Starting premise was essentially "reclaim" mode of the video game "Dwarf Fortress". If you've never played DF, just picture the abandoned halls of Moria from Lord of the Rings… with a penchant for going FUBAR in delightfully slapstick ways. If you are familiar with Dwarf Fortress, you'll get a couple of inside jokes below, but you'll also quickly see that we diverged from the source material.
For a thousand years the mighty Dwarf enclave known as "Hammer-Patterned, The Multiplicity of Tongs" had stood solid within a rocky mountain at the edge of the empire. But now, several years have passed since word or caravan had come forth from Hammer-Patterned, and the worst is feared.
A small group of stout Dwarven settlers and explorers has been sent forth to Hammer-Patterned to learn the fate of King Blordok Syrupbraid, re-establish the trade-route if possible, and claim salvage rights should things in Hammer-Patterned turn out to be as bad as they are feared.
An aside about the ridiculous name: Three of us grabbed random words and we mashed them together to come up with a silly title worthy of a Dwarf Fortress. It didn't make any sense to us, either, but it certainly is in line with the bizarre naming conventions employed in the source material.
Our party of stout dwarves explorers is as follows:
- Oredang the Miner (played by Devon, who had a fair amount of Dwarf Fortress). Gender: Female. Skills: Miner, Novice Organzier. Equipment: Steel Pickaxe, pet Yak calf. Beard: black, long and twisted.
- OIN son of GLOIN son of BROIN son of DROIN son of MOIN (played by Dan), (hereafter referred to as simply "Oin son of blah" to save me a lot of typing.) Gender: Male Skills: likes Ancestry Beard: 7 and 1/8ths inches
- Cog Claspshanks (played by my wife, Sarah). Gender: Female Skills: Stone Engraver Equipment: Carving Tools Beard: 9 braids (one per child she bore)
- Brunhilda the Carver (played by Laura). Gender: Female Skills: Carver, creates statues, curious, good fighter with a hammer. Equipment: Hammer, Carving Tools Beard: Has a red beard she wears in two braids.
- Thugnar the Bold (played by John). Gender: Male Skills: bold, break rock with hammer, drink ale copiously. Equipment: Hammer Beard: Long flowing blonde beard, braided intricately.
- Mad Oleg (played by Eric). Gender: Male Skills: Ore-taster Beard: filled with minerals
An aside about investigation and skills: In retrospect, I wish I'd done more with Mad Oleg's unique and flavorful "ore-taster" skill. It's got great potential for an investigative scenario, but since this was an off-the-cuff 6X game (and thus what mysteries there were remained mysterious even to the GM until they were randomly defined), I just didn't really figure out a way to make it matter. Similar things can be said for Oin son of blah's "likes Ancestry" skill that would have been really useful in Continuum or Trail of Cthulhu, but was hard to work into 6X on the fly. I wish I could have integrated these into the story better.
I started the game with some narration about the overland trip. When you arrive at your destination, the food cart has already run out and you've polished off half the mules. That baby Yak calf is starting to look pretty good.
Then I threw in a passing comment about the sad state of the disused trade route and especially the statuary along it, and it nearly took the game in a completely different direction. I said the ancient statues at the side of the road were overgrown, and someone had put pumpkins or jack-o-lanterns where the statues heads should be, but I didn't really know where I was going with this. It was just color, drawn from an old fantasy illustration I saw once for one of the Lord of the Ring books. The players immediately started blaming the elves, so I said that near one of the statues was a tree with an old ramshackle treehouse in it's branches, and they could hear the slow sad sounds of a banjo on the wind.
The players debated whether to sneak past what were clearly creepy elfbillies, or just burn the place. Seemed like a great place for our first card draw.
Card Draw? We were using a variant of 6X that I'm calling cardX. Instead of making a chart and rolling a die, each player rights a possible outcome on a notecard, and we draw one out of a hat. Learn more here.So we get our first result:
- 1: "Burning down the treehouse starts a forest fire. We have to run quickly and rush the cart along, breaking the axle."
We threw in a little color narration about dim-witted elven hillbillies having a conversation as their treehouse burnt down around them. One with a banjo, the other a pitchfork. "There they go, setting' us afire agin. An' I was jus' bouts to warn 'em that there's nuthin down that road but the ol' haunted dwarves place."
Escaping past the (flaming) tree line, and hauling their booze kegs on their own backs, our fearless dwarven explorers find themselves at the massive bridge that marks the borders of HammerPatterned the Multiplicity of Tongs.
