Zamug has journeyed through the wastes outside of the great city of Shurupak and reached Zulmek, a Dunehold of the Alqai, searching for an artisan who can repair his starsleigh.
I don’t know what they might look like, other than that my mind’s eye keeps envisioning traditional dwarven cities. I’d rather not use that, to be honest, so maybe ChatGPT can help:
The entrance to the Dunehold is a modest aperture, cleverly concealed among the undulating dunes. Descending into the underground sanctuary, the temperature drops noticeably, and the dimly lit tunnel stretches before you, leading deeper into the earth.
As Zamug ventures further in, the walls of the tunnel transition from packed sand to an intricate network of stone and metal, evidence of the Alqai’s relentless excavation efforts. The ceiling, supported by a lattice of carefully crafted metal beams, looms overhead, adorned with hanging crystalline formations that shimmer in the muted light.
Upon reaching the heart of the Dunehold, he is greeted by a vast, cavernous space. The domed ceiling towers high above, its surface etched with ornate patterns that tell the stories of the Alqai people. The gentle, rhythmic sound of metal striking stone reverberates throughout the chamber, as the four-armed inhabitants tirelessly work to uncover precious ores and minerals from the surrounding walls.
The floor of the Dunehold is a complex maze of passageways and tunnels, each leading to various chambers dedicated to different tasks. Workshops hum with activity as skilled artisans forge, refine, and shape the scavenged metal into intricate pieces of art and practical tools. The living quarters, meanwhile, are cozy alcoves carved into the stone, adorned with woven tapestries and lined with soft furs.
Subtle bioluminescent fungi cast an ethereal glow across the entire underground settlement, bathing the space in a soothing, otherworldly light. Despite the bustling activity, there is an undeniable sense of order and harmony within the Dunehold, a testament to the Alqai’s unwavering dedication to their craft and community.
That fits the setting a bit more than what I had initially envisioned. Too much time in Ironforge, I guess. Anyway, Zamug starts investigating, looking for shops that seem likely to have the kind of artisan he’s looking for. He’s inquiring politely about zephyr-chariots and golden barges, trying to find anyone who has some knowledge of what he’s talking about. Rather than a skill test, I think just finding someone who can help him will test Luck: he succeeds, though.
Who’s this person, other than Alqai? A specialist, possibly mystical, with a “specialized, physical” mannerism, looking to enrich themselves. Her name is Qorvessa, and she knows of this artisan. Journeying there will take time, but she’s not giving up details just like that. What’s in it for her? This is where Zamug needs to test his skill; unfortunately, he doesn’t have any relevant advanced skills like Negotiation or similar. He fails; Qorvessa is going to want something. Does she just want silver (unlikely) or is she going to try to exploit this strange two-armed softskin? No, she wants something more, and it will require an adventure all on its own.
One of Qorvessa’s clanmates has been taken captive by the Beggar Sultanate and accused of stealing a priceless cultural artifact. In reality, the Sultanate seeks to understand Alqai metalworking. She wants Zamug to rescue her clanmate and bring him back to the Dunehold before the Sultanate can learn too much about their secrets.
The Sultanate is only a day away from the Dunehold. Qorvessa will accompany him, which makes him a bit nervous as he’s unsure of whether this is in fact a trap or if she has some other motive. In the end, though, he agrees as he has no other leads.
Approaching the sultanate, Zamug is struck by the desperation of the settlement. Squalid brick buildings are packed together, with little space for anything other than the most basic of necessities. The guards are not particularly well-armed, but they are numerous and eye the approaching pair with suspicion.
Qorvessa’s clanmate, Kharzun, is being held in a small cell underneath the Sultan’s palace. This is a classic dungeon, but even getting to the entrance is a bit of a challenge. Zamug poses as a bounty hunter bringing in a prisoner, with Qorvessa as his prize. His desert-cloak and laser pistol are enough to at least give him a chance, so I’ll roll under his Disguise skill: he succeeds, just barely, and they head down to the dungeon area.
Once they arrive at the processing area, they try to convince the guards that Qorvessa is a wanted bounty. While the guards are flipping through the bounty list, Zamug tries to get a peek at the arrangements here, hoping to understand the layout and maybe even garner a few details about the prisoners. He rolls a success with his Sneak skill, so he’s able to see that the dungeon itself is smaller than expected but with a decently sized complement of guards.
