The Black Phoenix Gang
- Walter Black – Oathborn Soldier
- Vice Black – Slothborn Soldier
- Kheign Black – Fearborn Head of Security
- Archie Black – Oathborn President of Gang
- Flinch Black – Shadowborn Dealer (not present)
- Violet Black – Warborn Poisoner (not present)
- The Helltrain – a transportation mode
- Lloyd – Bartender on the train
- Antonio – Bone Devil, “Transition Officer”
- Unnamed Chain Devil – Bureaucrat of Hell
- Unnamed Pit Fiend – Justiciar of Hell
- Anita – An Unseen Servant
This is our last session of this campaign. I am getting divorced and returning to the US in a few weeks, so I informed the group that this would be the last session of the narrative. I think it ended pretty well and everyone said they had fun, so all-in-all, it was a satisfying and good conclusion to this narrative experiment, even if it didn’t go off exactly how I had envisioned.
The player who plays Flinch, as I explained, left the group, and his replacement couldn’t attend. Violet’s player also couldn’t attend, so it was just the 4 family members. Also, the campaign ended with the characters at Level 4, proof that you don’t need to run a game longer than is necessary. When its over, you’ll know it.
When we last left our intrepid adventurers, they had agreed to sell a tiny part of their souls to some Imps in exchange for a ticket on the train. They were also able to understand Infernal, and as an added bonus, the Imps turned them invisible so they could board the train without interference.
They hustled into the train car that was burning with magical fire (an effect, only) and brought the Totems with them (these are the 2 sacks with the preserved bodies inside). I said aside from the burning, that the train car was well-appointed with food, beverages and comfortable seating, and that the atmosphere was quite pleasant, if a little warm. They ate, and drank, and talked among themselves for a little while, and Vice kept the Totems with him at all times.
A door appeared in the end of the carriage where there wasn’t one before, and a man came through it with a bundle of scrolls under his arm. This is Antonio, and I described him as “a 6’4″ inch man, muscular, and with the hair, tan, and demeanor of a surfer dude. He is wearing an open shirt, hairy chest visible, and has a few gold chains around his neck. His legs are clad in a loose billowing pant and he has bare feet. Blonde, white teeth, blue eyes.”
I used a “Jolly Bavarian” accent for him, and kept him bright and efficient.
“Ah hello! I am Antonio, and I will be your Transition Officer. Before we begin, I must make sure everyone is here!” He opens a scroll and says, with inquiry in his voice, “Kheign Black?”
Lady Kheign said she was here. “Ah good! Thank you for joining us!”
I went through each of the family members, and when I got to Vice, Antonio said, “Ah, my dear boy, it is so good to see you. We have been waiting!” and the table laughed.
With Archie, Antonio became concerned and said that “Hitchhikers are not allowed!” and walked over to him, plunged his hand into Archie’s chest, and riiiiiiiipped the Hhhell Junkie from inside him, where it was lurking, parasitic and hungry. Shocked looks all around. Antonio squashed and smushed and smashed and compacted the Junkie until it was hidden in his hands and then he rolled his palms together, producing a cigarette which he promptly lit from a “thumb flame”. The Junkie-smoke faintly screamed as Antonio puffed away. “I am very sorry for that, but you must understand that there are rules and sacrifices that must be made. Please understand.”
The party was distressed now and started peppering Antonio with questions, the main one being “What do you mean, Transition Officer?”, and “Where are we going?!”
I laughed to myself a bit. I got to have some fun now. Just for a little bit. Letting them squirm is good. And it fits this campaign’s theme pretty much down the line.
“We are going to Avernus Station, and according to the terms and conditions you agreed upon with my agents, you are now liable for 100,000 years of torment.”
This didn’t sit well with them at all. As you would expect.
They were pretty incredulous and started asking more questions, trying to understand how this could have happened. During this exchange I had Antonio become puzzled over the revelation that the Imps did not, in fact, tell the party that their souls were now forfeit.
I’ve said before how I like to have my villains make mistakes. The Imps were greedy and left out the important part of the contract, hoping to get away with it. Devils do not cotton to cheating, and now that this had been discovered, Antonio grew enraged.
