(Eight Moons of Delight; Model Aimee Mullins, photographer unknown.)
After a great deal of struggling with schedule, eventually the tumblers of the lock fell into place & blammo! Oubliette was back in session! The stars in our constellation, the heroes of the tale, are Blue Glory on Dark Water, royal bastard & self-reliance expert; Curie Firstlight, anabaric savant, Gleaner & inventor; Long Cleaver of 1000 Helms, Praetorian & Hungry Templar; & Slumbering Heart Dwells on Hill, autist Duke & Thorn Gentry speaker to the moon. Last episode we left our adventurers in the Ghost Pagoda; after a bit or rehashing the events there for clarity's sake, I forwarded in media res-- or perhaps not fully in the middle, but to a new chapter, lets say. I'm trying to move things along & a certain degree of downtime control might help with my pacing. "Alright, so you are all on the road to Lookout Lake..." sort of thing. In fact, exactly that kind of thing, because those are the words I started with. Off they went, Curie fiddling with an amber turtle given to him by Count Cinnamon, Blue Glory scouting ahead on her hippofelis destriar, Herecles Vagabond. Between themselves, through rumors within the athletics community, the political sphere & the party circuit, they'd heard a few things of this Lookout Lake. It was a sanatorium, a fitness & dietary commune, where the wealthy give up their ample possession to live in utopian, egalitarian poverty. No one ever returns once they join, but visitors are welcome. There has been garbled news of missing people, & since mysterious deaths & disappearances are the trail they've followed thus far from The Man in Black (whom they seek, each for their own reasons & some for none) they are going to investigate further. The lands they enter are the Sugar Plum Barons-- the plutocrats who challenge the authority of the Gentry. The red clay of County Cinnamon gives over to a darker cherry loam, gritty dirt with cacti growing ripe dragon fruit. The landscape is split with black rock mesas & plinths; a fertile but seemingly desolate landscape.
(Red Spotted Crow; "Sam Colt" by Renan Lima.)
The come to the mesa where the eponymous lookout tower stands; a black rock with another peak rising from it with the building of yellow brick jutting from it like a ruined tooth. Up the face of the peak, all the way from the base of the mesa, there is a carved stair; narrow, steep, & without handrails. Squat at the entrance to the stair is a very long sort of cabin, a low building with a sod roof. Long Cleaver, seeing shapes & runes he recognizes carved into the wooden benches outsides, borrows a piece of paper & some charcoal from Curie to make impressions. While he was rubbing them, Slumber Heart said mildly "Long Cleaver, put your hands in the air?" As he did, they heard a click-- the sound of cocking! The slide on the door-- the peephole, if you will-- had been quietly pulled open & the fat barrel of a gun was poking out, pointed right at Long Cleaver of 1000 Helms! What followed next was confusing exchange of pass-phrases, watchwords: "Does The Black One Abaxaz rise?" sort of thing. After the exchange of shibboleths, Long Cleaver has realized; this gentleman is one of the Hungry Templars as well-- & once a Templar, always a Templar. Red Spotted Crow (those party members with a background in poetry realize that the kenning of his name implies the blood dappling the wings of the carrion crow) has a heaving, intimidating, steam-powered prosthetic arm, a big white beard, & a gruff voice. He invites them in to the longhouse, which is isn't subdivided-- there are wooden screens, but it is one wide open space, & he leads the party & their destriars (& Curie's rent-a-horse) in to all sleep in the same common space. A fire crackles in the center, & various kegs, casks & containers of other boozes are scattered about. He makes a show of charging them for the space, but between Long Cleaver's association with the Templar Brotherhood, & Curie's offer to do some upkeep work on his arm, they get full service for a pittance. They drink, eat gamefowl shish-kebabs, & chew the fat-- that is, talk. Red Spotted Crow tells them that up top, in Lookout Lake, they don't let folks have weapons or destriars, so he'll look after them; he seems to think they are all kind of silly up there, but the head of the commune, Maze Strange Kills, fixed him up with the automatic arm, after he lost his in a battle with the unholy devil-worshippers of Antiphon. The people up top live off sugar cane, which they farm, & coal, which they export through the aid of merchants. Meanwhile, Blue Glory is scoping the place for exits, bolt holes. While they are talking, they hear a strange hissing-- & a strange rain is falling, with an eerie smell. They investigate it; it is acid rain! Red Spotted Crow says it is because of the soda lake. (For the record, it is actually basic rain caused by the alkali lake.)
