Monday, 14 November 2016

[Actual Play] Behind Gently Smiling Jaws: Session 2

[Last week I ran the first session of a "Behind Gently Smiling Jaws" playtest. I didn't do a write-up, but will from this one onwards. In the previous session, our brave adventurers had come from various places around the world to Port Keizerin Elisabeth, a port founded by the Dutch East India Company in a land they had called Paradijs Kolonie. They were motivated by one purpose: to investigate a legend they had heard, that somewhere in the jungle was a village, known as "the guarded village", which was guarded by a giant crocodile whose dreams could somehow be entered.

After hiring a local called Yosik to act as their guide, they paid for passage towards the village on the trading boat of a native, Fat Folo, who had set himself up as a middle man of sorts for trade between the Dutch and the locals. Set ashore upstream from Port Keizerin Elisabeth not far from the guarded village, they made their way there and discovered that the village sat by a large lake.]

PCs present:

  • Wilhelm Becker, an elderly German scholar, played by R
  • Raphael de Fonseca, a Jewish-Dutch scholar, played by M
  • "Bash" (real name unknown), a Danish mystic, played by C
The session began with the travelers standing on the shore of the Guarded Lake, confronted by a group of warriors daubed in white paint and bristling with blow guns, clubs, spears and so forth, in a large war canoe. The warriors, while hostile in appearance, seemed amused at the sight of these strange foreigners, and allowed them to get into the canoe to be taken to their village, which lay on the other side of the lake.

In the canoe Wilhelm (who could speak some of the local dialect) asked the locals some questions about their village, the legend of the crocodile, and how it was that the dreams of this beast could be entered by outsiders. It was revealed that a shamaness at the village knew the secret of how to enter the creature's dreams, and that for generations this knowledge had been passed down from mother to daughter to daughter again following the same lineage. It also turned out that nobody, as far as anybody knew, had ever gone into the crocodile's dreams and come out again. Those who entered never returned. The men also told Wilhelm that anybody was permitted to enter the crocodile's dreams, provided that they were earnestly seeking something and that they did not tell any lies.

Arriving at the village on the opposite shore the visitors were welcomed by all the villagers - about 200 people, including a vast gang of children, the chief, and also a fellow white European, who introduced himself as Dennis, an explorer in the employ of the Dutch East India Company. On learning that they had come to investigate the legend of the dreaming crocodile, Dennis let it be known that he considered the story to be a myth or hoax. But he was impressed by a display of power from Bash, who demonstrated that he was able to cure wounds through channeling mystical energies. Dennis told him that he would like to take him to Batavia to meet the Governor there, as a curiosity of nature, but Bash refused, saying he was not a curio to be displayed to amuse the wealthy.

The PCs then made their way to the shameness's hut, which stood apart from the others on wooden stilts, around 20 yards high. They climbed up and discovered a single, small room, where a woman, probably in her 30s, sat naked and cross-legged. On each wall there was depicted an icon of a jungle beast: a tree kangaroo, a quoll, a parrot, and a cassowary. The shamaness asked each of the PCs why they wished to enter the crocodile's dreams. Wilhelm gave the answer that he was now old, and had researched many things but wished to travel on one last great exploratory journey. Raphael revealed that he was searching for a lost tribe of Israelites he believed lived there. And Bash revealed that he had clearly been blessed with some kind of mystical power, but he did not know where it came from or who had bestowed it on him, and he wished to find out.

Satisfied with these answers and the honesty of the PCs, the shamaness agreed to perform the ritual to allow them to enter the crocodile's dreams. Before doing so, the PCs naturally asked some questions and received answers to them. First, they were told that natives of the village never entered her hut, or the crocodile's dreams, because they believed that the dream world was only to be accessed after death, and they did not wish to foreshadow what might happen after they entered the afterlife. Second, they were told that normally when a person entered the dream world, their spirit left their body behind. Sooner or later, the body that had been left behind would die, at which point the shamaness would throw it out of the hut and the villagers would feed it to the crocodile in the lake. This had happened to all travelers who journeyed to the crocodile's dreams (she did not know what happened to their spirits), apart from seven - the "seven who went before" - all of whom had found some way to transport not just their spirit but also their physical being into the dreaming. But they had all done this long, long ago - long before the shamaness was born. Finally, Raphael was told that one of these Seven, known as Pape Jan, might be an ally to him; likewise, one known as Xu Fu might be of assistance to Bash.

She also told the PCs that they must return the next day bringing with them as many frogs as they could from the lake.

This was achieved mainly through Bash bribing the local children with moonshine to catch frogs for them. Soon enough the party had well over a dozen frogs on their hands - Raphael and Wilhelm were able to gather some others. While this was going on, they caught a glimpse of the crocodile itself - a huge head at least 5 metres in length which emerged partially from the water for a moment before disappearing back below.

