OSR: The Secret of Steam Hill, Session 5

Last session, the party explored the mysterious and magically charged catacombs under an old monastery. They found a giant black stone. Touching it set off a chain of magical disasters that left two PCs dead and a third trapped somewhere in the darkness.

The three confirmed survivors, Jack the elf, Swainson the Hawkling, and Cazael the half-visible spiderling (whose torso stubbornly refused to reappear), cowered in the town of St. Simon until morning in the stone-walled home of a local manorial knight.

At dawn the next day, Swainson and Jack debated what to do next. Cazael roamed the streets looking for his master, the knight Tschana, who (unknown to him) was currently languishing on a strange flying island in death's domain, aging and shriveling into a husk. The sight of a floating torso terrified the villagers. One ran to the outskirts of town to retrieve a wandering beetle-ling Paladin of the Voice who had camped next to the road.

After determining that Cazael was not a ghost, but merely cursed, the Paladin shrugged and turned to leave. Tales of the monastery's disastrous end caused him to turn around and return.

Meanwhile, Swainson had given up on the entire venture. She insisted on leaving to report the strange deeds at the monastery to Baron Ellimure. She wished Jack the best of luck and walked out of town.

Jack, after a few minutes of terrified hand-wringing, decided to return to the monastery to retrieve his horse. Cazael agreed to accompany him to retrieve his master's horse, and the newly recruited Paladin, in slightly damp chainmail, decided to accompany them. The party was also shadowed by a mysterious elf. The improbably named Wonderwood Strongbow, following a map of ancient settlements, had arrived in the village of St. Simon the night before. According to her map there was something buried under the monastery, and these strangers seemed to be on the trail of something valuable.

Slugsworth, meanwhile, had not died in the dungeon. Navigating by luck and the dim glow of the stone, she had managed to crawl her way to the surface overnight, evading the storm seals, the skeleton guardians (who seemed to be harmless anyway), and any other unsuspected hazards. She was frantically trying to get Jack's horse untied when the party arrived.

"You left me to die!" Slugsworth yelled as she fiddled with the halter. "Fuck you!"

"We thought you were dead," Jack said apologetically. "And stop trying to steal my horse."

"Fuck you, it's my horse now!" the irate slugling replied.

"Slugsworth," Cazael said slowly, "how are you going to ride that horse, exactly?" The party looked at the slugling's gastropod body, trying to imagine it leaping up and flopping onto the horse's back.

"Fair point," Slugsworth conceded, "but there is no way I'm going back into that dungeon."

Five minute later, Jack, the Paladin, Cazael, and the still-fuming Slugsworth descended into the catacombs. The half-invisible spiderling offered a brief and extremely confusing tour to the Paladin, who - still silent - accepted everything with good grace and a raised sword.

They were briefly surprised to see Wonderwood the elf following them. After a hasty interrogation and the revelation that their unexpected follower had an actual map (of sorts), the group agreed to allow the elf to follow them. After all, two elves had to be better than one.

This mini-dungeon was based on Michael Prescott's two-page dungeon "The Full Dark Stone", but with a few adaptations and twists. Here's delve round 2, Jason Thompson style.

Map by Michael Prescott. Edited slightly by me.

1. The party descends, hears sound of storm seals, flees towards stone.

2. No sign of their former companions or the Angel of Death. Wonderwood points out that the copper plates are valuable, drags a few to the top of the stairs with great effort. Stone emits a terrible noise; party decides to try staircase.

3. Strange iron post with a glowing sapphire-flower-thing at the top of each staircase. Radiates calm, menthol coolness. Party decides these are valuable but probably too dangerous to steal.

4. Staircase leads to ritual room. Party deciphers inscriptions with aid of Paladin charades. Room can turn gemstones into spell-boosting brain-gems. Jack the elf is immediately intrigued. Rest of party is deeply skeptical.

5. Party descends, searches caves for gemstones. Finds a few sapphire flecks. Encounters a hideous cave-squid, fights it to a truce, gets a few trinkets from cave-water including a magic opal-bearing crown. Jack brains self on stalactite while leaping over a gap, falls down concussed.

6. More searching. Party finds and disassembles a skeleton-miner. Finds some sapphire shards. Wonderwood and Slugsworth both find large sapphires and conceal them from the rest of the party.

7. After waking up Jack, the party climbs the stairs again.

8. Debate on next moves. Cazael wants to leave and take the iron posts and sapphire flowers. The Paladin wants to find the cause of all this. Slugsworth and Wonderwood want Cazael to walk across the wood planks on top of the stone to see what's on it, get valuables. Jack wants to test out the gemstone ritual.

