This is a play test of a campaign written for The Black Hack by Simon Forster. The Black Hack is a set of OSR rules by David Black. I have used The Black Hack to run my own fantasy campaign, The Chronicles Of The Latter Days Of Yarth and my group is familiar with the rules.
Because this is a play test document I will be including my thoughts on the adventure design as well as a narrative of play, this will necessarily involve SPOILERS. Please bear this in mind if you hope to play this adventure yourself.
Session 7: The River of Sorrows
Passing beyond the city gate the party emerged on to a quayside with a selection of boats bobbing on the fast moving waters of a great river.
The banks of the river were shrouded in mist and the speed of the current looked dangerous but there didn't seem to be another option so our heroes selected a suitable sized boat and climbed aboard.
They un-moored from the quayside and, not trusting to their sailing skills, rowed out into towards the centre of the river.
It wasn't long before they were skimming downstream at a good rate of knots.
Happy to be away from the city the mood of the adventurers lightened considerably. Until someone noticed the river was full of corpses, all being carried by the current to an unknown destination.
Everyone realised the river, flowing fast in one direction and with shrouded banks, was a done deal and the characters were just along for the ride. The only character agency here is whether they want to sit at the front or the back of the boat.
If you're going to set up a sightseeing tour the ride better be worth it. Was it? We'll see.
After travelling for about half a day, it was difficult to track the passage of time, our heroes became aware of a lilting song reaching them from out of the mist. The enticing melody called to them, urging them to hurry to its source.
Small rocky islands emerged from the haze on which perched some of the most beautiful people our heroes had ever seen.
Remuz and Ragnar were straight over the side and swimming hard for the islands. Joshua, Eleanor and Phoebe followed immediately afterwards.
As the remainder of the party on the boat watched in horror the people from the islands took to the water themselves and swam to meet their visitors.
Zaboka silenced the singing with a spell but it seemed too late, the damage had been done.
The random encounter table is a bit weak for this level. These sirens and the water snake (see later) are the only interesting parts. There's an option for rapids but this could prove very fatal very quickly. I'm not a fan of the environment forcing rolls with such dire consequences on players when they have no option to mitigate it and, should the worse happen and the players lose their boat, the whole adventure is going to come to a grinding halt. I decided we'd have sirens and then the water snake and see how things went.
Remuz was the first to be greeted with a warm embrace and. despite his willingness, he felt there was something not quite right about it. Struggling to clear the fogging in his brain he finally realised he was being grabbed by too many limbs and, just for a second, the beautiful swimmers surrounding him changed into hideous crab people.
Trusting to instinct Remuz blasted his assailants with a magic bolt and, turning, swam for his life back towards the boat throwing a veil of darkness behind him to thwart his pursuers.
Zaboka helpfully informed Remuz that crabs have over a hundered smell receptors scattered over their bodies and he would probably be tracked by smell, which indeed he was.
Realising the nature of the danger Gus shot an arrow into one of the swimmers near Ragnar. The arrow was deflected with a harsh clang which gave Ragnar pause for thought. Frantically he tried to clear his head whilst still keeping afloat.
With a scream cut short by the engulfing water Phoebe was dragged down to her death.
Valiantly Gus dived in to try and save her but he was too late.
Remuz made it to the safety of the boat and started firing off a barrage magic missiles, slaying the crab things with each hit.
Ragnar struggled to one of the islands and with firm footing at last fought back as well.
Before long the crab-sirens were all dead or fled and the scattered party was reunited. They were shaken by their narrow escape and saddened by the loss of Phoebe.
This encounter was a proper challenge and was very tense. The water put the player characters at a major disadvantage both by limiting their actions and making them extremely vulnerable. It doesn't matter how many hit points you have, after a couple of minutes under water you drown and you're dead.
It's quite possible here for the initial WIS saving throw to determine whether a character lives or dies. Once a character has failed and is in the water it's really up to the ones left on the boat to save them.
Remuz has 18 INT (20 after rolling for improvements at the end of this adventure) so I gave him a saving throw with disadvantage each round to realise things weren't right. Everyone else only got a saving throw (with disadvantage) if something caused them to question what was happening.
