My personal quest (well, side quest) to playtest Chthonian Highways is making little progress. But I shall not blame the task itself for it, as I am concentrating my efforts on other fields of activity… perhaps on to many at once… again. Anyway, while l have spend my last weekend listening to audio books made of the stories of H.P. Lovecraft and zapping into a re-run of the Stargate:Atlantis television series (not both at once, H.P. Lovecraft deserves attention, mind you) I first thought about a little World-of-Darkness based “Spheregate: CARCOSA”-project to entertain my old player group and myself but later, the oh-so-obvious came to my mind: why don´t I salvage CARCOSA to assemble a trial game for Chthonian Highways?
When I am talking about CARCOSA I refer to this PDF supplement (adults only, so you need to be logged in at drivethrurpg.com to see it) I bought a long time ago, after I had read what Eric posted at his blog about two cross-over-games he had run using it. Eric is rather found of the supplement as whole, while I belong to the camp of those who are not-so-happy about the supplement in regard to the detail (or: lack of) of the description of the landscape and the world as a whole. But that is a completely different matter and perhaps a different blog post. What is important here is that CARCOSA does include useful material and that it is ripe for being salvaged!
CARCOSA has obviously been written with a hexcrawl in mind and the supplement itself suggests to drop characters from completely different worlds into the setting (for this reason or that) and see how they fare (an approach Eric used to send a WWII Nazi military occult research division there on one occasion, complete with diesel-punk mecha-walkers, as well as having some StarTrek Klingons crash-land there. I tip my hat to him for both ideas). Chthonian Highways, on the other hand, mentions in its world background text that complete alien landscapes seemingly merged with the reality we all know, which provides a great excuse to just rip some hexes out of CARCOSA and plant them right into the world of Chthonian Highways. By the by, things like these are really great for folks like me who do not like to be bothered by “real world geography” when they want to prepare a game.
Most of CARCOSA is not described in much detail (see above) but with only a couple of lines for each hex. The one exception to this rule in the book is the dungeon called Fungoid Garden of the Bone Sorcerer and the hex it can be found it. The later, I guess, is an example on what the supplement wants the GM to do: pick a hex, zoom in, fill the blanks by populating it with your own weird creations and plant a point-of-interest of your own design into it. Well, I rather feel like using this ready-made hex … after doing some conversions.
And conversions are needed here. CARCOSA is a weird and unruly mix. First, you have whole bunch of human races that are distinguished by their skin color, and I am talking “blue, red, purple, green, etc.” here, not what one means when talking about “skin color” in our world. While I could transfer those to Chthonian Highways as well, I feel that it would change the tone of the game in a way I do not like and will thereby replace them with regular humans of one kind or another. The background of Chthonian Highways offers me “regular” survivors from before the Reckoning (an event about 20 years ago where the world as we know it ended as the world of the mythos poured into it), those who were born after that date, people-gone-feral, people-gone-cannibal, marauder clans, cultists and what not, so I don´t feel like I need yellow, blue and purple men in this setting.
Second, CARCOSA is heavy on ooze creatures, mutated/degenerated dinosaurs and giant animals as well as spawns of Shub-Niggurath . I am unsure about giant animals as I don´t want to turn the game into one of pulp, atomic horror, so I will see how many of them I am going to use. Spawns of Shub-Niggurath are a plus and a must-have, as nothing drives home strangeness and madness like having large monsters about whose existence is contrary to known natural laws, but dinosaurs are currently a no-go for me. I fear things could become too campy. Last but not least, CARCOSA features “space aliens” and alien robot constructs. Those I am going to cut out as well, but I might keep the strange technological artifacts that seem to be linked to them.
WARNING! From this point on I will put down my conversion notes for “the Fungoid Garden of the Bone Sorcerer”, and this means SPOILERS! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!
Let´s start with the general theme of the dungeon. The original is about a boneman sorcerer and his aides who study and harvest a wide range of fungi and a plant called “white lotus” in a cave complex. Both have strange and often magical powers, the white lotus for example can be used to turn people into near-mindless zombie-slaves of which the sorcerer keeps a whole bunch to do some gardening. In fact, he has set up his base of operation in the caves and practically lives there, seemingly dedicating his life to the study of the fungi to make potions out of them and to learn secrets of magic from the hallucinations they can induce. He happens to worship a THING that dwells in one of the caves, has managed to summon and enslave a larger number of Deep Ones that now serve him. Did I mentioned a spawn of Shub-Niggurath dwelling deeper in the caves and the fact that the “random monster encounters” suggest that some spawn of Shub-Niggurath might simply stroll through any of the them? The fact that giant slugs and snails of the dangerous kind might dwell here and may decide to attack those who they encounter pales in comparison to that, no matter how much more likely such an attack is. And trust me, there are more weird things to be encountered in the Fungoid Gardens of the Bone Sorcerer.
So, how do I turn this from a Sword&Sorcery dungeon into a game for Chthonic Highways? First and foremost, the people who dwell in the dungeon are changed into cultists. Not the “we will rule/destroy the world!” kind of cultists but those survivors (and their children) who decided to listen to the whispers in their dreams and to worship the gods, great and small, that came to their world, all in order to survive. They used to be a roving band but after discovering the cave system and the fungi within, one of them had visions about using them to learn more about the nature of the gods and so they decided to settle there. They discovered the powers of the “white lotus”, found the god-things in the other caverns and made allies out of the Deep Ones that dwell deeper in the caves. With the power of the White Lotus, they started to capture other survivors to turn them into zombie slaves… or into sacrifices for their gods. The clan itself hides it nature from regular survivors. They have a convoy of their own that visits other settlements where they trade edible fungus for goods they need… and where they spy upon the populace. Those they can subdue, they raid and turn into slaves and those they cannot become trade partners. They even try to sell drugs they distilled from the different fungi.
My hook for having the PC deal with this clan and the caves is a simple one: a settlement that owns a small goat herd suffered from a raid of these cultists, about a week after those have visited this settlement for trade. One of the herders was able to escape and identified the vehicle the raiders were using. Only few of the goats were taken, but two of the other herders were captured alive and the settlement now fears for the worst. Some demand retribution, others claim it would be unwise take action besides getting ready for a battle. In the end, the characters will undertake a rescue mission. They are either just traveling through and are offered a reward for the rescue of the captured herders or they are part of the settlement and thereby motivated to take action. Add a small trip to the side of the raid and some classic tracking and we have an adventure there! One that my not lead to a complete exploration of all the caves and their secrets, but a nice test run never the less. I currently plan to have the entrance to the cave a little higher up in a mountain while having a camp (or an assortments of huts) of the rest of the cultist clan at the feet of it. After all, they will need to keep their vehicles somewhere, too. And this setup keeps the characters from driving right into the caves with an armed pick-up. Hmm.. on a second thought, I perhaps should allow that, just to see how it rolls. Anyway, I have a concept here. Let´s see how long it takes me to really turn this into a playable adventure.
To be continued…