BEARDED DEVIL

Monsters, Horror, Gaming

Tag: maps

Hex, Session IX – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The Nightmare of Cobweb Cliffs”

The characters in this session were:

  • An ancient and enigmatic Lengian cleric of the Mother of Spiders, name unknown. She wears bulky ecclesiastical garments covering an uncertain number of limbs and goes by “Sister.”
  • Vespidae, a waspkin bard – a sacred dancer with a deathwish, shunned by the waspkin community for complicated ritualistic reasons. Now a devoted follower of the Queen in Yellow.
  • Armand Percival Reginald Francois Eustace de la Marche III, a suspiciously pale, apparently human noble and sorcerer, and certainly not a ghoul (how dare such a thing be suggested).
  • Sprigley Gilette, a hardboiled, cigar-chomping human mercenary and veteran of several brutal wars, and a relatively new arrival in Hex.

XP Awarded: 700 XP.

The Sisters of the Nunnery of the Mother of Spiders were in a state of crisis. Something had escaped from the depths of their mysterious temple into the labyrinthine caverns within Cobweb Cliffs, the Lengian District of Hex. Sister, a member of the order currently on a kind of “sabbatical” from her ecclesiastical duties, was called in to assist the spidery nuns. She brought with her the waspkin Vespidae, the sorcerer Armand, and the mercenary Sprigley, who, having recovered from his bout with insanity after his last trip to the Old City, had become devoted to a strange, demonic entity, his body inscribed with diabolic tattoos. Bringing with her the sheep known as “Cosmo,”* the group headed to Cobweb Cliffs.

*See the Ultimate Contagion Part 2.

cobweb-cliffs

Like Stingsworth or Croakmarsh, the district of Cobweb Cliffs is like another world. Lengians and their arachnid pets and servants make up almost all of the population here, moving between the eight distinct layers of the district. Everything here is coated with webs, with the thickest wefts of spidersilk supporting entire buildings. The architecture here is as alien as the beings who dwell in the district, all weird angles and eerie decorations, giving the place a crazed, oneiric illogic. To Lengians, of course, Cobweb Cliffs simply feels like home.

The group headed swiftly for the Temple of the Mother of Spiders at the top of the district, on the Street-Not-To-Be-Described. We shall refrain, in honour of the holy edicts of the Mother of Spiders, from speaking the Street-Not-To-Be-Described, since even by saying this much we flirt with blasphemy. Let us instead speak of the things which can be seen from the streets web-swathed vantage: the seven lower tiers of Cobweb Cliffs spread out steeply below, the lowest swathed in midst, and beyond, the districts of Mainspring and Little Pandemonium, the Dreamer’s Quarter, and Gloomway, the Feypark to the north, and to the west, the brooding eaves of the Tangle, past the city wall which bisects the Cliffs. The Radula can be glimpsed to the south, a great green-brown tendril of polluted water, swarming with boats and spanned by the glittering, statue-encrusted length of the Bridge of Sins. The temples of other faiths can be seen below, the Infernal Basilica of the Chthonic Gods and the gleaming glass-and-metal pyramid of the Magistra’s Cathedral. While such buildings may be larger than the Lengian Temple – at least on the surface – now in the city stand higher.

Casting its long shadow over the rest of Cobweb Cliffs was the Temple of the Mother of Spiders, deity of dreams, schemes, poison, sleep, and death. All but the outermost chambers of this imposing , tiered structure were forbidden save to Lengians, guarded by several of the multi-limbed warrior nuns of the order. Inside, the architecture was swathed with cobwebs, for spiders scurried everywhere, spinning their webs between the huge columns that supported the ceiling, half-obscuring the intricate geometric designs that decorated the walls and floor – though the temple’s inconsistent gravity often made this distinction unclear. The Reverend Mother Yaan Tsang emerged from a nearby doorway in one “wall” and walked down towards the party after being alerted of their arrival. She was a statuesque, pale Lengian with six well-muscled arms, her head partially swathed in the habit of the order. As one of the highest ranking members of the Nunnery, one of the eight members of the Conclave of Matriarchs, she was also one of the most powerful Lengians in Hex, the spiderfolk being an intensely religious, even theocratic people.

“Ah, you have come,” she said sternly, looking you up and down with her many eyes. “There is little time to waste, so I will be brief. But first, we must find somewhere more private to speak. Come.” She gestured with several hands to a doorway on another wall, indicating for the group to follow. They stepped inside a room with walls elaborately padded with spidersilk, beneath which could be glimpsed intricate Lengian sigils. “Secrets spoken in this room cannot be divulged aloud save through powerful magic,” the Reverend Mother said, closing and locking the door. “Anyone who breaks this enchantment will be subject to a terrible curse – understood?”

The party agreed to abide by these restrictions.

“Very well then,” she continued. “First, some background is necessary for those unfamiliar with our faith. Part of the initiation into Mother of Spiders’ worship involves a pilgrimage throughout Leng, in the Dreamlands. The pilgrimage is not conducted bodily but rather through lucid dreaming, here in the depths of the temple. Initiates are bound in a cocoon of spidersilk and given a dose of a powerful sedative poison, putting them into a coma for many weeks and allowing them to visit the Dreamlands for an extended period. At the end of this quest, they awaken having visited some of the most holy sites of the Mother of Spiders, glimpsing her Great Web.

