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Twisted Tales: Can't Win For Losing
by Darren Maclennan
An adventure on the surreal side of life
This one's for John Tynes, who writes these things much better than I ever could.
This adventure is deliberately designed to disorient and confuse the players involved, up to the point where they'll be unsure if they're even playing with the characters that they brought to the session. Hopefully, the rewards offered at the end of the session, and the sheer novelty of playing a situation where everything has been turned on its head will compensate for any frustration of confusion the players feel. Be sure to get their permission before dragging them through this scenario, however.
The players find themselves clawing their way up from the river - the PCs with the highest Strength are already out and clawing their way up the bank, while those with low strength scores are still in the river, surrounded by schools of fish. Climbing out, they'll find themselves in a familiar environment - preferably a large city, although any location will do. They'll have none of their equipment on hand, and they'll be missing weapons as well, but inform the players that they're not concerned about it. Their characters won't need weapons or equipment for the next little while.
Once they're out of the river, they'll notice that it's night - but it was day when they were clawing their way out of the river. The streets are deserted save for a few people, who move quickly across the street and out of the character's view. The characters can explore the city, which is normal, but certain areas have been changed slightly. The characters' homes are empty, although obviously lived in. Acquaintances will be unavailable, out of town, or otherwise engaged, and unless the characters put in Herculean amounts of effort, they won't be able to see their friends before the scenario is over. Don't be afraid to sever even the stoutest link that the PCs have - even to the point of having major locations closed and major NPCs absent from their usual posts. The isolation of this scenario is a large part of what fuels this adventure.
After half an hour of whatever the PCs decide to do, they'll feel hungry, and they'll be inclined to visit their favorite eatery in town. As they step inside, they'll immediately see a table with a place setting for each of them - but there's obvious signs that somebody already ate here, including a lot of half-eaten food and dirty silverware. The service staff hasn't gotten around to cleaning it up yet. Oddly enough, the PCs will feel hungry anyway, and since they remember eating this food earlier in the day, they can sit down again to eat.
Eating will provide a surprise. As they eat, they'll feel a new surge of energy, like they've got a new purpose in life. They'll remember that a man named Reynald was responsible for dumping them in the river and stealing their weapons and equipment - and that he's probably got them right now. Don't play up the link between eating the food and the sudden "spurt" of memory & the PCs should figure it out for themselves.
Of course, the knowledge that there's somebody out there with their stuff will most likely send the PCs into a homicidal frenzy and out into the streets, hunting for Reynald. When they find him and feel free to drag out the hunt scene for as long as you feel it necessary, but at this stage they can only really remember his name and his face; he's drawing in a patch of mud with a sharpened stick. When he sees the PCs, he'll immediately flee, calling his own name in a pleading tone of voice. If he escapes, he'll show up later. If cornered, he'll fight to the death; if captured, he'll chew his own tongue out and spit it at them. An injury of some sort is necessary, as it provides an important revelation in the scenario - Reynald has dull gray blood, and there are tadpole-like organisms flopping around in it. Once captured, he'll bleed from his mouth for about five minutes, then go into a very deep coma.
Shortly thereafter, the first "push" comes. The PCs will be struck with the sensation that they'll "win" by diving into the river, drowning themselves. The sensation is rapturous, ectstatic, and that feeling will grow if they move towards the river. If anybody dives in and drowns, inform the player that they've "won", and confiscate their character sheet until the end of the adventure. Anybody who resists the temptation can continue play, but inform them that they feel vaguely guilty about not having tried to win.
Reynald is dead, comatose or escaped. The players may have been wounded, but they'll find themselves unable to heal themselves with conventional spells or salves - they drip off, or simply fail. Their blood is red, or whatever color is appropriate to the race of the PCs, but it won't heal - and the blood flow, while slow, is constant. If they ask each other where they can get healing in a conversation, inform them that they've suddenly thought about the meals that they left behind. Eat from the meals, and presto - the wounds are healed. This is obviously out of the ordinary. In addition, there will always be half-eaten food available, no matter how much they eat. Curious.
Once they've been healed, or if they weren't wounded, they'll suddenly get the idea to "swim upstream" from Reynald; it will not be their own idea, and make sure that the players know that. They know that he's a small fish in a larger organization, so the next logical step is to go find the organization that Reynald works for. They won't remember exactly what that organization is, or what it does, but they know where they can find it.
The Night Market is the place. It's located in a basement or underground cavern that seems to be about the size of a football field, lit by tumorous-looking orange lanterns and crowded with people. There's dozens of stalls, most of which are selling things that the PCs have absolutely no interest in - rotting fish, scrap notes of paper that somebody else jotted down, fragments of a song (which are played on the spot in exchange for cash), and the like. The people here look relatively normal, but feel free to throw in incidences where arms bend in the wrong direction, or a woman whose hair is actually a cluster of insects. Subtle and creepy is the key, so that the PCs are never quite sure of what they're seeing.
