Monday, 30 April 2018

Experiments in Horror - Silent Legions (part 3 - final)


Eleanor parks the car on a partly overgrown lay-by off the twisting forest road, then turns to address the others.

"Right, team, if there's one thing season tickets to the RSC has taught me, it's the value of silence, so mobiles off everyone. And digital watches too -- we don't want a chorus of chirps announcing our presence on the hour."

"I, uh, I'll just leave my watch in the car," says Terence, fumbling with the dial.

Leslie reaches into his coat pocket and produces a silver hip flask, from which he takes a generous swig. "Dutch courage," he says. "Any takers?"

"Yes, please!" says Bettina.

The flask makes a full circuit, then they pull on their balaclavas and step out of the car.

"It's so dark," observes Terence.

"It won't stay that way if we don't get going soon," says Leslie.

"Who's got the map?" asks Eleanor.

"I do," says Bettina.

"Are you sure you can get us there through the wood?"

"I can navigate. I used to be a girl guide."

"Of course you did, dear."

[To set up the final scene, I made a quick list of the equipment the PCs would be bringing for their assault on the cult's headquarters. None of the PCs is sufficiently rural/outdoorsy enough to own a shotgun, but I asked the Oracle...

Q: Does Leslie (illegally) own a WWII pistol? Unlikely (5+): O1 C5 - No.

So then:
T torch, cricket bat
B maglite, knife
E torch, kitchen knife
L torch, swordcane

I finally got a copy of Word Mill's Location Crafter, which seemed like the right tool for a low-prep cultist manor investigation. I even used one of the example locations as a jumping-off point. I filled out the rest of the lists in about as much time as it took to type them up, intending to use the Oracle (Mythic & the Location Crafter's) and the d30 Sandbox Companion as usual to figure out what everything means.

For each scene, 1d6 is rolled on each of 3 lists, with a modifier of +1 per Progress Point in the category (generally +1/scene after the first, until you roll off the top of the chart). The first 4 Locations on that list are exterior; thus the grandeur of the manor's grounds will depend on how low I keep rolling. Entries marked (U) are Unique, and can usually only be encountered once.

Here are my three lists:

LOCATIONS
---------
Expected
Garden Shed
Fountain
Statue
Expected
Expected
Study
Dining Room
Servants' Bedroom
Kitchen (U)
Library (U)
Special
Complete
Attic (U)
Random
Secret Chamber (U)

ENCOUNTERS
----------
None
guard
None
guard
None
Sounds of conversation
Footfalls
Special
Creaky floorboards
butler (U)
Eerie sounds
Special
1d3 cultists
Xanthippe (U)
Random
horror (U)

OBJECTS
-------
None
Bear trap
None
Expected
Expected
Special
Bloodstains
Sacrificial dagger (U)
Painting
Books
Revolver (U)
Special
Chalice (U)
Special
Random]



It takes about half an hour to traverse the gloomy woods by the light of a single torch. They daren't use more light, for fear of discovery, and Bettina switches it off as soon as they espy the manor's lights through the trees. When they come to the edge of the tree line...

Scene 1

[Setup--
Location: Garden shed
Encounter: Sounds of conversation
Object: Special

The Special result requires a roll on the Location Crafter's Special table: d%=random element, Bleakly / Abandoned]


...they find a convenient groundskeeper's shed to hide behind as they survey the landscaped grounds leading to the back of the manor house. Beside the shed, half-hidden in the overgrowth, lies a rusting piece of 1950s farming machinery; the sight of the spiky, corroded hulk gives all four investigators pause, as they try to remember if their tetanus jabs are up-to-date. Then the sound of voices reminds them they have a more immediate problem, as two cultists are having a private conference inside the shed.

[They each need an easy (6+) Perception roll to overhear the conversation:
T4+1
B9+1
E8+1
L3-1

UNE--
NPC Relationship: distrustful
Conversation Mood: neutral
prejudiced - difference - fame

voices are d6=3,1 both male

Q: Any reliable way to tell them apart? Unlikely (5+): O4 C7 - No.]


