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Friday, 18 September 2020

Don't call him Chun!

Before you read a word of this scenario, written by Oliver Johnson and originally published in White Dwarf 58, for goodness’ sake read Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth. If you’ve already read it, read it again. Imprint it on your mind, because this is the literary equivalent of taking a sledgehammer to a Fabergé egg collection. I don’t know what Oliver was thinking (he admires Vance as much as I do) but we were young and we had to pay the rent.

To minimize the vandalism and to preserve the mystery and wonder of the original stories, I’ve changed the names. Chun the Unavoidable (never described in the story, and therefore all the scarier) becomes Papu the Ineluctable here, and so on. I’ve left archveults and IOUN stones because D&D already laid its sticky fingerprints all over those. Why am I even publishing it, then, you ask? Because Games Workshop didn’t buy the copyright, it’s Oliver’s scenario, and completists may want to see it. But those are excuses, of course, not explanations.

All right, don't say you haven't been warned…


a Dying Earth scenario by Oliver Johnson

The following short adventure is based on “Liane the Wayfarer”, one of Jack Vance's excellent fantasy stories from the first Dying Earth collection. It provides a basis for introducing some of Vance's creatures to the campaign – particularly appropriate because Vance was one of Gary Gygax's prime sources of inspiration.

Lith the Weaver has entered into an infernal agreement with Papu the Ineluctable, a supernatural being who is custodian of the Tapestry of Ariventa in the Palace of Whispers. In exchange for the human eyeballs with which his cloak is embroidered, Papu gives Lith a thread or two of the tapestry. Lith is gradually reweaving the tapestry in her cottage. When it is complete, the tapestry forms a gateway to the magical world of Ariventa, where the process of ageing is arrested and all the fields and orchards are perpetually golden with harvest. The tapestry is now, after many years' work and grisly payment on Lith's part, almost half restored.

As the characters are travelling across moorland close to the Forest of Illimitable Green, which is on their left, strange blue scaled and crested humanoids burst from the bushes — an ambush!

No Appearing: 1-20
Armour Class: As worn, usually 5
Movement: 12"
Hit Dice: 1+1
Treasure: Individuals N, S,T
Attack: By weapon type or galvanic impulse
Alignment: Any Intelligence: Average and up

Archveults are an intelligent species from another world. They have shimmering blue scales, a large black crest over the domed skull, and a hooked beak/snout, but otherwise essentially humanoid in form. Archveults can reach 12th level as fighters and 9th level as assassins or thieves, but are not restricted at all as to level of magic-use. There are no archveult clerics.

All archveults have the special ability to generate an electrical discharge through their bodies which will cause a character touched to pass out for 2-12 rounds if a saving throw vs paralysis is not made. Whether or not the save is successful, the character will take 1-4 points of damage. Once the galvanic impulse has been used, an archveult will take 10-60 minutes to build up the electrical charge for a second such attack.

Archveults mine IOUN stones (see Dungeon Master’s Guide), and any archveult magic-user of 4th level or higher has a 10% chance of having 1-10 Stones.

Archveults are only encountered on this world in small adventuring groups of 1-20 individuals. This particular group of bandit archveults consists of:
  • Xexamedes: 5th level archveult magic-user; AC9; HP15; Move: 12"; Spells: friends, jump, magic missile, shield, strength, web, lightning bolt; six IOUN stones (types 2, 4, 6, 6, 7, 14); 6 platinum pieces.
  • Xexamedes' bodyguard — Three 2nd level archveult fighters; AC4; HP11, 9, 10; one attack at 1-8 (longsword); each has 1 platinum piece, one has a Potion of Healing.
If Xexamedes is searched, a small map will be found, showing a clearing in the Forest of Illimitable Green. It also mentions the Tapestry of Ariventa, apparently a gateway to another world.

As the characters are passing through the forest they eventually come across a cottage in a picturesque clearing. All is not well, however, for a muffled sobbing can be heard within. On closer investigation they find a beautiful woman lying on the floor before a tapestry stretched on a frame. It appears to have been torn in half, the remaining. section showing a pleasing panorama of golden fields and meadows where happy folk cavort and play.

Looking up, the woman blurts out, 'I am Lith. The tapestry you see before you is the last artistic representation of the paradise of Ariventa. It has been rent by the monster Papu the Ineluctable, who but half an hour ago burst in and ravished me before tearing my cherished tapestry in a spirit of gleeful malice. Track him down to his haunt and bring back the half of the tapestry he has taken — he cannot be far hence — and my gratitude will be forever yours.'

Any ranger, and any thief or assassin above 3rd level, will spot the inhuman tracks leading from Lith's cottage. (A ranger of greater than 3rd level will also notice that the tracks have been made on more than one occasion in the last week or so.) Lith will not accompany the party. If anyone attempts to coerce her, she will call on the magical defence which protects her within her cottage: daggers which materialize out of the air. She can call on up to twenty daggers. Each strikes as a 6th level fighter. After striking once, a dagger will disappear forever, so Lith will be sparing in their use.

