Friday, May 18, 2018

The New Aristocracy

The new aristocracy is the 9.9%. They have convinced themselves that they deserve to be at the top because of their superior intelligence, talent, and work ethic. And yet, somehow, those traits get passed on to their kids... but not through genetics. More through legacy college admissions and other mechanisms of privilege.

Here in Australia college really is meritocratic. You need good scores to get into good schools, and all the schools are free (you have to pay them back after you graduate, but only if you earn enough money. The point is if you are accepted to a good school you can afford to go). So what's a wealthy family to do? Private high school. Many of which charge over $12,000 a year.

Elite colleges don't have better instruction, they have better research projects. Go to an elite college and your Teaching Assistant is doing Nobel prize work as his day job. That has obvious advantages, but the point is that the advantage isn't so much from teaching skill as other factors. Factors that don't apply to high schools. The education isn't that much better at a private high school than at a public one.

What does apply, though, is sending your children to school with the children of the rich. Not just because all of the kids there are studying all of the time (so your kid does it through peer pressure) but because the connections they make will keep them in the aristocratic class more than any education they get.

Our new multiracial, gender-neutral meritocracy has figured out a way to make itself hereditary.” - The Birth of the New American Aristocracy

And in one of the enduring absurdities that always makes me crazy:
You see, when educated people with excellent credentials band together to advance their collective interest, it’s all part of serving the public good by ensuring a high quality of service, establishing fair working conditions, and giving merit its due. That’s why we do it through “associations,” and with the assistance of fellow professionals wearing white shoes. When working-class people do it—through unions—it’s a violation of the sacred principles of the free market. It’s thuggish and anti-modern. Imagine if workers hired consultants and “compensation committees,” consisting of their peers at other companies, to recommend how much they should be paid. The result would be—well, we know what it would be, because that’s what CEOs do.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

In Memoriam: Dennis Creasy

My father-in-law passed away today, after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was at home and at peace. Dennis was a good man and I was privileged to know him. He welcomed me to his home and his family. We made gunpowder together, and he shot my author photo. We played cards every Friday, and my house is full of things he fixed.

I will be lucky to live as full of a life as his.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Verdict on Crimson Fields published

Apparently in-between running D&D games I had time to write a book, and it's out now. Verdict on Crimson Fields is for sale!

I am two chapters into the 5th and final book, Black Harvest. Time to get cracking!

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Campaign Journal: World of Prime #5

The Lake of Ill Repute

(The lazy, bad DM didn't get around to posting the last recap until the day of the next session, so now you get two in one day.)

The Cleric and the Druid are heavily involved in religious observances, or perhaps just having a religious argument (their players missed this session). The rest of the party sneaks out the back of the inn and heads off for some real adventure. The Wizard, who was still recovering from his many illnesses last time (i.e. he missed the last session), is keen to revisit the site of the infection - the mysterious hole in the ground.

The Ranger sensibly loads up on adventuring gear: tools, rope, and torches. He makes sure everyone has food and water, since you never know how long you'll be trapped underground surrounded by ravenous undead monsters. And off they go, singing hi-ho, hi-ho.

They quickly pass through the rooms they had already explored and immediately come to a fork. Now they have a choice: carefully and methodically empty every room, or charge heedlessly into the lair, taking turns at random. Obviously, they choose caution. Just kidding! Headlong rush into danger it is.

Passing through a half-collapsed meeting hall, they loot the corpse of some previous hapless adventurer. The Shadow hanging around in the rubble at the back of the room avoids their lights, but otherwise gives them no trouble. They let it be and press on. But not before picking up a brass jug with three ounces of mysterious liquid.

Another room with a pair of skeletons wearing silver crowns gives them little trouble, mostly inflicting Fatigue on the Barbarian. They wander through a large natural cavern with a pool of water that appears to connect to the lake through some underground channel. A dozen dead fish are laid out neatly on the bank; the party considers this unappetizing treasure and leaves them undisturbed.

Continuing on they finally encounter some trouble. In the hall of a larger and more elaborate barrow, a skeletal huntsman summons a Fiendish Wolf with a magic whistle. The wolf knocks the Bard to the ground (yay Improved Trip!) and the huntsman is heavily armored in bronze. It looks to be a good fight... until Wizard happens. Color Spray shuts down the wolf while the melee team stalls the huntsman. The Ranger continues to be nigh-worthless at melee, while the Wizard deploys his staff to surprisingly good effect. The wolf actually survives through the first few phases of the spell, but the Bard and Wizard beat it down before it recovers enough to act again. Then they all surround the skeletal huntsman and bash it. It never even lands a blow.

The Wizard turns out to be the only one who can pick locks; he opens a large wooden chest to find three ancient scrolls. Those will go straight into his spell-book.

(A nice find, as I had just finished explaining how wizards get their spells to the Wizard's player.)

The Barbarian, always willing to take a risk, tries the magic whistle but nothing happens. The Bard realizes it needs to recharge and drops it in his pocket for another day.

Next up is a room shrouded in magical darkness and a floor covered in spikes. The Wizard tears up the wooden biers and gets the team to lay planks over the spikes, building a bridge through the room. Halfway through they are jumped by skeletal wolves lunging out of the dark, which have a nice scare factor but get crushed without too much effort.

