Sunday, February 16, 2020

World of Prime: Campaign Journal #20

Our young heroes rush into the city to buy appropriate clothes for their introduction to society. Astounding how rough and ready heroes known for their attention to weaponry can suddenly become obsessed haute couture merely by the presence of nobility.

The tailor wants to dress them silk (think of the comissions!) but ultimately counsels them to wear wool, as Cardinal Ragnar and Count Kird are practical fellows. And what they wear matters: wool indicates they are with the throne and thus the Peace faction, while silk would mean they were aligning with Earl Theodorick and the War faction.

They are formally presented at the dinner as merely "... of the Wild," meaning they don't have to publicly declare a rank or profession yet. Since they won't be lords until the end of the dinner this fiction suffices. Given a choice of three tables, they pick the Peace faction with their ally Count Kird.

Unfortunately not all allies are created equally. Vicar Bernard, the second major member of the Peace faction, has brought one of his subjects as a guest: Ser Branford. They last saw Ser Branford when they were betraying and murdering his boss, the bard Dacey, in a bar in Varsoulou. Vicar Bernard has some earnest questions about their affiliation and strongly suggests they sit for a religious interview.

They are well aware of the difficulties this could cause - their cleric is heretic and wizardry is widely viewed as demonic - so they politely beg off. Brandford, however, has a matter of honor to settle with the barbarian who once fought by his side only to turn on him. Betrayal is a worse crime than murder to the Green.

The King's Courtesy holds, however, and no violence erupts at the dinner table. The duel is scheduled for the next morning. In the meantime the party tries to avoid the War faction, despite the Earl expressing his delight that some swordplay will soon be provided for entertainment, and chats up the Neutral faction. Only representatives of these lesser thrones have attended the dinner, but the leader of House Chadwick bends their ears about how hard he has been searching for a land route to trade spice with Varsoulou. He even had a line on some adventurer who claimed to mapping a route, but the poor fellow disappeared after a while. The party declines to point out that they know anything about this (if you recall, the contact that was trying to hire them to do this was mysteriously murdered and his head was left in a jar in their inn; they later tried to fob this preserved skull off on Count Erligil as evidence they had murdered the leader of the Order of the Tower). However, they are interested in the merchant's complains that House Marconi is secretly trading spice by sea despite public avowals. They leave open the possibility of future discussions vis a vie the land trade in spices. Now that they are lords they are suddenly interested in money as opposed to mere power.

The duel is not as one-sided as feared. Though Brandon is only 3rd rank, he is specialized in dueling, and he gives the barbarian a real run for his money in a fight that sees him delivering two critical strikes and getting the barbarian to within a sword's blow of losing. However, the barbarian's rage proves to be a powerful enhancement, luckily lasting just long enough to finish the fight. The barbarian adds Brandon's masterwork greatsword to his weapon collection but allows Vicar Bernard to ransom the man's armor. Bernard's magic also means that Brandon doesn't bleed out on the spot, so this threat will return again in the future. Especially since the Vicar still wants that interview...

The party decides to get out of town before they get any more attention. Back at their inn they discover that rumor travels fast; an enterprising stonemason is eager to begin planning and building the fortress that any landlord must necessarily have. When he finds out they have a ruined keep to start with, he explains that will save them significantly on the cost of materials. He estimates they only need to spend 84,000 gp over the next five years to acquire a small stone keep.

The party signs up with the first minimal payment - his salary while he puts together a crew - and heads out to check on the status of their ruined keep. As they were warned some time ago, it already has new occupants. They find two score of women, children, and old men living in tents inside the ruins of the walls. Rather than murder them all for the tael in their heads (our heroes are still technically on Team Good), they decide to hang out with the peasants until their menfolk return. The bard uses magic to make the daily meal more exciting, and is somewhat disappointed that the peasants are actually used to it.

