Sunday, October 25, 2020

World of Prime: Campaign Journal #28

Weekend at Phorcys

(This recap will be a spoiler for the adventure Weekend at Phorcys, available on DriveThruRPG for free).

After diligent investigation, involving drinking in many different taverns, the bard has uncovered two different paths to striking back at the goblins.

The Path of Night

The rogue Esyllt knows a secret entrance into a goblin keep; not the one they’ve just returned from, but its neighbor. If they can get to the city walls, she will lead them past all the common soldiers and into the keep itself, where they can face principals directly with only their personal guards. Though it won’t be as profitable as sacking the whole town but it will yield tael and magic items. Esyllt will provide guidance and invisibility potions in exchange for 1/3 of the treasure.

The Path of War

The bard Alys has heard rumors of an ancient and evil underwater temple not too far to the east. They may possess a sacred spice that, when burned while praying, causes a cleric's spells to operate at the fullest possible effect. If the Vicar Neve had this item, she believes she could actually turn the dragon and force it to flee (as a priestess of Earth, she can turn or destroy creatures of Air). With this protection, the queen would surely authorize a military mission to destroy the already weakened goblin district. The local heroes have not investigated this temple, as they are all archers and fighting underwater is not ideal for them. Alys will provide water-breathing options at normal price, but otherwise the party is on its own.

 

The party chooses war, apparently because they are just that keen on burning down an entire goblin city.

So it’s back up river to their boat, where they roust their sailors from seedy taverns and inns and set sail back to the east. There is some trepidation when they realize it’s the same area they saw the siren sunning on a rock, but they find the beach described by Alys (who got her information from a ship-wrecked fisherman). They did not like the price tag on her potions, instead choosing to rely on their own spells. The druid casts water-breathing on everyone and turns himself into an octopus, and they trudge under the sea, looking for a glimpse of lights that cannot be seen from the surface.

What they find astounds them: an entire Greek-style temple lit by torches and occupied by handsome young men and women in green togas lies at the bottom of the ocean. Seeing their friendly faces the bard dashes forward and begs for aid, as he can tell his water-breathing spell is about to expire.

A handsome man in a gold and pearl crown parts the crowed and says, “Come,” striding into the temple. The bard follows him into a small room with a font and a stone button. Pressing the button releases a fragrant green gas that suffuses through the water, and suddenly the bard can breathe again. The rest of the party follows (the druid turning human again now that there is air on offer) and the master of the house belatedly makes introductions.

“I am Phorcys, a minor demigod of the sea. You are welcome in my domain as long as your intentions are peaceful.”

He explains that the gas will only last for three hours, and shows them how to activate it when they need a refresher. Then lunch is served, sea plants and sushi. Afterwards everyone retires to the main room to dance.

The cleric declines a dance partner and engages Phorcys in conversation, mentioning that their gratitude for his hospitality and asking if there is anything they can do in return. As it turns out, a hideous monster has laired in a cave that overlooks a certain sea-flower that the temple denizens like. If the party could dispatch the beast, Phorcys would be happy to supply them with some of his special spice.

The lair is a long walk away, so Phorcys summons up some sea-bass outfitted with harnesses. The party tops up on green gas and sets off, riding their underwater mounts and traveling at great speed. They reach the lair in an hour and twenty minutes, leaving them a good twenty minutes of fighting time with still enough air to get back to the temple.

But the entrance of the cave is guarded by two huge sharks. The party attempts to advance through them without trouble but the creatures dive in for a bite. The druid gets stuck in a shark’s mouth and takes a terrible beating until in desperation he turns himself invisible to animals. The creature lets him go, confused, and turns to bite the cleric before eventually succumbing to the combined efforts of the party. The other shark, meanwhile, has been long-speared by the barbarian, who is making good use of his portable armory (fighting underwater imposes penalties on slashing and bludgeoning damage).

At some point in the fight they try to distract the sharks, only succeeding in driving one into their herd of sea-bass mounts which immediately scatter. The party doesn’t take much notice of this detail and head into the cave to find the true monster.

Once there the wizard immediately spots the hidden treasure, proving his high Appraise skill was definitely an in-character choice. Before they can evaluate it, however, the bard is snatched up by the octopus hidden on the ground and dragged deeper into the cave.

A pretty epic battle occurs, with the bard actually winning a grapple check to escape before the octopus can constrict him to death and the mass of tentacles applying a serious beat-down to the barbarian. Eventually, though, the creature has to think of defence, and it emits a cloud of ink.

The barbarian has been so badly mauled that even after being healed he is reluctant to wade into the darkness and finish the creature off. The ranger is shooting blindly into the ink cloud under the delusion he can actually hit something he can’t even see, until the bard convinces the barbarian to charge by charging in first. They find the beast and attack it with gusto, unaware that a stray arrow from the ranger actually found its mark several rounds ago.