The next day they wake up to find the rain still ongoing, & fresh clothes laid out for them; white pants, a white button-up shirt, a hooded sort of white blazer & a pointed sedge hat. Red Spotted Crow says he doesn't want their clothes to get ruined in the rain, & well-- you can tell that he's also trying to head off the smuggling of weapons or armor. Long Cleaver & Blue Glory had talked about Long Cleaver hiding a dagger on his person, but in the end he elects not to. Blue Glory on Dark Water has her walking staff & Curie has his lightning gun-- pardon me, his peizo-anabaric capacitor. He sincerely doesn't think of it as a weapon, & it is odd enough & disguised enough that without social cues of guilt, it passes without suspicion. Then-- the climb! The stair is rough, narrow, irregular & cut steeply. I have grown to admire elements of Dungeons & Dragons skill challenges, in which the players select the skills they wish to roll, make their case for how it pertains to the task at hand, & successes & failures are accumulated. For instance, if you wanted to climb a massive stair case, & you were a socialite, you could say "I want to roll my Persuasion, to inspire people to try their hardest & push up the mountain." Now, I also really like combining interesting attributes & skills in World of Darkness-- using lets say Strength plus Persuasion to act as a sort of coach during the climb, which still involves intense physical effort on your behalf. So, I tried the "skill challenge" system on the stair climb, to give the players a chance to pick & match their own odd-couple combination. Blue Glory had climbing gear & a walking stick-- her role was straight brute force, Dexterity plus Athletics, & she made the plurality of the successes; Long Cleaver rolled the same, careful not to slip in the rain, acting as the anchor in the middle. Curie rolled Intelligence plus Survival, making sure everyone's climb was well lit in the beating acid rain with his anabaric lantern. Slumber Heart meanwhile rolled Intelligence plus Theosophy, looking at the climb as a spiritual & mental test, like a supplicant climbing to a guru's retreat. In the end, they all made it, climbing above the clouds.
(Maze Strange Kills; "Clockwork Arm" by Brute Force.)
When they get to the top of the hill-on-the-mesa, they see the crumbled lookout tower, & a sheer drop off to the plateu below; there, they see a bright blue lake set in the bowl of the mesa, surrounded by cabins & three-walled shelters as well as sugarcane stands. Floating motionless in the lake are dozens of bodies! Or what they quickly realize are just people floating in the extra-dense lake without needed to make an effort to tread water. Out of the tower comes Eight Moons of Delight (pictured top), a beautiful woman on spring-like prosthetic legs. Hello! she takes them down the elevator that stands alongside the cliff face, down to the lake & the camp. People are milling around in clothes matching what the players are wearing-- some without the coat, some without the shirt, just generally seeming to have a good time-- a man in very little clothing rides past on a bicycle. Eight Moons takes them to meet Maze Strange Kills, a young man with a complex replacement arm. The party quickly notice that all of the people they have seen are missing limbs & a few are missing eyes; some have complicated steam-driven arrangements like Red Spotted Crow & Maze, some have simple wooden legs or hooks for hands. Maze & Eight Moons come on strong with the hippy; they are a peaceful commune, eating only nuts & fruits, because those are gifts from the plants. Sugarcane is an exception, since it must be cut to thrive. There is no work, unless you want to, just as there is no law besides peace & love. Everyone is free! They seem sincere, but making a sales pitch, & leaving something important out.
The "disappearances" aren't...well, disappearances. No, they are definitely murders, & they don't match the mysterious rash of deaths accompanying the Man in Black's passing. No-- something a little more gruesome. What they call "The Sugar Cane Killer" or the "Torso Murders" are a series of six killings over the last two months, that left bodies mangled & missing pieces. At first just a limb was taken-- then the killings progressed to all the limbs being taken, & then finally with the last two killings, even the heads were taken. Oh-- pardon me. Not ALL the limbs, as the players ask to clarify-- the prosthetic limbs were never taken. What is with all the prosthetic limbs? Well-- Maze pauses but can't think of a plausible lie, since the players seem on the ball-- they community-- "The Family"-- requires a sacrifice. A totally voluntary sacrifice, of course! He didn't want to scare the outsiders, but yes, the limbs are removed, & then...burnt (the players can tell he is lying-- they certainly aren't burnt). The Duke seems understanding, but rather-- is unwilling to press a point when he realizes all he'll get are lies. Long Cleaver meanwhile has tried to convince Maze Strange Kills ("I'm not in charge. I'm the leader, but not the ruler!") to let them bring up weapons if they want to stop a killer, but Maze isn't budging-- the Supplicants & Members can leave if they want, but it is more important that the community stick to its charter than be safe; the people chose a life specifically without violence, & they are willing to die for what they believe in. Well! Curie has deduced a sort of hierarchy at play-- the visitors, then those who are missing limbs but only have crude replacements, then those who have fancier cyborg components like Maze & Eight Moons, & that those missing eyes all have complicated prosthetics. They profess poverty, Curie claims later in private, in the cabin they are staying in, but only because they've accumulated their possessions into their person! Meanwhile, Blue Glory has been sneaking outside making sure they aren't being spied on-- at one point she goes to take a short-cut through one of the sugar cane stands but balks at the last minute, spooked, rattled. Why, we're talking about something just about as creepy as taking a short-cut through a corn field at night, when there is a serial killer on the loose actually called the "Corn Field Killer." Yeah-- scary. Speaking of rattled, & scary-- The Duke speaks with a commune member, Rattling Blanket, & finds they they are all afraid of Eight Moons, since she's the one who does the excision, she's the one who removes the limbs.
