ring in the shape of coiled serpent. He couldn't remember why, but he thought it might be useful.

A bribed guard later and they were able to cast the Gate Spell and enter the Baklands. I ruled that, even though Cramer deliberately mumbled the last line, the Guardians of Khare would not react as if it were a failed casting. As the party walked under the deep walls, a disembodied voice spoke to the party. Lord Shinva had escaped the... care of the entity that guards Khare. Who would take his place? After the party had argued over the silver snake ring for a while, the Spirit of the Walls addressed each of them in turn. Would it be the black-hearted devotee of Slangg? He would fit in perfectly. Would it be the knight with his chivalric code? Perhaps he would be someone who could bring a little hope to Khare. Or would it be the sorcerer, who could explore all manner of occult secrets as a Hidden Lord? Mopsy volunteered, and he was cursed to return to Khare after his mission was complete.

And that was that for the session, except for a short trek across the fringes of the Baddu-Bak plains, where the grass grows as if it were tufts of hair sprouting from ugly looking warts. This being Titan, this short journey involved a group of seven NIGHTHAWKS swooping out of the setting sun - "not more flying things!" - a rescue by a GOLDCREST EAGLE - "can't we ride it to Mampang?" - carrying some important plot related information from Analand, and an overnight stay with the hospitable Shadrack the Exposition Hermit.

On to Mampang!

SI allowed D to have Ho Lee spend some experience points devising a variant of the GOB and YOB spells that would summon a MANTICORE using the tooth he had pulled from the monster in the Shamutanti Hills. Despite the warning about balance in the rulebook, I figured that this spell, in the context of this adventure, would be unlikely to unbalance the campaign as it is likely to be, in effect, a one use spell - unless that party fight and defeat a second Manticore on their way to Mampang. I had the new spell cost the same as it would cost a wizard to learn Raise Skeleton - 120 experience points.

Monday, 16 September 2013

A Grog Goes Wrong...

Well, it was such a bargain.

The latest 'Bundle of Holding' is a collection of FATE games. Not my kind of games, you say? Well, you'd be right, FATE isn't really my bag, but I did want to check out Starblazer Adventures. I haven't had time to read all 600+ pages yet - don't hold your breath on a review, either - but there's a lot in there I quite like, and, predictably, quite a bit that I don't. I could actually see myself using Starblazer Adventures for a one-shot or two, but would most likely default to a 'simulationist' game such as Traveller for a 'proper' campaign. But for $15, or just less than a tenner in real money, you get Starblazer Adventures and  a bunch of other FATE based games, and a slice of that money goes to War Child International and the Somaly Mam Foundation.

It is hard to take a picture of a .pdf file (I've not got the ink for a 600+ page book at the moment). So here's a photo of some source material resting on something or other.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Actual Play Report, Smegheads...

When I write up a play report, I sometimes feel as if I'm doing this:


RED DWARF Series IV episode 6, "Meltdown"

1 Int. Sleeping Quarters.

CAT, LISTER and RIMMER are sitting round a table in the sleeping quarters.  CAT and LISTER are playing a card game and RIMMER is regaling them with tales of his youth. As the scene opens we see that CAT and LISTER seem to be in some kind of pain.

RIMMER: So there we were at 2:30 in the morning; I was beginning to wish I had never come to cadet training school. To the south lay water -- there was no way we could cross that. To the east and west two armies squeezed us in a pincer.  The only way was north; I had to go for it and pray the Gods were smiling on me. I picked up the dice and threw two sixes. Caldecott couldn't believe it.  My go again; another two sixes!
LISTER: Rimmer, what's wrong with you? Don't you realize that no one is even slightly interested in anything you're saying? You've got this major psychological defect which blinds you to the fact that you're boring people to death! How come you can't sense that?
RIMMER: Anyway I picked up the dice again... Unbelievable! Another two sixes!
LISTER: Rimmer!
LISTER: No one wants to know some stupid story about how you beat your Cadet School Training Officer at Risk.
RIMMER: Then -- disaster!  I threw a two and a three; Caldecott picked up the dice and threw snake eyes -- I was still in it.
LISTER: Cat, can you talk to him?.

CAT is sitting with big pieces of cotton wool plugged in to his ears. As LISTER talks to him he takes one of the pieces.