A bit of a change of scenery; the tunnel connecting the next barrow is lower than the rest and infested with vines, mold, and fleshy pink flowers. The party notices its one torch guttering (their other light is a magical lightstone, a torch that never goes out) but presses on. Another pair of skeletal wolves is even less trouble, as their room has no magical or mundane defenses. 

(This room inflicts a secret status condition which goes completely unnoticed in this particular game - though, if they had done different actions, it would have mattered! This the nature of sandbox worlds vs narrative worlds. Narrative games are perfectly efficient: nothing is wasted or lost, everything affects the story. In sandbox games the players can walk past a door and leave it unopened. The DM's preparation for that door then ceases to matter. While this is expensive, in terms of DM effort, it is also rewarding, in that the DM doesn't know what's going to happen either. The game is truly driven by the player's choices, even when they don't know they are making them.)

The next room gives them some difficulty. A skeletal Adept stands at the back of the hall, casting Fear spells. It is flanked by a pair of skeletons with suspicious silver claws. The Barbarian shrugs off the Fear effect - he's nothing if not brave - and then lobs a javelin across the room. The Ranger joins him in this game of darts. Needless to say, these attacks have no impact, and the next round the Barbarian fails his Will save. He turns and flees in utter terror back through the room of vines and flowers.

The party takes this very calmly - apparently they consider the Barbarian to be nigh-indestructible. They let him go and continue chucking odd bits of stone at the skeletons. The Bard fails next, running off in terror, and finally the remaining two (Ranger and Wizard) decide to retreat. They catch the Bard just in time; he's trying to open a new door in his panicked flight. The Wizard wrestles him to the ground until he recovers, and then they go in search of the Barbarian, who sensibly (i.e. randomly) retraced their old path. Fortunately they left nothing dangerous behind them, so the Barbarian is also safe and sound once the Fear wears off, though not exactly thrilled with his companion's lack of concern for his well-being.

Back to the room they go. The Ranger has come up with a plan. Their Cleric had cast a blessing on three vials of water (an ad hoc ruling that allows the party to use his Turn Undead ability even though he isn't present for the adventure, as it's a bit much to send them into a dungeon of undead without it). The Bard, famous for his throwing ability, steps into the room and lobs a vial at the enemy. It's a simple attack, so naturally he completely muffs it, dropping the vial at his feet and immediately falling victim to the Adept's magic. Off the Bard runs in utter terror with the Wizard in hot pursuit.

The Ranger realizes that if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. He tosses a second vial; the skeletons shudder and go inert. The two warriors wait, but when the Wizard and Bard don't return after a few rounds, they enter the room, take careful aim, and obliterate the skeletal adept in a single murderous round.

They know the skeletons will only be inactive for a few more rounds, so they quickly move on to the next one. This turns out to be a different proposition. The creature is not nearly so easily defeated, and a general melee ensues.

The Wizard had caught the Bard opening the same door, and this time had failed to stop him, his grappling attack simply shrugged off by the panicked Bard. The Bard thus charges into a new and uncleared room. Fortunately it's a court full of dead bodies; the Wizard keeps tackling the Bard and succeeds this time as he's struggling with the next door. This one would lead to a new Hall, almost certainly containing some deadly new foe, so it's good that the Wizard holds the Bard down until the spell lapses. Together they race back to the sounds of combat just in time to see the Turn Undead wearing off and the other skeleton moving to join the fight.

The Wizard takes a blow from the silver-tipped skeletons, but easily makes his saving throw - he's developing some resistance to various diseases and poisons, it seems. However, the damage is enough to knock him out. The skeletons fall to the rest of the party quickly, and they spend all the rest of their magic healing the Wizard back up to disabled (0 HPs).

Robbed of their pretend rogue - the Wizard is too injured to concentrate on lock-picking - the Barbarian simply smashes down the door to the court. The roof shakes alarmingly, but nothing worse than a temporary trickle of water occurs. Searching this room yields a pair of potions in clay vials. Wounded, tired, and out of spells, they decide to rest, in a room full of corpses, stealing their shrouds for pillows. Now that's chutzpah. If there were a roll for "bad dreams," surely they would fail it; but these are heroes now, and sleeping the sleep of the dead literally with the dead doesn't bother them.

This is a classic D&D trope: out of spells and low on health, the party simply camps in the middle of the dungeon. I'm actually proud of this, because it means I've recreated the classic D&D experience even while I've adhered to World of Prime rules.

In the morning they have enough minor magic to get the Wizard up to 1 HP. He can cast and fight now (though with a house-ruled -2 for his lingering injuries). They press on, drawn by the lure of treasure - so far they've filled their pockets with silver, gold, and tael, without ever once feeling like they were all going to die.

A curious sight greets them in the next room: a large iron bird-cage hanging from the ceiling, containing a small kobold skeleton. The kobold emits a thin green ray which the Barbarian easily dodges. The party charges into the room and begins battering the bird cage and the kobold inside. The Wizard ignores the fight and starts trying to pick the lock on the next door.

