Describing the indescribable

There is a description of the far realms inside the 5E PHB, or maybe it’s the dungeon Master’s guide. The description follows through for pretty much all descriptive text sections that have to deal with anything Lovecraft related. It goes something like this:

It’s incomprehensible! Your mind literally can’t comprehend it. It’s too alien, too insane, doesn’t abide by the laws of this reality. Your mortal mind can’t handle it.

Boring, isn’t it? It tells you literally nothing about what it is that you’re seeing, experiencing, what the aftershock of such a sight might be.. It’s completely useless. It reminds me of a recent digressions and dragons episode.

You see a creature the likes of which you have never seen before, which is just perfect as descriptions go. Do I know how many limbs it has? Are any of them sharp? “You encounter a creature the likes of which I have not bothered to write down a description.”

I understand the natural inclination to leave something at “your mind can’t comprehend it.” However, as storytellers, we are charged with inventing depictions of the experience, and at this point even ending the story with a simple, fact of the matter “your mind can’t comprehend it” is no longer enough. Sure, we can say constructs of insanity and realms that lie beyond the constraints of our natural laws are beyond our means to explain. Fine! We are not here to artlessly explain how everything functions in a scientific context ( particularly not in the fantasy genre). What we can manage are the aesthetic or linguistic representations of things that lie beyond our full comprehension.

Consider the following:

The light around you is blue, refracted. Something like the surface of the ocean when viewed from beneath lies too the left, then your right, then above you, then moving again. The source of the light is clearly behind it, but looks red despite the soft blue rays it casts.

Or this one:

A gray, tattered landscape lies before you, roiling like a flag, moved by a nonexistent wind. The very horizon shifts in ripples, bending the ground up, up, up until it crests over your head – a quick glance South reveals it to have never moved at all. A quick glance North shows the horizon did indeed crest over you, wrapping ‘round to diminish the sky to a thin line, and the ground 100 miles away lies only a few hundred feet above your head. Looking North again, you can see it never moved at all.

I’m no Lovecraft but, not bad, right? It’s a start, at the very least. Paradoxes are things we characterize as being logically incoherent. Who cares about the explanation? In a moment of madness, the struggle to reconcile the incomprehensible with reality, the description of such an experience is what counts. I be willing to bet there’s a value to doing this inside a game like Dungeons & Dragons. Your players sitting across the table from you, in touch with reality.

Through a clever use of language, I believe we can ever so slightly nudge the player into the shoes of their character as they experience something horrific, or simply inexplicable. They are already engaged in the act of imagination; take advantage of that! Don’t be afraid to invent paradoxes and play with the incomprehensible; with any luck, the group activity this will create a feedback loop as nervous eyes look back to one another in confusion.

I took my players to the Argonne Forest

You heard me! The group had just finished up their business at a set of standing stones, a local font of magical power. They received ascending from Ulfin, requesting their assistance. He showed up moments later, asking if they'd be willing to directly assist the war effort. A Vanguard force had found themselves surrounded a day prior. It was the perfect opportunity to showcase the power of the runes, and Ulfin needed a group comfortable hitting above their weight class. The group was relatively happy to assist, and I think they were somewhat excited to test their mettle against an organized opponent. And so they went off!

Ulfin used his usual transport via plants to drop the group off at an encampment of soldiers from Garamentes. The Captain fills them in. A few of the advance force moved too far in, and either didn't receive the retreat order or didn't think it was legitimate. Either way, they're surrounded, low on supplies, and soon they'll have more wounded than men in fighting condition. The group's job is straightforward; smash through a bunker too heavily fortified for their regulars to handle. 

The encampment has howitzers, and a few shells remaining. They can't produce any serious bombardment if they spread their shots. With the party striking the most heavily defended choke point, the main force can rain hell on the flanks, allowing their men to penetrate any defensive line. 

One final point; the vanguard only had 1 spellcaster, who was unresponsive after their last sending. 
An unidentified archmage had engaged them. 

The group settled in, and come morning the trench whistles shrill cry sent them off. I laid out the first battle map; I'd taken a great deal from BF1's Argonne Forest map. The players have a few rows of trenches and barbed wire to cross before coming up on a bunker. The only creature immediately visible was an ogre holding a ballista-sized crossbow. The party engaged!

