Thursday, May 3, 2018

Notes From A Playtest


Image result for woodcut town fire
After moving a thousand miles from where I started writing the damn thing I finally had a few players go through a playtest of Deformation in Subterranea/A Journey to Aldercliffe

But yes, what the hell is that anyway:

A couple of years ago I read a couple G+ posts about how it would be really hard to run an adventure in an actual cave and got sort of fixated on that idea. I read a bit about monasteries and leprosy, caving, gemstones, made a map. I never got to finish that game, for one reason or another.

So the ideas from that sat in the back of my head, and I kept adding to it. The cave really needed a town near it, so I made one. It needed some more hooks, but more mundane ones than a cave of monsters, so I added a few here and there: painters, old monasteries, people with too much money, illegal mining and puritan social law enforcement. Details, details. It turned into a campaign framework sort of thing, and like most unplayed campaigns it sort of just grew, got tumorous. Might as well make it useful, right?

Fuck it, I thought: let's publish something too. I was writing the kind of thing I was going and would want to use, along the lines of a very good piece of advice from dndwithpornstars. So yeah, it's a book I'm publishing. Here's how the playtest went.

SOME GENERAL IDEAS 

I wanted all the parts of DIS to hang together but function separately, so if you needed a campaign with a fresh start it gave you that but if you wanted a nice roadside diversion or a cave to have things die in it gave you that too. You could repaint the various elements and file off the serial numbers as needed. It's not clear how any of it will resolve, but everything has pieces in motion that can be interfered with, or left alone.

THE FRESH START

The fresh campaign start is that the Adventurers are all vagrants, poor and desperate people, who've spent their last pennies to go to Aldercliffe, a city in southwest England, due to a job offer.

The world is "real enough", a few details are changed to keep things unusual or make them more entertaining but the overall setting is still "17th century England".

Adventurers are randomly generated with randomly determined equipment from some tables, to make things quick and easy and flavorful. The Adventurers are Charles the Fighter (with an arquebus), Samantha the Magic-User (who has barber-surgeons tools), and the Viscount of Vascony (a Nagic-User with fancy clothes and a rapier). They have no money.

ALDERCLIFFE

A city of 2500 or so, surrounded by farms. The center of economic acitivty in the region. Out in the middle of nowhere, roughly.

The general "town guards" cliche is that they're there to see you try and steal from the apple cart and then arrest you, right? It's a bit different in Aldercliffe. The guards are much more proactive.

Aldercliffe is run by religious reformers (Puritans, but called everything but that). The "cops" are busybodies wandering about the town punishing bad haircuts and general disorderliness, Adventurers get in trouble for just being there, sometimes.

The town is also full of provincial lumpenproletariat who are constantly being disorderly, meaning the guards are always everywhere. In game terms it's street encounters and a 1 in 3 chance of seeing a guard, something like a dungeon.

When the Adventurers first walked in they were accosted by an out-of-towner. He was too drunk to speak clearly. He tried to put his fingers in the mouth of the Fighter, who managed to detain him. They dragged him off to the blue-coated Constable, who thanked them and locked him in some nearby stocks. This established the overall feel quite nicely.

They found the place they were looking for: The Ballard Estate. A repurposed monastery on the poor side of the city. There were some children outside, daring each other to run through the gates.

The Adventurers met the majordomo, who told them the master of the house was dead. So with that went their employment. But! They could stay for now, and help around the estate: it needed to be cleaned up before the inheritors arrived.

There was also a large and fearsome looking dog, but they made friends with it.


THE BALLARD ESTATE

The Adventurers are each given rooms: repurposed monks cells that have become wunderkammern with simple beds. One was full of replica guns, another is all stuffed birds, the last a series of conch shells and abalone all over the walls.

There is an old stone church too, repurposed as a library. They find poetry about love and death and a book of drawings of anthropomorphic flowers (all quite graphic). The magic-user casts Animate Artwork, and the flowers are very embarassed.