The kobold is hard to hit, protected as it is by the iron cage. The Barbarian breaks out his pick and starts trying to batter open the bird cage; the Ranger and Bard attack through the bars with sword and halberd. (This means piercing damage only, which is reduced by the skeleton's DR, but this is no new handicap to the Ranger - he has simply refused to acknowledge this unpleasant fact and used his sword throughout. Everyone else switched to hammers or halberds, but apparently Rangers are very traditional and make up for Damage Resistance by just hitting harder). The Ranger gets in a glancing blow, knocking a few chips off the skeleton. It responds by finally scoring a hit with its Enfeebling Ray, and the Ranger loses a point of strength .

The Bard finally stops his ineffective attacks and switches to Inspire Courage, boosting the rest of the party's efforts. The Wizard almost picks the lock; the Barbarian inflicts minor damage on the bird cage; the Ranger misses; and the kobold lands a good roll, knocking the Ranger's strength down to 7 - roughly equivalent to a strong child.

At the other end of the room, a delayed trap goes off, dropping a heavy iron portcullis over the entrance. They're trapped!

Now the party is concerned. Fortunately the Wizard gets the next door open; they all dash through and slam it shut behind them. Wisely, they are on their guard and prepared for a new attack, but this room is merely storage for bodies. A careful search turns up a locked iron chest, two gold bracelets, and some unharvested tael - but for the first time, no hidden exit. During the search the Ranger recovers his strength. Realizing the damage is only temporary, they charge out, surround the bird-cage, and prepare to administer a savage beat-down. Instead the Ranger destroys the kobold on his first attack.

The Barbarian vents his rage by smashing open the cage and then demonstrates his wisdom by searching it. He turns up a gold key, which opens the iron chest, which yields three more potions in clay vials. The party then attempts to open the portcullis, as it is the only way out. The Ranger heaves to, but it's too heavy, even with help from all the rest of the party; the Barbarian tries and fails. Now things are bit worrying; they take a second try (with an increasing penalty) and the Barbarian just barely forces it open. The Wizard cleverly props it open with the Ranger's crowbar, and the entire party slips out to safety.

Oddly, this final challenge is the last straw, despite inflicting no damage. The party decides to retreat and collect the rest of their team. The Wizard claims to remember the way out, but the issue is moot as the Ranger can easily track their own footsteps in the undisturbed dust of the ancient tunnels.

As they are re-entering the collapsed meeting hall, the Shadow attacks them. Apparently it was fine with them entering the barrow complex, but has a problem with them leaving.

The Ranger wants to ignore its clumsy, incorporeal lunges, and simply rush on through the tunnels, but the Wizard is curious about this strange yet hostile unlife-form. He enchants the Ranger's sword and convinces him to give battle. The Barbarian needs no encouragement, of course, and the Bard is equally willing.

The enchantment turns out to be necessary. Mundane attacks pass through the Shadow with no effect. The Bard tries a basic energy attack (i.e. a burning torch) to no avail; only the Ranger's enchanted sword has a chance of hurting the Shadow, and even it fails half the time. The party's fate hangs on the Ranger's swordsmanship, sheer luck, and the durability of the Wizard's enchantment.

Since one of those is a proven non-starter (i.e. the Ranger's combat skills), the Bard pulls out the magic whistle, reasoning that a summoned creature might count as a magical attack. It's not bad logic, just poor judgment, because the magically summoned Fiendish Wolf immediately attacks every non-Orc in the room, starting with the Bard.

The wolf hits hard, dropping the Bard in a single bite. Now the Barbarian has something useful to do - wolf-fighting! The Ranger is actually doing surprisingly well, landing a serious blow on the Shadow, but it's a CR 3 Undead creature, which means a lot of HPs. The Wizard has finally worked through his spell list and discovered the cantrip Disrupt Undead - that's 1d6 damage to an undead creature with no chance of failure, three times a day. Nice to discover this on the way out!

The Shadow strikes, weakening the Ranger. He lands another solid hit, inflicting plenty of damage, and the Wizard's cantrips add up. The Shadow is looking ragged but it strikes again. The danger here is not the slow loss of strength, but the expiration of the enchantment. Without it, the Shadow can pick them off at its leisure.

The Ranger is finally rolling well, but his third hit is negated by the Shadow's incorporeality. The Barbarian gets a face-full of Fiendish Wolf, dropping him to a single hit-point. The Bard heroically rolls to stabilize, stopping his own bleeding by sheer force of will despite being unconscious.

On the last round of enchantment, the Ranger lands another hit and sticks it. The Shadow evaporates in a shower of purple dust, releasing all of the tael it has gathered for its next spawn. This is a fortune - half again of everything they've won so far! A comical battle of misses ensues with the Fiendish Wolf, until suddenly everyone hits at once, obliterating it. The Barbarian shoulders the incapacitated Bard and they trudge back to the inn, bleeding, battered, and spell-less - and this all from merely trying to leave the dungeon.

"Anything I should be worried about?" the innkeeper asks as they stumble in.

