Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Weavers of Fate, session #1 - "Tower of the Stargazer"

Summary: A rather short report from the first session of my "Weavers of Fate" game set in the Quassus setting. A three player game that ran for a handful of hours. Post also includes some post-game thoughts about "Tower of the Stargazer", what I thought were the positives and how to make the most of it.

Start of the session

To give some background regarding this group, I’ve mostly ran White Wolf games for them in the past, in recent years exclusively in a one-shot format. They somewhat grew accustomed to my horror games which would mostly have pre-built characters for them to choose from, all of which would have detailed backgrounds and which would be a vital part of the story I wanted to tell. The stories themselves would mostly focus on personal horror and an impacting climax that would carry a strong message that would (quite often) hit home with the group.

The approach to this session was an exact opposite to the above. No pre-prep, no long introductions. I simply presented the scene (with words written here and here), I handed them this awesome random character generator (from Save.Vs.Total Party Kill) and we were off.

The generator blessed us with the following cast (pasting just the "attributes")
- Fighter, Female, Decrepit, Threadbare Clothing, Muscular
- Specialist, Female, Decrepit, Drab Clothing, Muscular
- Cleric, Female, Youth, Immaculate Clothing, Short
- Fighter, Male, Adult, Scant Clothing, Hairy (spoiler alert: this character appeared near the end once one of the above characters died)

We also agreed that the players will not share their attributes/classes with each other and that instead we'll leave this for any in-game interactions.
Tower of the Stargazer

"The Tower" by Albrecht Dürer 
A few brave souls decided to partake in silent insurgency against Knez Sokolic. Leposava, rough, yet resourceful. Young Elena, trusty and fearless. And Morava, a fierce warrior with a wise gaze on her brow. These three brave women snuck out of the soldier camp and the village housing it. They traveled through the night, wrapped in the shadows of a vast forest surrounding them, determined to reach the fabled tower without stopping. There should be no rest until they raid the tower and step out of the principality of the Knez.

The first light of the morning Sun arrived and it brought with itself the sound of loud, distant thunder up ahead. As the forest slowly became less thick, the tower came into view, a tall spire surrounded with four high spikes protruding from the ground. The soil around the tower was completely barren, destroyed by continuous thunder striking the area. There was no turning back now, so the group rushed through the wasteland, luckily avoiding the lightning bolts. Along the way, they notice a corpse on the ground who Morava recognizes as the famous scoundrel known as the “Traveler”. A tragic ending of a heist gone bad...

The tower seemed forgotten and deserted. In the grand room with the long dinning table the party discovers a statue of a King hugging Medusa, something that drew Morava’s attention in particular. Her musings are interrupted by the other two adventurers discovering two hidden doors in the floor, leading to a level below. Soon enough after they descend the ladder, they discover a room full of boxes filled with fake copper pieces, all except one that was locked. Too eagerly did Elena jump at the occasion to show off her lock-picking skills, for the little box was strung with a trap, a single poisoned needle hitting the poor girl in the throat. She choked and gagged with bloodied eyes and foaming mouth until she quickly fell to the stone floor, cold and pale.

Soon after Elena exhaled her final breath, a new adventurer arrives at the tower. Marko, a bearded soldier of stern looks, but of warm heart. He wasn’t spared the sad sight of his fallen sister in arms and he too needed a few moments to gather himself… a young and bright life withered away.
Unbeknownst to others, Leposava investigated what was in the box behind the lethal trap. A single, glass cylinder housing a demon of some sorts. With a heavy heart and a deep sigh, she packed it in her bag without the others noticing.

