Friday, July 3, 2020

The Death of a Republic

Here's the plot of a political thriller I'm not writing:

On election day social media is flooded with concerns that Antifa is stuffing ballot boxes in urban polling stations. Armed militias (i.e. white men with guns) drive in from the countryside to "protect" the sanctity of the election. At some point, inevitably, someone gets shot. Again, social media is inundated with images and video. All across the nation polling places become deserted as people who were willing to risk COVID flee in fear of guns and white male rage.

Police either refuse to respond, or show up in SWAT gear and contribute to the atmosphere of fear. Perhaps the governors close the polling stations "to protect the people." By the end of the day the victors are declared. Mail-in votes are ignored, lost, or destroyed. The minority wins by suppressing the voice of the majority.

And if it doesn't work? If people vote in such numbers that even the suppression tactics fail? Then the Republican states declare that they cannot certify their vote tallies because of the violence.

The election goes to the House, where each state gets one vote. The Republican states vote for Trump. And there you go: a completely legal and Constitutional coup. The only legal response is through the courts, and we all already know how that one ends. The Republic dies by suicide - as everyone from Cicero to Lincoln told us it would.

The story works because the author has cleverly foreshadowed the conclusion with a series of events like Malhuer National Wildlife Refuge, Charleston, Charlottsville, Albuquerque, and of course the on-going national police riot. There is no unbelievable conspiracy of secret actors, merely the collusion of like-minded people acting in public and doing what they've been practicing all along.

But like I said, I'm not writing it, because I work in SF&F, not horror.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

World of Prime: Campaign Map

Someone suggested map would be helpful, and I agree. Note that these maps were generated by the Sandbox World Generator program, so the graphics aren't the point; the content is. Every one of those icons is an adventure waiting to be had!

Here's the immediate area, where most of their early adventures took place. They took their ruined keep from the Wild Lord.

A larger detail, showing the nation of Varsoulou to the east, where much of the most recent action took place. Just to the south of Varsoulou you can see the City of Tomorrow, and in the far south-west is the Gold Coast, where they are heading now. Their ruined keep is the grey icon just to the left of Edersarr. They actually have no idea that all those nations east of Varsoulou even exist.

And finally, the master map of their continent (the map is 10,000 x 10,000 miles).

Sunday, May 10, 2020

World of Prime: Campaign Journal #23

The Factory

This recap will be a spoiler for the short adventure The Factory, available on DriveThruRPG.

Faced with a plethora of political problems at home, our stalwart heroes choose the better part of valour - and flee into the wild in search of adventure, leaving their cleric and five archers to guard their tumble-down keep.

They have a ship now and they mean to use it. Strapped for cash to fund the infrastructure development of their new county, they set off for the fabled Gold Coast in search of sweet, sweet mercenary wages. Travelling by sea is safer than travelling by land on the World of Prime because the ocean is an empty place (encounter checks are made half as often). Their very first day, however, is the exception that proves the rule.

As the sun begins to sink and the captain begins to search for a likely cove to anchor for the night. There is no sailing after dark here; the dangers of unseen reefs and shoals is too great close to shore, and the danger of getting lost is too great further out. Prime does not have a moon, but it has so many stars that the average night is as illuminated as a full moon. This makes navigation by the stars impossible, so most vessels are coast-huggers unless they have magic or a superlative captain.

His search is interrupted when a tentacle flops onto the deck, grabbing a crewman by the ankle. More tentacles follow and the party leaps into action.

The foe – a giant octopus – is merely searching for dinner. It grabs several crewmen and begins battering them against the deck, unwilling to drag anything still moving into its maw. It lashes out at the barbarian, who promptly severs a tentacle. The ranger also charges into the fray but with his usual luck with dice we need not concern our narrative with him for the rest of the battle. The druid tries magic but the animal is too hungry to be calmed.

One of the sailors has gone limp and is dragged overboard. The barbarian frees another by hewing through a tentacle; the octopus grabs three more. The druid sensibly ties a rope around his waist, anchored on the mast, before going to fight a grabby beast. The bard trusts to his nimble feet and lays too with his halberd. Another sailor is knocked unconscious and disappears over the edge.

The barbarian pushes past the tentacles and leans over the edge of the ship to attack the huge, rubbery body of the beast, stabbing fiercely. The druid summons flame to his hand – prompting a Will save on the part of the crew to not douse him with a bucket – and starts trying to free sailors from the sucker grasp of death. He and the bard succeed in severing two more tentacles and the creature withdraws. The party has now traded two sailors for a large pile of fresh calamari. This is not a good bargain but they make the best of it as the bard slices off rings and spices them while the druid roasts them over his open hand.

On shore they break out the grog as a morale booster for the men, passing a bottle of rum around their campfire. The bard is suddenly disturbed to realize that the fellow who takes the bottle from him has horns, goat feet, and far too much fur. A band of satyrs have stealthily joined the party, drawn by the smell of alcohol. They are boisterous and quite friendly, at least until the ranger cuts off the flow of booze.

