Last week we left our heroes in the afterglow of a night-time victory. They had just killed a fungal horror, and the warrior Crunk was celebrating by drinking water from a biomechanical teat. What awaits our heroes this week in the Vaults of Vaarn?
Our brave boys:
- Flim-Flam, a two-headed cacogen Adept. Proficient cook, fights with twin pistols. Has a cyborg hawk named Midnight.
- Findus, a newbeast Mystic. Horse-man with mystical eye-lasers, a quicksilver spear, and a parasitic spirit entity.
- Crunk, a true-kin Warrior. Taciturn, impulsive. A lover and a fighter.
We rejoined the characters aboard the merchant wind-barge ‘Oblique of Understanding’, which they had been hired to guard as it returned to the trading city Gnomos. A new day dawned bright and clear, and they set out with the wind in their sails across the azure-blue sands of Vaarn.
After travelling for a few hours, the party sighted something of interest: what appeared to be a large iridescent tarpaulin trapped under a rock. Crunk and Flim-Flam asked to stop the barge in order to investigate; Nashir, the barge’s owner, hesitantly agreed. This first pit-stop turned out to be a fortuitous one: the PCs discovered that the tarpaulin was actually a large, recently-shed Lizard Lion skin, a material likely worth something in Gnomos. Feeling pleased with their haul, Crunk and Flim-Flam dragged the skin back up to the deck of the Oblique, and fashioned a hammock between two masts from the old tough hide, where they elected to sleep for the night while Findus took watch.
Although the new-horse didn’t see anything untoward during the night, when dawn broke everyone who’d slept above decks was feeling poorly: they were covered in welts and bite-marks, and had lost HP while they slept. Nashir raised anchor immediately, and suggested to his guards that they might consider searching the wind-barge, in case whatever had fed on them during the night was still aboard. The party checked through the darkened holds of the barge, discovering a nest of sleeping synthetic creatures that resembled crow-sized mosquitoes. Their translucent abdomens were still swollen with red blood, so it was clear they had discovered the culprits. As the creatures were sleeping, it was little trouble for the party to set up an ambush for the vampiric synths and obliterate them with Findus’ eye-lasers and sustained gunfire. Nashir was somewhat displeased that they had gotten blood and synth-parts all over his cargo, but allowed that they had rid themselves of the problem stowaways.
The morning wore on, and the barge traveled further south. The landscape began to change, leaving behind the swelling sand-dunes of the earlier days of travel, and becoming harder and stonier, with occasional cacti and white-barked martyr trees growing from the sky-blue soil. One of these trees was the catalyst for the next encounter: Flim-Flam spotted what seemed to be a human figure hanging from one of the desert trees. There was debate over whether to approach. Nashir the merchant was against it, complaining that his guards were reckless and seemed to want to step on every rake that was presented to them. Nashir said his job was to get the barge and its cargo safely back to Gnomos, and his guards were supposed to make that easier, not harder. Flim-Flam responded by arguing that the person could need their help, and furthermore that valuable objects could be found by exploring the wastelands. Nashir allowed that it was indeed commanded by most religions in Vaarn to aid those who needed help in the desert, for you never knew when you yourself could be relying on strangers for assistance. Flim-Flam and the rest of the party ended up agreeing not to investigate the figure in the tree further, but told Nashir that the PCs would want to help any obviously living people they found out in the desert.
This was put to the test later in the afternoon, when the party sighted an arcology dome (the arcologies were self-sustaining habitat spheres, built to preserve humanity through the Great Collapse. Think of them like fallout shelters topped with geodesic greenhouse domes. They can be found through Vaarn, especially in the south). This arcology was in poor shape, with none of the original dome glass remaining, but a figure in desert robes was waving the wind-barge down. They elected to stop, as agreed with Nashir, and Crunk and the others climbed down to speak to the figure.
The stranger did not identify themselves, instead asking the party if they had ‘seen the Black Sun’. This obviously started to trip Creepy Cult alarm bells, and the conversation was frustratingly circular, with the stranger attempting, without much success, to coax the PCs into accompanying him deeper inside the arcology dome, while they attempted with equally little success to get him to explain exactly what the ‘Black Sun’ was. They weren’t born yesterday and didn’t fall for it, but began to realise there was more than one inhabitant of the dome watching them from the shadows, and they looked not exactly human. They decided to beat a retreat, turned back to the wind-barge, and all hell broke loose.
A pack of lanky, pale figures leapt from the dome’s shadows and began charging after the PCs. Findus decided to use his tear-gas canister to cover the party’s escape, but fumbled his throw, and dropped the gas grenade at his own feet! Choked and blinded by gas, Findus and Flim-Flam managed to scramble up the ropes and onto the deck of the Oblique, coughing and weeping, but they realised that Crunk had been left behind! He was blinded by the gas and unable to find a rope to climb. As he groped around in confusion, one of the inhabitants of the arcology dome found him. It grappled him and bit deeply into his shoulder, dealing critical damage. Crunk seemed to be in a lot of trouble.
Flim-Flam quickly slid back down one of the ropes, dosing Crunk up with a flask of the healing milk they had taken from the Pelerine Temple. Findus held the rest of their assailants off with thrown spears, while Crunk grappled with the creature that had latched onto him. He tried to draw his sword, but fumbled again in the gas and dropped it! Instead he was forced to strike the creature with his blood-draining biotech weapon, but did not manage to kill it.
