Each of this mini-campaign's first three sessions has so far featured a different kind of play, which has been nice. The first saw a combination of investigation, tactical mass combat, and a horror-themed ruincrawl at the end. The second session was all heist. This third session was more of a traditional 'dungeoncrawl' (err...but...in space), and also heavily featured a borrowed travel-logistics encumbrance system in which fatigue and inventory really got a lot of attention (I used an overloaded encounter die which included Fatigue among the possible results. Fatigue added a line-item of the same name to all PCs' inventories, and could be cleared 1 line at a time by a short rest (which also required a roll of the encounter die) or all-at-once by a long/overnight rest (which required not only another die roll but also spending a ration). Those rules seemed to work well; the logistical stuff clearly became kind of a grind for players, though that was kind of the point and seemed ok for a limited appearance.
Previously, the party discovered that an Important MacGuffin (an alien 'control orb') needs to get applied to perma-shut an ancient alien quantum-locked vault prison, or soon an evil, well-armed neo-Gnostic cult is going to successfully crack the vault and free thousands of ancient alien shadow-worms who will probably kill, possess, etc. a world of 5 billion inhabitants. To make matters worse, the human space around the party has fallen into civil war, and brutal militias now all but run the system in which our PCs are stranded; the system's official Prefect has hired them to do covert law-and-order missions on his behalf, but his authority and reach are rapidly dwindling. Time is running out, and the PCs need to get that MacGuffin into Mount Doom - no, sorry, I mean into the alien quantum-locked vault. Yeah. That.
But that vault is at the bottom of a kilometers-deep sinkhole with a stout cult fortress at the top, and simply flying their ship up to the sinkhole and dropping in would probably get them vaporized; even with their ship's new electronic stealth package, they can't really avoid being seen by all those eyeballs. So the mission this time was to land covertly about 50 km away and follow an underground river that (per old geological charts) probably flows into the lake at the sinkhole's bottom. The point of the recon mission, then, was to find a repeatable and covert path that would allow a stronger strike force (in some future session) to hit the alien prison vault at the closest range possible. [Those of you who follow Michael Prescott's Trilemma Adventures maps may have seen the map that loosely inspired this sinkhole in my mind :-)].
The party started off by landing in a grotto where a river fell into an underground passage. Standing above the grotto were the shattered ruins of some old school-prison-medical facility (all 3, it turned out; judging by the limited remains, it appeared to have been the site of some kind of mutant-splicing farm, but the 'guests' had broken out. The PCs quickly got a further sense of how that relationship worked when they read the following, very faded, metallic sign near the grotto entrance:
As the PCs headed down the tunnel, they occasionally found traces of what looked like old camping parties' junk strewn across the tunnel. They explored a side-tunnel away from the stream, and got attacked by a small pack of giant frog-critters, which incapacitated and dragged off one of the players in the dark- but the other PCs were able to cut down the froggies and rescue their friend.
In Into the Odd terms, these were:
Omnivorous Cave Toad packs.
STR 12, DEX 15, WIL 5.
6 hp, Armor 1
Damage d6+1 tongue-slap, up to 30’ away.
CRITICAL DAMAGE: wraps tongue around prey and drags it away. Uncommitted frogs in range will also do the same, all trying to tug off body parts. d3 STR damage; at 0, body is ripped into pieces as prey dies.
Turned out that side-tunnel led to an old sealed metal vault door - sealed from the other direction - with a sign warning that this was an abandoned mine, corporate property, the Molver Inc. Yorithium Mine, yadda yadda. Since the angle of the side-tunnel and their broader intel suggested that any known mine opening inside the target sinkhole would only get them halfway down its shaft, the players decided not to risk blasting through the door and fighting whatever security gadgets might still be protecting the place. [Which means that I didn't get to deploy a few nasty GM surprises, heh heh...].
Heading back to the main tunnel with the rivercourse, however, the PCs ran into a party of bounty hunters returning from a 'successful' expedition (to judge by the gruesome mesh bag of severed mutant heads they were carrying). There were some tense negotiations, but the party's criminal-xenobiologist broke the ice and convinced the lead goon that 1) the PCs weren't part of a rival gang and 2) were amenable to being hired on (at least as a subterfuge to defuse the initial confrontation). Oh, good! the goon said, but then insisted that the PCs should demonstrate their competency before joining such an august membership. The goons chiefly wanted to test the PCs' marksmanship; there was some urging to blow up the anti-grav sled that was carrying most of the party's rations and operational gear. That eventually turned into the lead goon saying, "nah, just pick one of your teammates and shoot him, show me that you've got what it takes to hunt meat."
So...there was some hemming and hawing and lining up of shots (and a little hilarious miscommunication when the party's diplomat tried to set up a melee-focused friend for a potential closer charge if things got ugly, but made it look like he was trying to throw his friend into a potential crossfire) and there was more talking...and then one of the PCs took a shot at a bounty hunter and the whole place erupted in cacophonic thunder, accentuated by the party's LMG cutting down about half the bounty hunters in one go. The final bounty hunter, the one holding the bag of severed heads, dropped the bag and ran off into the tunnels. At this point the PCs decided to bring the bag along with them in case it could be used to fool other bounty hunters. The heads were a mix of fishy, baboony, doggy faces, etc. Ewww.