They'll spot Reynald again, alive and well. More specifically, they'll spot two Reynalds, one of whom is obviously subservient to the other. They'll be bargaining in front of a stall which has human body parts dangling from horizontal poles - including heads, one of which belongs to a PC. The man behind the counter has a steadily shifting body shape, but the exact details of what he/she/it is are shrouded by the large cloak that it wears.
Starting a fight, while possible, is a bad idea, due to the obvious bouncer/guard types hanging around. If cautiously approached, Reynald and his duplicate will not run, but will instead stay to talk to the characters. The same holds true for the shadowy proprietor. They'll be startled to see the PCs present, but won't make any aggressive moves. If the PCs do attack, they'll be swarmed by bouncers; only with incredible luck and good weaponry will they be able to win, or even escape. Make it clear to the players the kinds of odds they face if they decide to start a fight.
Talking with Reynald is the best option. He'll say that he was hired to give the PCs an assignment, which he did and two days ago. That was his entire involvement, but his payment for delivering the assignment was the ability to create duplicates of himself. If the PCs tell him about killing a duplicate, he'll wave it off, since he can create as many as he needs to. He never met the people who gave him that ability, and he has few leads from there. He is startled to see one of the character's heads both on the shoulders of its original owner and dangling from a pole, and will suggest that the players talk with the proprietor to find out what's going on.
The proprietor is a fountain of information, most of it baffling or useless. He will give direct answers to things that he knows about, but will obfuscate or dance around giving a firm answer on anything else. He sells, he explains, living replicas of assorted creatures, including a mutant subspecies called humanity - or elvenkind, or whatever mixture of races the PCs happen to be. The head of the PC in question was brought off of the street as salvage. They won't have enough money to buy it (remember they came out of the river with no possessions), but the proprietor is more than glad to allow them to examine it. The characters will discover that the head has gray blood and the tadpole-creatures, just like Reynald's duplicate.
Once they've finished questioning Reynald and the proprietor, Reynald agrees to lead them to a potential lead, a enemy of the people who hired Reynald. There won't be much time to question him about where this man is, because they'll step out of the Night Market and directly into the middle of a crowd of duplicates - all of them made out of the same PC whose head was represented in the proprietor's stall. They'll attack without saying a single word. Reynald will be their primary target, with PCs only taking damage if they try to interfere. Once Reynald is dead, however, the clones will turn on the PCs. Killing the clones will be extremely difficult, on the order of killing over a hundred people, but it can be done. However, since the clones are slower than the PCs, they'll be able to escape relatively easy.
Once they've triumphed or escaped, they'll have another strong sensation of needing to drown themselves, specifically in the river that they came out of. This time, however, they're actually going to have to test against the appropriate attribute in order to prevent the suicide impulse. If they fail, they regain control of themselves at the last moment, on the bank of the river, but the urge is still there. If they choose to drown themselves, repeat the winning procedure - confiscate the character sheet and move on.
Reynald is dead, as is his duplicate. The players, at this point, will be desperate for answers. They can't remember their way back to the Night Market - but they do know where their homes are, or where their local base of operations is. As they walk, they'll notice more and more familiar people on the street, although most of them will only give the players cursory greetings and then move on. As far as they're concerned, everything is perfectly normal - they can't provide any more information to the players than they regularly can.
Once in their homes, however, some changes will be made manifest. A month's worth of dust has collected, and a lot of the character's main equipment is missing, all of which is standard equipment on missions. The characters will obviously be inclined to think that they're clones of the original characters, but in that case, why do they have red blood?
Answers aren't long in coming. Soon enough (whenever best fits their plans and the timing of the game), they'll suddenly find themselves with a duplicate member of their party who seems to have something to impart. However, the vocal cords have been severed or are missing. Scratching in the dirt, augmented with periodic telepathic concepts, are sufficient to explain.
What the character can explain is basically this: The characters aren't tadpole-clones, but they're also not the original characters. They're being used as part of a war between what the duplicate indicates are huge creatures - by way of comparison, the duplicate sketches a solar system, and then draws a rough representation of one of the creatures next to it. They'll also indicate that these entities are invisible, and that their wars are typically on a scale that the characters will never meet. Somebody from the player's homeworld, however, has managed to make himself a player in these conflicts and, although the player characters can't remember how it happened, they've wound up involved in this conflict. What they're supposed to do, however, is unknown to the duplicate.
From there, several options present themselves.
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