The treasure turns out to be a pouch from a long-dead adventurer, with some gold, a few jewels, and a much-appreciated potion of water-breathing. Between that and the rest of the cleric’s third-rank spells they have just enough air to make the long march home, now that their sea-bass mounts have deserted them.

The people of the temple greet them warmly, though without any obvious concern over their longer-than-expected absence. In general the inhabitants of the temple seem oblivious to the hurly-burly of the outside world. And their age is problematic, as they have clearly been here a long time. Long enough to be eager to offer companionship to new-comers when the sun begins to sink. The wizard accepts a companion, though for inexplicable reasons he chooses to sleep in a storage closet instead of a sleeping chamber; the bard, keeping in form, accepts three companions, and everyone retires for the night – or rather, for the two hours our heroes need now that they are all wearing Rings of Sustenance.

Yet their sleep is troubled by a terrible nightmare, in which the temple decays into ruin and their beautiful companions rot into foul creatures of undeath. In horror they snap awake, realizing the dream has become reality!

Both the wizard and the bard win their initiative checks, allowing them to escape the clutches of the ghastly monsters next to them. (This would have gone quite poorly for the bard, outnumbered three-to-one as he was, but as usual dumb luck lets him skate out of the consequences of his ill-advised romantic decisions). They race for the main hall, shouting through the water for their fellows. The barbarian and bard get stuck in hallway, fighting a ghast; the ranger holds the entrance-way against three more. The druid, thinking ahead, runs to the small chamber where the air supply is, only to discover it now emits a foul stench.

Phorcys’ bronze throne begins to glimmer in fascinating colors, but as usual the party simply shrugs off the enemy spell. The cleric begins chanting holy words against the undead creatures, sending five running, followed by two more, and finally dusting another two. Meanwhile the bard and barbarian are still in the hallway, their battle against a lone ghast complicated by a huge shark that keeps making swim-by attacks from overhead. The temple is in fact in ruins, all of the roofs caved in and many of the walls shattered.

Phorcys appears, cursing and taunting the party. The druid, still in bear form, comes back into the hall and immediately falls prey to the hypnotic effect of the throne. This does not last, however, as the ghast that was chasing the wizard comes up behind him and attacks, breaking the spell.

The bard and barbarian defeat their ghast and decide to ignore the shark, which has so far proven unable to hit anything. They enter the main hall, shrugging off the disco lights from the throne, and now the party is all together and thinking they can probably take the remaining ghasts. Just in time for four huge tentacles to burst up through the floor.

These things hit like a ton of bricks. The ranger and wizard in particular are knocked into negatives. Only the cleric seems immune to the tentacles, which never land a sucker on him. His spells put his fallen comrades back into battle, which is good, because the handful of remaining ghasts are prowling around looking for easy prey. The wizard gets off a Magic Missile at Phorcys but then has to summon sharks to hold the ghasts off. The bear-druid tears two tentacles off and lays into Phorcys himself, only to finally realize the man is merely a projected image.

Then a cloud of ink covers the entire room, blinding the ranger, bard, and wizard. As usual the barbarian makes his save vs spell (he really is quite lucky that way) and chops off the last two tentacles.

Now things come to a bit of stand-still. Phorcys is out of tentacles, ghasts, and tricks, but the party is low on hit-points, spells, and air. A negotiation ensues. Phorcys offers to pay a ransom and to tell them where the promised incense is hidden if they agree to leave. The bard counters with a demand for his crown. After a brief bit of resistance, Phorcys agrees to take his crown off and hand it to the bard as part of the deal. Still, the party is unsure of whether to take this bargain or press on, until the druid resumes human form and tells them that the air supply is broken.

Phorcys offers to give them one more hit of the green gas, and that seals the deal. They file into the small chamber. This time the gas is foul and sickening, but it does allow them to breathe water. They search the storage room and find the incense. As they are trudging out the front door, the bard demands the crown. Phorcys rolls his eyes, takes off his crown, and hands it over – whereupon it immediately disappears, because of course it was illusion just like his body.

The party marches for two hours back to the shore, only slightly disconsolate that they received very little profit. Phorcys’ ransom is significant, but they are used to huge sums these days, and the only real treasure is the incense which they are planning on handing over to someone else. At the edge of the water they receive one more nasty surprise – they have forgotten how to breathe air!

The wizard is convinced that the effect will disappear at the same time the effect of the gas wears off. Despite a less-than-authorative spellcraft roll he convinces the rest of the party to simply wait, perhaps because they don’t really have any other options – the temple is two hours away and in any case they can’t expect to find respite there. In the end he is proved right, and they stand up in the cold dark, coughing out salty water and terrifying their poor sailors who temporarily mistook them for sea monsters.

