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 8: Hell's Jungle
The river ended in a swamp bordering a jungle. The last two days of travel had been in darkness lit by a pale moon and the jungle was alive with the night time sounds of mysterious creatures. Mysterious creatures and gunfire, lots of gunfire and explosions off in the distance.
As the party finally had to leave their boat and waded onto dry(ish) land, Lady Cassandra insisted on being carried, they were assailed by the sounds and smells of a tropical jungle at war.
This level called for red and green demons to be fighting each other. I have red demons but no green ones. I was going to substitute some other faction of monsters, I have plenty of those, but had the bright idea of turning the green demons into soldiers, specifically US soldiers in Vietnam since we were in a jungle.
I'd sold off my Vietnam collection some years ago so I had to settle for some Desert Storm soldiers, but the analogy held true.
My idea, to add some interest and try to engage the players, was to have the soldiers seem nice, they were human after all, and the demons seem bad, they were demons, right? The twist would be that the red demons were actually peaceful and just wanted to be left alone and the soldiers were hate-filled monsters who would turn on the party as soon as the party had tipped the balance of power in their favour by helping to wipe out the reds.
For this to work I had to switch the places of the red and green demons in the module so apologies if you're following along with the printed text and get a bit confused.
Making their slow way through the almost-impenetrable jungle the adventurers heard the sound of bleating coming from somewhere ahead.
Making their way towards it they came to a small clearing with a goat tied to a tree on the far side.
Immediately suspicious of the ground in front of them the heroes stopped and Zaboka asked the goat what was happening.
The goat, whose name was JEREMY, told her he was tied to a tree next to a concealed pit and he didn't like it one bit.
No surprises here so far.
As Zaboka freed JEREMY some soldiers seemed to emerge from the ground around her. Threatening her with their weapons they fired questions at her and her companions.
It was a tense moment but the soldiers decided our heroes were human, and therefore safe, and relaxed a little. They quickly explained the situation about fighting the 'Reds' and offered the party food and shelter at their base camp in a nearby village.
All a sham by the greens, they knew what the player characters were and saw an opportunity. Calling the enemy 'Reds' played nicely into the Vietnam motif and references to 'The World' and 'Freedom' helped cement the setting in the players' minds who were fully on board with the whole Vietnam thing.
So far, so good.
Our heroes followed the soldiers back towards their village. On the way they came across a wounded soldier being tended to by one of his friends, the soldier had a huge spear transfixing him and his friend said he was going to die.
Zaboka healed him and the soldiers were amazed.
They weren't, it's all an act, hehe...
Reaching the village, or 'ville' as the soldiers called it, our heroes were introduced to the leader of the soldiers, Eltee, who explained they were planning an attack on a Red stronghold in a place called 'The Needles' that very night. Eltee asked our heroes to accompany him and his men so they could wipe out the Reds, finish their tour (whatever that was) and return to their world, or 'The World' as he called it. It all seemed very reasonable but still some of the party had doubts.
Despite providing the players with some semi-likeable people to ally with they still weren't buying it. They still asked awkward (but inevitable) questions about why they should risk their lives in a war they knew and cared nothing about.
I imagine the original situation presented in the scenario of two evil looking warring demon armies would be even more of a hard sell, in fact I know it would which is why I changed it in the first place.
Gus wasn't interested in talking to the soldiers, instead he turned his attention to the ruined village. He spotted a box in the shallow pond and Remuz waded in and collected it.
Inside they found a magic wand that shot out butterflies.
Butterflies, really? The PCs are level 7 by this point, a butterfly wand that distract people is useless to them. They stuck it in a backpack reluctantly. They'll forget about it and never use it.
The heroes agreed to accompany the soldiers to the Needles to see for themselves what the situation was.
They found an area of jutting rock spires poking through the jungle. As they watched, red demonic forms became discernible moving amongst the spires.
The soldiers silently fanned out to surround the area.
Seeing a female demon Zaboka went forward with JEREMY to talk to her. The Eltee was concerned for her safety as, having to working radios (what?), the attack was going to start at a prearranged time and he couldn't stop it.
Cunning huh? We're going to get our fight no matter what!
The demon woman seemed pleased to see JEREMY and addressed him directly, ignoring Zaboka completely. It was only after JEREMY introduced her that the demoness (demonette?) acknowledged Zaboka's presence.
The demoness explained that her people lived here and tried to remain hidden as there was a group of green men who kept shooting and killing them. They fought back when they could but really would rather just be left in peace.
At this point the soldiers opened fire from several directions into the Needles and red demons started to fall. Several bullets passed close to Zaboka.
Incensed by this flagrant disregard for his friend Remuz fireballed the nearest group of soldiers.
Zaboka tried to hold person the fighters near her to calm things down but failed. She did manage to confuse Eltee though.
Remuz was concerned to note that the soldiers he had incinerated continued to fight on even though they were on fire.