I described him shedding his mortal form, as it slithered off him like a snakeskin and his true appearance revealed. A Bone Devil, and he roared at the Imps, who became visible and landed in front of Antonio. The Bone Devil lapsed into High Infernal, and I explained that the Imps had only imparted the knowledge of Low Infernal to them, and so they could understand bits of it, and only basic meanings. It went something like this:
Antonio: “Meat agreed?”
Imps: “Meat agreed!”
Antonio: “Meat not lie!”
Imps: “We hungry!”
And the Bone Devil breathed white hot infernal flames on the Imps and they unravelled in space. He then took a moment to compose himself and recalled his “fair form” and looked mortal again.
He was chagrined.
“My friends, please forgive. It seems my agents were remiss in their duties and have now rendered our contract null and void.” He sighed. “Since you are now in double-jeopardy, your souls are worthless and I cannot do business with you. You will have to exit the train at its next stop.”
The party: “And that’s in Hell?”
The party. “Fuck.”
But wait! They sold their souls for a ticket, doesn’t that mean that they can get off at whatever stop they want?” AHA!
Antonio: “You bought a ticket to get on the train. You did not buy a ticket to get off. Since our contract is void, you are essentially stowaways and have no rights-of-passage.”
The party: “Fuck.”
Here’s where it gets interesting though. When this notion of bartering came up, to continue to ride on the train, they remembered the Totems. Vice pulls one of the bags open and holds up the corpse and says, “What about this?”
Hell, literally, breaks loose.
We Have Defcon 1
Antonio shrieks at the top of his lungs, in complete distress and his mortal form is ripped away. You see, I had figured out what these Totems really were, after a talk with my genius mate, /u/StrangeCrusade, and while we were discussing the ramifications of the train and the Totems it hit me like a lightning bolt. I knew what they were. They are the preserved corpses of angel babies, missing their wings, and bound in infernal spell-chains. They were to be a gift to one of the Princes of Hell, to be used as an arcane focus, but to every lesser devil, they are the equivalent of highly radiant, and radioactive forms of strong “devil kryptonite”. In their present form, they aren’t enough to kill one, but they would be very, very painful and unpleasant to be around, and the Bone Devil loses. his. shit.
He roars at them, “What have you done!?” and starts a tirade about how they will have to get off the train and get out of Hell as fast as they can. He moans about his boss being furious with him and grows so distressed that he ends up storming out of the carriage and locking the door behind him.
The party freaks out. They know they have some powerful mojo, but they are not sure how best to exploit it. They talk for a bit. They try to pick the locked door, with no success. I mentioned that there was another door in the carriage at the opposite end. They discover that its a bathroom with a toilet. Archie mentions Lloyd, the barkeep that Vice mentioned that seemed to know things about the family.
This train was subject to my whims, jumble-touched as it was, and I had to do something to keep the energy flowing, and so at the mention of Lloyd’s name, I said the locked door unlocks itself. They go into battle stances, ready for anything, but nothing comes through. They try the door. It opens into Lloyd’s carriage. He is cleaning glasses and looks over and gives them a smile. “Hello, Family Black. Come have a drink and relax.”
He becomes very stern and turns to Vice. “I would very much appreciate if you didn’t bring those things in here.” They still don’t know what they are, so when they ask, Lloyd says that he will not say their names, and restates his firm desire that they not enter the carriage. The only thing he will say is that the contents of the sacks are “Celestials”. That caused more chatter.
They decide that Vice will stay behind with the Totems and the rest of them will try and get some answers. The door closes.
What’ll It Be?
Lloyd serves up drinks to those who want them, and the party, naturally, have some GODDAMN QUESTIONS! Lloyd nods to the clock ticking on the wall. Smiles. Says, “Train’s pulling into Avernus real soon. Best be quick about it.”
The party reviews.
- They are on a train to Hell.
- They, through some devil fuckery, have to get off the train and cannot purchase passage further.
- They have, in 2 sacks, something that devils don’t like. At all.
“Yes, Mr. Black?”
“How do we get out of Hell?”
Lloyd smiles sagely. “Look for the shiny building.”