“Unfortunately, some do not pass this test, and remain comatose forever. In rarer cases yet, the sleeper who awakens is not the one who fell asleep in the first place. One of our initiates, Sho-Ramsara, slept for half a year, before awakening quite suddenly. At first she seemed to behave normally, but then other initiates began to go missing. Certain signs implicated Sho-Ramsara, and when we confronted her the thing inhabiting her body revealed itself, striking several of our initiates and escaping the Temple. A being of nightmare from the darkest depths of the Dreamlands has possessed her, and now haunts the waking world wearing her flesh. Already there have been reports of disappearances in Cobweb Cliffs – we fear the thing is hunting, using the caverns beneath the Cliffs as its lair.

“We are unsure the extent of the monstrosity’s powers or its exact nature, but like many beings of nightmare it can warp reality to some degree, and wields the power of fear. Ideally, Sho-Ramsara should be kept alive – there may yet be a chance of saving her and sending the creature back where it came from, if you can bring her back to the temple. As a last resort, however, you may need to kill her to prevent the nightmare from wreaking more destruction. If you do so, we will reduce the payment by half. Are these terms acceptable?”

Again, the party agreed to this arrangement. Sister spent some time in the nunnery’s libraries seeking scrolls of calm emotions and other spells, and then the group set out, heading for the nearest entrance to the tunnels within the cliffs.

Maps below are from Sprigley’s player.

Cobweb Cliffs 1Their first stop was a cavern used as a spider farm, with countless thousands of the creatures spinning their webs throughout the room, clusters of eggs scattered throughout. Mesh structures, trellises, stalagmites, and stalactites were all covered with webs. Some of the bigger spiders were kept in spacious (but tight-barred) cages. Lengian spider-farmers clambered throughout the complex, feeding their charges insects, collecting silk, and milking venom from some of the larger arachnids. A few small outbuildings had been built on the ground or along the walls of the farm. There was also a pen in which a number of pallid hogs can be seen. The desiccated, bloodless husks of a number of piglets  were evident in a few of the giant spider cages.

Upon questioning the farmers, the party discovered this was the Tsothoth Spider Farm, a family business that produced a great deal of silk both for the weavers on the Street of Weavers and the nearby Venom Mart. The folk here seemed distrustful of outsiders but warmed to Sister, as a traveling cleric. On asking about any sign of trouble, they discovered that several of their hogs had recently been snatched. The farmers believed that those responsible might be members of the so-called “Funnel Web Gang,” a group of bandits lairing somewhere deep below the Cliffs.

Cobweb Cliffs 2

The party began making their way deeper into the tunnels. They soon came acrosstTwo Lengians clad all in spidersilk uniforms, who had cornered a thin, human man with blue-black hair, garbed in yellow robes and wearing a Yellow Sign round his neck; he looked battered and beleaguered. The masked, armoured Lengians had an authoritative stance and made no effort to conceal their activities as they advanced upon him with clearly violent intentions. Sister recognized the Lengians as members of the Ebon Web, the theocratic police force of Cobweb Cliffs

“Please! I’ve done nothing wrong! They’re going to kill me!” the man exclaimed.

Investigation revealed the man to be Ambrose Vasseur, a poet and hieorophant of the Queen in Yellow, performing his work in public in the Cliffs. Under the law of the Ebon Web this activity had been interpreted as proselytizing, a prohibited action in the Cliffs. Vespidae, seeing a fellow worshiper of the Queen in Yellow, felt compelled to intervene. Fortunately Sister was able to use her clout with the Temple to dissuade the Ebon Web officers, who slunk off into the tunnels. Ambrose gratefully thanked the party and advised Vespidae to find him at the Fane of the Queen in Yellow.

Lengian

The party pressed on, stopping briefly at the Venom Mart – a dim cavern lit by a few dull, greenish lamps, containing a bustling market crowded with numerous stalls and the customers perusing them. While the merchants in this luridly lit bazaar were almost all Lengian, the buyers were more diverse, with several humans, cambions, ghouls, dagonians, and trollbloods amongst them. They could see a fair number of gang and guild insignia here, displayed with an openness usually reserved for Corvid Commons. The goods here took a variety of forms – powders, vials of liquid, and even globes of gas could all be seen. The Mart, Sister explained, was an open secret in Cobweb Cliffs, operating beyond the control of the City Watch. The party bought several poisons here to induce unconsciousness, hoping that they would prove useful in subduing their quarry.

Delving yet deeper, the group entered the lower tunnels of the Cliffs. Continuing their explorations, the party next discovered the corpse of a Lengian sprawling against one wall of a dank cavern, limbs limp. The cadaver bore an expression of absolute terror on her face, her several eyes frozen wide in fright. There were no obviously fatal injuries; however, the wall behind her body was bizarrely changed: a cluster of roving, many-coloured eyes, blinking and rolling, some watching them intently, grows from the rock like a lichen. Armand used the spell detect thoughts on the eyes and was assailed by a million million thoughts, a slurry of surreal images, lusts, fears, anxieties, nightmarish monsters and moans of ecstasies – like tapping into the collective unconscious, a stream of dream-energy sluicing through his mind. Still benumbed by reading The Book of the Void, Armand was able to cling to sanity, but nearly lost himself in the primal welter of oneiric puissance.

