Sunday, September 9, 2012

The House of Dust and Ash, pt. 5: The Big Finale

The night before the auction passed without any real drama. There was some skulking and sneaking on the part of rival factions, but nothing substantial.

The next day, however, was the big auction, and all of the PCs and NPCs gathered in the Auditoreum of the Garden of Lost Saints.

A spacious circular chamber that occupies much of the domed upper portion of the main structure… It takes the form of a huge, open gallery several hundred metres across, filled with arbours of stone flowers, spiralling ornamental walkways, statuary, and sculpture. The roof of the dome is painted in a great star map of the Calixis Sector. Astute observers will note it is at least a thousand years out of date. … At the very centre of the Garden of Lost Saints is a circular, tiered auditorium of spectacularly white marble set with graven carvings of mathematical symbols and strange scripts. … with the auctioneer on the raised dais at the centre, while the bidders and their parties fill out the stone biers that surround the space.
Such a setting is ideal, we found out later for the creation of a "target rich environment."

As I mentioned in my last post, once the auction started, I had to spend a lot of time playing out the bidding on the long list of items I'd constructed. It was mentally and physically exhausting. I kid you not. By the end of the roughly three or four hours it took to do the whole auction, I had been pushed to my skill limits as a GM. The vast array of NPCs and their competing factions, the auction, the management of the overarching tone and pacing of the events as they unfolded, created what had been up to that point the most challenging adventure I'd ever run, hands down. It had the effect, though, of proving to me that I could do something that grand, and, most importantly, get it more or less right. It would also, as we'll see later, set up a situation wherein I found myself going more and more in the direction of sandbox play, and the creation of settings peopled with NPCs who are "real," and who act and react as if they care about the outcome. It does, of course, require a lot of preparation, especially at the very beginning, but over time, there is a constancy to the game universe, the development of recurring NPCs and factions, and the establishment of major and minor narratives of interest to particular players and their PCs. More or less, the get caught up in it.

The auction finally gets to the point where the "big item" came up. This object was called the Gilded Widow, and the text reads as follows:

A life-size automaton formed from gold and encrusted with agates and rubies, dressed in an archaic gown of crimson and purple silks. The automaton has an open aperture in its chest, revealing an intricate clockwork mechanism of staggering complexity. The figure is seated on a high-backed throne with an inbuilt table set before the figure, all carved with geometric and occult symbols. The gilded figure’s head rests on its chest, and in its right hand it holds a ruby chalice, whilst in its left hand is an ivory set of the Emperor’s Tarot in a silvered slip-case. The label reads “The Most Sacred and Wondrous Oracular Device, Known to Men as the Gilded Widow.”
More or less, the device is demonstrated prior to the start of bidding for it. When it happens, well... let's just say that it involved copious amounts of fecal matter and an array of powerful rotary impellers. Here's how it happened:

Carried reverentially on a litter by six Mourners, the Gilded Widow on her throne is brought to the dais beside Bland. Greel removes a heart-shaped ruby crystal that pulses slowly with a crimson inner light from within his robes and fits the “heart” into the Widow’s chest. The transformation is sudden and remarkable, and the gilded figure shudders to life. Elegant metal fingers cut and spin the cards from the tarot deck, as Greel and the Mourners back away from the dais, bowing as shocked gasps and murmurs escape the crowd. The Gilded figure lifts her face and eyes of uttermost cold darkness to study the crowded auditorium. “ASK AND BE ANSWERED,” the gilded Widow states in an empty, mocking voice.

How the GM handles the next section depends very much on how the Acolytes react. Unless they have managed to sneak something past the guards, the Acolytes are unarmed. If the Acolytes do not intervene, the widow answers questions put to her in the shape of either riddles or blunt shocking assertions after turning and reading her cards. Some suggested examples follow. Very soon, however, someone will shout the fateful question, “Is Haarlock dead?” At that, all hell will break loose.