A few days later two score of armored men march into camp, backed by a pair of bards - the twin brothers Archilochus and Aristeas, whom the party quickly dubs the "A-team." These brothers, leaders of the bandit gang The Argossey (detailed in Bandits of the Stinging Sea) spin a yarn about being descended from Odysseys and on a quest to sack the fabled city of Troy. They only have one warship at the moment but are eager to bring the party into their fleet.

There's a bit of posturing as the party bard tries to enforce some kind of rent payment while the rest of the party tries to figure out how to chase off the bandits without a fight (thereby annoying the DM who had assumed this was going to be the big battle of the night), but eventually the party decides to recruit the bandits to help them recover the women they left behind in the Black Knight's manor (see Journal #11). A short sea voyage is just the thing to see if the two groups can work together - especially since the party would like the brigand's help in disrupting House Marconi's spice trade (though they'll need a lot more information to make that happen).

Sailing around the coast of Edersarr, they quickly cover ground that took weeks to walk over. Landing near the Black Knight's manor they borrow ten of the brigand's common soldiers and march inland. Almost immediately they encounter a hag bathing in the river. Her horrific appearance cripples the bard and all the common men, while her evil eye almost kills the cleric and druid outright. The ranger is doing his usual bad dice rolling while the barbarian tries to rush into the river to close with her. Just as he gets there the ranger decides to lower his chances of hitting by firing two arrows at once; both hit, of course, killing the hag instantly. No need to resort to the ranger's mythical dagger of slaying!

They send the weakened and sickened common soldiers back to the boat and press on alone, only to be severely threatened by a flock of birds. Stirges - the bane of adventurers everywhere! By the end of the short battle almost everyone is suffering from CON damage. If not for the cleric's fear and the druid's hawk it would have gone even worse. Nonetheless, they persist.

(Both of these encounters, like all of the encounters so far, were pre-generated by my Sandbox World Generator program. Having basically level-appropriate encounters for every possible place the party could randomly decide to go is quite helpful. Whew!)

The manor house, as it turns out, is not a ruined tombstone for a bunch of helpless commoners. Instead, it's under new management. The original Black Knight had a retainer in the form of the bard Pascale (who was not in the encounter because the DM forgot about him despite having the entire encounter written out in advance). This fellow had been out spying on Varsoulou and sourcing supplies (and getting a drink out from under his rather dour boss's nose). When he came back and found the women all alone and helpless he started packing his things, but then the Black Knight's warhorses came ambling home, followed by a pair of donkeys loaded with saddlebags full of gold - the party's gold, not that he knew that (this occurred when the party was kidnapped for the City of Tomorrow, in Journal #12). Pascale took this as a sign from the gods that the manor was a money-making position and decided to stay.

He spent the money on attracting a new band of brigands. Vignetta, a fire sorcerer from Edersar, and her gang of bowmen known as Vengence Inc. (also from Brigands of the Stinging Sea) have moved in. The band has grown to twenty men and both Pascale and Vignetta have gained a rank, largely due to the unintended generosity of the party. When the party sees a score of longbows staring done at them from the walls of the fortified manor, they balk. Still suffering from weakness from their previous encounters they can do little but talk. The bard in particular begs for the return of his beloved donkeys. Much to his surprise, Vignetta agrees - after all, the price of a pair of donkeys is a small investment against the possibility that these yahoos will load them with gold and then lose them again. Dispirited, they trudge away in defeat.

The pall of failure beings to rankle, though. Days later when they reach the boat and find the bandit crew restored to health they have changed their minds. As lords they are in need of peasants; as subjects of a kingdom they are naturally at war with all bandits; and these arguments serve to justify their base desire to get revenge for their recent humiliation. They talk up the treasure they lost to the manor and convince the A-team to mount a joint raid on the manor. With all their men and rank it should be an easy fight, especially since they won't be crippled this time.

Join us next month when the party discovers just how much a DM can do with 2 low-rank NPCs, given time to plan a proper defense.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Trump is not the enemy

I watched the 2008 Wolf Blitzer interview with Trump and came to a horrifying conclusion: Trump did not corrupt the GOP. The GOP corrupted Trump.