As they grumpily prepare to take their leave, one of them notices the barbarian’s masterwork greatsword and asks him how he got it. The barbarian says he won in a duel, to which the satyrs respond with evident astonishment.

“You mean, one on one? You beat the guardian mano a mano?” When the barbarian nods agreement, apparently having mistaken “guardian” for “Ser Branford” (to be fair, he had been drinking too), the satyrs explode with glee.

“The gang will want to hear this. You have to come with us!”

They plead with the party until the suspicious ranger finally relents, and the four heroes follow a group of drunken goat-men into the darkness, never to be seen again.

Next week we’ll start a new – oh, wait, that’s not what happened.

After a short journey they come to a glade inhabited by a tribe of grigs (two foot tall fey with an Irish accent). The grigs are none too happy with the surprise guests; after all, the satyrs drink enough on their own. But when they see the sword and hear the tale of how it was won in single combat, they are just as excited as the satyrs.

“This could be our chance to finally smash the factory!” one them exclaims. “And thus the end of Grubazor and his evil plans!” cries another.

The barbarian notices that the grigs are themselves all sporting masterwork greatswords, though on a scale of only a few inches long. The party interrogates the grigs as best they can, though fey are notoriously inexact when talking about mundane details. They uncover that there is a magical factory that produces greatswords, and that some ogerish “big folk” creature named Grubazor wants to seize it to his own ends. They are opposed to this; it is the tribe’s sacred duty to either destroy the factory or at least see that its weapons of destruction are not loosed upon the world.

When the ranger notes the quality of their many tiny swords implies these too are products of the factory, they change the subject. Their leader strikes up a merry jig on a tiny fiddle, causing the satyrs to immediately form a mosh pit. Tiny bottles of wine are emptied and a good time is had by all, until the ranger, once again the voice of sober adulthood, compels the party to return to their boat and reassure their sailors. They promise to return in the morning, hoping to resolve the mystery of what the heck the grigs were talking about.

However, the morning finds more complications. They set out with a squad of marines but a handsome, exceedingly tall blue-haired man intercepts them before they reach the grig glade. He looks over the party and likes what he sees enough to offer them a job. There’s a band of grigs, apparently, that are standing in the way of Industrial Progress and his plans to raise an army of greatsword wielding warriors. The party, deeply suspicious of Grubazor because his appearance does not quite match what the grigs had lead them to expect, decide that he must be under a disguise spell. One by one they manufacture an excuse to shake his hand, clap him on the back, or perform a mighty fist-bump. The end of their investigation is a few bruises – Grubazor responds to a hearty slap on the back with a clubbing blow that would kill a sheep, though apparently without any malice on his part – and no new information.

Grubazor asks them their price. The barbarian shouts out a large sum – 5,000 gold! Grubazor considers it and then agrees, causing the barbarian to realize he’d started too low. They follow Grubazor through the forest to a small open patch where a series of animated machines are busily cold-forging a sword. There was once a building here, and indeed an entire city, but all of that has faded away from the ravages of time, leaving only this self-contained automated assembly line.

The factory is not unoccupied, however. The mysterious guardian finally makes its appearance. And it appears as nine-foot tall bronze and marble statue of a blocky man-shape in full armor. However, it is not the factory that is the target of its protection, but rather the Frankenstienian monster wandering around the machines as the work. A flesh golem, grotesque beyond measure, seems to treat the factory like its home.

While the party watches the machines complete their task, falling quiet as a gleaming sword falls out of the assembly line at the end. The flesh golem picks up the sword, ambles back to the start of the line, and drops it into a hopper. Immediately the sword is mangled into a mere slab of iron, the machines rumble into life, and the entire process starts over.

“What a waste,” Grubazor says, shaking his head.

The party inquires what would happen if one were to dart out and grab the completed sword before the flesh golem recycled it.

“You’d get your arms ripped off,” he replies. “At least, that’s what happened when I got this sword,” indicating the blade he wears across his back.

The party looks at him with surprise. “Well,” he clarifies, “not my arms.”

The party proceeds to devising some manner of destroying the rather fearsome guardians of the place. While they are debating the depth of the pit that would be required to subdue the creatures, and also the small matter of who would dig said pit (with many side-eyed looks at the squad of marines), a troll comes bounding out of the woods at them, slavering manically.

The party bursts into flight, cleverly moving so as to draw the creature through the factory and thus trigger the guardians on its head. The troll does not take their bait; instead, it leaps on Grubazor and bites his face.

Grubazor responds by punching the troll repeatedly and shouting, “Down, Kato!” Eventually it kneels at his feet, whining. The party returns, somewhat concerned by the fact that Grubazor appears to be none the worse for wear despite having worn troll fangs all over his face just a moment ago. They are also none to happy to discover that their erstwhile employer has a pet troll. In their book that’s pretty much proof of playing for Team Evil.

Nonetheless they hatch a decent plan. If Grubazor and the troll can keep the guardian occupied, they will endeavour to destroy the flesh golem, on the theory that once it is dead the guardian will cease to function. This fits with what they know of arcane science, though at this point they are really missing their wizard or even their cleric (both of whom have missed the last few sessions). They bemoan their lack of magical attacks until bardic knowledge assures them that the golem and guardian are immune to magic anyway.