CAT: What?
RIMMER: Anyway, to cut a long story short I threw a five and a four which beat his three and a two, another double six followed by a double four and a double five. After he'd thrown a three and a two I threw a six and a three.
CAT: Man, this guy could bore for his country!
LISTER: What I want to know, is how the smeg can you remember what dice you threw at a game you played when you were seventeen?
RIMMER: I jotted it down in my Risk campaign book.  I always used to do that so I could replay my moments of glory over a glass of brandy in the sleeping quarters. I ask you, what better way is there to spend a Saturday night?
CAT: Ya got me.
RIMMER: So a six and a three and he came back with a three and a two.
LISTER: Rimmer, can't you tell the story is not gripping me?  I'm in a state of non-grippedness, I am completely smegging ungripped. Shut the smeg up.
RIMMER: Don't you want to hear the Risk story?
LISTER: That's what I've been saying for the last fifteen minutes.
RIMMER: But I thought that was because I hadn't got to the really interesting bit...
LISTER: What really interesting bit?
RIMMER: Ah well, that was about two hours later, after he'd thrown a three and a two and I'd thrown a four and a one. I picked up the dice...
LISTER: Hang on Rimmer, hang on... the really interesting bit is exactly the same as the dull bit.
RIMMER: You don't know what I did with the dice though, do you? For all you know, I could have jammed them up his nostrils, head butted him on the nose and they could have blasted out of his ears. That would've been quite interesting.
LISTER: OK, Rimmer. What did you do with the dice?.
RIMMER: I threw a five and a two.
LISTER: And that's the really interesting bit?
RIMMER: Well it was interesting to me, it got me into Irkutsk.


Friday, 13 September 2013

A Town Called Malice

In the course of our most recent session, Cramer the Rogue became a devotee of the Spiteful God. 

With one line of the Gate Spell obtained, the party went directly to the Temple of Slangg, arriving just as the evening service was ending. There, the High Priest presented them with a riddle. If one of them could answer the riddle correctly, Slangg – through his mouthpiece in Khare, the High Priest – would grant them one boon. However, in doing so they would gamble their soul. Answer incorrectly and they would become a devotee of Slangg. Mopsy the Knight wasn’t about to risk his virtue, so Cramer stepped up to answer the riddle. I think everyone was tired (in real life as well as in the game world). Cramer put forward an answer, the High Priest laughed, and in a voice that was not quite his own, Cramer announced that he was now an ardent worshipper of Slangg. The High Priest smiled, and invited another member of the party to try again during the dawn service the following day.

There was some discussion over just what was included in the domain of a God of Malice, and how that would differ from the portfolios of other Evil gods, given that Cramer would now have to embody the ‘virtues’ of his god while remaining a playable character. Cramer was already a ruthless bastard, so adding a pinch of malice and spite to the mix shouldn’t be too hard… 

The party retired to the Wayfarer’s Rest, a dockside tavern. Cramer blanched at the prices demanded – 4GP for a bed, 4GP for a meal – and sat outside to eat one of the pies given to the party by the grateful Gnomes. When he returned, he found Ho Lee the Sorcerer and Mopsy matching a group of drunk sailors drink for drink. The sailors poured some of their drink on the floor of the tavern, and told the mournful story of their shipmate, who had kissed a God and been rewarded with death. With a little probing, the party were able to learn something of the Temple of Courga, Goddess of Grace. Asking about the Hidden Nobles, the sailors told them that they had heard that all the Hidden Lords were undead. 

It was good, strong grog that the sailors were buying the PCs, but it was worth it as slaving is obviously very good business – see the prices of the Wayfarer’s Rest. As the SLAVERS drew their coshes, the party all had to Test Their Luck. Which the all passed, leaving the sailors facing three clear eyed and well-armed Adventurers! 

Mopsy, ever chivalric, decided that he wouldn’t kill essentially unarmed men, however wicked their intent, and used his shield to keep the two that came at him at bay. Cramer, on the other hand, drew her sword and began slashing away at the two slavers that closed in on him. Ho Lee scarpered, scrambling over tables, kicking over stools, slipping amongst the crowd, as a weasel faced sailor chased him down. Pulling a bamboo flute from the sleeves of his robe, Ho Lee cast JIG, making the leader of the gang (fighting Mopsy) dance to the Sailors’ Hornpipe. Co-incidentally, that slaver, possessed of a mouth filled with broken teeth, rolled a double one in the first round, sending his cosh spinning away under the tables. So now he was dancing involuntarily, was unarmed, and trying to menace a knight! Things weren’t going to go well for these thugs, were they? 

