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Thursday, 24 June 2021

"A Hole in the World" (scenario)

You’d think multiple successful careers as an inspiring writer, captivating speaker and entertaining & informative broadcaster would be enough for Tim Harford. On top of that he’s a devoted husband and father, a steadfast friend, and one of the very nicest people you could ever hope to meet. But we, his gaming chums, know that he was really put on this world to run great RPG sessions just for us. Readers of the blog look forward to his enchanting Christmas specials for Legend. He created the Immortal Spartans and Company of Bronze campaigns that I’ve written about here from time to time, and another of his casually executed acts of genius was to conceive the Conclave game, loosely based on Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea stories.

After Tim’s Conclave campaign wound up, I ran a two-part session to fill in for the fact that my planned Yellow King campaign had been aborted. This adventure is set in Tim’s archipelago world which I assume is a lot like Earthsea (I still haven’t read the books) but you could port it across to another game world, with or without lots of water. Central to the concept, though, is that the players are mostly great wizards, and this is a world where magic really is powerful. It doesn’t matter how skilled a swordsman or thief you are, any of the wizard characters can ningauble you without working up a sweat.

There are several magical disciplines. Most wizards specialize in three or four of these, but all learn the art of Naming because that is a prerequisite for many other enchantments. Knowing the true name of a thing means that your magic will automatically work on it. For example, if you use Change magic on a rabbit and you know its true name then your statement has the full force of reality; the rabbit becomes whatever you say it is. Most of the time, though, you won’t know the full name of something. The rabbit can’t tell you, so you’d need to infer as much of its true name as you can, using the root name class for animals and then mammals and then leporids – I’m guessing here. The point is that you roll your Name skill first, and your degree of success in that modifies your roll for Find or Mend or Change or whatever. If you fail the Name roll, forget it; you can’t derive the name you need so your magic won’t work.

Tim came up with a very elegant rule system. I won’t recount it here as he might one day want to expand it and publish it (when those multiple other careers don’t get in the way) but you can soon whip up your own. All you need to know in what follows is that Vigour stands for stamina and strength; Skill is imagination, dexterity and intelligence; Wisdom is knowledge, fortitude and judgement. If like me you’re too lazy to read the books, the Isolate Tower has a handy glossary of magical terms, of which the main categories seem to be as follows:
  • Change - turn a thing into something else (major) 
  • Find - locate a lost item or person 
  • Gate - opens and seals paths and portals
  • Healing 
  • Illusion
  • Mend - fix a broken object
  • Naming – the key to most of the other magical disciplines
  • Pattern - scrying and discerning hidden connections (major)
  • Send - project your image; the image can speak and sense, but not physically or magically act on its surroundings; cannot cross water, but otherwise has no limit on distance.
  • Summon - bring an object or person (living or dead) to you (major)
  • Weather – control wind, rain, fog, and so on
So, to summon a wind you would first try to intuit its name (Naming roll) then make a Weather roll. If somebody is trusting enough to tell you their true name, your magic will always work on them.

Wizards are not supposed to profligately make use of magic. In Le Guin’s stories, a "good" wizard would sail a boat from island to island and sit becalmed for days rather than conjure a wind. "Bad" wizards seem to be those who actually apply what they know. (So, pretty much the way Jedi and Sith operate in Star Wars.) In the game, lacking a specific mechanic or even a logical explanation for why we should restrict our use of magic, the player-characters were soon flinging spells about without a qualm. If you want your game to play out more like a Le Guin story, I suggest something like:
  • Use of magic depletes the local mana, making further magic progressively harder 
  • Every use of magic has a reaction – good winds one day will mean dead calm the next, etc.
  • Unrestricted use of magic affects the wizard’s health. 
  • The College of Hythe polices magic – use it too freely and they will discipline you.
Another point about this world: magic is dominated by the wizards’ college on the island of Hythe, which is said to lie at the heart of the archipelago. The college is all-male, making it difficult for women to study magic openly. Any female PCs will probably conceal their gender as Golpas does in this scenario.

At the Tip of the World
The player-characters are all wizards. One of them has his home on the island of Skryp, the easternmost of the known isles. He has noticed that several local lads (Flintoy, Ratch, and Witkin) who went off to sea last year have returned from their voyages with much greater wealth than anyone expected. Some might suspect them of having turned to piracy, explaining the silks and pearls they gave their wives, but the player-character knows they are honest men.

The truth, which the characters will have to ascertain (they only need to ask, but will probably complicate it), is that the three men came by this wealth when their captain, Haspool, claimed the contents of a drifting merchantman as salvage. His ship is the Hazard and it sails out of Port Pressen on the island of Vaygra.

(“Where was the abandoned ship found drifting?” “Couldn’t tell you. We’re not navigators. You’d have to ask Captain Haspool.”)

At Port Pressen
The characters must get Captain Haspool or his navigator (Tully) to tell them where the ships were found drifting. Yes, ships plural. He has salvaged two, both crewless. (“The Bunch of Grapes was not so rich pickings as that first one, the Woven Band, but both were claimed legally.”)

The complication is that pirates have got wind of the drifting hulks and are patrolling the area. If they see the characters' ship, they may just decide to raid it. The pirate ship is the Good Work.
  • Pirate captain: Korak
  • His wizard: Golpas
Golpas is a female sorcerer who passes herself off as a man. She is not powerful (stats 10) but has +1 in Name and +2 in Gate, Illusion, Healing, Send, Weather.

The Zone
A Sargasso-like area of mists and incessant rain; visibility is very poor. The periphery of the zone is a region of cold mist seething like smoke off the incessant rain. Sailing into it is like going into a waterfall.