Now they are keen to return to the Queen and make a present of the incense as the opening bid in negotiating a role in the war to come. The gravity of the situation has become clear: the human and goblin kingdoms have experienced a Pax Draconis, a peace compelled by the dragon’s tendency to eat armies. If Vicar Neve can compel it to retreat, then open war may engulf the entire domain, instead of merely low-scale raids and skirmishes. The party views this outcome with satisfaction. A blood-thirsty view, to be sure, but one no doubt shared by the human and goblin kingdoms themselves.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Why you can't argue with a Republican

Arguing across partisan divides is never easy, but you may have noticed that it now seems impossible. Shared facts - the basis of any rational discussion - no longer exist; basic existential claims like "Trump said one thing on Tuesday and a different thing on Wednesday" are as ineffective as complex arguments about moral theory. Literally nothing you can say seems to penetrate; no words seem to make any impact on your opponent's position or fervor.

The reason is because Republicans are now post-language. Words have become merely a sequence of sounds that one uses to establish dominance; they no longer have semantic content. When a gorilla bangs its chest and roars, the only intended meaning is a display of power and a demand for submission. If you were to ask the gorilla what ideas his roar was trying to convey, he would be mystified at your cluelessness.

If this surprises you, it shouldn't. This is the natural and inevitable destination of fascism, as made clear by history and the novel 1984. The raw exercise of power does not depend on ideas; indeed, it can only be challenged by ideas.

There are only two ways to achieve a goal: force and reason. And reason is merely the special application of force by an entity upon itself. To reason with a man is to convince him to use the power at his disposal to constrain himself, rather than to compel another.

Republicans, unable to convince a majority of other people that their goals are desirable, have given up on reason. They now operate solely in the realm  of force. Trump has made this clear many times; perhaps his most obvious tell was at a recent rally when smugly pointed out that he, and no one else, occupied the White House. Power, presented as its own justification.

This is why you cannot argue with a Republican. All you can do is deploy word-sounds that would make you dominant over them, to be countered by their word-sounds that reclaim dominance over you. To do anything else - to consider the concepts you advance - would be to deal in reason, and they have already conceded that is a losing battle.

This is why no Trump supporter cares about Trump's contradictions, or policy failures, or treasonous acts. Whenever you mention those, they are merely plays at dominance, to be refuted by displays of their side's power. Trump's position as head of the government is the only message they can hear.

The good news is, without power, the Republican project collapses. There will be no armed revolution on the part of the Right if their currently ongoing violent coup fails. They are bullies, and like all bullies, cowards once deprived of power. Without power, they have no organizing principle, and no language to communicate with each other.

The bad news is that the desire, no, the psychological need for racial and gender superiority, is so strong in so many of our citizens that it seems altogether unlikely that democracy can survive. A house  divided cannot stand, and 40% of our citizens want the illusion of white male supremacy more than they want reality.

The defeat of Trump in November is necessary to the survival of the republic; but not at all sufficient.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Richard Falconer's thesis confirmed

In my series Sword of the Bright Lady, the rate of expansion of the universe is revealed to be tied to morality: good acts slow it down, and evil acts speed it up.

Which is why the news that the universe is too thin and expanding too rapidly for our current models to explain does not surprise me at all.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

World of Prime: Campaign Journal #27

Against the goblins, part 1

After several days, two offers stand above the rest as serious enterprises.

Count Hooliliolae will underwrite a hunting expedition. He will send a troop of yeomen under the command of his paladin to hunt hobgoblins until their arrows run out. The party will screen the hunters from the goblin city and defeat whatever forces are sent out to dislodge them. In exchange they will get 1/2 of the tael from the hobgoblin hunt, and of course whatever tael and treasure they take off of the goblin defenders.

The Count of Eicoarraecae has a far more ambitious plan. In addition to his troop of ranked marksmen, he has a mercenary troop of heavy cavalry from the west and an alliance with a Free Company of heavy infantry. He believes that their combined strength is enough to take the goblin city itself. He will also dispatch three troops of archers to the rear, to hunt hobgoblins while the main forces assault and sack the city of Iryrr.

The party's task is to open the keep gates, in addition to battling the forces of the city. Their reward will be 1/3 of the booty from the city, plus 1/2 of the winnings from a troop of hobgoblin hunters, and of course the tael and magic from any foes they defeat.

The ranger and bard both vote for the hobgoblin hunt, as it sounds like the safer path. The rest of the party, however, are all-in on glory and adventure, even despite a warning from the bard Alys that the mission is dangerously risky. (The wizard pretends to be against the plan, but that is soon revealed as reverse psychology to trick the DM into increasing the rewards for the quest. Unfortunately for him the gambit fails, as all of the adventures are pre-generated by the Sandbox program.)

So early one morning, six separate groups set out from the southernmost county of Flefliquelp, all traveling independently so as to attract less attention. The party has been given an guide, a young man of no rank (or name) who knows the way; in previous adventures the Count has actually caught sight of the city before being forced to retreat.

They travel south through the wilderness without incident. These are, after all, relatively patrolled lands as they are directly between two kingdoms, and whatever monsters do live there are smart enough to attack retreating armies, not advancing ones. After eight days they cross a major river and are now within the goblin's domain.