9. Cazael cautiously makes his way across the planks. Finds a broken reliquary and the skull of St. Andrew sitting on the stone. Carefully scoops up valuables and skulls, returns safely. Had considerably difficulty (couldn't see own feet, has 8 feet).

10. Jack tries to interpret ritual instructions. Thinks he has "about 80%" of it right, will figure out the rest as he goes along. Loads sapphire shards into alchemical basin (ritual specifies whole gemstones). Chants most of the required words. The power of the black stone melts the gem fragments together into a liquid-glass potion. Jack loads his desiccate spell potion. Lacking a bottle or a cup, he drinks it with his bare hands.

Party investigates screaming, finds Jack stumbling around, spines of sapphire growing from his skull and flesh. Raw magic flickers under his torn skin. He screams, "it's fine! It's completely fine!" The party slowly closes the door and backs away. A few moments later there's a wet bursting sound. Cazael picks through the spattered remains for gemstone bits. 

11. After further debate, party decides to nick iron posts and run. They do it in a relay team, grabbing one post at a time and then seeing what happens. First two removals are uneventful, save for some whistling noises. Third removal causes the stone to shake and bend in a very unusual, probably impossible way. The party flees to the surface, dragging 2 copper plates with them.

They hitched the copper plates to their horses and rode away at top speed, trying not to look back at the shaking, whistling, and faintly glowing hill. While they were just half a mile away the hill and monastery imploded in a cloud of purple fire, then detonated, sending a magical shockwave through the air and tossing huge chunks of masonry up to three miles away. The party escaped harm... but decided not to visit the village of St. Simon.

Side Note: Jack the elf failed his roll to interpret the ritual's instructions, botched his roll to create the potion, and failed his constitution check to survive drinking it. In short, it was a disaster... just as the other players predicted. Jack's Save value was lowered due to a roadside curse he acquired in a previous session, but it didn't really matter.

Speeding away from the newly-formed crater, the party traveled to the city of Dubois, in the rich barony of Regnard. They hastily sold their magical loot to Gombolin the Beige, a curious retired wizard, dentist, surgeon, and matchmaker. They briefly debated selling the items to the local baron and his wizards, but Gombolin pointed out that the sale - combined with the mysterious purple flash seen earlier that day, could raise suspicion. In any case, the party was vastly enriched by the experience.

The party spent their ill-gotten loot in very different ways.

The Paladin donated almost everything to the Church, in exchange for a place to sleep in an under-construction cathedral's chapter house. The chapter, always eager for donations, readily accepted the large bag of gold and the relics the party had "rescued". The only unusual item the Paladin purchased was an unlabeled wand from Gombolin's "Barrel of Discount Wants - 5gp each - no refunds or exchanges". He also bought a horse and cart.

Wonderwood hired two assistants, bought a horse, a cart, winter clothing, and 90 rations.

Slugsworth held on to their gold, saving it for later. She bought two healing potions and a few minor items.

Cazael bought a magic sword with an untested cold enchantment, a suit of plate armour, and a potion to cure his half-invisibility. The potion worked, to the surprise of everyone.

The disparate group then debated their next move. Without a noble patron, Slugsworth and Cazael were in trouble. Baron Leroux, who had sent them a mission to exterminate a bandit camp in the mountains, would not be pleased if they returned without his knight and without and dead bandits. The Paladin was also interested in the mountains. He had followed a prophetic dream to the village of St. Simon, and the dream had vaguely mentioned the mountains. Perhaps it was all connected. Wonderwood's map also had hints of something in the mountains... and more treasure was appealing.

Before departing, the party also recruited Bill, a worm-ling, but more importantly a disheveled Orthodox Wizard fleeing the War. Baron Regnard was going to war, and he was bringing all his wizard with him... despite the fact that Bill's only spells were "saw and plane tree" and "capture wind" - spells more suited to a life of carpentry and mill-improvement than warfare.
The party set off the next morning before sunrise and reached the village of Lost Pass just after sunset. Nominally a town, Lost Pass was a tiny cluster of huts around a central hall, built in an ancient style and nearly falling to pieces. The village was high in the mountains, accessible only by a single dirt track. Beyond it was uncharted and inhospitable territory. As a light dusting of snow began to fall, the party noted that the huts were empty, but the hall full of quietly arguing voices. They approached, listened, and then tried to get inside.