But all is not ready. A harpy swoops down to land in a tree and opens a bag of pine nuts. She’s waiting for the fun to start so she can enjoy the show. There are more arrivals when the grig tribe and their satyr allies appear on the other side of the clearing.

The ranger goes over to talk to them. They are openly dismayed that the party seems to be working for Grubazor, but the ranger assures them the party intends to double-cross Grubazor the instant the flesh golem is destroyed. (This guy seems pretty flexible about his hiring arrangements, you know?). The grigs agree to send in a squad of flying dagger-men to help.

Now that the plan is fully in place, they spell up, take their positions, and charge to the attack. The troll goes in first, jumping on the guardian in an impressive flurry of claws and fangs. The barbarian dashes to the flesh golem and slices into it with a mighty blow (he has so many bonuses on him right now that it takes the party a minute to add them all up). The marines assist him in combat, the bard summons images and moves to attack, and the ranger does his usual terrible dice rolling. A squad of grigs flitters about the flesh golem’s head, doing surprisingly little damage despite their tiny sharp swords. Then Grubazor swings his mighty great-sword against the guardian… but it blocks his strike with a stony fist.

Now the creatures react to the onslaught with their own. The guardian jackhammers the troll in the face, both arms pumping like pistons, while the flesh golem swings its meaty arms wildly, knocking the stuffing out of the barbarian.

The druid decides its time to break out the big guns. Convinced that the flesh golem is massive enough to occupy the attention of an entire swarm, he calls spiders out of the ground. For once this is not a fight-ending move; the golem is immune to the various nauseas and poisons of the swarm and its damage, even when boosted by his feats, remains in the single-dice range. Mostly it serves to drive the grigs off for fear of being eaten alive, and they cast no shortage of nasty looks in the druid’s direction.

The barbarian continues to trade blows with the golem. He deals out a ton of damage but the thing seems nigh-indestructible. Worse, its return strikes are crushing, and though the guardian doesn’t hit as hard, it never seems to miss. The bard breaks off his attacks to act as emergency healer for the barbarian when the druid runs out of spells; this turns out to be the difference between life and death as the golem’s next strike reduces the barbarian to negatives.

After only three rounds the troll is reduced to a pile of green paste. Grubazor now faces the guardian without allies, and while his sword is deadly, the monster is visibly repairing itself even as it fights. He is taking mighty blows to the face faster than he is dealing them out. The barbarian gets back on his feet and strikes at the flesh golem; the swarm retreats into the ground allowing the grigs to fly back in and the satyrs to charge the flesh golem like bowling balls only to bounce off with minor effect; then the golem strikes back, driving the barbarian into the ground again and catching the ranger with a haymaker. The druid, driven to desperation, summons flame and moves into combat range, his life flashing before his eyes.

The situation is so dire the party, normally tight-fisted as a Scotsman on a French vacation, resorts to expensive healing potions. This gets the barbarian back on his feet just in time to deliver the killing blow – the golem falls!

Immediately the guardian grinds to a halt. But before anyone can so much as let out a cheer, Grubazor makes his move – catching most of the party, half of the grig tribe, and all of the satyrs in a freezing cone of ice. This spares the party the shame of backstabbing a battlefield ally, because he backstabbed them first, but the bard and barbarian are now unconscious, leaving the ranger with a handful of hit-points and the druid with a handful of fire to face their new foe, an eight-foot tall horned blue ogre magi. At some point in the fight he resumed his true form, though everyone was too busy to notice.

However, Grubazor has been incautious. His spell has caught the guardian in its effect. And while the spell does no damage to the creature, it still interprets it as an attack. It resumes jackhammering his face and the ogre falls to the ground.

Immediately the squad of marines pounces on his corpse, stabbing like mad. The ranger takes a shot with his bow, totally unconvinced that just because the ogre is on the ground means the fight is over. And his suspicion is for once entirely appropriate; the next round, Grubazor rises to his feet again. The troll is also reforming; apparently everything here except our heroes and their allies regenerates. And worse, the guardian has gone still, reset to pacificism after having defeated its attacker.
But the ranger delivers in the end, putting an arrow through Grubazor’s throat. The druid leaps into action, tossing flame at the two fallen bodies until all signs of unnatural life are extinguished.

“Well done,” says a sweet voice, “though I am sorry the show is over. Still, I’ll take the spoils.” The harpy, all but forgotten, has merely been waiting for the right moment.

The ranger covers his ears, remembering too well how dangerous these creatures are, but for once our party is saved by their alliances. The grig chieftain breaks out his fiddle, sending most of the satyrs into a mad dance (which is unfortunate, as they were at exactly zero hit-points and hence this sudden exertion causes them to collapse from injury). The harpy counters with her song for a stalemate. Then the sole remaining satyr plays his pipes, causing fear to all who do not dance on goat hooves. This drives off everyone but the ranger. When the druid finally comes creeping out of the woods, the spell exhausted, he finds the ranger on guard with his bow while the grigs take turns stabbing the burnt corpses and striking heroic poses.

