Saturday, 14 December 2019

Weirdcrawl: Investigating the Weird and Wondrous

This post is a part in a series on creating a weirdcrawl campaign where the focus is on seeking out and exploring strange wonders in the wilderness far from civilization. For the full series click here.



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In a previous post I came up with a weird wonder along with six different facts about it based upon answering a series of questions. I'm going to revise things slightly so I have one answer per question:


The Moon Pool




  • Who guards it? The Moon Pool is a haunted place, a place where strange creatures called the Forgotten dwell. They are the watery dead, empty hollow men and women who walk about. Some recently dead, some having died many years or even eons ago. They forever walk about lost amid the endless pools of the swamp, forever seeking to remember who they once were, what they have forgotten. Strange tales abound about encounters with them.
  • What is it physically? Few know about it, but deep within the Black Basin lies a pool of silver water so bright and luminous it looks like a sliver of the moon. It is known as the Moon Pool. It is said to have been sacred long ago and was worshiped when the moon was young and the swamp a forest. Many who venture to it do not return.
  • When was it forgotten? Once long ago there were people who dwelt in the forests before the swamp. They worshiped a sacred pool. They used to make offerings of silver to it and every so often one of the strange necklaces of the old swamp folk turn up, dredged up from the bottom. Every so often one of their crumbling moon markers can be found in the swamp. No one knows why they abandoned the swamp.
  • Where is it located? It is said the Moon Pool lies westward beyond the last bend of the river Olb but can only be found on nights of a full moon and that one can only be lead there by the urging of a tormented soul.
  • Why was it forgotten?  Long ago, in funeral rite, the people from before the swamp would place their tormented dead within the waters of their sacred pool to grant them a peaceful rest as it's waters cause forgetting. The flesh of the corpse would sink from it's bones which would would arise as shimmering moonlight and their skeleton would arise to dance amid the stars. It is not known why but to keep it secret they all drank from the pool to forget it's existence. From then on it has become a lost place, only the Forgotten knowing the way to it's shore. 
  • How do you interact with it? The howling of lost and vengeful spirits can be heard above the waters of the Moon Pool. They howl for they know the awful bargain of the pool. From spirit to flesh, and flesh to spirit the pool can transform. And so the vengeful spirits swirl about the pool desperately wanting to clothe themselves in flesh again to wreak their vengeance, but unwilling to forget the awful grudge that drives them. Desperation mounting, at last, unable to bear it no more, they enter the waters of the Moon Pool. When they arise from it they arise clothed in flesh seeking to remember the grudge they have forgotten.

I have done my best to keep the answers to these questions terse and with little overlap between them. These six paragraphs is the entirety of the lore I would create for the moon pool and what I would relay to the players. However, I would not present this information to the players all at once. Their journey is to the Moon Pool is to be a quest! I would present them in a more investigative format.


Investigative Adventure


As the primary activity in my campaign is the players seeking out weird wonders deep in the wilderness, an investigative structure fits well this goal. While investigative adventures tend to be common in other RPGs they tend to be relatively rare in OSR games.

OSR games, especially D&D orientated ones, tend to emphasize freedom of player choice. Investigative adventures are hard because if structured too rigidly then the players are pulled from location to location looking for clues, unable to advance to the next location until they have found the crucial clue. If structured to loosely the players might be confused as to what direction to take, unsure or unable to piece together all the clues, and overall feel lost as to what they are supposed to do or how to measure their progress or form goals.

The first thing that must be realized when structuring a investigative adventure is that it is information that is the real reward and measure of progress, not gold collected, not rooms explored, not monsters killed. It is information that allows the players to form goals about what they want their characters to do and what their next step is, and to see how much progress they have made.

In this manner the above six bits of information about the Moon Pool serve as the real rewards for the players investigations. As they seek out and learn more about the moon pool they will be better able to formulate further ideas and plans.

The six clues outlined above form a 'flat' hierarchy of information where each clue is not more important than any other and each can sought out and learned in any order. This is intentional to try and maximize player choice. It's also intentional that players can choose, if they wish, to seek out he wonder after discovering the 'where' clue (or even find some even more clever way of doing so). It is up to them to decide when they feel they have learned enough to make the journey worthwhile, and probably more importantly, feel they can survive it.

If they seek out the wonder knowing too little about it then they will likely remain confused about what exactly it is and how it works and return with more questions than answers. The possibility of an unsatisfactory conclusion to their journey is once again purposeful. Knowledge is it's own reward.


Artifacts


In order to help facilitate adventure, it is best that the six clues be embodied in objects or people in the game world that the player characters can seek out and interact with. I think this goes well with D&D based OSR games as in them there is an emphasis on loot and items and it's much easier to quest after something tangible.

I am calling these things artifacts. Not in the traditional D&D sense, but more in the archaeological sense. They represent physical things that are found that tell us something about the past.


Creating an Artifact


There are four ways the fragment of lore can be transmitted each with a different challenge associated with it based on it's method of transmission. 