Close inspection of the corpse revealed it had a mysterious Aklo tattoo, which Sister identified as signifying affiliation with the Funnel-Web Gang. Further on, the party discovered a cavern whose walls seemed mottled with some sort of fungus. Drawing closer, though, they realized the strange growths extruded from the rock were actually a series of mouths from various species, some toothless and ancient, others monstrously fanged. The mouths whispered and spoke to one another in a babbling torrent of languages, some speaking quasi-intelligible snatches of conversation, others curses softly, or singing nonsense verse. They had not ventured much further when a group of eight Lengian cutthroats emerged from web-swathed nooks and similar vantage points and then sprang to attack, hurling nets and blowing darts to try and subdue the party. After a brief scuffle in which several of the cutthroats and party-members were injured, Sister convinced them to desist, claiming that they could protect the Funnel-Web Gang  from the creature hunting them.Cobweb Cliffs 3

The Funnel-Web cutthroats led the party through a hidden path concealed by a thick cobweb. Down a short tunnel and down a web-swathed trapdoor they found a series of small caves, the walls covered in more webs. A few bunks, tables, and other furnishings were scattered about, as were racks of weapons: short swords, knives, blowguns, darts, and nets. Here they met the leader of the Funnel-Web Gang – a mysterious Lengian man, Shenzirr, swathed in dark purple clothes and spidersilk armour. Conferral with the wary Lengian gang-leader revealed much about the band of criminals, as much religious dissidents and undercity scum – a group striving against the dogmatic control of the Temple of the Mother of Spiders, gathering strength in a guerilla war against the authorities of Cobweb Cliffs. They had encountered Sho-Ramsara several times, and, it proved, could lead the party to the possessed Spider-Nun’s lair – deep in the Old City, below the cavernous tunnels of the Cliffs. Shenzirr dispatched a guide to aid the group in their journey below.

After recovering their strength, the party and their guide set out, the Lengian thief leading them deep into the earth. They passed the corpse of a leathery-winged, thin-limbed creature with curved horns, approximately humanoid but lacking any vestige of a face, which lay crumpled on the tunnel floor, its stiff limbs upraised. One its arms was broken and its wings were badly torn, but it was killed from a slash to its throat. A peculiar, eerie music with no identifiable source lingered in the air around the corpse.

“A Nightgaunt,” the Funnel-Web gangster said. “A being from the Dreamlands – a manifestation of childhood nightmares. They’ve been breeding down here, in the dark, brought through somehow to the waking world. They stray up into our territory sometimes…”

The walls of the narrow tunnel beyond sprouted dozens of grasping, clawing hands, grabbing and groping at the air. They weren’t form of rock but of flesh, erupting out of the wall in horrible profusion. Sister eyed the hands and then produced one of her scrolls of calm emotions. Casting the spell on the arms, they became abruptly slack and inactive.

Cobweb Cliffs 4

“Let’s hurry,” she urged. As Cosmo the sheep passed, on a whim Sister decided to cast the spell again, this time on the sheep. A strange shiver passed through the being, the stars and nebulae roiling within its body twinkling strangely.

“What did you feel?” Sister asked, curious.

“A strange sensation. Countless trillions of souls… all, for a moment, at peace.”

It seemed that if indeed Cosmo was now the host to other realities, spells cast on it could effect such realities. The enormity of this possibility was too much to take in for the time being, and the party pressed on, lowering themselves via spidersilk rope down a narrow chute and into a deeper level of the caves. At the bottom, they realized they had left Cosmo above… but then the sheep nudged Sister’s foot, having somehow appeared below with them.

A deep chasm gaped ahead, bereft of the helpful web bridges that elsewhere provided a means across such rifts. Bones could be glimpsed at the bottom. Vespidae simply flew across, planting pitons in the roof so that others could use more rope to shimmy their way across the chasm. Veering left at the next tunnel, the party entered a huge cavern; roosting on the ceiling like bats were dozens of leathery shapes – winged, spindly creatures, identical to the dead nightgaunt they’d seen before. Stealthily the group crept past, careful not to disturb the creatures. Cosmo simply levitated its way across the room, quite silent.

A huge doorway gaped ahead, perhaps fifty feet high, leading into a smooth-walled hall of stone beyond. The walls were carved with the glyphs of the Librarians, and the ceiling held up by titanic, tentacular statues, creatures somewhere between apes and octopi.

“An entrance to the Old City,” Sprigley noted, with a shudder from his last fateful venture into the Librarian tunnels.

Cobweb Cliffs 5

Beginning their explorations, the party first examined a stone door, using their knowledge of arcane Librarian glyphs to gain entrance to the room beyond. In the middle of this ovoid chamber was a kind of rounded pod that brought to mind a sarcophagus, with machinery and masses of convoluted conduits emerging from its sides. The pod had a door on its top which was currently open, revealing a large, empty space within. If this lid were closed, someone placed inside the pod would be in darkness. None knew what function the pod might serve. Sister volunteered to enter. At first, all was dark – but then the door opened, and Sister watched herself climbing out of the pod, moving backwards out of the chamber, everything seeming to flow in reverse. The party walked backwards out of the chamber, the door closed behind them, and they began to leave the Old City… Filled with a feeling of weightlessness, Sister “jumped” back into her body, having traveled backwards through time. She explained to her companions what had just occurred. A useful device indeed…

This mystery resolved, the party pressed on, deeper into the Old City. The walls of the next chamber dripped and oozed with a disgusting viscous slime, out of which temporarily resolved faces, mouths, hands, eyes, claws, tentacles, and other amorphous shapes. Hideous squelching sounds mingled with the cries, murmurs, and babbling of the many mouths. Moments later, as if responding to the presence of intruders, some of this abominable secretion glopped down off the wall and congealed into a gibbering, shapeless mass of metamorphic horror. The living nightmare slithered and scuttled and pulls itself forward, mewling and whining incoherently. Armand, quick with a frost-spell, slowed the creature long enough for the group to hurry into the next room.