The druid gathers the tael from their fallen foes, his eyes agog from their sudden wealth. These were powerful creatures and the reward is correspondingly great. Uncharacteristically, the druid is slow to loot the corpses for mundane treasure, and only notices that the grigs have helped themselves to a crystal earring after it’s too late, one of them adding it to his vest as a button. The earring, of course, is worth a pittance… but its faint purple glow hints at more. The party hastily assembles all the gemstones it has, which consist of a single crystal each from the early days in the dungeon under the lake when they used them to store tael. They engage the grigs in a dice game, gambling for the many varied shiny buttons, and out of sheer luck walk way with a pearl, a jacinth, and Grubazor’s crystal. Which contains the tael he was saving to promote another ogre to the magihood – another fortune! (On Prime, the treasure tables that gave monsters random amounts of gold coins and jewellery are replaced by tael, because monsters need to collect tael to reproduce, while they literally have no use for gold.)

Once everyone is restored to health, the barbarian has the bright idea of tossing his masterwork greatsword into the machine along with a handful of silver. His intuition is rewarded when a silvered sword, proof against werewolves and other such creatures, comes out of the machine the next day. The ranger follows his lead though he’s not normally one for using a greatsword. The party hangs around for another two weeks, accumulating a dozen extra swords as trade goods. The remaining grigs look a little askance at this use of the factory but for now say nothing, preferring to dance and party with their new friends and the recently healed satyrs.

Tune in next month when the party reaches the fabled Gold Coast – assuming of course the DM has finished writing it up and doesn’t need to throw another side-adventure at them to stall for time.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Politico goes all-in with fascism

Just look at this:
"Democrats heap most of the blame for these failures on Trump and congressional Republicans. But they also failed to secure in the latest rescue bill many of their major priorities..."
This is Politico at its fascist best. This is the ultimate bothsiderism. They faithfully note that Democrats are blaming Republicans for the political gridlock, and yet somehow still make it Democrats fault. They assert that Democrats have failed too, while simply erasing the fact that Democrats failed because of Republicans.
Any logical reader would wonder why the Democrats failed to achieve their priorities. Any trained journalist would know to explain that the Democrat's failure was proof of the validity of their complaint. Any competent English speaker would not start that second sentence with "But."
This is not a simple editing mistake or clumsy bow to fairness; it is outright deceit. It is a lie.

Ian Kullgren, Jason Millman and David Lim, your names will go down in history. You have put your names against a lie designed to serve fascism.
“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism 

Monday, April 13, 2020

World of Prime: Campaign Journal #22

The Journey Home

Traveling west, the party gets tired of answering questions about their horde of peasants. They stock up on supplies and cut through the woods as a shortcut. However, they decide to cut through their old hometown of Irlyd to say hello to their families. Just after they enter the county, they see a fleeing peasant family. "Help us!" the peasants cry. "Bandits are attacking our village!"

The party decides to help after only a brief discussion of their legal and moral obligations. They leave the cleric and their new soldiers to guard their peasants and rush north into danger. They soon encounter a woman fleeing from a squad of cruelly laughing knights. These men have plain shields and are not wearing identifying tabards, thus effectively marking them as criminals.

The barbarian leaps on a rock and challenges the intruders while the ranger casts entangle, preventing a simple charge. The enemy begins circling around the affected area. As they charge in the druid spooks a horse and the knight fails his ride check; an embarrassment that costs the knight both his pride and his life as the druid's wolf leaps onto the man.

The barbarian finds himself surrounded by horsemen while one of their number hangs off and readies a lance. He bursts into a rage and cleaves his way through three opponents, then takes refuge behind their horses, forcing the lancer to ride around looking for an opening. However, the warhorses are trained to defend their masters, and they begin kicking the stuffing out of the barbarian.

Meanwhile the druid uses Entangle to trap the half of the knights coming from the other side of the original entangle. Several forces their way out, compelling the druid to use a third Entangle. Free space is becoming hard to find, as the bard finds himself in a sword fight with the enemy captain. He delivers the most powerful blow of his career, but it only makes his ranked foe angry. The bard decides to armor up with multiple images. Those images save the bard's life as the captain expertly flays into him. Meanwhile, several knights have won free of the Entangle, and the druid, seeing armed men in every direction, turns into a tree

Nonetheless, the fight is not going well for the knights; despite the damage they have inflicted, half of them are down while the party is still all on their feet. When the tree-shaped druid summons a swarm of poisonous spiders, the enemy captain calls for a retreat. He leaps into the empty saddle of the nearest horse and disappears into the forest with what is left of his men.

This leaves the swarm without any other targets, so it turns on the party! The barbarian, faced with a choice between pushing past the horses defending their fallen masters and running through the swarm, chooses the spiders; with a maximum damage roll they bring the barbarian down. Fortunately the ranger shrugs off the nauseating poison and grabs his compatriot, dragging him to safety as the swarm turns on two horses trapped in the Entangle. The remaining horses then flee, the swarm too horrifying for even their staunch loyalty.