"Just... bandits," they reply. Dungeons are precious resources, and they don't want to share this one with any other Free Companies (like the ones they saw hanging around in the city). Of course, that also means that if they fail to come home next time, no one will know where to send the rescue party to, or even that they should send a rescue.

But that's an adventurer's life. Thankless toiling in dark tunnels fighting undead monsters, and nothing to show for it but fistfuls of bright purple tael. And silver. And gold. And magic items. But mostly tael - surely by now they have enough to purchase the most valuable prize in the world - another rank!

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Campaign Journal: World of Prime #4

The Devil's Handmaiden (cont.)

The party struggles into town, bleeding, sick, and poisoned. Nonetheless they know their duty and charge into battle. Well, first they scout around the house a lot and break in through a second floor window - turns out the Ranger rolls great dice when it's not combat related. None of it matters, though, since the action is all in the basement.

They charge down the stairs. The Barbarian wipes out a fistful of guards, leaking hit points like a sieve; the rest of the party is following his lead and forming a decent battle line. Finally, they've learned some tactics... but the wrong ones. Pro tip: always, always, always take out the spell caster first. The party discovers the power of area-effect spells when they eat a Flaming Hands spell. For max damage. And no one saves.

Now most of the party is inches from death and in no shape for combat. The Ranger grabs the unconscious Barbarian and they all retreat up the stairs. There's some last minute healing from the Bard, getting everyone at least back to functional and enchanting a sword. The guards decide to interrupt the chanting and counter-charge up the stairs but get creamed in a tight corridor face to face with the Barbarian and Ranger.

The party counter-counter-charges downstairs again. They play hot potato with the only sword capable of hurting the imp as one by one their front-line combatants fall, and eventually the Ranger brings the demon down.

Lord Grayson promptly surrenders. A fair number of the party votes for summary execution, but he talks them into delivering him to justice in the city.

Another pro tip: never let the sorcerer get a word in edge-wise. They have a high CHA stat for a reason.

The dead guards yield up some decent chainmail armor and shields. The party also loots the house, stealing the silver and cracking open a safe with a few pounds of gold. Only the lack of a wagon stops them from hauling off the furniture. On the way out, the Druid somehow convinces the rest of them to burn down the mansion, in case the sorcerer gets let off by the law and wants to return to his demon-summoning ways, I guess? I don't know, but mad props to the Druid for striking a blow against conspicuous consumption.

An uneventful trip to the city ensues. They deliver their prisoner to the castle and find an inn to rest in, still suffering from disease and poison. In the morning they meet Count Kird, paladin and Minister of War. He has a not unfavorable impression; after all, they've done for a fair number of monsters on their own initiative with relatively little damage to the realm. He cures their various ailments and pays them the tael value of the sorcerer as a reward. Sadly, as the more cynical ones had feared, the sorcerer will be facing a court trial rather than an immediate execution. This is going to come back to haunt them, and they all know it.

Kird wants to keep these guys on-side, since adventurers are always an asset to the realm, and having them on the border is a double-plus. He offers them the sorcerer's house as a base of operations. A few sheepish mumbles later, they confess the place was rendered collateral damage. Kird is not overly put off, but he does remark on how the house was essentially worth the price of a first-rank.

After only a day in the big city, perusing the markets and walking the streets, the party is eager to get away. Partly because they are village kids, but also because their Cleric is a heretic, their caster is a Wizard (instead of the nationally approved practice of fire sorcery), and their Barbarian is a loaded crossbow with a hair trigger. And also because the city is expensive.

They return to the village, where the innkeeper offers them a free room for as long as they like. After all, these kids just saved everybody... well, most everybody from a horrific death and the enslavement of their souls to a demon. They could have been a little quicker on the whole interrupt-the-demon-summoning ritual and reduced the body count, but nobody is impolite enough to mention it.

(And thus concludes The Devil's Handmaiden, a free adventure available on DriveThruRPG).

Now they are free to investigate the mysterious cave. Their first challenge is a rickety old ladder and a Cleric in armor with no Climb skill. He makes it down, but not without taking some of the ladder with him.

They follow a dark, damp, low tunnel under the lake and into a barrow. While investigating the decaying skeletons laid out on the biers, one sits up and bites the Druid in the face. A brief combat ensues with several animated but legless skeletons. The Barbarian very quickly figures out what Damage Reduction 5/Blunt means, and switches from sword work to shield-bashing.

This was a great moment where the rules really worked to drive a creative solution - and by our youngest player.

After this, they actually sit down and rest while two of them go back to town for more supplies. Rope and torches, mostly, but also a few spare hammers. How... heroic.

After three more rooms of increasingly functional skeletons and traps, they are low on health and spells, and decide to call a retreat. Wisely, they bring the Cleric up the ladder last; it does not survive the attempt (and he almost doesn't - at first level you can still die from a simple fall). The Ranger was prepared with a rope, so they winch their metal-clad mate out of the hole and troop back to the inn. Just another hard day of dungeon delving - such is the life of an adventurer.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Campaign Journal: World of Prime #3

The Devil's Handmaiden

The party decides to investigate this local legend. Ancient history claims a high rank priest tried to baptize an idol in the river, but it was not deep enough to submerge the ten foot tall statue of pure gold, so he called an earthquake to damn up the river and create the lake. Rumor insists the statue is still there, under the lake, an affront to the god and therefore the source of the curse upon the lake. The locals will not fish from the lake or even enter it.

