This blog has been quiet for the past few weeks because I have been traveling and working at the same time, and it has been very difficult to make the time to do anything interesting here. However, for the past 10 days I was in London, and during that time I was able to reconvene my old Compromise and Conceit group for a four hour one-shot.
This one-shot used a hyper-stripped down version of the Warhammer 3 rules. I was going to use Shadowrun but I just didn’t have time to prepare something new, so I decided to just muck around with Warhammer 3. We used diceroller apps, had no cards and I made up all actions for all the characters in an hour one morning. We dropped stances, conservative and reckless dice (except for spells that use them), group initiative, and recharge. I used stress as a consequence of spell-casting to limit spell use, and didn’t bother with skills: instead I just gave each player a list of four things they were trained in. Everything else was just a check on the appropriate attribute. This system is really fast and quite fun.
The PCs were:
- Captain Nostromo, a wizard who specializes in manipulating machinery and infernal objects, probably Polish
- Clare de Lune, an exotic dancer formerly of the Cirque de Lune, who fights with knives and is accompanied by a gyrfalcon that can also attack (a Large and Vicious Gyrfalcon!), she also has a selection of nature magic
- The Sicilian, an ageing ex-mercenary who is preventing the decline of his martial prowess with age by an increasing array of infernal enhancements
- Jack Cloudie (not his real name), an Iroquois Stormcrier who visited Europe on a mission and decided to stay so that he can civilize the savages of this strange and backward country
I will put up character descriptions in subsequent posts, along with some descriptions of how I simplified the WFRP3 rules.
The setting and the adventure
The year was 1830, and the PCs were on a ship bound for Svalbard in the arctic circle in mid-July. They had been employed by a rich industrialist in London to investigate the strange disappearance of a wizard working in Svalbard, one William Sealy Gossett.
Svalbard in 1830 was a huge whaling station, and William Gossett had been sent to Svalbard by the PCs employer as part of a project to research ways to imbue whale oil and whale bones with magical essence, and to design new magical tinctures and items. Svalbard was going through a kind of whale-oil-based gold rush, because whale oil fresh from the corpse is an excellent solvent for magical and infernal essences, and whale oil that cannot be enchanted can still be used in industry. William Gossett’s task was to conduct experiments to enable the whale oil to be treated so that it could hold the essence longer after the death of the whale, with the ultimate goal of shipping it back to Europe to be enchanted. Currently only a small amount of whale products were being enchanted, because there were very few wizards willing to live in the harsh confines of Svalbard and work long days enchanting whale fat. The PCs’ employer aimed to revolutionize this industrial process through developing techniques of magical preservation.
Unfortunately, William Gossett appears to have gone missing. He was supposed to send a letter of safe assurance with each ship that left Svalbard for Europe, but the June and July ships both brought nothing back. Although it was possible he could have missed the first ship, his employer is certain something must be amiss for him to miss two. It could be something simple (such as suicide during the winter darkness) but Svalbard is a lawless place in which whalers often fight physically for control of whale pods. The PCs were sent to Svalbard to find William, and punish anyone who has interfered with him.
Svalbard’s Bay of Blood
The adventure opens as the PCs’ ship enters the Svalbard bay, to a scene of horror sufficient to shock even hardened campaigners such as The Sicilian. The air was suffused with a red mist, and the sea stained red with the blood of a throng of dying whales. The bay was thick with the whales, passing through in huge groups, and in amongst them were multiple whaling ships and many small harpoon boats. Wherever they could, the whalers were laying about themselves with harpoons, and everywhere they looked the PCs could see dying whales floundering in the open seas. The whalers moved amongst the pods stabbing whales with harpoons tipped with leather bladders, so that once a sufficient number had been stuck into the beast it could not submerge. They then began to hack, beat and stab it to death, but usually they would haul it still half-alive back to their ship, where it would be tied alongside other dying members of its pod. Then, men would begin flensing the whales, cutting sacks of fat and meat away even as the dying whale twitched feebly in the water. No indignity was spared these hapless beasts: seabirds flocked to their ragged bodies, pecking at the flesh of the injured beasts as they waited weakly to die; a pod of killer whales moved amongst the gore, picking injured whales and eating them even as they fought to escape the whalers; and here and there a half-flensed whale would be set loose, its body no longer valuable to the whales, to die in a slow spiral of viscera and desperate shrieks, torn at by birds, fish and orcas alike as its unique voice faded.