Gus moved in from the shadows to finish them off and Ragnar launched an attack on Eltee since 'shit was going down'.
The players joined the fight against their will. Their penchant for talking to people before acting really makes a set up like this hard to run as intended and, as I'd expected, this one went pear shaped straight away. Pretty good tie-in to my Vietnam theme though, immediate FUBAR.
Demons and soldiers threw themselves on each other in a frenzy of blood-letting and our heroes did their best to defend themselves amidst the carnage.
To their consternation they saw that every red demon that was killed turned into a dead human, some of them children, all of them harmless looking.
Each soldier that died shed its human skin and burst out into a huge, mutated, cyborg creature with rending talons that needed to be killed all over again.
At one point JEREMY raised some eyebrows by transforming into a goat-headed giant and ripping some cyborgs apart.
I have plans for JEREMY.
The battle was short and the soldiers were wiped out. Only the leader of the red demons survived from their side.
He thanked our heroes for their help and said he'd find others of his kind that he knew were scattered throughout the jungle and bring them back to the Needles to try and rebuild.
War is hell.
When asked if he knew where our heroes should go next he mentioned a temple off in the jungle as a possible place of interest.
The party set off immediately.
This brings up the main problem here. There are several locations scattered around the jungle but no indication for the players that they even exist. Getting to them is difficult as hacking your way through trackless jungle is slow going.
In fact, as written, it's 1mph with CON tests every day and wandering monster encounters every 15 minutes of play time. None of this is in any way fun or interesting and wandering randomly will get the party nowhere except dead.
A word on combat in The Black Hack.
Fighting monsters in D&D gets you XP, it's the bread and butter of the game so players like to fight monsters. Fighting monsters in TBH gets you nothing except depleted Usage Dice and players should try to avoid it unless there's a very good reason not to.
Loot is often a good enough reason to fight but even D&D players know a wandering monster has no loot and is just a waste of resources.
Designing a TBH scenario that is just a chain of combats isn't worth the effort. It isn't providing game play or satisfaction for the players. A TBH scenario requires a story that engages the players and a reason for them to get involved or a reward that's worth having. Combat encounters are then a legitimate barrier to the player characters' success or progress and there's a reason to engage and overcome them.
Up to this point I led the party where they needed to go, they may as well still have been on the river, but now they've been given a clue to one of the four locations on the map.
I chose the temple because I reasoned it was the biggest thing (it's a ziggurat in the scenario but I don't have one and I do have a jungle temple). I suppose I could have rolled randomly but it was hopefully going to be a moot point very soon.
As they made their slow and laborious way through the jungle the party heard agitated buzzing from ahead of them.
Are 'slow and laborious' words that should appear in a role playing game? I'd prefer not to see them.
Finding a clearing our heroes saw a giant insect 'thing' desperately trying to escape from the clutches of an animated tree's branches. The tree was watching the insect struggle with far too many eyes for a tree and salivating unpleasantly from its singularly un-treelike gaping mouth.
Zaboka asked the insect what the problem was and it informed her, rather politely given its circumstances, that it was attempting to avoid becoming the tree's lunch.
Remuz destroyed the clinging branches with a salvo of magic missiles and the fly retreated to a safe distance whilst the tree malevolently eyed the party.
This was supposed to be a yellow demon in a bottle wedged in a tree branch. My idea was much more exciting and serves another purpose.
The insect introduced itself as Rhubarb (yes, really) and said it was in the heroes' debt. Could it help them in any way? It couldn't help noticing they had trouble moving through the jungle, would they like a lift somewhere?
Our heroes agreed at once and Rhubarb (it's in the scenario) summoned some friends.
The friends were named 'Custard' and 'Marty'. Marty McFly, geddit? I named Custard, Giro came up with Marty. Team effort!
Carrying two adventurers each the insect things flew high above the jungle canopy.
Now we can see where we're going and actually get there as well. Mission accomplished.
Our heroes could see the temple, a clearing with the smoke from a camp fire nearer at hand, some ruins in the distance and, farthest away of all, a large face carved in the side of a mountain.
They decided to head for the smoke.
They found a safari packing up, preparing for the next leg of their travels. They met Doctor Henry Jackson, his granddaughter Maggie, her beau, Oklahoma Smith and their guides Derwent Crampgator a big game hunter who was along to provide fresh meat and Edward Buckfast their guide (who was lost).
There were several porters who weren't introduced.
Dr Jackson said he was planning to explore the temple and the party explained they were heading there themselves and would meet the safari there later in the day.
The temple was overgrown and eerie. The open doorway beckoned like a mouth and a sense of evil permeated the area.
Our heroes entered the structure and found a large room with a snake motif containing an altar with some unpleasant looking dark stains on it.
Sensing this was a dangerous place they decided to wait for the safari to join them before exploring further.
The safari arrived much later in the day, day being a figure of speech since everything was illuminated by continual Moonlight.