Everyone strains to hear the voices, but only Eleanor and Bettina can make out what is being said.

"She didn't pick you for the honour," says the first man, "because you haven't done enough to raise our profile in the county!"

"This Yule scheme is ridiculous!" says the second man. "We should be working in secret, not trying to trick the WI or whoever into performing the sacred rites."

[Q: Does the argument continue for a while? 50/50 (4+): O3 C2 - No, and...]

"I don't know why you're talking to me about this," replies the first man. "I side with the high priestess, and she with me. As far as I'm concerned, the matter is closed." So saying, he leaves the shed and walks towards house.

[Q: Does the other follow directly? 50/50 (4+): O4 C4 - Yes, but...
+Event:  NPC negative - seem / fear]


The second man starts to follow, but pauses after only a few steps. He clumsily shakes a cigarette out of the pack, and tries to steady his shaking hands long enough to get it lit. By the time he's realised that he's been trying to light the filter, Bettina has crept up behind him and put her knife to his throat. "Scream and I'll kill you," she whispers.

[Her Stealth roll was 2d6+1=11 vs. his 2d6+0=5]

She drags the terrified man back into shed, and her accomplices slip inside. Terence keeps watch out the door, as the rest surround cultist. Leslie holds the man's arms, and Bettina shines her torch in his face. Eleanor makes a point of showing the man her carving knife before beginning the questioning.

"So," she says, "we need to discuss your boss."

[Persuade roll 2d6+2=12!]

"I'll talk! I'll talk! Please don't hurt me!"

"Firstly, I was told Yule was being cancelled."

"Someone had made threats. We were going to find out who they were and eliminate the problem before the next meeting. The plan is still going ahead, you can be sure of that."

"But you don't like it. Why not?"

"Giving the uninitiated such a major role. It's beyond foolish. It's... it's blasphemy!"

"We're going to stop this."

"You lot? You can't! She's too powerful."

"Xanthippe?"

"Who else?"

"What about the chalice. Where is it? What does it do?"

[Persuade roll 2d6+2=10, sufficient

Q: Does he know? Likely (3+): O5 C5 - Yes
+Event:  PC negative - perceive / name

Silent Legions has good magic items generators, so I rolled on Miscellaneous Effects (p.87).


Internal Effects: They gain +1d3 to an ability modifier.

1d6=Intelligence]


"The chalice increases the understanding. If you drink from it, you can think like Einstein, or Stephen Hawking, or Da Vinci. For a time."

"What does the cult plan to do with it?"

"We're going to use it to win University Challenge. What  do you think?"

"Don't be sarcastic, Roger, you're not very good at it."

"How do you know my name? Just who are you?"

"I'll ask the questions here."

"Wait... Eleanor?"

"No, I'm-- I've never heard of her."

"Oh, bollocks, Eleanor. I'd recognise that bitchy tone of voice anywhere."

Eleanor responds by plunging her knife into the man's stomach. The surprise in his expression is reflected in the eyes of her companions, staring wildly out from their balaclavas. The man goes limp, and Leslie lets him drop to the shed's filthy floor. Everyone takes a step back as the life gushes out of him.

[Everyone is nervous, and new to this adventuring lark besides, so I didn't rule the attack an automatic hit. The +2 bonus for the target being held cancelled Eleanor's -2 penalty for no skill, but 1d20=14, easily hitting AC9. The knife's 1d4=4 damage exceeded the cultist's 1d4=2hp, so the wound is mortal.

Silent Legions characters start out as normal people, so casual violence comes at a cost. The first time a PC kills another human being, they gain 1d20 Madness. That being said, it seems like Eleanor really is as cold and heartless as the procession of her discarded ex-lovers would have you believe, for she rolls a mere 2.]


"He knew my name," says Eleanor. "I couldn't risk him alerting the others if we let him go. Besides, the little tosser had it coming."

