Saturday 20 April 2024

AFF solo - Part XX: Temple of the Skull

The walls of the temple precinct are little more than mounds of toppled stone, but the long processional way is reasonably clear of rubble. At its end looms the temple, a squat stepped pyramid of rough black stone. with every measure pace the companions take towards it, it seems to grow bigger and more threatening.

"To what god or gods," says Ilog, almost in a whisper, " was this temple dedicated?"

"To the state god of Anhassuul," answers the learned sorceress, "for whom the city was named."

"And what sort of god was Anhassuul?" asks Grebdal Themp.

"Not so stern as Telak -- nor mild as Usrel."

[The entrance is (1d6): 1-2 top, 3-4 ground level, 5-6 below; d6=top]

They lapse back into silence as they make a circuit of the foundations. Not a single doorway nor a break in the stone is to be seen. They begin their careful ascent up the cyclopean pile on the shaded side, where the burning rays of Glatanka have not yet reached. When they get to the very top, the square platform is already hot to the touch, uncomfortable even through the soles of their boots.

[Q: Anything guarding the top? 50/50 (4+): O2 C3 - no., but...]

The platform is bare save for a heap of discoloured and gilded wood fragments in the centre, the remains of a gaily painted shrine. They push some of the fragments aside to reveal an ornate trapdoor of strange silvery metal, icy to the touch, and securely locked after all these centuries. The intricate, whorling patterns conceal the tiny keyhole and recessed handholds on either side.

Grebdal Themp makes a thorough search for any traps, but finds none. He set to work on the lock with the slender point of his knife, but after a few minutes of fumbling at it, stops to stare at it in resignation. [rolled Locks +1, but the -2 for improvised tools caused the failure.]

"Let me," says Ksandajja, and bends low to murmur a word of power over the keyhole. The bolt within slides open with a grating snick. [She cast DOP, for -2 Stamina (to 9)]

Ilog shivers as he puts his fingers into the handholds, then, muscles straining to the utmost, he hefts the trapdoor open and lets it drop against the stone platform with a heavy thud, followed by a barely audible brassy reverberation. [Strength 2 + Skill (currently) 5 =7: 2d6=5]

"Let's hope there's nothing bigger than this that needs moving," he jokes unconvincingly.

Stone steps lead down to into darkness. Grebdal Themp lights his lantern, and they descend.

[The temple has 3 levels, of 4, 9, and 16 rooms. I made the maps in advance, so I had the PCs move randomly (except when backtracking). The Skull is in 2 parts; unfortunately I forgot to record how I determined where they located, and don't remember exactly. I think I may have just inferred it from the nature/difficulty of the room contents. I played this part a while ago... sorry for the crap posting schedule.

For each room, I used my excel sheet (link) to generate 1-3 "skill challenges". I included monster Encounters in the mix so as not to have to make separate checks. Encounters were rolled on tables in the monster books (Out of the Pit, Beyond the Pit, Return to the Pit) ad libitum.]
Room 2
Challenge: ENCOUNTER separate from Sneaking (-2)

The chamber at the bottom of the stair is square, about twenty cubits (~10m) on a side, with the flat ceiling about half that height. The middle of the room is bare; there is in fact no ornamentation save for two empty, shallow alcoves on facing walls. There is but one doorway, on the wall opposite the stairs, and almost invisible as the bare black stone is hard to differentiate from the dark corridor beyond.

The chamber becomes suffused with a bright glow. Ksandajja shoots an unconscious glance towards the trapdoor, expecting to see a ray of sunlight streaming through, but the light has another source. Coalescing right before the passageway is the nude form of a man, floating above the floor and wreathed in uncanny energy. He becomes more solid as the brightness increases. The TEMPLE GUARDIAN moves into the room, calling out a challenge in an antique, forgotten tongue.

Colourless energy crackles round the guardian and whips out at the companions, but they dodge each glowing lash. Their weapons pass through the centre as if through thick porridge, but each strike leaves the creature weaker, less substantial, and dimmer. At length it is reduced to a shimmering puddle of evaporating sparks.