Lith: 3rd level MU; AC10; HP6; Chaotic Neutral. Spells — friends, dancing lights, pyrotechnics.

The tracks lead out of the woods onto a barren moor. An ancient city must once have stood here; as far as the eye can see are ruined plazas, shattered columns and low, crumbling walls. High above in the sky, the characters notice what at first seem to be half a dozen hawks or large bats. They swoop down from an immense height, nearly blacking out the sun with their enormous wings. More closely, the characters can see the possibility of many antecedents combined in a single nightmarish hybrid—each has a globular belly covered with silvery fur, claw-like hands on dingy leather wings, a horny snout like that of a stag beetle, an array of white fangs like knife blades... They emit almost human cries of pleasure as they swoop to attack.

No Appearing: 1-12
Armour Class: 6
Movement: 6"/24"
Hit Dice: 2d8+ 1
Treasure: None
Attack: 1 bite/claw for 1-8
Intelligence: Average

They are about five feet long and have a fifteen foot wingspan. Vicious predators, they will attack anything that appears vaguely edible. They are not stupid, however, and will break off any combat if necessary.

Passing further into the ruins, the characters discover a partially ruined grotto. Standing in a recess is a beautiful black statue of a strange being. It is draped with creepers and blotched with patches of moss.

This is not a statue but a creature called a teostalt. It will wait until the characters pass before leaping to attack them from the rear. If they do pass, characters should be automatically surprised.

No Appearing: 1
Armour Class: 3
Movement: 15"
Hit Dice: 6d8+ 1
Treasure: 30% chance of 1-3 pieces of jewellery
Attack: Two claws for 2-9 each
Alignment: Chaotic Evil
Intelligence: Average to high
Notes: Surprises a party on 1-5; is never itself surprised

Perhaps created by some ancient magician, teostalts have the form of a handsomely muscled man with dull sable skin, and slit golden eyes like a cat's. Teostalts are able to remain motionless for many hours at a time in order to catch their victims unawares. Their only food is human flesh, which they desire with a constant and terrible craving. They will often taunt people they are pursuing, or implore them to surrender in tones mockingly plaintive. Teostalts are about human sized on average.

Further on, the tracks are lost on the edge of a broad plaza bordered by broken pillars. Many long-dead corpses lie around — both of noble fighters and serfs, bound together only by death and the fact that their eyeballs have been gouged out. Ahead there is a ruinous temple, its inner recesses lost in shadow. A curious whispering noise seems to come softly from all around, but the characters cannot make out what is being said.

They approach the temple and enter its pillared hall. On the far wall, above an altar carved to represent thousands of tormented faces, they see the golden radiance of the other half of the tapestry. No sound can be heard now. The susurration they noticed outside has gone. They cannot see any other entrances to the building apart from the one they entered by, but the dust on the floor here has not been disturbed for some time.

By standing on the altar stone, characters can easily reach the tapestry. As they take it down, they uncover a dark recess in the wall behind it. From this leaps Papu the Ineluctable.

Papu the Ineluctable
No Appearing: 1
Armour Class: 1
Movement: 15"
Hit Points 36 (from 8 dice)
Treasure: G, H
Attack: Two claws for 2-16 each, surprises on a 1-6
Special Attacks: Surprised characters must save vs fear (at +1) or stand defenceless for 1-3 rounds.
Special Defences: Cannot be surprised.

Papu's face resembles that of a large baboon, the white face patch composed of bare bone, with empty sockets where the nose and eyes should be. The rest of his enormous body is covered with black, glistening fur and there is about him a noxious animal reek. He wears a cloak of human eyeballs laced on silk threads. Papu runs with ferocious speed on all fours after anyone who attempts to escape him. He tears the eyes from his victims and laces these onto his cloak. After slaying any group of adventurers whom Lith dupes into going after him, he detaches some threads from the tapestry and takes them to her cottage as repayment.

Papu is very large — he would stand some eighteen feet tall if upright. He takes his soubriquet from a special magic power. Once on a victim's trail, he can follow unerringly until the victim is caught. Even travelling to another dimensional plane will not shake off Papu's pursuit.

It may seem that Lith cannot lose out in this scenario — if the players defeat Papu, how will they ever know they've been suckered? In order to give them a chance to lay the blame where it belongs and exact revenge on Lith, have Papu speak to himself while he is fighting. 'Ah, Lith, you have sent fine sets of eyes for me this time!' That should give them enough of a clue. The players may take the tapestry back to Lith, and she will indeed be grateful (after her initial shock of seeing the players alive). Unfortunately, she doesn't actually have anything of value to give them as reward. The players may themselves engineer the situation so that they can use the tapestry. In this case, the referee will have to work out the results — perhaps a campaign set in the world of Ariventa?


