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 10: The Devil's Spiral
Our heroes found themselves in a plain office. As they took a moment to look around JEREMY walked behind the desk and momentarily transformed into his devilish aspect before changing again into the shape of a red skinned gentleman with horns.
The Devil welcomed the party to his office and congratulated them on getting this far. Before he could allow them to continue, he informed them, he would require a few 'gifts'.
The Devil listed the ten gifts he wanted and indicated the door to his left.
Our heroes trooped off on their new assignment.
This is the list of gifts:
1. Blood of an innocent.
2. Breath of a butterfly.
4. A golden statue.
5. Seven fingers tied together with silver thread.
6. Bottle of wine (preferably red).
7. The most valuable possession of a stranger you meet.
8. Freshly baked bread.
9. Something magical.
10. The head of an enemy.
They're an eclectic mix which is nice but they're also pretty random as regards the setting.
It would have been nice if the gifts related to the preceding levels of the campaign. In fact, this list would be the ideal starting point to write the campaign from. The items could be incorporated into the adventures.
For instance, 'Blood of an innocent' could already be on the hands of a party member (metaphorically) because of something they were forced to do in an earlier episode. They could already have 'The most valuable possession of a stranger they'd met' and so on. A tweaked list with lots of interesting and enigmatic items would really tie the whole thing together and handing over the required items here would make for a triumphant and fitting ending to the whole campaign.
Beyond the door was a huge pit with a spiralling ramp winding around its edge and leading downwards into the beckoning darkness, Evenly spaced around the ramp were doors let into the side of the pit.
Our heroes went through the first door.
The doors are supposed to lead randomly to the list of locations. This didn't seem like a worthwhile undertaking to me since the players don't know it's a random pick and won't until they return to a location they've already been to which will be empty of content and therefore a waste of time. Their time, not their characters' time which is not a good idea.
I just used the list in the order it was printed and took out some areas that were going to be of no interest. I didn't bother prepping the arena because none of my players would find it fun in any way and they weren't going to get anything they needed there. I ignored the chasm, the infinite caves and the old-fashioned dungeon although I did plan to let them find the magical armband in the rat warrens instead.
Similarly I didn't use the random event table.
The random event table, the dungeon and the caves reduce the characters' resources for no gain. This is pointless and unkind.
The resource management stuff from D&D is there because of the game's conceit that the characters are geared up to enter a dungeon. They want to stay in the dungeon as long as possible to get the maximum value from their supplies and then retreat out to resupply when they have to.
This makes resource management an integral and mostly interesting part of the game and it greatly influences player strategy.
In a setting like Oubliette where the characters don't have the luxury of either gearing up at the beginning or resupplying during the game these attrition points are just a grind that the players have no way of alleviating that cause bad feelings because of their inherent unfairness. This was evident at the beginning of the campaign which is when I stopped using them.
Beyond the first door was a forest with a monkey shrine containing a golden statue of a monkey. Several groups of apes and monkeys were cavorting about the area.
Zaboka cast speak with animals and quizzed the locals about the situation. She tried bargaining for the statue but was met with blank stares and some obtuse references to the 'Monkey God'.
Remuz decided to take the statue and see what would happen.
As he approached the shrine other, larger, fiercer, apes emerged from the trees and started shuffling towards the party.
Undeterred Remuz snatched the statue and began o back away towards his friends.
Out of the tree canopy leapt a ferocious, giant green ape creature. Roaring and snarling it landed next to Remuz and tried to grab the statue. Remuz fireballed the monster (and several apes behind it).
Ragnar ran forward and slew the beast with a flurry of blows and then all hell broke loose.
Let's talk about combat.
My group has been discussing combat in The Black Hack and other games extensively over the last few weeks and Giro, who plays Gus the thief here, came up with the general rule of thumb that the threat to the party should at least equal the party itself in hit dice. So, for the current party here, any opponents should total 36HD. I still think this is too low and like to pile in a few more elements to add to the players' problems. Environmental threats or hazards are good for this, timers are also really good but they have to be timers the players are aware of not secret ones or there's no tension and they become pointless.