The next day they make contact: a large patrol of goblin archers and two bugbear knights. The archers open fire and inflict measurable damage on the barbarian while the knights move to flank from either side. After that the fight is anti-climatic; their foes simply cannot stand long against a 5th level party. In particular the cleric's spiritual war-hammer has become a potent force, smashing through the knight's armor with abandon. We also learn that the bugbear knights aren't as dangerous as their fierce warhorses, whose hooves inflict most of the damage the party suffers.

A few hours later they encounter a swarm of rabid hobgoblins and three squads of rogues. The swarm proves to be less than impressive as the barbarian cuts through it like a blender. The carpet of waist-high creatures floods around the barbarian and ranger, trying to pull them down, but both men shrug off the creature's grasping claws and continue to slaughter the diminutive horrors. The ranger's wolf is not so lucky; it sinks beneath the waves of green flesh, where the hobgoblins pummel it with sticks and stones.

Perhaps concerned about the animal's welfare, the druid summons spiky plants upon the swarm. This quickly reduces the hobgoblins to a sea of corpses while the ranger and druid easily slip out of the area of effect.

The inevitable Entangle discomfits the rogues, who soon find themselves under swarm attack as well. However, they are actually 1st level, so two of them quickly escape the grasping grass. One dashes around from the left, leading the wizard's swarm back into the party's own lines; the other advances on the right and engages the barbarian in melee. He is surprised to discover that the rogue's fancy footwork and light rapiers make them very difficult to hit; on the other hand, as they prize defense over offense, they are not particularly effective at stabbing him either.

The rogue squad still stuck in the Entangle turn their crossbows on the druid, who discovers that the bolt is poisoned. His hands begin to shake uncontrollably, but as dexterity doesn't affect spell-casting, he ignores the effect.

Once the ranger begins shooting at the rogues fighting with the barbarian, it becomes clear that the battle is decided. One squad manages to flee, leaving a swarm that actually attacks the barbarian before the wizard can return it to the ether from whence it came, but that doesn't stop him from cutting down the rogues with a deadly whirlwind attack. The squad still stuck in the grass dies to another swarm.

The party is now showing some signs of damage, but a night's rest and the rest of the cleric's spells restores them to their full glory the next day. Which is just as well, as they face a larger force: five archer squads, three bugbear knights, and an ogre covered in well-crafted plate armor.

Another long battle ensues, the details of which are not worth recounting (mostly because the DM can't remember them - it was the third battle of the night, after all). Suffice to say it is a strong enough force that the party is somewhat concerned about proceeding.

Yet the morning finds them restored, and as they are packing up and preparing to advance, the druid spots an odd sight in the sky. It looks a bit like a golden-scaled alligator with wings flying a few hundred feet up. The creature is headed north, the direction they had just come from. After watching it for a few minutes they come to a horrifying realization. It is not a few hundred feet away, but rather, a few miles; meaning it must be the size of a city bus. It is, in fact, a yellow dragon.

The bard suddenly realizes why the domain is called the Gold Coast, and why every kingdom in the area seems to be some variant of the Yellow faith. This creature clearly has some kind of influence over local politics.

In the night they smell smoke. Surely they could not be sensing an attack on human lands, a hundred miles or more to the north! In the morning the druid turns into an eagle and sets out to investigate. What he finds only ten miles away is a scar in the forest, a long patch of burnt and blasted trees, and goblins cleaning up the pieces left behind, mostly chunks of well-charred horse meat.

He returns to the party with his findings and they rapidly agree that this evidence points to the destruction of the Count's force at the hands of the dragon. Now they must decide whether to continue with the plan or call it off. Ironically, the two who were most against the plan in the beginning are now the loudest voices for continuing. Neither the bard nor the ranger want to retreat without at least seeing the goblin city for themselves. And there is some concern that the Free Company may arrive at the rendezvous alone.

They march on, though cautiously. Nothing opposes them and they find themselves on the edge of a wood, looking into a goblin town. The houses are tall and narrow, with walls that slope out as they go up and a decided lack of windows. In the center of the town is a stone keep. Otherwise, the place seems deserted; a goblin city during the day is a ghost town.

As the day wanes on, no other troops appear. Neither the Count nor the Free Company will be keeping this date with destiny. The party discusses a full retreat, but again the ranger convinces them to wait out the night and see what's what.

This proves to be a bad decision. Once darkness falls the goblins send out an entire company under the leadership of a Director of the kleptocracy. Unbeknownst to the party, the messenger the Free Company sent to meet them and warn them off after the death of the Count has been captured by the goblins, so the goblins know what they are looking for. And they find it - the party, hiding in the woods, caught before they could run.

The darkness imposes certain constraints. Fighting by starlight underneath a heavy forest canopy implies at best shadowy illumination; their attacks will have a 20% miss chance. The goblins, of course, are immune, as they have Darkvision. On the other hand the goblins cannot see more than 60', so the combat is guaranteed to be at close range.