A shattered portal stood at the centre of this chamber, which dripped with more of the repulsive slime. A Lengian – one of the gang of Funnel-Web cutthroats, judging from their garb – was trapped here, embedded waist-deep in the slime. Looming over the weakly struggling figure was a second Lengian, this one in the tattered remnants of a nun’s habit. As her prey whimpered and struggled she seems to be drawing some sort of energy from his mind, pressing two of her six hands to his temples. Though still recognizably Lengian her form was monstrously distorted, her limbs elongated, her features twisted into a ghastly expression of thirst. Strange movements could be seen beneath her robes, and something moved beneath her skin.

The fight was a frenzy of spells, bullets, and flickering limbs. Sister used calm emotions to free the cutthroat from the slime, the spell causing the nightmare-sludge to dissipate, while Vespidae, poisoned javelin in hand, flitted up to the Dream-Demon. The possessed nun launched herself at Sprigley, catching the warrior across the chest with her claws, even as she spoke words of fell magic, attempting to put some of her attackers to sleep. Bleeding and backing off from the flailing spider-monster, Sprigley fired a bullet from his enchanted pistol, the Verdant Gun, trapping Sho-Ramsara with suddenly interweaving vines and giving Vespidae time to administer the sleeping-poison purchased in the Venom Mart. Sho-Ramsara shuddered and was still, though the dream-demon within still thrashed and boiled within her flesh, quieted only temporarily through another scroll of calm emotions. Their quarry for the moment dispatched, the party retreated back into the previous room, only to find more of the squelching horrors had spawned. They hurried on, Armand launching fire spells to burn the nightmare-things, Sprigley firing off more rounds from his Verdant Gun to trap the horrors in place. With Sho-Ramsara secured they headed back to the surface.

Coming again to the cavern of the night-gaunts the group found the nest were awakened – and agitated. They rushed through, slashing with weapons, Vespidae hurling javelins, picking the creatures off, but there were dozens of the bat-like things, swarming in pursuit. Then Cosmo, turning in seeming irritation, let out a bleat of power. The ceiling of the night-gaunts’ cavern collapsed, crushing the leathery creatures with a terrible crash that made the very ground quake. Awed at this display from the eldritch sheep, the party hastened back towards the surface and to their promised reward.

Hex, Session VIII – 5th Edition Actual Play – “Arcady”

The characters in this session were:

  • Caulis, a homunculus warlock liberated from its master; has made a pact with certain Faerie Powers.
  • Yam, an eccentric gnome illusionist and local graduate student at Umbral University. Yam cares little for money. Yam is curious. Yam is Yam.
  • Vespidae, a waspkin bard/cleric – a sacred dancer with a deathwish, shunned by the waspkin community for complicated ritualistic reasons, and a devoted follower of the Queen in Yellow.
  • Garvin Otherwise, a human rogue and burglar of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, with a very, very peculiar past and a zoog pet, Lenore.
  • Cephalus T. Murkwater, a dagonian barrister and monk, specializing in martial arts and magical labour law.

XP Awarded: 420 XP.

Caulis and Yam both found themselves invited to the same event – a meeting of the exclusive Order of the Auriferous Twilight. Caulis had long been masquerading as a human member of the research collective, submitting research by mail under the pseudonym “Octavius Flasgatherer.” Yam’s research supervisor, Sebastian Eldridge, was also a member, and had requested the gnome’s presence for part of an experiment. The Order had informed Caulis that it was testing out a new invention, the Vitreodimensional Resonator, which could reveal a “hitherto hidden layer of our reality.” Yam, somewhat vexed by the increasingly dangerous assignments their supervisor had requested, asked Cephalus to accompany them as legal representation. Vespidae, meanwhile, was convinced by Caulis to come along as a “research subject.”

As usual, Caulchurch swirled with caulchurcharcane vapours and miasmas, though near to the Metamorphic Scholarium the fumes were somewhat less intense than further south towards Goatsbridge.  Most of the people in the street here were alchemists and their servants – automata, familiars, and homunculi on errands for their masters. Many of those susceptible to the gases of the district wore protective masks and goggles to ward off any ill effects. Some of the strange creatures bred in the cauldrons and vats of the Alchemist’s Quarter could also be seen in the street – one carriage was drawn by a two-headed badger the size of a horse, while a wizard walked a miniature sphinx down the street. A number of gnomes and cambions from the neighbouring districts of Mainspring and Little Pandemonium could be seen around the western edge of Caulchurch as well. The group made their way to the main campus of the Scholarium at the intersection of the Street of Limbs and the Street of Hearts. Caulis made a point to stop in the district to procure a potion to polymorph it into a shape resembling that of a human mage, thus assuming the persona of Octavius Flasgatherer.

The Scholarium itself was a bizarre architectural conglomeration that changes on an almost daily basis, spells woven into the very walls of the university triggering changes in style and substance so that a slender spire that one day might be built of stone or gleaming metal might the next become an imposing crystalline monolith or an elaborate wooden pagoda. Students and faculty could be seen entering and exiting the myriad doors of the strange school, homunculi carrying spellbooks and laboratory equipment. The would-be experimenters proceeded to the Balthazar Voss Laboratory – memorializing the alchemist Balthazar Voss, former president of the Scholarium who died in the explosion that created the Midden – which was currently fashioned from a kind of nacreous substance like mother-of-pearl. Inside the eerily glistening structure was assembled a group of wizards, sorcerers, warlocks, and other spellcasters, the arcanists of the Order of the Auriferous Twilight. At the centre of the hall was a huge mirror framed by complex machines that resembled Librarian designs, though of obviously more recent construction.