After a few minutes the Entangle spells expire, allowing the party to rescue the peasant woman. She begs them to continue east to rescue her village from the raiders; meanwhile the druid's hawk alerts him to more riders coming from the south. The party discusses it but ultimately chooses to do the heroic thing. They run off to the village, despite the damage they have already suffered.

The village is a terrifying sight, with scores of bodies scattered around. However, the raiders are gone. As the party puts out fires and tends to those few wounded who managed to hide, more horsemen charge into the village, and their red-headed leader shouts, "Kill the invaders!" As lances are leveled for a charge, the peasant woman they rescued calls out, "They are our saviors, Lord Irlyd!"

Baron Irlyd is not at all happy to find his long-lost peasants standing in the middle of a destroyed village. He blames them for the damage, citing their rumored forays into the east. The bard smooths things over by offering to pay their peasant's ransom, though he deducts one for the woman they saved from the raiders. Irlyd is unsatisfied, but duty calls: with a snarl he leads his knights east, in pursuit of the retreating raiders.

The party heads off to Irlyd town, meeting up with their cleric and refugees at the gates. The guards don't want to let in a band of heavily armed ruffians; after the party agrees to surrender their weapons and armor, they are granted admittance to the town. They rent an inn and a barn for their traveling horde and treat everyone to a good meal. A few locals drop by, the bard sings, and in general a nice little party is going on. Until an attractive woman joins the fun.

The reason this woman is such a downer is that she's a dead weight. Literally, as in, she's dead. Worse, she's someone they hoped never to see again, alive or dead. This marks the return of Lady Night, the low-rank vampire that singlehandedly put them in more fear for their lives than any foe save for Count Wraythas and his ambush of knights and crossbowmen.

The bard orders garlic soup, with extra garlic, only to be told that Baron Irlyd banned garlic a few weeks ago as it was suspected to be the cause of a number of sudden and otherwise inexplicable deaths in the town. Now they know Lady Night is in cahoots with the Baron.

Unsure of what to do with this information, and unable to solve the problem then and there because they are unarmed, they endure her taunts until she takes her leave. In the morning they set out early, after counting all their peasants to make sure the Lady didn't help herself to a snack.

The last stop in Iryld is their hometown, the small village they were born and raised in. Surprisingly, almost all of them receive a cold welcome from their families. In their parent's view, they are runaways who left their families in the lurch while they went off to have adventures. Only the barbarian's father is happy to see that his boy has made good in the world. The party tries to make amends by distributing pouches of gold, which go a long way in a peasant's world. With a few sweet words from the bard, they put things right. Then it's back on the road.

When they finally struggle into their ruined keep, they face one more hurdle: the remainder of the Argossey's crew. One might excuse a certain amount of suspicion, as the party marched out with the masters of the Argossey and half its crew, only to return with a handful. But all is forgiven the instant it is discovered that the party has promoted one of the crew to the knighthood. This, after all, is the thresher in action: many must die so that a few might advance.

Their travels are not over, though. After a few days rest they pack up again, leading the Argossey crew north into Edersarr to hire a ride to their boat. The keep will have to rely on their cleric and the handful of Vignetta's bandits they recruited for defense. In Edersarr they are accosted by the Baron of the Order of the Edge, another knightly order that is also keen on restarting the war. The Baron assumes the armored barbarian is obviously the group's leader, and presses hard on him to lead a raid into Varsoulou. The barbarian, having just seen the devastation raiders leave behind, is horrified. Murdering peasants is not his idea of heroic deeds. This attitude mystifies the Baron, but as long as King Ragnar is not actively pressing for war, there is little pressure he can apply at the moment.

House Marconi turns out to be the only boat in town. They are happy to give the party and their crew a ride, for only the outrageous price of 5,000 gp. The bard disputes the level of danger involved, asserting that the party killed off the harpies known to haunt the coast. (The DM reminds the bard that he's thinking of a different harpy the party slew, and that these harpies are still alive and well, but the bard decides to stick with his story). They talk the price down to 1,000 gp. Again they put their armor and weapons into a locked chest - they do not yet have enough reputation that House Marconi will trust them quite that far. Fortunately the harpies give the boat a miss this time and the party arrives at the shore safe and sound, with House Marconi none the wiser about how they have been cheated.

The two boats make their separate ways back home; the harpies do fly by the party's longship but after one glance at the sails turn away without even trying. After all, from the harpy's memory, this boat belongs to a pair of bards.

They return home, exhausted from constant traveling. They have quite a few peasants milling around the ruined keep and the villagers from Luthorn are eager to join them and leave their cursed lake behind. The party contracts their architect to build them a village, with houses and a well. This will serve as the lure to attract more peasants. However, it costs money - 2,000 gp to be exact - and the party is finally out of cash.

