And so it begins. We’ve gathered at Gigabytes Cafe in Marietta for our monthly Atlanta Gamer’s Guild Dungeon World game. I’ll try to recap as best I can, although my memory isn’t completely reliable and I hope the players who read this will offer corrections as comments. At the table, as I see them, from my right to left:
- Logan the Mage (Paul). A member of the Secret Order of the Mask. Of Celtic Origin.
- Ajax the Fighter (Don). A former caravan guard who helped Scahawk the Thief steal a valuable artifact in the previous campaign.
- Vedrick (Drew). A young Paladin sent from the Empire to help re-establish the worshop of Larani (yes, the one from Harn), in Gondgûl.
- Mablung the Shaman (Charlie). From the far north. A survivor of several adventures in the previous campaign, he had not met Ajax and Scahawk and doesn’t know they’re responsible for what happened to three of his friends.
- Scahawk* the Thief (Kevin). A devious halfling who helped end the last campaign with Ajax by leaving three other player characters to die on the Ebon Barge in the Sea of Fire in the Heart of the World Cavern.
- Asgrim the Barbarian (Andrew). From the far north, and a tribe related to Mablung’s tribe.
No one in the group is new to me, or Dungeon World, which means we can get off to a fast start. Several people have new characters to create, but that goes quickly. We do some character introductions and establish bonds. From the time people showed up, I’ve been setting the scene:
Gondgûl, as everyone knows, is a free city, half-way between the Pharazanic Kingdoms to the West and the Empire to the East. Founded by Dwarves thousands of years ago, ruled by the Pharazanic Kingdoms for several hundred years, then the Empire for several hundred more, it’s been free for about 150 years. It survives as a trade hub and a home for outlaws, outcasts and exiles from the rest of the world. It’s ruled, Ouija Board fashion, by an ever shifting coalition of factions made up of wealthy business owners, powerful magicians and leading clerics. The primary businesses in the city are the Expeditionary Companies, which deal in trade, swords-for-hire and treasure-hunting expeditions. The player characters are all employees of Morden Routh, an Empire Exile who owns the Red Hawk Expeditionary Company. The city is also known for the foul weather, with big storms during the fall and winter, heavy rains all summer long, and cold winds and freezing rain during the winter.
Calling the game to order, we begin in the Red Hawk Expeditionary Warehouse, marked on the map by the gold building with the Red Hawk in the docks area. Morden Routh has brought in all available employees to warn them than something’s afoot. A Red Hawk caravan returning from the Empire was attacked by brigands three times, while a Razor Talon caravan half-a-day behind, arrived unscathed. Nothing has been ruled out, including deliberate interference by another Expeditionary Company. Morden also wants information about the rumor that a Black Watch expedition has returned with a powerful, magical artifact. He offers a reward for the relocation of any such artifact to Red Hawk control. Then, he divides up the available expeditionaries into their next duties.
Our heroes are put on the team led by Piotr One-Eye, an experience Red Hawk Captain with a reputation for being a whiny braggart. They’ve drawn “the shit stick” and been assigned to overnight guard duty at the old Dwarven Temple warehouse, reputed to be the most secure building in all of Gondgûl. Apparently, Morden has something in the Dwarven Temple that needs special watch for three days before it’s headed out to the Empire. Piotr sounds anything but enthusiastic about this job, and seems convinced it’s a trick by Morden to make him look bad. The crew needs to arrive for duty at sundown, so I ask each Player in turn what they’ll do with the rest of their day.
This is the point where I throw in some fun for each Player Character. As they’ve been making up characters, I’ve been taking notes and creating unique NPCs for each of them. Perhaps antagonists, perhaps allies, I wanted to give each Player a chance to explore their character a little beyond the main adventure.
First up is Logan (Paul), who has decided he wants to meet the Celtic magician Ailíse Farghas, also known as ‘the Flame.’ Logan is a member of the Secret Order of the Mask, and is interested in finding about about the origin of a Pharazanic Mask amulet his mother gave him. So, just outside the Flame’s tower, Logan is surprised by Bonhu, an enigmatic member of the Order of the Mask and a Pharazanic exile. Bonhu suggests that the Flame doesn’t like their order, and before Logan can begin to ask him questions, he claims to hear a strange sound and quickly flees the area.
Ajax is on his way to buy a supply of wine for the night when he is accosted by the Gladiator Gelfrid. Gladiators in the city, I improvise, spend their days marching the streets, challenging strangers and promoting their upcoming fights in the Pit. They are loud, boisterous and wildly popular, especially with urchins. Gelfrid, who shares a Germanic ancestry with Ajax, issues a challenge, which Ajax turns down because he’s got to work this night. Gelfrid announces loudly to the crowd that the “Cowardly Ajax” refuses to fight him. Ajax takes a swing at the Gladiator, but misses, and Gelfrid delivers a powerful punch that knocks Ajax into the mud, humiliated.