For this encounter I used the following:
The Monkey God had 12HD so everyone had a 3 point penalty to hit him and he was capable of dealing 6D10 damage per round (3x 2D10).
The Great Apes (7 of these) 6HD 40HP two attacks for 2D10 each.
The Big Apes (6 of these) 4HD 30HP a single attack for 2D10 each.
The Chimps (3 of these) 3HD 20HP these were swarms that hit everyone in their reach automatically for 5 damage regardless of armour.
That's a total of 93HD, over two and a half times the party's total of 36.
So what happened?
The apes swarmed the party, everyone was fending off hordes of clawing, biting and hitting brutes.
The apes leapt overt the heroes who were trying to block them and laid into the group of followers at the back. Murgatrude went down immediately and Lady Cassandra soon followed.
The groups of chimpanzees swarmed over everybody inflicting small but telling amounts of damage until Remuz, recognising their threat, put them to sleep. Eleanor joined them, snoring so loudly she could be heard above the surrounding hubbub.
Ragnar hacked through the apes surrounding him and moved to protect Lady Cassandra. Gus joined Joshua who was putting up a spirited resistance and together they began to make headway against the sea of snarling fur that confronted them.
Zaboka entreated her god to aid her friends and called down blessings that aided our heroes greatly even as her armour deflected the blows raining down on her.
Finally Remuz cast a confusing glamour that made some of the apes hesitate and some run away. Seizing this opportunity Ragnar and Gus finished off the ones that stayed and the surviving party members sighed in relief. The fight was over.
Zaboka got busy with tending to the wounded. Sadly, Murgatrude had succumbed to her wounds and they left her buried in the forest.
Seemingly massively out-gunned the characters still emerged triumphant.
How do they do this? Well the simple answer is probabilities.
Firstly, even rolling for initiative with disadvantage when the Monkey God suddenly attacked them only Zaboka failed because at level 9 everyone has a high DEX, a couple of characters have very high DEX. So the party goes first.
Remuz is casting high level spells effectively, his chance to fail is zero in most cases. Where he needs to overcome a powerful opponent to directly affect them he still has a very good chance of succeeding. His spells affect multiple targets at this level and have devastating results.
Ragnar is a killing machine. He hits, he damages and he gets to do it nine times a round. He doesn't get hit in return because his high stats protect him and his armour soaks what little damage gets through. To be fair, he took a beating in this fight because so much damage was coming his way but that was only because he hadn't killed everything during his go which is the usual state of affairs.
Gus is not a combat machine but he is almost un-hittable because of his high stats so he can tank for the more squishy members of the party very effectively.
Zaboka can out heal most damage and the party has made sure she's kitted out with the best armour. Her armour saved her life in this fight, absorbing a ton of damage while she cast supportive spells and heals rather than going on the offensive.
Once Zaboka cast her buffs and the party was attacking and defending with advantage the fight was over for the apes.
The Monkey God took 222 damage which killed him in the first round before he got to attack anyone at all. That 222 came from one fireball, one magic arrow strike and a shit ton of hits from Ragnar.
On the other hand, this fight lasted four rounds, three more than usual and the players had to manoeuvre and work hard to protect the NPCs. This fight was actually fun rather than a tedious speed bump on the way to the final goal.
Lesson learned? Pile it on and make them sweat!
Looking at their shopping list our heroes ticked off the golden statue, the head of an enemy (as they took the Monkey God's head) and the seven fingers which they took from the chimpanzees who'd died. They also collected some ape blood since the apes were innocents.
Bolstered by their success they went back to the spiral and tried the second door.
The second door led to a cave full of crying babies in cots being tended to by nurses. Remuz cast another sleep spell which quietened the infants and after a quick chat with the nurses the party decided there was nothing for them here and they left.
This was an opportunity to get some innocents' blood with the medical equipment lying around but the party already had some so this was an unnecessary encounter.
I still included it in case they came up with anything clever but I could have skipped it.
The third door led to a huge ballroom full of people dancing.