Q: Is Haarlock Truly Dead?A: “The traveller and the scion both do live, one without and the other within. Blood of his blood, born of his line, flesh so frail caught in this web, death shall be their inheritance. Haarlock returns and hell follows with him!”
At this last pronouncement, the Mourners fall to their knees wailing and screaming as the whole structure starts to shake and a roar echoes up from the bowels of the earth. The lights flicker and distant explosions can be heard, servo-skulls drop from the air, and servitors collapse lifeless. After a few moments, the complex stops shaking and the roar steadies down to a continuous low rumble. Read aloud or paraphrase the following as the Gilded Widow speaks:

“Know this, the traveller has set our course and the ship cannot be turned. Thirteen hours you have, thirteen hours until his wrath drowns you all in fire and ash, sealed here in the tomb that has been prepared. Fitting punishment for you who would take from him what is his. Never do you learn the lessons of the past, doomed to repeat history’s sins. But first you will suffer, first you will be shriven! “You have but one chance and one chance alone to placate the traveller. One gift will assuage his just fury: Give me the blood of the scion of Haarlock, let it flow to fill this chalice and you shall live, but if my cup remains empty the Children of the Kingdom will gnaw your flesh and darkness will bury your bones.” There will be a few moments of shocked silence, followed by Master Nonesuch smiling and slowly applauding, whilst some of the more quick-witted attendees begin to flee, and a lot of people pick themselves up off the floor, dazed and confused by the shocking turn of events. Provost Bland staggers dazed to his feet and cries out, asking what it all means, at which point Greel rears up behind him screaming:

“Fools! You are trapped here, buried alive! Death to the defilers of the tombs! Death to those who profane his name by stealing from our master!” At which point a power blade springs from his staff to form a scythe and he cuts Provost Bland in two in a welter of gore. At his command, his brethren, those still not on the ground wailing, “We are the dead!”, draw silver blades from beneath their robes and fall upon the bystanders and guards, attacking indiscriminately. The chaos spreads as all over the complex the Mourners attack the adepts and guards in a series of bloody ambushes and running battles.

The adventure’s last bloody 13 hours have begun.

So, pretty sweet setup, right? The acolytes have 13 hours to either (a) find the "scion of Haarlock" and fill the chalice with his or her blood, or (b) find some other means of escape.

Now, here's where I made a change. One of my players was playing an Imperial Guardsman named "Red." He was unhappy with the character, who apparently didn't allow him to live up to his full potential for… lets just call it exhibitionary and narcissistic roleplay. So, he would have to be the scion. And he would have to die. For that reason, I changed the "blood" part of  the Gilded Widow's proclamation to "heart," ensuring real and permanent death for Red. This of course would lead to things I've implied many many times now, but more or less mean, roleplaying I don't think is good. Maybe I'm a dick for it, but the rest of my players were similarly off-put by it. I'll talk in depth about that topic in a later post.

So anyway, the shit hit the fan. All around the auditorium, the Mourners went crazy trying to kill the auction-goers (maybe this would be a good premise for an auction-based reality TV show?). Aside from Greel, none of them carry any weapons but a daggers, making them easy opponents. Greel, though, has this big-ass scythe. The thing does an incredible amount of damage. The fight was pretty chaotic, but here are some highlights.

Ianescu the Tech Priest aced Octavia Nile, the Logician agent, with his long las, an aimed shot, and Emperor's Fury on the subsequent damage roll. The bitch went down hard with one shot. Most impressive.

Master Nonesuch revealed himself as a freaky alien in a skin-suit, scaring the pants off of Hand. Hand of the Inquisition, the feral assassin, figured out why it's good to have a decent Willpower characteristic: Fear rolls. He was Captain Fraidypants for pretty much the whole session, but especially at a later battle, as we shall see.

Ferrus attempted to hide, but eventually figured out that his hand cannon was used for more than weighing down its holster.

Red acquitted himself pretty well. I don't really remember what all he did.

Drake the Guardsman did some more or less not memorable things as well.

After a while, the acolytes found themselves in a running battle, be also trying to get to the library of the place to find out who the scion might be. They also killed Greel and stole his black iron sun symbol, which actually is the key to the Haarlock Crypt's secret exit.