At this point, the party split up; Duke Slumber Heart went to the lake, where he tore up grass & sprinkled it in the lake-- communicating with the always-full moon, he says. Well sure, he is a Duke, after all. Long Cleaver stands with him, his stalwart bodyguard. Blue Glory & Curie head off towards the elevator & the cliff-face; they want to explore the lookout tower-- after all, Maze Strange Kills promised Curie a tour of his laboratory, didn't he? Well-- as Curie & Blue Glory made their way around the circuit of the lake & as Long Cleaver & Slumber Heart stare at the moon (or stare at the man staring at the moon...) suddenly-- the tenor of the town changes. Something seems to go...quiet, as though everything suddenly...fell asleep. Which is just what happens to Long Cleaver & Blue Glory! They slump over, asleep, while Slumber Heart & Curie feel muddled, eyes lidded, body lethargic, soporific. What the deuce! Something is afoot! Slumberheart calls out to his destriar, The White Bodhisattva Anointed by Rosewater-- "Rosewater! I need you!" Woosh! Out of the lake climbs the many-antlered deer-creature, shaking its body, its uncannily human face blinking. (I say afterward-- "Rosewater must have climbed up the mesa while you were at the last hostel, while you were investigating-- like a mountain goat." Remember-- the supernatural can be explained by rational means! Perhaps...) Curie sticks his wind-up lantern-staff in the sleeping Blue Glory's hand & says "You are The Hermit, you are fine!" & then the hand of the Trump, the living god The Hermit, reaches out & wakes Blue Glory. Or really-- she wakes herself. She looks inward & finds the qualities she needs to find within herself. They wake-- just in time for something to come from the sugar cane!
(The Sugar Cane Killer; picture by JKool.)
The Sugar Cane Killer! I used the Gundark mini for it; it is a shuffling creature wrapped in strips of burlap, with a sack of coarse cloth over its head. It has multiple arms-- at least four-- & grabs Blue Glory, trying to make off with her! Well, she pries herself away with the lantern-staff & Curie starts winding the crank on his device, building a charge. Meanwhile, Rosewater has woken Longcleaver up with a gentle kick of the hoof, & he climbs onto Rosewater's back behind Duke Slumberheart as they ride around the field of sugarcane like Shadowfax onto Pelennor Field. Curie lets loose a blast with his piezo-anabaric capacitor as the Torso Killer drops a fiercely resisting Blue Glory & comes after him-- the force of the crackling lightning that roars forth ignites the cloth, burning it away to reveal something much more gruesome! A horrid slit of a mouth surrounded by grasping, writhing tentacles! If you can call them tentacles-- they aren't aquatic, they aren't piscine at all! More like the invasive tendrils of a cancer, the spreading, grasping bits of wildly mutating cells. The...thing grabs Blue Glory again, keeping her between itself & Curie, displaying a definite intellect. Which is when Long Cleaver leapt on it, tackling it, punching it repeatedly-- the thing picks him up & tosses him into the lake! The Duke on his mount tries to pin it down with Rosewater's antlers-- it is brawling, many-limbed, but they are trying to keep it down; Blue Glory is presenting a barrier making a wall of herself & her weapon (the staff) while Curie tries to shake off the doze on him, while they all try to slap themselves full awake; Curie recalls the gift of the Count, the amber turtle & the box that is came in, with a few pinches of cocaine; he takes a snootful & wakes right up. Long Cleaver, fresh from the slap of the water, finds a rock & comes out again, beating relentlessly on the creature-- which grabs him & pulls him into the sugar cane! The party doesn't stop; Rosewater keeps it occupied while Long Cleaver just butchers it by hand & rock & between that & another jolt from Curie's PAC emitter it falls down, the stitches of its limbs unraveled, the anemone-like wriggling of its "head" of tumors slowly ceasing like a dying bugs last kicks. Looking down, Long Cleaver sees discoloured sores all over his hands & arms-- melanoma! Skin cancer-- cancer, aggravated damage, from touching the thing! That is right, session two & I gave one of my players cancer. That is how I roll.
It was a fun session; I think everyone enjoyed themselves. I have a lot to learn about pacing, but the "three act story" is getting tighter as I practice is. The fight went really well; I took another page from DnD 4e & used the "slide" rules as a jumping off point. That worked out! I just said "okay, it drags them a hex for every point of damage it does." Easy, & fun. World of Darkness doesn't usually use a battlemat, but I find it very helpful-- there is no "I thought I was there" or "I meant to hit him" & people actually use the terrain a little more. Yeah-- so successful melee! It can be hard to do something like that but I gave it a good Defense & I used some of the rules for multiple limbs! The multiple limb fighting styles are boring for players, but useful for monsters, since it lets the creature keep its Defense. So yeah; I think everybody had fun, & I had fun running the session. It was the first part of a two-parter; if I can make "to be continued" a three-act that ends in one session I'll be proud. I can let things spiral out of hand, since I frankly like unfettered role-playing, but I can have my cake & eat it too if I just keep the action flowing.