  1. Heh. I remember playing the original WD adventure back in the day with the names unchanged. Might have been my first experience at doing my best not to metagame with out of character knowledge since I was the only person at the table who'd actually read Vance at all. I mostly sat back and let the other PCs make the decisions and wound up being horribly killed for my efforts. IIRC some of the group survived after wounding Chun so badly it backed off and (furious at having been tricked) went back and burned down the cottage with thrown torches and fire arrows. Then they were all killed over the next couple of days after Chun healed up and got to stalking them. I suppose they did at least cut off the influx of new victims for him.

    As you said, trying to make this into a D&D adventure is like vandalizing fine art. Some things just shouldn't be messed with.

    1. I do feel very guilty. If it had been my own scenario I think I'd have quietly junked it. But I suppose I'm Max Brod to Oliver's Kafka... er, not that Oliver is dead yet...

  2. It... doesn't come off as that bad. It seems like a reasonably faithful adaptation of the story into an adventure. If it was me, I'd have let them fight some guardian beast at the temple and swipe the tapestry at which point they start getting stalked and ambushed by Chun/Papu, who cannot truly die until they destroy his cloak of eyes or something.

    1. I didn't want to imply Oliver had done a bad job. To misquote Johnson, it's not whether it was done well, but whether it should have been done at all.

    2. You know what really got me into RPGs? The WEG Star Wars RPG. I'd played around with with AD&D and Warhammer. The first struck me as an exercise in robbery-homicide. The second struck as more dangerous, less rewarding robbery-homicide. Then the GM ran Star Wars.

      I'd been a fan of Star Wars since I was a little kid and know I got to play in that universe, explore those worlds from the inside. And it was amazing. This is what RPGs can do - take you from being a passive viewer of someone else's tale to an active participant in your own story.

      As for "should it have been done" I don't know. The Dying Earth came out 18 years before I was born. I still haven't read any of it barring some Wikipedia ploy synopses. I will say that when I've enjoyed a game setting, I've tended to purchase the fiction tie-ins for that setting. So, maybe if I'd experienced The Dying Earth from the inside, I might well have wanted to explore it through the original fiction.

      I will say that probably this scenario wouldn't have done the trick. One thing Oliver kind of missed was the idea of Chun the Unavoidable. The PCs aren't trying to avoid him. They're actively seeking him out to kill him and retrieve the tapestry. If anything, they're hoping he can't avoid Them.

      While I haven't read the story, the implication is that Chun is a relentless stalker and pursuer. Here, the PCs just head straight for him for a kill-or-be-killed battle, so they never experience that aspect of him.

    3. That's the problem with taking a story, boiling it down till all that's left is the skeleton of plot, then covering it with a skin of rules and passing it off as an RPG adventure. The story was designed to be inhabited by the characters Vance created, not a team of PCs.

      I'm not saying that a Dying Earth RPG is a bad idea -- although I wouldn't do anything like the existing one, which obsesses too much on the surface gloss and literariness of Vance's world. But if you're going to turn a work of fiction into a scenario, it's best to pick fiction that's almost entirely plot-driven (like H Rider Haggard's She) rather than something of real quality like The Dying Earth.

    4. Do you consider H. P. Lovecraft's work to be of real quality? His "cosmic horror" concepts have influenced horror writing since the 1920s. As of next year Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu RPG will have been around for 40 years.

      Despite have never read it, I think it's fair to say that an RPG set in The Dying Earth would greatly benefits from a more free-wheeling, cinematic system as opposed to something crunchy like D&D. It's a bit hard to get swept up in wonder while you're busy calculating you "to hit" damage, movement rate and encumbrance.

    5. When I say "if you're going to turn a work of fiction into a scenario" I'm talking about a *specific* work of fiction, not the universe the author set it in. So a scenario based on "Rogues in the House" would lose 90% of what makes that a great story, but obviously a campaign set in the Hyborian Age would be perfectly feasible. The problem with turning good stories into scenarios is that they are not only plot; they are vehicles for character and incident in which the "plot" is the least interesting element. So, yes, a campaign set in the Dying Earth could be great. But a game based on a story like "Liane the Wayfarer" can only ever be a pale travesty of the original work.

    6. Do you think it works the other way, i.e. turn a scenario into a work of fiction? I was going to point to the enormous commercial success of the Dragonlance novels but I must confess I can’t now quite recall the order in which that was produced. There’s a podcast somewhere in which Tracy Hickman walks through the history/sequence of how he and Margaret Weis wrote it...

    7. I guess that’s sort of what you’ve done with your Conclave write up, albeit it’s not a traditional novel/narrative structure.