The party could use their light-stones, but this would mean that the goblins could see them at much longer range. And since the goblins have brought an entire troop of archers, the party decides this is a bad idea. There are also two squads of bugbear knights, two ogres, and a troll, in addition to the Director himself.

The archers are quickly trapped by an Entangle spell, which takes them out of the fight for the entire battle. The two squads of knights are reduced to two knights, thanks to the wizard's two fireballs and poor saving throws. This leaves the barbarian fighting face-to-face with a troll (thought somewhat protected as it is still stuck in the edge of the Entangle) while the ranger squares off with an ogre. The other ogre tries to flank and is faced by the druid, bard, and cleric.

Much glory ensues, including the wizard surviving a direct full attack from a vengeful bugbear knight and his deadly horse. Reduced to a single hit-point, the wizard retreats behind the cleric, who himself soon retreats behind the bard.

At one point the bard tries to get in on the swarm business, using bardic magic to call his own horde of bats down on the troll. Much to everyone's surprise the swarm simply ignores both troll and ogre and descends on the barbarian. The cleric realizes the monsters are protected by magic and quickly casts a potent dispel, rendering the creatures far more exposed than he realizes. The barbarian, recognizing that the troll is regenerating almost as fast as he hits it, steps back and resorts a Greek Fire grenade (in true D&D fashion he carries a small armory with him at all times). Because the troll's Resist Energy protection has just been dispelled, the troll begins to burn.

Enraged, the troll breaks free of the Entangle, catches the barbarian in both claws, and tears open his belly with its horrible fangs. The barbarian drops to the ground, deep into negative hit points.

Meanwhile the Director has shot a few poisoned crossbow quarrels into the cleric, and decides to come down out of his hiding place in a tree and finish off the bard with his deadly rapier. This proves to be a poor decision, as the bard is currently layered in magical buffs and surprisingly hard to kill. They trade ineffective blows for a while, until the bard has the bright idea of casting Blindess on the goblin. And of course it sticks - once again a foe of rank is crippled by a single spell.

The situation is still dire; the troll, in particular, is a rampaging beast. The druid shape-shifts into a dire bear and wades into combat, backed up the ranger's archery. Because the troll is on fire it no longer benefits from the darkness, and the two heroes manage put the troll on the ground before the fire goes out. However, it's still regenerating. The wizard solves that problem with a Flaming Hands spell.

On the other front the bard has gotten off a Sonic Shout, which is enough to finally bring down the last ogre. The Director, blind as he is, nevertheless dashes into the woods and tries to hide. The cleric and bard pursue, but even with a huge penalty, the goblin manages to elude them. He is a high-level rogue, after all.

But the cleric has been spending his skill points wisely, and on the second round of searching he overcomes the increasingly bad odds to stumble across the Director hiding under a log. Quickly he and the bard finish the goblin off before it can pull some other clever trick.

The barbarian is healed enough to become ambulatory (fortunately he made his save to stop bleeding, as no one was able to render him aid for several rounds), but the party is very low on magic and vitality. They move to a new camp and luckily there are no more goblin patrols that night. In the morning they consider whether they should stay and screen their hobgoblin hunting archers for more days, or just run now while the running is good. After all, they've scored thousands of tael and even some decent magic from the goblins; the barbarian appropriates the Director's magic rapier for his collection, while the ranger acquires Gloves of Dexterity +2. That leaves only a suit of magical studded leather, which no one in the party wants (it's worse than their magical chain mail). On a whim they give it to their brave nameless NPC guide, for whom it is truly a magnificent gift.

They choose to run, knowing that whatever force the goblins send after them next will likely be twice as bad as the last one. On their way out they run across their hobgoblin hunting yeomen and convince them to flee as well, relating the sad news that the men's lord is dead.

Back in Flefliquelp they discover their popularity has suffered. They are now associated with a failed campaign, and worse, the government has lost a Count and all of his retinue. This is a serious blow. The bard mitigates the damage somewhat by composing a song that makes it clear the goblins also lost the equivalent of a count; and their generosity to the un-ranked soldier does not go unnoticed by the common people. Reports of the dragon, however, are met with a shrug; everyone knew that was a possibility, which is why nobody marches armies around: it tends to attract the dragon. The bard, realizing that no one bothered to tell them about the dragon, immediately wonders if they were supposed to be the dragon-bait.

Briefly they debate cashing in their chips and returning home, but the ranger is keen on revenge. Goblins are among his favored enemies now and he longs to see their city in flames. The wizard is deeply intrigued by the dragon; he seems to have a developed passion for discovering artifacts or other ancient magic treasures, and a dragon seems like a likely place to start. Eventually they talk themselves into another try at the city of Iryrr. But they know they can't go alone.

So now the bard is researching the local lords, looking for who else they can rope into an assault on the city. They have damaged its forces; if they strike soon, the goblins won't have time to recover. If he can turn the misery of failure into a longing for fiery revenge, perhaps the party can add "sacking a goblin city" to their list of bloody accomplishments.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

The punditry finally catches up to me

Many GOP Voters Value America’s Whiteness More Than Its Democracy

I've been saying that for years. Where's my newspaper column?