This scene so horrified The Sicilian that he was forced to act. Declaring that the murder of helpless enemies was beneath a warrior, he ordered the ship’s captain to sail over to a particularly large whale. This whale had been caught and tied to the stern of a whaling ship, but the ship’s crew were in violent dispute with the crew of another ship over possession of the poor giant, and as they fought it simply floundered in the scarlet water, unable to escape because of the ties to the ship and the many harpoons that held it at the surface. As his ship approached The Sicilian leapt onto the whale’s back, slicing the ropes that held the whale to the ship with his soul-bonded infernal sword and running along the whales back, smashing harpoons as he passed them. He noted in horror that, as a final indignity, the harpoons were themselves crafted of whalebone – the majestic giant was being killed with tools made of its own kind. Unfortunately the beast did not understand the purpose of The Sicilian’s mercy mission, and in anger it thrashed its newly-freed tail, flipping The Sicilian high into the air. Moments later he found himself lying on the deck in between the two competing whaling crews, a shattered harpoon in his hand. The crews, realizing what he was doing, joined forces to attack him. The Sicilian was just preparing to sell his life dearly to this gang of reprobates when the whale resurfaced, smashing into the ship from below in a fury of revenge. He found himself flying through the air at the whale’s behest again, and landed close enough to his ship that he could be rescued by his fellows. As they sailed away and the whale made its escape, the sailors on the stricken ship yelled threats and imprecations at him and his team.
The Sicilian was unimpressed. No human threat has scared him since winter, 1812. But something else in the atmosphere of Svalbard unsettled him. He and all the group felt as if some dark and imposing force watched from the deeps of the sea, waiting for … something. As they turned away from the carnage and headed into the Svalbard docks, a shiver ran down The Sicilian’s spine. Though he lacked empathy for human emotion, he was finely attuned to the infernal world, and he felt it pressing close about him now …
The wizard’s lab
This scene of horror did not relent when the ship landed, and the PCs wound their way through a street lined with flensing sites and pots of boiling blubber to the town’s only inn, The Bloody Spout. Here they dumped their meagre possessions and inquired as to the whereabouts of the wizard, William. They were directed to “go outside, turn left” and walk until they came to his lab. This they did.
At the lab they found the door snowed shut, and the lab deserted. It showed no signs of a struggle, and it appeared that the wizard had been on a journey recently. They also found two notes, both addressed to the wizard but unsigned. The first said simply:
William, don’t waste my time with your ludicrous theories and propositions. I’ll have no part of this.
and the second said
William, you’re still crazy but let’s meet. Under the gallows tomorrow.
The PCs knew the gallows – they could see it from their hotel room, at the top of the gravel-and-ice-strewn hill behind their hotel. However, they had no idea who had written the note. In order to find this out, they visited the harbourmaster’s office post-haste. The harbourmaster handled all mail for everyone on the island, so must surely know the hand-writing of every person in the town. Sure enough he knew the writing, and immediately identified it as belonging to the other wizard in the town, who ran a lab at the opposite end of the town.
They visited this wizard immediately, and were received with an air of suspicion and threat. This wizard obviously did not like the thought of people investigating goings-on in the island, and was not inclined to be cooperative. However, eyeing The Sicilian and Jack Cloudie with an air of obvious concern, he was convinced to answer their questions honestly. He told the PCs that William had found evidence that the population of whales was crashing under the pressure of human hunting, and that they would soon disappear altogether, taking this boom town with them. William seemed very agitated about this and claimed to have a plan to save them. He told the PCs that William ran a secret lab (that everyone in town knew about) on the far side of the Island, and suggested that perhaps he had travelled with his apprentices to this lab. The PCs decided to follow this lead.
