— PLUS: Thoughts on how I Run My Games and Set Up My Adventures —
SPOILERS for Scenic Dunnsmouth below!
The Lamplighters had journeyed to Bergenzel (AKA: “Scenic Dunnsmouth“) in our fifteenth and sixteenth sessions. They had managed to:
- Find Herr Graupher, the inter-dimensional explore they needed to find (he was dead, yes, but they did find him)
- Uncover the nefarious spider-cult that had taken over the village
- Track down Magda, a witch who had fallen prey to the spider-cult
- Defeat Magda, the Original Spider, and Uncle Ivanovik (the man who had killed Graupher)
- They found the location of Graupher’s Keep from a man they rescued, and helped this man rescue the son of one of the cultists
They had done very well for themselves. They had found what they had come for, and they had done some good deeds along the way.
But the mystery of the swamp (“Why did time move differently here than the rest of the world?”) was still unsolved. They could use the information they had found to travel to Graupher’s Keep or they could continue to explore the village.
Their decision was… “Okay, this place is creepy. Let’s get out now!”
So, they bugged out, returning to the farm they had rented outside of Munich to heal up, study some magic they had found, and make scrolls.
As recounted in the previous session report, after several seeks they made their way past the ruins of Murnau, past the path that led to Bergenzel, and up into the foothills of the Alps where the cleared out and took control of Graupher’s Keep.
The greatest prize of this expedition was a ship that could travel between worlds, hidden away in a massive cavern with an underground lake within the mountain that housed the keep.
I thought for certain they would gather a crew, board the boat, and travel to an alter reality. This has been the purpose of seeking out Graupher and then his keep. But the group was very excited to have taken control of the keep and wanted to clean it up, hire troops to man it, and make sure the road to the keep through the lowlands was safe.
The meant, one of the players declared, they had to go back to Bergenzel and figure out why a mist covered the swampy town and what was causing the time dilation. (They assumed the two were connected.)
There was uncertainty on the part of a couple of the players about this course of action (“Wasn’t there a spider-cult there!”) while the rest of the group knew they had left a portion of the map unexplored and wanted to return and solve the mystery. And so it was decided they would head back.
As they explored the village they came across only abandoned homes. Apparently the rest of the cultists had fled. They returned to the church–and found poor Herman dead on the altar and Father Iwanopolous hung upside and crucified on the church wall. Parting presents from the fleeing cultists.
The fate of the priest, Herman, and the cultists still alive from the last journey was all stuff I had to decide on my own. (“Make it up,” in the parlance of OSR-Refereeing!)
Scenic Dunnsmouth doesn’t specify what the cultists do if the Original Spider is killed. You may no recall–as I did–that the Player Characters had found a map on the inside of the vivisected flesh of Sir Bruno, a knight of an order doing battle against the Duvan’Ku, and on the map was a mark of an insect.
Here’s the passage from my notes describing this:
A prisoner is here, Sir Bruno, a knight of the Order Medicinal. The order gathered the orphans of victims of the Cult of Duvan’Ku in Bavaria in centuries past. After the temple from Death Frost Doom was sealed up by the Clerics of many faiths, they shifted their focus to helping orphans of crime and war, though the order felt less driven in purpose. With the outbreak of the religious war 15 years ago across the Holy Roman Empire they found new energy.
Sir Boris heard rumors of the meteorites and strange circumstances around Middlehelm and went to investigate. He was captured and tortured by Ulrich and Gunther. They want to know where the Duvan’ku hid the World Stone.
The World Stone is a device that can transport people between Carcosa and Earth. Sorcerers from Carcosa used it to spy on Earth. Duvan’Ku cultists stole it and hid it hundreds of years ago.
Sir Boris refused to tell them what his order knows of the World Stone. So they vivisected him with magical means, peeling the flesh of his torso from him, revealing the truth as he knew it:
The inside of his flesh has become a topographical map of Bavaria.
Along the northern edge of the Alp floats the “Death Symbol” from Death Frost Doom. The Shrine from Death Frost Doom is located here. The World Stone is in Area 22 of the Shrine.
Further north on the map there is the sign of an insect. This marks Goblin Hill, from Better Than Any Man. The Order is actively investigating the rise of insects in the area and is closing in on Goblin Hill.
The agents of Carcosa care very much about the Duvan’Ku and the Insect Gods.
This is a technique I use in every adventure: I leave one or two clues or breadcrumbs for one or more other possible adventures. This way, as the Player Characters proceed they have choices about where the will go next. Note that I don’t leave the clue as to where they “have to go next”–because I never assume I know where they will go next. I give them many options. They can choose to pursue any of them… and even ignore those that I set before them and go off after something goal they decide on their own. That’s why, as in this case, I offered clues to two different adventure locations.