The bridge was carved of stone and set with cogs and machinery. Dangling from the sides were chains ending with metal Tongs clattering in the breeze. With his knowledge of ancestry, Oin son of blah was able to explain that the local custom was to hang a set of ancestral tongs to commemorate the moment and place of passing of any dwarf. Clearly, hundreds of dwarves had died on this particular bridge. At the far end of the bridge was a mighty lever, so Thugnar the bold ran across the bridge and yanked the lever while his friends were crossing more slowly behind him.
I like to imagine that the other cards in the bag were full of horrible trap-riddled death the likes of which would have made even One-Eyed Willie turn white as a bone, but alas the one the players drew said simply:
- 2: "The cog bridge plays beautiful music!"
Thereafter followed a long section without any cards being made or pulled. There were probably a couple moments where we could have done cards, but each time someone would announce an idea they had that sounded fun enough we all just conceded the narrative ground to them.
The dwarves came to the gates of HammerPatterned, which were huge granite things set with engravings of hammers. The doors looked like they hadn't been opened for some time. We tried speaking "friend" to them, but to no avail. An oversized steel hammer and tongs hung from a chain, dangling out of the mouth of stone grate above the doors. A grate perfect for pouring something down on unwanted guests, like boiling oil. Most of the party stepped back or to the side.
Nearby was a pumpkin patch, growing in the sunlight beside the gates. Not a particularly dwarven crop, but we all grudging acknowledged you could ferment and brew with them if you had to. Oredang pastured her Yak calf at the p-patch.
Speaking of Yak p, by this time Thugnar had started knocking on the massive doors with the dangling hammer, and the other players suggested that his greeting should be that someone or something pees on him through the grates above. Sometimes you just gotta play to your audience.
Wet and smelly but surprisingly undiscouraged, Thugnar decided to yank on the big chain to see if maybe it rang a bell inside and summoned servants. Instead it made the grates above open up. As i was about to narrate huge rocks falling and call for a card draw, again a player interrupted me with a rather more amusing possibility so I just said yes. A Yak fell from grate, narrowly missing Thugnar and going splat on the ground.
Additional chains and tongs now dropped and dangled from the grates as well, because clearly, any place where a Yak might feasibly drop on you is a place likely to have claimed the lives of many a drunk dwarf (and thus need commemorating per the previously described local custom). So the players climbed up the mesh of chains and into the inside of the gatehouse.
Inside where the desiccated remains of a dwarf who had barricaded himself into the gatehouse. He'd clearly lived here for some time before passing on when the beer ran out. The grain and foodstuffs he had with sequestered with him were nearly out as well, but had been enough to sustain the Yak until this very day.
Before the booze ran out, the dead dwarf had kept himself busy carving the walls of his gatehouse tomb. Here is an engraving of a dwarf and and elephant. The dwarf is riding on the elephant. Here is an engraving of dwarves and an elephant. The dwarves are holding hands around the elephant. Here is a superior engraving of dwarves and an elephant. The elephant is giving birth to the dwarves. Riffing off of "Boatmurdered" (google it), mostly, followed by one reference to the Simpsons: Here is an engraving of just words, dwarves runic script in shaky handwriting, "can't sleep, elephants will eat me, can't sleep, elephants will eat me".
Undaunted (and now motivated by the inescapable conclusion that the fortress had been abandoned and thus the salvage rights were theirs), the players took down the barricade, and opened the doors. Beyond were balconied galleries, overlooking the main hall and gates to the fortress. Far below them the main hall angled downward into the bowels of the earth.
It was at that moment that I told them, "all of a sudden, you hear a terrible noise reverberate through the fortress. Everyone contribute a card to the hat describing a possible noise." Apparently someone liked my engravings, because the card that was drawn said:
- 3: "The Sound of a Mastodon"
The floor of the main hall below fell further and further down, until at least 7 stories separated the extended balcony they walked upon from the main floor. As they probed deeper into the gloom, they eventually saw a giant Jasper elephant statue. It's head rose to the level of the balconies, so it was 7 stories tall, and equivalently long.
Mad Oleg said something to the effect of: "That is the largest collection of Jasper I have ever seen in all my years of ore-tasting, and the second-largest elephant statues I've seen, too."
The thought occurred to me then and there that it'd be a cool demise for the fortress if they'd had a "Trojan Horse" scenario where the elephant statue had brought some invading force… but the gates were clearly secure and intact, whereas at Troy the gates were torn apart. If I wanted to go the Trojan route, I'd have to give the players another clue… and I'd have to do so quickly, because in 6X you can't be subtle or slow because at any time a player action could derail your plans.