On the other hand New York Magazine probably doesn't need an Australian correspondent...

Sunday, August 30, 2020

World of Prime: Campaign Journal #26

Against the gnolls, part 3

The party equips itself with some basic magic gear - a few pieces of enchanted armor, a couple of magic weapons, and a Pearl of Power for the wizard. These are all basic items and easily available to the swaggering heroes from the local spell-casters. Honestly, it's long overdue; they are still under the standard wealth for characters of their rank in the world of Prime.

Then it's an easy march back to the gnoll kingdom, but this time they don't stop at the water's edge. Circling around the lake, they come upon a ragged city of dirt huts with a huge stone ziggurat in the center.

Nervous gnoll eyes watch them from the huts but issue no challenges. Grygar the Terrible, the headman of the village and a shaman of advanced rank, waits for them at the top of the ziggurat. There are four levels to climb, and each level is defended by a horde of gnolls. There is a knot of axemen at each stair, supported by a Hunt Lord and a minor shaman; and each level also has two squads of archers at the far ends.

The gnolls politely wait for the party to initiate combat, preferring to settle everything with one big set piece instead of losing a battle of attrition in the woods. The party spells up and charges into battle, following their heroic barbarian. This defense is a little better situated; the barbarian can't quite murder whole squads at once. While he and the ranger trade blows with the axe-men, the cleric uses magic to slay the minor shaman. The druid, not interested in being pin-cushioned while the warriors play around, summons a wall of wind to block the incoming arrows.

Several rounds of combat go by, with the ranger putting steady results and the druid doing remarkable precision damage with handfuls of fire, before the barbarian hits his stride and wipes out the rest of the opposition in one vicious whirlwind attack. The party charges up the cleared stairway just as the windwall drops.

On the next level they run straight ahead into a squad of gnoll archers. This level is long enough that they can't reach the archers before they fire, so the druid summons an obscuring mist. When that still doesn't provide total cover, the cleric casts a mist as well. Now the barbarian can reach the archers without being exposed and he quickly decimates them. The wizard, thinking ahead, sends a swarm of bats to the next level.

The ranger and his wolf help finish off the archers, and the party turns the corner and heads east to the next stairwell. Again the cleric summons a mist to cover their advance, and positions it to help with their next level as well. While the barbarian charges up the stairwell, the ranger makes use of the mist to climb onto the next level unopposed. However, this leaves the barbarian a little too exposed; as he's forcing his way up the stairs, a squad of gnolls leaps down behind him, and suddenly he's a kettledrum in a gnollish orchestra. Axes are raining down on him as he battles the gnolls; the wizard and druid are busy summoning more swarms, leaving only the bard to heal the barbarian.

Now the ranger steps out of the mist and engages in an archery duel with the hunt lord for several rounds. By the time he wins it, the barbarian has finished off the stairwell and is seeking the cover of the mist. Finally, Grygar the Shaman acts: he shakes his snake-headed stick, intones to the heavens, and curses the barbarian with blindness.

The barbarian, however, has consistently proven immune to magic and this time is no different. He shrugs off the spell and runs into the mist. The druid knocks Grygar down with a sleet storm and also flees into the mist.

Whereupon the wizard's original swarm descends, seeking fresh blood, and latching onto the barbarian. Over the next two rounds it tears at the barbarian (for maximum damage, no less!) before finally dissipating back into the ether. But the party has regrouped now and the cleric begins healing.

When they come out of the mist again things begin to look a little dire. The gnolls have selected brave heroes to jump off the edge of the ziggurat, taking the swarms with the, and in any case Grygar is simply immune to the spell. The barbarian takes an arrow to the face. The cleric is struck by magic missiles from the minor shaman, a small amount of damage but concerning as there is simply no way to avoid it. 

The party strikes back. The barbarian charges into melee while the druid summons lighting and vaporizes the minor shaman. Grygar realizes his magic will not work on the warriors, so he turns to the spell-casters instead. He thrusts his hand out towards the druid, some sixty feet away and a level below him, and the shaman's hand comes off his arm and flies through the air to strike the druid in the forehead. This curse reduces the druid to near-babbling idiocy, the chief effect of which is he can no longer cast spells!

The druid still has command of his lightning, though. He turns it on Grygar while the shaman repeats his hand trick, this time rendering the cleric nearly as stupid. As the barbarian clears the stairwell Grygar pauses to heal himself, undoing the effect of the lightning. He then tries to curse the bard, but that agile trickster ducks the flying hand.

Now the barbarian pauses to drink a healing potion, as all of the party's remaining casters are engaged in trying to finish off a few axe-men at the head of the last set of stairs. Grygar sends a fistful of magic missiles into the ranger, who has climbed again to the next level where he can shoot at the shaman. He fires back, but his arrow simply turns away at the last moment - the shaman is immune to arrows as well as swarms!