Back then Trump was talking about how amazing Nancy Pelosi was, how Clinton’s impeachment was over nothing important, and how Bush deserved to be impeached for lying us into a war. All of these statements are objectively true. That 2008 Trump was a narcissistic blow-hard, but he was still connected to reality. How did he get replaced with this Fox-News zombie?

To ask the question is to answer it. Fox News ate Trump’s brain the same way it has eaten so many of our parents and uncles and aunts brain’s; with a steady diet of outrage, fear, hate, entitlement, and empty flattery. Trump watches Fox News all the time, and like any other person who only watches Fox News, Trump has become a monster of the id, a creature entirely driven by irrational fears and imagined dangers and an overwhelming sense of lost status.

This should have been obvious all along. Trump was the least consequential figure on that stage of seventeen Republican candidates. Trump played to the crowd and was rewarded with poll numbers; so he played harder and got more. But Trump’s ability to completely re-invent himself as a conservative fire-breather (after having been associated with liberals to the point where the Clintons attended one of his weddings) was not merely a sign of his shallowness; it as a signifier of his willingness to serve the cause. The reason the Republican electorate chose Trump over all those other men was not in spite of his malleability but because of it.

I have long argued that Trump’s unfitness was a crucial attraction to the Republican electorate, because it demonstrated the power of white male privilege. I argued that they selected him because he had no other assets than white maleness, and thus his power could only be derived from it. Ted Cruz has a brain; Jeb Bush has a name; John Kasich and all the others have hard work and experience. Only Trump was devoid of any other positive attributes that could justify his rulership. Thus, I argued, they chose Trump to be the avatar of privilege, and cheered every time he did something horrible because his ability to be both stupid and criminal and yet still retain power was daily proof that white maleness was both necessary and sufficient to wield authority. But now I think I was giving them too much credit.

Trump’s unfitness as captain of the ship of state was his most important attribute, because they want to steer the ship onto the rocks. Their goal is not merely to demonstrate the power of privilege; their goal is to demonstrate the unfitness of democracy itself. The Republican argument is that democracy is too weak to survive because it cannot defend itself against vandals. That the Republicans themselves are playing the part of the vandals is no objection to a people steeped in hypocrisy.

The Evangelicals have repeatedly told us that God works through imperfect tools. They have repeatedly framed their support of Trump as a support of God’s agenda, not Trump himself. They have not merely excused but practically celebrated Trump’s many un-Christian attributes from profanity to adultery, which I interpreted as hypocrisy. I now realize those negative qualities are the point. They cheer when Trump does something terrible, when he wrecks the economy or weakens our alliances or diminishes the prestige and honor of the office, because all of those things are necessary steps on the way to the death of democracy.

When democracy is finished, when the country is in such dire straits that even liberals cry out for a strongman to restore law and order, then the conservatives will toss Trump aside like used toilet paper. His fate is as likely to be found on the end of a lamppost as not, and conservatives are more than likely to be the ones to put him there. Once God is done with his imperfect vessel, it is merely clay again.

In his place conservatives will offer an actual strongman, someone both intelligent and competent and wholly willing to create a new order. This is why none of the other Republican candidates had a chance; for all of their faults, none of them are traitors. None of those other men would willingly preside over the collapse of American democracy.

They will, however, stand aside and watch it fall, as helpless in the face of the fury of a demographic losing its traditional stranglehold on power as they were in the face of a man who could throw out childish insults on national television. Hypocrisy, and the lack of shame that goes with it, has long been their stock in trade; Trump simply abandoned hypocrisy and all concept of shame with it.

The electorate sensed this emptiness in Trump, this need to be flattered regardless of the cost to others or even to himself, and they chose him to be their sacrificial lamb. He will bring down the state around him, like Samson in the temple of Dagon. He will usher in the kingdom of God, even though he will not be permitted to join it. They will use him up and cast him aside and the future will record Trump not as Hitler, but merely as Marinus van der Lubbe.