[+1 Progress Point in each category, so 1d6+1 is rolled on each list to set up the next scene.]

Scene 2


[Setup--
Location: expected
Encounter: none
Object: none]


Once everyone has collected their composure, they leave the dead or dying cultist in the shed and begin slinking up towards the house, using the ornamental shrubs and flowerbeds for cover as best they are able.

[+1 Progress Point in each category, +2 total (1d6+2 to set next scene)


Scene 3

[Setup--
Location: Fountain
Encounter: None
Object: Sacrificial dagger (U)]


They soon come upon an ornate fountain, in the form of a Nereid surrounded by sea monsters, from whose mouths bubble streams of water into a low, circular pool. The moon peers timidly out from the clouds, and a glint on the pool's stone rim catches Eleanor's eye: a sharp, oversized kris knife with a twisting goat horn handle rests in a chalk circle, surrounded by various sigils and Hebrew letters. Eleanor takes it up without a moment's hesitation, and examines it in the feeble moonlight.

"How ghastly! How absolutely ghastly. Still, it's probably better than fighting with my good kitchenware."

The others scarcely doubt that she looks forward to using it.

[+1 Progress Point in each category, +3 total. It was useful to record this in my notes to remind me where things stood when I had an interruption (making more coffee, etc.), but I'm going to excise the increase in Progress Points from the rest of the narrative as in my experience it just tends to clutter the post. I will truncate the scene set-up notes from here on in as well.]

Scene 4

[Setup: Servants' Bedroom - Footfalls - Books]

"Look there," says Terence. "An open window."

One by one they run up to the house, crouching as low as they are able. The window is for a basement room: at ground level and just big enough for a person to squeeze through. Bettina peeks down through it, and finding the small bedroom below to be empty clambers inside. She is about to help Terence through when she suddenly hears heavy footsteps outside the door. She motions for him to go back, and crouches beside the bed, ready to hide beneath it, but the footsteps go right past and disappear further into the house.

When she is sure the coast is clear she motions for the others to come in, and examines the overflowing bookcases with her torch as her companions drop through the window.

"What have you found there?" asks Leslie. "Books of black magic?"

[Q: What are books like? Ruthlessly / Lacking]

"Worse, replies Bettina. "Some cultist is really into E. L. James!"

Scene 5

[Setup: Kitchen (U) - Special - Bloodstains
Special d%=Return]


They switch off their torches, and Bettina hazards a peek out the door. She sees a long, narrow corridor with a few stairs at one end. The corridor is itself unlit, but light spills in from either end.

The stairs lead to an enormous and -- other than the ancient brick hearth -- thoroughly modern kitchen. A glass door leads back out [Encounter: special, Return] to the lawn. Bettina goes over to unlock it.

"what are you doing?" whispers Leslie. "we've just come from out there."

"In case we need to leave in a hurry."


Scene 6

[Setup: Servants' Bedroom - butler (U) - Special
Special d%= Add element; cultist robes are present, and added to the end of the Objects list.

Q: Is the butler asleep? Likely (3+): O3 C1 - yes, and...]


Going further into the manor, the investigators are confronted by another narrow corridor. Trying a door at random reveals another bedroom, this one a bit less cramped than the first, but currently occupied. Fortunately, the sleeper within does not awaken when the door is opened. Bettina goes to close it softly, but [1d4=]Terence notices something an unusual garment thrown over the back of a chair, and takes it before they close the door on the snoring butler.

He holds it up and shakes it out to reveal a scarlet robe embroidered all over with arcane symbols in golden thread.

"Well?" asks Eleanor, "Not going to put it on?"

"Might as well," says Terence. "If we find enough, we might blend in better. Especially with these hoods up. So, how do I look?"

"Ridiculous," says Eleanor.

"Like my 5th level magic-user," says Bettina.

"What?" asks Eleanor.

"Uh, nothing. It's a private joke."

