Friday, May 10, 2013

The Enemy Within - Campaign Log - Part 5 - Session 4 - End of Day 3, plus vital bits of Day 9

SPOILER ALERT: This is the campaign log for the new The Enemy Within for Warhammer 3rd Ed. These events are from our fourth session, which started on Day 3 of the investigation. However, my players made some good headway on the mystery and revealed something that probably wouldn't become known until Day 9 in most play-throughs of the campaign. Here be MAJOR SPOILERS.
PC List/Reminder:
    •    Burgolt the Nobleman Pistolier
    •    Hrulgar the Dwarven Runesmith
    •    Ninewise the Initiate of Ranald
    •    Lina the Bright Wizard

When last we saw our heroes, they were about to head inside the Tannery.

Tanneries are a very foul and nasty place to visit, especially in the pre-modern era. First you've got your freshly butchered hides and skins. These need to be chemically treated in a variety of ways, such as by brining, as well as by soaking in acid. One of the more popular acids for this process, at least in the middle ages, was uric acid. The inside of a typical tannery of the era includes several large tubs or vats of stale urine. In addition, you might find solutions of feces and water, and/or brains and water. Honestly. Then there's the quicklime. It's a nasty caustic chemical that burns and dissolves flesh. It's highly reactive to water, but that's kinda the point. So there'll be a dry area for storing it, and quite possibly a vat full of fat-burning nastiness sitting in solution. And lastly, there's the dyes to color the leather, and whatever solvents are needed to keep those dyes in liquid state. The butchered hides are soaked in these disgusting solutions for days on end, in particular sequences based on the desired qualities of the leather.

These various stinky solutions are often stored in pits or ground-level tubs, because one part of the process involved stirring them up and beating them a bit, which was sometimes done by having your young apprentices climb into the shit-tank and stomp on there bare-footed. I am not making this stuff up, I swear. So a large part of the building is a maze or grid of narrow little walkways over and between pits full of stuff you really don't want to land in.

Between soakings, the hides may hang to dry, or sit in piles on the ground. They may be dusted with, or packed in, salt. Some forms of leather required smoking, so you may have a large firepit on the premises. If so, there's probably a large supply of "punky" (which is to say "rotting") wood on hand as well, because the best leather-curing smoke comes from slowly burning rotted wood.

Of course, the tannery in The Enemy Within has been temporarily closed due to the river over-running its banks and the retaining wall failing to contain it. So there's a sluice drain overflowing with all the run-off, and since the place was shut down mid-process (and the Tanners paid well for closing their doors), everything's been just sitting there stewing. Those scents and flavors are dreadful in the first place, but give them a week or two with the doors and windows all sealed up and it's a whole new level of funk. Having been emptied of humans for more than a week, it's probably also over-run with rats and other vermin.

This seemed noteworthy enough that I made a Location card for it.

The PCs open the door to the worst stench of their lives. Burgolt, being a nobleman, cannot control himself, he just has to turn away and wince. In doing so, he notices that he is being observed by someone a few doors down. Sitting at the window of a guest room on the top floor of the White Horse Inn, is the same female Witch-hunter he saw several hours ago in a far-less-smelly part of town. I mention the possibility that she is staking the place out.

The PCs head into the tannery piecemeal, with some of them going in deep while others more cautiously hang back at the entrance. Ninewise is driven by her desire to find Ute's shoe, which had been the target of a "X marks the Spot" blessing that scored a chaos star. Hrulgar follows right behind her. He has Tradecraft trained, so he's barely put off by the scent and can identify which chemicals are truly unsafe (as opposed to merely odious).

SPOILER ALERT: I mentioned it before, but it's worth repeating. Seriously, if you're ever planning to be a player someone else's run of The Enemy Within, you really should turn back now. While we're still on Day 3 of the narrative, there's some stuff here that won't typically get discussed till Day 9 or possibly later, so you can't even assume that it's safe just 'cause you've played a little further then us.

Ninewise's blessing took her deep into the room, until she was standing over a murky pit full of chemicals. Hrulgar cautions her, there's several half-empty bags of quicklime on the ledge above the pit, and the warmth exuding from it suggests they were poured in at most a few hours ago. Such a brew will no doubt burn any flesh immersed in it. Ninewise brought with her the boat-hook she bought a few days ago, and they start poking around in the opaque sludge in the pit. They hit a body almost immediately, and start pulling it up.