This was the symbol they found on the map marking Goblin Hill from Better Than Any Man:
They had all found the same symbol on the curtain in the basement of Magda’s hut… the curtain over the alcove where the Original Spider was hiding. (The text of Scenic Bergenzel specified that a curtain hung over the alcove. I decided to put the insect symbol on the curtain.)
Spelling all this out is a long way of telling you what I decided to do with the remaining cultists since the text of Scenic Dunnsmouth. Keep in mind, until the Players decided they wanted to go back to Bergenzel I hadn’t thought at all about the fate of the remaining cultists. Honestly, there was so much going on and so many other big events occurring, I’d forgotten all about them.
But this is how, in my view, healthy sandbox settings run. One can go off the mental deep end thinking that you are responsible for mastering and tracking every element in a fantasy world or interstellar science-fiction environment. But this isn’t the case at all.
I recently recorded an interview with Victor Raymond, who played in Professor M.A.R. Barker’s fabled Thursday Night Empire of the Petal Throne game. (I quoted Victor several times in a post about How People Played Traveller in 1977.)
In the interview, Raymond told a story about someone pointing at a spot on the map of Tékumel and asking Professor Barker, “What’s here?”
And the Professor replied: “I don’t know. I haven’t been there yet.”
And the person, very confused, replied, “How can you not know?”
“Well, I named it. I know a little bit about it. But until characters I think of go there and interact with each other, interact with the land, I really don’t know what’s there. I haven’t been there.”
I think that’s a really important lesson for all Referees. The man who created the world of Tékumel, who ran games on that fantastical on a weekly basis for years, who wrote novels about that world, not only did not know everything about it. He assumed that until that patch of geography was put into imaginative, creative motion, he could not know it fully.
This ties into a post I wrote a while back about the value of Random Encounters and Random Tables in Sandbox RPG play. We simply can’t know everything about a fictional environment, and we don’t need to know everything about a fictional environment if it is not in action.
This doesn’t mean that we simply ignore the plots and actions of our NPCs if they are off-screen. I spent time imagining and dreaming about what the Carcosan spies on Earth are up to in their effort build a bridge between Carcosa and Earth. Even when they vanished from the Player Characters’ concerns for many weeks of play, I never forgot about them. I imagined their setbacks, their victories, how they were moving forward with the raid on the Duvan’Ku shrine for the snow-globes of alternate realities that would let them travel to a version of the Qelong Valley and come back with the Aakom they needed to tear a rift in space from the Spatial Transference Void to the central Europe.
What it does mean is that we are wiling to find things out in play. That we let our imaginations be inspired by what happens in play. That we let the tension of the moment, the acts of invention (like my players using The Lost Battalion to defeat 3,000 zombies in the tower they needed to clear).
So, what had the cultists decided to do after the Lamplighters had killed the Original Spider and a good number of the cultists? I had no idea, since my imagination had no need to imagine anything in Bergenzel for a while. But the moment they decided to go back, my imagination was happy and excited to get back into gear.
I decided they cultists would head toward Goblin Hill. There were, after all, the arachnids in conflict with the insects. I decided the Original Spider was of this brood. And the cultists would think they were going “home” to carry on the work of their spider-kin. They tracked down the non-cultists in Bergenzel, murdered them in a horrific fashion, and headed north.
After sussing out the fact that the cultists had picked up stakes, the Player Characters were left with the mystery of why time moved so strangely in Bergenzel. This was a mystery they wanted to pursue, sine the point of returning to the cursed town was to make sure passage to their new keep was secure and safe.
They had taped a good section of the village on their first visit, but Eric, the sharp puzzle-loving member of my group, noted that the northeaster quadrant of their map was still a blank. He assumed that whatever was causing the time-dilation would be found there. So that’s were they headed.
They saw a faint glow ahead of them as they approached the Time Cube, the light diffused by the moisture in the air that only got thicker and thicker the closer they got…
I won’t go into all the details of the experimentation and time distortion shenanigans they got into as the explored the cube. (At one point they fired a laser at the cube from one of the suits of power armor they had recovered from the shattered expedition the Carcosans had sent into the Duvan’Ku shrine. The bolt shot toward the cube at the speed of light–at first. And then it got slower and slower, until it looked like it was just about to touch the surface of the cube, but never reaching it…)
Suffice to say, like so much from the LotFP product line, it did its job well. It was mysterious, and offered a sense of both danger and novelty. They approached the problem with care and a great deal of curiosity, until the Magic-User cast Time Stop and the cube vanished. (The laser bolt suddenly sped back up, shooting into a tree past where the cube had been and destroying it!)
The water’s of the river suddenly began flowing again. The marsh began (slowly) draining. The mist that had obscured the small village for years vanished, allowing sunshine to illuminate the land around them once more.
I had assumed at this point they would return to the keep, stock provisions and crew, and sail off to Qelong to get the canister their Carcosan friend had told them they had to reach before the Carcosan agents did. But they surprised me (again!). They said they wanted to head north toward the point on the map where they had seen the insect symbol. They want to finish the cult once and for all.