The druid goes fishing, hoping to find some physical evidence; the bard is chatting up the inhabitants; and the rest of the gang heads out into the woods to do some old-fashioned legwork - save for the cleric who holes up in the inn to study his new-found religion (the player couldn't make it to this session).

Naturally they find the secret dungeon entrance on the first day, because fate! (And because players always roll 20's when it's least convenient.) The ranger casts a light spell (possibly the first time I've ever seen that spell used) and he, the barbarian, and the wizard push aside the hanging vines to enter a small cave.

There are suspicious looking lumps on the ground and an iron grate in the middle of the floor. The ranger carefully investigates and determines that the lumps are the remains of bodies, decayed and grown over with mold and fungus. He finds the tael still in the skull; these men (women? humanoids?) died of something other than violence, as their souls have not been harvested.

The barbarian immediately trashes the rest of the lumps, kicking up more tael, several silver bracelets, and a cloud of dust. Of course the barbarian makes his Fortitude save (despite having no CON bonus - this is a very slender barbarian), but the other two are not so lucky. They develop a nasty hacking cough.

Peering through the grate they can see a ladder descending into darkness. As the day is getting late, they return back to the inn, just in time to find the druid trying to give away fresh grilled trout. He's getting no takers, and the bard is explaining why: another local legend tells of a man whose entire family turned into fish-people after eating from the cursed lake. Their house still stands abandoned and empty.

The new arrivals are trying to break into this fascinating discussion about provincial mythology to reveal their discovery, communicated around a series of coughs. While this impromptu conference is occurring at the edge of the lake, the bard witnesses an epic battle: an old homeless woman has crept up on a raven helping itself to discarded fish guts and ambushed it.

The old lady is losing, because ravens are actually pretty tough (it is a staple of D&D that the average housecat can beat a commoner in a straight fight). The druid intervenes, mostly to rescue the raven, and the bard extracts her story.

She claims that the raven murdered her husband, a beekeeper who used to live three miles outside of town. The druid, concerned, asks if she means this particular raven, to which she confesses she can't actually tell one raven from another, but they're all in on it anyway. She also happily devours the trout, which should question her sanity but only endears her to the druid.

The party nobly invites the woman back to the inn, where they argue with the innkeeper about adding her to their bill without increasing it. Yes, our heroes are quibbling over silver pieces. They are now faced with several options: pursue the cave entrance, investigate the abandoned house, hike out to the beekeeper's cottage, or spy on the haughty Grayson Palek, a fire sorcerer with a summer mansion in the village.

(Always give them too many options. It keeps them from doing anything clever.)

Pity moves their hearts and they decide to help the old woman. She gives them clear directions to her cottage and stays behind in the inn with the cleric - the ranger was leery of leaving her on her own, in case she developed a sudden case of gills and fins.

In the morning they pool their skills and spells very resourcefully to give the two infected characters the best possible saves against disease, and both make it. Only two more successful saves and they will have beaten the disease. There's been a discussion about how they are nobles now, subject to the Law of Arms, and the villagers are treating them differently now. While they are still very young men, the old innkeeper calls them "sir" and the farmers smile and hide their daughters. Everybody likes having nobles around, because they kill monsters, but nobody wants to get too close to dangerous men who do danger for a living. So they set off for the beehives full of vim and vigor. And then, of course, everything goes south.

The cottage is ransacked and contains nothing interesting. The beehives themselves seem normal, until the druid's hawk alerts them to the presence of a raven in a very large tree. Once again fate favors their die rolls and they all instantly realize this raven is behaving in completely unnatural ways. The ranger takes a shot at it, but misses (as expected - he really does have terrible luck with dice).

The raven flies into the tree and caws; a half-dozen giant bees fly out of the tree and attack. Now we're talking about really giant bees here; three feet long, in fact. On top of that, the ordinary bees are forming themselves into a huge swarm. The party falls out into battle formation.

It turns out the party really doesn't understand battle formation yet. The ranger is on one flank, the barbarian on another, both too far to help the center, where the wizard is holding the fort. He casts a Sleep spell and chooses to target the natural bee swarm (a mercy on two fronts, as he rolls incredibly low, not even enough to knock out one giant bee but just enough to subdue the swarm, which makes the DM happy because now we don't have to look up the Swarm rules).

The giant bees descend to battle; one stings the wizard right in the chest. He fails his pretty easy Fortitude save (which of course is already diminished because he's sick) and the bee's poison rips through his system. Now his CON score is even lower.

The barbarian gets stung, but as usual seems immune to poison. The ranger is doing his typically ineffective thing. The druid has discovered the joy of the Shillelagh spell and wades into battle. The bard rushes up to help the wizard.