Much to their surprise, it's not Ute. The body is too big, and probably a man. The chemicals have burned and damaged the flesh and clothing, making identification unlikely. Whoever he is, he's been done poorly. His chest is broken open. While no one here is a barber-surgeon, those who've seen a man die before can attest that there's usually rather more organs inside. They dig around in the depths for additional bodies with the boat hook, making a bit of noise in the process.

Lina the wizard steps  into the room a bit further, and uses magical sight. The witchsight confirms that this body was killed by the same sort of cursed weapon that took the life of racketeers Klaus Keller and Herman Halheimer.

While providing the colorful description of the tannery, I called for a few Observation and Tradecraft checks from the players. I played this off as if it were about sussing out the body locations or the chemical details, but mostly it was to determine whether or not the PCs realized there'd been Skaven watching them from one of the pits.

AMUSING TYPO ALERT: Spell-check really, really wants to replace "skaven" with "shaven". Capitalizing "Skaven" seems to help hold auto-correct back a bit, but I'm sure the shaven will slip through my fingers at some point. Now doubt the same sentence will also feature "clanrat" being auto-corrected into "claret", leaving you with the impression that the PCs are being attacked by bloody naked mole-rats. I probably owe you an apology for that mental image.

It's about that time that the Skaven attacked. More than a dozen of them burst up out of the water of the sluice-trench running down the middle of the room.  The ambush consisted of 3 groups of 4 clanrat henchmen each, plus a single gutter-runner to lead the assault. Certain other Skaven were off-camera in the tunnels below, available should they be needed. I used the Clan Eshin Assassins sheet. Not that the PCs knew those details, I merely described the blur of splashing water and furry limbs and through a bunch of Skaven stand-ups on the table. Roll for initiative.

When each PC took their first action of the fight, I gave them a Stress token to represent the distress of realizing that the mythical rat-men of folklore are actually true. If they exist, what other boogeymen and nightmares might also be real? It was an effective and elegant way to reinforce the flavor, but it kinda cheated on the default mechanics for stress-assignment. If I had to do it over again, I'd probably call for a Fear 2 test instead, just for the sake of mechanical consistency.

The way the initiative dice hit the table resulted in only 1 PC action before the Skaven would get to attack, then the rest of the PCs at the end of the round.  I put a misfortune die on the PCs initiative checks since the Skaven were ambushing, plus the rat men had a talent in their Clan Eshin Assassins sheet that boosted their initiative a bit. However, I also forgot to roll Stance dice for the Skaven, since NPCs/Monsters are always in-stance (unlike PCs).

Nemesis-Sheet Sidebar:  Gotta say, I found the Clan Eshin Assassins sheet to be a little underwhelming. The talent slots are nice, but the two progress trackers are way too long to be effective.  Despite the earlier Observation tests advancing the tracks before the fight even started, I was only able to get to 2 dice bonus on a single action. A session or two later, I came to a similar conclusion about one of the other Monster or Nemesis sheets. Most fights in this system last 2 to 4 turns, but most of the trackers seem set up for 6 to 8 turn epic slugfests. In order for a battle to last anywhere near that long, you sure would need a large supply of mooks. There's a number of easy fixes to this (double the advancement rate on the cards would be the easiest), but as written they're just not likely to fire off.  It's basically one bonus yellow die on one Skaven die roll once every four rounds, or one white die every other round, either of which is small potatoes in a system where fights usually wrap-up in round 2 or 3. A lot of tracking for not much pay-off.

Hrulgar went first, drawing his rune-axe and plowing into their ranks. He wanted to engage as many as possible to make it harder for them to get at the squishier PCs. I decided that since the Skaven all came through the drain, they were probably all effectively a single engagement. I honestly thought I was doing the PC a favor there… but as we quickly found out, huge engagements like this really play to the Skaven's strengths.  Hrulgar gets a good attack roll, and drops an entire group of 4 henchmen, so for a few seconds things look very bright for the players.