As they moved forward, they encountered a set of Tyrant Regulars, a hobgoblin legion employing weapons like crossbows, rapiers, and whips. They fired from the trenches before going prone. The party took some hits before moving into melee, diving behind cover before finally getting in their faces. Right as they reached the last trench, two sets of creatures emerged. First, two Tyrant Captains came from the bunker, tossing blastcap bombs (combustible, easily grown mushroom with incindiary materials) at the party. Next, an ogre carrying a small fort came from a side path, leading to train tracks (keep that in the back of your mind for now). 

The fort held four goblins of the Powder Horn Legion, all wielding muskets. On arrival, they sent a volley towards the Paladin, Sorcerer, and Artificer, all crouched behind cover. The ogres from that point were quite heavily focused. The party mages took them down as the Cleric and Paladin moved into melee with the Tyrants. The Howdah Ogre fell, along with his cargo, sending the goblins spilling out. They’d by this time finished reloading, and sent another volley towards Alan the Paladin, to little avail.

Once both the goblins and ogres were dispatched (along with a majority of the Tyrants), two of the Tyrants managed to escape. The fled into the bunker, sealing one of the two doors shut. The party attempted (and failed) to bust through, before attempting to enter the other door. It was unlocked, lucky them! It was also trapped. A blastcap bomb detonated in their faces. Inside this front area, they found spare bolts, rations, rain capes, coils of barbed wire, etc.

The party continued through a long hallway, until they came up on beds with plaster dividers between them. I had the party roll perception, and they failed; Tyrants emerged, and began unloading. They started with a volley of crossbow bolts before clustering next to the edges of the hallway, waiting for the party to emerge. The party engaged, quickly recognizing these were stronger than the last. The Sorcerer Sael cast polymorph on Asura the Cleric, turning him into a giant ape. The ape gave full cover to the party (good for them) but also almost entirely blocked movement to the Tyrants (good for me). What ensued was primarily Asura striking the Tyrants as they desperately tried falling back. They put up a decent fight, taking the ape down by about 100 hp, but not enough. Asura burst through the other side of the bunker, the crumpled bodies of Tyrants around him.

At this point, I asked the players to roll a d4. 2 was the result; they heard the whistle of a train. They looked around, prepared themselves with what little they could (the party had at this point expended almost all of their spells), as an armored train rolled through.

Now, siege equipment/armaments takes time to load, aim, and fire. YOu only have all 3 in the same round if multiple people are operating the equipment. The train had 5 armaments of varying size, each manned by one person. Asura (still a giant ape) immediately set to attacking it, wrecking the center gun. After a natural one on an attempt to flip one or two of the rail cars, he draped himself over the train. The guns to either side fired at point blank, leaving him unconscious next to it.

The party engaged, trying to get to Asura before he died. Dr. Silver (the party artificer) opened up a small bunker next to the train, finding…two Tyrant Knights. What followed was a chase around the battlefield as certain party members tried to catch the attention of the Tyrants as the others attacked the train. Asura was up in about two rounds, and cast Spiritual Guardians. There were screams from the 3 cars next to him, which then stopped. Kevin playing his regrettably short-lived sorcerer (spoiler warning) started throwing blastcap bombs at the hatches on the other two cars, which were at that point retreating.

Kevin’s character actually climbed the car and got inside (after successfully blowing off a hatch) and gutted one of the engineers. The cards continued moving back, and after dispatching the Knights, the party gave chase.

At last, the final map was laid out. Simply a brick bridge over a slight depression, tracks leading over it. Kevin’s character had at this point killed the last engineer, and managed to stop the train on the bridge. He’d also accidentally unloaded a shell from the siege howitzer in his car. The rest of the party arrived, sounds of battle on the flanks, and above a hill some hundred yards ahead of them. This was the final stretch; where was the enemy?

A slow clap rings out, seemingly from all around them. Someone starts congratulating them on their progress, but regrets their journey must be cut short. Undead start rising from the ground, and its initiative. It starts out simply; the zombies don’t have a high armor class or to hit chance. Asura pops Channel Divinity, destroying undead in a 30 ft radius. Here, the strange voice’s owner reveals himself. Decked out in black with a white, engraved mask, our friend raises more undead. Morover, he begins casting spells through the undead around him, their bodies twisting and jerking to match his commands. The battle actually doesn’t go too poorly by and large; zombies prove largely incompetent except acting as remote spellcasters, and the archmage doesn’t have a terribly impressive number of hitpoints. Nevertheless, he is whittling down Asura and Alan’s hitpoints. Kevin’s character has, in the meantime, been re-loading and aiming the siege howitzer attached to his car. The archmage’s turn is coming up, but Kevin and 1 other go before him. The archmage here has roughly 25 hp. Alan and Asura are clustered around him.  Kevin’s character fires the siege howitzer. I have him roll an attack. Even if he rolls above AC, it won’t necessarily hit, and almost certainly won’t be a direct hit. He rolls: natural 20.