1d4 Method Challenge
1 Pictorial Seeing the visual display, which is probably immovable, and making sense of what it's trying to depict.
2 Written Obtaining the written object and deciphering it.
3 Verbal Getting someone to tell you the information and recording it.
4 Magic Conducting a ritual to gain the information through extra-sensory or magical means.


I have created four charts to further define the artifact. Roll a d20 and cross reference to determine its form:

1d20 Pictoral Written Verbal Magic
1 Paintings Scrolls Poem Scrying
2 Sacred architecture Tablets Ballad Speaking with the dead
3 Metalwork Book or Tome Legend Speaking with a demon
4 Sculptures Engraving Recounting Speaking with a spirit
5 Ceramics and Pottery Fragments and scraps Insane ramblings Viewing past events
6 Jewelry Letters Oral history Viewing future events
7 Tapestry Chronicle Speech Using astronomical events to find location
8 Fresco Last will and testament Riddle Dowsing
9 Mosaic Map Eulogy Mind Reading
10 Illuminated illustration Travelogue Rant Summoning, Binding, and Torturing
11 Hieroglyph Philosophical/Metaphysical treatise Lecture Speaking with Monsters
12 Petroglyph Encyclopedia Conversation Dimensional traveling
13 Altarpiece Encoded Document Debate Unearthly visions
14 Bas-relief Religious or Occult text Play or performance Time travel
15 Carving Scientific Observations Audio recording Contacting the Outer Spheres
16 Graffiti Official missive Chant Speaking with Animals
17 Model or maquete Compendium Coded language Mind-meld
18 Globe Leaflet Echo Magical illusion
19 Embroidery Suicide note Sound Summoning a guide
20 Etching Schematic Recitation Magically locate


Fragments of Lore for the Moon Pool


Taking the above information I can apply it to the above 6 clues. I will roll randomly for each and from it create a description of the main challenge the players will face and the hook. A hook is an inciting incident that doesn't tells them a bit about how they may find the fragment of lore. Kind of, oh, I don't know that, but I know who may know that. It points them in the direction of the fragment. 



1. Who guards it?



Hook: a party of travelers enters the gates of Vorba bearing the slain bodies of their comrades. Hungry, wounded, and miserable, they beg for help and tell tales of being attacked by strange cold skinned dead things in the night, deep in the swamp.

Fragment (Verbal: Recounting): the man who was on watch at the time knows best what these things are. Unfortunately, he has slunk away from his fellow travelers to drown himself in drink. If found and convinced to talk he will recount details of the attack. A host of tallow skinned strange men and women came upon him when he was on watch that night. Their skin was cold, their eyes a milky white and they muttered continually, one of them calling him brother, accusing him or murdering it, although he swears he has no brothers or sisters.

Clue: The Moon Pool is a haunted place, a place where strange creatures called the Forgotten dwell. They are the watery dead, empty hollow men and women who walk about. Some recently dead, some having died many years or even eons ago. They forever walk about lost amid the endless pools of the swamp, forever seeking to remember who they once were, what they have forgotten. Strange tales abound about encounters with them.


2. What is it physically?

Hook: In a tavern smelling of old ale frequented by students, a priest in a frumpled frock drinks with celibate monks. He is about to be fully ordained and they all sing old ditty's and hymns in celebration. He remarks how he is going to be baptized in the baptismal fount of the grand cathedral of Vorba, Our Lady Victorious. To any who listens, he lets slip that the baptismal font in the cathedral is said to be older than the city itself and is made from a strange metal. 

Fragment (Pictoral: Metalwork): underneath the grand cathedral in a grotto few but those the Bishop allows to visit, lies a large metal basin made of a strange silver metal. It is perfectly round and has been set into the bedrock like a pool. It appears to predate the church. The water gleams brightly, dappled with light, no matter the darkness. Strange etchings of an auroch trampling a serpent adorn its rim. 

Clue: Few know about it, but deep within the Black Basin lies a pool of silver water so bright and luminous it looks like a sliver of the moon. It is known as the Moon Pool. It is said to have been sacred long ago and was worshiped when the moon was young and the swamp a forest. Many who venture to it do not return.


3. When was it forgotten?

Hook: in the market place, amid the finely woven carpets from the east and the black briarwood of the north an old jewelry vendor with a crippled back sells a strange necklace. Primitive, made of large links of a silver metal with the image of an auroch dangling from it's end it is like no other. Rubbing his chapped hands he drives a hard bargain. If any shows interest in his tale, with a craven grin he tells them he will tell them more about it if they buy it.

Fragment (Verbal: Poem): the jewelry vendor once attended the halls of storytellers in the north. He is acquainted with the poem of the god Islador, an ancient creation myth of the ancient forest people and the pool they worshiped. He will recite it to the players if they buy the necklace. However, he knows the necklace is the centerpiece of his collection and draws much attention to his stall. He will only let it go for an exorbitantly high price or in trade for a similarly unique item.

Clue: Once long ago there were people who dwelt in the forests before the swamp. They worshiped a sacred pool. They used to make offerings of gold to it and every so often one of the strange necklaces of the old swamp folk turn up, dredged up from the bottom. Every so often one of their crumbling moon markers can be found in the swamp. No one knows why they abandoned the swamp.