Here I have to make some choices. They could immediately try to take the guards by surprise and break Kharzun out; alternatively, Qorvessa could go in as a prisoner and try to get some more information. They decide the latter is a bit too risky and it’s time for some action! There are only two guards at this station, plus a few more in the dungeon corridors. I decide Qorvessa, as an Alqai henchman, has
Skill 7 / Stamina 12 / Initiative 1 / Armor 2 / Damage as Mace. The guards each have
Skill 5 / Stamina 8 / Initiative 1 / Damage as Club. Before combat starts, I note that Zamug has four shots in his laser pistol for the day.
He and Qorvessa will first attack against the guards while they’re unaware, then initiative can start. Zamug uses his shortsword while they’re up close, hitting a guard for 4 damage. Qorvessa brings her mace down on the other guard, hitting for 2 damage.
The guards are surprised by the sudden attack, but they quickly react. One tries to subdue Qorvessa, but she’s quicker and hits him for 8 damage and drops him. Zamug brings the sword back around on the other guard, running him through for 6 damage. Prisoners are shouting and screaming; the two know they only have a few moments to find Kharzun before more guards arrive.
Zamug is totally lost here, even with the minor bit of scouting he did. There are too many faces and pleading hands reaching out from the cells, and in any case he doesn’t know Kharzun. Qorvessa can’t find her clanmate, either. The two of them run down a corridor between cells, sun streaming in from small ceiling windows with stone bars inset. I test Luck to see if they can find Kharzun before major reinforcements arrive: they succeed, but they’ll need to fight their way out.
Kharzun is a bit weak (Stamina 8) and grabs a club from a dead guard, but otherwise he has the same stats as Qorvessa. There are 1d6 = 2 guards rushing towards them, clubs at the ready. The first one comes at Zamug, who dodges the blow and stabs the guard for 6 damage. Qorvessa hits the second guard for 2 damage, and Kharzun clubs that same one for 1 more point. This second guard, though, assaults Zamug (who doesn’t have built-in armor like the Alqai) and hits him for 3 damage. Zamug keeps his cool and stabs at the guard, but finds his blow parried away.
Undeterred, Zamug continues to push the guard back with his sword, but the guard strikes a Mighty Blow and hits Zamug for double damage, doing 12 and bringing the hero down to 9. The other guard tries to finish him off, but Zamug gets the upper hand. He’ll test Luck to increase his damage: failure, but the 6 damage is enough to finish off that guard in any case. Qorvessa intervenes against the first guard, hitting him for 4 damage and dropping him.
The two of them make it out of the dungeon, but they’re not home-free yet. How many guards are chasing them? Surprisingly lacking - perhaps the Sultanate is not as well-organized as Zamug had feared. I’ll test Zamug’s skill (Run); on a failure, they’ll have to fight another 1d6 guards. Success, and they’re able to make it back to the Dunehold.
They arrive at Zulmek, with Kharzun a bit worse for wear but alive. Qorvessa is pleased with the outcome; will she give Zamug the information he needs (likely)? No, and she’s going to sit down with him and negotiate a bit more. She wants to talk to him about his technology: the laser pistol. Zamug’s more than a bit irritated by this, after risking his life to help her rescue Kharzun. What other leverage does he have? While technically he works for Svell, a crime boss in Shurupak, that might not be helpful here and could even be dangerous to admit.
Instead, he offers coin. After all, he’s a well-paid agent and in any case silver pieces are less useful to him than the tech that gives him the upper hand. He offers 300 sp, which she accepts begrudgingly, and tells her to buy her own back in Shurupak.
How far is it to the Broken Dunehold? Less than expected, maybe only 5 days. How will he find the entrance? There’s a large caravansary in the area, and the privy there conceals an entrance. Unsavory, but it’s the best he’s got.
Before setting out, he’ll buy 20 more provisions, getting him back to 28. He rests for the night here in a cheap inn, and the next day he’s off to the Broken Dunehold.
Zamug and his mount, Puzu, set out early before the sun is high. They should arrive on Day 5, assuming no delays or problems. Just as before, I’ll use the Scarlet Heroes procedure for wilderness adventure. Event and Feature thresholds will start at 1. If they run into an encounter, I decide it’ll be a 3-in-6 chance of angry Beggar Sultanate forces, 2-in-6 chance of some kind of beast encounter, and 1-in-6 chance of something more unusual.
The day passes uneventfully, with Zamug and Puzu making good time. They’ll consume 2 provisions, leaving them with 26.
No Encounter or Feature, but there’s an Event. The Feature threshold increases to 3 and the Event threshold resets to 1. The Event this time is “Sun-blind; can’t move today”.
As Zamug and his loyal mount Puzu traverse the unforgiving desert landscape, the sun beats down relentlessly from above, its harsh rays reflecting off the endless sea of sand. The duo presses on, their eyes squinting against the blinding light, as they attempt to navigate their course towards the Broken Dunehold.
