Veins of the Earth is a weird, evocative, generally excellent guide to subterranean D&Dish adventure. There is more in there than I will ever be able to use, but I intend to milk it for as much as I can for my soulslike Knave campaign (a.k.a. Grave), and then dig even more out when I get around to testing Down Town. It’s especially interesting to use in a setting inspired by Dark Souls, and not just because it has a giant she-wolf made of skeletons. No, what’s neat here is that even as my players know their characters can come back from the dead over a dozen times, Veins very specifically notes how monsters can mess you up much more permanently than just killing you.
(You should stop reading now if you are one of my players, or if you expect to be a player in a Veins game. This kind of thing is better when you don’t see it coming.)
Now, to be clear, killing PCs is still on the menu, as I recounted in a recent report on their face-off against the AntiPhoenix, the literal embodiment of finality. The book is quite adamant that if the AntiPhoenix kills a PC, that’s that—they simply cannot be resurrected. (And fair’s fair, so if PCs kill the AntiPhoenix, the GM can’t use it again. Ever.) I didn’t just telegraph that; it was enough of a departure from the expectations I’d set out for this campaign that I felt it only fair to tell them outright, “Looking around, you can tell that the reward for killing this creature would be huge, but you sense with certainty that if it kills you, you will stay dead forever.” Improbably, they survived, and I figured I probably wouldn’t have to worry about too many other monsters having such irrevocable effects.
This was a goofy assumption.
I should have known better already, too. They survived the AntiPhoenix in part because they bought some time by feeding it the leg of Ham, their hapless thief. He lopped it off because it was infected with a disease giving him visions of Atlantis (“Mermaids are real!”), which would’ve ultimately overtaken his whole mind. At the time, I figured, no big deal, sooner or later Ham will die and the disease will be cleared. And heck, Ham’s player just happened to roll The Hands of Saint Regulus for her portion of the treasure, so now he’s walking around with a hand for a foot and all’s well, right?
As I found the more I read the book in preparation for the following session, however, the Atlantean infection and the AntiPhoenix’s permadeath represent a more common theme running throughout Veins: Being down here too long will mess you up for good.
To consider another example, let’s discuss the Spectre of the Bröcken, that aforementioned she-wolf made of skeletons. The AntiPhoenix had been an enemy of hers, so she was pretty pleased with them. And they, in turn, were very, very nice to her—yes, because she is a giant spectral wolf with a glowing crown, sure, but also because she kept alluding to what different versions of them looked like in parallel realities. It became pretty clear that if you mess with her, you might not come back as the same you that started the fight. Instead, they accepted a quest to go kill The Deepwasp (repurposed from The Cold Ruins of Lastlife), asked for directions, and proceeded to take the most convoluted route possible.
The cool thing (from my perspective) about them taking a convoluted route, with all their doubling back and looping paths, was that I’d decided there was a 1 in 6 chance that every cave would be be the one where they met the Stil-Tor-Man. So, soon enough, the ceiling gave way to an extraplanar portal, giant stone hands hemmed them in, and a clone of Ham made out of fishhooks plunged down at him, screaming madly. The hooks took hold, and up Ham went. The group fought like hell to prevent his capture, and eventually prevailed.
If they’d lost against the Stil-Tor-Man, they probably would’ve shrugged uneasily and welcomed “New Ham” into the group—the weird fishhook clone happens to have the natural equivalent of plate-and-shield armor, plus all of Ham’s memories and abilities, and you don’t turn up your nose at that. But they sure didn’t know that at the time, and being made out of fishhooks can prove problematic in other situations, for sure. I love this as a way to mess with a character permanently without just killing them. And God help them if they happen to get a clear look at a spotlight dog’s head next session, which might make a PC wish they were dead.
At first, I feared I was subverting the intent of running a soulslike game with all these chances for freaky, permanent change. Aren’t these games typically pretty static and repetitive? Ultimately, though, I think it might even evoke the thrill and terror of a game like Dark Souls far better than a straight adaption would. The repetition and predictability of a video game doesn’t always translate super well to a tabletop game, where players are used to feeling like the sky’s the limit. And with six of them traveling together, getting killed and looted just isn’t as big a fear as it is when you’re playing a video game solo. These little touches from Veins do more than make it a little creepy or weird. They make players feel like there’s something at stake, like they’re really at risk. It leaves them with that same feeling of cautiousness and sharpness that you might remember from inching your way back to the scene of your murder in Dark Souls, hoping you won’t get invaded or forget about some enemy ambush—but better, in my estimation, than I’d be able to do just trying to adapt that experience straight up.
So, next session they meet The Deepwasp. My plan there was for him to suggest that they do quests for him, instead, and go kill the giant she-wolf made of skeletons. It would probably be more in keeping with the themes I’m seeing, though, to run him like the Insect God from Better Than Any Man: send scores of bug-warriors to kill most of the PCs, and then mutate the strongest warrior among them into a bug-warrior with a magic sword who must return to the surface to preach the Insect God’s “good news.” Well, maybe I’ll give them a chance to try to be friendly first, and we’ll see where things go from there. Maybe one of them will end up with a giant stinger for a peg leg this time.