Meanwhile, Findus and Nashir had raised the anchor of the barge and wind filled the sails. The inhabitants of the dome had no firearms of any kind, so they reasoned there was no harm in simply flying away. Flim-Flam grabbed onto Crunk, wrapping them both in rope, as the barge began to move, dragging both PCs and the monster through the blue dirt. I warned them that being dragged over stony by the barge would be very painful, and they needed to get rid of the monster, a pallid, long-fanged humanoid, before they could climb to safety, but they managed this quite easily, blowing the being’s head apart with close range pistol shots. Exhausted, covered in dirt and gore, Crunk and Flim-Flam climbed up to the deck of the Oblique, to be greeted with the quietly furious face of their employer, Nashir. He said to Flim-Flam, ‘This is why we don’t stop in the desert.’
Fortunately, there were no further excitements during the night. The day dawned clear and bright again, and they made good time across the southern badlands. Around midday they sighted a towering ruin, which looked somewhat like the interior of a church organ, blown up to enormous size. Nashir knew of this landmark; he called it the ‘Singing Tower’, and was pleased, for this meant that the market city Gnomos was only a day’s travel away. He furthermore informed them that the tower was an outpost for Hegemony soldiers, the first contact the party have had with the New Hegemony of Mankind, the (theoretical) governing authority of Vaarn.
Sure enough, they were flagged down by a group of soldiers, wearing red uniforms and mounted on cyborg war-camels. As they boarded the wind-barge, Nashir asked the PCs to make sure the soldiers didn’t find their Alzabo brain, as it was considered contraband in Gnomos. Findus hugged the jar inside his robes, and hoped they wouldn’t ask too many questions.
A somewhat tense social scene ensued, with two true-kin Hegemony soldiers searching the barge, asking some pointed questions, and generally treating the cacogen and new-beast party members with disdain. The party didn’t rise to the bait, however, and the scene was unexpectedly interrupted by the arrival of a swarm of black bee-like insects. The Hegemony soldiers instantly lost interest in their traffic stop, and began yelling ‘HIVEY-MEN!’
The PCs saw that three strange beings had approached the wind-barge and the soldiers while they were checking the cargo: they were human bodies, but walked on all fours, and had enormous, tumour-like bee hives growing from their backs. These were the source of the insect swarm, and seemed to be hostile. The Hegemony squad prepared for battle, and Nashir raised the anchor and filled the sails, preparing to escape with two Hegemony rangers still aboard the Oblique.
The party faced a choice here: they could either leave with Nashir, and possibly face negative consequences for abandoning the Hegemony troops to their fate, or they could stay and aid the soldiers, but abandon the wind-barge they were hired to guard. They chose unanimously to help the Hegemony troops, believing this would curry favour with the local authorities and make their lives in Gnomos easier. Entrusting their Alzabo brain to Wormwater, the synthetic passenger on the wind-barge, they leapt down and prepared to stand with the Hegemony.
The fight with the Hivey-men was brief; the creatures dealt a decent amount of damage with their stinging swarms, completely ignoring armour, but ultimately were easily defeated by the combined firepower of the Hegemony soldiers and the PCs. Crunk discovered he had left his sword in the sand during their fight at the arcology dome, much to his irritation. Afterwards, the true-kin soldiers had a rather better opinion of Flim-Flam and Findus, and the PCs were rewarded with some gifts the soldiers had found in the ruins. Findus got a nomad’s hunting rifle, Flim-Flam got laser sights for his pistols, and Crunk was given a strange red can the soldiers had found, which was decorated with cursive white calligraphy that nobody could read (Crunk’s player did instantly guess what this object was, but Crunk himself is still clueless). We broke for the week at this point, with the players surrounded by appreciative Hegemony troops. They’re still a day’s walk from Gnomos, so there’s plenty of time for more things to go wrong before they get there.
DM THOUGHTS – Another short session, clocking about an hour and forty minutes. I’m torn on wanting longer for the games, as I feel I sometimes skip over moments where NPCs could weigh in to preserve the pacing, and enjoying that we seem to be having punchy, fast-moving episodes that cover a lot of ground in a small time-slot. This week was action-heavy, with three separate combats, including the diciest combat situation they’ve faced so far (the Black-Sun Eater that grabbed Crunk dealt pretty much the maximum damage it could have done without critting, taking him from healthy to Death’s Door in one round. Another hit like that would have put him in serious danger of dying). I also enjoyed the role-play between Nashir and Flim-Flam this week, with the difficult balance between curiosity and caution being illustrated by the encounters themselves.
The Lizard Lion hide is something they’d have missed if they kept going, and I think it’s important that there are rewards for investigating landmarks and oddities in Vaarn. If everything is a trap, there’s no point being curious about the world. At the same time, the Black-Sun Eaters demonstrated that some things in the blue ruins are just dangerous, and the situation turned very nasty due to some unlucky rolls. They lost Crunk’s sword, nearly lost Crunk, and gained nothing from it. I made sure to emphasise that Nashir’s views were the character’s, and I wasn’t telling them off for interacting with content I’d created.
Curious to see where this is all going; there are a lot of narrative plates spinning now. I think they’ll probably reach Gnomos next Sunday, if all goes well. They still have at least a day of walking to get there, and plenty could happen in that time. I am enjoying playing the travel out day-by-day; I’m glad I bothered to make an actual system for it and let random content do the storytelling. As I’ve stressed to them, nothing that happened on the road was planned or scripted, even the weather each day. I’ll have to start planning out some locations and encounters in the city I think, but we can cross that bridge when we get there.