There were other questions, of course, mostly about the train itself, where it was going, what awaited them in Hell and even questions about the barkeep himself. All were mostly brushed off by Lloyd. He didn’t have as much power as the party thought. He’s a living Tulpa, created by the train itself, a rudimentary intelligence that is mostly blind, but can read minds and glean tiny glimpses of the areas it passes through, endlessly, on its broken loop. I played him wise and vague, as the trope goes, and the party got what they’ve been getting the whole campaign – fed a tiny drop of truth, just enough to give them a signpost to aim for, and the rest pure bullshit. Every NPC has lied to them so far, and I wasn’t going to break my streak just cause I liked the character I based him on. So. Vice. Guess where he is?
If you said, “on the shitter”, you win an astral diamond!
He had the Totems with him. Door open. Poopin. As you do. I had to learn to roll with Vice, who’s primary drive was finding the fun/chaos in every situation, to add a splash of weird to the tableau. It mostly worked and I’ll miss his dick-covered id.
So Vice is dropping a black pudding and I tell him that he sees the Imps that were immolated by hellfire are starting to respin their forms. He gets real worried, and rushes for the door as the Imps start to coalesce flesh again. He opens the door and says, “Uh, guys? We got a problem here.”
Just then Lloyd nods at the clock and says, “We are arriving. You can bring them through, but make it quick. The party feels the train start to slow. Vice grabs the Totems and Lloyd is seen in obvious pain, unable to take the psychic waves from Antonio who has just rejoined the group, and the party gets ready to leave.
Next Stop, Downtown Avernus
(DMs note here. I don’t follow any canon when it comes to the planes, and I grabbed the name out of my head, so don’t expect a classical journey through Avernus.)
The train slows to a stop, Antonio pulls the door open and the stairs pop out and the party is ushered out of the train into a cityscape of tall shining buildings that scrape the sky, clustered in tight, and dozens of streets of inlaid bone running off in all directions. There was no sky, but a sickly green glow that never varied. Down before them, behind a desk and surrounded by filing cabinets were 2 Eriynes flanking a seated CHain Devil and Antonio cursed Heaven under his breath. He gave a weak smile. “My boss.” He walked the party down to the desk.
The Chain Devil roars at him in High Infernal and is summarily dismissed, and Antonio scuttles off. The party is beckoned forward by the Induction Manager as his chains shift and rattle, and the Erinyes hiss at the sight of the Totems and the Chain Devil roars in Low Infernal to the party threats and “how dare you’s” and other shit that got shut down right fuckin quick by my party – who by now, have had enough and are finally starting to take charge of their destinies. They explain everything about how the Imps fucked up, and how thy got thrown off the train, and they threaten Manager and his guards with the Totems. Archie mentions that he has a bonafide boon from Lord Umbruk himself, the Deity of Vengeance, and the Induction Manager allows that it would grant him a seeing with the Justiciar to perhaps allow they party swift(er) passage out of Hell. There’s paperwork to fill out, naturally.
This is Hell, after all. I played it up a bit, filling out forms and addendums, grumbling as the Manager, “most irregular!” and tried to quickly paint this place as a bureaucracy, and the party came from anarchy. That made them hate this place even more, but I didn’t have the time to bog them down in the true red-tape that would exist here, and this one encounter is all I had to sell it. Archie argued for his boon being able to cover the entire family, not just him, and in light of the Totems, the Manager was in no place to argue. He did the needful.
They wait for the Manager to finish his forms, take them, and they demand to know where the way out of Hell is, and where is this Justiciar, and what the FUCK is that smell?
The Manager points them to Bile Way, a sickly green path that winds its way through the plane, but it doesn’t always go to the same place. He told them some basic directions to the Justiciar – go up to the Shreiking Pool, hang a louie, and go to the Hell of Upside Down Sinners, hang a right, and keep going until you hit the Palace of Blood.
Oh that got them going alright.