[Temple Guardians can take any form, so I selected a random image file in my game folder. It's attack rolls were pathetic. There was also a 1-in-3 chance every round that the energy would burn each PC for 1 damage, but they all avoided it. They slew it in 2 rounds.]

The short exit corridor has a drum-like floor of scuffed bronze. Every footstep upon it resounds like thunder. Try as they might, the companions cannot move slowly or lightly enough to avoid making a clamour. [Sneaking -2; Grebdal Themp was the only one to succeed at his roll, but who could tell?]

Room 1
Challenge: Desert Lore (+2) if failed, then... Awareness separate from Religion Lore (-2)

The next chamber has the same dimensions as the first, but is much lighter. Low reliefs on what appears to be the ubiquitous local sandstone line all 4 walls. They depict a procession of priests and functionaries in some sort of procession. Each holds some sort of insignia or sceptre of office, and recessed into several of them are small golden keys or coin-sized tokens.
As her comrades are examining the reliefs, Ksandajja has a sudden flash of realisation. "Don't touch anything!" she exclaims. "This isn't harmless sandstone -- it's razor silicate from the Desert of Skulls. It'll shred your skin if you touch it, even through gloves. It's mildly toxic, too." [Desert Lore succeeded]

"A cunning test," says Ilog. "Which of these holds the right key, do you think? If any of them do."

"I confess I don't understand the imagery." [Religion Lore failed]

"Perhaps we'd ought to see if there's anything they fit first, and come back."

Room 3
Challenge: Magic Lore reveals Religion Lore (+2)

The next chamber is again the same dimensions as the first two. The walls are lined with sandstone (actual, not razor silicate) panels decorated with bas-reliefs, once brightly painted but now bearing scant traces of pigment. The scenes represent the city itself as seen from the top of the pyramid.

In the centre of the chamber is a low marble altar in the shape of a long table. Upon it, antique coins, bars of silver, and precious stones gleam in the lantern light. The altar is ringed by two concentric circles carved into the floor and filled in with copper. The space between the circles contains many glyphs and sigils, similarly inlaid.

[Magic lore is not a knowledge skill, but a Magical one, so uses MAG as a base instead of SKILL (and Ksandajja doesn't get her +2 bonus for the Learned talent). So MAG 5 + Magic Lore 1=6; 2d6=6, success. (I wrote this out mostly for my own benefit, as I keep having to check the rulebook.)

Q: What does her Magic Lore reveal? Positively / Lethal]

"I've seen these figures before, in a book, says Ksandajja. "They're very ancient, dating from the invention of writing in the Time of Heroes. They seem to all be repeating variations on a theme."

"You can read them," asks Ilog. "What do they say?"

"Death blast."

"Of course they do."

"But there are symbols of protection and blessing round the edge. I think whoever put this here was trying to keep the altar from being defiled by malefactors. Anyone leaving an offering should be unharmed." [Religion Lore, 9+2=11, 2d6=5, success]

"Even so..." begins Ilog, "call me a primitive ancestor worshipper, but I can't help feeling it would be somehow sacrilegious to make an offering to a god I'd only just heard of an hour ago."

"There's wisdom in your words, as ever."

"Perhaps," offers Grebdal Themp, "we'd ought to keep our looting here to a minimum."

Room 4
Challenge: Desert Lore (-3) or Secret Signs

The floor of the next chamber is a series of irregular, painted zigzag patterns, each a slightly different colour. Ksandajja stops short of steeping inside, preferring to examine them from the relative safety of the corridor. She finds that small notches have been cut into the floor where each jagged line begins.

[Secret Signs 6+2=8; 2d6=4, success (that would also have been a successful Desert Lore roll)]

"Look, it's more razor silicate."

"Where?" asks Grebdal Themp.

"The whole of the floor, except for this dark greenish stripe. See these rough hieroglyphs scratched on it? They read 'Path of the Faithful', or something like that. Only walk on this one."

The uneven path leads to a gaping hole in the floor -- a black stone staircase leading down.

Room 13
Challenge: Healing separate from Locks obstructs Second Sight

If they were expecting the second level to be different than the first, the companions would be sorely disappointed, for the chamber below is built to an all-too-familiar plan.

