Apologies for the delays in progress with this adventure, as current events have been a spanner in the works for a few things. Anyway, last time, I filled out the list of core clues for each of the nodes. For clarity's sake, let me be clear that those aren't the only means by which the players would be able to get information pointing to other nodes. They're the minimum potential clues that I'd have planned out, but if they charm and interrogate a random monk or go poking around in the noble's private quarters or do any number of other actions of their own initiative, I'd want to support and reward that. In order to do that at the table, I need to have more details about the order's plans and operations, which is what I'll get into with this post.
Since it's been some time, let me start with a recap of what's been established:
The order is split into two ranks: initiates (who are free-willed) and the inner circle (who are under the influence of the genius loci)
The inner circle members are implanted with a fossilized crocodile tooth through which the genius loci exerts its influence.
The order is working to reanimate the skeleton of a god-beast preserved beneath the city. If they succeed, the genius loci will be able to inhabit it.
The order is collecting exotic materials through a portal in a false mausoleum, which are used in their rituals.
The order has hidden chambers beneath the amphitheater where initiates go through trials and ritual surgery to advance into the inner circle.
The order has control of a hostel in the heart of the city. In it is a warded room containing a reliquary of preserved organs watched over by the genius loci.
(Side note: I'm using "genius loci" in the classical sense of a spirit inhabiting a place, not in the TVTropes sense of a sentient place)
And what I want to know next:
What is the order actually getting from the portal?
How is the order using that?
What's their timeline to complete the reanimation rituals, assuming no interference?
What do they do in response to recognizing interference?
The material(s) from beyond the portal need to be something that isn't available locally, obviously. Since I've got initiates wearing medallions marked with the noble's signet as part of the kidnap squad, I'm leaning towards it being some kind of alien metal. For some inexplicable reason, the word "viridium" came to my mind, which happens to be a plural form of the Latin "viridis", which shares entymology with the modern "verdant". Applying a little similar-letter-transformation to come up with a reasonable-sounding word disconnected from its roots lands me at "villidus", a silvery metal with intricate veins of green that resemble wood grain (because villidus grows as a tree in the land beyond the portal). The monks venture forth to gather fallen branches and the like, which the noble's smiths can then work with. The supply is limited because the atmosphere of the land beyond the portal has corrosive gases (which provides a potential hook for future adventures, but I digress).
Aside from making some art pieces for the noble to sell as a source of funding, the order uses villidus to make medallions, holy symbols, and other iconography. Since I want a crocodile theme to the order, I'm thinking most of these will involve circles with vertical details (as stylized eyes), horizontal arrangements of sawtooth patterns (as stylized teeth), and/or opposing slopes with a common intersection point (as stylized jaws). For the kidnap squad's medallions, for instance, I'm imagining a disk with serrated reliefs around the top and bottom quarters and a pair of vertical slits which are used to thread it onto a necklace or to sew it into their clothing.
At this point, I also find myself wanting to set a proper name for the order. Seeing as crocodile tears are about false displays of sadness or sorrow, with the implication of being used to lure prey into a trap, which ties in nicely with the order itself being a victim of the genius loci, maybe they should be themed around grieving for the current state of the world. Let the initiates be Grievers, then (one of their test questions to see if someone is a member of the order can be "do you grieve for current affairs?" or some such), and the inner circle be Agents (their internal understanding being agents of change, the reality being agents of the genius loci), and they call themselves the Dirge. Maybe they also get a teardrop tattooed on the inside of the wrist or some other fairly inconspicuous location, and part of the ascension ritual is having that reworked into an eye.
That's all well and good fluff, but I'm still missing a key piece of information: how is villidus used in their rituals to reanimate the god-beast? My first thought is to have them infusing it into the fossilized bones buried throughout the city to replace the marrow, but that breaks thing up too much from the key locations that I want to stick with. I want something that works with the idea of the warded room in the hostel, so maybe the reliquary is inside of a skeletal replica made of villidus. If it's completed, the genius loci can assume control of the god-beast's remains, using the reliquary as a sort of lich phylactery. That both provides a way for the adventure to progress if the PCs fail to stop the rituals (by turning it into an adventure to find and destroy the phylactery while avoiding the wrath of the god-beast) and can act as a future hook if the PCs succeed in stopping the rituals (by making them wonder what else villidus might be able to reanimate and/or control via a possessed voodoo doll).
The plot hole that this risks introducing (why make other stuff out of villidus?) is easy enough to sidestep (the replica's bones have to be worked out of single pieces, thus any bulk material that doesn't have the geometry to make another bone is useless for the replica).
As for how long the PCs have before the god-beast is reanimated, that's a trickier topic. If this is aimed for use in long-running campaign play, there should be some foreshadowing of the Dirge's presence and the existence of villidus prior to actually kicking off the adventure. Neither of those is challenging (make oblique references through coded talk with random NPCs, mention the occasional teardrop tattoo, have the noble Griever act as a patron for the PCs, and/or present the hostel as a possible place to stay only to deny them by having it be full for the former, have some works of art or valuable jewelry made with villidus for the latter), but it'd feel unfair to have a hidden timer counting down during all of that, and a good campaign featuring adventures in a city should be full of plenty of potential distractions. If this is aimed for use in a one-shot, on the other hand, there should be a relatively tight timeline so that failure becomes apparent quickly if the PCs don't take effective actions.
My inclination would be to split the difference by taking the quantum option: the Dirge's end date is indefinitely in the future until the kidnapping attempt, which signals that they're close enough to be making a final push to completion. I'd like a single-digit numbers of days to finish things at that point, but a quick search for various numbers associated with crocodiles (toes, claws, chromosomes, species) are all far higher than that. As chance would have it, though, Wikipedia mentions crocodiles have four-chambered hearts, and four days sounds good to me.
Remember, that's how long it'll take if the PCs don't interfere. PCs are great at interfering with things. In particular, mucking around with operations at the noble's estate, the mausoleum, and/or the hostel will clearly buy more time.
That just leaves figuring out what the Dirge does in response to interference. Given that they send a kidnap squad after the artisanal smith, they're capable of taking direct action, but I feel like that should be a last resort. As mentioned in my opening post for this series, part of what I liked about the idea of locating the Dirge in a city is being able to leverage the city's assets, which is to say that I want the Dirge to take action through legal systems when they can. Having an escalating series of consequences can also work as a signal that the PCs are on the right track, so maybe it'd start off with some annoying on-the-spot interrogation on account of legitimate guards being tipped off that the PCs are up to no good, followed by tailing and oblique threats to leave the city, followed by detention (likely on at least somewhat fabricated charges, though PCs do have a way of committing actual crimes in the name of adventuring), and only then culminating in a kidnap/murder squad. If things get to the latter two levels, of course, good practices for capture/surrender should be followed (be willing to make deals, work with the players' plans for escape, etc.).
I think that covers most of the narrative elements of the adventure and gives me a framework to improve from when the players take things in a different direction than I'd expected. Pretty much all that's left is setting down some numbers against game mechanics and putting things in a package suitable for actual use at the table. I don't see a need for detailed maps of most of the key locations, though I might put something together for the chambers beneath the amphitheater and for the hostel. In any case, I'll try to wrap this series up in the next post, so see you then!