"Perhaps we'd best get on with it," huffs Leslie.

"Yes," says Bettina, winking at Terence. "There's a lot more to this labyrinth."

Scene 7

[Setup: Study - Special - Special

Encounter special: d%=random element, Frantically / Delightful
cultist rolling on E. d6=male

Object special: d%=Multi-Element: bloodstains + chalice (U)]


They come next into the darkened study. The flickering light of a widescreen television glints off the plastic DVD cases filling the shelves, and a forgotten stereo glows in one corner.

As they move through the room, they are suddenly aware that the pile of blankets on the sofa is actually concealing a person, a young man with a glazed but euphoric expression, apparently watching Star Trek Voyager with the sound turned off.

Bettina looks down at the cultist, trying to think of an excuse for their presence. The man squints up at her, and his smile widens.

[reaction roll, +2 modifier for pills: 2d6+2=8, neutral]

"Hey," says the cultist, "who are, um, yoooou?"

Bettina panics, and hits him over head with her maglite. [+2 advantage, -2 no skill, but still hits, damage 1d4=3, hp 1d4=1]

Everyone winces when they hear his skull crack. Bettina looks suddenly even more dazed than her victim had just moments ago, before falling back with a dented head.

[She gains 1d20=7 madness]

"He'll... he'll be out for a while," she says unconvincingly. But thinks to herself, "Oh god oh god oh god what have I done? Now they'll think I'm like Eleanor..."

"Look at this!" says Eleanor, seemingly unperturbed by the event. "I think you have to drink blood to get this thing to work."

The others look over to see Eleanor holding aloft a bloodstained chalice of beaten silver.

"Ewwww," observes Bettina.

"We should take it all the same. Leslie, I believe antiques are your department."

Scene 8

[Setup: Library (U) - Xanthippe (U) - Painting

Painting is Happily / Valuable - a stolen Renoir

UNE--
NPC Relationship: hostile
Conversation Mood: guarded
knowing - effects - rewards]


The library is packed floor to ceiling with costly antique volumes and objets d'art. A Renoir hangs on the wall above an overstuffed armchair. Bettina absently recalls reading in the paper that it had been stolen from the Louvre by a gang of international art thieves. But she hasn't time to recollect the circumstances, for the woman in the armchair reading a vellum manuscript is rising to greet the intruders.

Xanthippe Deniston is a tiny woman, standing just under 5 feet tall, but somehow her presence fills the whole of the room, and the investigators stop short.

"I surmise by these preposterous get-ups that you four are the ones trying to stop the Yule celebrations. If you only understood the powers with which you are contending, you'd fall at my feet this instant and beg to be received into the bosom of our petite cabale."

"My friends and I have had enough of your murderous schemes," sneers Eleanor. "We have your precious cup, and we aim to--"

"Hand it over right now, or face the consequences. I will not tell you twice."

In reply, Leslie twists the handle of his cane and draws the long thin blade from its concealment.

[Q: What does Xanthippe have up her sleeve? 1d6: 1 recently cast spell, 2 summoned beastie, 3 cultists within screaming distance, 4 evil artefact, 5 gun, 6 unearthly power

d6=2, beastie. I used the SL alien generation tables to determine its appearance, and the Average Stalking Hunter stats from the bestiary chapter as a base. Its form suggested 3 attacks instead of 2, so I dropped the damage by a die size.

Horrible Summoned Beastie (AC 6, HD 3, HP 9, Attacks 3, Att. Bonus +6, Damage 1d6, Move 40', ML 8, Skill 4, Madness 1d8)

Initiative rolls (1d8): party 1, Xanthippe 2]



The investigators are surprised when Xanthippe turns about and runs out the room's back door, but they give chase without further hesitation.

The corridor beyond is already empty, but they can hear her running footsteps round the bend. But as they turn the corner, they find not Xanthippe, but a beast vomited up from the darkest recesses of Hell itself.

