Sunday, June 27, 2021

Journey to Stonedeep (spoilers)

Art by Ed Lee

The introductory adventure (or “ready-to-run quest”) provided in 1995's Everway Box Set takes up about half of the 64-page Gamemastering Guide.  It is a very good example of what an introductory adventure should be:  it provides options for the gamemaster, explains the likely results of those options, describes probable choices the players may make, and the ramifications of those choices.  In short, 'Journey to Stonedeep' is not a linear narrative to which the players and gamemaster must conform.  However, Jonathan Tweet identifies a best or ideal ending (later called the “ideal climax”).

Given the focus on cards in Everway, it should come as no surprise that 'Journey to Stonedeep' has six 'quest cards' associated with it.  Each quest card has an illustration on one side and relevant information (usually the scores for background characters) on the other.  The illustrations are useful for showing the players what a particular scene or background character looks like.

In terms of background, “a venomous, evil dragon” devastated a realm called Sweetwaters three hundred years ago.  The only gate to the realm of Stonedeep is in Sweetwaters.  Due to the presence of the dragon in Sweetwaters, spherewalkers have not been able to travel to or from Stonedeep.  Recently, “a hero has vanquished the dragon,” and the gate to Stonedeep is accessible once again.  Patrons now recruit the player characters “to use the gate, find out how Stonedeep may have changed in three hundred years, and determine the best way to approach those lost neighbors.”

Once in Sweetwaters, a guide leads the party to the gate to Stonedeep.  This takes seven days.  The guide will wait two weeks for the party to return, after which, “the guide will leave, and eventually someone will sponsor another expedition to Stonedeep.”  The Playing Guide tells us, “Most spherewalks take about a week.”  One week to Stonedeep and one week back already accounts for two weeks, so there's not much time to accomplish the goal of the quest.

Anyway, during the transition from Sweetwaters to Stonedeep, characters with strong Water scores have a vision of the Awakener (shown above).  Of course, the characters don't yet know it's the Awakener, they just see the vision:

You are standing in a field, but you feel ungrounded, and you realize you're having a vision.  A dragon hurdles down out of the the sky, crashes into the ground, and bursts into flame.  Out of the flame walks a man in armor.  He strides forth, stands still, and stares at you.  His eyes glow red.  Suddenly you see that he is standing on a pile of skulls.  “I seek a bride,” he says.  The vision vanishes, and you're standing on solid ground.

Crashing dragon.  Glowing red eyes.  Pile of skulls.  Players are sensitive to clues like these and they might just receive the impression that this is not a nice person.  A sidebar provides some additional information:

The Awakener gets his name from a teaching of Anubis, the god of death.  Anubis teaches that dying is “awakening”:  the virtuous awaken to the light of a glorious afterlife, while the unworthy awaken in darkness.

If or how the player characters learn this is not detailed.

In any event, the party arrives at some ruins in Stonedeep, a realm similar to ancient Egypt.  The party soon encounters a damsel in distress; specifically, a woman named Rarity is at the mercy of two (or more) ghouls.  Presumably, the party rescues Rarity and, also presumably, return her to the town of Underwood.  In this and subsequent scenes she party obtains pertinent information.  A priestess of Isis repelled an invasion 250 years ago and became the ruler of Stonedeep, changing the name of the realm to Bonekeep.  She remains ruler and is known as “the Ghoul Queen.”  We also learn:

The queen rules the land by turning the dead into vile, half-alive servants that do her bidding without question.  The people have grown resigned to her rule.

Additionally, the party gains some information about the Awakener.  His arrival in Bonekeep is imminent.  As indicated in the vision, he is looking for a bride.  The Ghoul Queen has captured a few beautiful women (like Rarity) and intends to present them to the Awakener under the assumption that he's looking for beauty.  She expects the Awakener to provide her with a boon for her efforts.

Should the party confront him once he arrives, they learn that, “By snapping his fingers, the Awakener can bring death to mortal and undead beings.”  Specifically, each snap causes up to twelve beings to lose one point of Earth.  Therefore, the Awakener can destroy a dozen average opponents in three narrative turns.  Also, he is “unkillable” and has a Fire score of 6.  In effect, the party cannot reasonably hope to defeat the Awakener.  If the party prevents the Ghoul Queen from presenting the Awakener with a bride, they “will have to track him down and deal with him somehow to keep Bonekeep from being destroyed.”  So, absent interference from the Ghoul Queen or the party, the Awakener will destroy the realm.  I feel safe in saying this is a bad thing. 

As written, the quest implies that the Ghoul Queen's rule is tyrannical.  There are references to peasants being “angry at the Ghoul Queen,” that hers is an “evil reign,” and “there are crimes she committed.“  Granted, 'Ghoul Queen' is not a term of endearment and she has arranged for the abduction of beautiful women for the purpose of giving one of them to the Awakener.  However, since the arrival of the (possibly ineffective) party was unanticipated, the Ghoul Queen's plan was the only way to prevent the destruction of Bonekeep.  Other than the fact that she takes her subjects “as servants and soldiers when they die,“ there is no evidence presented that she is evil.  Remember, the Ghoul Queen saved the realm from invasion and, as another priestess of Isis explains, “as long as the Ghoul Queen rules, no living soldiers have to shed their blood in battle.“  Also, the ghoul servants are morally incorruptible.  It's been several generations since the Ghoul Queen became ruler and since the “people have grown resigned to her rule,“ one might suppose that the ghouls have become an accepted part of society.  I mean, if creating ghouls is so intolerable, people would cremate their dead or otherwise dispose of corpses to prevent their conversion.

“The cleverest outcome,“ the text relates, “would be for the heroes... to convince the Awakener to choose the Ghoul Queen as his bride.“  (So, Jonathan Tweet's concept of an “ideal climax“ involves a Ghoul Queen.  I'm not judging, just making an observation.)  In terms of storytelling, it makes sense; resolve the quest by using two threats to cancel each other out.  This ending also leads to the sixth quest card.  However, there's no apparent reason for the Awakener to choose the Ghoul Queen as his bride.  Unless the party suggests this option to him, the Awakener will not select the queen.  The “best ending“ develops from a player character essentially saying to the Awakener, “Hey bro, why don't you hook up with the Ghoul Queen?“  Why the Awakener would think this is a good idea is not touched upon.  No explanation is needed.  At the last minute, the player characters “still have a chance to succeed if they can yell to the Awakener and put it in his mind to choose the queen as his bride.“

As indicated earlier, the assumption is that the Awakener is looking for a 'beautiful' bride.  This assumption is incorrect.  With regard to suggesting to the Awakener that he should choose the queen, it would make much more sense if the party could discover some bit of lore about what the Awakener actually wants or why choosing the queen is a good idea.  Maybe the Ghoul Queen's original name was 'Open Eyes' or something and the party can find this out.  Awakener + Open Eyes = perfect match.

Everway characters do not earn experience.  As compensation, for this quest, heroes can get loot from the Ghoul Queen's palace (assuming she departs – one way or another):

Ask each player to invent some item that his or her hero takes from the Ghoul Queen's palace.  They may find precious jewels, items with magical abilities, scrolls bearing magical secrets, and so on.  (You can change or disallow any item that you think would make the game less fun, such as one that would make a hero too powerful.)

Alternately, you can invent an item for each hero, either on the spot or ahead of time.  Invest items that the heroes are likely to enjoy.