Eventually, the intensity of the sun’s rays becomes too much for them to bear. Both Zamug and Puzu stagger to a halt, their vision obscured by a painful, white glare. Realizing the danger of their predicament, Zamug quickly leads Puzu to the scant shade provided by a nearby rock formation. There, they find temporary respite from the sun’s unforgiving rays.
Zamug takes this opportunity to rummage through his belongings, searching for any makeshift solution that could shield their eyes from the sun’s glare. He manages to fashion a rudimentary protective gear using cloth scraps, which he ties around their heads to cover their eyes.
With their sight temporarily compromised, Zamug and Puzu have no choice but to wait out the worst of the day’s sunlight, huddled together in the meager shade. The stifling heat and the monotonous hum of insects drone on around them, while gusts of wind whip up swirling patterns of sand, which encroach upon their resting spot. In this harsh environment, the duo remains stationary, conserving their energy for the journey that lies ahead.
Resting for the day, Zamug and Puzu will consume 2 provisions, leaving them with 24. They now plan to arrive on day 6.
No Encounter or Event, but they do find a Feature. The Event threshold increases to 2 and the Feature threshold resets to 1. The Feature is an incredibly ancient fort, possibly built by Those Who Came Before. In other circumstances, Zamug might be tempted to explore it, but he’s out here on business and continues on his way.
They consume 2 provisions, leaving them with 22.
No Encounter, Event, or Feature. The Event threshold increases to 3 and the Feature threshold increases to 2. They consume 2 provisions, leaving them with 20.
There’s an Event but no Encounter or Feature. The Event threshold resets to 1 and the Feature threshold increases to 3. The event is “vermin eat 1d6 = 2 days of food”, reducing their provisions to 18. Fortunately, they should arrive the next day, so they’ll be able to replenish. For today, they consume their own 2 provisions, leaving them with 16.
At around midday, they find the caravansary that Qorvessa described. I decide that it’s located at an oasis, and I’m going to use Vaults of Vaarn Issue 3 (p. 24) to get some details.
The Grave and Nomads reference additional tables, so let’s see what we get. For the former:
Titan-era Programmers implies this grave is very old indeed, and I imagine that both the statue and the artwork reference this immense machines that once roamed these lands as fighting machines and gods. Zamug briefly wonders if the artisan here may have some knowledge of the fabled AI Cores that once powered and directed these machines, but that’s for later.
What about these Nomads?
Zamug’s not here to trade, though. There are just 6 Legionaries here serving the Many-Headed Monarch of Shurupak. Despite (or perhaps because of) their weirdly-optimistic commander, the rest of the squad has a mutinous mood. They seem to be treating wounds; perhaps they had some firefight. Zamug really does not want to get involved in whatever they have going. He’ll just pay the toll of d10 = 9 silver and go to the privy.
I roll for a Scene Complication and get “an NPC acts suddenly”. Is this a Scout (even) or a Nomad? It’s a Scout, a woman in a uniform. What does she do? “Create / Technical”; she’s tinkering with something here. Is it related to the Broken Dunehold (unlikely)? No. Is this related to the Titan grave (likely)? No, but it’s related to the cybernetic nomads. One of them, a respected child of the patriarch, is conspiring with her regarding a prisoner captured in battle.
In the shadows of the caravansary, far from prying eyes, a tense scene unfolds. A Monarchy Legionnaire, identifiable by her well-worn uniform, stands with furrowed brow, poring over a set of schematics. A nomad attired in a patchwork of desert-adapted fabrics observes attentively, nodding occasionally as the two exchange hushed words.
Bound and kneeling on the ground, a prisoner watches the conspiring duo with wary eyes. Their clothes are tattered, and they bear the marks of a recent struggle. Despite their captivity, they display an air of defiance, refusing to be broken by their captors.
Together, the scout and nomad work diligently on their mysterious project. From time to time, they refer to the schematics and make adjustments to a collection of mechanical components laid out before them. The pieces, an assortment of gears, cogs, and wires, seem to be part of something much larger, potentially a piece of advanced technology.
The nomad carefully holds a component in place while the scout connects a series of wires, sparks occasionally flying as they work. Their shared goal, whatever it may be, binds them together in a clandestine partnership. Unaware of the eyes that might be watching them, they focus entirely on their task, hoping to bring their mysterious creation to life.
Zamug attempts to Sneak by without being seen: success. What is the entrance to the Broken Dunehold like? It’s just a small, unobtrusive door. Countless people have come through here to do their business and never even noticed it. Zamug slips in, wondering what skulduggery was going on in there, but with his own purpose fixed in mind.