Luckily for Ragnar Gus' deflected arrow probably saved his life.
Henchmen and hench wenches didn't get second chances and I rolled randomly to see who got grabbed. Phoebe got the short straw which was the best option for the party as she wasn't contributing much. Eleanor and Joshua were in equal peril and both of them add significant bonuses to the main characters.
The current and wind continued to carry the party downriver long into the early evening.
As it began to get dark the heroes spotted a dilapidated cottage on the river bank with a small jetty and boat beside it. They decided to dock and investigate.
Despite its rundown condition the hut was surprisingly warm and dry. Inside a kindly old woman called Heggity was tending a fish stew in a bubbling cauldron.
Lady Cassandra immediately availed herself of the small bed to take a nap but first she sampled the stew. Declaring it delicious she determined to stay here a while and couldn't be persuaded otherwise.
"She's a witch!" was the unanimous cry as soon as I described the setting which of course she is. To their credit my players didn't just slay her out of hand.
As more of the party ate the stew each became determined to stay here. Heggity was delighted with her new friends and did her best to make everyone welcome.
Remuz observed this with a mixture of suspicion and pity for his poor, weak companions. Realising what was going on he waited until those who wanted to eat had done so (at least bellies would be full) and then he dispelled the charming magic on the stew and returned everyone to their senses.
Heggity flew into a rage but she was weak and ineffectual against our heroes who soon subdued her.
Lady Cassandra, realising she'd picked up some unpleasant bugs from the bed, was no longer desperate to stay, quite the opposite in fact, and she stormed off in a huff to wait in the boat.
The party discussed the situation with Heggity and weighed up their options.
Heggity wanted friends and our heroes quite liked the idea of having fish stew on hand. They'd noticed the cauldron didn't seem to empty no matter how much stew was doled out.
They offered Heggity a place on their boat and she accepted. Hoisting the still bubbling cauldron effortlessly onto her back she joined Lady Cassandra in the stern sheets.
This is a strange encounter that isn't going to end well for Heggity in most cases. She looks like a witch, she sounds like a witch and she's got a witch's name. She tries to charm the party with her stew to make them stay with her (why?).
This is doomed to failure. The chances of the whole party succumbing to her plan is infinitesimally small. She's too weak to actually fight the party only dishing out D4 damage and if she pisses them off she's done for.
Even if her ludicrous plan does get the player characters to stay with her they get saving throws after a certain time and eventually they're going to leave, probably killing Heggity into the bargain.
In game terms this achieves nothing. A delay is meaningless for the party because time is meaningless for them. No game time is spent here except for the few moments it takes to roll a usage dice several times and then make some new saving throws. This is essentially wasted time for the players, not their characters.
The party waited until the morning and set off on their travels again with their new friend.
Around midday there was a disturbance in the river ahead of them as a surging bow wave travelling against the current bore down on them.
As the wave reached them a serpentine head reared out of it to tower above the boat.
The huge river serpent regarded the shocked adventurers for a moment and then disappeared again beneath the surface to continue its journey up river.
Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
Okay, well, I painted this miniature in 1992 and I've never used it in a game so I was determined to get it to the table this time since the opportunity was there.
But as an encounter it's a bit of a failure and in normal circumstances I'd have ignored it.
The real options here are either the river dragon destroys the party's boat in its first attack, the boat sinks, the player characters flounder about in the water and then the dragon kills them or it ignores the boat (for some reason, it is intelligent after all), hits a couple of characters for some damage, takes some damage in return and decides to retreat and live to fight another day.
The first (and let's be honest, the only) option ends the adventure.
The second is...unconvincing.
Even if the dragon just destroys the boat and wanders off the journey's over because there isn't another boat to be had. Obviously as a responsible games master you'd put one in where the party would find it (the players would know though).
If it doesn't destroy the boat? Well you've had to play an intelligent creature as an idiot just to prevent an entirely unfair party wipe out.
The player characters can't avoid the encounter when it happens, they can't run or hide because they're trapped on a boat on a river and they had no say about that in the first place, that was forced on them too.
You really can't double down on removing player agency and retain the trust of your players.
