When the Planarch Vault Went Wrong

This writeup is an example of what can occur when you "play to find out what happens."

I ran a game of Dungeon World this weekend while visiting my family. We had originally planned to play a lighthearted game with my niece and her girlfriends, but all the friends backed out (sick, busy, etc… common in any gaming group, even when you’re 12), so she was excited to join us for the evening "grown ups" game.

I printed out about 30 playbooks so everyone would have some really cool options.

The players were my sister, her husband, his friend from a previous workplace, the friend’s wife, and my niece.

The adult players were currently or previously all corrections officers in the state of Missouri.

I made two decisions as the GM about the tone and brutality of the game. I wanted to run the game as a Grim World style game. Really brutal and bloody, and gritty and grim. I warned the players as they were selecting playbooks: "I will dismember you, kill your pet, and devour its corpse. Got it?"

This was more or less an idle threat, but I wanted it to be clear to the players that I wasn’t going to hold back from anything unless they expressed, up front, what their content restrictions are (mine is "no rape," and my niece’s was "no zombies," though she waived it for the necromancer in the party.)

Everyone had a death move, even the classes that were from the core DW book (ranger) and Inverse World (Captain).

We had:

  • Evagalion the Elven Necromancer (played by my brother-in-law) – currently wearing armor made of his dead girlfriend’s ribcage. Because creeeeepy!
  • Pumba the Earth Primoridian Shaman (played by my sister) – a dirt-crusted shaman who channels the spirit of the boar.
  • Captain Shade Crimson, a Dwarven Captain of the Crimson’s Plague airship (played by the friend) – a pirate and generally rough fellow. Honestly, I think he took this playbook because it has a gun.
  • Celestia the Elven Ranger and her polar bear Monster (played by the friend’s wife) – Through bonds, we discovered that she was kind of the "low man on the totem pole" character.
  • Sakura the Shadow Primordian Channeler (played by my niece) – Nice and creepy.

As you can see, my players took "brutal, vicious, and deadly" to heart. Good.

I used the Planarch Vault adventure from Joe Banner. It’s a good little dungeon– a floating prison that’s in the midst of a prison break. The description of the prison is "for where they put things that are too dangerous to just kill," but the only monsters described in the adventure are deadly, but not impossible to deal with. I wanted… harder.

I made three fronts for this adventure, populating the prison with some terrifying creatures (from the Codex), including a mind-flayer that was trying to find a way off of this plane, the airship breaking down, and the original monsters. In addition, I had a small handful of "wandering monsters" that could show up any time the party rolled a 6- and needed something awful to happen.

I made a tent card with a clock on it, to give the players a sense of time pressure (and so I could mark off when a Grim Portent had occurred unimpeded). The players largely ignored this, but my sister pointed it out as "guys, what do you think happens when the clock hits midnight?"

They made bonds, fairly typical DW bonds about not respecting each other, or needing to teach each other something important, etc.

I ran through some questions about the dungeon. Why are you there? Who do you know? What’s that smoke coming from?

Since they had access to their own airship, they moored off the vault and approached. Lots of careful observation and they could see that the "guards" were not who they thought they were. Captain Crimson decided to solve that problem by shooting one of them in the face. A really strong hit that didn’t kill the shapeshifter in one shot… so within a few seconds, the shifter had the captain dangling from the edge of the vault and whistling for his crew to open fire with cannons.

This was not the most disruptive idea of the night, by the way.

Elsewhere, the ranger lost her footing and slid to the edge, where two of the guards rushed over to push her off. When the cannons fired, they damaged the part of the landing platform where Pumba and Evagalion were standing, cracking it. The floor slid out from beneath them and they grabbed for debris that was jutting out from the remaining platform.

The Captain managed to grab and throw the already-shot shapeshifter off the platform. It turned into a bird and flew away!

With her four companions now dangling from the edges of the landing area and all but one of the shifter guards still harassing them, Sakura opened up with a Shadow Push that threw the remaining 3 guards off the platform, sending them past Evagalion and Pumba, who watched all three turn into birds and soar away.

Catching their breath, the party hauled people up onto the landing platform, then moved up to examine the entrance. There’s a doorway to an elevator. The guys decide to hop on the elevator and use its controls– Captain Shade is good with controls, after all. The Captain ties a rope off, just in case. The ladies wait at the top to see what happens.

The elevator goes about halfway down, shudders, then plummets to the basement. The Captain is left dangling about halfway down by a rope, which he uses to shimmy the rest of the way down to Evagalion, currently lying on the ground, breathing raggedly and saying "ow" a lot.

The rest of the party spent a few rounds discussing the situation, then climbing down the rope to the basement level. Once there, Evagalion has done some recon; there is a giant clockwork defender robot blocking the passageway. Evagalion takes out his undead eye and rolls it down the hallway, spotting the weak point in the automaton. When the rest of the party arrives, he tells them about the spinning crystal on its back, between its clockwork and a metal plate of armor.

This scene, incidentally, is where most of the party got most of their XP….

Celestia mounts her polar bear and charges (rolls a 5). The defender backhands her, throwing her back fifteen feet into the broken elevator. Other adventurers attempt to affect the thing, but they do tiny bits of damage here and there as the mighty clockwork throws them around like ragdolls.