Especially Walter. Poor guy. He worked so hard to understand what was going on, but he kept forgetting that his mind was fractured, and that this campaign was never going to make sense to him, or any of them. Thats the name on the tin – The Asylum Tapes. Still. Walter persisted. In spite of the fact that a lot of what led them down this path was his fault, he stuck by his family and he never gave up on them. Even after almost losing his brother to a goddamn jumble monster, he kept his faith in the one thing that hadn’t let him down. Family Black. Stoicly, he resigned himself to this last travail, and was determined to get them all out. It was a beautiful thing to see, and Walter’s arc was a delight to watch.
Lady Kheign, now-sister to Family Black, was the source of the party’s drive. Anger drove her, and they paired off to hold the Totems, and bullied their way through Hell. After they set off from the Manager, the work day ended, and thousands of devils emerged from the skyscrapers into the streets, on their way to the next scheduled task. The sight of mortals, half-running with celestial nukes, fucked up their day and a riot broke out with the devils trying to flee.
The party was challenged at one point, as I had planned a Barbed Devil encounter (or two) to at least have one last battle in the campaign, but the party was having none of it. They forced them away and kept moving. Kheign wasn’t going to listen to any bullshit. The rock of the family, the quiet one, the one who loves to scrap, avoided every encounter I threw at them. I had to laugh.
The party navigated their way past the Shreiking Pool, past the Hell of Upside-Down Sinners, and finally arrived at the Palace of Blood, which was, indeed, a giant palace that was covered in running blood, like one of those chocolate fountains you sometimes see at parties.
They were directed to the courtroom and a Pit Fiend was behind the bench. The sight of the Totems sent everyone into a tailspin and the Pit Fiend was roaring for order, to no avail. Finally the party is allowed to speak. After a lot of back and forth, the Pit Fiend/Justiciar tells them to get out of Hell. NOW.
They are directed to a portal that will lead them back to the Prime Material Plane. A few Erinyes are standing guard and as they are talking with them, someone (sorry I’ve forgotten who) said, “What happens if we leave them here? (meaning the Totems)” and the Erinyes says “YOU CAN’T!” and I think it was Walter or Kheign, maybe, who followed up with, “Can you stop us?” and I responded with a soft, dispirited, “no”. The table erupts in laughter. Was a great moment.
They are told to envision where they want to go, and all of them agree they do NOT want to go back to Galron. They asked me if they knew of any places outside the city and I said yes, they did.
An aside here.
I’ve mentioned this many times in the past, in comments, and posts, that I have a place on my map of Gemseed that no one has ever been to, since I placed it on the map in 1990. Its called “Scorpion Tower” and because of the way I build, I didn’t actually know what was there myself – these things exist in a quantum state until its explored and then it becomes “real” and I also discover what the place is like.
I couldn’t pass up this opportunity, now could I?
I practially rubbed my hands together.
I said, “Yes, you all have heard children’s stories about Scorpion Tower, a place where a kindly mage is supposed to dwell.”
Walter piped up with, “Do we really want to go to a place called Scorpion Tower? It doesn’t sound like a great place!” Archie countered with, “Yeah, but the mage is kindly and we’ve never known kindly anything!”
Debates ensued and finally they decided to go for it. I said they didn’t know exactly where the tower was, but they could all picture it in their minds and maybe they would get lucky.
So they jumped through the portal, leaving the Totems behind, and as they did, I told them they could hear the guards yelling “NOOOOoooooo!” and this got another big laugh.
I described them in the Astral Plane for a few moments and had them all roll Wisdom checks. All but Vice failed. So I dumped them outside of the city, in the Southwind Plains. It was night.
The table was very quiet.
I said “You hear the sounds of crickets and for the first time in your life you see stars and the moon. The wind is rustling through the knee high grass and its very quiet. To your South, far in the distance, are the lights on the walls of Galron. You are outside. You made it.”
There was some awe. They were visibly moved, I could tell. They sat for a minute, not really talking, absorbing this idea that they were out. It was really quite amazing and I just got a chill up my arms recalling it.
I said that they could see nothing beyond the lights to the South, and the Moon wasn’t bright enough to illuminate much more than a few hundred metres around them.
They went to sleep. In the morning they foraged for some food and I told them they could see the thin spire of Scorpion Tower a few days walk to their North.
