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Quagmire in the Clepsydra

The genesis of Quagmire in the Clepsydra is inextricably entwined with the core concept of Rultmoork, its leitmotif, if you will: Duality. In this module, the players get to take on the roles of individuals that are directly opposed to the agenda of (most) player characters that will take on Rultmoork, namely that of cultists of the Church of Still Waters, and at the same time, reward particularly thorough adventurers exploring the wondrous environments of Rultmoork.

Originally, this adventure was supposed to adhere to an expanded, double-sized Mini-Dungeon formula, so was supposed to only cover four pages; additionally, my direction was to have it take place in the Clepsydra, which is one of my favorite parts of Rultmoork. I mean, have you ever explored a dungeon level that is essentially a gigantic water clock? Yeah, that jamais-vu, that sense of never having experienced or seen something really gets me excited. Plus, there is this really cool angle called Visions of the Past, where the consciousnesses of the heroes are sent back through time, allowing the players to play through history. There are two instances (one rather hard to access) where the player characters can access Visions of the Past, but what about parties that find both? Well, here was my chance to add to the tapestry of Rultmoork without destroying its intricate overall patterns, to remain within the metaphor.

This proved to be quite a serious challenge due to a variety of factors:

  1. Rultmoork and its entire environs and story have been constructed in a very tight, interwoven manner; one of the hard to pin down, but incredibly rewarding aspects about Rultmoork is how it rewards players (as opposed to their characters) for really thinking about and interacting with their environments. Thus, the adventure could not contradict the lore already established; when the player characters explore Rultmoork, they would need to find the Clepsydra in the state depicted in this adventure.
  2. The Clepsydra, no surprise there, can potentially flood. While only careless characters will get to be caught up this rather deadly event in Rultmoork, playtesting showed that this aspect of the adventure was non-optional. However, the rules for the flooding are, by necessity of the system, rather complex, as you can discern in the main module. Within the word-count allotted for Quagmire in the Clepsydra, the flooding would have taken up too much space. Plus, the official rules of the system and atmosphere of Rultmoork required that the flooding be deadly. I bypassed this issue by setting the level-range of the adventure to one. Essentially, being caught in the raging waters is pretty much lethal, though this does NOT end the game. More on that below.
  3. The crowning achievement of Rultmoork, to me, is the sense of wonder it evokes with indirect storytelling, i.e., by allowing the players to piece things together. From mosaics on the walls to environments to the unique adversaries, everything is incredibly ancient in-game, but brand-new on a meta-level; one really feels like an archaeologist setting foot, for the first time in a millennium, into a complex defined by the wonders and art of a bygone age. Of course, this also means that the monsters and NPCs needed to be all new and unique. On a rules-level, many creatures in Rultmoork have two modes: Stagnation Mode and Flow Mode, tapping into the water-theme of the adventure. These modes have VERY different abilities from each other and also allow tactically minded players to alter their adversaries in a fundamental manner. This means that, having a single one of the new monsters in the adventure would significantly reduce the word count available; having more than one of these creatures in Quagmire in the Clepsydra would be out of the question. Now, I could have just provided a truncated version of the creature’s stats, but to me, that would be against the spirit of Rultmoork, and adventure that prides itself on the cohesion of its lore.

In order to explain how I tackled these challenges, I need to go into LORE SPOILER-territory, so if you want to let yourself be surprised and avoid any prior knowledge of Rultmoork and Quagmire in the Clepsydra as a player, I’d urge you to skip ahead.

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Okay, only GMs and those who wish to know more around? AWWesome! 😉

So, a solution to all my design concerns that was in line with Rultmoork on a design and narrative level, was to make the adventure a second Vision of the Past, one that explores the background story of the Church of Still Waters, a group of immortal stagnation cultists that live a rather grim existence in the ruins of Rultmoork. Essentially, Quagmire in the Clepsydra would explain how the cultists managed to retrieve a deity’s tear, one of the Tears of Vasi (the water goddess) and seal the Great Clepsydra, how these cultists managed to leave it in the clogged, dilapidated state in which the adventurers in Rultmoork find it. For the lore-hounds: This expands the situation described on page 23 in greater detail.

The Church of Still Waters is one of my contributions to Rultmoork I’m very fond of; I am a HUGE fan of the somber and melancholy atmosphere evoked by Soulsborne games (Elden Ring, Dark Souls, Demon Souls, Bloodborne, Sekiro, etc.) and my own TTRPG-games gravitate towards horror and dark fantasy more often than not; thus, the idea of a group of weirdos with cryptic utterances and a somewhat inscrutable agenda (at least when first encountered) made me smile. Here’s the thing: The cultists are explicitly NOT designed to be a serious combat challenge for those exploring Rultmoork; they serve as a reminder of the heroes’ prowess and expertise, and in the likely scenario of the heroes fighting this weird cult worshipping stagnation, the heroes are pretty likely to mop the floor with the entire congregation.