By the end of the fight almost everyone in the party is half (or worse) dead and poisoned. Only the bard is untouched; at this point we realize the bard has never actually suffered any damage, in any battle. Apparently his face really is too pretty to hit. While the druid and bard try to collect more poison, which is futile because all of bee's poison currently resides in the party, the barbarian saws off the heads of the bees and makes his knowledge roll to realize that none of these are queens. The druid sends his hawk up to see if there are still more in the tree, and when the answer is yes, the party beats a hasty retreat.

They boil the heads down in the cottage and are gratified to discover a substantial amount of tael. Under cover of darkness they retreat to the inn, where the cleric mostly heals them. In the morning, the wizard fails his Fortitude save; so while he recovers a bit from the bee's poison, he gets worse from the disease. (This is a man with a CON of 10, so he didn't have a lot of room from the start.)

They talk about going back and finishing off the bees, but instead wind up searching through the woods for a herb that will give their sick guys a better chance to beat the disease. While there out there, they get the drop on a band of ruffians with a pair of pack mules - yes, the same two mules they had sold before. Being good guys, they decide to parley rather than commit unprovoked homicide.

There happens to be a raven sitting on one of the pack mules, so the bard, in his charming way, calls out, "Nice bird you've got there." Surprisingly, this results in immediate hostilities. The raven points them out to the men, who form up into a line and charge.

Our heroes are concerned about this fight for all of six seconds. The very first round shows how far they've come. These mooks are essentially the same quality of troop that the Wild Lord Boros had intimidated them with, but our heroes are no longer common farmboys. They drop three of enemy with fatal injuries, and the remaining two immediately surrender. The raven caws in disgust and flies off.

Bluster and intimidation can't get the survivors to explain the significance of the raven. "It's worth my life to tell you," says one. The prisoners want to be taken to town and handed over to local law enforcement, which at this point seems like a better option than summary execution in the woods. The party plies them with the beer the mules are carrying on the way back to town, and eventually one warms up enough to the bard to offer him some advice. "Join us - I'll put in a good word with the boss, and you guys are so tough you can probably sign in at the second level." Turns out he's a member of a secret demonic cult that is patterned off a good multi-level marketing scheme.

In town they decide to dump the prisoners on Grayson Palek, because he's the closest representative of the crown (outside of themselves) and because they think it might clarify the man's relationship to the matter. He radiates suspicion every time they talk to him. It doesn't help that they saw a raven on top of his mansion.

That night the bard is awakened by his dear mule's annoyed snort. The party peeks out the window and sees ruffians making off with their animals. They sensibly take a few rounds to armor up before sneaking down the hall to the main room. Just as they start to open the door, it opens from the outside: a whole squad of thugs is staring them in the face.

The ranger sensibly fights them from the doorway, where they can't overwhelm him. The barbarian takes up a position against the wall, so that if the enemy does charge into the room, he can attack them from the flank. (He's already picked up on Attacks of Opportunity, which is neat because he is the youngest player.) The bard and druid head out the back, and then he wizard casts a Sleep spell, knocking out the entire enemy squad. (Too bad he acts last every round.)

The ranger and the wizard charge out to start murdering helpless men before they can wake. Except there's a second squad out there, and the back door has a squad too. There are lot more thugs this time, and they are fighting in formation, so they don't fold quite so quickly; but the party chews through them, with only one dramatic moment: the bard actually gets hit! And almost dies. But he doesn't, and a song of healing later, he's heading for the front door.

Where some excitement finally occurs. The wizard chases down a straggler and clubs him from behind, only to be surprised himself when a demonic imp plunges its poisoned tail into his back. Now he's suffering CON damage from sickness and bee poison, and also suffering DEX damage from Quasit poison. The barbarian finishes off the last squad - his Cleave feat is turning out to be the perfect counter to squads of mooks - and both he and the ranger leap into battle against the imp.

Only to discover their swords don't seem to hurt it.

The imp spends a few rounds murdering the merely wounded on the ground - making sure the party won't have any prisoners who can talk. Everyone else sensibly retreats into the inn, but the barbarian won't fall back, and finally lands a solid blow on the imp, injuring it slightly. That's enough to scare it off and it flees.

Lord Grayson finally shows up with his half-dozen bodyguards, long after the fight is over. He doesn't really have satisfactory answers for the party, but they're in no shape to press the issue. Their cleric heals them all again (save for the various poisons, which are beyond his power) and in the morning, after long discussion and many covetous glances cast toward the city where they could buy healing, they head into the bush to find the rest of the bandits and their mule.

They find a cave with thugs lounging around outside, and despite being out-numbered three to one, decide to give battle. This time the bard and barbarian flank, the wizard prepares Magic Weapon spells, and the ranger sneaks into position where he can fire on the imp when it appears. The wizard realizes he hasn't enchanted the ranger's bow yet, so he sneaks up to the ranger... and of course gives their position away.

More men come out of the cave and form up squads. Now they're facing twenty armed men and a imp hovering just behind the battle line. The ranger shoots but as usual can't hit the broad side of a barn while the line advances. Still, once melee is joined, the barbarian springs out and gets a flanking attack which decimates a squad, and the bard remembers to sing Inspire Courage, giving everyone a better fighting chance.