Then I unleash The Overwhelming Horde. It's the only non-basic attack for the clanrats, so it makes sense that they'd open with it. They score 2 successes, which drops a fatigue on the dwarf for every Skaven in the engagement. Oh, my, that would be 9 fatigue, even after adjusting for his kills!  First enemy action of the first real fight of the campaign, and I've already KO'd the best melee character in the party. Worried that I may have made this fight too tough, I neglect to have the second group of clan-rats actually attack. One player down is an interesting dramatic turn and an opportunity for a rescue, but 2 players down in the first round, especially with that rather nasty Location card in play seemed too likely to TPK. As it turns out, I probably could have had them attack, and it would have worked out just fine. The rats may have gotten lucky early on, but that luck wouldn't hold out.

Lina and Burgoldt made ranged attacks that killed a couple henchrats a piece. The gutter-runner hurled some throwing weapons at the PCs, scoring only minor damage.  Ninewise moved forward to cast a blessing on Hrulgar. This allowed the dwarf to recover from enough fatigue to actually wake up, but she also scored a chaos-star and ended up in the Filthy muck.

Top of the round. Several more henchmen go down, leaving just two total, plus the gutter-runner. The tide of battle changes fast in this game. The remaining clan-rats take their obligatory "Cheap Shots" and then flee through the trench and drain. There's a brief exchange of ranged attacks, and then the Gutter-Runner flees as well. Lina wants to blast them, but they're under water and around a corner.  Free escape, unless the PCs are willing to go swimming.

Rather than ending the fight there, I pull a Rally Step. I happen to know there's a Skaven nearby with more interesting options, but I didn't want to risk him going down before he's filled his part of the plot. He casts a spell off-camera, and suddenly a horde of mundane sewer-rats (but with glowing red eyes courtesy of the spell) come pouring up out of the drain.

Like the Skaven fight, the battle with the rats lasts just a couple rounds. Rat swarms actually have a lot of staying power and some interesting actions, but don't do big damage. Lots of narration of magically-frenzied rats climbing all over everything and biting at exposed flesh, with Fear checks and conditions for everyone, but ultimately no major injuries for the PCs. Mainly this conflict allowed me to get a feel for Skaven and rat combat stats,  which I suspect will prove useful later in the campaign.

Swarm sheet sidebar:  Like the Clan Eshin Assassins group sheet, the Swarm sheet has a tracker with 8 or 9 steps on it. It's not as ridiculous as the Eshin sheet, as the tracker moves with every successful attack on the swarm, not every turn. So that's 3 or 4 times the speed of the Eshin tracker with a typical-sized party, and thus a lot more likely to reach its end during a fight scene. This one works pretty well, and, in the context of the full swarm rules, does a good job of representing a horde of vermin.

It's worth noting though that the complete swarm rules are not on the Swarm sheet, nor are they on the Rat Swarm monster card either. One of the great things about Warhammer is that having the appropriate cards in front of you means you rarely have to reference a rulebook mid-game. But when critical yet rarely-referenced rules are inexplicably left off of the relevant card (especially one like the Swarm sheet that has a ton of empty space on the front and two tons of fluffy flavor text on the back), that slides from "great" to "frustrating".  Man, I wish FFG spent more time on playtesting and editing.

After the fight, the PCs sent for the city guard, and withdrew outside the Tannery to catch their breath and patch up the bleeders. We made some Disease checks for anyone who took damage from the filthy rats, but the tests were all passed without incident.  Ninewise, having been dunked in the pits during the fighting, went for a bath in the river.

A crowd of brass-tier folks came to gawk at the source of the gunfire and cries of "monster!" and "Skaven!", but quickly concluded it was just a lot of hubbub and commotion over a few score rats. The magical tattoos on the Skaven bodies destroyed most of the evidence. There was a severed limb left over from a critical hit the PCs scored, and since it was no longer connected to the warpstone tattoos, it didn't dissolve. Confronted with NPCs skepticism over the mythical rat-men, my players asked what exactly their characters would know about the shaven bastards.

I was ready for that question. During character creation (as part of the Gently-Born background card) Burgoldt pawned his family heirloom pistol to Mathilda Durbein, and local fence/antiques-dealer. In the first session I casually mentioned the contract was written on the back of some nonsense handbill printed by Rambrecht Delfholt the Agitator. That lunatic handbill mentioned Skaven, and I immediately pulled out a prop I'd typed up to represent it. Here's the text:

"Our Double-Edged Swords
Every commoner looks to the armies of the Empire for protection from the rampaging hordes of foreigners and worse always pressing at our borders. Those armies should rightly be at the edges of the wilderness, defending us from the enemy without, but if those armies were stationed only on the frontiers, what unfortunate patriots would do the dirty work when a nobleman wanted to evict a loyal pauper, or put down a popular movement by way of bloody violence? Troops on the frontiers protect, but troops closer keep we brassy serfs downtrodden.