The party mingled with those in the hall. These included such characters as Iganatius the Unchanging a senior alchemist at the Metamorphic Scholarium. He earned the moniker “Everchanging” after a polymorphing accident: he fell into a vat of experimental polymorphic potion, and now, as a result, he was continuously altering his shape, one moment appearing as a wizened old man, the next a beautiful young woman, or a stubbled youth, or a barrel-chested man, or a child of six, or stranger forms – a bear-like humanoid, a horned, demonic being, a pale creature with a single eye, an owl-headed beast. Ignatius wore specially glamered clothes that shift to accommodate his myriad forms. Despite the kaleidoscopic, chimerical changes he undergoes every few moments, Ignatius conversed quite calmly with fellow members of the Order, quite accustomed to his periodic shifts in height, weight, and form. Other notables in the Order included Giselle Gnostus, of the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm, Hex’s school of Evocation. While most lycanthropes in Hex wee doomed to incarceration in Catch-All, an exception was made for gnomish weremoles. Weremoleism ran in certain elite gnome families and was seen as a great blessing, and care was taken to ensure that lycanthropes marry one another to perpetuate the ability through blood; equal care was taken to ensure it was not passed to those undeserving of the “earth’s gift.” Giselle Gnostus was one such weremole. She was currently in hybrid form, somewhere between a mole and a gnome. An earth-shaper of terrific skill, she was a professor of great distinction at the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm, akawats accompanied by her familiar, a giant beetle the size of a small dog, which scuttled along beside her.https://dinodung.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/brain-in-a-jar.jpg

By the far the most renowned of those gathered in the laboratory, however, was Master Melchior – one of the founders of the Order of Auriferous Twilight and also one of Hex’s oldest and most famous wizards. Though in his heyday Melchior had a fleshly body, now he was a preserved brain kept alive through powerful necromantic spells, alchemical preservatives, and transmutation magic. This brain was housed in a spidery automaton with a pair of humanoid forelimbs and a voice-box for speech, Melchior’s brain clearly visible in a glass jar at the automaton’s centre.

Melchior crept toward “Octavius” – that is, Caulis – and spoke to the disguised homunculus using his voice-box.

“Greetings, Ocatavius,” the brain said. “Or, should I say, Caulis?” After intimating that he had been following Caulis’ researches for some time, Melchior suggested that the homunculus and its companions speak to him at a later date about a job – something to do with one of the books the party had come across during their adventure. Further conversation was interrupted, however, as the experiment began.

“And now, the reason we have convened this meeting: the Vitreodimensional Resonator,” Ignatius said, currently in the form of a towering purple woman with four arms. “It’s based on certain technologies salvaged from the Old City through explorations undertaken by Cogsworth & Associates.” He had shifted in form to the body of a thin, heavily bearded man with ink-black skin. “Professor Tawnish built and calibrated the Resonator. I’ll let her explain further.”

“Thank you Ignatius,” Viola Tawnish said, stepping forward – a conjuror from Fiend’s College, renowned for her theories on the nature of transplanar time and chronomancy. She first calculated the shifting temporal differentials between the Underworld and the mortal plane and is said to have twice visited Hell. Dressed in the Diabolique style, she had short-cropped red hair and soft mauve skin suggesting some form of non-human parentage.. “The Librarians are known to have developed a network of portals to travel through physical space on this plane, as well as between different planes. Indeed, it may be through such a portal that they first arrived in our world. The vast majority of these portals are now inactive or destroyed, and while we have managed to create temporary gates between planes and to call beings from one world to another, we have not succeeded in duplicating a Librarian portal. Until now.” She smiles. “Using certain applications of mirror magic suggested by Professor Eldridge, I have created what I think may be a functional portal-like device, the Vitreodimensional Resonator. When activated, the mirror should become a gateway. On the other side – another world.”

“And which plane do you propose to visit?” Master Melchior asked, his robotic voice croaked through his automaton body.

“We aren’t sure which plane the Resonator will lead to,” Ignatius said. “In fact, that’s part of the experiment. The results of this journey may tell us a great deal about the cosmological makeup of the multiverse.”

“Yes,” Professor Tawnish said. “I am sure you are all familiar with some of the most common theories. Some believe that our world is but one iteration of the Magistra’s arcane formula, our reality a program formed out of magical code; other planes are similarly programmed, but with different rules and formulae. Others believe that universes are actually super-organisms, capable of breeding with one another to produce new worlds, or of splitting in two via fission with every choice we make, or every tiny, chaotic fluctuation. There are some who argue that our entire existence is an elaborate illusion, a shadow thrown by some elemental light at the heart of creation., and that other worlds are similar shadows cast by the same flame. And then there are those who think there is only a single universe, and that what seem like other planes of existence are in fact distant planets – that Hell and Faerie and the Dreamlands and even Anathema are but different, vastly disparate regions of the same plane.

“The explorers who venture through into whatever world the Vitreodimensional Resonator reveals must take care to note everything they can about its nature. There may be clues as to the nature of our multiverse which may be uncovered. Those who step foot into whatever strange new world the Resonator reveals should approach it as natural philosophers, cataloguing flora and fauna, noting the presence of any sentient inhabitants, their customs and laws, and also any strange physical laws which this plane might possess…”

With a few invocations, the Vitreodimensional Resonator powered up. The party braced themselves and stepped through the swirling vortex of magical energy into another world…

pastoral

Emerging through the portal, Yam, Cephalus, Caulis, and Vespidae stepped into a copse of trees just  beyond a well-ploughed field, not far from a small farmhouse with a barn and pens for livestock. It felt like they’d entered a pastoral painting, complete with grazing sheep, a blue sky dotted with clouds, and cheerful farmhands tending to the fields.