Kother and the Zombies around him are obliterated. I have Kevin roll 10d10 and double the result, and ask Chris and Dennis to roll dex saves. Chris, playing Alan, succeeds! Dennis, playing Asura, does not. The total result of the damage is 106 or 112, I can’t recall. Alan gets to halve that damage, but Asura will not. Asura is actually killed outright, but Alan intervenes. He uses an ability from his subclass to take the damage on himself, keeping Asura alive but unconscious, and killing Alan outright.

Asura is brought back up with potions, but he has no spells for Revivify. In fact, all he has a first level spell slot; he can’t cast something like Gentle Repose to extend his window on reviving Alan. There’s one way, however. Expending a first level slot,  he casts the Blood Rune, allowing him to cast a second level spell. He casts Gentle Repose, giving him a chance to revive Alan once they rest.

The other party members, in the meantime, have a talk with Kevin’s character.

Kevin’s character is not longer with us.

Re-leashing the players

The players have crafted a cool magic item and discovered new runes in the last session, as well as discovered a bit more about the world they live in. These are things I'd tell you in a campaign diary, but the campaign diaries are supposed to provide 2 things: useful DM material/inspiration, and an enetertaining story. I can't justify cutting down the videos to tell you the "only useful" parts when those are generally best saved for a specific concept. Seeing as though I'm not that great of a storyteller in the context of D&D yet, that means the videos' primary functions aren't being fulfilled. That's fine though, I have this as a creative outlet and I can always go back to videos (which will then be linked here) should I decide that content will be sufficiently useful and worth my time to make it such.

Seeing as that's out of the way, let's get to the meat of the matter. I've given my players a lot of sandbox style freedom in their general directions, goals, what they want to seek out, etc. I did start wondering about why they were sent down here in the first place, though. For those of you catching up, my players are exploring the southern reaches of this continent, seeking lost magic items, civilizations, magical power and spells, etc. The reason? The Second Host War has just kicked off, and the nation acting as their patron would very much like to gain any advantage they can at minimal expenditure of resources. A small expedition of adventurers fits that bill, particularly if they start to succeed (and indeed they have). 

So the players are feeling that success, right? 

Well, not quite. They definitely love finding new stuff, making magic items, the works. I focus a lot on what I think 5e is missing (somewhat intentionally); loot! In coming to this new region though, they're actually the underdogs in some sense. The party has fought quite a few enemies at this point that have access to Runes they didn't (or still don't). Finding said runes has boosted their power to be more on par with the things they're assaulting, not to gain an advantage over creatures that have no such thing. That's fine! They love the "we get beaten down to come back better" style of play. I still can't help but wonder if it's a bit of dissonance in the narrative. They have managed to transfer Runes to their civilization by way of the high-level druid that contracted them in the first place, despite now being the lateral distance of the United States away through use of certain spells. 

So here's where I come to my plan for next session; I specifically kicked off the Second Host War so the players would have their punching bag and I'd have a ready supply of "it's ok to wipe the floor with them" villains. Runes are being transmitted and learned back home, but not terribly quickly, and there's no reason to think the Brestrels (antagonist nation) have them yet. What if Ulfin requests their help back home? He can cast a spell, have them there to assist, then bamf them back to their original quest. If the players agree, I know exactly what to prep, what I can expect from the players, who the bad guys are, etc. That session will effectively be on rails, but only because the players chose to put themselves on in the first place. After what I consider to be the failure of my first campaign, I no longer worry all that much about "railroading" but I still have the occasional nagging voice, telling me how terrible I must be as a storyteller for having a real, prepared narrative. 

The effect I'm hoping to have on the players is demonstrating how dominant their advantage back home would be (and here, is). This is their opportunity to power trip. I'm not saying I'll make the combat easy per se, just adjust hitpoints and such so the volume of enemies they can take on with this advantage is reasonably inflated. 

As for the premise of the mission? A vanguard force pushed too deep into an Argonne-style forest, found themselves surrounded, and now it's rescue time.