Make a Vigour +Name roll on entering the Zone. If you fail, you’re starting to get rewritten. You might lose your sense of smell/taste, become increasingly drained of colour, find your shadow keeps slipping away, you cease to leave footprints, start to dissolve into vapour, etc. This is an ongoing effect to be used as a ticking clock to spur the characters later on.

Any attempt to make a Name roll in the Zone is at a penalty of -5 (at the periphery) up to -8 (centre of the zone) as names here fluctuate so fast.

They see a ship drifting without crew (the ironically named Fine Weather). It is listing to one side owing to the water that is filling its bilges. Aboard:
  • Gulls with blind human faces. Their shrieking sounds like men poorly imitating the cry of sea birds.
  • Outlines in the rain of people – the crew – but they are the absence of people.
  • Eyes that can be seen staring out of the timbers.
  • Scuttling shapes that seem to be a hybrid of rats and human hands.
  • The log book is sodden with rainwater – unreadable.
  • The hold is full of crates of spices and furs, mostly ruined.
In the zone, true names are being reconfigured. A name might be cut in half and recombined with another – for example, splitting shape from identity left the outlines in the rain (shape component) and the identity-component was then spliced to the identity of seagulls.

As they quit the Fine Weather, some of their own crew, in the process of having their true names rewritten, start to change. They become like cobweb shells that blow apart on the wind, leaving pale dancing sparks that flit about the rigging. (Have the bosun point out that men in the rigging haven’t moved for several minutes. Those are already husks, who will become dislodged and blow away when anyone is sent up to investigate.)

In the centre of the zone (they’ll need Pattern to locate it as the rain obscures everything) is a missing piece of reality: a rift in the air like a break in a pane of glass. They hear a keening sound of wind as they approach it. Anyone with Name skill (ie any wizard) can visibly see reality warping around the edges.

They cannot approach, but see the hole in reality at a distance. Intermittent pulses of light emit from it, accompanied by a shockwave that they can feel rather than hear. In each pounding shockwave it’s as if for a moment everything ceases to exist.

As they get within forty feet, the effect starts to strip away the substance of the ship. They must turn back, as it’s only possible to get closer once they have the missing piece.

To fix it they must recover the missing piece. It was taken by a wizard, who was transformed by the fragment and fled. But they must turn back now, for almost all the crew are already lost and the rest are panicking.

Possible episode to insert on the voyage if the players need a hint:
They spot an island with a wide bay. No wind is allowed here for it is the home of the sorcerer Jutle. The moment they enter the bay, the sails go slack and no weather can be induced to enter. Jutle is a middle-aged man hauling driftwood on the beach who asks if they are here to see the master. If they recognize him he’ll reveal that he is the master here and will help them, but he is a true ‘softly softly’ wizard and won’t have any truck with using magic flamboyantly.

The Missing Piece
Remember that characters who failed Vigour +Name are now at phase 2 (losing their shadow)

The fragment of reality was taken by a wizard named Agios. He held his name together with his magic but was transformed into a monster. Pattern will reveal his likely routes, Find will take them to him.

As they approach the missing piece it’s night; they sense they will come to it by dawn. It’s overcast, but they see they’re approaching a column some sixty feet across that stands directly up from the ocean. It seems to be of mottled pink and grey marble. Water steams off its side in the early heat of day (unless approaching by night).

This is no marmoreal column but the monster that Agios has become. Out of the haze above comes its giant distorted face. To protect the ship from this initial attack will require defences equalling 50 points – reduce damage from total wreck at 0 defence to protected at 50 defence. (More efficient if they find clever ways to fend it off, eg a mast spears its eye rather than a shield of force in the air. Note that direct attacks are very hard – see below.)

The monster resembles a huge sea-worm with a distorted face like something moulded from clay.

Direct-attack spells are hard to use against this creature:
  • Name attempt at -10 (due to continual fluctuations), then
  • Spell must succeed by 5 or more to be effective
It can smash masts & hulls, snap up several men at once (make a Skill roll to avoid unless you have a magical defence), etc.

The missing fragment is inside the monster’s stomach. Transforming Agios back to normal won’t last long even if the spell takes. The most effective thing is to get inside the monster somehow. They will need illumination, and must protect themselves against noxious fumes and acid.

The fragment of reality is shaped like two trapezoids and is about the size of a book. To transport it safely (the edges cut through literally anything) they will need to use Change to solidify the air around it or something like that.

Fixing a Hole
Remember that characters who failed Vigour +Name are now at phase 3 (dissolving)

It’s not just a case of slotting the missing fragment of reality back in place. You need to Name it (no modifier) and then cast Change -- but that must be done on the other side of the hole at the same time as in this reality.

To pass through the gap in reality to the alternate world requires Gate. The alternate world is a plain of sand with ripples surrounding the hole in reality, and a ring of greenery (savanna) in the distance. They immediately notice the dead calm. No weather at all works in the affected zone, though there are winds blowing across the steppes. This zone is analogous to how the archipelago world is being changed around the hole in reality there.

To cast spells here:
  1. Skill + Name (to read)
  2. Then Wisdom + Name (to transform into a usable form)
  3. Then cast the spell
The characters are greeted by primitive tribesmen who blame them for breaking the world. This is a world of open grassland in which the only wizards are female – the mirror image of the characters’ own world.

The natives’ shaman (Ma’ada) is reasonably powerful (stats 11) with Name +5 and Change +4. She must make her Name rolls at -5 here just as the PCs had to in their world.

Of course, the natives of this universe do not speak the same language. The characters must find a way to communicate – perhaps through use of Illusion magic, causing images to appear in a campfire.

Remember that somebody needs to fix the piece in place from this side: either one of the characters, or Ma’ada if they can explain to her what is needed, or Agios if he isn’t dead.

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