They decide to put their longship to work and sail south to the Yellow Coast, where wars and rumors of wars seem to mention goblins a lot. Perhaps there will be honest work there for a mercenary band; at least, more honest than murdering helpless peasants.

This was our first remote game, with Google Hangouts for video chat and Roll20 for a map. It went really well, though I felt like the only combat took longer than usual. It should speed up as people get used to it. Roll20 has a lot of options and the amount of possible customization is daunting, but when stripped back to its bare essentials of putting some figures on a grid and rolling some dice, it works great.

Also, the party has decided to set out to a part of the world I haven't detailed exhaustively yet, which probably means at some point you can expect a new product on DriveThruRPG: Scorpus - the Yellow Coast.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Why Politico is the worst: Reason #394

"The thing is, Democratic leaders genuinely seem to believe all the critical things they said about Republican obstructionism under Obama. They don’t seem interested in taking political hostages or extracting a policy ransom. But Republicans understand the power of no, and the weakness of a party that isn’t really willing to say no. As long as Democrats are terrified of looking like obstructionists, Trump won’t have to worry about obstruction."
Politico being its usual self

Here is Politico, a long-standing and widely read political magazine, being utterly bemused by the idea that Democrats actually believe in public service, good governance, and the well-being of the country.

As long as Democrats are terrified of letting the country burn, Trump won't have to worry about playing with matches. And the article presents this not as laudatory for the Democrats, not even as diminishing to the Republicans, but with utter bewilderment that any party would confuse the game they play with real life.

I've said it before, but this deserves saying it again: when the obituary of democracy is written, Politico will feature prominently.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

World of Prime: Campaign Journal #21

The Battle of Four Bards

The party agrees to share the rewards evenly with the bandits from the Argossey, the twin bardic brothers Archilochus & Aristeas and their twenty men, who agree to a raid on the Black Knight's old manor now occupied by Vignetta the fire-witch and Pascale the bard because they are convinced that battle will be easy. An inordinate amount of tactics discussion follows, resulting in a straight-forward advance on the building at night. The disposition of the four squads of common soldiers is the largest part of the discussion. Ultimately two of them are assigned to protect their bardic employers, one will protect the druid, and the last will carry a siege ladder.

The invading army crosses through the cattle gate at the edge of the manor's domain, marked off by a thick and wild hedge of thorns. In the distance the manor house stands alone, a bullseye lantern hanging off the roof like a single eye peering into the darkness (this imagery is helped by the fact that the DM built the front of the manor out of Lego). They begin the long trudge across the fields, armoured men clinking and clanking. Just before they enter the edges of the lantern's illumination, the house wakes up: nine more lanterns flare into life and the strains of a battle hymn can be heard from across the field. Ironically, this is the only bardic music in the entire battle, despite the unnatural quantity of singing men involved.

Things soon go from bad to worse. Two of the squads of soldiers fall into pit traps, trapping Aristeas and the druid. The squad with the ladder gets hit by a flaming sphere and a storm of arrows. The cleric uses a minor spell to counter the flaming sphere by dousing it in water (a clever tactic the DM will remember and make use of in the future!). The last squad diverts to help their comrades out of the pit. So the main advance has collapsed at literally the first contact with the enemy.

Vignetta launches her best tactic, using Pyrotechnics to blind everyone on the battlefield. Her men are trained to close their eyes at the sound of the preceding warning bell. Unfortunately only the ranger is affected and he crumples to the ground, rubbing his eyes.

The barbarian (rendered invisible by bardic magic) attacks the door with his axe and seems disappointed when it does not collapse, instead emitting a fan of flame hot enough to slay ordinary men on touch. To add insult to injury a barrel of oil is tipped out of the second floor onto his head, soaking the flagstones in slippery doom. The barbarian is sturdier than all that (he's actually sturdier than the door itself) and steps to the side to ready his crossbow, planning on shooting through the peephole. He narrowly avoids the bear trap in the bushes (in general he proves immune to all the traps, saving against everything except the Flaming Hands spell).

The bard has pulled the druid from the pit and now the druid runs forward to play his part. He chants in a mystical tongue, calling the door to remember its wild nature, and door twists and warps and falls from its hinges, revealing Vignetta and Pascale. They make a fateful decision to stand their ground instead of retreating immediately, based solely on the fact that the barbarian is invisible and thus concealing the closeness of danger. She calls out a command; arrows rain down; and the druid collapses like a pincushion so thoroughly pricked that she turns her attention to the soldier squads, blasting another one of her flaming spheres.

The cleric douses this sphere one while the bard heals the druid from the brink of death. The barbarian readies his great axe again and charges through the open door, easily navigating the oily terrain. He slashes at Vignetta, sending chainmail links and blood flying. Pascale bravely tries to save his mistress, casting a spell that would render the barbarian utterly helpless with hideous laughter. Despite the heavy odds the barbarian shrugs off the effect and smashes Pascale with his axe, almost killing the man in one hit. Vignetta sees the lay of the land, and with a hastily muttered apology, slips through the door behind her, closing and locking it in her wake. Then she casts again through the narrow peephole, flooding the entrance chamber in flames.

