23 March 2013

Earthdawn: Adventure Log 14 - Welcome to the Jungle

This is the fourteenth Adventure Log in an ongoing series about Earthdawn.Introduction and Index.

The Theran Empire is an interesting element of the Earthdawn setting. Ostensibly one of the primary villains, they also save a great many Namegivers through their knowledge gleaned from the Books of Harrow. Though there is certainly room for discussion on how much they quashed aid offered by the great dragons, that is a realm best left for each campaign to explore.

How the Theran Empire is portrayed is something that I prefer to customize for each campaign. It depends on the kind of story that I want to tell - if it is a simple game of raiding kaers and cleansing Barsaive of Horrors, then Therans will be in the background and serve as fairly one-dimensional opposition; they aren't the focus of the action. In a more nuanced game, such as the one this adventure log is taken from, then their role is less clear.

In any game where they are introduced, there are two elements to address for the Theran Empire: their interest in Barsaive and slavery. The first pertains to how aggressively, if at all, are they pursuing their agenda of bringing the open rebellion of Barsaive under heel? This is all, of course, from their perspective. Barsaive (mostly Throal) takes the view that they successfully repelled the oppressive regime and won't be hearing from them again. This can play out anywhere from non-existant (they simply do not show up in the game), to opposition along the lines of Nazis for Indiana Jones (chasing after the same resources), to outright war.

For this particular game, the goals of the Theran Empire are currently ambiguous, but there has been some activity within Barsaive, particularly involving their old t'skrang allies. There are more questions than answers and at this time real shows of force. It is a story waiting to unfold.

The second element, slavery, is not terribly easy to cast in any other light than absolutely terrible. The setting makes no effort to do so, which is the right choice. To add some depth to the practice, I have had the Theran Empire from this campaign heavily influenced by the Roman Empire (to showcase against the Grecian Kingdom of Throal). The form of slavery they practice is less chattel slavery, and more along the lines of indentured servitude/serfdom. They have some rights and may get their freedom, but are often treated as members of the family, though without the option of leaving. There are exceptions to this, such as slaves that will not behave. They are often sold to the military to power their great stone airships and, well, that isn't something you survive. Other city-states in Barsaive (most notably Iopos) practice the form of chattel slavery that is most familiar.

My goal in this is not to defend the practice, but to cast it in a slightly different light from how Throal portrays it. They have an agenda are spreading propaganda; they want to be the dominant nation within Barsaive and enforce their influence through a soft power. With those seeds of doubt, the entire conflict has more shades of grey to it. Towards that end, the face of the Theran Empire that is currently in play is fair and honorable, though not good. Which means that everything they do is suspect and terrifying, apparently. For example, you cannot capture free Namegivers and enslave them, doing so is punishable by death, but it is entirely expected to enslave your defeated enemies rather than put them to the sword.

There is a great deal more to the Theran Empire, such as the other lands, but for these are the important elements as they relate to this adventure log. When you introduce the Theran Empire into your game, you should first ask what role you want them to play and what you want them to do. They are a human face to put on atrocities as compared to the very inhuman Horrors.

Adventure Log – 14 Welcome to the Jungle

Recorded By: Ting V’strimon the Merciless of Urupa

Date: 07 Charassa – 17 Rua, 1507 TH
Group Name: Mismatched Steel

Group Members
Elmod the Nethermancer
Honeysuckle Sunspray the Windmaster
Jak’Tak the Weaponsmith
Ontheros the Horror Stalker
Sogun the Messenger
Ting the Swordmaster

Darron of Lang(1) approached me wanting native art from the Servos and to find his cousin, and establish trade relations in one trip. Fair amount of cash to be had for that, plus whatever we find in the jungle. I have a good feeling about this trip. Jak pounded out a couple of weapons to use as gifts, which was as great idea. Took a warship toward the jungle. We went in further than we did the last trip. We took our goats and got a move on. The human tribe(2) found us in short order. They have been having some trouble with the local t’skrang tribes(3). We made with the greeting rituals and gifts, and started talking about trade. They seem willing to trade, but would like us to help them first with a plague a few days away.

They took us out a day to get us pointed in the right direction. The next day we started to lose our way. We were completely surprised by a giant praying mantis(4). The thing beat on my ass, and the rest of the party took it out quickly. While resting though, some of the local t’skrang came and harassed us for a bit. They were laughing when we told them where we were going. Also overheard some of their discussion, which sounded like they killed Darren’s cousin and his party. But they were willing enough to let us go.

The area up the hill was super disturbing, so we headed back down a bit to camp. On my watch, Elmod was not paying attention and we were ambushed by a giant black mantis(5). Once again I shielded the party from the initial blows. I managed to hit it with one of the most impressive blows I have ever delivered. The beast was felled in short order.