It’s almost enough to make me feel sorry for him.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

World of Prime: Campaign Journal #19

Death of a spymaster

Count Kird, it seems, is very well informed. He knows that the party accepted a commission to murder the leader of the Order of the Tower. He confiscates all the tael from the battlefield and demands that the party surrender into his custody.

They agree, and not just because they are currently weak. They think they can face a court trial and prove that they were only acting under duress. The ranger asserts they were going to be double agents. This faith in the system convinces Kird of their honesty, though he doesn't tell them that.

Instead, Kird points out that they are terrible double agents, in that they didn't come and report to him, but instead spent the last few weeks larking about in a dungeon. "But..." he adds, "if you are willing to prove your loyalty to Edersarr, I do have a proposition in mind."

He offers them a job: murder the man who hired them for murder. They are to travel back to Varsoulou, meet the Minister of Coin, and kill him. Then they must fight their way past the city's defenses and escape as best they can. Kird can only offer them the most minimal aid: he will convince the Order of the Tower to seal its doors and fly the mourning flag, so as to convince Varsouloean spies that the Viscount is dead. He tell the party he can maintain the deception for only three weeks; this gives them enough cover to at least arrange a meeting with Erligil.

The party is dubious; Erligil seems like a dangerous and well protected foe. Count Kird sweetens the pot: if they succeed, he will enoble them as landlords. They will receive the village and as much land to the south as they can hold. More importantly from their point of view, they will no longer be subject to the king's tax. All of their old tax debt will be wiped away, and even their status as escaped peasants will cease to matter.

After this, they bargain only for the mundane necessities. Horses, rations, and more arrows for the ranger. Kird readily agrees to such simple requests. He rides away, cautioning them to lay low, and the next day a trader wanders into town with six horses to sell. The trader takes only a single copper piece to make it a legitimate transaction. The party, now rested, recovered, and respelled, mount up and travel west again, with murder on their mind. They take poor Lodvun's head as a prop, knowing that pretending it is the Viscount's head will only buy then a brief opening.

The journey is without incident (they've already cleared a path, and new monsters have not had time to move in). In County Kaewaey they trade their foreign horses for local ones, recognizing that the Edersarrian beasts are dead giveaways. They also split up, seeking to hide the barbarian, their most powerful weapon, from Erligil's spies. The cleric goes with the barbarian to keep him out of trouble with his diplomatic skill, the wizard goes alone since he is a member of the Golden Library and thus has a legitimate reason to be in Varsoulou, and the ranger and druid travel under the bard's guidance. Since the bard can speak with the local accent, they still have their desert robes from last time, and they are on local horses, they travel into the capital without any trouble.

There the three members take up residence in the inn they had patronized before. The wizard also stays at the inn, but in disguise and separate from the group. The other two find lesser quarters down by the docks.

The bard spends money freely, seeking to appear as a man about to come into wealth and thus unconcerned with penny-pitching. Although this physically pains the druid, it is a good plan. The innkeeper gives them the best of everything and they rest in luxury for a day. At lunchtime a messenger arrives and lets them know that an old friend will be at a popular theater later that night. This is obviously an invitation from Erligil.

The party comes up with a complex plan to meet Erligil and try and win his trust. Still split up, the wizard goes to the bawdy house but is denied entry; unable to warn his mates he has to watch helplessly as the three enter and find a seat at one of the long tables. Shortly after that, ten knights in armor march in and take a table near them. Erligil appears next to the party, casting off his disguise.

"You look well," he says. "Though fewer in number."

They acknowledge the fact. "There were losses," the bard says.

"So you succeeded? Did you bring proof?"

"We might have a head hidden somewhere," the bard answers. "Did you bring our gold?"

There is a brief discussion over terms. The bard is adamant that the party is owed 60,000 gold; Erligil contends that the deal was 10,000 each, and since there are only three of them, that is 30,000. In the end he offers a compromise: a half-share for the dead, bringing the total to 45,000 gold. This is over 200 lbs of the stuff, so it's literally a staggering fortune. Despite that the bard is annoyed, and only concedes once he realizes it's the best deal he'll get.