There is also another tenant: a painter who had the dead Lord Ballard as a patron. He invites the Adventurers into his room (a converted storage cellar) for wine. He gives them a painting of apples (very garish and not of the contemporary style), and he tells them that he is out of pigments.

THE FIRST HOOK

This painter tells them about another painter at this Inn called the Goldfinch. He has pigments that he needs, and some obnoxious guardsmen, and could the Adventurers get ahold of some of it for him? So it's a heist, maybe.

They walk over to the Goldfinch, one of them carrying the gifted painting. While waiting outside with it, one Adventurer is accosted by a Constable: he asks why he carries this painting around.

The poor Adventurer, he says he bought it. The Constable begins to lecture him: this is wanton commercialism! such activity is only permitted on market day.


He received a dozen lashes in front of the inn.

Meanwhile, indoors: The Fighter Charles and the Magic-User Samantha meet the entourage of the painter: a gang of teutonic mercenaries dressed as Landsknechte. They won't let them see the Painter, but his work is incredible: like photographs.

After some banter Charles persuades one of the mercenaries to go and wrestle him outside the city gates, to win Samanthas honor, while the Viscount crept into the painters chambers. He knocked him unconcious with a blow to the head, and stole a mysterious ring from his finger.


When they later put it on they found it turned one into a sort of painting machine until it was removed, but this was only one of the six possible causes of the painters talent. 

Their painter paid them, and while they waited a few days for market they more of the hooks.

ADDITIONAL HOOKS

Back at the Ballard Estate there was an obviously wealthy buffoon clearing some books from the church, bought from the estate to be added to his own. There was also a priest, who was interested in offering them some work. He had heard rumors of some band of vagrants carrying what must have been a distinct holy relic off into some distant woods. Would they go look for them, and perhaps buy that relic from them?


THE FOREST

He gave them a backpack of silver. Upon reaching the woods they decided this would be kept, and the relic would be stolen.

They encounter a hallucinating and poisoned eschatological cult, and by the end of a few bodies have been skinned (by Samantha), and innocent tagalong was given hallucinogenic mushrooms, and a would-be nudist prophet was accidentally clubbed to death.

It was fascinating to watch this all play out, but after seeing They Remain I'm rescaling the forest. It needs to be larger, more sprawling. It needs a different feel, and a couple additional potential punchlines.


The Relic was near a deep and perilous cave too, but none dared go inside. They recovered the Relic and managed to dismantle it's magic before it could harm them. (not that it's necessarily always magical anyway). The priest, very happy, paid them well.


GNOMUS AND AMBUSHES


Back at the estate, they met a woman who ran a weaving operation. She was buying geodes from another old collection. She needed the Adventurers to tail a courier, to see why her smuggling operation had been delivering so much less as of late.

They walked right into an ambush, turned the tables on the Ambusher, and impressed him so much with their Magic that he became their companion. This led to them finally exploring one of the damp dark caves, and encountering the Gnomus in the middle of a 900-foot long hallway passage. One Gnomus nearly bonded with the body and soul of an Adventurer, but they just barely avoided it. It stuck to them like diaphanous gum. Another belched stones at them, but they didn't fall for the bait. They just ran.


THE KIDNAPPING

At some point after that, a bull got loose in the city streets and Charles was gored by it. They also witnessed a bear-baiting and prevented a slaughter of the bear-handlers when those broke loose as well. They saw a dulcimer player be arrested, and stood idly by as a theatre troupe lost their purse (the Adventurers kept it, 38 Silver).

As the final books were cleared from the Church at the Ballard Estate the bellowing rich bastard spoke to them again: his student had been kidnapped, and he needed them to deliver the ransom. The Viscount found a book about a mysterious ship, one that only comes to distant shores every half-decade. He left to find to find it (as he could no longer play, unfortunately). They were joined by Agnes, the stagehand.