I’m going to refer again to the Lexicon Urthus to get some inspiration and randomly roll page 103. Entries here include “Declan”, “Declan’s relative”, “decollation”, “decolletage”, “Decuman”, and “Deeses”. I decide to use Declan as inspiration: “an old man of Gurgustii with a lethal tumor, he is healed by the Conciliator and becomes a follower”. Also, his relative was “a big man with a loud voice, he demands an answer from Severian and is beaten by the crowd”. I’ll merge them together in my mind to create a character.
Declan, the fabled artisan, is an elderly Alqai whose armadillo-like shell bulges with tumor-like growths. He’s a recluse, living here in what was once a great dunehold but was severely damaged in some long-ago conflict. How does the artisan react to seeing this stealthy human drop into his hidden workshop? About as expected: he’s startled but in no position to put up a fight. And in any case, Zamug doesn’t act aggressively. He’s here to ask for help, after all.
How willing is Declan to help? Not much. He’s got his own projects and doesn’t want to fool around with whatever this intruder wants. Besides, the Starsleigh can’t be repaired, and what’s more, there are people poking around here enough already.
Zamug isn’t easily deterred and continues to try to understand Declan a bit more. What does this old Alqai want anyway? Travel / Physical. He’d like to get out of here, but he’s not in good enough health to venture out into the desert, and these nomad caravans aren’t the sort of people he wants to deal with, seeing as they move slowly from one oasis or broken-down slum of a sultanate to another.
Perhaps that’s an opening for Zamug. Surely there’s some way to repair the Starsleigh, and with that fixed, he could get Declan out of here to a Dunehold where he’d be among his kind with access to all the workshops and materials he’d ever want. I’ll test Zamug’s skill, again without any advanced skill applying: success! Declan is willing, but he’s not looking to get to a Dunehold. Actually, he could make that journey. Instead, what he really wants is to get to the city of Shurupak, where he could get the medical attention he needs.
That’s exactly the sort of thing Zamug can help with. He’ll take Declan to Shurupak, and in exchange, Declan will help Zamug repair the Starsleigh.
Before the unlikely pair head into the desert, though, trouble is brewing back up in the oasis. With this technological conspiracy, an ancient war machine, and mutinous Legionnaires, there’s a powder keg ready to explode.
Zamug and Declan just want to get to Puzu and away from this oasis. Wouldn’t it suck if somebody accidentally activated part of that war machine?
There’s a grinding sound, then an explosion. Something is moving, and other people are starting to yell. Zamug and his elderly charge come out of the privy in time to see chaos: oldtech moving and speaking in a loud, mechanical voice that sounds like nothing they’ve ever heard. No one can understand it, of course, as the languages it knows died out ages ago.
The Legionnaires are firing on it uselessly, and the nomads are trying to gather up their animals and carts to flee. Zamug boosts Declan onto Puzu and I’ll roll for his Run skill to see if they can get away without getting caught up in the pandemonium. Failure! Laser fire from the war machine hits a wall near them, which explodes and sends a shower of debris down on them. Is Puzu hurt (unlikely)? No; what about Declan (likely)? No, and he’s getting Puzu moving. But the debris has cut Zamug off from them. He’s going to have to find another way out of the oasis and catch up with them.
He looks around for anything that can help him out of this situation and spies a small group of nomads trying to get their scorpion mount moving.
Huge, armoured, scuttling, horrible. Even worse are the ones the Life-Riders have clad in metal plates.
This one is indeed armored, and it’s pincering at the nomads as the chaos has it perturbed. Can Zamug jump aboard and ride it? Success! He’s able to get it moving, and the nomads are unable to stop him. He’s able to get away from the oasis and catch up with Declan and Puzu.
On the way back, I’m going to test again to see if he’s able to keep it under control: he does, at least for now.
Fast-forward a few days, and the unlikely pair of Zamug and Declan reach the outskirts of Shurupak. Somehow, Zamug has managed to keep this scorpion moving, and Declan is still alive. They’re both in need of a bath, cool water, and rest, but they’ve made it.
I think this is where I want to leave Zamug’s story for now. He’s able to head out into the humpbacked sky and have whatever adventures the Starsleigh takes him on.
Troika! is a lot of fun and ADF is every bit the setting I’d hoped it would be, especially when supplemented by the Lexicon Urthus and Vaults of Vaarn. I kind of wish Troika! had a bit more traditional material, like a bit more description (and prices) for equipment, but Scarlet Heroes filled that gap nicely along with some procedures for the wilderness. I could absolutely see myself running more of this in a traditional group setting.