"Tomorrow, then," Erligil says. "Bring your proof and I will take it to the castle. If it checks out, you can come to the castle and collect your pay. I might even arrange a meeting with the queen, if you ask nicely."

He leaves then, suggesting the party do the same, as the quality of the house's entertainment leaves much to be desired. The druid sticks around till closing time so he can scope out the entrances and exits. The bard hatches a clever plot; he approaches the barkeep and asks how much it would cost to rent out the entire hall for tomorrow night. "A private party," he says, "Just me and my friends." The barkeep suggests the outrageous price of five gold; the bard slides ten across the counter.

When they reunite with the wizard, he tells them that he couldn't get inside. They realize that virtually everyone in the bar was an agent of Erligil's. The three show up half an hour early the next night to make sure the barman keeps his word, but he silently slides the ten gold coins back across the bar. He forgot that he had a "prior engagement." To appease the bard he gives them free drinks all night.

At the appointed time the bar fills up with rough-looking men. Among them are the wizard in disguise and the cleric and barbarian, all at different tables. Ten armored knights march in, surrounding Erligil. Four take a seat at each table. The spymaster joins the main party at their table with six knights at his back.

The bard mentions that he's slightly offended by the show of force. Erligil apologizes; he never goes anywhere without a honor guard, and as for the rowdies, if a troop of the Queen's dragoons wants a night out on the town, who is he to say no?

The bard distracts Erligil by bringing up Count Wraythas' name. Erligil admits he would pay well for proof of the man's treachery, but first they should conclude the current deal. The bard slides a sack under the table; Erligil peeks inside to see the severed, preserved head; and the party attacks.

They win initiative, which turns out to be crucial. The bard casts Hideous Laughter on Erligil and the man collapses in a heap, unable to fight, flee, or even give orders (a classic trope of D&D: the save-or-die spell). The cleric casts a strength spell on the barbarian and tells him to cut loose. He does, literally. Leaping on top of a table, he draws his axe and spins, killing five men in a single continuous blow (the Great Cleave feat was expressly designed for murdering mooks). Blood spatters everywhere and the rampage only stops on the knight, who staggers back barely alive. The ranger also leaps on his table and stabs at the laughing Erligil, though the outcome is not quite as impressive as the barbarian's.

The knights spend the first round readying weapons and shields, as they had relaxed a bit when Erligil appeared to be in friendly conversation. The soldiers, being common men, are even slower to react.

The ranger continues stabbing at the helpless Erligil, and for once his dice do not betray him. The druid summons his most potent weapon, the dreaded bat swarm. It temporarily cripples two of the knights but the rest battle on. The barbarian murders another five men like a farmer reaping wheat. The wizard starts throwing sleep spells around, which is a mercy compared to many horrible ways to die currently being employed.

Now the knights react, rushing to cover Erligil and hacking at the ranger. They are well armored and well-trained (and first level), so the ranger finds himself in a proper fight. The barbarian tries to intimidate his foes; it buys him only a momentary advantage as the wounded knight at his table backs up until he is joined by more knights.

Two separate battles occur, with most of the party trying to kill Erligil through his screen of knights and soldiers, and the barbarian fighting half the army on the other side of the room. The soldiers have gotten into formation now, so the barbarian's slaughter spree has trickled into mere murderosity.

The party can no longer reach Erligil, so the druid summons wolves behind him. They leap on the helpless man, biting him; yet Erligil is a hero of some rank. He survives the round, the crippling spell is about to wear off, and he has a healing potion hidden in his jacket. The wizard blinds him, which is not as debilitating to a master rogue as one would think; but then the cleric sends in a ghostly hammer, the physical manifestation of his war god's wrath. This puts Erligil deep into negative hit points. But he's still not dead yet; a knight might break off the combat and sprint the bleeding man out of the room; until one of the summoned wolves sinks its teeth into Erligil's neck. The cleverest man in the kingdom has died in half a minute, unable to resist a simple spell from a low-level caster. Truly, the bard has discovered the Killing Joke.