Oppression, Lies, and Taxation
To justify those local armies, the barons and their captains have invented a most terrifying boogieman. The rat with human hands, which lurks beneath our cities and can strike from our own sewers and catacombs. They pretend to hush and deny these very rodential rumours they have themselves started. They doth protest too much! These denials are but a show piece to sell the illusion that we are in constant peril and must be surrounded with jackbooted mercenaries. To pay for the armies of our oppression, they tax us into submission!

A Tragedy of Taxidermy
We are told of the tragedy of Nuln, the city that was supposedly beset by ratmen in 2499.  Those who have seen the stuffed corpse of the so-called Ratman of Nuln can attest to it’s obvious fakery. A man-made monster composed by stitching the head of a giant rat on the body of a mundane beastman. The Guild of Taxidermists has a Guild-Hall in Nuln, and another in Altdorf. From whence didst The Horned Rat come? Not the sewers of Nuln, but the Imperial Court itself!"

It's nutty, I know, and totally lifted from Brotherhood of the Wolf… but it's also pretty much exactly the rabid conspiracy theories that the adventure itself presents as being Rambrecht's beliefs. (Except for calling beastmen "mundane", IIRC that was my own little embellishment for irony's sake.) I didn't want to have to try to memorize or improvise that kind of nonsense should it ever come up, so I took the liberty of laying it out as a prop. (And in case I haven't mentioned it previously, I've been using Valvorik's excellent TEW handbills as props, giving out one to the PCs basically every day of the campaign if the PCs get anywhere near Rambrecht. The conspiracy theory above was written and laid out so as to match his style as best I could manage whilst still conveying the madness of the conskavenspiracy.)

The sidebar for splitting shaven hairs: I'm not sure where the whole concept of Skaven denialism came from exactly, and why it's so prevalent in the setting despite 2 out of every 3 published adventures having Skaven as the villains. Daily life in the Empire involves worship of a pantheon of actual miracle-granting gods, a color-coded system of everyday magic, ongoing war against a bestiary of terrifying fantasy monsters, and strict policing by roaming witch-hunters empowered to put heretics and mutants to the torch on the slightest suspicion lest the named and known daemons of chaos tear down the walls of reality. Given that context, ingrained cultural skepticism about one particular species of boogeyman seems a little spurious to me. It's one part of the setting I just don't grok, but I can at least pay lip service to it in-character like a good little fanboy should. If shaven denialism is what the adventure calls for, then shaven denialism is what they'll get.

The city watch arrives in force. The squad is reinforced, and led by a different officer than the one they saw yesterday. This new, fresh-faced fellow doesn't really know what to do about reports of mythic monsters, and he's not about to stick his nose in the stinky tannery himself if he can avoid it. He's not willing to commit to anything controversial, either. When questioned about that, he reveals that just last night an angry mob of dock-workers bearing fish tattoos stormed the guard house and demanded the release of an arsonist. Confronted with nearly 3 dozen drunken witnesses to the man's innocence, the previous Lt decided to release the captive rather than risk a riot. As a result, he was relieved of his command and transferred out of the district by a very irate Captain Baerfaust about an hour ago. So he assigns a couple guards to the tannery doors, takes statements from the PCs, and goes off to compose a CYA report (Cover Your… Averlander). 

Mechanical note: With the revelation that Bischoff paid a bunch of Fish gangers to force the City Watch to release the arsonist, the Agenda of the Criminal Empire moves from 5 to 6. The Black Cowl's organization is getting pretty ballsy.

Reinforced by guards, the PCs carefully return to the tannery to finish fishing for bodies. They scoop up a total of 8, representing both genders. They were expecting the body of Ute, and wouldn't have been shocked if Jurgen, Rolf, and even Ingo were here as well, but there's at least 4 more unknown victims. The skins are chemically burned, faces mutilated, and organs ritually removed. Something very bad is afoot here. 

The Initiates of Morr (holy morticians) eventually show up to collect the bodies for proper burial, but so does Luminary Mauer and he has other plans. Mauer had been investigating the Halheimer murder earlier this morning. He confers with Lina, and agrees with her opinion that the same weapon also killed the bodies here. He's unclear to him why Keller and Halheimer would be separated out and dumped publicly, and exactly what the relationship is between the killer and the Skaven that were on-site. The players have a better picture of at least parts of it, and fill him in a bit on Bischoff and the Black Cowl.