After meeting the ancient sea dragon and being amazed by its subtle colouring and sleek form the heroes were quite glad to have an uneventful day's sailing form then on. the monotony was relieved by liberal servings of fish stew.
As evening descended they continued to push forward into the darkness, eager to end their time on the river.
Towards midnight they spotted a beam of light in the fog and eventually came upon a lighthouse.
Deftly threading their way between the hazardous rocks they moored the boat by the lighthouse door.
When nobody answered their knocking or shouts Remuz went inside to investigate.
The ground floor was empty except for a vast supply of coal so, accompanied by Ragnar, Remuz climbed the stairs.
Upstairs the friends met the lighthouse keeper, a friendly old man who invited them to make themselves at home and shelter from the cold night.
Taking him up on his offer the henchmen and wenches were soon installed on the ground floor along with the bubbling cauldron and our heroes shared a meal and some wine with the lighthouse keeper in is room.
Just before settling down for the night Remuz and Ragnar explored the rest of the lighthouse in case there were going to be any nasty surprises in the night but found only copious stores.
The next morning everyone awoke rested and restored.
There was no sign of the lighthouse keeper but a small girl called Alice (and her cat, Mr Snuggles) was sitting in his chair. Alice greeted the heroes gleefully, said how nice it was to have company, explained her father was out collecting supplies and then ran downstairs to greet the henchmen and wenches.
Everything was fine until the party decided it was time to leave.
Alice was crestfallen, she begged then to stay and be her friends. Even Mr Snuggles seemed pleased by this prospect (but it was hard to tell for sure).
Lady Cassandra and Eleanor both seemed inclined to stay but the rest of the heroes were adamant that they were going. Alice began to cry.
It was about then that everyone realised Heggity was missing.
Alice hadn't seen her. Nobody had seen her since they woke up.
Remuz went searching for clues. He started with the coal pile because it was nearest.
"You shouldn't go in there," warned Alice "you'll get your clothes dirty and daddy will be cross."
"Don't worry about me" Remuz reassured her, poking about with his staff. To his consternation he found some bones. Bones draped in the remains of the lighthouse keeper's clothing but the bones and the clothing were ancient, they'd been under the coal for years.
"You shouldn't be messing about in there" said Alice, louder this time and sounding more upset.
Remuz dug deeper and found the fresh remains of Heggity and the old remains of a small girl in a blue dress clutching the skeleton of a cat.
Remuz immediately turned his suspicious gaze onto Alice and started hurling spells of detection around the room.
"I warned you! We could have all been friends but you had to ruin it!" screamed Alice, her voice deepening as her form twisted and grew into an eight foot tall apparition in a top hat with massive blades for fingers.
Ragnar and Gus sprang to attack and Remuz launched magic missiles from atop the coal pile.
The creature struck back, sinking his bladed fingers deep into Ragnar and Gus and draining their appearance into itself as it launched a disgusting gob of spittle that just missed Remuz but ate into the wall behind him.
Zaboka aided her friends with invigourating spells and prayers from the boat where she had been getting ready to depart.
Again the creature struck out, draining more of their essence from Ragnar and Gus. His second ball of phlegm caught Remuz square in the face and he too felt his very identity being torn from him and absorbed by the creature.
With a final surge of effort Gus and Ragnar chopped the thing to the ground and ended its disgusting existence once and for all. As it died its appearance changed again and again as the likenesses it had captured were released.
Our heroes felt their identities returned to them and even felt a little bolstered by extra energy that flowed into them fromt he creature's corpse.
This was more like it.
The players didn't have to visit the lighthouse, they did so fully expecting something dangerous and weren't disappointed.
I decided to kill a follower in the night. I randomly rolled Heggity which made sense as she was the only one who could have detected the monster in their midst. Heggity's short stay with the party came to an abrupt end and no one even noticed until I made them roll to spot her absence.
I beefed up the face stealer creature to a 12HD monster with three D10 attacks, one of them ranged and kept his D4 CHA drain for each of them. I gave him a nice, round 100HP.
The player characters rinsed him of course, it took them three rounds.