The party is fighting on the last stairwell now. Their wolves have slipped past the axe-men the barbarian is still murdering, to attack Grygar directly, while the druid continues to pour lighting into their foe. Grygar alternates between firing off his punishing missiles and healing himself, until a wolf knocks him to the ground. The shaman shoots the wolf, but the beast is sturdier than that, and doesn't die. Now the ranger has cleared a path and charges forward, sword in hand, to strike the killing blow (sadly, it was not with his magic dagger this time).

The shaman is dead! Immediately the remaining gnolls begin jumping off the ziggurat to join the rest of the camp in fleeing. The party gives chase, running down a random handful before the beast-men disappear into the wilderness.

The camp is now theirs, though it contains almost nothing of value. However, the tael from Grygar's head is a veritable fortune, not to mention the valuable magic they loot from his body - a Periapt of Wisdom for the cleric and an Brooch of Shielding for the wizard. And of course the souls of the scores of slain warriors.

When they return to Flefliequelp they are feted as heroes. The queen redeems the bounty with a matching set of rings for each hero - a Ring of Protection +1 and a Ring of Sustenance. No longer will the party have to carry food or forage for sustenance; they have now joined the ranks of Those Who Eat Only When The Plot Demands It. This is a real boon for adventurers who make a living in the wilderness.

The gnoll threat is destroyed; the path to the goblin kingdoms is now open again. Immediately petitioners begin flattering our heroes, seeking to recruit the party to hair-raising schemes, each more outrageous than the last.

This session was just one long 30-round battle, but an interesting one in that the ziggarut made it like a mini-dungeon. At first I was worried that the party was expending too many resources too soon, but ultimately all the mists worked to their advantage. The shaman was programmed to cast three spells per level, but the lack of visibility forced him to compress those spells at the end of the levels instead of the beginning.

The adventure will eventually appear in Scorpus: the Gold Coast when I finish writing up all its many locations. This will be the most expansive adventure supplement I've written, with several very high level adventures, so it will unfortunately be a while in the making.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

World of Prime: Campaign Journal #25

 Against the gnolls, part 2

This was an interesting session for me because I got to use my house rules in Explorers of Prime for wilderness encounters. We stuck to the rules as written and trusted to the dice to generate drama - and they did.

The party is faced with a choice: do they abandon their armor and run light, hoping to get out of gnoll territory before they are caught, or do they move more slowly but with a better chance to fight? Ironically the barbarian with his heavy plate isn't even the issue; it's the cleric, ranger, and bard in their chain mail that are slow pokes.

They choose the slower path. Random fate, in the form of a d4, is invoked... and turns up a 1 on the very first roll. Vengeance has come for the party, borne on the crooked legs of gnolls.

Squads of gnolls charge out of the woods. The barbarian charges up to hold a forward position while the rest of the party engages in various forms of ranged combat. While ordinary gnolls, even in squad formation, have failed against the party, this battle includes several obviously ranked individuals. These officers can shoot, and they have spell-casting defenders who have prepared precisely those spells best suited to shut down the party's best attacks: conjure water, to quench the rolling fireballs of the druid; protection from good, to block the swarms; and entangle, to counter-spell the party's attempt at battlefield control.

Naturally, the party uses none of these techniques in this battle. Instead they exchange several rounds of largely ineffective arrow fire while the barbarian slowly whittles down the squads of axe-men (axe-gnolls?). The enemy spell-casters grow desperate and begin burning through their spell slots in offensive ways, mostly magic missiles which while weak still chip away at the party's health. The bard, perhaps high on his own supply of heroic ballads, suddenly launches a flank charge into the spell-casters and archers.

This works out far better than it should have. The bard reaches the enemy and kills a shaman on an attack of opportunity when it tries to cast, his halberd's high damage potential finally paying off. The next round the bard kills another caster, and then slays an archer with an AoO when he goes to draw his axe for melee. This is serious damage to the gnoll force; half their magic and ranged support are shut down in seconds by a single singing hero.

One of the other shaman attempts to contain the damage with an Entangle spell; as has become typical, the barbarian simply ignores the spell (throughout the entire combat he never missed a single save vs the Entangle) and murders the last two archers. The entire battle has become a complete debacle on the part of the gnolls... until the other half of their force shows up.

The bard's heroics are quickly shut down as a squad of axe-men charge in and knock him to the ground. The barbarian goes into high gear, dancing through the Entangle as if he were immune and murdering another entire squad of axe-men in a single whirling attack.

But the gnoll war-leader is here. His bow is a true threat; he puts an arrow through the barbarian's neck, driving him to the ground and well on his way to staying there permanently. The druid, unpleasantly trapped by the Entangle, gives up trying to flee and starts trying to save the barbarian's life. Miraculously the gnoll archers lose their focus, their arrows landing without effect in the writhing vines and weeds of the forest floor. The barbarian, for once, chooses the better part of valor. Slinging the bard's bleeding body over his shoulder he quickly disengages. The druid finally struggles out of the grass with him, following the path of uprooted grasses.