Other farms could be seen nearby, flanking a road that led down to a broad, clear river. Having looked out over the murky, oily, filth-clotted Radula River of Hex these many days, the sight of such clean, blue water was almost shocking. At the end of the road was a village, built on the riverbank. The village was surrounded by a low stone wall; cheerful-looking plumes of smoke drifted up from thatched roofs. The place looked antiquated, the architectural style reminiscent of buildings one might associate with a feudal past. A small keep presided over the tiny town. To the east a large island could be seen rising from the middle of the river, with swamplands dominating the surrounding banks. To the north a huge forest brooded, and to the west rose a distinctive craggy mountain. South looks to be hilly farmland.

Cautiously the group set out, heading for the farmhouse and the workers in the field.https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f3/Edward_Charles_Williams00.jpg

Meanwhile, some time earlier…

One moment Garvin was walking through Corvid Commons on his way to Rosemary’s Receiving. The next, he was standing in the middle of a very different street. Buildings rose about him; though a few wouldn’t be too out of place in Hex, many wee glassy, glittering structures, and distantly he could make out some tall spires that might rival those of the Librarians in Engima Heap for height, as well as some sort of bulky metal dome or sphere. Trains on raised tracks rattled nearby, speeding off to some other quarter of the strange but eerily familiar city.

The street Garvin was in wasn’t filled with people but with some kind of boxy automata, mechanical carriages. A shrill sound filled the air as one of these machines barrels towards him. He tried to avoid it, but was knocked prone. Soon a crowd of people had gathered around him, pointing strange devices at him that clicked and flashed, and gibbering in a half-forgotten tongue. Panicking, Garvin muttered a quick spell and blinked to a nearby alley, leaving the crowd of people astonished.

“I’m not sure where we are, Lenore…” he said to the zoog still on his shoulder. “But I think I’ve been here before…”

Fashioning a quick disguise for himself as best he could using his disguise kit, Garvin set off into the city. Using a minor spell he managed to procure on of the small, rectangular devices everyone seemed to carry in this world. This was one was whitish, and had a symbol that looked a bit like a small apple. It seemed puzzling and had a glass panel covered in unusual sigils. Locating what looked like a bookstore, Garvin ducked inside and located what he guessed could be a dictionary or similar tome, hoping that it might help him make sense of the maddeningly familiar language of the people here. After skillfully shoplifting these, he headed for what looked like a coffeehouse and settled himself in a corner…

…only to appear quite suddenly seated on a stump, in the very copse of trees shared by his companions, drawn once more between worlds. Surprised but not displeased by the sudden reappearance of their companion, the party continued towards the farm, approaching one of the farmhands: a dark-haired, hale youth that several of the party members seemed to half-recognized. He identified himself as Jasper Van Lurken, and noted that the farm was owned by his parents, Leopold and Nicolet. The village nearby, he said, was called Blessing.

It was at this points that it clicked: the party was in a world eerily similar to their own, geographically at least. The craggy mountain was none other than Mount Shudder; the river was the Radula, albeit unpolluted. The village of Blessing stood where Hex should have been, or a part of it. But there was no sign of any Librarian structures, none of the alien spires of the Old City, nor the Elder Trees.

They were in a universe in which the Librarians never arrived.

Cephalus, meanwhile, had noticed a nearby gravestone not far from the farm. He used some of the ghostdust he’d secured back at the Puppeteer’s lair and, peering into the Ethereal plane, he saw the spectre of a young woman with dark hair, who identified herself as Annette Van Lurken. Having not encountered the Van Lurkens of Hex, he did not recognize her, but was able to discover that she died of some sort of sickness. It sounded as if magical medicine was considerably more primitive in this timeline.

Taking their leave of Jasper, the party headed toward Blessing. The village wall looked like it had seen better days, moss eating away at its crumbling length. Here and there a wooden fence had been erected to patch a gap or extend the extremely modest fortifications. The gate was of stout wood and stands open, guarded by a solitary man in chainmail armour leaning on a pike.

The guard, Roderick, asked a few minor questions about the party’s business in Blessing; they identified themselves as a troupe of actors. Roderick was alarmed at the sight of Vespidae, believing the waspkin to be a fairy from the Tangle – evidently that forest existed here as well. He was also perturbed by Cephalus, identifying him as one of the “merfolk” from the swamps. With some fast-talking, the party was able to pass them off as foreigners from a distant part of the world. Asking a few questions, they quickly got a lay of the land, learning that the town was ruled by a woman named Lady Fullblood, that it included several shops and inns, and that it was also the site of a large temple. Curious to learn more, they passed through the gate and into Blessing.

blessing

The village of Blessing was so modest that it scarcely possessed true streets, but rather a series of winding paths between the picturesque thatched-roof buildings. The town brought the words “wholesome” and “quaint” to mind; it was like something out of a child’s storybook. It was also curiously homogeneous; the people here were almost all human. A few gnomes could also be seen, as well as a handful of stocky, almost universally bearded creatures like oversized gnomes or short humans. Many eyes the party, some with wariness or suspicion but most with curiosity and welcoming smiles. Yam and Caulis were able to identify the bearded creatures as “dwarves” – a species long gone from their own world, sometimes thought to be ancestors of gnomes, and reputedly hunted to extinction by the Librarians during the primeval past.

The group’s first stop was the Troll & Tankard inn, a large establishment with an attached stables. A stone stair led up to the door of the common room, from which music and laughter emanated. The skull of a monstrous troll was hung above the bar, which was tended by a broad-shouldered man with an eyepatch who polished a mug and chats with various patrons, most of whom looked to be cut from roughly the same rural cloth as the rest of the townsfolk. The exception here was a fellow who wouldn’t be too out of place in Hex: a man dressed in blue robes and a pointed hat, with large spectacles and crazed hair. He sat in a corner booth drinking from a mug of ale and leafing through the first book the explorers had seen in Blessing. Several of the party realized abruptly that the man was the virtual double of the alchemist Valdemar Sluice!