He managed to land a total of five attacks which did 6 points total damage, all of it soaked by armour, pathetic. His CHA drain was 1 and 2 points except for Remuz, who was down to 6 CHA because of his near death experience earlier in the campaign, who lost the full 4 points. I thought I might manage to get him out of action but it wasn't to be, the rest of the party were putting out about 40-50 points of damage a turn so the face stealer didn't last.
There was no reward to be had so I conferred a D4 CHA bonus on everyone. Remuz rolled a 1 of course, he's been very unlucky with his CHA.
Satisfied with a job well done our heroes gave Heggity's remains a proper burial and then proceeded on their way.
Before long they came across some moss encrusted standing stones poking out of the river surrounding a low island.
They wanted to carry on past without stopping but Remuz decided it was worth checking out to see if there was anything worth having.
There wasn't and our heroes sailed away.
The realisation that this whole endeavour was offering hazards without rewards had sunk in by now. It was only because I'd gone to the bother of setting out the scenery that Karl insisted they stopped to check it out. Everyone else just wanted to avoid anything that could be avoided.
I explained they didn't have to stop and I was happy to put everything away, I really didn't want to pressure them (especially since this is only a 'safe area'). Nevertheless we spent a few minutes fruitlessly exploring.
Towards the end of the day the boat passed between the legs of a gigantic statue straddling the river.
No scenery piece for this, sorry.
Spotting a door in the heel of the statue's foot our heroes decided that they would investigate after all despite their earlier resolution.
The door led to some steps that descended into an ante chamber with a row of purple robes hanging on one wall.
Looking through the doors leading from this room revealed a store room and a dormitory. Listening at the big door revealed low chanting and prayers coming from the room beyond.
Dressing in the robes our heroes quietly entered the room and found a group of similarly robed figures praying to a statue of an ancient king.
As the ceremony ended our heroes were discovered and questioned by Boris, the leader of this religious order.
Boris explained that he had brought his king's remains here after he was slain in battle and that he, and his followers, offered prayers daily for the soul of their lord in the afterlife.
Boris also explained that time was getting on, evening prayers were due to start soon and maybe the visitors should be on their way. he was very sorry but there wasn't any room for extra people to stay the night and he was sure there'd be an inn or something just a little way downstream.
Off you go, nice to have met you.
Deciding Boris was hiding something and not liking to be told what to do Zaboka froze him in place with a spell and Remuz magically locked the dormitory door where the other monks were changing.
With everyone safely out of the way our heroes made their way into the final room where they found the king's coffin.
Opening the sarcophagus they were greeted with the sight of the king's remains clutching his magical sword. Giving the sword to Ragnar in the hope it might allow him to hit something once in a while the party left the small temple, pushed past the still frozen Boris and resumed their journey.
A day or two later they reached the end of the River of Souls.
I was surprised by the players' actions here. Admittedly they didn't harm anyone and they left another sword (and a silver piece) in place of the one they took but looting people who hadn't tried to hurt them isn't usually their thing.
But, this whole river section had annoyed them and they decided it was payback time. I could tell from the amount of justification they came up with that they weren't 100% comfortable with their actions either.
I enjoyed running this session because it's always nice being able to play with friends and the table banter was good and everyone was quite upbeat.
I wasn't happy with the adventure although some parts were great fun, the lighthouse in particular and the final encounter because of the callous way the players silenced Boris, neutralised his followers and stole his prized and revered possession. that made me laugh a lot.
Overall though this is a missed opportunity. A river voyage like this should be a journey with a purpose, a Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now exploration of an idea that explores multiple nuances around a common theme. If the journey is interesting then players won't mind being railroaded aboard a boat.
There needs to be a destination and it needs to be foreshadowed. Everything can then be linked to the final encounter. Every smaller encounter along the journey can illuminate what's to come in some way add information, tools and options to make the final encounter meaningful and exciting.
The story can be built up in episodes that reinforce the central theme and allow the players to formulate a plan for the ending ahead of time.
Finally the river needs to end and the players must be given the choice to make their own way to the final encounter, or not, as suits them. If the journey's been interesting enough they'll head straight for the big showdown eager to see if their plan works and f it does then that's the final, successful payoff to a great adventure.
I missed out the last encounter of the level as it was designed to introduce a replacement PC or another follower, whichever was needed and we didn't need either.