Gareth RYDER-HANRAHAN Talks meat hell

Posted on March 5, 2024 in Project Updates

The Dagger In The Heart crowdfunding campaign is thundering along like a runaway train, so we thought we’d take some time to sit down with Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, the writer of this stunning new adventure for Heart: The City Beneath, to peel back the curtain on his process. 

I think most players would agree that Heart campaigns tend to only last six to eight sessions on average, before their characters meet a grizzly end. How did you go about designing a longform campaign when the characters are so notoriously self-destructive?

Bear spray.

Oh, grisly. 

Two tricks. One, in the intro there’s a section that could be summarised as “god, please, please, slow down a bit, admire these carefully curated landmarks and plot bits, maybe try one of our delightful side quests” – rules for gentler advancement, spacing out Beats a little, encouraging a longer plot arcs. You don’t have to use these slower rules – you can run Dagger in the Heart at literally breakneck speed if you wish. 

The other trick’s a bit of a spoiler – in the latter part of the campaign, time goes screwy and the characters start running into the aftermath of potential alternate-futures. So, you get to fold the effects of those longed-for Zenith advancements into the game before the players get to use them – basically, a chunk of the plot is “you’re going to die horribly in this campaign, let’s poke at your future corpse a bit”.

The villains of the campaign are all such wonderful characters. How did you settle on them as the main antagonists and develop their stories?

Ptolemy Bey came first (well, actually, he started out as an original character, and then we realised we could adapt the Spire NPC) – basing the campaign around the Vermissian Line made a lot of sense, as it’s a common element to a lot of the Callings, it’s a distinctive bit of setting, trains are cool, and there’s, well, a linearity to a train line that works for a dungeon game. So, if the campaign’s about the Vermissian disaster, we’d need a villain who was basically Bad Train Guy, and making him an arms dealer gives him lots of heavily armed minions and you can’t really go wrong with having the player characters beat up merchants of death.

Aramos Brightness-Sears-The-Eye just fell out of the setting material. I absolutely love taking insanely weird, over-the-top fantasy elements and then pushing them though really narrow, bureaucratic worldviews. (If you’ve read my Black Iron Legacy novels, for example and for gratuitous plug, there’s an apocalyptic underworld godspawn invasion, but the lead-up to it includes discussion of sewer architecture and petty parliamentary politics). I love spymasters and grotty intrigue – the main challenge with Aramos was keeping him involved in events far underground, when his natural inclination is to hang around in Spire pulling (very very long) strings.

The One Who Waits was the antagonist who didn’t really have a clear function for a long time. I knew I needed a villain who plugged into the religion/drow weirdness aspects of Heart, and someone who could be a bit weirder and more surreal than the other two, but in the initial draft she was the least defined of the three. Then, when we were discussing ways to speed up the campaign for shorter play, it clicked that she was the villain who needed to be directly connected to the player characters. She didn’t have a backstory because her backstory needs to spring from whatever the players bring to the table. 

The adventure is full of weird and, let’s be honest, disgusting locations for Delvers to explore, are there any in particular that you’re excited for players to experience?

I’m very fond of the Receding Gallery, for sheer weirdness. Nothing like a good dungeon crawl that passes through an art gallery’s gift shop. Some, like the Grinding Halls or Tollembrood, are part of my ongoing and mostly failed attempt to exorcise Azrael’s Tear and Knightmare from my psyche. I really like the oh-fuck-we’re-in-magic-train-Chernobyl nature of the Vermissian Control Room. Oh, and the Hotel Ameranthine, because [spoilers].

Really, though, the fun is when your weird and, let’s be honest, disgusting Delvers interact with my locations. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from previous campaign writing, it’s that some little throwaway encounter or bit of description will resonate with a surprisingly large number of groups in actual play. I’m excited to find out what I didn’t anticipate. 

If you were a hard-bitten veteran nursing a pint in a Derelictus bar, what words of advice would you give to a group of would-be Delvers preparing to set out to face your adventure?

Oh. Well, if I’m a veteran, then I’m probably a bit of a bastard. I’d advise them to sample the local delicacies, to lick the strange glowing mushrooms, to pull those levers, press those buttons and to charge ahead heroically into the dark wet places under the world. 

And to wrap any treasure I find in clearly marked fireproof bags for later retrieval by any completely innocent hard-bitten veterans who might happen to be following along behind their trail of destruction.

More honestly – I’d urge them to think about the City Above as well as Below. The campaign’s got quite a few connections to Spire…

If you’d like to hear more from Gareth, you can find him on Twitter as @mytholder or on his website, and don’t forget to check out the Dagger in the Heart crowdfunding campaign, live now!


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