The ranger is struggling with the remaining knights, a task not made easier when the druid's swarm moves onto him, seeking fresh flesh after killing several of the knights. The druid lets the swarm dissipate and the wizard ends the fight by putting the knights to sleep.

The bard cuts off Erligil's head and makes his own intimidation check, raising the severed head high. The common soldiers throw down their weapons and flee. A few knights remain on the other side of the room, fighting the barbarian, but the party's combined might dispatches them quickly.

Now it is time to retreat. The wizard pleads mightily for the chance to loot the tael from all the bodies, asserting that a few paltry seconds spent picking up loot is worth the risk, but the party has learned to value caution over greed. They grab only the tael from the ranked knights and Erligil's head, not even searching his body for treasure.

They rush back to their inn, with the druid summoning water to try and clean up the blood-soaked barbarian so as to not draw more attention that absolutely necessary. The party almost makes it out of town before a squad of mounted knights spots them, sets lances, and charges.

Despite the surprisingly easy fight in the bar, the party knows that lance charges are a thing to fear. They burn through magic, throwing up a web across the road, turning the dirt to mud, and flooding the area with opaque mist. All of this allows them to escape in the night.

Now they face hourly checks for patrols. Several they hide from, despite their miserable skills; two they avoid by use of the Entangle spell. Only at a check point do they find the need to fight another troop of dragoons. The ranger sneaks off to steal their horses while the barbarian simply wades into battle.

These men are armored and prepared. They are not nearly so easy a target as their mates in the bar. Still, the druid's flames and the barbarian's axe are too powerful, and the wizard still has sleep spells. The troop is broken and destroyed with only minor damage to the party - though the barbarian and ranger are running dangerously low on vitality.

Across the border, however, the pressure drops off and the patrols are less frequent as they have more territory to cover. The party finds a place to hide, avoiding one patrol, and only being confronted by another dragoon troop in the morning.

The casters have not yet had time to prepare spells, so the party forms a battle line. This fight is a drudging affair, with heavily armored troops in good formation. The party is slowly being whittled down, but the bard has regained his magic (since he doesn't have to prepare spells) and the barbarian makes his intimidate check. Soon half the dragoon troop is retreating, leaving the other half dead on the ground.

The party steals as many of the dragoon's horses as they can handle and press on. The next challenge gives them pause: ten armored knights, but not the Queen's. These men belong to Count Wraythas, and the leader of the troop is a highly ranked paladin. The party prepares for a desperate fight, but the paladin wants to talk.

"We had no love for that miserable sneak-thief you murdered," the paladin tells them. "From our perspective you have done us a favor. In return I can offer you a small favor. I will have you escorted to the borders of our lands without interference, on the condition that you never return."

The party, fearing both the lances of the paladin's knights and continued attacks by royal forces, agrees. The paladin has a wagon brought up, with a deaf and mute driver. The party is instructed to hide under the hay, where they must remain for two days. They bargain only for a set of horses and the bard's right to ride with the wagon-driver, as his disguise skill and ability to speak the accent makes him unlikely to be discovered. Of course the bard has to toss his weapons and armor under the hay, but he trusts to the power of his wit more than his halberd anyway.

The wagon travels without incident, avoiding detection by several royal patrols. Their driver takes them into the city of Kaewaey, where the bard spends the night shoveling out stables while the rest of the party hides uncomfortably in the hay. At least they have a chance to heal up and renew spells.

The next day the wagon reaches the border of civilized lands. The bard sees a mounted party waiting for them on the other side. It is Count Wraythas himself, with his priest and a troop of knights. The party is concerned but decides to hope he has come to offer them a bonus.