Other than the exposed staircase along one wall, the room contains only a low stone table, similar in proportions to the gold-heaped altar. Upon it are six low bowls of fired clay in a row, three on either side of an iron-plated box. Each bowl is filled with chalky purple powder.

Ksandajja and Ilog examine the powder, holding their breath lest they send up clouds of the stuff. After a time, each looks at the other and shrugs in resignation. [Healing rolls failed; neither realises the dust is a counter-agent to razor silicate toxin.]

[Q: Can Grebdal Themp resist the box? 50/50 (4+): O5 C3 - yes, but...]

Meanwhile Grebdal Themp is entranced by the box, weighing the odds of forcing the lock or finding something to pick it with, until his companions drag him bodily away, reminding him of the dangers of looting such a place.

The chamber has two exits, one in the centre of a bare wall, the other on the wall with the staircase, passing under it.

Room 10
Challenge: Evaluate separate from ENCOUNTER obstructs Locks (-2)

The passage beneath the staircase leads to a bitterly fragrant chamber, but the companions scarcely notice the odour as their attention is arrested by the armoured skeleton standing in the chamber's centre. It wears a corroded chain byrnie, and holds a heavy steel sword. Its shield has been defaced so that no device is visible. An iron crown has been bolted to the bare skull.

The SKELETON KING rouses from his millennia of silent reverie to test the latest aspirants in the temple.

[Round 1]
With blazing points of light in hollow eye sockets, the skeletal monstrosity charges into the midst of its foes. At first, it seems a canny combatant; Grebdal Themp's every strike rebounds off its dented shield. Ksandajja's sword clashes with the skeleton's rusty blade. It catches in the guard, and as Ksandajja fights not to lose her grip on her own sword, she leaves herself open to its riposte, and comes away with a bloody gash in her shoulder [4 damage puts her at 5 Stamina]. Ilog's morning star whirls round and connects solidly. Flecks of rust fly from its mailed torso, but with no great effect [3-3=0 damage].

[Round 2]
Then the creature makes a mistake, pausing to gloat over the pathetic mortals' feeble attempts at martial prowess [fumble - expose weak spot (no armour roll)]. Two swords plunge through the corroded armour, snapping ribs like twigs [1 damage each] and a morning star cracks the skull in twain [4 damage] -- only the iron crown keeps it from splintering to pieces.

[Round 3]
It does not recover, and as twinned swords lop off an arm and leg, it collapses into a heap of bones and rusted links.

As Ilog and Grebdal Themp examine a table laden with clay pottery, Ksandajja attends to her wound -- and takes the opportunity to scarf down some provisions whilst no one can look at her judgementally for it.

[Grebdal Themp needs to make an Evaluate roll to find the treasure amongst all the other items: Evaluate 7+1=8; 2d6=7, success.
Q: What is the treasure? Miserably / Smelly]

The clay vessels are filled with sundry items: pine cones, dried leaves, powders, pebbles, cones of incense -- it is these last which give the room its acerbic fragrance. Grebdal Themp chances to sniff a few of them. Amongst the commonplace sandalwood and sorrel, he finds [2d6=] nine made of blackthorn bark, something he'd not expected to find in a desert so far away from the Old World.

"Phaugh!" says Ilog, "are those the ones making that awful stench?"

"I fear so. But they're worth a fair few gold coins."

"I thought we weren't looting..."

"What if we need them in here? For... some sort of magic..."

"Fine. But you're carrying them."

[The cones are worth 2d6gp each to right buyer.]
Meanwhile, Ksandajja has taken to examining the set of ornate bronze doors on the far side of the chamber. She senses no magic upon them, and so tests them gently, to find they are locked fast.

Her companions soon join her, and Grebdal Themp sets about trying to open the lock, though after a few moments of prodding it announces it's far beyond his paltry abilities [he rolled a natural 12, auto-failure].

"There's a passageway we haven't tried," he offers.

"No, let me," says Ksandajja, and whispers a magic word into the lock. The lock clicks into place and the doors swing noiselessly open.

[She recovered 4 Stamina for binding her wound and eating a provision. Casting DOP cost 2, so she's at 7 Stamina.]

next post: deeper into the temple

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