During this running battle, they also encounter another Inquisitrix, Alexis Molotov, who is trying to relieve them of some items they purchased at auction. They are trying to negotiate with her when Hand of the Inquisition, in his wacky, furious way, just decided to cut a bitch. He attacked, she used her psyker powers to generate a Fearful Aura, and he got the heebie-jeebies and booked off toward the horizon. This would become a recurring theme in our campaign. When things get scary, hand runs the hell away. Some big bad warrior he was.

Alexis Molotov was gravely wounded, and used her Distort Vision power to make good her escape from the acolytes. It was unclear if she eventually won free of the deathtrap, but I think they may encounter her again. Mwahahahah!

The next few hours would see the following occur:

The PCs got into a variety of fights, stole credit blocks and weapons, got their own gear ready to go, and researched in the library who the scion might be. 

The Children of the Kingdom:

They are a monstrous and savage xeno-form Haarlock encountered slithering through a world of ruined cities out in the Halo Stars. Awakened from their sleep, these blind, groping, semi-humanoid creatures spill out from the crypt and keep doing so in numbers left up to the GM.

Since the number 13 has been a theme in this adventure, and would continue to be in many of the Haarlock Legacy publised adventures, I let loose 13 of them. They (of course) scared the hell out the mighty Hand, but all in all they didn't do as much damage as they might have. This was a target rich environment, and the PCs didn't really engage them directly, letting others kill (and die) in their place.

Eventually, though, they would figure out that Red was the Scion of Haarlock. They handled it (without my prompting) about as well as could hope for. Ferrus the insane adept told the others without him knowing. A plan was devised to drug Red and then cut out his heart, so that it could be placed in the chalice of the Gilded Widow. The rolls went right for the PCs, and they pulled it off without any problems. 

From the text of the adventure: 

There are two ways out of the trap. The first is by giving the Gilded Widow the blood she requires. If she gets this, she raises the chalice to her lips and drinks, provoking a shocking transformation. The metal casing shatters, releasing the triumphant woman within who will be raised up in a blazing fury of crimson light. As good as her word, she she unlocks the main doors, lowers the void shield, and re-channels the firestorm to expend its power through the house vents, spreading fires that eventually gut the complex, but leaving those within just enough time to escape before she departs in a blaze of light. If the players are foolish enough to try to stop her, treat her as an unbound Daemonhost. The second option is using the door within Haarlock’s crypt, accessed by the amulet worn by his chief servant, Greel. Within the crypt is the master control for the main doors to the entrance hall, which if triggered, opens a path through the void shield and opens the main doors for exactly five minutes before the system seals the shield once more. All that is required is for the Acolytes to make good their escape across the hall past anything that might try to stop them. They may then wish to flee the island as soon as possible by the waiting skyship—before it too is turned into a flaming ruin.
As I said, "the blood" was actually replaced by "the heart," and the Gilded Widow ate that sonofabitch, straight up. It was way creepier than just drinking the blood, I thought. They never got around to the second exit strategy. Once the Gilded Widow got her "heart's delight," the PCs fled from the complex and down the mountainside to the ship whose captain they'd bribed earlier. As good as his word, he'd saved a place for them, and they flew away from the island as it went up in smoke and flames.

In the end, I let each character keep one item bought at the auction. Some of them were just way too powerful for them to keep, and they were pretty honest with their Inquisitrix, so there was no real reason to expect that they could keep them anyway. They also got a buttload of experience, and a cash bonus for their hard work. This would set them up admirably for the next adventures.

I'm going to skip the two adventures that followed this one. I took a break from GMing at this point, to finish a book I'd been working on, and my friend Jason took over. We did two different adventures with him, before I returned to the GM position, and we began playing a short-lived Rogue Trader campaign. It was an expensive diversion for me, and it was hard to run with this particular group. However, several elements of it would recur once I began my next campaign arc, in the Ars Mortalitus series of my own design. This was also the adventure that would introduce my players to the sorcerer class I had designed, and to a whole new variety of dangerous heresy threatening the Empire and the Holy Ordos of the Inquisition itself. We are still playing that one out, and are currently in the third adventure of that campaign. More about those later.