The next morning, we entered the ruined city(6). The d├ęcor was overwhelmingly covered in crystalline web. In moments a hellish beast, spider body with a human head and face, made of crystal and pus(7). Honeysuckle knocked it down, but it laughed hideously and produced some kind of maze web from its belly. I thought the others would be in trouble, but the web was almost instantly shattered. The creature comes back out to shoot some web on Jak, as another spider-thing drops from the ceiling. I stabbed it quickly. The original created another web tunnel, as another shows up and drops from above. After that were was some confusion. I headed straight for the center, some of my mates showed up here, but no creatures. Jak made a bellow, pointed us to where the bigger of the two spider things was. That put Sogun, Honey, Jak and I in the same place, slaughtering the disgusting beast.

After that, it was a short matter of chasing the other one down and hacking it to death. As it died, the metal webs disintegrated, giving us an unobstructed view of the ruins. Toward the center of the city was a crystal covered shrine, very glittery. It was trying to do something to the others, so Jak started smashing the crystal. Honeysuckle dive attacked the thing, and both Sogun and Elmod looked as if it almost hurt them as well.

When the crystal stuck at us, crystals would form in that person, and was causing massive damage(8). We stuck to our swords and beat on the thing until the light went out. Inside the temple, we found bodies wrapped in web, but they did not follow the description of the party we were looking for. After that, it was just making our way back to the humans.

Upon our return, there was a huge feast, tattooing and introduction to the tribe. They did not know where the party we were looking for was, but they knew that they t’skrang were leading people to a slavers’ camp.

As we approach, people come out of the woods and greet us. We describe the party we seek and are lead to the admiral(9). After a brief discussion with him, he returned the “slaves”. Se we picked up our goats, and go find our pick-up boat, and set off back to Bartertown.

Time for me to train again.(10)

(1) See entry cataloged under: Adventuring Groups: Miscellaneous: Mismatched Steel - 002.
(2) Cathans, presumably. See entry cataloged under: Adventuring Groups: Miscellaneous: Mismatched Steel - 009.
(3) Most likely jungle t'skrang. They are renown for their savagery and rumored to eat the flesh of other Namegivers.
(4) An inshalata is my supposition based on the location.
(5) Horror construct known for it's ability to reproduce on its own. These are extremely dangerous and if a colony has been established within the Servos. This needs to be addressed.
(6) The implication here is a lost citadel within the Servos and that is fascinating. An anthropological expedition should be sent out to investigate this site.
(7) This sounds like a variation on a Horror construct, the jehuthra.
(8) Something similar to a crystal entity is most likely accurate, though it is difficult to place from the sparse description.
(9) Slavers and admiral? This raises only questions and there is not nearly enough information here regarding this topic. The implication is Therans, but that doesn't make sense.
(10) Received and edited by Zamirica One-Knee.

*     *     *

This particular adventure was essentially about the Group coming into their own. Notable characters from many of their previous logs, most of them not listed. It also had a number of adepts that were inspired by the PCs follow in their footsteps and Initiate, followed by gathering into a Group and then getting in over their heads. Returning back to the Servos and meeting the Cathans, along with the older connections, give a sense that actions matter beyond just the adventure they happen in - which is something that I always try to foster.

Also a unique reward, the Blood Tattoo, for those who took part. I like to give out unique rewards like that as a part of adventuring. Legend Points and Thread Items are well and good, but there is something about a bonus that is unique, no matter how small. It's special.

This adventure itself was a few parts, introducing some new horror elements in the first half, a greater sense of dread and mystery to what is within the Servos. Which also ties in with the overall metaplot in a subtle way; the themes were all present, but not over by design.

The second half touched on another developing metaplot. The details of this plot have all been implied, rather than stated, and is significantly more ambiguous. As things play out, this plot should be significantly more epic in exposition as it reaches a climax, less "adepts dying in some forgotten cave" and more "big damn heroes doin big damn heroic things".

Part of my goal with this setup was to create a dichotomy between the plots - one is terrible and inhuman, virtually unknowable, while the other is terrible, but all too human. Both raise questions regarding what is going on, but while the former has very inhuman motivations, the second has very human motivations. 

If this all sounds a little cagey, that is because I don't want to give things away before their time.

The adventure itself went well. The search for the Initiates had the desired effect, the characters were afraid, and wanted little to do with the temple complex beyond what they had to. Blood Tattoos were a big hit, the level of personalization made them even more thematically interesting (there is something fundamentally compelling about totem animals). In the second half (which occupied the last paragraph above - a great deal more happened) some of the preconceived notions on Therans were challenged, some important NPCs were introduced and perhaps a little more mystery as to what exactly the last group of Therans were doing in the Servos. 

If I were to do it all again, I would have tightened up the pacing in the first part and worked more on the handouts and props. I've always found that the correct background music goes a long way to establishing the atmosphere for those kind of expeditions, and I don't recall having any music. The final conflict could have been spruced up a bit; it was a little to static in retrospect, but I wanted to balance that with the associated themes. Time was a constraint in putting it all together (isn't it always?), but I wanted to build up the temple complex more and give it a distinct feel with the architecture and areas to explore. There is a distinct possibility that it will come up again, so that opportunity isn't lost.

Finally, the creature loot made for this adventure was the jehuthra thorax web. It was tricky to pull off - from figuring out how to do it to execution. Picture framing wire was used in the end (paper clips didn't work so well) and is just prickly enough to be uncomfortable around.