Evagalion curses the thing, bringing it to a mechanical grinding; every time it takes a hit now, it slows down just a little more. Celestia gets a lucky shot and damages one of the retracting fists. Captain Crimson tries to shoot it, and a misfire takes off his hand. Furious, he throws himself on top of the thing, shoving his rapier in between the plates to ding the spinning crystal, causing the robot to fully malfunction and break.

Crimson is pissed about his hand, so Evagalion attempts to stitch him back together. They can only find two fingers, though, to Crimson has this kind of claw-like hand that barely works.

I take a moment for the party to level up if able– Captain Crimson has enough XP. Sakura decides she’s tired and retreats to the Crimson Plague.

Pumba moves on, into the basement, where she immediately comes upon a barricade. The muzzle of a weapon pokes out and a gruff voice challenges her. There are words. Pumba consults with the spirits, rolling very poorly. She reveals a secret to the "spirits" (something about Sakura’s secret identity– a good secret, since Sakura is now out of the game). What she does not know is that the "spirit" she has reached is a telepathic mind-flayer who has just achieved its first Grim Portent: use telepathy to gain leverage on a foe. I make a note that the mind flayer is going to show up later with Sakura as a hostage if its plans proceed without impediment.

And then Captain Crimson shows up. Apparently, he and the dwarven warden/engineer of this floating prison, Oliver, know each other. Oliver lets them into the engine room, where she’s been trying to repair the airship. She has only her animatronic teddy bear to help her right now, and it’s taking forever.

This is one of the fronts of the adventure. The airship is already listing pretty badly. Failure to fix the airship means it’ll crash.

They talk with Oliver for a while, and then help her repair the engine. Hooray, one of the fronts is over! Oliver is one of the four wardens of the Planarch Vault, this floating airship prison, but apparently, not everyone got the memo on that.

Just as she’s thanking them for their help, things get ugly. Evagalion asks her if she’d like to live forever. There’s a bit of RP as he tries to convince her to release her mortal coil in exchange for becoming an everlasting gobstopper. Or, if not that, would she sacrifice her teddy bear for the shaman?

She refuses. The party attacks. Because… murderhoboes gonna murderhobo, I guess? The Captain claims she caused him to lose his hand (this is not true– his own misfire took his hand, and he didn’t exactly give her a chance to offer to replace it with a mechanical one). Pumba just wants her spirit, and Evagalion obviously wants her body, in the creepiest ways possible. Celestia’s the only one who really doesn’t have a dog in this fight, but she’s the low girl on the pole, so she’s in for a penny, in for a pound.

Pumba consults her spirits again. Again, she rolls badly. This time, the mind flayer is delighted that Pumba has reached Oliver. She can do his dirty work and accomplish Grim Portent #3: Kill Oliver, bypassing the need for the mind flayer to even get down to the basement at all!

The spirits reply: "Kill Oliver."

Pumba’s player knows something is wrong with all this, but Pumba doesn’t, and my sister is a damn fine role-player. She throws a boa spirit at the warden, snaring her perfectly and making it so she can no longer move. She continues to try to reason with the PCs, but only for a few more seconds.

Because then, Celestia head-shots her. Sure, it doesn’t kill Oliver. But it maims her into senselessness long enough for the rest of the party to slit her throat and dismember her corpse.

It’s…. gruesome. On the upside, Captain Crimson now has a new arm, covered in a fancy mechanical glove that the warden was wearing!

Pumba captures Oliver’s spirit into a totem to be used later. I told her that Oliver feels that betrayal keenly and hates her now.

Celestia takes a key from Oliver’s belongings and looks for the bedroom where Oliver was reading about planes and stuff (information they gleaned from Evagalion eating her brain… I told you this was nasty!) The key she finds on Oliver’s body opens the bedroom door, but what lies beyond is not the bedroom! Instead, it is the hellish city of Dis, where all dungeons lead. The city that devours worlds.

Not content to open one door to this nefarious and dangerous plane…. Celestia opens a second door to Dis, just to make sure.

The party heads upstairs, keeping in mind that they’ve just found a way out of this prison if they need to. What they don’t know, of course, is that the mind flayer also now has a way out, thank you very much. All he needs to do now is head down to the basement, where the party has so generously helped him achieve all his nefarious plans of escape.

Other monsters will soon follow.

The party heads up to the bridge and conference room level, ignoring the cells. Because the screams of the murdered… well, they’re not that important at this point, are they?

It is now almost 1 AM by the real-world clock, and the Portents countdown is nearing midnight as well. One of the PCs rolls poorly and I bring in their last encounter of the night. A medusa. She petrifies Evagalion’s undead eyeball, then hits Pumba, full-force, with her gaze. Pumba fails to avoid her fate, and she explodes into spirit energy as she is turned into a small stone boar totem, containing her own spirit… and that of the betrayed Oliver.

We end the session with several plot hooks for future development, a shaman who needs replacing, and them not having actually defeated the medusa, so if the next GM wants to start there… they can. Go team?

Oh, and don’t forget: the players are or were all prison guards in real life…. was this wish fulfillment? I don’t know, but the comedy highlight of the night was when, as they’re killing the NPC, I kept trying to interrupt with "Oliver says– nothing, because you head-shotted her!" In truth, though, the betrayal was so thorough, I went right along with it, even as horrifically entertained as I was.

Despite all the gruesome bloodshed, we laughed so hard, our sides hurt for the next day or so. I consider that a victory.