The tavern punters watched amused, while the squat, bald, scarred barman picked up his club, ready to break up the fight. 

Mopsy stayed on the defensive, but within three rounds Cramer had spilled the innards of one of the slavers all over the floor of the tavern, and the gang lost the stomach for the fight. But not before the weasel faced thug (and a bunch of other people) lost the contents of their stomachs. Ho Lee, nearly cornered by the thug, cast NIF. With stink oozing from his pores, and lacking nose plugs, Ho Lee was sick over the slaver, who projectile vomited in return, sparking a chain reaction among the nearby punters. 

The barman was unperturbed by the violence but none too pleased with the mess. Ho Lee and his bamboo flute provided free entertainment for the rest of the evening in recompense. 

The next morning Ho Lee was able to successfully answer the riddle, and the High Priest told them that he had heard that one of the Hidden Nobles, who had been a wealthy merchant, had divested himself of all his riches and had taken to living in Beggartown to avoid the attention of his enemies. Asking about graveyards in Khare, the party were told that only the wealthiest or most important citizens of Khare are buried - most bodies are dropped in the Jibaji River and float out of town. Deciding to check out the cemetery, the party skirted the RED EYE ghetto and passed through a market… 

Well, they eventually passed though the market, but only after extensive trading. The party sold Mopsy’s warhorse, Ed, along with a MANTICORE mane and the uncut gems found in the Shamutanti Hills. I decided that, in addition to the mundane traders, there was also a small shop, run by an ELVIN, selling basic magic items and components. Much perusing of equipment lists later and the PCs headed off to the cemetery where they found the mausoleum of Shinva, Lord of Khare. It seems that the hidden aspect of being a Lord of Khare is irrelevant once you are dead. 

Descending into the depths, the party were confronted by a DEATHWRAITH, an incorporeal, dagger wielding apparition. Mopsy adopted his now hardwired defensive stance, but the Deathwraith’s dagger passed through his shield and his armour, leaving a bloodless wound on his soul. Ho Lee, quickly realised what is going on and blasted away with the ZAP spell. Boy, is that spell powerful – 3d6 points of STAMINA damage! Especially when you forget to apply the Deathwraith’s resistance to magic. Nevertheless, the Deathwraith was doomed – Ho Lee had the STAMINA points he would have needed to frazzle the Deathwraith regardless of my error in refereeing. 

The ghostly assassin defeated, the party were then greeted by a second apparition, this time of Lord Shinva. After his death he had been trapped, compelled to serve as undead Lord of Khare, ‘protected’ by the Deathwraith. The party learned that the walls of Khare were not only magical, but were possessed of some kind of intelligence. The walls were Khare. Released from his duty, Shinva was now able to finally pass into the afterlife, but before he did he taught the party the third line of the Gate Spell. And that is where we left things for the evening. 

To be played over the closing credits:

Friday, 6 September 2013

Humanoid Relations

What do Orc bandits do with the loot they take from merchant caravans? What are Goblins planning to buy with the 1-8 silver pieces (of legal tender in human settlements) they carry in their purse. How (and why) do all Elves learn to speak Gnoll and Hobgoblin (without speaking to any Gnolls or Hobgoblins)?

They are the LAW! (Iain McCaig, from City of Thieves)

In my fantasy games I have a habit of introducing a hefty dose of interaction between humans (and demi-humans) and the races of evil humanoids. This might well be the product of a thorough steeping of my youthful imagination in Blacksand, though little things such as the fact that Ogres seem to be a not uncommon feature of human settlements in the Old World of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and that there is an Orcish ghetto in Alfheim in Mystara's Known World has undoubtedly leaked into that stew, too.

So, what is the degree of human, demi-human, and humanoid relations in your games?    

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Into Khare

Khare, Cityport of Traps… A horrible place to visit, a worse place to live. But better than the Baklands, which is why there is a bloody big magic wall in the way.

This week’s session of our AFF2e game was, for me, the most satisfying by far. Unlike in the gamebook, where YOU proceed from the Shamutanti Gate to the North Gate engaging in Bizarre Search Behaviour (BSB) before slumping to your knees having failed to gather all four lines of spell required to escape this hell hole into the Baklands, in a ‘proper’ RPG the PCs can be free to move about the city as they wish.