Imaginary Romantic Entanglements Sidebar: In the conversation of the previous session, Mauer had gotten the mistaken impression that the reason Lina had been absent from the dorms was due to some romantic entanglement. This was a convenient-enough fiction before they'd decided to bring Mauer into their confidence about the Black Cowl, but even now they haven't really disabused him of it. If anything, they actually gave the Luminary the distinct impression that Lina and Burgolt are dating. Couldn't be further from the truth.

Though somewhat confused on certain topics, Mauer does at least seem to be an expert on the Skaven. He claims to know a good deal about their cursed magic, and says the murder weapon is likely a warpstone blade. He also speculates a bit about what they might be using the rituals for, and notes that they'll most likely kill 13 all told, as 13 is a number of ritual significance to the rat-men and often invoked in their magics. There's a fun moment as the players do a head count. 8 dead NPCs + 1 NPC Skaven expert who's no doubt a threat to the villains + 4 PCs would equal 13, wouldn't it? The GM smiles.

All this dark magic is a real danger to the public safety. Mauer talks Lina into incinerating the corpses, which really makes the Initiates of Morr unhappy. They leave in a huff, riled up about the wizard's collective disrespect for the souls and bodies of the departed.

Corrupted Memory Sidebar: Somewhere in these scenes Lina scored a point of Corruption. It's been more than a month since the session, but I still feel a little bad that I can't remember now how it happened. It may have been the result of a Chaos Star on an attack spell vs the Skaven (as some of the Miscast cards can do that to you), or if she picked it up via a standard Corruption test for poking around in the ritually-slain bodies. Either would be a fine source, but it's a shame can't recall which it was.

Likewise, I also don't remember what moved Party Tension from 5 to 6 during this session - it may have been lingering impatience from Ninewise due to her "X marks the spot" spell, or it could just as easily been over the burning of the bodies right in front of the Initiates.

Things tidied up or burnt to a cinder, the PCs can take their leave. Mauer exits as well. The city watch stays posted at the doors to the tannery for now.

In the real world, it's almost quitting time. The fight was only about 4 or 5 rounds, but since it was our first major battle in the system, it wasn't exactly fast. Investigating the scene and chatting with the NPCs ate up some hours as well. But I have one little mini-scene to throw at the PCs before we call it a day.

Her name is Beatrice Knox. Two nights ago, the PC saw her gambling at the same table as Bischoff and Grosz, and then she seemed to be winning. Now, she's standing in an alleyway, sobbing. The PCs don't really have a link to her, and the Warhammer world is a cold grim place, so they nearly disregard it. Lina has a good heart (or perhaps just a good plot-detector), and decides to ask what the problem is. Which means everyone else has to follow her into the alley just to make sure it's not some sort of Bischoff-orchestrated ambush.

Beatrice gives them a sob story about money owed to bad people, and how her children are hungry and have no where to go if anything happens to her, and could you please spare a large sum of silver?  At best she's a foolish addict in over her head and destined for trouble, at worst she's a con artist. The PCs just aren't willing to go all in for someone who's going to turn around and give the money to their enemy. I can't fault their logic on that. When they say no to "charity for villains" she makes one desperate last attempt to part the nobleman from his coinpurse. Sorry Beatrice, Burgolt only sleeps with high-class call girls.

As a scene, it felt kinda forced and almost artificial… but that also pretty well describes Beatrice's self-wrought dilemma. She's not the most sympathetic character in the scenario, and my putting her at Bischoff's table a few sessions prior didn't help her cause, either. I could still imagine some character parties pooling their money for her, but not this party at this point in the story. She's also not actually written up as a skilled-enough panhandler or con artist to really justify breaking out the Social Encounter rules in the last 10 minutes of the session, so I let it go.

End of Session 4 and Day 3.  Party Tension: 6. Criminal Empire Agenda: 6 & Stability: 7.  Lina has 1 Corruption Token. Several of the PCs have a small number of minor wounds.


2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Are there more recaps coming? :)

r_b_bergstrom said...

Yeah, eventually. I've got one written, that just needs formatting before I can post it. I should get around to that.