In the forest where the ransom note led them they lost a foundling to an accursed thicket, part of a pair of guilty idiots from a charging boar, and although they missed the burial mound of a witch-cult they stumbled onto the hut of an old woman they helped with a cremation, and narrowly avoided the perils of some rutting red deer.

They found the kidnappers and realized this kidnapping was a part of a (shoddy and obvious) conspiracy. When cornered, the Adventurers executed one of their remaining found idiots in a demonstration of power and superiority. They took charge of this conspiracy to rob the noble who all this revolved around.

The boy they had been sent to retrieve ran off into a nearby cave, panicking. They followed him in. They crept down a passage they found near him, and in this tiny chamber Charles saw a pillbug the size of a potato. He smashed it, it made a smell like acetone or kerosene. He crawled back out. It seemed like a terrible place.

They would not return to this place, but this was that same fucking cave I wrote two or so years ago. It's buried in the margins now, full of a completely bad situation. They were smart to avoid it, probably. But there is a lot down there.

They returned the whining boy to the estate of Devereaux, the man who had hired them.

DESPITE EVERYTHING, ARSON

The estate was two identical buildings side by side: one for the guards and one for the master of the house and his beloved student. They got to know the guardsmen, lusty cosmopolitans with military training. After dinner with the boorish host, Charles would wrestle one of the guards in the Roman style (nude) and retire to the bedchamber with him after a few rounds, later.
While this happened Agnes stalked the halls of the master's house, and found the one they had rescued preparing to start an arson near his master's bedroom. She dragged him back to Samantha, who attempted to Charm him with a spell as punishment for his impulsive and idiotic behavior.

This failed, and she cast it again. This failed extremely, and so (per the VAM rules) a maw of blood and translucent teeth surrounded by neon mandibles appeared. This pursued Aldwin (the one they had rescued) down the stairs. It covered him in a sticky web of phelgm and devoured him, as he screamed. A nude Charles blasted it with an Arquebus to no effect. Another manservant attacked it, but was coated in web as well, and gnawed on. Samantha then flung embers onto the noxious web, and it caught aflame. Charles, still nude, then ran back to the bedchamber, then Agnes and Samantha fled as the fire spread.

The Bloodmaw then nearly snapped into Charles' arm, instead striking the banister. He flung all his gunpowder at it as he ran past, shouting for the rest to leap out the window. The resulting blast and rapidly spreading flames were enough to destroy this Bloodmaw, though they watched the wreckage smolder through most of the night to be sure it was truly gone.

They revealed Aldwins' betrayal to Devereaux and blamed the destruction of the manor on his secret practice of magic (which had heard Devereaux blather about fairly often). Devereaux was glad to hear Aldwin was dead, the ungrateful swine.

The next morning Devereaux proposed an expedition to the half-decade ship the Adventurers had told him about, and that the Viscount was en route to. 

So ended the playest, since that journey will take them to the next thing I'm working on.

IN CONCLUSION

I'll run another playtest of this because I really want to see how other people play with the parts, and what happens to them (and the parts). There's still little things no one did or saw that they could have, like exploring those fucking caves (I spent so long writing this that the incredibly impressive Veins of the Earth came out before I even got to see a playtest walk past them).

There's also, funnily enough, all the really Weird content that I deliberately hid in the corners. The mundane world was a stumbling diasterpiece, sure, but the like Monsters and whatever were barely seen (besides the Gnomus).

Come to think, when I first ran a really preliminary embryo version of this whole thing a couple of years ago a Gnomus did manage to bond with someone, it cracked open their skull like a blooming cauliflower and ushered in the race of Gob, and the players then were just about to summon the Angel they had been told about by the Brotherhood of Monks, leprous and pale, that they met deep in the darkness underground.

That'll happen again in the next test, I hope.

SO NOW WHAT

I'm commissioning some illustrations that I'll start sharing soon, along with snippets of the text, and hopefully, I'll write more coherent and sequential blog entries about this and other things in the future.

That, dear reader, is that. I hope you enjoyed it!

Until next time.




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