The group continued onward, deeper into the cellar of the tower. They stumbled upon yet another room filled with boxes, this time each with a peculiar, frightening inscription.
“The fingers of a musician who collected art”
“The pelvis of a sailor who destroyed happiness”
“The rib of a merchant who collected children”
“The skull of a virgin who lied about art”
“The sternum of a scholar who destroyed children”

They couldn’t stand reading any more inscriptions, nor could they endure being in the room any longer. Revolted and worried, they threaded onward, but not for long. In the next room they found themselves in a place where animal and human bodies were cut open and tempered with. A male body was laying on a big stone slab. The carcass of the nameless man had a surgical cut across its abdomen, stitched with a golden string. The string, long and shining, seemed to be the most valuable item they stumbled upon so far. Marko mustered enough willpower to cut the string out, but as soon as he did the corpse opened up like a flower, exposing the organs which were animated with some kind of witchcraft, immediately hurling themselves towards him!

This was the final drop that spilled the cup, making the fellowship run for their lives, not only from the animated organs, but from the tower itself! Leposava took a few moments to steal the silverware and the four bottles of wine from one of the cases in the room with the big table.

Beyond the Tower

The party journeys through the forest, their only goal right now is to be as far as possible from both the tower and the principality of the Knez. They wandered the wilderness until nightfall when they stumbled upon an old wooden Orthodox church called The Fireplace of Our Blessed Mother. A nun greets the tired soldiers, introducing herself as Stana. Although she sends several intrigued, almost worried stares, she offers the party bread, water and a resting place in the little stable next to the church.

After the humble meal, Marko insists they get some rest so that they can continue their journey fresh, early in the morning. In a moment of sincerity, Leposava shows Marko that she stole the encased demon, the wretched item that led to Elena’s death. Handling the cylinder now and then packing it away again, Leposava noticed that she felt somewhat relieved, as if some invisible burden hung around her shoulders.

Meanwhile, Morava went inside the mossy church to talk to Stana, asking if the old nun heard anything about the King and the Medusa. The woman replies that there are some stories about this legend “somewhere up those mountains”, but she also takes her time to advise Morava that she should steer away from those witch tales and that she should “choose wisely the people she travels with”, not trying to cover up that she has concerns about the other girl in the group.

Soon enough the party decides that it is time for rest...

Post-session Game Master musings

"Don Quixote in His Library" by Gustave Doré
About the group:
Even though I've known and played with this group for years, I was a bit scared how they will accept and adapt to this new OSR style, especially since it's also worth noting that this was our first ever online game.

The simplistic setup of the session worked and they immediately grabbed onto the hook from the intro. A clear "explore tower, grab loot, escape" approach was solid in the group and they actually role-played so well a sense of urgency and a sort of uncertainty of their actions.

Prior to the game I also explained to them some OSR traits that I think were different to how we played before. I mentioned that the module is lethal and that, now more than ever, it is important for them to pay attention and notice the details in my descriptions. They took this to heart, but not to the point that it steers into paranoia or it completely breaks character. In fact, many details evoked character development and it was amazing to see some small piece of the module leading to openings of certain character arcs that I sense will come in the future.

About the module: 
Funnily enough, there was a recent discussion on the OSR Discord about this particular module (and other LotFP stuff) and it seems that “most” people are not really happy with this booklet. Here are some of the points where I think the module stands out:

  • Cliche without the cliches
There’s a wizard tower, the group wants to raid it and they probably heard about it in a tavern. Jeez. You can’t get any more stereotypical than that. However, the adventure has so many interesting twists and weird, unexpected turns that it completely shoves the cliches to the side. The lightning (rods), the King/Medusa statue (which instantly became an obsession with one player), the box tags, all these things made the players intrigued, so much so that they completely disregarded the fantasy stereotypes.

  • (good) introduction
The main source of my satisfaction with the module is basically the way which I approached and used it. For all intents and purposes, this is supposed to be an introductory adventure and this is exactly how I used it, on many different levels. It is easy to approach and condensed into one location. It's a lightweight setup that lets you establish and even test game rules, while also giving you enough room to work on your descriptions and occasional improvisations. The group felt like there is a nice "learning curve" for the players, as the challenges keep increasing in complexity as the session revolves and it was easy for them to pick up on the rules this way.