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Caulis idly peered over “Valdemar’s” shoulder and scanned the pages. There were real arcane formulae there, but mixed in with superstition and arcane nonsense. Noticing the party, Valdemar was delighted to observe Vespidae, and immediately launched into a series of questions, taking the waspkin for a fairy. The party began conversing, asking about the town. It seemed that this version of Valdemar was traveling from elsewhere and had been drawn to Blessing by some unusual rumours about magical happenings nearby. Meanwhile, Garvin and Cephalus noticed that the party was being watched with some alarm by an ill-favoured fellow in the tavern, who quickly left. They slipped out in pursuit and caught up with the man, Cephalus quickly subduing him. He identified himself as Brett, and claimed to have been heading to the local temple to speak to someone called Father Roland, warning the priest of the presence of “demons and spirits” in the town. With some suitably fast talking, he was persuaded that the party were an acting troupe in costume, come to perform a play for the entertainment of Blessing.

Of course, this meant that the party had to either get out of town… or put on a play.

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Pondering this problem, the group headed to the local temple. Blessing seemed to have just one temple – a church dedicated to someone called “St. Melchior.” The name, of course, was familiar, though Master Melchior of Hex has certainly never been considered a saint. Though probably the most ornate building in Blessing, the church was rather ordinary-looking by the baroque and fanciful standards of Hex, built of plain, grey stone with modest decorations. Despite its lack of grandeur there was something decidedly welcoming and comforting about it – perhaps because it wasn’t dedicated to a slavering tentacle entity from beyond space and time, or a primeval demon-lord…

Inside, the church retained its relative plainness, though there were a number of murals painted on the walls depicting the life, miracles, and apparent martyrdom of St. Melchior, as well as statues in his name. He was mostly depicted as a bald, clever-looking man of middle years with a neat beard. He appeared to have been killed while trying to convert a tribe of trolls or similar creatures. A few clerics tended to the church, garbed in loose grey robes without adornment. Those learned in the history of Hex quickly recognized Master Melchior himself – or, rather a version of him – as he looked before he became a brain in a vat. They quickly found Father Roland, a stooped and aged man whose bent exterior was belied by the fierce zealotry burning in his eyes. The Father seemed ready to condemn the group and their activities, but with smooth talking from Garvin and Caulis he was convinced that the party’s play would in fact emphasize the dangers of temptation and of dabbling with dark powers. The party was careful not to disclose that they came from another plane. They found out a bit more about the local religion, which had a number of unusual features, revering only a single, simplistic deity and denouncing others as false idols.

Garvin visited the local blacksmith – “Axe & Anvil,” which seemed to be the only major smithy in Blessing. The creature labouring at its namesake in the open courtyard is one of the peculiar, stocky beings the group had seen about town in small numbers: what the party’s historians had identified as a “dwarf,” known in their home-reality through fossil evidence and ancient records. Like the rest of her ilk she had a beard, though hers was quite small. Her name turned out to be Bess Bonnyshield, a dwarven woman formerly of the Groanmount – apparently this world’s name for Mount Shudder – before the Wyrm, Scorra Bitterflame, laid her clan-home waste. Garvin bought a dwarf-made dagger, noting the extraordinary craftsmanship of the item.

The party next meandered down towards Pistons & Powders, as Yam was curious about this reputedly gnome-run establishment. This ramshackle-looking building wouldn’t have been too out of place in Mainspring, with its small doors and windows, large boiler, haphazard architecture, and plethora of hissing chimneys, though even this structure looked far less intricate than the gnomish buildings of Hex. Inside, a small tinker’s workshop could be be found. Though a few crude mechanical oddments were scattered about, it looked like the place mostly deals in basic repairs for pots, pans, and tools. A handful of simple firearms were sold here as well, though they were far more primitive than the complex wheellocks of Hex. A handful of gnomes worked here, mending metal goods.

Yam cheerfully bustled in, only to bump into a gnome. The tinker turned around – and stared into their own face. The gnome at Pistons & Powders was Yam, albeit dressed in oily mechanist’s clothes.

“Yam!” Yam said.

“Yam!” Yam responded. “You’re not some kind of shapeshifter are you?”

“I’m you from another dimension,” Yam disclosed with nonchalance. “Want to come hang out?”

“Sure!” Yam agreed, taking off their apron with a minimum of fuss. They turned their head to yell: “I’m on break!”

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The party next headed to the market square at the southeast end of Blessing, near to the small town’s docks. Here they began planning for the performance they had now promised to put on, deciding to tell a version of the story of Robin Redcap. The two Yams and Caulis provided special effects while other members of the party, disguised through magic or cosmetics, assumed the guises of Duke Gothmord, Robin Redcap, and other persons. A crowd had soon gathered as word circulated of the performance, and as sun set the party began their impromptu tale, Vespidae using her dancing to enthrall the assembled commoners, while the “troupe’s” spellcasters used illusions to lend the performance an air of strange mystery. Hastily written and quasi-improvised dialogue might have ruined the play, but the magical effects bedazzled the bucolic onlookers. As the play concluded to great applause, however, the church bell tolled, and a town crier appeared, screaming: “Goblins at the Mountain Gate! Fear! Fire! Foes!”