The hall was completely full of peasants, who instantly went quiet and stared at the interlopers. After being warned to leave, the surly door-keeper shut and bolted the door. The Paladin was having none of it. After some very stern looks and a few veiled threats, the party was let inside. Nobody would speak to them or reveal why the entire village had crowded into the hall for the night. The windows were also barred and protected with holy symbols. The party was offered stew and a corner to sleep in, but no other hospitality or kind words. Slugsworth noted that the villagers ranged from young adults to stooped elders - there were no children present.

While the Paladin was on watch that night, a distinct and eerie wail came from outside the all. The villagers remained sleeping. Cautiously, the Paladin picked his way over to the door, and after a bit of angry pantomime with the villager on watch, peered outside though the crack.

Three pale children in bare feet stood in the snow outside the hall, staring inwards with wide, eerie eyes. They were dressed in rural finery, with neatly embroidered clothes and well-combed hair.

"Let us in," one whispered, "we are so very cold."
"Let us in," another said, "we are lost and afraid."
"You must let us in, Paladin," the third said softly, "your God demands it."

But the Paladin would not be shaken or moved. The stoic beetle-ling planted himself by the door and refused to move. Unfortunately, he also fell asleep. Slugsworth, the next to awaken, was lured to the door by the cries of the eerie children outside.

"Slugsworth," one whispered, "your children are in danger."
"There is still time to save them," another hissed, "if you open the door."
"If you act quickly there is still hope."
"Open the door."
"Yes, open the door."
"Let us in."

With a cry of, "MY BABIES!", Slugsworth tried to tear the door open, waking everyone and causing a massive scuffle. When the dust cleared, the door remained closed, and Slugsworth remained terrified and agitated. Nobody slept well that night.

Side note: you may recall that Slugsworth left their 135 slugling children (ranging in size from a thumb to a housecat) on the late Tschana's farm.

In the morning, the Paladin learned, via a few whispered conversations, that the village's children had been kidnapped by a dark creature from the north. Only holy icons and stoutly barred doors protected them now. They urged the Paladin to seek out and destroy... whatever it was.

Now very worried and extremely cold, the party set off for the high pass, heading into the uncharted mountains and the possible location of the "bandit camp" they'd been sent to destroy. The road was narrow, and often disappeared completely. The trees were dead and withered, the landscape was desolate, and the air was ice cold. While passing through a gully, the PCs were ambushed by three hideous fungus-ants. These creatures, once part of an ant-ling colony, were now mindless berserkers, attacking with their jaws and feet instead of weapons. The party fought bravely, but one of Wonderwood's hirelings was devoured. As the fight ended, the PCs could see more fungus-ants in the canyon just below them, scrabbling up the scree.

"Cut down that tree with your magic!" Slugsworth shouted to Bill. With a flourish, Bill pointed at a gnarled, dead tree by the side of the road and neatly sliced it off the stump. It slid down the gully. Wonderwood tossed a flask of lamp oil and a torch after it.

"That'll smoke them out," Bill said with satisfaction. The party, realizing what they'd done, turned to him in shock.
"Time to run," Wonderwood said meekly, hopping on her horse cart. As smoke billowed from concealed holes throughout the gully and antlings boiled up from the ground, the PCs fled at top speed, climbing higher and higher, hoping the altitude and the cold wind would keep their hundreds of pursuers at bay.

"THIS WAS A TERRIBLE PLAN," Bill shouted from the back of Wonderwood's cart.

Meanwhile, the Paladin's cart and horse were far ahead of the party and gaining speed. His horse had bolted, and, unbeknownst to the rest of the party, the holy beetle-ling warrior was no longer in control. He was being carried at full speed for the edge of a rocky cliff. He managed to cut the leads at the last second. His horse slid away from the cliff edge, still running at full speed. The detached cart slid, cracked, and more-or-less disintegrated around the Paladin.

After dusting themselves off and retrieving the Paladin and his horse, the party set off once again, looking for any villages or signs of life. They did spot something in the distance - a constant column of steam, rising from an isolated pass.

"Aha!" Bill said. "That must be the legendary Steam Hill."

"What's so legendary about it," Slugsworth asked.

"Well, they say it produces... steam." 

"What else," Slugsworth prodded.

"They say, it is also..."

"A hill?" the impatient slugling interrupted.

"Oh, so you have heard of it!" the wormling said apologetically.

As night fell, the party cautiously climbed to a ridge overlooking Steam Hill. The area seemed deserted, but the hill itself was a hive of activity. They could see figures moving in the twilight, carrying wood and stone and buckets of earth. A grand temple made of wood was rising from the top of the hill, leaking steam from several pipes. It was a strange and alarming sight.