  • (deadly) introduction
This was the deal breaker, as the adventure is simple, straightforward and does a good job at showing what I wanted with this campaign… shit is deadly in here! Yes, Elena died from a failed save or die roll, but that was the point. It was fast, unexpected and lethal and it left the group stunned. These were players who were used to have characters that they knew I, as a GM/ST, cared for, which might have instilled in them a sense of safety, despite the fact that they were playing horror games at my table. This was something completely new and realizing that this is a dangerous thrill it hooked them hard. They realized in a split second that their characters were insignificant in the grand scheme of things, which in turn made them that much more invested in the souls they portrayed.

  • Story-less and adjustable
I used this as a kick off point for my campaign, but I feel that this module can just be dropped in any other campaign without issue. I’d say that it does need a little catering, in the sense that you should figure out good ground and fluff background to drop it somewhere safely, as it essentially has no story and no background on its own. This is pretty awesome, as it simply lets you focus on all the hooks inside. I’m yet to grab a full sense of how well of an introduction I made and how big of an impact “Tower of the Stargazer” will have on the story as it unfolds, but so far so good. Some plot hooks attached themselves to the players, can’t wait to see how these develop further.

You can grab "Tower of the Stargazer" on DriveThruRPG here.

Lessons learned and final thoughts:
Respect the design! At certain key points within the Tower I adjusted the layout, making it a little easier for the group. By doing so, I enabled them to have a relatively free exit out of the tower, which they ended up using in a moment of in-game panic. If I didn't do this I think that, at the very least, three or four more rooms would have been explored.

The whole "Beyond the Tower" part of the session was 100% pure improvisation from my part, mostly since I was put in the situation where I had to improvise due to the fact that they ended the Tower prematurely. I'm quite pleased how smoothly this part went, they enjoyed the wilderness travel and the encounter with the nun/church set up some exquisite role-playing on behalf of everyone involved.

I'm aware that a lot of positive points about this module boil down to the fact that it simply sat well with my group. Which is okay, since like any other module, not everything is for everyone, yet for us, this one was a hit. It was an all around neat little module and a good start of the campaign. I’d actually love to run it again with a group that won’t poop their pants so quickly!

1 comment:

  1. I was asked an interesting question on the OSR Discord server about Elena's death and how the death further "hooked" the players/characters to the story. Thought it was a neat question and seeing how I didn't go too much into detail about it in the actual report I decided to paste my answer here.

    "To be honest, I was intimidated before this session because I think character death has been a sort of taboo among many players in the scene here... at least from my experience. I had my share of bad reactions to death, by "bad" I mean anger, frustration and major disliking from the player whose character died. Of course, these players I trusted to not behave like that, but I was scared regardless.

    The entire scene was a roller-coaster. The players were extremely careful with their actions beforehand, but here I think the player in question just let their guard down. They jumped at the occasion in which they found something valuable (a locked chest!) and they completely disregarded the idea that this was a trap. A roll was called, dice were thrown rather casually and the save was failed... I explained that a click and a whoosh were heard and that a needle hit Elena in the throat. "...and now explain how your character died."

    My sentence was followed with a huge "oooooooh wow" and a laugh and the player went on to explain the final moments of his character with so much enthusiasm which, fascinatingly enough, dropped with each word until he barely uttered the last word. And then silence ensued for a few minutes.

    It was a major downer, for sure. They simply did not expect something like this to happen (especially considering that the player explained a rather gruesome death) and it completely shocked them. In response, yes, the two other characters in game were also in disbelief and it took them some moments to gather their thoughts. They had a small eulogy, since at that point they were almost certain that they were alone in the tower. A backup character arrived at this point and then in-game they discussed what the fuck happened and they roleplayed that SO WELL! You could sense in their voices and the way they talked that shit in here is serious, there are dire consequences and that maybe they were better off under an oppressive Knez. In essence, they were moved to the point of mourning, but through that they became more determined to make it out alive and not make the death of their friend in vain."