This is too much for Pascale, who succumbs in wailing agony. The first enemy casualty is an act of friendly fire. Speaking of fire, the barbarian is now on fire thanks to his oil bath, in addition to the effects of the spell. He drops to the ground, trying to snuff out the flames.

Outside the druid sits up and starts to cast another spell, then looks up at the manor house full of archers and decides not to draw more attention to himself. The archers turn their aim to the squad with the ladder, driving the last of that squad to the ground with more arrows. The ranger has returned to the battle; he takes a shot at a figure in the dark but hits only its shadow. Still this challenge draws an answer and the ranger sprouts several arrows from his chest. Severely depleted, the ranger calls for a medic. The cleric summons a fog to hide himself, and his companions quickly sprint to its safety, leaving Archilochus and his squad as the only viable targets. They are still rescuing Aristeas and some of their fellows from the pit.

The barbarian picks himself up and smashes through the next door with pure force, eschewing the surer but slower process of chopping it down with an axe since he's decide to switch to his new favourite murder implement, the greatsword he won off of Ser Brandford. This door is a more ordinary affair than the heavily fortified front entrance but it's still a feat of impressive strength. He plunges through the darkened house to the main stairwell (recall that all of the party spent several days in the house only a few months ago, so they know the layout). Dashing up the twisting stairs he finds Vignetta and two archers at the top. She kicks a barrel of oil over, drenching the stairs in oil which once again fails to take the barbarian off his feet, and steps back. Her men shoot - one hits, and again, these arrows hurt - then drop their bows and ready sword and shield for a desperate defence. The barbarian charges them but in the narrow confines of the stairwell his greatsword proves unwieldy, causing him to miss both targets completely.

Vignetta responds once again with flame. Now the barbarian is really in the soup; the oil-soaked wooden staircase turns into an inferno. He forces his way onto the second floor, the ordinary soldiers no match for his brute strength and their feeble shortswords ineffective against his heavy armour. Vignetta summons light and shadow to blind and stun him, but only succeeds in disabling her own men.

Meanwhile, the rest of the party has hatched a new plan. The recently healed ranger and the bard run out to pick up the ladder while the archers are focused on the squad of soldiers marching towards the door in good formation. However, the squad cannot yet enter the house, as the front entrance is covered in burning oil. The archers bring both Aristeas and Archilochus to the ground in one round with lucky volley of shots (thus neatly disabling the DM’s plot trigger for when one of the brothers died) and then switch to the new threat of the ladder, where the bard is ascending and the ranger is covering him with his bow. Just before they can shoot the sitting duck on the ladder, the cleric moves forward and summons another fog, concealing the ranger and bard.

The bard makes it to the top unscathed and rises out of the mist. Armed only with his old spear - his fancy halberd requires two hands, one of which is currently clinging to the ladder - he engages an archer in melee and wins! Arrows sing past his head and he rolls onto the roof, followed by the ranger. Two archers rush to hold them while the rest spread out, trying to fire around their fellows. The ranger and bard quickly dispatch this weak opposition, but this leaves them fully exposed to the archers without any cover. At that moment the center of the roof caves in, sending a column of flame into the sky. The stairwell is now a vortex of pure flame and the house is well and truly on fire.

Downstairs the entrance has abated; the druid and cleric enter the house with the remains of the last squad. They see that the interior of the house is in flames and immediately begin searching for the peasants they came to claim. Discovering a locked trap door in the kitchen, the cleric calls out that the house is on fire and the sorceress cannot contain it. This is the magic phrase - the trap door bursts open and the women begin handing their children up, following in a mad panic.

On the roof, the bard reverses course and surrenders the ground he fought so hard to claim, recognizing that the entire house has become a death trap. Summing up magic, he casts a spell as he pushes the ranger back over the wall and leaps after him. They gently float to the ground, escaping the flaming building and protected from the hail of arrows by the mist. Soon they are followed by a rain of helmets and swords, as the archers on the roof signal their surrender and scamper down the ladder.

In the middle of the house the barbarian is in the thick of it. As he pushes his way past a blinded man, Vignetta wails in outrage. "Why won't you die!" she screams, and closes to melee, the last place in the world any spell caster wants to be. She avoids the barbarian's sword and reaches out to touch him; lighting flows through her fingers and the barbarian lights up like a Christmas tree. Her Shocking Grasp does a ton of damage, none of which he can avoid, and suddenly the barbarian finds himself in very real danger, his once-inexhaustible pool of supernatural vitality now merely a memory. More archers are pouring into the hall to defend their mistress and she is clearly readying another spell.

Just then the wall to his right caves into the bonfire that was the stairwell. Heat washes out, licking at the fighters, and air rushes in, trying to suck all of them into the inferno. The barbarian blunders back past the man he had just pushed past, finds an open door, and charges for a window. His strength does not fail him; he bursts through the narrow window frame, taking half of it out with him, and plunges into the rose bushes below. The fall proves to be the final blow; he hits the ground and does not get up.