They set off and after a day or so they came across a caravan camped for the night, manned by Gnomes. Archie decided to sneak up and have a look and maybe barter some of their goods for food and water. The exchange didn’t go so well, these ragged and quite terrifying people from Galron just appearing out of the darkness into the firelight. After some tense words, the Gnomes agree to give them food and water and ask them to leave. It damn near came to a brawl, but in the end the party left.
I Don’t Have That Information
They arrived at Scorpion Tower. I said it was a 5-story stone tower, pierced with window holes and the front door was ajar. The entire tower was covered in moss and the interior had been retaken by nature. Clearly abandoned. Confused, but oh-so-cautious, they went inside and climbed the stairs, every floor being empty of anything save plants and the ocassional bird.
At the top of the tower I described a door, the first one they had seen since the entrance. I said it looked brand new and still smelled of freshly-cut wood. Everyone immediately was on-edge, and expecting some massive fight. They pushed the door open and inside I described a room with comfortable looking couches, a massive spread of food and drink, some tables around the edge of the circular chamber, and the atmosphere was warm and inviting.
They didn’t buy it for a second, but they cautiously explored and even sampled some of the food, which I described as delicious.
The party called out, “Hello?” and a voice answered from seemingly-thin air. “Hello, Family Black. You are most welcome. Please. Come and relax and refresh yourselves. You are safe here.”
This made them even more paranoid (I had trained them well).
After some investigation I revealed that the voice was called “Anita” and “she” was an Unseen Servant (they could see the air disturbance where she was). They asked who created this place. She said, “You did. As per your instructions.”
They asked a lot more questions, and I responded a lot with, “I don’t have that information”. After a lot of back and forth, where I kept reiterating that they had created this place, and Anita kept responding with “Rest and relax, you are safe here.”
They wanted to leave and Anita said, “Why would you ever want to leave? You are safe here.” I kept hammering that point, which made them not believe me even more.
But leave they did, and as they exited the top floor, I said the tower was now furnished and appeared brand new. Bedrooms, a kitchen, a Roman bath, a lounge, and storage, and outside the tower were herb and flower gardens stretching out 100m from the base of the tower, interspersed with meandering gravel paths.
They were determined to leave, thinking this place was an illusion, trick, or some other fuckery. I had Anita blurt out, “Please don’t leave! You are safe here! Rest! Relax!” but they were having none of it.
It was time to play out the climax of this entire campaign, and I was so ready for it.
I had each player accompany me outside so I could speak to them individually and I asked them not to reveal what was discussed.
I said this to each player, in turn.
“As you go to leave, at the end of the path, is your entire family in a line, blocking your way. They say, in unison – “Are you sure?””
Oh man. This freaked some of them out.
But each and every one of them said “Yes”
I said, “Your family seperates into two groups of three, standing in lines parallel to the path, allowing you to leave. As you step off the path there is a smash cut to blackness and you cannot see, but you can hear voices and your body is convulsing.”
The voices say “Doctor! We are losing him/her! The procedure was a failure!”
I said, “You black out and awaken some time later in a straitjacket in the deepest, darkest cell in Rafanar Asylum, and you are never heard from again. You also realize that your family was a hallucination and you were always completely alone.”
Every character chose to leave the tower. Every. Single. One.
Their minds created the tower as a bastion against their insanity. They had the choice to stay “ignorant” and remain “safe” or leave and face reality. They chose to leave.
The campaign was based on unreliable narrators as discussed in the opening session. Yes, they went to Hell. Yes they escaped, but in the process their minds fractured, they wandered the Southwind Plains until they were picked up by some kindly Gnomish merchants and delivered to Rafanar Asylum, where they met the Man in the White Coat and were given treatment, and offered a last-ditch attempt to cure their insanity, but it failed.
That was the end of the campaign. The party was Level 4.
There was praise, and a bit of shock and awe. I think I did a pretty good job with this one, and I would love to run this premise again, especially after I learned how to use the Man in the White Coat more effectively. I’m going to try and play The Burning Wheel some more and learn how to engage the players a bit better.
Thanks for coming along on this journey with me and I hope you enjoyed it. I’ll see you for the next campaign!