This is fully intentional.

For one, I loathe the notion of a challenge-scaled world, and the relative ease with which the Church of Still Waters can be dispatched has a comic element to it, one perfectly encapsulated by how Mates Laurentiu & Tim Hibbetts have illustrated the cultists. As playtests showed, some GMs like to lean into this, which is perfectly within the intent of the adventure; the Church of Still Waters can be a grim reminder of the horrors faced, comic relief, or a combination of both.

The pitiful state of the malnourished members of the congregation, the explicit lack of serious combat prowess, is also actually a set-up for a slow-burn epiphany. The most likely scenario posed by Rultmoork is that the player characters encounter the cultists, then dispatch them, as the cultists directly oppose any exploration of the spire of Rultmoork, particularly the excavation of the doors leading into the Great Clepsydra. Then the party explores the Clepsydra, at one point returning to the surface to find and explore the dungeon at the bottom of the spire…but when they return, the Church of Still Waters will be back.The cultists are locked in eternal stagnation, having found a strange sort of immortality that renders them truly unchanging; not even death can retain its claim on them. They just return but lose all memory of previous interactions with the party. How to deal with this (and the way this extends to the cult’s Tear of Vasi) is but one of the interesting conundrums of Rultmoork. A comically inclined GM can thus create a kind of Groundhog Day-like scenario with the Church of Still Waters; of course, there is, intellectually, also a genuine sense of cosmic horror underlying this aspect of the adventure; unknowing, pitiful individuals lured in by a strange stagnation cult, forever trapped in a state that prevents any form of development, any change. For them, the flow of time, life & death, has literally ceased.

The question Rultmoork never explicitly answers, is HOW these cultists attained their weird immortality, how they became “locked” in this existence. Enter Quagmire in the Clepsydra. The adventure is set in the liminal timeframe when the Church’s prophet Arios the First received his vision for an eternity of stagnation and before that effect fully set in. As such, the woefully unprepared cultists venture down into the Great Clepsydra, most likely perish, and awake above for a second tr…or a third. And so on. They are already immortal, but not have not had their psyche locked in an eternal, inhumanoid stagnation. Rultmoork’s state in the present means that they will succeed at one point, but how many tries does it take, and can the players make the cultists triumph?

As an aside: In playtest, this has proven to be utterly hilarious regarding the strategies the party actually employs once the cat’s out of the bag and the players realize the cultists they control are actually “immortal” and just respawn. Quagmire in the Clepsydra is also, like its big brother of a mega-adventure, designed to reward clever players, so in theory, it can be solved without rolling an attack roll. Highly unlikely, but not impossible.

End LORE SPOILERS.

The entire adventure is written from the Church of Still Waters’ perspective, and the players get to play as these cultists—but before they managed to attain the “locked” state that defines the cultists in Rultmoork. This, of course, solved all my conundrums: I could add an aspect to Rultmoork’s overall lore without creating potential logic bugs; the established lore defined which creature I would need to use (I love all my children almost equally, so choosing would have been hard…), and its special circumstances are perfect reason for a deviating statblock. Finally, the Great Clepsydra could remain as deadly as it’s supposed to be!

The prophet of the Church of Still Waters, Arios the first, tasks the player-controlled cultists, individuals who suffered tremendously from floods, war, and famine, to venture into the Clepsydra and stop one of Vasi’s agents. This was a nice chance for me to highlight further how the cultists came to abhor flowing water, which is usually considered to be a rather beneficial force; it also allowed me to provide a contrasting perspective on the wonders of Vasi’s Clepsydra.

On a design level, the unique set-up (sorry, repeating the exact nature *is* a kind of Spoiler…) lends itself well to tournament-style play, and as such, I’m currently in the process of tweaking single elements of the module to lean into this aspect.

Quagmire in the Clepsydra is certainly growing beyond its humble Mini-Dungeon premise, and I can’t wait to see it being played; I certainly hope that players and GMs will regale me with stories of how they tackled its challenges, how certain characters perished, and how long it took them to complete it.

Thank you so much for reading this! I hope you’ll love Rultmoork as much as I do, and that you’ll have a blast with Quagmire in the Clepsydra!!


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