Eventually they descended further and found that the river dumped into an underground lake - but not the one they were looking for at the sinkhole's base. This lake was in a massive underground cavern dimly lit by a glowing fungal forest...across the cavern, another tunnel opening sloped up and away (toward the mine) while the river plunged further down through a lower opening across the chamber. Of more interest was the island in the middle of the lake, an island with a ramshackle fortified village visible on it. Far away, animal-headed mutants were visible moving about the village.
The PCs decided to avoid contact and headed for the river's exit. There, above a tall waterfall, they discovered a fishing party of mutants along the riverbank in their way. They ended up making contact and chatting up the mutants, who could only speak in exactly-four-word utterances. Things were going quite well ... until ... a player who clearly meant well decided to whip out the bag of severed heads and present it to the mutants (so they could bury what was left of their relatives). I decided that the sudden, unexplained sight of cousin Bob's head in a bag held by an armed stranger was enough to potentially derail any negotiation, and one failed WIL roll later, the mutants were attempting to take the PCs prisoner. Rather than fight them, the party agreed to come peacefully to the mutant village on the lake. There, they met the village elder (a fish-faced crone named Uufessica) and explained what was really going on. Finally accepting that the party were not bounty hunters but foes who had fought their hated persecutors, the mutants helped the PCs prepare for the next, final stage of their underground journey. Below the waterfall, they warned, waited death. The party was taken to a hut where a dying mutant scout lay raving about a beautiful face and a horror in his soul. Whatever had caused that was waiting for them downriver.
The PCs rigged climbing gear to get down the tall waterfall and then descended the river. The tunnel gradually narrowed, and the water got deeper, and eventually the party was wading through a slender tunnel in chest-deep, cold water. At one point a mass of roaches scuttled past them on the ceiling. Then they started hearing voices...whispering voices echoing down the tunnel..."Does she frighten you? She should...she feeds on your fear..." These statements were suspiciously akin to those heard in Session 1 when the party first encountered one of the alien shadow worms...and it was known that some further of these beasts have been leaking out of the quantum vault due to cult coaxing.
Another wave of cockroaches clacked along overhead - this time the players could see that the little roaches had bloated, miniature human faces, and it was the roaches that were whispering to them...the disgusting vermin faded into the darkness. Water rippled quietly in the dark, claustrophobic tunnel, flooded to sternum level. And then they charged.
Four giant cockroaches, each the size of a dinner table, dashed forward along the tunnel's slimy walls and ceiling. But each giant roach had the face and hair of an exquisitely beautiful human woman - but as they charged, opening their mouths to scream, jagged razor-sharp teeth glinted between blackened gums. They charged in at close range and opened up with psychic screams that reverberated in the recon party's minds. Taken aback, the party struggled to combat these fiends in the cramped darkness. One roach dropped down and bit deeply into a scientist's shoulder...as he blacked out, incapacitated, he felt a freezing cold sensation spreading from the wound. Then, darkness.
We ended up with two of four PCs quickly getting incapacitated and bitten by the roach-hags by the time the party had killed one of the shadow creatures. At this point I realized I might be presiding over a TPK. An incredibly fortunate initiative roll (we re-roll each turn) allowed the last two players left on their feet to go again right after their previous actions. This probably saved the whole party, along with the good rolls they made at that do-or-die moment. In the end, the two were left standing and one roach-hag turned and went running upside down on the ceiling off into the darkness, cackling and repeating "she feeds on your fear!" One of the last standing players took a long shot at the retreating fiend - which, very luckily, killed her.
The fact that all the roach-hags died turned out to be a very good thing. As they revived their fallen comrades, they noticed that a web of noxious black tendrils had radiated from the wound sites, but these dark networks already were retracting and fading as they administered first aid. Once they were conscious again, the fallen felt like they were waking up from the worst nightmare they'd ever had, in which everything in the cosmos had gone wrong and would never be ok again. The downed players concluded that they'd met some kind of psychic parasite - or, as a player later explained, "my soul almost got sucked out by a really sexy cockroach."
Indeed. I won't post all the stats for these things since they and their kin may remain relevant for our mini-campaign, but I can confirm that without killing the biter the victim would have faced a long, slow, lingering journey through attribute loss until death, or until the players figured out some successful treatment.
Fortunately for the seriously beat-up party, not far after this ambush site, the players found an outlet that - just as hoped - flowed into the lake at the bottom of the great sinkhole. They had found a way to get a later team down to the sinkhole bottom without running past the cultist aerial defenses. Mission success!
We actually ended up finishing a bit early time-wise, though with a tense bang at the end again. Mechanically, the session was a way to test out some encounter and logistics mechanisms (and, to be fair, kind of a rushed bit on my part after a roadtrip out of town, but I think it worked out ok :-). I procedurally generated tunnel sections as they were needed whenever encounters happened, and I made sure to include at least some moderate 'Jaquaying' of my overall tunnel maps (i.e. including some loops and non-linear paths) but the players' choices quite legitimately ended up redirecting them through a fairly linear path anyway. Good lessons for me on how to make something work with less prep time, though it wasn't my favorite session design so far during this mini-campaign. Still, it was lots of fun.
Cheers - 'Gundobad'