VAARN ACTUAL PLAY: EPISODE 31

Last time, our intrepid adventurers battled themselves in jelly-clone form, finally drained the water from the flooded lower level of the Water Baron’s Aquifer machine, and were ambushed by some glider spiders in a tunnel. We left them standing at the bottom of the main shaft, faced with the newly revealed body of the Hydra monster which had been harrying them at every step.

Our cast:

  • Flim-Flam, a two-headed cacogen. Proficient cook. Fights with twin pistols. Owns a cyborg hawk named Midnight.
  • Findus, a newbeast. Horse-man with mystical powers. Inhabited by a parasitic spirit entity. 
  • Crunk, a true-kin warrior. Taciturn, impulsive. A lover and a fighter. Has a big sword.
  • Karak, a gaunt cyborg. Robed and hideous, machine supremacist.
  • Nephew (NPC), a mute and enthusiastic fungus-man. Able to fuse his flesh with dead creatures and take on their abilities.
  • Jo Nah Thon (NPC), an odd man from the distant past, who wears unusual clothes and speaks a strange language. Has a talking wristwatch named Athena.
  • Fiddy (NPC), a large tame aphid.

We rejoined the PCs as they stood at the bottom of the Aquifer machine’s main shaft. Before them was the vast, jelly-like body of the Hydra monster, which was clogging up the mechanisms at the bottom of the shaft. In order to restart these mechanisms, and hopefully kill the Hydra in the process, the PCs needed to cross the bottom of the main shaft and delve into the newly revealed final floor of the Aquifer complex, looking for an engine room. But first they needed to sneak past the Hydra once more.

This was achieved by sending Flim-Flam’s cyborg hawk Midnight flying up to the top of the shaft, with instructions to make as much noise as possible and keep the Hydra tentacles distracted. This plan worked without a hitch and the PCs were able to sneak across the bottom of the shaft and enter the freshly drained engine complex.

The first room they entered was still dripping with water, the rusted machinery cloaked with algal growths and the floor littered with the softened bones of the Hydra’s previous meals. There was a mass of blue Hydra jelly growing on the ceiling of this room, which the PCs presumed to be a child of the original creature, but it was immature and had yet to sprout the questing tentacles that made the creature dangerous. Karak took a sample of Hydra flesh in a glass jar for later research, and the party moved forward.

The second room they entered had two interesting features: a huge sealed blast door at the opposite end, and a podium with two buttons on it: a red button and a blue one. The PCs debated what this could mean. The consensus was reached that one button must open the blast door, but they had no idea what the other could be for. Karak cheekily tried to press both at once, which had no effect. The cyborg then settled for the red button, which after a heart-pounding pause… opened the blast door! The party debated trying to the blue button, but thought better of it and headed for the next room.

The third room the PCs entered was filled with the sound of rushing air. They found themselves on the southern edge of a deep shaft, at the bottom of which was set a huge fan. The fan was spinning at incredible speeds, sending a hurricane-force column of wind up through the middle of the shaft. There was a crude rope-bridge hanging through the middle of the room, which led to an exit in the northern wall. The PCs determined this bridge had probably been built by the shriekmen, to aid the crossing of this area.

Karak elected to cross the room first, and did so easily with the help of the grappling hook gun and his high DEX score. Once on the northern side, he fixed the grappling hook so that it reinforced the rope-bridge, hoping to aid the rest of the party in crossing. Fiddy the giant aphid simply walked across the wall, watching the mammals fumbling with their ropes. At this point, the fan briefly stopped turning, before abruptly changing direction, sucking air down into the fan-blades with incredible force. Assuming this to be a cyclical process, the PCs waited out the downdraft.

After a few minutes, they were proven correct. The fan reversed its direction again, and returned to expelling air upwards. Judging this to be the safer setting, Findus, Flim-Flam and Crunk all attempted the crossing. Crunk clumsily let go of the rope too early, and was flung up to hit the ceiling of the room for some light damage. Everyone laughed at the hapless true-kin, and then it was time for Nephew and Jo Nah Thon to cross the rope-bridge.

The mycomorph and the man from the past made it halfway across the bridge, when the fan abruptly changed direction, pulling them down rather than pushing them up towards the ceiling. Nephew and Jo Nah Thon lost their footing and just barely managed to get a grip on the damp, fraying rope-bridge, hanging above the spinning blades of the giant fan! A rescue operation was needed.

Various strategies for jamming the fan blades were debated, but eventually the players settled on using Flim-Flam’s biotech glue gun to jam up the mechanism and stop the fan rotating. I ruled this would work, at the expense of all the remaining glue in the gun being used up. The players duly agreed with this cost (anything to save Nephew’s life) and Flim-Flam fired all of the glue into the fan, putting an end to the down-draft and allowing the NPCs to rejoin the PCs at the northern exit to the room. Congratulating one another, the party pressed on.