    8. Oh and I guess the Bloodsword novels too... maybe I’ve answered my question!

    9. Okay, that makes a bit more sense. I will say that I don't think there's anything wrong with a taking a story as inspiration or a starting point but trying to replicate it in play won't work well.

      I admit that I don't know anything about The Dying Earth setting, but maybe Liane the Wayfarer had friends (or, more likely, enemies and/or creditors) and these "associates" have hired the PCs to find him, which is why they're in this area in the first place.

      When they meet Lith, she tells them that Liane passed by and was going to recover the other half of her tapestry and she'd be ever-so-grateful to the PCs if they brought it back to her.

      They'll head to the temple, passing the Teostalt and then finding the "tapestry" - which is actually some old cloth with an illusion on it that has some of the threads Lith seeks woven into it. Presumably the PCs take and head out, perhaps noticing that the pedestal where the statue was is now empty. Cue Teostaldt attack. It fights them for a couple rounds and retreats.

      If they deliver the "tapestry" Lith is grateful but basically penniless. She might give them a potion or two or some other minor magic, but otherwise, the scenario is over.

      Except that now Chun comes after them. They begin having nightmares of being pursued. The shadows seem darker, the winds colder. See, Chun isn't actually a fully physical being. It's a spirit of fear and vengeance. Now it haunts the PCs, denying them full rest, visiting their dreams, exhausting and terrorizing them until it's fed on their fear enough to temporarily achieve a physical form. At which point it harvests their eyes.

      The key to beating Chun lies in finding a way (up to the GM) of forcing it into the real world before it's fully empowered. Then it can be killed. In the meantime, everywhere they go, the PCs will be hunted and haunted because they cannot avoid... the Unavoidable.

    10. Nigel, I think if a game write-up simply recounts the plot events -- this and then this and then this -- then it's not going to work as a literary form. For that you need to take the events as a framework for a character study. That's what I was trying to do with The Conclave, but as Paul Mason pointed out, if you read that expecting a narrative in the formal literary sense then you'll be disappointed. It's Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin rather than Harris's Munich.

      John, that scenario sounds much better than the WD one -- and it could be written without any reference to Vance's original story, just taking that as the inspirational springboard.

    11. My concept was that if you want to do a Dying Earth setting that draws on the characters within that setting, that might be a way to do it. Basically all I did up there was fuse Chun the Unavoidable and Freddy Kreuger. A Nightmare on the Dying Earth.

  3. The scenario raises an interesting GMing question. How do you feed information to players without signposting the whole thing? How do you drop clues, perhaps along with some red herrings, without the whole thing feeling spoon-fed or contrived. I guess this is why I don’t like investigative scenarios. I read a comment recently On the DW Facebook page from someone saying the Miller’s Tale was their favourite DW adventure. I must confess that whilst I like the tone and premise I’m not sure I could successfully GM it. My experience has often been that either players ignore clues the GM has dropped or latched on like a pit bull to innocuous and irrelevant colour/descriptive commentary or both. I suppose it’s then an opportunity to pivot and improvise. But (and I hear them calling “all aboard” as the train gets ready for some GM railroading) how do u at least give the players a good chance of finding the clues without hinting and asking “so did you want to check...”? I suspect you will say Dave that if the players miss the elephant in the room of a clue then spending the whole time searching for missing pachyderms IS the adventure...but it feels a bit of a let down...

    1. How well you know me, Nigel :-) But I do find that when my players miss the clues it does end up more interesting than the adventure I had planned. I've often cited the adventure that hinged on the murdered major's housekeeper being the daughter of a woman he had an affair with in India twenty-odd years earlier. The players noticed the resemblance in a picture but assumed she was an immortal lamia. Whoops. But I was going to give a more helpful example... I began an adventure that involved the players looking into some new clues in the Ripper case of a few years before. The idea was they would uncover a Cthulhoid SF plot that had been going on in Whitechapel at the same time. I anticipated it would take about ten sessions. In fact they blundered from misconception to assumption, spinning out a campaign that went on for nearly a year of real-time. I did give nudges from time to time -- eg an NPC valet rediscovering a note in his master's effects and asking them a question that made them realize they'd overlooked a vital lead. So with a softly-softly approach to railroading I brought them back onto the main investigation via digressions that amounted to 80% of all the playing time. I counted it a success, anyway!

    2. For this scenario, I'd have Lith draw them a map to the temple. When they get there if they search some of the other, more recent eyeless corpses they find very similar map. Maybe find a journal detailed how Lith had been ravaged and now this guy was going to retrieve her tapestry and avenge her.

      Maybe a Ranger or wilderness type might notice that there actually seems to be a bit of a path that's been worn (due to quite a few folks traveling it) between Lith's house and the temple.

      And if they miss all that, well, I guess Lith got really luck and will soon be on her way home.

    3. I really do hope nobody reads this scenario (or worse: plays in it) before they read the stories.