4. Why was it forgotten?

Hook: the maidens of the Peatsmen are said to be the keepers of the history of the roaming boat clans for it is they who embroider the old stories onto their wedding dresses. Each dress contains the history and legends of the clan depicted in colourful thread. Yur Zhdanov, a scholar, is seeking out several well experienced travelers to help him collect several such dresses to study.

Fragment (Pictoral: Embroidery): the wedding dresses of the maidens of the Peatsmen are treasured. They are not made to be given away or traded and each is specific to the recently married maiden who made it. Only they can decode the full story of what the embroidery conveys, stories that are passed down from mother to daughter in secret. If several such dresses are collected they show the reoccurring symbol of the Moon Pool and starry skeletons. If decoded by the maidens who made the dresses, the full tale can be learned.

Clue: Long ago, in funeral rite, the people from before the swamp would place their tormented dead within the waters of their sacred pool. It would grant them a peaceful rest as it's waters cause forgetting. The flesh of the corpse would sink from it's bones. It's skeleton would arise as shimmering moonlight to dance amid the stars. It is not known why but to keep it secret they all drank from the pool to forget it's existence. From then on it has become a lost place, only the Forgotten knowing the way to it's shore. 


5. Where is it located?

Hook: a clan of Peatsmen in the swamp is in disarray over their disgraced prince who recently died in a duel with another clan. The entire clan is in mourning and the funeral rites last many weeks. The matriarch refuses to bury her son until his soul can be laid to rest.

Fragment (Magic: Mind-meld): in order to find out why the princes soul is tormented the party must conduct a ritual to mind meld with the recently deceased prince. They must gather black saw-grass, the eye of a blue eel, and a powder of fragrant glass the traders bring far from the south. In the darkness of a new moon they must sing the ancient incantations and place their palm upon the Prince's head in which their minds and his, pulled from the afterlife become conjoined. They receive visions of the Moon Pool and feel his urging for it.

Clue: It is said the Moon Pool lies westward beyond the last bend of the river Olb but can only be found on nights of a full moon and that one can only be lead there by the urging of a tormented soul.


6. How do you interact with it?

Hook: Grigory "The Great" Ivankov is a wizard of ill repute has created a machine to record and play the voices of restless undead spirits. He seeks a brave group of individuals to travel deep within the swamp to one of the crumbling 'moon markers' within the swamp. These are haunted obelisks with holes that line up with the moon. No one knows who built them but the whispering of evil spirits is heard about them. He wishes to record their voices there.

Fragment (Verbal: Audio recording)If recorded, the spirits, in insane howling voices, obsessively speak of the temptation of the Moon Pool. Recording them, of course, draws them like a loadstone and they will be loath to simply return to their aimless roaming of the swamp. 

Clue: The howling of lost and vengeful spirits can be heard above the waters of the Moon Pool. They howl for they know the awful bargain of the pool. From spirit to flesh, and flesh to spirit the pool can transform. And so the vengeful spirits swirl about the pool desperately wanting to clothe themselves in flesh again to wreak their vengeance, but unwilling to forget the awful grudge that drives them. Desperation mounting, at last, unable to bear it no more they enter the waters of the Moon Pool. When they arise from it they arise clothed in flesh seeking to remember the grudge they have forgotten.



Following the Trail of Information



In the above one weird wonder is outlined with six different trails to clues. A campaign would have multiple wonders in the wilderness, each with six different hooks. The players would run across them primarily in civilized areas and have to decide which they wish to pursue and more importantly which they feel are connected to each other.

There are some repeating motifs across the six hooks. These serve let the GM riff on things and help them help the players make connections as they narrow in on what weird wonder they are pursuing. The GM might tell the players that the baptismal fount and the strange necklace seem to be made of the same metal connecting those leads for the players. They might even to go so far as once the players have managed to overcome the challenge of the fragment, to summarize the clue in it's entirety to the players. In investigative games, the real interesting fun come not from finding information. It comes out of what the players decide to do with the information they find. Do they trust all of it? How will they leverage it? How will it effect their current relationships? Their future plans? At what cost did the information come?



Civilization holds the Clues



Overall the hooks for each clue are meant to be random type encounters that the players can have in civilized locations or not to far outside civilization. I place them mostly in civilized locations as the easiest way to get information about something is from another person, so civilized locations have a greater chance of someone knowing something about something, if not the final clue, then something that will help them towards the clue. 

Civilized locations tend to also create small quickly resolved situations that are easy to role play and help expand the setting and characters detail by detail through play. I also find these sorts of situations at the beginning of an adventure help build suspense and interest in the end goal. 

A natural turning point is when the players decide to actually set out into the harsh wilderness to find the weird wonder. Before, they are still safe in civilized lands. After they set out, the journey will be long and arduous, there is no easy turning back. Once they set off, what they find lacking will test them in body and soul. 

In my next post I will detail this second half further.






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