[New initiative rolls: PCs 2, it 3.
1d8 Madness for all: T3 B4 E2 L8]


The thing has the size and general outline of a malnourished bear, with four sinewy, bifurcated limbs ending in doubly-cloven hooves. It has no skin; pulsing black organs appear between knots of raw pinkish muscle and taut yellow tendons, and a colourless slime coats the whole. Four lidless eyes stare out of the confused mass of tissue that answers for its head, and three grasping tentacles write from below them, each ending in a fleshy, almost human seeming mouth.

[Round 1]
As their minds struggle to comprehend the sight before them, the beast springs at [1d4=] Terence. The three tentacles strike in unison like a trio of cobras, a blur of motion followed by a triple spray of blood as they plunge into Terence's chest, tearing off hunks of flesh and bits of bone. He crumples with a choked gurgle into a bloody heap [3 hits, damage 6+1+3, drops him to -6hp, dead].

The others turn and flee.

[Q: Does it gives chase? Unknown 1d6=3, Likely (3+): O3 C1]

[Round 2]
But the creature is faster than its quarry. It bears down on [1d3=] Eleanor, and the tentacles lash out again. Only one makes contact, but it tears a huge strip of flesh from Eleanor's shoulder, and she collapses [1 hit, 3 damage puts her at exactly 0hp].

Leslie and Bettina are cornered by the library door, and have no hope but to turn and fight. Leslie takes an ineffectual swing at it with his swordcane [miss], but Bettina manages to slam her maglite down on its head, putting out one of the staring eyes with a satisfying pop [natural 20! and d4=4 damage, leaving it with 5hp].

[Round 3]
The three tentacle mouths hiss with pain or rage, then dart out at Bettina. One only rips away shreds of her heavy coat, but the other two come away trailing mouthfuls of viscera [2 hits, 3+3 damage drops her to -2hp, dead]. Bettina falls into the beast, giving Leslie an opportunity to advance and plunge his blade into the creature's flank. It shivers in pain as he retracts the glistening sword [hit for 1d6+1(str)=4 damage, leaving it with 1hp].

[Round 4]
The things is pulsing and writhing from the dolorous wound, and clumsily tries to twist and lunge at Leslie. The tentacle mouths bite too soon, and merely thud heavily into Leslie's sternum [technically, a single attack hit for 1 damage, leaving Leslie with 4hp].

Leslie slashes at the beast, but his swordstick just whistles through the air before its head [He missed, but he can spend an Expertise point to re-roll the attack (Tough class feature), and does so: d20=a hit! and it only has 1hp!]. As it pulls back to spring at him again, Leslie summons all his courage and rushes right up to the thing, bringing his sword up and plunging the point into its neck. The thin blade slide right up into the beast, stopped only by the top of its skull. It goes limp, and crashes to the floor, leaking goo.

Leslie rips his sword free, then turns and runs back through the house, leaving by the glass door into the kitchen that Bettina -- poor slain Bettina! -- had so wisely unlocked. He sprints into the woods, and can hear other cultists shouting behind him.

[Q: Clean escape? 50/50 (4+): O6 C4 - Yes, but...]

Leslie climbs a tree and hopes no one looks amongst the foliage. He waits there for several nervous hours. It's almost 9am by the time he's convinced the cultists have given up their search. He stumbles through the woods and along the country roads until he comes to the nearest village, and calls a taxi to take him home.

[He takes 1d8 Madness (each) for watching his friends fall. 3d8=20, but as it was more-or-less a single event, the loss is capped at the maximum for an individual die roll; he thus only gains 8 Madness, bringing his total to 38.]


Epilogue

Leslie is too terrified to open his shop, or even leave his house. He scans the morning paper with unease, and finding nothing about the night's awful events begins to search news sites on internet with ever-increasing fear, until at last he is sure the police won't be looking for him. He isn't sure about the cult, but perhaps they don't know who he is, he reasons.

After three days his mobile rings. The number is Eleanor's!