Instead, the moment they cross over into wilderness, the priest casts the dreaded Entangle spell, trapping the wagon in a sea of grasping grasses. Two troops of crossbowmen rise up on either side of the road, having successfully hidden from the bard's view (they rolled a 20 for their ambush!). The bowmen begin launching flaming bolts, setting the wagon on fire and killing the driver, while the Count and his knights wait to ride down anyone escaping the Entangle spell.

This is a bleak moment, with the powerful Count and his well-executed ambush being the most dangerous battle the party has ever faced. If they stay in the wagon they will burn; if the leap out they will be caught by the grass and become targets for the archers; if they escape the grass the knights will run them through. And then (in classic D&D fashion) the wizard makes it all go away with a spell. Under the cover of the smoke from the burning wagon he casts Rope Trick, creating an extra-dimensional hiding place. The party climbs inside and seals themselves off from the rest of the world. The trick works because the Count's priest is a Warrior Monk, the kind of cleric who favors practical theology over academics and thus has the spell-craft skill of a squirrel. After a brief search the Count's men leave, unable to guess where the villains have gone.

Four hours later the party drops back into the real world, into a pile of cold ashes and dead horses, and begins the long trek home.

Back in Edersarr they stop at their little village inn, where they are greeted warmly. In the morning they march up to the city. Count Kird pays them no special attention in public; he can hardly admit that he sent them on a mission to assassinate a foreign minister without starting a the very war he was trying to avoid. But in private he expresses his gratitude, summoning a clerk and writing out their patents of land on the spot. Tonight they will dine with the king as new nobles of the realm, recognized for their general and unspecified activities to the benefit of the kingdom, and of course for their specific and very visible rank.

Our boys have risen from peasant to peerage, and they still haven't turned 17.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

World of Prime: Campaign Journal #18

The Lake of Ill Repute: final chapter.

The party takes the bard's words seriously. Rather than plunge directly back into the dungeon, they decide to rest up and regain spells first. This proves to be a fateful decision.

In the morning their leisurely breakfast is interrupted by a scream. The barbarian heroically rushes out to the rescue. The druid takes a moment to finish off the barbarian's scrambled eggs while the rest of the party casually makes their way to the door.

A group of villagers are running up from the shore, pursued by a squad of heavily armored zombies. The ranger takes a firing position on the roof of the inn while the rest of the party fans out. Their plans for an easy battle are disrupted when the ranger calls out that there are two other squads of zombies up and down the beach. Despite this, the party seems quite unconcerned and most of them stand around waiting for the zombies to get closer.

The barbarian decides to intercept one squad all by himself. As he passes a house the occupants wave a cheery greeting. He tells them to shut and bar their door, for danger is afoot. However, he soon reverses course as the squad of zombies he was going to attack turns into three. More and more zombies are staggering out of the lake.

The ranger hits upon a clever plan: lure the zombies into the barn and then burn it down. Naturally the druid thinks this is brilliant, and he runs out banging pots and pans to capture the monster’s attention. Meanwhile the wizard and cleric start getting people out of their houses as zombies begin battering down the doors, attracted to the smell of live flesh. A good use of the Web spell traps a squad of zombies at the door to a hovel while the wizard sneaks the family out through the window. The cleric stands in the street and begins chanting, aiming to catch as many zombies as possible in his holy aura.

The barbarian realizes the plan is to set the barn on fire. He runs to save the animals, leaving the cleric and druid to play zombie-bait. Eventually they lure a dozen or so zombies in the barn, along with the cleric, barbarian, and ranger. The barbarian scuttles up to the hayloft, hauls the cleric up on a rope, and jumps out the window to the outside to close the barn doors. The cleric gingerly climbs down a rope to the outside while the ranger strikes a torch. Or rather, tries to. After three rounds of failure (apparently starting a fire with flint and steel while orc zombies mill claw at the wall trying to climb up and eat you is distracting), the ranger gives up and resorts to magic. A blast from one of Rialto’s rods sets the hay ablaze, and the ranger falls out of the window to the outside as gracefully as a sack of potatoes.