The fourth room of the session turned out to be another, even larger and deeper chasm room. The bottom of the chasm was lost in darkness, but a single, luminous blue Hydra tentacle protruded from the shadowy depths, reaching up past the PCs to investigate a slender bridge high overhead. They realised (with some prompting from the GM) that this was the very same bridge they had crossed to reach the diagnostics centre back in Episode 23, their first ever encounter with a Hydra tentacle. Taking a moment to appreciate the GM’s genius layering of the dungeon environment, creating an effect not unlike the recursive level maps in the hit videogame series Dark Souls, the PCs descended a ladder down the dripping wall of the chasm, and entered the engine complex.

The room they were faced with had several interesting features: there were three large pull-switches, located on the eastern, western, and southern walls. There was a large mass of dormant machinery in the centre of the room. Above the central machine was a fan, which had been gummed up with biotech goo. The PCs examined the machinery, and deducted that they could restart the central engine by pulling all three levers simultaneously, and keeping them held down for sixty seconds (or six ten-second combat rounds). Obviously this procedure would create a lot of noise, alerting all nearby Hydra tentacles. They realised they would be fighting the tentacle from the northern chasm, and the three tentacles that would reach in from the complex’s central shaft, via the gummed-up fan aperture.

They debated how to proceed. It was clear that they needed to use the switches and reactivate the machinery, so it was merely a question of how to prepare for the Hydra onslaught. Some players were in favour of restarting the overhead fan, on the basis that it would stop the three tentacles from the main shaft reaching them, but they realised that the up- and down-draft created by the active fan might prove just as much of a hinderance. In the end they decided to block the northern doorway as best they could, set the three wrist-communicators they’d looted from Jo Nah Thon’s dead companions around the room as audio distractions for the tentacles, and then divided into three teams. Findus would guard Karak as he pulled the western lever, Nephew would guard Crunk at the eastern lever, and Flim-Flam would guard Jo Nah Thon as he pulled the southern lever. Fiddy the aphid would observe from the ceiling.

Prepared, the PCs pulled their respective levers. The engine block began to rumble and roar as it came back to life, shaking the floor and walls around them. Immediately, the Hydra tentacle in the northern chasm came slithering down to the north doorway, pulling at the blockade and trying to get inside. Findus used his laser eyes to deal some damage before it was able to knock the barricades aside and enter the room. They could also hear the sound of the other three tentacles, forcing their way down the ventilation shaft overhead.

Battle was joined in earnest. Through a combination of audio distractions, lucky rolls, and sustained laser-fire from Findus and Nephew, the PCs were able to actually kill the Hydra tentacle that was reaching from the northern door. They were unable to focus fire the three tentacles that reached in from the ceiling in the same way, and Crunk in particular suffered heavy damage from a tentacle that tried to prise him away from his lever, slamming him against the wall and causing severe injuries to his head. However, after six rounds of frantic combat, the players were victorious. The engine restarted, purging the body of the main Hydra in the central shaft. Immediately, all three of its tentacles ceased their attacks, falling lifeless to the floor. Having won a major victory and uncovered a new path deeper into the Aquifer machine, the PCs levelled up, and we ended the session with a discussion of which stats would be best for each character to increase.

GM Thoughts

Great to be back in Vaarn after a hiatus. This session went exactly as I hoped it would when I wrote the switch room, which was roughly a year ago. Having spent four dungeon levels learning about the Hydra tentacles, how they fight, and why it’s best to avoid making any loud noises, the PCs were put in a position where they had to make a load of noise to progress. I wanted to force them to consider objectives during this climactic fight, and split into teams who would each have to handle their own lever. As it happened, the Hydra never managed to drag anyone away from their respective levers, which was slightly a shame as I really wanted to play up the drama of them being pulled through the rooms towards the central body as their companions frantically restarted the engine. It was still really fun and high-pressure regardless, and showcased why giving your party an objective during combat is really worthwhile.

The ‘traps’ really worked this session as well, especially the fan bridge room. The fan was a cheeky bit of bait on my part, because the obvious solution is to break it, nullifying the immediate problem. However, breaking the fan then makes it much easier for the three Hydra tentacles to get to the PCs during the lever room fight. This is a choice made without perfect information, but quite meaningful consequences for the subsequent battle, which isn’t 100% ‘fair’ but hopefully adds some verisimilitude to the game world.

Next time: deeper still into the Aquifer machine’s depths. How much more is there to explore? All will be revealed!

2 thoughts on “VAARN ACTUAL PLAY: EPISODE 31”

    1. Yes! They’re a combination of the tentacles from the HL1 Blast Pit level and the ‘Hydra’ creature which was cut from HL 2. The PCs also found a gravity gun in this dungeon, and an NPC who’s wearing a very similar outfit to the test subjects in Portal (although they’ve never noticed that one).

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