The plan works; the barbarian and druid bring down the imp with their magic weapons. This inspires  the remaining thugs to a berserk fury, as they've just seen their promised hopes of power and glory brought low. They lay into the barbarian, cutting him to an inch of his life, and he retreats behind the wizard and the druid.

Two men with sticks is not tenable defense against two squads. The wizard goes down, bleeding to death; the ranger is back to being useless, and the bard is tanking an entire squad by himself on the other side of the field. The party starts seriously discussing how to retreat, until the barbarian throws caution to the wind and leaps back into battle. He makes short work of another squad, even though a single hit will take him out; the druid gets the wizard back on his feet with some healing spells; and the remaining two squads see the writing on the wall. They break off and flee; the party retreats into the cave.

They find their mules, a bunch of useless junk, and a receipt for six kegs of beer made out to... Grayson Palek.

Battered, bruised, out of spells, and many still sick and poisoned, they limp back to town again, planning to give it a wide berth and head on into the city for healing and possibly reinforcements. The ranger sneaks into the village to get the cleric, and of course muffs his die roll. But it doesn't matter, because the town is deserted. The cleric comes out of hiding to tell them that Palek's soldiers forced the villagers into the mansion, where even now a scream of agony can be heard. Palek appears to be trying to summon another, possibly larger demon.

Tune in next time for the thrilling conclusion... but hopefully only to The Devils' Handmaiden, not the entire campaign. Those imps are pretty tough, and they are out of spells. Only true heroes would wade into such a dangerous battle in such poor shape. Are they true heroes? Will they risk a TPK in only the fourth session? Can the ranger finally roll some decent dice? Find out next month!

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Campaign Journal: World of Prime #2

Humble Beginnings (Continued)

The party decides to deal with the hobgoblins first, as a stepping stone to the rank necessary to take on the Wild Lord. They track the horde through the grass while the trail is still (relatively) fresh and find a dilapidated village, taking their new bestest buddy Par the Archer with them because they don't trust leaving him behind with the mules and the food. And this despite the fact the ghost Tyvek now heals Par. If that's not a stamp of approval/alignment change, what is?

Hiding in the grass on a rise about 500 yards away, they spend an inordinate amount of time discussing tactics, torn between a full frontal assault during the day while the hobbos are Dazzled, or waiting to ambush their hunting parties at night. Finally they decide on the latter, or perhaps they just argue so long the sun goes down and they don't have a choice.

And thus we see a D&D trope seamlessly blended into the narrative. The Side Quest is a staple of the DM's art, but in this case the players chose it themselves. Making XP a concrete quantity that the players control puts them in charge of the pacing.

The party is a bit disconcerted to discover that the hobgoblins, who sleep during the day and hunt during the night, use no light. It's hard to spy on a village at 500 yards at night when the village doesn't so much as strike a match. Still, they hold their course, and eventually a hunting group wanders out to their position.

The ranger and barbarian move to flank; the ranger (who has the worst luck with the dice) totally gives away their position. Par stands up and shoots a hobbo with his longbow, the group's only missile weapon. Most everybody else throws rocks and javelins, save for the wizard who lights a couple of torches. As usual, the bard is the only one who inflicts any real damage, killing another hobbo with a rock. Why does this guy even want a weapon?

The hobgoblins respond with a shower of javelins, knocking Par out of the fight. Melee is joined; the hobbos lose, of course, but give a good accounting of themselves. After three or four rounds it's all over, and the party belatedly realizes that lighting torches in the plains in the middle of the night gives your location away to everything within ten miles. They snuff the torches, and after only a lengthy discussion, decide to retreat.

The next day they head back to the village, simultaneously emboldened by their victory and worried over how much damage they had suffered. They notice that the central fire pit of the village contains a large chunk of roasted meat. While trying to get close enough to determine what it is, they are discovered; the hobbos marshal for war, forming into four squads, and advance at a measured pace.

The party falls back slowly, letting Par fire into the oncoming formations. Because the hobbos move slower than the party, the archer gets off all 19 remaining arrows, killing ten hobbos. The rest charge through the party's final javelin assault (again, only the bard does any real damage) and melee is joined.

My squad rules makes the hobbos less dangerous, in that I don't have to roll thirty attacks per turn, but also frustrates the players a bit as the hobbo squads are harder to hit now that they are helping each other out. A classic battle line is formed, with the players strategically retreating their wounded to prevent fatalities, but then the wounded step back up, realizing that if they get knocked out the party can probably save them with a Cure Minor Wounds spell - but only if the party wins. Things could have gone either way, but the party is sporting several short-swords now, and Par's arrows hurt a lot more than I realized. One of the hobbo squads is reduced to two figures; they break out of squad formation and attack as individuals, only to get immediately murderized, and the party rolls up the hobbo line from the flank in true battlefield style.

To their credit the party had carried on a long discussion of whether or not to murder the hobgoblin's children. To their relief, there are none; the village had fallen on hard times and was not capable of spawning (goblins lay eggs, which they treat more as commodities than as children, not that the party knows that). The village yields little treasure, just ten rabbit skins and a wicker basket full of throwing rocks. The meat on the spit turns out to be the remains of the hobgoblins they killed the night before. Meat is definitely not back on the menu.