"Hello?"

"Leslie! Thank god you're alive! I think we're the only ones left. Bettina's number goes straight to voice mail. I can't get hold of Haverdon at all. I played dead after the monster... well, I ran off when the coast was clear. I've been hiding out in a B&B in Canterbury, of all places. We should flee the country. I've taken as much money out of the cashpoint as I can, Stephen has cut off all my cards. I need to get as far away from here as I can. Do you still have the key I made you? When Stephen is at work, go to my house and get my passport. Let's  go away together. France, Italy, Australia, I don't care, just away!"

It's a chance to rekindle their old affair, the prospect of a life with Eleanor -- on the run from God knows what,  but that just makes all the more exciting, doesn't it. Leslie packs a bag, sneaks into Eleanor's house to get her passport and some of her jewellery (she hadn't said, but he knows she'll miss it), and rings her back to finalise their plan. They agree that it would be best to take the ferry from Dover, and figure out where to go from there once they've reached the continent. He books a hotel room for one night in Dover, under the names of Mr. and Mrs. Cavanaugh. He takes a train to Dover that same day.

Leslie whistles a happy tune as he climbs the steps up to the hotel room. He is never seen alive again.


~~~   fin. ~~~

Post mortem

So that was a good first go. I think the basic premise of rolling scenes with the Adventure Template tables is sound, but if I do it again I will definitely do some things differently. And since SL is supposed to be all sandboxy, I should remember that not every scene needs to come off the tables, if sometimes my PCs have something they want to do on their own. Perhaps a hybrid structure between Mythic and the Adventure Template...

Some other observations in no particular order:
  • I should have made a character map of NPCs on paper, as they started multiplying beyond my ability to keep track of them all. Or remember their name, half the time.
  • The plot got slightly incoherent towards the middle, probably as a result of the point about NPCs above.
  • I kept forgetting to use Location Tags. They might have helped with background and hint at possible directions for the plot.
  • The Location Crafter worked very well for exploring the manor. But what I should have done (it occurs to me this very instant as I am typing these final notes) is stock the Lists with entries from SL Location Tags.
  • Out of habit I used my revised Mythic Event Meaning tables, based on word frequency in Matthew Lewis' The Monk. They were ok, but I feel like a more modern horror story would have been better suited and easier to interpret.
  • The TPK didn't bother me as it was not only horror game, but I was a little uninspired by my PCs; a campaign would need better (or simply more interesting, to me) PCs for a better focus and staying power. A boring PC is a dead PC, at least the way I solo.
  • It did seem that the only real motivations the PCs had for investigating was that they were PCs in a horror game. The next Experiment has another more-or-less randomly generated PC, but she has a personal stake in the plot from the first scene. For Experiment 3 I made a PC who is explicitly interested in occult matters. So at least I've learnt this lesson.
  • I really should have reigned in the silliness. Some humour is fine, as the contrast throws the horror into higher relief, but too much...
  • Eleanor turned out to be my favourite PC, though I was expecting it to be Bettina, as the scholar/PI mix. Eleanor might show up in future SL game as NPC villain, if I figure out what the cultists did to her after her capture.
  • Tags & Templates refer to lots of past/pre-existing circumstances, which in the blank slate of my beginning solo adventure didn't yet exist. I need to keep better records of these results as they are rolled so they aren't all forgotten. Perhaps making a worksheet with blanks to be filled in or something would work.
  • Again, taking notes on paper is always better for me than trying to keep it all electronically, and I should prepare accordingly.
  • Finally, the morris dancers (mentioned only in passing at the fete, as the adventure opened) should have been key to the Cult's schemes, or at least a major red herring. How, I ask you, can one do rural English horror and not have evil morris men?

Here endeth the first Experiment. Next up, Call of Cthulhu...

2 comments:

  1. Now THAT is an ending I didn't see coming!

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    Replies
    1. Nor I, really. I was expecting a session or two after they explored the house.

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