The party rushed to the gates, grabbing up their weapons, to discover a band of the hunched, malformed goblins setting fire to buildings and terrorizing townsfolk. In the land of Hex such creatures had been exterminated or placed on reservations, to keep them from mischief, but in this land it seemed they ran amok! Some rode great spiders, apparently denizens of the Tangle, and they carried clubs and crude swords. Cephalus rushed forth, limbs flying, to dispatch the leader, while Yam conjured a cloud of daggers, eviscerating several of the goblins. The battle was brief, and though a few injuries were had, Garvin managed to put a bolt through the skull of a final, fleeing goblin, leaving them all dead. The few remaining townsfolk nearby rejoiced, hailing the group as heroes, though most had fled the battle… but time was growing short, the day long, and the group was eager to return from whence they had come. Yam’s double insisted on following them – as did a local girl from the town, who, having seen their power, asked to join them. Impressing upon both that they might not soon return, the party hurried back to the portal at Van Lurken farm and slipped through the dwindling vortex between worlds, back into the Metamorphic Scholarium’s laboratory in Caulchurch, with quite a few findings to report…

Images: Brain in a Jar from “Open Graves: Secrets of the Undead.”

5th edition Hex campaign

I’ve started a new 5th edition D&D game in a setting I’ve been working on, set in the city of Hex – a magical university town built atop the ruins of the much older archive-city built by the sinister and long-departed Librarians. Influences here include China Miéville’s Bas-Lag novels, Jeff Vandermeer’s Ambergris, Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard Sequence, K.J. Bishop’s The Etched City, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, and (naturally) H.P. Lovecraft: it’s a big, greasy urban fantasy with a vein of eldritch horror.

Hex Close UpMap Screenshot III

Here’s an overview:

Endless shelves filled with hieroglyph-graven tablets of primeval metal stretch for miles beneath the earth, down aeons-old tunnels that curve and twist in ways that make the mind ache, plunging into cavernous archive-chambers and coiling in upon themselves like some impossible stone snake. Within this lightless immensity the knowledge of the inscrutable Librarians – visitors to this world, now departed or dead – is meticulously recorded, written in gleaming books and upon monoliths of incomprehensible size, arranged according to a system so alien and maddeningly complex that none have ever deciphered it fully. This the First Library, the Old City which drew explorers and scholarly spelunkers from many lands, daring the uncanny and dangerous depths where tenebrous things now lair, seeking for the secrets buried deep in the incalculably ancient labyrinth.

Many centuries have passed since those first sojourns underground, and now a new city thrives atop the old: Hex, the Inkstained City, the City of Secrets. A six-sided sprawl, this centre of magical learning is home to some of the world’s finest institutions of arcane education: the Académie Macabre, Fiend’s College, Umbral University, the Institute of Omens, the Warders’ Lyceum, the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm, the Metamorphic Scholarium, and Master Melchior’s School of Thaumaturgy & Enchantment. Magi, wizards, sorcerers, warlocks, and witches can be found in the winding streets, flocking to the source of esoteric lore with which reality itself can be reshaped.

Vast libraries containing translations and interpretations of the alien glyphs of the Old City fill the towers of the city. Hex came into being slowly. With the first influx of the wise and wealthy came others: librarians and archivists, of course, but also scribes and scriveners, porters and couriers, mercenaries and bodyguards, concubines and cooks, and other servants – and then, later, book-sellers, parchment-makers, ink-dealers, quill-cutters, vintners, and ale-brewers. These were followed, of course, by dockworkers and grooms and tailors and victuallers and masons, and later by craftsmen and labourers and merchants of every sort. Soon what had begun as a few remote camps and archeological digs became a fully-fledged campus that later fractured and flourished and overgrew its boundaries, till one day the seething, scribbling enormity of Hex came into being.

Now Hex is a modern metropolis, a frenzied urban imbroglio teeming with traders and cutthroats and decadents. Gaslight, buzzing electric lamps, and glimmering magical crystals bathe faces both beautiful and vile in their variegated glow. The universities have become vast – huge, ornate, and unthinkably wealthy, their spires stab at a sky now criss-crossed by flitting familirs and hot air balloons and skycabs drawn by hippogriffs, manticores, or dock-tailed wyverns. Trade bustles along the banks of the Radula River while alchemists culture homunculi in their cauldrons and necromancers reanimate the corpses of the poor to labour in the city’s churning factories. Temples to a hundred deities burn sacrifices and fill the air with weird chants, prayers to strange and sometimes malformed gods inspired by the primordial gods of the Librarians. Above them all the wizards still scribble in their spellbooks, while deep below adventurers plumb the twisted darkness in search of yet more secrets…

Map Screenshot IVMap Screenshot IMap Screenshot II

I’m going to be posting a campaign diary here along with excerpts from the background material I’ve prepared for the game.

My format for this campaign is a little unusual for me. I now have a large gaming group – about 10 regulars, plus a few occasional players – so instead of trying to get everyone together regularly I’m attempting a more open, West Marches style game where players come and go. As it happens, about half of my players are actual real-life librarians, so it should be interesting to see them descending into the massive megadungeon that is the Old City.

Fimbulvinter Maps

An unpardonably long time has passed since my last post. I’m putting together the next bit of Fever in the Blood, but in the meantime here are some hand-drawn maps for my Fimbulvinter campaign, an intermittent IRC game set during the endless winter of Norse myth. It’s equal parts Viking Age sandbox and post-apocalyptic survival horror, run using Pathfinder. Most of our big combats are now played out using Roll20 using maps I draw, like these ones:

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mountains grove0001 Map0004 Map0003 Map0002 CampBlodlands Hrafnlands Gorn0001

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