The spell now works against the gnolls, giving the party a momentary respite as the gnolls circle the affected area. The cleric and druid pour healing and buffing spells into the barbarian, despite the arrows raining down on all of them. Retreat is not an option; there are still four archers on the gnoll side, one of whom is truly deadly. The barbarian charges into the advancing gnolls in a rage while the ranger returns to the archery battle.

The barbarian's whirlwind attack fails to completely demolish the squad of gnolls providing cover for their archers. He is now sucking up arrows, his still-diminished vitality fading fast. And then the gnolls make a fatal mistake.

The squad in front of the barbarian go on full defense, making themselves a harder target so that they might last longer and give their archers more time to win. This seemed like a good idea, right up until the barbarian realizes what they are doing. Since Total Defense does not allow attacks of opportunity, he seizes the opportunity and charges past them, into the line of archers, where his whirling blade does its usual devastation.

The gnoll position has gone from expensive victory to total defeat in an instant. The war-leader and what remains of the gnolls - a squad or two of axe-men, a pair of low-rank shamans - flee. The ranger tackles the barbarian to the ground, to stop him from giving chase. As broken as the gnolls are, breaking the party's formation will still lead to disaster.

The party loots the battlefield, collecting even more gnoll ears, and resumes their march homeward. Now a game of cat and mouse ensues, as each party stalks the other. A brief encounter results in the druid being badly injured by an arrow before the gnolls break off and flee again. Obviously they intend a battle of attrition.

The ranger puts an end to this strategy, however, by tracking the gnolls. Improbably, the cleric manages a miracle of stealth, and the party surprises the gnolls while they are resting. The party charges into close combat, murdering what remains of the axe-man and shamans, while the ranger proves his worth by closing with the enemy captain and slaying him at sword point while the gnoll is still trying to use his bow.

After that night, having rested and respelled, they are no longer in any real danger. They return to Flefliequelp without incident, riding the river barges upstream to the capital. At Alys' bardic hall they dump a sack full of gnoll ears on the table, causing an audible gasp. Well over a hundred gnolls have died, including a considerable chunk of the enemy leadership.

Alys tells them she cannot possibly pay them such a large bounty; instead, they must receive it directly from the queen. She arranges an invitation to the palace the next day.

The queen is a staggeringly beautiful woman, which keeps the party on its best behavior. They seem to equate beauty with danger, at least when it comes to the female gender. Perhaps the reputation of the queen's Minister of Arcane, who is said to be so lethal she can kill men in their dreams, has something to do with that.

The queen is in her turn properly gracious to these wandering heroes. She asks them what their future plans are. When the evidence a desire to return to the gnoll camp and finish the job, she regretfully informs them that the royal treasury cannot afford to continue the bounty on the same terms. A bout of haggling ensues and ultimately the party settles for a future reward of only 25 gold per gnoll, though without any question of taxes, and more importantly the queen offers the old rate if the party is willing to take her services in trade instead of cash.

As it turns out, the queen is the only known source of magic rings on this side of the continent (at least, for those restricted to non-goblin kingdoms). The party realizes they should take this opportunity to acquire some magic items, as they have so far been getting by with a +1 mace and a handful of potions.

After the royal reception and dinner the bard and Alys have a somewhat more frank discussion. Alys has a far more rewarding and interesting offer for them, though it must come from unofficial channels. A kingdom down the coast harbors a family of witches whose power derives from an ancestral artifact: a Helm of Brilliance. This is a staggeringly powerful device. Alys would very much like to make a present of it to the queen. So much so that she offers the party 50,000 gp if they can obtain it - though they must swear to keep the bloodshed to an absolute minimum.

The bard is suspicious: what does Alys stand to gain from this? She eventually confides that her goal is to be promoted to the government as Minister of Coin, as success in such a mission would inevitably result. The queen, on her part, will use possession of the helm to lure the witches who can best operate it to relocate to her kingdom, thus allowing Flefliequelp to utterly dominate its two human rivals and become the sole (human) power in the domain.

Later that night, the mystery deepens. The party returns to their rooms at the inn to find them already occupied by another shady woman, a rogue named Esyllt. She offers them a somewhat different deal: 250,000 gp for the helm, and never mind the blood. In fact, she'll pay an additional bounty for every dead witch.

The party, once again, has many paths to choose from. But the ranger successfully argues against the spy mission; the party, as he accurately notes, is not exactly well-represented in the stealth and intrigue department. Perhaps he also fears being drawn into political entanglements with repercussions beyond their ken. He convinces the party to return south, to wipe out the weakened gnolls and reap the bounty of tael and gold that has been promised.

They disperse through the town, seeking to spend some of their current wealth on the magic and equipment that will enable them to sieze more wealth, and only the bard is left to ponder the curious fact that while tael can be sold for the standard price of 5 gp, no one he talks to will let him buy it for that price. This is an economic absurdity; the exchange rate of tael is fixed across all the known planes; so why should it vary here?