Vedrin spends the day helping the Priest Liebwin attend to the faithful at the Restored Chapel of Larani. I don’t remember what happened, but we got interrupted or sidetracked here, because I didn’t finish with Vedrin’s encounter, and didn’t introduce Scahawk’s antagonist Burgok the Orc, Mablong’ s antagonist Teemu of the North, or Asgrim’s antagonist Overion the Elf. It’s a shame, because the idea is to give the Player Characters a sense of that they have problems of their own to deal with. But, both Scahawk and Asgrim spent the day scouring the Dwarven Temple for weaknesses, and Mablong communes with his ancestors, apparently receiving visions of Vedrin wreathed in flames and Ajax wreathed in blood. I made sure to write these last two down, and sure enough, they came true near the end of the session.
Guard duty begins. The Dwarven Temple is a very large stone building, backed up on the docks, a hundred feet long, forty wide and fifty feet high. There are two metal entrance doors facing the street and secured with heavy iron beams from the inside. A larger, wider sliding metal door opens out onto the docks, which is also secured by an iron beam in the roller path. Small, hand-sized ducts on the roof provide fresh air, while lanterns hung from the walls offer dim illumination. Goods in the warehouse are stacked orderly in the center. Crates and boxes are stacked atop each other or spread out, while thousands of bags of Pharazanic grain bound for the Empire are stacked six feet high in a large, rectangle. Asgrim the Barbarian, apparently more comfortable outside, patrols the docks and street alone. The rest break into two shifts. One group watches, while the other snoozes atop the bags of grain.
It isn’t until late in the second shift that Scahawk hears something near the bags of grain. It’s not a member of the party snoring. He’s heard a very specific scratching sound, and awakes everyone. They discover a small hole on the far side of the grain bags, ground level, that turns out to be some sort of tunnel. Logan casts an invisibility spell on himself, which doesn’t work very well, and wiggles into the hole to see where it goes. He screams and kicks, and Ajax pulls him out by the legs. Logan, clearly visible at this point, has cuts and scratches all over his face and arms. Ajax smashes down on the bags above the tunnel with his shield, and manages to collapse them in a line fifteen feet long, to a point where a wide circle of bags sinks down several feet. After much argument and bickering between Piotr One Eye and Scahawk, the heroes clear away the bags where they have sunk down.
And reveal a trap door, cleverly built into the wooden floor, and only obvious because of all the dust and spilled grain. Opening it reveals a narrow, circular passageway, and a small, flickering torch on a stone floor ten feet below. Mablong wriggles his way through the tight space, and counts his blessings nothing is ready to eat him alive. He’s now in what appears to be the end of an ancient Dwarven tunnel (1), which disappears into the gloom to the west. The tunnel is only five feet wide, and barely five feet tall at the top of the arching ceiling. There is grain spilled out all around the torch, and several half-empty bags of grain discarded down the tunnel.
At (2), they discover five foot passageways off in all directions, and two narrower tunnels leading up and down. The downward tunnel is covered with a round metal grate. There is the sound of movement and flickering light coming from (3). This is identified as goblins. which are rarely if ever a problem in Gondgul! Asgrim, halfway down the tunnel to (3), bellows a challenge (and fails his roll). The goblins hiding beyond find his rage hysterical, and this infuriates the barbarian, who rushes forward to attack with Vedrin and Ajax following right behind him. Unfortunately, at the edge of the tunnel, the floor drops four feet. And both Asgrim and Vedrin stumble and fall right into the net trap below them. Goblins hiding in the corners haul the struggling heroes up so that they’re hanging right in front of Ajax inside the tunnel. Ajax quickly cuts through the net, but not before the goblins get off a few quick volleys of darts and rocks. As the three big warriors get up, the goblins flee north, south and east. Logan tries to work some magic (oops, bad roll), which first results in the bellowing of what he identifies as a Hydra and then results in all of the parties light sources failing completely. The party makes a hasty retreat backward. Along the way, Mablung stumbles into the hole where the metal grate was secretly melted away by acid poured on it by Scahawk. The bruised Mablung and the rest of the group escape the tunnels and report their findings, first to a paranoid Piotr One Eye, and then as the day shift guards arrive, to Morden himself. Morden is told of the grain theft, the tunnels and a hydra on the loose below the city. He’s NOT told there are Dwarf tunnels. He orders the party to return in the evening for the next shift and to keep their findings to themselves.
During the day, most take advantage of a chance to sleep. Logan realizes he’s being watched on his way home by a large, red bird. Ajax heads to the Gladiator’s guild to wait for his nemesis Gelfrid to appear. When the gladiator does leave the guild, he appears to have been wounded in his fight the previous night, and is with several others gladiators. Nevertheless, the fearless Ajax confronts him. The two men exchange mighty punches before Ajax agrees to meet Gelfrid in the Pit that coming night.