So I said there was a lever nearby. The players pulled it, and the entire top of the mountain retracted, giving them a clear view of everything. This meant you'd be able to drag the 7-story statue in our out of the fortress's 2-story gate. That (plus "the elephant is giving birth to the dwarves") made me feel like I could later go more explicitly Trojan and it'd be deemed foreshadowed rather than contradictory.
Oin son of blah suddenly got the idea into his head that if we can't find stairs down from the gallery, maybe we can somehow find stairs down from an elephant. It was a novel idea, and he approached it with masochistic gusto, suddenly jumping off the balcony towards the head of 7-story elephant. This had some potential to backfire, and we hadn't done cards in a while, so what the heck…
- 4. "The jasper elephant collapses into a pile of bits burying Oin."
An aside about character mortality: I probably would have been justified in killing poor Oin given that result and it's vague statements about his status at the end of it. 7 stories of falling and then being buried under tons of shattered jasper could easily be lethal. Just like I could have made the Yak, rather than just it's pee, land on Thugnar earlier, and taken him out. Instead I would just file this away in the back of my mind. Later, when it was time to start kicking the players butts a little, I'd remember that I'd previously gone easy on the two of them.The statue fell to rubble, and this gave me a chance to reinforce my Trojan Elephant idea. I narrated that it had been a wooden frame with a jasper shell, hollow on the inside, and mostly breaking his fall as it collapsed in upon itself.
Rather than split up the party, I allowed the others to quickly find a ladder down and start unburying Oin son of blah. But as they labored, they could again hear the trumpeting of a mastodon, and the sound was now growing closer. Oh, and something about the cantilevered clockwork mechanisms closing the mountain top again since no one was up there holding the lever any more.
They free Oin son of blah, bandage him up, loot the huge garnet eyes of the crumbled statue, and then realize the source of the mastodon sounds is now only 1 room away from the main gall. It's behind Door #1. Mad Oleg starts trying to barricade Door #1. The other players start to scatter, and one opens a door across the room (which we'll call Door #2) to make an escape. The remainder of the part started describing various other dubious escape routes, and I decided the best way to bring this chaos under control was to have everyone make a card describing the event they wanted to have resolve first.
- 5. "Inside the door [Door #2] is the skeleton of a mighty elephant. It's eyes light up with a ghostly flame and focus on Oredang."
- 6. "The mastodon bursts into the room, shattering Mad Oleg's barricade! The mastodon then crushes the skeletal elephant in one blow of its mighty trunk!"
I gave everyone the opportunity to put in one brief bit of flavor narration that didn't change the overall situation, so they could illustrate how they fought or fled as appropriate, and then we did another card round to determine how the fight would resolve. Hammers and picks were swung, Brunhilda clambered up a ladder to line up a daring leap towards the mastodon's head, and the monster thrashed about. Then:
- 7. "The mastodon impales Oin son of bla on its left tusk, and Thugnar on the right. Both are badly injured and freeing them will take much effort or heroism."
And wouldn't you know it, the players drew another one of my cards the very next round.
- 8. "The mastodon swallows Cog Claspshanks in a single gulp. Meanwhile, the impaled Dwarves bleed profusely, and Thugnar's weakened arms drop his hammer."
- 9. "Cog discovers that this mastodon is also hollow."
So, I narrated that Cog drops down into the belly of the mechanical beast, and is immediately sealed inside one of several cages therein. Above her, safe within a metal cockpit with, are two kobolds operating the bicycle-driven mechanisms of the mechamastodon. They have reinforced windows that let them look down at Cog, or stare out through the "eyes" of the mechamastodon.
- 10. "Brunhilda jumps on the mastodon and starts beating it about the head with her hammer. The main effect is that she manages to realize there are kobolds inside. She kills the closer one."
At this point, I decided it was worth dealing with the impaled people. I announced that one of the tusks went limp, and Oin son of blah slid off the end of it. He's now bleeding out on the floor as the mechamastodon runs circles around him. I directed the players that this round of cards should not resolve the overall fight, but primarily determine Oin's fate.
- 11. "Oin dies in a pool of blood and miasma. Dan's next character may arrive as the first of a wave of migrants sent to aid your colonization."