Journey to the secret lab
The PCs found a whaler who was travelling around the island and who agreed to take them to within an hour’s walk of the “secret” lab, though he would be no further diverted from his whaling mission than this. Since it was unwise to travel overland while the ice was breaking up in early summer, the PCs were forced to accept this journey plan. The next day they found themselves standing on a wind-blasted expanse of fast ice, with instructions to head northwest and “don’t fall in or you’re dead.” Thickly swathed in their winter furs, they began to walk, picking their way carefully over the empty ice. However, their journey was interrupted halfway through when they stumbled upon a pool in the ice, in which lurked a submerged polar bear. This beast emerged soaked and roaring from the pool to attack the group, and another emerged from a similar hiding place behind them. With its first strike the bear nearly tore The Sicilian in half, and the second bear tore deep gashes in Nostromo’s armour, but between them they soon killed one, and drove the other away.
Clare de Lune was unfazed. No animal had scared her since her childhood in the Siege of Paris. But that thing, that sinister spirit that watched the battle with cold detachment – neither she nor her bird could see it, but she could feel it following and watching them. No animal this, it disturbed her in a way that nothing in the natural world had done since she was very small…
A short walk later they found the secret lab. This building was open to the elements, and showed signs inside of a savage fight, though there was little blood and mostly mess. One wall had once abutted a kind of earthwork rampart extruding from the hills behind the lab; this wall now had a huge hole in it, which opened into a tunnel. This tunnel clearly extended into the earthworks, and thence under the hills behind the lab. Whoever had attacked the secret lab had done so through this tunnel; but the tunnels were old, and the lab relatively newly built – had William known of them when he constructed this laboratory?
The Trolls and the ritual
The PCs soon found the answer to their questions. After 10 minutes’ walk down the darkening tunnels they emerged into a sheltered bay, carved out of a cave that faced the bitterly cold arctic ocean. Between the tunnels and the sea, sheltered under the archway of the rock above them, was a beach of black gravel and stone. The sea was held back from this stony shore by broken icebergs floating in the water inside the cave, but it still boomed inside the cavern and crashed against the ice, scattering spray throughout the cave. The sense of being watched and of foreboding was very strong here in the wilds under the looming rock, and they felt they could almost see something out in the wild ocean, watching them with grim intent.
The wizard William Gossett stood on the shore, and behind him stood a gang of trolls. None of the group had ever seen trolls, of course, and to the enlightened European such beasts are merely figments of the Scandinavian imagination, but what else could these things be? Over 3m tall, beast-like creatures walking on two legs, with huge clawed hands, their skin alabaster smooth and obviously hard like stone. They had narrow, black eyes deep-set in vaguely humanoid, monstrous faces that looked as if they had been carved from flint. Spines lined head and shoulders, and they wore ragged clothes of polar bear and walrus fur. They also looked angry.
Between the group and William and his friendly trolls stood his apprentices. They were roped together and standing motionless on a broad slab of stone, onto which had been carved a complex magical pattern. Some enchantment held them still, and they obviously were intended as sacrifices in some horrid sacrifice, probably to the looming dark thing in the sea.
The PCs approved. They had seen enough slaughter and brutality on this island to know it was no place for human hopes and dreams, and that it should be turned back to the wild. They had also seen no evidence of anyone on the island who deserved to be saved or to have their dreams of wealth rewarded.
They turned and ran, leaving William and his little army of trolls to complete his unspeakable ritual. As they ran they felt that presence again, bearing in towards the shore to do … something.
The Flensed Ones
When they reached their rendezvous point with the whaler, they found it empty. They waited for two days but no whaler came. Finally they realised that they could die out here if they did not move on; they began to carefully pick their way over the broken ice of the shore, and after several days’ walk they returned, exhausted and starved, to the town. Walkign down the hill from the gallows, they immediately noticed that the sea returned to a pale natural blue. The town swarmed with seabirds, and when they entered its outskirts they soon saw why. Every single person in the town was dead, their body reduced to a withered husk. Some vile magic had swept through the town, killing every human there by the simple expedient of sucking out their fat.
The entire town had been magically flensed.
The PCs walked to the shore and stood there, looking out at the cold and desolate sea. The sea stared back at them, that same dark malevolent force now fully in possession of it. A cold wind blew in, and somewhere in that wind they sensed a hint of gratitude.
Whaling at Svalbard was over, and the Kingdom of Trolls had begun. The only witnesses to its creation, and indeed the wardens of its formation, were Captain Nostromo, The Sicilian, Clare de Lune and Jack Cloudie. Turning away from the sea, they looked out at the desolate hills and the bird-tattered corpses of the flensed victims, and shuddered at the horror they had created.