Vignetta and her archers follow close behind. They are more interested in escape than the inert form of the barbarian. Vignetta, with her supernatural vitality, hits the ground running, leaving her men to fend for themselves. Just as it looks as if she will escape, the druid and cleric come around to the rear of the building, attracted by the sounds of splintering wood. While the cleric heals the barbarian, the druid reaches into his bag of tricks and pulls out an Entangle spell. Vignetta pushes through the grasping weeds but her flight is slowed. The barbarian, back on his feet, runs around to cut off her retreat. The druid pulls out his other worst trick, a swarm of bloodthirsty bats.

Vignetta, seeing the end is near, has one final play. "See you in hell," she snarls to the barbarian, and raises her hand, crackling with power, to her own head. In a burst of energy the fire-witch's bandit career ends as fiercely as the manor's own fiery demise. The three men retreat from the angry swarm, abandoning the wounded archers to a dilemma of deaths: the bonfire behind them or the angry grass and hungry bats. No one is around to record their choice.

In the morning the sun rises over the smoking ashes as the fire finally burns itself out. Only five of Vignetta's men remain, having surrendered to the bard and ranger after the roof battle. Only four of the crew of the Argossey are left alive. This leaves all of the treasure in the hands of the party, a development they are not unhappy with. However, the crew points out two salient facts: 1) there are not enough of them to sail the ship, and 2) by tradition they are entitled to a quarter share of booty. Given how many of them died fighting the party's battle, they have a strong point. Nonetheless they are met with some opposition and the party considers cutting them loose with nothing but the now-useless ship for their share. One of the party suggests sending them to the nearest port to raise a crew for the boat, but this means sending them alone, since the nearest port is in Varsoulou. Pooling all of the booty the men would be entitled to yields enough to promote one of them to the knighthood, which is of course every mercenary's rasion de etre. Once this is on the table, the soldiers eagerly volunteer for the mission. It looks like the party is about to hand over a sack of gold and a promotion to four men who will then march off to enemy territory, with nothing more than the promise of a career as a castle guard to return to, until everyone belatedly remembers that half of the Argossey's crew is still back at the ruined keep.

The party decides to promote one of the men anyway, since they want to keep up morale. The archers from Vignetta's band are suitably moved by this generosity and pledge to our heroes' service without qualms. The group returns to the boat, collects what food and supplies they can carry, and begin the now-familiar trek home, planning to return later with enough men to rescue the ship. The women and children of the manor are not at all pleased with this development, but since they literally have nowhere else to go, they make the best of it. And they can’t even blame the party for their homelessness; this time, much to everyone’s surprise, the arson of a fine manor house was not the druid’s fault.

Along the way they encounter a basilisk they have avoided several times before. The creature gets the drop on them and creeps into their camp in the middle of the night. The bard tries to scare it off but fails; the ranger shoots at it but misses; and just before they have to suffer the ravages of its deadly gaze the barbarian intimidates it into running off. This buys them a round to prepare and when it comes back they open fire with spells and arrows. Even so it is going badly until the bard finally finds the right pitch and drives the creature off with a piercing whistle, dragging one of the druid's bat swarms in its wake.

Hours later the swarm returns and druid lets the spell lapse. Now they have conundrum: leave well enough alone, or go trekking through the bushes looking for a dead or possibly just severely wounded basilisk? The bard suggests caution but greed for treasure (and the desire to get rid of the monster while they have the upper hand) sends the party out into the bushes. This time they are luckier and the creature does not catch them by surprise. Its sluggish response gives them time to get an initial attack off and the creature succumbs to the force of the cleric's spiritual weapon (which is the most useful that spell has ever been).

A few days later they break out of the forest into the open plains of Edersarr, dominated by the Order of the Tower's stone spire. The Viscount Godard greets them warmly enough, sending stableboys to escort their peasants into the village for a meal and a rest and inviting them in for a drink. Here his true purpose comes out: he is feeling stung by playing dead to fool the Varsouloueans and desires revenge. And the party pretty obviously knows a safe path through the wilderness, given that they've just walked a bunch of peasants out of the woods. He forcefully invites them to lead his troops on a raid.

The party is not interested in returning to Varsoulou to slaughter a village for tael, judging that fighting bandits is morally distinguishable from wanton murder. Nor do they care about the Viscount's injured honor. They manage to escape the tower without provoking a duel, but it is clear the Order means more trouble for the party in the future. They march deeper into Edersarr with their army of refugees as the winds of war whistle across the plains at their heels, threatening fire and flame for more than just a manor house of bandits.

All in all I was please at how this battle turned out - several people almost died and everyone was forced to go beyond their comfort zone and find new tactics or take new risks. The vast disparity in levels really can be smoothed out with enough planning and preparation - at some point I'll put the Manor House up on DriveThruRPG as a minor adventure in the style of Tucker's Kobolds. This adventure also gave me a chance to show how the world changes in reaction to what they do. Finally, giving them a keep and peasants to go with it anchors them - if your party seems disaffected or unconcerned with the fate of world around them, just give them a source of profits to protect!