And as the porters set up the camp the explorers joined our heroes in the altar room.
The explorers 'oohed' and 'aahed' over the unpleasant carvings covering the walls and took rubbings and pictures as they measured everything and made notes.
Eventually they turned their attention to the large door and Gus suggested he should check if it was safe. Finding it was, he allowed the explorers to lead the way and Oklahoma Smith stepped boldly to the fore.
This was a happy moment for me. I'd resolved the safari had to die to prevent the players adding them to their retinue.
The players didn't have any interest in the safari as such, weren't connecting with the characters of the leaders (although they did check the porters weren't slaves) but, even so, they wouldn't have left them here once they found the way out.
As he made his way down the corridor the other side of the imposing snake doors Oklahoma's lightning reflexes allowed him to jump out of the way of a boulder that crashed down from the roof just in time.
Unfortunately he jumped the wrong way and fell into a spiked pit that killed him instantly.
Managing their grief well the rest of the safari managed to push the boulder into the pit on top of the unlucky Smith to clear the passage. They continued on with Crampgator and Buckfast in the lead.
As these two doughty gentlemen reached a turn in the passage they were crushed to death by a second boulder.
Gus asked if he should lead as he had experience of this sort of thing.
Gus located and disarmed several more traps and removed the contact poison on the door at the end of the passage.
He found himseld in a room with a sarcophagus.
As Doctor Jackson and Maggie examined the sarcophagus Gus melted into the shadows in the corner of the room to observe what might happen. Everyone else stayed in the corridor outside.
There was a four-armed skeleton in the coffin lying on some money and wearing a ring. The Doctor and his daughter rummaged about in the treasure and removed the ring.
Immediately four flaming, snake-like shapes appeared in the corner of the room and advanced on the two explorers intoning ' You shall never leave' in sibilant voices.
Gus only just managed to get out of there way.
Maggie dropped the ring in fright and Gus scooped it up before heading for the door. The rest of the party ran to get away from the fiery things, they didn't want to face them in the confines of the passage.
Maggie and her father also ran but they weren't quick enough, the flames caught up with them in the corridor and their screams as they burned to death rang in the fleeing party members' ears.
They didn't stop to help mind you.
As our heroes (?) ran from the temple the flames gave up their pursuit.
There was a moment of awkwardness as the heroes (?) explained to the bearers that they'd have to make their own way home but it turned out alright. The bearers weren't phased and began to pack up the camp. Lady Cassandra was forced to hurry the meal she was enjoying that the bearers had prepared for her as her table and camp stool were whisked away.
Waving goodbye to the column as it retraced its steps our heroes took to the air again.
They decided to ignore the ruins because it didn't look like there was anything there worth bothering with and head to the face in the mountain as it was probably the way out.
Correct on both counts.
I had an encounter with some giant maggots and their even bigger brood mother planned for the ruins with a possible link with Rhubarb and his friends but there was no treasure and the players were wise to avoid it.
There's supposed to be a giant panther there but it doesn't have any relevance to anything else in the adventure so I changed it. My giant maggots were a nod to the giant creatures listed in the random encounter table which I'd avoided using too since there was enough going on.
The giant face had an open mouth that led to a large room split with a chasm. The heroes bade farewell to Rhubarb, Custard and Marty who flew home and ventured inside.
The far section of the room across the chasm was dominated by a huge fiery being stationed in front of a stone slab.
'You shall never leave.' It said menacingly in its sibilant voice.
I'd changed the crypt guardians in the temple a bit to foreshadow this, clever or what?
Our heroes weren't impressed.
Ragnar threw a stone into the chasm and a wall of fire burst forth. He threw a second across into the other half of the room with the same results.
Hmm, this might be tricky.
Remuz opened the stone slab with a spell to ensure it was the way out and then Zaboka led the leap across the chasm.
Flames erupted again and everyone landed on the far side smouldering and hurt but no one was dead.
Remuz and Ragnar, surprised by the speed of the fiery guardian engaged it with spells and Ragnar's new magic sword.
Gus lead everyone else around it to the doorway.
The bright light pulsating from the guardian caused some problems. Zaboke was temporarily blinded which slowed her healing attempts but she kept going to the best of her ability.
Ragnar and Remuz destroyed the guardian fairly swiftly and the party fled the room heading for their next adventure.
Yes I made it tougher, and it won initiative. The players took it down in a single round nevertheless.
Onward to level eight...
This was another difficult level. As written, my players wouldn't have engaged with it at all. We discussed it afterwards and tried to find some hook that would have made it more to our liking but the setting was a dud for us.
I think my changes helped the players engage with the game at first but, by the time they reached the temple, they were losing interest and were quite happy to watch the safari members die.
They didn't care about anyone in the level, none of the NPCs appealed to them (except JEREMY) and they were eager to find the way out.
Despite this I had an enjoyable evening, there were funny moments and the odd bit of excitement.
I'm looking forward to seeing what comes next.