The town is now fully invested and the inn besieged. When zombies begin bashing at the inn door the party tries to come up with a plan. They hide the children in the cellar and the peasants on the second floor while watching the door slowly disintegrate under the continued assault. Finally the barbarian can’t stand it anymore; throwing the door open, he engages the zombies axe to axe.

The ranger is still on the roof and gives a good account of himself with his bow. This particular gang of zombies is defeated and the barbarian is pulled back inside while the others slam the door. Now it is a matter of stealth; the bard tells stories to keep the children quiet and calm while zombies wander around outside at random.

There are still villagers trapped in their houses, though. The party splits up and slips out to brave the streets, looking to lead villagers back to safety. The cleric discovers the power of Invisibility to Undead, while everyone else wishes they had invested more skill points in Move Silently. Every party member gets a chance to shine as they employ all the tricks up their sleeves to get the families safely back to the barn. One highlight among many: the wizard selflessly risks himself to cover a family’s retreat.

Once the villagers are all safely inside, the party tries to wait out the plague. Every hour or so zombies notice the inn and try to break in. At first the party uses magic like Ghost Sounds to lure the monsters away, but eventually they start worrying about running out of spells and switch to swords and arrows and clever tactics (at one point the wizard fights a zombie solo, relying on cantrips to destroy it). The ranger keeps sneaking out to recover arrows, only to stumble and attract more zombies.

At nightfall everything changes. The zombies begin systematically destroying buildings and it is clear they are under some kind of intelligent control. The party decides to sneak all the villages out to the cave above the lake. Once again ranger completely and utterly fails an easy Move Silently check.

The horde of zombies is now marching towards the party. After only a moment’s indecision the party stands its ground, covering the retreat of the villagers. The druid entangles about half of the monsters while the cleric and wizard go Invisible and try to seek out their leader in the darkness.

Meanwhile the true leader, the wight Xerxes, is seeking out the party who just the night before had destroyed the ordinary zombie he had left on a fake throne in the room above his real lair. His skeletal dire wolf flanks the party’s main battle line and drops the ranger in a single bite. The barbarian fights defensively, properly terrified of the creature’s incredibly brutal attacks. The bard heals the ranger, getting him back into action, but for once the mystical dagger of slaying does not appear to be enough. The druid and ranger burn through Rialto’s rods with abandon, fire off precious charges against the hulking undead wolf.

The cleric and wizard have indeed found the wight on his way to attack the party from the other side. Just like that scene in Game of Thrones (because obviously Aria had some kind of invisibility, right?), the undead stream around our two heroes without noticing them. They bravely back-stab the wight as he walks past… and miss.

Undeterred, they chase after him and try again. This time they inflict surprising damage between their Cure Light Wounds and Shocking Grasps. Finally the wight lands a good blow, dropping the wizard into negatives, and the cleric has to use his last spell to hide himself or face the wight and his zombie flunkies alone. Once invisible he uses a cantrip to stop the wizard from bleeding to death, but dares not do anything offensive lest it break the spell.

From across the field the druid turns his attention from the smoking pile of bones that was once the most fearsome monster the party had ever faced and uses the last charge of his rod to kill the wight. The foe is dead! And yet the party is still in dire straights. Squads of uncontrolled but still vicious zombies are staggering out of the Entangle spell, more are coming from the village, and the party is out of magic, items, and hit points.

They brace themselves for a final stand, knowing that some actual fatalities are almost certain given the depleted state of their hit points. A growing thunder emanates from the village; what new foe is this? Out of the village charges a troop of knights, led by the paladin Count Kird, Minster of War for the King of Edersarr. Magic and lances make short work of the remaining shambling monsters, and the Count rides up to greet the relieved party with unexpected words.

“You are… under arrest for treason!”

(GM Notes: the siege worked out wonderfully, with the roll for an encounter every hour building tension as they slowly ran out of resources. All of the players got to do something heroic at one point or another, whether it was rescuing villagers or battling monsters. And the final battle was properly terrifying; the wizard and cleric's sneak attack was both comical and effective. This was one of the most successful sessions we've had.)