"We should approach stealthily," Slugsworth said, examining the complex, "and at night. There should be enough moonlight to see."

The PCs decided to wait until dark, leave Wonderwood's surviving hireling with the horses, and descend to the valley floor. They would then creep across, climb the visible stairs, and scout the area.
Spook, xadhoom
It did not go particularly well.

Near the top of the stairs, Cazael was ambushed by a mashed zombie horse thing that half charged, half fell onto him. Screaming in panic and unable to use his sword, the spiderling squire flailed and tried to escape the creature's mouth-ribcage. The Paladin commanded the creature to "DIE". The voice of the Authority, louder than a thunderclap, echoed through the valley, and the horse-zombie collapsed into rotten, frozen meat. Cazael crawled free, clearly shaken.

"What... what was that?" he said, gesturing around expansively. The Paladin shrugged.

Slugsworth hissed, "Well whatever it was our cover is FUCKED. Get to the top of the stairs and try to find somewhere to hide! Go!"

The party, slightly deafened, ran to the top  of the stairs, stepped over a second, much less mobile zombie-horse, and hid behind a cluster of wooden buildings. They seemed to be the remains of an old bathhouse, disassembled and left open to the wind and rain. Behind it, they could see the bulk of the wooden temple rising from Steam Hill, with a long basalt wall in front of it and a watchtower on the opposite hill.

"We should go for the watchtower," Wonderwood said, "clear it first, and them move on to the temple." The party agreed, and slid down the hill to run across the wall. Cazael's armour clanked like a belltower, and the party had no cover during their run. When they were halfway across, three spectral white figures flew out of the temple and passed overhead. The party froze and tried to hide, but the figures spotted them almost immediately.

"Come play with us!" the three pale children said in unison as they flew towards the party.

"Fuck no!" the party (well, all except the Paladin) screamed.

A furious fight began. The children were as quick as water, but strong as steel and utterly fearless. They fought like devils, dancing around killing blows, darting in to bruise and twist and crack joints. The Paladin commanded one to "RUN" and it laughed in his face; the divine command rolled off its soul like droplets of mercury.

The Paladin drew his "#18 Special" wand, bought from the bargain bin, pointed it at the nearest eerie child, and waggled it in a suggestive way. When that didn't work, he poked the button on the side. The wand immediately fountained forth a stream of sand, whipping and twisting and growing into an impenetrable sandstorm. While two pale-fleshed children tried to haul Slugsworth into the air, the extremely nervous fighter drew his newly purchased sword.

When he sold the sword, Gombolin the Beige had taken pains to warn the fighter against using it unwisely. "It's been sitting in a tomb since the stones were all runny," he said, "and I haven't activated the enchantment fully. Don't worry, the spell is strong. But... ah, I'm sure it will be fine."

The sword crackled in the air. Water - no, not water, air in liquid form - ran down the blade and spattered onto the basalt. Cazael's fingers froze. He swung once and sliced one of the creatures in half. Slugsworth, Bill, and Wonderwood had not been idle. Their daggers had pierced the flesh of one of the creatures and, with great effort, they'd succeeded in prying its head off. No blood sprayed forth. the creature barely even stumbled, but without a head, it could not see or attack in the sandstorm.

With a few more swings, Cazael dispatched a second creature, bringing the fight to an end. Both Bill and Wonderwood had been bitten during the fight and drained of blood, though the long-term effects of the bite were - as yet - unknown. While the Paladin assembled a hasty lamp-oil pyre, Bill the wormling, operating under the philosophy of "in for a penny, in for a pound", started eating chunks of cold and bloodless meat, as secretly as he could in the whirling sand. He felt his brain fizzle with new and distressing spells.

"To the watchtower," Cazael cried, as he sheathed his frost-coated sword. His hand was still frozen into a claw, but, after shaking a it a bit, the fingers seemed to still work. Blinded by sand, terrified, and confused, the party stumbled forward.

They had reached the legendary Steam Hill... but would they survive the many dangers that lay within?


  1. That final battle was so epic... the unknown magics saving them. The bravery... beautiful. It literally almost brought tears to my eyes.

    1. This is why you stock up on discount wands. Sure, they might be "recolour turnip" or "flagellate self", but occasionally you get a good one.

    2. Really though it was that magic sword. Pulling it from its sheath with trepidation, it freezing his hands, and him still swinging it and slaying those monsters. Beautiful moment.