Well, more or less. The party’s first encounter in Khare involved them being bundled into a cell in the gatehouse. Of course, they were free to resist – you’ve always got a choice, however unappealing. But the guards didn’t seem intent on robbing them, except through ‘taxation’, and so the PCs got to spend time in the company of an old man who had voluntarily spent the past thirty years in a gatehouse cell rather than face the dangers of Khare or the Chaos-blasted wilderness outside the walls. He was more than happy to tell them what he knew of the city. While you might not expect him to be up-to-date on the current affairs of Khare, the fact that he meets a significant proportion of travellers into and out of the city and has a long term ‘friendship’ with the captain of the Shamutanti Gate, added to the lack of distraction, means that he is a well of gossip. And exposition.

So the party learned that the North Gate was magically locked and that it could only be opened by a spell known by the Hidden Lords of Khare, and the location of several key sites in the city – including the observatory of ABRAXUS, the Sightmaster Astrologer and agent of the Kings of Analand. And the party went straight there, ignoring the Temple of Slangg (God of Malice) and making short work of a hideous LIVING CORPSE (enjoying the generous thanks – largely in the form of pies – of some poverty stricken GNOMES) and VANGORN THE MURDERER on the way.

In the fight against Vangorn, the players asked me if they could try to take him alive. I couldn’t find anything in the rulebook, so I ruled that the PC could roll a Test of Luck when delivering the ‘killing blow’. Success equals helpless, defeated foe. Failure and, well, YOU were engaged in a life or death struggle, you know. Given that it was Cramer the Rogue (LUCK 12) who was ‘lured’ into the trap, the Test of Luck was a foregone conclusion, and Vangorn ended up hog-tied on the floor. And when it turned out he knew nothing of import, ruthlessly dispatched.  

It turned out that Abraxus lived just the other side of the bridge over the stinking, roiling mass of Chaos that is the Jibaji River (an answer to ‘why do we have to go through Khare to cross the river’) in a tower much like that of Yaztromo, which allowed me the opportunity to dig out one of my favourite Fighting Fantasy illustrations. It also gives me an excuse to reproduce it below.

Yaztromo's Tower, from Titan: the Fighting Fantasy World

Abraxus was able to give the party plenty of information, but could only speculate as to the identities of the four Hidden Lords of Khare. Turns out they wear voluminous robes and mirrored masks which hide their identity from mundane observation, and are well protected by magical wards that protect them from arcane scrying. But Abraxus strongly suspects that a fellow member of the Khare Natural Philosophy Society, LORTAG THE SAGE, is one of the Hidden Lords. Quite how he has managed to stay alive when this is so widely suspected was unknown, but he must possess some mighty magics – alongside his BRISTLE BEASTS.

I don’t think that the party quite understands the BSB which is traditional to Fighting Fantasy, as they proceeded directly to Lortag the Sage’s home, choosing to ignore the Firemaster and no-handed artist of exceptional talent, while diverting the ORCLINGS with some worthless Goblin tin coins. After some hesitation stemming from Lortag’s insistence that the PCs leave their weapons in the hallway, the party were invited into Lortag’s second library – his everyday study. Lortag is indeed a Hidden Lord, and appreciates that the ARCHMAGE OF MAMPANG is as much a threat to Khare as he is to the rest of the Old World. Even their ensorcelled walls, imbued with perhaps inhuman magics (an answer to, ‘why can’t we just climb the walls’) will be no protection to an army of Mampang led by the wearer of the Crown of Kings. He offers to tell them his line of the spell, in exchange for their help solving a puzzle. ‘Adventurers are good at that sort of thing’, he says. ‘Adventurers are much cleverer than they look. Well, living ones are, at least’.

I showed the PCs the puzzle pages, and waited as they tried to work out what the symbols meant. I was all set to have Lortag shout, ‘Eureka!’ and give the PCs the credit for their ‘inspiring presence’ (an unimaginative response to the problem of failure in what is, despite the openness of this episode, still a linear quest with choke points aplenty) when they actually did solve the puzzle. Lortag was most grateful, and offered his speculations as to who the other Hidden Lords might be. They are likely to be people of authority within the city, and, as he was made a Hidden Lord by his predecessor as Sage of Khare, other lords might represent the continuity of long-established interests in Khare. Based on some of Abraxus’ suspicions – who it is clear is a rival of Lortag in the learned circles of the city – the PCs discussed with Lortag the possibility that the Hidden Lords might not be human, a suggestion that the sage entertained, adding his own speculation that a Hidden Lord need not even be ordinarily corporeal, given the regalia involved.

And we left it there, with the PCs about to cross the city to visit the Temple of Slangg.