When evening falls, five of our heroes report to the Dwarven Temple, where they find Lorcan, Morden’s second-in-command, there to meet them. The day shift guards have maneuvered an enormous lead weight on top of two metal bars over the trapdoor. The heroes, at Lorcan’s direction, leverage the weight out of the way and open the trap door again. They lead Lorcan down and show them what they’ve found at (1), (2) and (3). Lorcan is stunned and explains that everyone has always assumed there were Dwarven ruins under the city, but no one has actually found them before. They explore the wider tunnel to the west of (3), finding larger and more obvious Dwarven construction before a collapse blocks the tunnel. A small, goblin sized hold leads off into the black just north of the block. Lorcan immediately orders the group to split up and explore (3a) and (3b) to quickly see what they may be dealing with. Vedrin and Scahawk head south, while Asgrim, Mablung and Logan head north. Scahawk and Vedrin are close enough to hear the bell, from one of the alarms Scahawk had set up at (2). Then everyone hears Lorcan, who stayed behind in (3), yell, then scream, and then appear to be on fire as he stumbles backward towards (4).
Vedrin arrives first, jumping down into (3), looking for Lorcan, but not seeing the creature hiding in the tunnel in the opposite direction. He does hear it, and as he turns to look, he is wreathed by flame, temporarily blinding and badly wounding him. Scahawk scuttles up to the mouth of the tunnel with an arrow nocked, but fails his defy danger when he sees what appears to be a dragon the size of a German Shepard turning to face him. Asgrim, scuttling down the tunnel from (3b), has seen Vedrin lit up like a torch and Scahawk duck back into the shadows. He doesn’t even look, leaps from the edge of the tunnel with his dagger in hand (he can’t swing his two-handed sword in the 5′ high tunnels). He lands a weak blow that is deflected by the dragon creature’s hide, and himself takes a hideous gout of flame in the face. He falls back to the floor below. Mablung prepares himself to make his own attack, but Vedrin strikes first, and strikes true, slicing off one of the creature’s right wing and front leg. Scahawk drops the beast with an arrow tipped with a sleeping poison. Asgrim wastes no time decapitating the now snoring dragon whelp, much to the dismay of the more entrepreneurial minded characters.
In the aftermath, Lorcan is located, and rescued from death by the Paladin Vedrin. Headed back out, the party explores (7) and discovers a pit filled with excrement and offal, apparently delivered from a sewer somewhere above. A bridge, now rotting and collapsed, once crossed to the north side, and there are passages out of the east and west sides of the offal pit. To the south, in (5), the party discovers a round dome, filled with garbage; broken household and personal items, as well as ruined dishes and mugs; bones, bodies and the crispy, fried bodies of several goblins. Apparently the lair of the dragon whelp. A five foot wide hole, thirty feet above the center of the chamber, appears to lead to the outside.
Ajax, meanwhile, arrives at the Pit for his midnight fight. The crowd, overwhelmingly supporting Gelfrid, cheer in delight as the oiled gladiator, wielding flaming hand axes, leaps at Ajax. But our hero ducks away and delivers a brutal cut on the gladiator’s back with his own axe. Gelfried, sags to his knees, and looks as if he’s about to collapse, but this is a ruse, and he rolls to his left, and up, and swings, striking Ajax with deep cuts. The crowd roars its approval as Gelfrid easily dodges Ajax’s next attack, and then whirls around trying to remove his challengers legs at the knees. But, Ajax has anticipated this, and leaps high into the air, swinging his axe as he falls and delivers a devastating blow six inches below the back of Gelfrid’s bare neck. The gladiator is out, if not dead, and a huge splatter of blood, fulfilling Mablong’s vision of Ajax wreathed in blood.
Thus ended the first session of Gondgûl: Screams in the Dark. The ideas of goblins stealing food, and of discovering Dwarven tunnels, were already in my head before the session started. During the game, I used my Apocalypse Words Dungeon World tools page a number of times for quick ideas and inspiration. The offal pit came from that tool, for example. The layout and contents of the tunnel complex were improvised. I dropped in the Dragon Whelp to offer a bigger challenge to close with, and to play off of the idea there is a hydra involved. The death toll, in all, was one Dragon Whelp, although that was an arbitrary action by the barbarian.
As I’ve said many times before, I love the Apocalypse World system. I find it simple to run, and I enjoy the way it leads me to creative and improvisational responses to Player Character actions. From the campaign fronts I’ve already created, I have a variety of elements to work with coming into the next session. I have the character’s personal antagonists to work into interludes. And I have their own actions to open up new avenues of conflict. I hope Ajax isn’t convinced his problems with the now crippled Gelfrid are over. What’s with that red bird following Logan. Why is an orc on the lookout for Scahawk? What does an elf want with the barbarian Asgrim? What did the Black Watch expedition find? Where do those Dwarf tunnels lead? Who’s painting golden snake graffiti all over town? And hey, what’s with that little stone skull I just found on the street? Do you have one too?
Until next month…
* Scahawk is not spelled this way. Kevin has some insane Welsh-like spelling that had my head spinning six consonants in and I gave up trying to write it down.