Ragnar and Lady Cassandra took to the floor and joined in. Remuz instructed a waiter to fetch him a bottle of red wine (one more item ticked off the list) and Gus looked around for some silver thread since everyone was dressed so grandly.
The dances continued without a break and Ragnar soon found himself with a different partner. He was amazed to hear her whirring and ticking. Earlier he had remarked to Lady Cassandra how everyone was keeping perfect time and intervals with almost inhuman precision but she had pooh-poohed his remarks and complained he was a bad dancer.
At the far end of the hall Gus found what he was looking for. He deftly severed a silver thread from the lace on a huge coat cuff and held onto the end, watching it unravelling as the owner pirouetted away.
To his amazement the man's entire costume unravelled and fell away revealing a clockwork automaton underneath. The automaton and its partner continued to dance on oblivious to his change of circumstances.
Seeing the true nature of the dancers Ragnar snatched up the newly revealed machine and headed for the exit. Everyone followed and together they returned to the Devil's study to hand in what they'd found so far and check they were on the right track.
They ticked off 'Time', 'Fingers in silver thread' and 'Red wine' and handed over some magical items they'd found earlier for good measure.
All that was left was 'Breath of a butterfly', 'Freshly baked bread' and 'The most valuable possession of a stranger you meet'.
The party headed back to the spiral.
The ballroom was a nice interlude although everybody around the table immediately mentioned the 'Girl in the Fireplace' (Doctor Who episode) and were all expecting clockwork people from the start.
The next door led into a wizard's house. It seemed quiet and our heroes gingerly explored. They found a bedroom with a magically sealed strongbox which Remuz opened and, after being electrocuted, stole a magic wand from.
There was a well-stocked kitchen and Joshua was set to baking some bread (Lady Cassandra didn't know how to bake and Eleanor wasn't leaving Remuz's side).
There was a store room and a study/laboratory. In the laboratory our heroes found a vile of butterfly's breath and Remuz grabbed some scrolls containing some decent high-level spells.
Now they just needed to find the wizard and see if he wanted to part with his most valued possession.
They found the wizard busy summoning a demon in the last room.
Surprised by the interruption the wizard tried to fend the party off whilst still continuing his summoning.
Remuz was too quick and the wizard was feebleminded before he could utter his incantation.
From here on in things got very bad for the wizard.
The demon appeared and ate him whole before disappearing back to its own part of the infernal realm.
Our heroes scoured the room but didn't find anything else that was either valuable or useful.
They returned to the spiral and tried another door.
I could have had the demon attack the party but we all know what would have happened. Eating the wizard and leaving without even acknowledging the player characters was funnier.
They were getting near to finishing their list now and were picking up the pace and wouldn't have appreciated the delay that killing the demon would have caused.
Our heroes next found themselves in a trench line where a lone, haggard and exhausted soldier looked wearily out into no-mans land.
He explained he was waiting for the orcs to attack when he would die defending his position as duty required.
He handed Ragnar a locket containing a painting of his dead wife. "This," he said, "is my most treasured possession, please return it to my children who wait for me at home. I will not live to see them".
Mark (Ragnar) actually called me a bastard at this point, ha ha.
Remuz was having none of this 'duty' bollocks. He froze the soldier with a hold person and the party carried him away with them back through the door.
If they'd stayed for the orc attack it was going to be a biggie similar to the apes earlier but they had what they needed and didn't want to hang around needlessly.
I had a similar combat with the rats in the warrens planned if they got that far but they were done with the list so the adventure was essentially over by now.
The party returned to the study, handed over the last items to JEREMY who congratulated them again on their resourcefulness before wishing them Bon Voyage. Our heroes left the study for the final time eager to face whatever awaited them next.
This was a good session. I prepped for quite a few encounters that didn't happen because it's impossible to predict what the ideas the players are going to come up with to fulfil the list.
The whole level took us two and a half hours and moved along at a cracking place because of the early goal setting. Even though the players may not have known exactly what they were looking for they knew them when they saw them and didn't waste time.
Felix was exhausted by the break-neck pace of tonight's adventure.