Life is hard for me and my players right now because it's difficult to say who's the bad guy, or why, or what needs slaying, and why, and as a result they've become more sociopathic than ever before.
The very first enemy at level one, 0 xp, two years ago - they find a cabin in a haunted forest. Knock knock, no one inside. Break in, lock the door behind them, loot the cabinets, what do you mean no gold? Open the trapdoor, go into the cellar, see the children's heads on the walls. I say, 'You hear a knock at the door . . .' Long story short, they're too queasy to actually kill the insane lumberjack, so instead they tie him up, lock him in the cellar, and leave.
So now they're in a castle under siege by a skeleton army, which is led by a burning king on an iron chair, and it's protected by giant skeletons and death knights and skeletons that put themselves back together again when they die and flying skeletons with three shadows whose touch turns flesh to ash but die before the call of a mourning dove, but the skeletons right now aren't attacking the castle. This is partly because things are too complicated inside the castle, and partly because the castle is protected by statues that shoot bone-busting lasers. But supplies are running short and the castle guard has lost a lot of members. So the skeleton army is erecting their own fortress out of the bones of their dead, and building something horrible inside.
(Every time I mentioned this, Cher our now ex-fighter who's moved away would whisper, 'What the hell is he building in there . . .?')
They would like to destroy the skeleton army but aren't sure how. They waffle between wanting to save the world, and saying, 'This is like the third apocalypse happening right this instant, these people are hopeless, let's get out of here.'
But inside the castle everything's more complicated. The lord of the castle has been taken captive by his mistress and sealed inside the palace chapel, the castle wizard locked himself in his tower and started casting a spell to gain control of the skeleton army and lay siege to Belmric to the west, and maybe worst of all has been the locked and abandoned tower residence of the lord's dead wife, the Queen of Violets, now occupied by a mysterious green king, who holds some sway over all the palace residents, none of whom want acknowledge his presence.
So the sessions since returning to the castle have been like this - invade the wizard's tower and slay the wizard. What now? Ok, explore the abandoned Tower of Violets. Whoa this place is huge and filled with difficult monsters and opposing factions, what the hell? There were a good couple sessions where Thomson's bard was first killed by a monstrous knight in enameled green armor, and the players gave away almost all their gold to the castle bishop to bring him back to life, and then almost immediately after Thomson came back he made a bad roll on the use magic item mishaps chart (adapted from the totally insane rules for the maleficar at Last Gasp) and accidentally swapped bodies with the Damnation Prophet, whose body is composed of snakes.
'Okay, so, Sad Ed, your mind is yanked through the air and you suddenly see that you're looking at your own body, and your body is clutching its head and wailing, and now he's pulling out your sword. . . . This is permanent by the way.'
It bothers me that Sad Ed doesn't have his own body anymore, but on the other hand he got to torture his old body by putting a snake down his throat, so it's alright. Where was I? Uh
So there's been a lot of this back and forth, slowly exploring, tip-toeing around the castle, very conspicuously not trying to rescue Lord Unwerth, and meanwhile I'm sitting on the couch pulling out my hair trying to find a way to make sense out of the insanity that's this castle's back story. When they're in the tower, they spend a lot of time interrogating the hapless minions, playing poker with them for information, charming them, and so on. I'll say things like, 'So the man in the striped pants tells you that the King in Greens come from the Merelunds, a place of madness and fog north of the Swamp of Monsters far to the west, and that he's more powerful than you can possibly imagine,' and then they'll get angry that they didn't learn anything useful, and start a fight.
Finally, finally, when everyone is absent but our barbarian Dirtface (played by Nick), the wizard Mop (his sister Maddy), and quiet Shayne who plays the power-house 7th-level druid Ignacio (as well as his lady-wolf Deb), they decide to peek into the sealed chapel and I get to narrate the scene I've been waiting for -
'Okay, so, Dirtface, you're standing at the window and looking into the castle. Inside you can see that the chapel is really huge, and made all of black stone, and there are dozens of swords hanging from chains on the ceiling with bodies impaled on them, and strapped to the central altar is Unwerth the Immense, completely naked, and standing over him is the Lady Adelaide, except her red hair is unbound now and her features are harsh and arrogant and she's naked from the waist up, and she holds a greataxe in one hand and a long white wand in the other . . .'
'Does she look like a witch?'
They chase down the mockingbird that the chapel's ability to open was transformed into, get a couple other friends onto skype, recruit some new guys from down the street, and barge on in to confront the witch, her dinosaur, the spirits of her two dead sisters, and the mind-controlled bodyguard of Unwerth. She spills the beans - 'For behold! My name is not Adelaide, but Dread! Priestess of Izorides, Goddess of all witches!' and that she means to incarnate a demon into the body of Unwerth, and rule the forest from an impregnable fortress of terror, and that all flesh within the castle will be chattel to Namtar the Incomprehensible, Demon of Centipedes.
Here Shayne pipes in. "I'd like to invoke my fortune!" which is: "A tear will be shed for you in unexpected quarters" and tells Dread the long tale of how Unwerth started two wars that led to the deaths of his parents. Dread does shed a single black tear, and relents, and tells them that maybe they could see eye to eye (even though they totally beheaded her sisters), and that all she needs is a magical ritual dagger specially sanctified in the black fluid that drips from the slab where the demon is imprisoned far beneath the Tower of Violets, and that she sent a member of the city guard into the fundaments of the castle to sanctify the dagger, but that he has not returned.
To that my players say, 'Oh, well, if you incarnate the demon, will you destroy the skeleton army?'
Well, no, but hopefully they'll just move on -
'Okay, well, can we have some of the flesh and leave the rest for you? Because these people are all assholes but we could use a few henchmen'
I mean, maybe, but you get the sense that Dread and Namtar sort of want it all -
'Whatever, let's go find that ritual dagger and bring it back. To the tower!'
I love my players so much. This game is great.