Dan quickly came up with a brand new character, well, kinda…
- GROIN son of OIN son of GLOIN son of BROIN son of DROIN son of MOIN, (hereafter referred to as simply "Groin son of Oin" to save me a lot of typing). Gender: Male Skills: likes Ancestry Beard: 7 and 3/8ths inches
As a general rule, when a PC dies, I usually require that the replacement character be something very different from the previous character, so there's some sense that death has impact, and is a thing to be avoided. Usually. This time, however, it was funny enough, and relevant to the "likes ancestry" mention on the character sheet, that I felt that was actually the perfect way to continue.Various color narration. Circular mechamastodon chase. Cue benny hill music.
Then: "I am GROIN son of OIN son of GLOIN son of BROIN son of DROIN son of MOIN. You killed my father, OIN son of GLOIN son of BROIN son of DROIN son of MOIN. Prepare to die!"
- 12. "Groin son of Oin swings into the battle on a long tong-chain. The mastodon is still running in circles, however, and Groin son of Oin misses it. Meanwhile, Brunhilda drops into the mammoth next to the kobold."
- 13. "Brunhilda bashes the kobold to mush! Thugnar is saved through the immediate application of dwarven french bread through the wound."
I'm not sure exactly what happened next. The kobold was dead, the threat neutralized. They must have freed Cog. I remember Devon saying that Oredang had grown attached to her fine steel pick.
Mad Oleg wanted the flaming trunk "mechanism" off the ghost elephant, which was now somehow retroactively also a hollow mecha-skeletal-elephant and not a ghost elephant and I'm not really sure how any of that made sense, but it was amusing and he'd had the unfortunate distinction of not having any of the cards he'd created get drawn by anyone in any of our 13 to-date pulls from the hat, so I just said yes to his crazy idea. Plus, that retcon made at least as much sense as shoving bread into your wounds
… but other than all that miscellaneous insanity, I'm not really certain what the context was of this card, or why we were drawing:
- 14. "We need beer. NOW."
The brewery was guarded by kobolds in bronze armor, carrying bronze whips, and making mastodon calls on bronze french-kobold-horns. They apparently assumed the PCs were just another run-of-the-mill kobold-filled mechamastodon.
The doors to the brewery swing open, revealing dozens of emaciated, broken dwarves, clearly now enslaved to the kobolds. They are being forced to labor, and brew pumpkin ale for their kobold overlords. It is a truly sad sight, and a dishonor that cannot go unavenged.
Thugnar leaps forth from the cockpit of the mechamastodon, in much the way Athena sprung from the head of Zeus. The mythical reference will matter (sort of) a few cards later. The other dwarves start crawling out of the hole Thugnar leaves behind him, except for Brunhilda and Cog who drive the mech.
- 15. "Thugnar plows into several kobolds, knocking them down. Thugnar plays kobold golf. The mastodon's tusks swing, killing several. Oredang sneaks into the brewery! Another mechamastodon appears!"
- 16. "Our mastodon rams their mastodon. Mad Oleg is thrown from the rear. Sensing his opportunity, he lobs the flaming ghost trunk into the hole in their mastodon. It lights on fire."
- 17. "Brunhilda drives their mammoth backwards, forcing it through the doors into the walkway over the abyss. Burning kobolds climb onto the top of the mammoth."
- 18. "The hide is burnt away as Cog figures out how to shake off the flaming kobolds into the abyss. The other dwarves have liberated the brewery."
Being drunk, stupid, and beaten-down, these dwarves have started worshiping elephants and specifically the giant jasper elephant statue. They even call the players half-elephant demigods in dwarven form, come to free them from the half-elephant demigods in kobold form who were enacting the punishment of the high elephant gods.
At this point, I realize we haven't had anyone go crazy, which is totally a Dwarf Fortress thing. So I start narrating how one of the dwarves here had used the giant jasper elephant as a component in a slightly fancier artifact statue of his own design - mainly by attaching wheels (so they could haul it in) and big garnet eyes to the existing statue. But it's totally his design now, and the pinnacle of his life, and as the players explain that the statue has been destroyed, he goes berserk.
You thought the previous fights were big and crazy, wait till you get a load of even round one of my big climactic battle with the psychopathic spreekilling craftsdwarf. We pulled out all the stops for this one!
19. "Mad Oleg knocks him out with a single blow."Nicely done, sir.
All that's left is the "happily ever after" solution, so I let everyone throw into the hat their own personal best interpretation of how this could end.
- 20. "After being honored by the freed dwarves, the party seeks out the next fortress. However, at their camp that night, Oredang's pet yak calf creeps up on them -- her mouth opening to reveal a kobold crossbow…"