The next day they are lounging around outside their cave when three bandits come out of the woods, shouting for Par. They have been sent to rescue Par and his fellow, who had been sent out hunting a few days ago. Par suggests turning the men to their side; the bard comes up with the perfect line to open negotiations: "Are you hungry, boys?" An easy die roll later, three more hirelings are stuffing their faces with salted pork and porridge, made extra delicious by a Prestidigitation spell.

Now they have more information about their foe. Boros is down to a few days of supplies; he will soon lead a raid on a village for more. Some members of the party (you know who you are!) think this is an excellent opportunity; they'll wait for Boros to leave, occupy the keep, and surprise him on his return. Other members note that this will allow innocent villagers to suffer, which is not really acceptable for Team Good. The druid appropriates the wicker basket of rocks, turning it into a rattan shield with his Survival skills, and then gives it to the barbarian. Hey, it's a +1 to AC, so you know, that's something.

They give it another day to see if they can catch anymore of Boros' men out of the keep. My module calls for the remaining five to show up in force, which seemed like a good idea when I wrote it, but doesn't work out now. All five come marching through the woods; they are met by the entire party plus their bandit turncoats armed with pork sandwiches; and now the entire enemy team (save the one unfortunate slain by Tyvek) is working for the party.

They take their new lads back to the cave, feed and rest them, and return the next day to beard the Wild Lord in his den. Boros is not completely stupid; he tries to make use of his fortifications, but most of the party goes around behind the keep to climb in the back window while the bard, the druid, and bandits hang out in front. Boros then makes an extremely poor choice: he charges out to fight.

The bandits are fighting in squads, Par can't get a clear shot, and the rest of the party is still in back of the keep. Things look decent for a whole round. Boros targets his turncoats first, because he's mad at them, and besides they're the ones who look dangerous (some of the party is still fighting with stone weapons). The bandits do some pathetic stabbing, Boros kills one of them, and then everything goes south.

Boros, scourge of the Wild, muffs his rather easy Will save against the druid's Daze spell. He loses a round while the party flanks him. Suddenly the party has figured out how to roll dice; they are flanking, aiding each other, and throwing sixteens all over the place. Boros gets hit hard by the barbarian, among a few other successful attacks.

Next round Boros hits the barbarian, rolls a bit low, and leaves him with one hit point. Then he muffs another easy Will save. More important than the unanswered attacks is the fact that Boros keeps losing his chance to retreat to the keep, where he can at least be protected from flankers.

Combat continues; Boris swings again at the person who hurt him the most, the barbarian, and misses by exactly one. The rattan shield saves the barbarian's life! The party responds with a flurry of attacks and Boros goes down, another BBEG brought low by the action economy.

They cut off his head rather quickly, concerned that he might spring back up again. The tales of how dangerous he was seemed to have stuck with them, despite his poor showing at the end. They are now wealthy beyond their dreams, with enough tael to get everyone to first rank. Much to my surprise, they spend a lot of time talking about how much to share with their new bandit army, even though this would leave one of them below first rank. Unfortunately, they do this out of the hearing of said bandit army, having sent them with Par back to the cave to fetch the mules and supplies to their new headquarters, the keep.

The bandits are not at all impressed with Par's new-found outlook on life. Once at the cave, surrounded by food, and free of any influence by the party, they murder Par, steal everything (except the sword, assuming its curse is what messed up their ex-buddy's head), and run for their lives. The party comes looking for them the next morning, only to find Par's stripped corpse.

Now they face a moral decision: chase the bandits, or go back and take care of the handful of women that Boros had kept imprisoned in the keep to do the bandit's laundry (hey now, we have a pre-teen in our player group). Ultimately they choose justice over mercy and set out after the murderers. The druid's hawk does invaluable service here, telling the party which way to go. The bandits, realizing they are being tracked and that they have no Animal Handling skill, abandon the mules so they can move faster.

The trick works; the party, retrieving their valuable mules and supplies, suddenly loses the appetite for justice (funny how that works). They return to the keep and the prisoners. Old Bob, the crazy hermit who sewed up the bandit's clothes and wounds, says he'll stay in the keep and take his chances in the wild. The three women are escorted to the nearest village on the edge of the county of Edersarr and released with a gold piece each to find their way back to their homes. Not exactly the triumphant return of paladins, but the party is trying to lay low at the moment, still adapting to their new-found identities as nobles.

They spend the night in the local inn, living it up. A whole gold piece for food, drink, and board! This is the high life, at least as peasants conceive it. While they're partying, the bard ferrets out an interesting story about a lake monster snatching a young couple out of the very room they will be sleeping in

You know you've succeeded when a roast chicken and several pints of cheap ale excites your players. 

Despite being ennobled, they are still quite poor, down to their last three gold pieces. They sell off the mules and spend the money on shields, staves, and a spear and a warhammer. Only the barbarian looks the part, wearing the chainmail and masterwork longsword they looted from Boros. Now they're trying to figure out how to make money for equipment, and their finely tuned senses smell an adventure opportunity in the lake. Tune in next time, when we discover that only the barbarian thought to take Swimming as a skill.