The next morning the PCs turned up back that the shamaness's hut and the ritual began. Each of the PCs licked the back of a number of frogs and soon enough each of them had fixated on one of the animal pictograms on the walls of the hut: these animals seemed to be communicating knowledge to them from the spirit realm. Wilhelm, whose vision fixed on the cassowary, began to dwell on the fact that he had come to believe in magic through handling a face mask from an obscure tribe which had seemed imbued with magical energy. The cassowary told him that, indeed, the face mask had been imbued with such energy and that, moreover, he would one day discover a mask which would give him such power that he would become a demigod.

Bash, who had fixated on the quoll, recalled the first time that he had used his mystical powers to revenge himself against childhood bullies. The quoll foresaw that one day in his future Bash would had dominion over many people and would have the authority to send huge numbers of men to their deaths at his own command.

Raphael, who meditated on the parrot, remembered legends of golems, things formed from clay and imbued with life to protect the persecuted Jewish people. The parrot predicted that Raphael would one day discover himself how to forge living things from clay.

Gradually it dawned on the three PCs that they were no longer looking at the animal pictograms but were each looking at a single reptilian eye that was growing inexorably, slowly but terribly larger. It may have been hours, days, weeks, months or years, but over an eon of time this eye was becoming big enough to be the size of a world. And each of them was falling into this world from a vast and distant height.

And then they woke up somewhere very cold: a dim tunnel, forged of ice and rock. They had their possessions on them, and noticed that the tunnel forked ahead of them, left and right. From the left there came a golden glow. From the right, a more unearthly, blue light. They decided to investigate the right, because they could also hear a strange scraping or digging sound coming from that direction.

After some exploration they eventually came across a series of caverns. These caverns had a strange physical character. They seemed filled with air. But high up in the "ceiling" was what could only have been the surface of the sea, and the sunny sky above it. It was as if the caverns were filled with the ocean, and yet the human explorers could walk in them and breathe as though they were on solid land.

In one of these chambers the PCs saw a huge shrimp, at least 8 feet long. This was the source of the digging - it was scrabbling through gravel, digging out thick green algae to eat. It did not notice them, so they explored a neighbouring chamber where they were confronted by a huge fish - of a similar size to the shrimp - which looked like a colourful goby or blenny. This fish could swim and float freely in the "air" as though it were water, and proved friendly, if elusive. It revealed that it was in fact married to the shrimp - the shrimp was his wife - and that she was blind and deaf but extremely dangerous if touched. The goby's main aim was to cajole the PCs into aiding it "smite" its enemies, a group of dirty, hairy creatures which lived nearby and which were threatening him and his wife.

The PCs were unwilling to involve themselves in a conflict unnecessarily, but after a fairly long conversation a deal was struck. The goby agreed that it would help the PCs find a woman (what the fish referred to as a "smooth but also dirty-haired one like you") who knew about writing and magic and things of that nature. If this proved fruitful the PCs would help smite the goby's enemies, and the goby would then reveal the location of a magical mask for Wilhelm.

While this conversation was going on, Bash performed an experiment by climbing the walls of the cavern and then, finally, shooting an arrow tied to a string up to the "ceiling". When the arrow penetrated the water line, it made a splashing sound and, when tugged back down, it was wet. It was as though when moving around these chambers the PCs were subject to their own physical laws, even though they were ostensibly under water.

The fish also revealed some more information about the nature of these "lands", as it called them. Apparently once he and his wife had lived peacefully in the sea, but then an outsider had come and he had radically changed the nature of things, physically and philosophically. Since this outsider had come, he had turned almost everything there into a hunter and a fighter, and he had also reformed its geography. The fish also revealed that any outsider who entered these "lands" would eventually also change its character in some way, simply by being there.

The session ended with the fish leading the PCs to a much larger chamber nearby which, rather than appearing to be under the sea, was actually filled with jungle and which was open to an apparently sunny sky...

[This is the map of this area of the crocodile's dreams as far as the PCs have explored it. Room 28 is where the fish's wife was eating algae. Room 26 is where the PCs encountered the fish. Room 25 is the new jungle cavern. The fish's enemies are apparently in the direction of the blue arrow pointing up.]


  1. Behind Gently Smiling Jaws may be your best work yet. The writing here is wonderfully evocative. I quite liked the hut of the shamaness with the different animal icons depicted.

    Having seen the map in an earlier post I know the players have an absolutely massive cavern waiting before them past room 25, and I'm eager to see what inhabits it. Also, I know you critiqued the quality of the map but I quite like the aesthetics of it, simple though it may be. It has a good flow and overarching structure. One quick question: when the PCs entered the dream could they possibly have appeared elsewhere in the dungeon? I'm sure you addressed this in a past post but if so it slipped my mind.

    1. Thanks very much!

      I was always going to have the PCs appear there for the purposes of the playtest but the aim for the actual product is for there to be multiple possibilities. I actually want it to be possible to appear in any of the different "realms" of the crocodile's dreams/memories - but I haven't by any means completed all of them in enough detail to do that yet!